Goins, Writer

On Writing, Ideas, and Making a Difference

A Simple Formula for Finding Clarity in Your Next Piece of Writing

Note: This is a guest post from Chase Reeves, Co-founder and Creative Director at Fizzle, an online course and community for entrepreneurs to build their indie businesses and do work that matters.

Do you ever get unsure about your writing, questioning your skills, your motives, even your right to try to be a writer in the first place? I do.

A Simple Formula for Clarity and Purpose in Your Next Piece of Writing

Hi, my name’s Chase, and welcome to What it Feels Like to be a Writer 101. I know that resistance well — the mirky, defeating despair that comes with a lack of focus and purpose.

Jeff’s written before about focusing your overall blog topic as a method to get through this resistance, a must-do strategy in the early days of your blog or any writing project. In this article, you’ll discover an exercise I use to focus myself over and over again with each thing I make. It’s a helpful little trick that’s saved my bacon many times. (In fact, I’ve used it on this article you’re reading right now.)

Here we go.

Why we lose heart

When writing feels really hard for me, it’s either because the Thai food from last night is treating me funky, or because I don’t know what I’m writing for.

I lose my focus, lose my angle, lose my sense of calling. This usually devolves into an argument with myself about whether the thing I’m writing is “good” or not. “Oh come on, who do you think you are!?” reverberates through my skull and guts, touching every living thing and shriveling down into those poor unfortunate souls from The Little Mermaid.

A Simple Formula for Clarity and Purpose in Your Writing

I was in a moment like this, full of self pity about something I was making, when someone asked me: “How would you know if this thing was good? What would make it good to you?”

First of all, I was stunned. I didn’t really know what to say. I truly had no clue what I was looking to get from my work, what I was hoping the work would do, what elements in the work would make me feel like it was good.

I know myself a lot better now and I’ve published many more things since then. Looking back, I was hoping my work would make many people I admire see that I was a very special person, fall in love with me and decide to be my dad… or at least my best friend.

That is an impossible thing to need from your work. As my real dad would say: if you aim for nothing you’ll hit it every time. I had set the high watermark on my work so impossibly high that I might as well have been aiming at nothing.

I’m not alone in this. You may not come from the same flavor of insecurity that I do, but chances are you’ve got some some impossible goals of your own bouncing off the walls inside you.

Most of us never define what we’re looking for from our work, what will make it good. Left to its own devices our soul, with it’s deep needs and ancient insecurities, will make wildly unrealistic demands on our work. This is when we feel crappy about our work, when we forget what we’re working for — that’s where the muddiness, the inertia, the resistance comes from.

And beyond that, it’s unfair to the work. No piece you ever write, no thing you ever make could support that weight. That’s like expecting a child of yours to be the perfect child and if she isn’t you’re going to be moody and distant, whining about how “it’s all my fault you turned out the way you did.”

Don’t do that to your work. Get some clear expectations and boundaries about your work so you don’t give it (and yourself) a complex. So, here’s a simple trick to get out of the muck and the mire and clarify the purpose of your very next piece of work.

The Who + Do Formula

Ok, I’m going to switch to “Teacher/Training” mode now. Strap on your helmets and grab your note taking devices.

The only thing we need to do here is define a good answer to this question: “what will make this thing good to me?” This will give our current piece of work some very clear purpose so we don’t fall into the cesspool explored above.

I have an old trick in my pocket from my design and user experience days that can help us here. It’s called Who + Do (pronounced HOO-DOO). Simply answer these two questions:

  1. WHO is this piece for?
  2. What do you want them to DO after they’ve read your piece?

Now, I know what you’re thinking: it’s too simple, right? It couldn’t possibly help us out here in the trenches with real writer’s issues… right?

If you’re here and you’re reading this, it’s because you know the struggle of finishing a piece, of writing against the resistance, of finding your way again. You’ve probably been defeated by it a few times.

So, why not try this, then? Why not give your work the best chance it can have to survive, be read, make converts, change minds and hearts? It’s simple, but it’s not easy, and it can be the difference between publishing your piece or not.

Who and Do. Let’s break these both down.

Who is it for?

Who is the piece you’re currently writing for? Some people think about this as a “target market.” Others use the term “audience” or “customer avatar” or “ideal customer.”

As a designer, writer and marketer I have literally used all of those terms. I have also literally spent too may hours making up fake “ideal market customer avatar targets” that didn’t really help in the end.

I really have clocked a few thousand hours helping people define their audience. I even made a guide about it and here’s my favorite tip from that guide: Pick one real person you actually know in your real life to write your piece for.

Identifying a real person in your life will help you hone and craft your writing to hit its mark. Why? Because when you think about a real person you get to use your emotional intelligence, which is far more powerful than using data points and trite stories you made up.

Example: I’m in the stage of life where most of the people I meet are parents that belong to one of my son’s friends. One of those parents is named Jake and we’ve been getting on pretty well. (We’re thinking about taking it to the next level, a very big step for two male parents.)

When Jake first came over to our house, he was enthralled by my home bar. I come from a strong line of sporty drinkers, so I’ve got some unique bottles and doodads around and I love to make drinks for people.

Let’s stop there. Jake is the person I’ll choose to write something for. I only know Jake a little, but what little I know helps me know a ton of things about him. I know his literacy level, what kind of jokes he gets, what kind of cultural moments we may have shared growing up (Back to the Future, Goonies, slap bracelets), etc.

All of that and much more is information that I intuited about Jake simply because he’s a real person I actually know.

I don’t know where these powers of intuition come from. I have a hunch it has something to do with the fact that humans have been a pack animal for a few million years and the ability to empathize was essential for survival. But I literally have no facts about that. I intuited it 🙂

I don’t know where the intuition comes from, but I know it’s close to the heart of why I’m a writer and what makes a writer really great.

So, that’s why I want you to get to a real person you know, so you can draw on a wellspring of human, natural power.

But what if I can’t think of a real person to focus on?

I often hear this question. Here are a few brief thoughts in response:

  • Can you think of someone you know online? A commenter on your website or a follower on social media? A few interactions with a person is all it takes.
  • I’m a little troubled that you can’t think of anyone. Are you sure there’s real people out there who want what you’re making? Can you find some?
  • You can even think of yourself a few years ago. You know a lot about that person. Maybe more than you want to. This is fine, but I do encourage you to get beyond yourself… it’s worth it.

So, pick one person you actually know to aim your writing at. It’s going to help attune your focus and engage your emotional intelligence.

What do you want them to do?

What is the action you want that person to take? What feelings do you want her to have? What is the problem you’re helping him solve?

What is the transformation you want him to have? What is the paradigm shift you want to effect in her? What does he need to understand and believe before he can take that action?

These are the questions to think about here.

Example: My new friend Jake is interested in having his own bar at home with some more interesting items than your usual vodka, whiskey, gin bottles. But he’s confused about what to buy, how to make a drink, etc. That’s the problem I want to solve.

I want Jake to feel confident about making one of my favorite drinks. I want him to know exactly what bottles and doodads to have on hand to make that drink.

Do you see what just happened? Do you see what I just defined for myself?! Now I know what will make this piece good. This article is good if it gives Jake everything he needs to be able to make a fancy cocktail at his own house.

It’s not good when I feel it might make one of my heroes pay attention to me. It’s not good when my brain chemistry is balanced and I don’t feel manic or depressive about it. It’s not good when I didn’t eat Thai food last night. It’s good when Jake can solve this problem he has.

So, for your person, what is the problem you’re helping them solve? What is it that they can’t do right now but they will be able to when they’ve read your piece? Can you put that into a sentence? Of course you can, you’re a writer. Put it into a sentence. Write it out for each project.

Who + Do. This is powerful stuff, guys.

Discover even deeper insights

Let’s take what we’ve got so far and find some deeper insights (without doing too much extra work). This is what we call “reverse engineering excellent content.”

What I want to do is find some popular articles on the web about my topic to see if there are some pieces of the story I may be blind to. For me, this might mean discovering some questions I don’t know Jake already has, or maybe some common issues I’ve forgotten about.

Think about it this way: you do the work to mine the insights inside you (focusing on one person you know, defining what you want them to do). Then, go one step further and mine what’s already out there on the web to fill in any gaps.

(This step especially helps me with my least favorite part: putting together the headline. My headline on this article probably sucked, I’ll bet Jeff wordsmithed it. He’s so good at that!)

We explain a few tricks and each step of the short-and-sweet research process in this podcast episode if you want to learn more about how to mine the web for a few more insights about your topic.

Don’t be lazy

You’ve defined your who + do. You’ve done a little research on the web to discover the most popular articles on the topic.

Now it’s time to do the work. And I’ve only want to say one thing here: don’t be lazy.

The person you chose — for me it’s Jake — is in the fight of their life. They’re a real person with a real life and real hopes, dreams, nightmares and fears. There are stakes for her, consequences for him if he does or doesn’t take action.

Feel that. Let that engage and activate you to go above and beyond the lowest common denominator.

My example in this article was teaching a dad how to make a cocktail. Not exactly epic stuff. But I know what confidence feels like. I know what putting a good drink in someone’s hand feels like, how a specialty cocktail can open the moment up to some more special conversation. Those are real things in my life, and they’re going to be real things in Jake’s life if he reads the article.

I can’t make Jake read the article, but I can make the article as delightful and effective as possible so it’s ready for him.

(BTW, I can make Jake read the article. Another bonus to targeting a real person in your life 🙂 )

Focus down for further reach

If you implement the Who + Do formula to focus down on a specific person with a specific problem it helps you:

  • to define the purpose of your writing (what makes it good)
  • to stay honest and write in your true voice
  • to make really helpful stuff for real people
  • to use your emotional intelligence, bringing more insight to your writing (and keeping you motivated during the writing)

But, in my experience, it does one other very important thing. As Mr. Joyce shares in the quote above, when I write the specific it ends up resonating with a much larger group of people.

Maybe it’s because of the confidence this kind of writing imbues the work with (I know who I’m writing for!). Maybe it’s because my ego is less tangled up in the thing (I’m just writing this for Jake, after all). Maybe it’s simply because when I write this way I actually get things published (I know what will make this thing good).

I’m not sure why it works so well, but when I focus down and narrow my target and purpose, my work reaches further, touching more people.

You may be resisting writing because you forgot what you’re writing for. The Who + Do formula helps you design that purpose and do your work so you don’t make one of the most common blogging mistakes; spending too much time thinking and not enough time doing.

As it’s been written here on Jeff’s blog before, habits are the key to success. I hope this Who + Do formula will become a habit for you to write more great stuff.

So, who’s one person in your life you can help right now? What’s the one thing you’re going to help them do? Share in the comments.

About Chase Reeves

Chase Reeves is Fizzle's Creative Director. After a decade of designing and developing some of the biggest blogs on the web he cofounded Fizzle with Corbett. He lives in Portland, OR, where the espresso literally makes his brain break.