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How to Turn Your Creativity up to 11

I’m often asked, “Heather, how do you write so much content without burning out?”

Um, good question. I could talk about how I’ve spent almost half of my life studying copywriting (ack, that’s scary to type.) Or how I force myself to write online copy, even when I don’t feel like writing. Or how I’m just plain stubborn.

But what’s the real secret of my success?

I force myself to take breaks – long, soul-renewing breaks – and let my creative juices do their thing.

I wasn’t always like this. Up until a year ago, I was working, working, working all the time. My day would start at 7 a.m. and end at 9 p.m. I’d finish one task and immediately move to the next one. I wasn’t taking vacations or many breaks during the day. Or if I was “taking a break,” I was playing on my phone or surfing on my iPad. Which, yeah, isn’t really a break.

I was intense.

During this time, I wasn’t really digging what I was writing. Sure, it was OK – but I wasn’t having those brilliant flashes of creativity that makes a writer’s life worthwhile. I wasn’t looking at my sentence structure thinking, “Damn, that’s goooood.” Was I feeling burnt out? Hell yeah. But I pushed through (sound familiar?).

In short, I wasn’t writing in the flow anymore – and that bugged me.

Then one day, I had to write a blog post after an acupuncture appointment. I thought I was “too relaxed” to write, but I sat down and did it anyway – part of that stubborn streak I have. What flowed (and yes, it flowed) was my “SEO copywriting tips in Haiku” post – and it remains as one of my most popular posts.

Aha! I made the connection. A more relaxed Heather means better writing.  When I’m feeling good, I can turn my creativity up to a Spinal Tap 11. Got it.

Turns out other folks are making the same connection. Scott Adams of Dilbert fame wrote an article about the benefits of soul-crushing boredom (props to @acteeple for the great link). The Huffington Post had a post today that discussed how “cyberloafing” at work can actually boost productivity. There’s even a National Relaxation Day on August 15th (Did you miss it and work instead? Yeah, me too.)

Plus, many writers report having their best ideas when they’re doing something else – taking a bath, enjoying a walk, or even just spacing out. Think about this in your own life. After all, have you ever had a brilliant flash of insight after working a 12-hour day?

Nope, didn’t think so.

Taking breaks actually encourages (and protects) your creativity. If you’re a freelance copywriter, Web designer, or do anything that’s more creative in nature, you NEED to chill out. You NEED to protect your creativity like a surgeon protects her hands.

Without our creativity, we’re lost.

If you’re feeling scrunched from all sides, building in some downtime could be just the ticket.  You may not be able to plan a 2-week cruise right now – but you can at least take steps to regain some work/life balance. For instance:

  • If you finish a task, take a 15 minute break away from the computer before moving to the next one.
  • Rather than fiddling with your phone when you’re bored, put it away and enjoy the moment. Even if it’s a boring moment.
  • Take time to do something “nonproductive” like walking, cooking or just staring off into space.
  • Spend at least one day a week away from your computer, iPad, iPod – you know, all those technological toys that we “can’t live without.” Guess what? You’ll be able to live without them.
  • Try something completely new. I love climbing into sensory deprivation float tanks and enjoying total darkness for 90 minutes. It sounds weird and scary – but damn, it’s been transformative.

This blog post lists other ways to step away from the screen give yourself a break.

Taking a chill pill doesn’t mean that you’re being lazy (I can hear my father’s voice telling me to “Get up and do something” every time I take a break!). Nor does it mean that you’re stupid or you’re not working “hard enough” (whatever that means.)

It means that you’re taking care of your creativity.

And you’ll find that your creativity has been cranked way, way up to  11. Who can beat that?

Next year, I’ll be taking over 2 weeks off to raft the Grand Canyon. There will be no phone. There will be no laptop or television. It’s freakin’ scary to know that I’ll be that unplugged, but I’m also looking forward to the experiment. Who knows where my creativity will take me – or how life-changing unplugging will be. I may go nuts the first couple days, but I know the experience will be well worth it.

Now isn’t it time to step away from the computer and take a break?  But before you go, post a comment on your fave ways to “chill out” and rejuvenate yourself. You may spark an idea for someone else.

The ‘No Time’ Myth

I recently attended my 25th high school reunion (You want to feel old? Go to your 25th reunion. Wow.) :) All in all, it was a very fun experience. I got to see people who I haven’t seen in years. I chatted with folks I didn’t know well back in the day. And I learned how everyone was balancing work/home/family/other obligations.

One of the sentiments frequently expressed was, “I would love to do X, but I don’t have time.” Some of the “X’s” were as simple as getting away for the weekend or reading a new book. Others were more serious. I don’t know how many conversations I had with people who said, “My doctor said that I should work out more, but I don’t have the time.”

The discussions made me think of how many site owners and marketing departments want to launch an SEO content initiative – but their excuse is “no time.”

  • Instead of rewriting sales pages with super-high bounce rates, they let them sit on the site because “they don’t have time.”
  • Instead of finally starting an organic SEO campaign, they do what they’ve always done because “they don’t have time.”
  • Instead of outsourcing their writing to update their years-old Web copy – or hiring a freelance SEO copywriter to help produce pages – folks get stuck and do nothing.  Why? You guessed it. They don’t even feel like they have time to figure out a plan, much less do anything else.

I get it. I really do. We’re all doing more with less and time is at a premium. If you have a choice between cranking out a new sales page and leaving the office at a decent hour, what sounds the most appealing?

It’s amazing how we can find the time – if we really want to.

I used to fall into this trap. Heck, before I met my husband, I said that “I didn’t have time to date.” Then I met my man – and suddenly, I made time. Hanging out with him became a priority. Needless to say, my life took a major turn for the better – and I really did have the time to make it happen.

Then, I used to say that I “didn’t have time to work out.” After a major paradigm shift, I worked working out into my daily routine. Today, I’m healthier and happier than I’ve ever been. Sure, my workday can be crunchy some days – but I found that I do have the time.

You’ve probably experienced the same thing. You find that you do have the time for certain things – and when you do them, you feel so, so much better (and see some amazing results.)

Your SEO copywriting challenge…

Today, I challenge you to pinpoint ONE SEO content-related thing that “you don’t have time for” and see how you CAN make time for it.

  • Maybe that means you spend 25 minutes a day working towards your goal (check out my post on the Pomodoro technique – it’s a great way to baby-step your goals.)
  • Maybe that means you outsource some writing so you can realize the benefits a bit faster.
  • Maybe that means slicing your non-productive Google+/Twitter/Facebook/Angry Birds usage so you can free up a few minutes here and there.

The trick is: You identify what you want to accomplish, and figure out how to make it happen.

What’s cool about this technique is – it’s addictive. Once you’ve sliced one longstanding to-do off your list and realized the results, other opportunities seem much more “do-able.” There’s nothing like seeing the fruits (and profits) of your labor to shake you out of your “no time” comfort zone and help you see new opportunities.

So, choose one “no time” task to focus on this August and get ‘er done. If you’d like, post your to-do in the comments field (after all, writing down your goals and holding yourself accountable is a great way to start.) Hopefully, you’ll see that you can make time to focus on these highly-important tasks – and you’ll start seeing more traffic, more followers – and yes, more of that Internet money.

‘Cause who doesn’t have time for more money? :)

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Are You Writing Afraid?

Ask yourself: Are you so afraid of the worst possible outcome happening that you’re holding yourself (and your SEO writing) back?

I started thinking about this after reading a Fast Company article about LeBron James and the Miami Heat. After a grueling loss to the Dallas Mavericks, the Heat teammates held a players-only meeting. Brian Windhorst, who covers the team for ESPN, was quoted as saying, “Guys were telling each other to stop playing afraid.”

Wow. That’s powerful stuff.

It made me think of all the ways that we, as freelance or in-house SEO copywriters, “write afraid.” We’re scared to death of being criticized, so we don’t write what we really feel. We don’t expand our businesses or career the way we could. Our fear causes us to “miss” some content opportunities (like repurposing content,) because we’re just too stressed out to notice them. Plus, we’re exhausted at the end of the day – heck, all of that fear takes a lot of energy.

If this sounds like you, here are some thing to try:

  • Take more breaks. A friend suggested this and I thought she was out of her mind (um, sorry Doti.) Turns out, research supports her theory – a recent study says that “the key to great success is working harder in short bursts of time.” I’ve used the Pomodoro Technique for this and it’s transformed how and when I write. Less stress. More focus. Awesome.
  • Take stuff off your to-do list. It’s really hard to focus when you’re thinking, “I’ve got way too much to do today. How can I get it all done?” Guess what? YOU are the master of your workday (even if it feels like your boss, clients and coworkers take precedence.) Start deleting some tasks and see how many better you feel.
  • Take a day off from writing and focus on the big picture. Did the thought of taking a day off from writing make you feel a little nervous? Good. That means you definitely need some time away! If we’re in creative mode all the time, it’s hard to focus on big picture “what do I want to accomplish this quarter” thoughts. You’re stuck on the fear hamster wheel of create, create, create – without time to figure out what it’s all for. This may be harder to implement if you’re working in-house, but see what you can negotiate. I’ve just started this myself, and noticed a really interesting side effect – my body and mind doesn’t feel trashed out by Friday. Cool!
  • If you’re feeling really messed up, get away from it all. The recession had an interesting effect on people’s psyches. Two years ago, people were scared to death. Today, people seem like they’re making up for lost time – so they’re working crazy hours. If you’re feeling chained to the computer because “an email may come in” or “you just have to finish this one thing,” you’re not working in the flow – you’re working afraid. A long weekend far, far away from your computer can help put life back into perspective. Which brings up…
  • Talk to someone if you need it. If you find yourself constantly writing afraid, it could be that you have to untangle some thoughts that are keeping you from moving ahead. The recession scared a lot of people, and getting yourself out of “the sky is falling” mentality can be hard to do by yourself. You can talk to a counselor, a coach, or a trusted friend or mentor. The key is having someone in your life who can act as a sounding board.
  • Get out of your comfort zone at least once a day. Post something edgy (c’mon – you know you want to!). Answer a question on Quora or LinkedIn. Consider running local seminars. The best way to kick fear’s butt is by showing it that you’re not afraid.  Flooding yourself with new experiences will give you a greater sense of mastery that will flow into your writing – and move you from “writing afraid” to “writing in the flow.”

What about you? What techniques do you use to move away from fear and into the flow?

Update:  For another great take, check out Seth Godin’s latest post, “Who is making you uncomfortable?” (Thanks to @ljcrest for bringing it to my attention!)

8 Ways to Keep Writing When You’re Running on Creative Fumes

It started last Thursday.

I woke up and immediately noticed that I felt “off.” I spent a good half of the weekend on the couch, remote control in hand. And working out today was no fun.

No, I’m not sick. I’m running on creative fumes. I’ve been writing so fast and furious that I can feel my body screaming, “Uh, can we have a little break here?”

Can you relate? There are times when all deadlines seem to converge – no matter how organized you are, or how judiciously you plan your time. Instead of going from one project to another in a relaxed flow, everything is urgent, high priority and due right now.

This situation is something any Web copy writer – from freelance SEO copywriter to in-house content marketer – deals with from time to time. At first, working such a fast pace is exciting. You’re balancing multiple projects and never feeling bored.

Then, about halfway through the projects, you start to lose momentum. You look at your copy and wonder, “Is this any good? Or does it sound exactly like what I just wrote yesterday.” You go home feeling exhausted. Television or a good book is about all you can handle. Talking….not so much.

Good news: Your writing quality probably isn’t suffering at this point (yet). But your psyche is. You’re writing too much in too short a time – and it’s taking a toll.

Exhausting, isn’t it? Looking back at the last two weeks, I’m not surprised I went for some quality couch-time last weekend. But that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped writing (obviously – I’m writing this post!). I’ve just learned how to manage my energy better. Here’s how you can, too.

  • Admit where you are. Some folks have it in their heads that writers should “always” be able to write, no matter what. The reality is, there are good days – and there are bad days. Saying, “I’m a little frazzled right now,” is OK. You don’t have to be 100 percent “on” all the time. No one is.
  • Be picky about what you put into your body. I used to manage these “running on creative fumes” times with a two-pronged approach: Starbucks double-shot latte (which would make it the sixth espresso shot of the day) and a cupcake. I can almost feel the sugar high just by typing this! Then one day, I felt my blood sugar spike and crash within a very short period of time. It was uncomfortable, made it impossible to write and was more than a little bit scary. Now, I focus on protein during high-stress times and always have food like almonds nearby.
  • Recognize your energy flows. Even during my creatively frazzled times, there are still some hours where the writing is easy and effortless. I’ve learned to embrace that time and write when I’m feeling “on.” If I’m checking email every five minutes and blankly staring at my computer screen, I’m not working (or being productive.) I’m wasting time.  At the same time, even if I’m in an “up” energy flow, I’ve learned to…
  • Slice production expectations during busy times. I can write super-fast when the Muse is with me, and I tend to pack my to-do list accordingly. When multiple deadlines are crashing down and I can feel myself starting to burn out, I start slicing items off my to-do list. Ask yourself what’s priority to do right now, versus what can wait until tomorrow. Do you really need to write that Web page now, or can it wait? The more you can conserve energy, the easier it will be to get through your deadlines.
  • Obsessively plan your writing. Sure, if you weren’t as busy, you may be able to sit down and write perfect Web copy without much prep work. But when you’ve been writing way too much in too short of time, your brain just can’t perform on a dime like that. Your best bet is to take time to outline every Web page before you start writing, and have your keyphrase research easily accessible. Spending a little “prep time” now can help prevent you from blankly staring at the screen later.
  • Take time to relax every day. It’s important to spend even 30 minutes away from the computer and doing something relaxing. Maybe that means reading a book. Maybe that means staring at the window and watching the people go by. It seems counter-intuitive that you need to stop work in order to work more efficiently – but it’s true. Try it and see.
  • Enjoy yourself. I know it’s easy to gripe and moan about “deadlines” and “burnout.” I’ve done it too. At the same time – you can also look at this time as a fun creative challenge. Think about it: If you weren’t so darn good, you wouldn’t have this problem. Enjoy the moment.
  • Rest when the crunch time is over. Congratulations! You made it through. Take a few writing days off and focus on doing other things. By the time you sit back down at your computer, you’ll be seeing your work with fresh eyes – and your writing will flow without flagging.

Photo thanks: © Steganos77 | Dreamstime.com

How to Write a Killer Blog Post in 30 Minutes or Less

Sometimes, you need to write a blog post like that ::snapping fingers::

In general, I’m not a big fan of super-fast writing. I’ll spend hours tweaking my copy, making sure that it meets my specific definition of perfection. Yeah, that may be overly obsessive. That’s just how I roll.

However, there are times when even I write the quick and dirty blog post. Maybe it’s because I’m blogging from the plane, and I have a half hour before the captain gives her “power down” warning. Or maybe it’s because I’m timing myself, seeing what kind of efficiencies I can build into my writing.

Or maybe because I want to watch the hockey game on live TV for once – and I really need to finish work before I can play.

If you know you have 30 minutes or less to write a blog post, you can make it happen. It won’t be perfect, but it will be “good enough.” Here’s how you do it:

Before you begin:

  • Gather your materials. There is no bigger time suck than looking for your background notes while you’re trying to write. Before you start your writing project, have everything you need easily accessible. That means, you have your keyphrase research in front of you, you have any applicable sites loaded and ready to surf and you have your notes front and center. If you have to bounce between checking email, looking for your keyphrase list and writing, you’ll never finish on time.
  • Plan your topic carefully. Opinion pieces make great quick and dirty blog posts. Quick how-to pieces are also good. Long, in-depth posts won’t work unless you are a very fast writer.
  • Figure out how much time you’ll have to plan, write and proof your work. As a bare-minimum guide, I would give yourself at least five minutes to plan and outline your post, 20 minutes to write it and five minutes to proof and tweak.  And yes – the planning phase is crucial. When we’re under time pressure, a blank page can instill the worse kind of writer’s block. Having a quickie outline will help jump start your efforts.
  • Do something to cover up your computer clock. Ever have a sleepless night where your clock becomes your worst enemy? You roll over and think, “It’s 2:30. If I sleep now, I’ll have at least four hours.” Then, “Crap, I only have two more hours before I have to get up!” It’s the same thing when you’re forced to write fast. If you stay overly-conscious of the time, your focus will tick away with the seconds.

After you start writing:

  • Do not multitask. At all. It’s uncomfortable to sit and focus for 20+ minutes at a time. I get it. Do it anyway. Every second counts.
  • Don’t let yourself get stuck. Did you lose your train of thought halfway into a sentence? Start another sentence. Begin writing the third bullet point first if that’s what gets your creative juices jiving. It’s all about what keeps you in the flow and moving along.
  • Keep your inner editor at bay. You may be tempted to go back and tweak a sentence. That’s great if you have time – but if not, make the sentence “good enough” and keep moving. That’s why you built in additional proofing/tweaking time at the end.

When you finish:

  • Always proof your work. Always. It may be tempting to spend an additional five minutes squeezing out a few additional words. The downside is, you’ll probably miss a couple big typos that will make your blog post look like it was hastily written. OK, yeah, it was hastily written. But it doesn’t have to look like it!
  • If you see an opportunity to improve your copy, go for it. I’ll often see a place where I could change the verbiage and make the writing a tad more dynamic. If you can easily make a value-added tweak – do it. If your minor tweak turns into a major blog post reconstruction, let it go.
  • If you have the freedom to let it sit before you post – keep your post as a draft. Once you come back to your writing, you may notice some places where a few edits can completely transform your writing. Whenever possible, I like to “sleep” on a post and review it the next morning. It’s amazing how many value-added edits I make when I’ve taken a break and reviewed the post with fresh eyes.

As a caveat, I wouldn’t try this “fast blog post writing” technique on a sales page. Your conversion flow is too crucial, and hastily-written sales pages don’t leverage every online writing opportunity. If you’re feeling too time-crunched to write a sales page, consider outsourcing it. Yes, it will cost you money – but it’s better than writing a so-so sales page.

What about you? What are your favorite fast-writing tips?

How A Kitchen Timer Can Improve Your SEO Copywriting

Are you looking for ways to free up some additional time? There’s a rarely talked-about writing technique that can actually help you write better, more engaging Web content – in less time.

And all you’ll need is a kitchen timer (or a timer app) to make it happen. No expensive software or time-management classes necessary.

Here’s all you have to do: Set the timer for a certain time period (I use 25 minutes,) and write. That’s it. Sounds easy, right…?

Well, it’s not – not at first. A big writing efficiency-killer is our tendency to fidget and multitask. We may check email when we’re writing a web page. We may pop over and surf Twitter when our online writing flow starts to flag. Or – and every writer can identify with this one – we realize, “Oops, I don’t have everything I need to write this article.” Then, the information gathering process begins. You surf for stats. You check your project emails. You’re doing everything but…well…writing.

Sound familiar?

I know this pain far too well. My brain often goes in 10 different directions in any given moment, and multitasking is second nature to me. Then, I tried the Pomodoro Technique (which is the basis of the “kitchen timer method”) My writing life literally changed after reading the guide – which you can download for free.

The kitchen timer writing method forces you to have your stuff together before you start. That means your notes are accessible, your email notifications are set to “off” and your office door is closed. For writers who tend to multitask, this part alone can be incredibly challenging (very challenging!).

After using this method for one day, I saw some fantastic results. I was writing more in 25% less time. And this was quality work – not a scattered rough draft.

Granted, it wasn’t easy. I wanted to do something – anything – but write during those first five minutes. There were a couple times when I caught myself tabbing over to email (old habits die hard!). By the fourth 25-minute writing block, I only tried to stop once. From there, it was smooth sailing.

I never realized the mental toll multi-tasking had on my psyche. Spending focused writing time kept me feeling good and staying calm. I wasn’t mentally drained by 5 p.m. (with three more hours of work time to go.) My energy levels stayed high. I wasn’t riding an adrenaline wave. Life felt much more…even.

I’d highly recommend leveraging this technique. If you’re a freelance writer, writing faster means you can take on more projects and make more money. If you work in-house, increasing your efficiency allows you to finish projects earlier and gain additional free time.

Plus, having more time allows you to leverage more of your content marketing strategy, faster – you’ll finally have the time to launch a new initiative or rewrite some Web content.

So try the kitchen timer technique and let me know how it goes. Who knew that such a low-tech tool could help us with our high-tech writing lifestyles?

Do You Suffer From This Dirty Little Copywriting Secret?

Copywriters don’t like to talk about it. Heck, they don’t even want to admit it to themselves. But, they’re often stuck in their own content marketing hell, suffering in silence.

The affliction?  “Copywriter’s burnout”- and it can decimate your SEO and social media strategy.

Back in the day (say, 1998 or so,) there weren’t as many online content marketing avenues. You wrote copy for your website. Maybe you wrote a monthly article, kicked out a press release and participated in a forum or two.

But now, companies are being told to blog five times a week. And Tweet. And write articles. And comment on other people’s blogs. And write new site copy. And repurpose existing content.

The copywriter who was used to writing one or two things a day is now responsible for writing multiple pieces of copy, tracking comments, devising Tweets and updating the site. Every single day.

The list seems almost endless. And for a sole proprietor, in-house marketer or copywriter, it can be totally overwhelming.

The sad thing is, burnout sets in long before the person notices. The burnout process starts with the writer feeling “bored.” “I’m writing about the same damn things over and over, ” one writer told me. “My heart’s not in it anymore.”

Slowly, the work quality suffers. What were once brilliant turns-of-phrases transform into “formula” copy.

Then, the writer stops writing as much as she used to. Five blog posts turn into four. Then three. Then before you know it the blog is dusty from underuse…and the last post was sometime during Q3 of 2009.

Sound familiar?

Writers don’t talk about burnout for obvious reasons. But it’s there. And it exists. And it can be scary. Here’s what to do:

  1. Admit the burnout to yourself. If you’ve been writing about health and fitness for over 10 years, it’s no wonder that you’re a little bored.  It’s OK to say, “If I have to write about kettleballs one more time, I’ll go insane.” It’s OK to want to delete your Twitter account and move to an island without phones or broadband. Admitting the burnout is the first step in overcoming it.
  2. Talk to another writer about your burnout. The wonderful thing about admitting “copywriter’s burnout” is that you’ll find that you’re not the only one. Hearing another writer affirm how they’re feeling is sometimes all it takes to turn things around.
  3. Try writing something just for fun. I asked a talented writer yesterday if she ever wrote for fun anymore. There was a long pause before she admitted, “No, no I don’t.” Think about it this way: Writing is like exercise. If you’re writing the same thing over and over (or exercising the same muscle group,) you’ll stop seeing benefits – and sometimes, set yourself up for injury. But if you can cross-train and write different things that you want to write, you exercise new muscles…and often, remind yourself why you loved writing in the first place!
  4. Take a break. Copywriters with in-house gigs are often responsible for pages and pages of copy every single day.  That can be…challenging…under the best of circumstances. If you have the freedom to do so, take a vacation away from writing and do something else. Even just a week can provide you the rest you need to keep on keeping on.
  5. Get help. As writers and marketers, getting outside writing help can feel defeating. After all, you figure “I know how to do this. Why should I pay someone when I can do it for free.” Well guess what? If you’re not writing because you’re burned out – or what you’re writing is utter drivel – all you’re doing is setting yourself up for failure. Besides, outside writers can look at your stuff with fresh eyes, take some of the pressure off of you and let you focus on other things. I’ve seen burned-out clients get three months of copywriting help – and then they were rarin’ to go after that. They just needed someone to take over some of the writing tasks so they could take a psychological break.

“Copywriter’s burnout” is insidious, frustrating and can wreck havoc on your self esteem (as well as your SEO content marketing strategy!). The good news is, ever writer I’ve known has eventually been able to pull out of it. Maybe a short break is all it took. Or perhaps getting outside help did the trick. The important thing to know is that it happens, it’s common, and it has an end point. And once you’ve come through on the other side, you’re writing is even better than before. Really.