My 9-Step Protocol to Achieve Optimal Writing Workflow (Overcoming “Writer’s Block”)

Paul Maxwell, Ph.D.

Paul Maxwell, Ph.D., writes about theology, mental health, marketing, and fitness. Paul has been writing on PaulMaxwell.co for over a decade.

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Growing up, I was always a C and D student. I never did my homework. I hated it. My mom would have to drag me from in front of the TV and plop me at a boring, musty desk that faced a wall until I finished. It was the worst. I never learned to do homework. It never got any better.

The same thing happened in my first year of college—that was, until I found something I loved. I fell in love with theology. I threw myself into learning Greek, Hebrew, Ecclesiastical Latin, and Scholastic French.

When I left for my master’s program, I was the first ever student to publish a full-length article in my seminary’s theological journal. By the time I entered my doctoral program on a full scholarship, I had published 12 peer-reviewed articles in multiple academic journals (more than most of my professors) in psychology, history, philosophy, theology, and future theory. I wrote my doctoral dissertation—over 100,000 words—in one month. And I passed my dissertation defense without revision the following month.

Passion → Protocol

This isn’t genetic. I don’t take NZT (for fans of the movie Limitless). I don’t inject stem cells into my brain. But there was a moment for me when I decided to write more than any of my peers. As I watched my classmates slog away for an entire semester on a single paper, extending their misery to make 3 months feel like three eternities, I decided to write the paper in 3 days.

I developed a process that enabled me to amass the maximum amount of research, consolidate that research into digestible quotes with the proper bibliographic information affixed in footnotes, and streamlined those digests into claim-driven article-length theses with an 80% acceptance rate (much higher than most authors).

Now, my job sometimes requires me to write 30,000 words per week. And I do it. It’s still hard. I still sometimes must drag my inner-middle-school-me from the TV to finish my work. But what happened? How did this transformation occur?

It’s simple: I transformed passion into process. I learned to translate my purpose into an algorithmic protocol. I was able to convert the burning passion inside me to understand God and the meaning of life into measurable a input-output configuration that yielded more and more and more and more and more content.

Sometimes that content is better, and sometimes it’s worse. But I like to think that it’s getting better. And my superiors continue to reward me for it (thanks, Overlords!).

Here, I’m going to teach you the exact process that I use to maximize my content production output, as well as the criteria I use to maintain a high quality control on that output.

1. Whatever is demotivating you to write, write about that.

If you face a severe case of writer’s block, you have two options—break through the wall and write the piece you’ve planned, or be honest with yourself about what’s really distracting you, and write about that. Not every piece you write is for yourself, so if you’re writing as a paid gig for someone else, this obviously isn’t an option.

But if you’re writing for your personal brand, to publish on a feed that you own (Social, podcast, blog, etc.), no matter your content niche, you should be able to find a way to dig into the issue that’s really sucking your focus beneath the surface, and tie it to your content specialty.

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“The practice of writing honestly—even with a highly pragmatic audience—can humanize your brand in a way that many authors fail to achieve.”

You’re not a machine. Part of what makes you a great writer is the fact that you’re an audience who has emotional access to deeper things that enable you to achieve articulation that most can’t. Draw on that depth. Distraction is always an avenue to depth. Figure out what’s fogging your focus and devote your resources to unpacking it, solving it, and documenting your process of resolving it for your audience.

Even if you can’t tie it organically to your content specialty, sometimes an audience likes to get a peek behind the curtain to get to know you better personally. The practice of writing honestly—even with a highly pragmatic audience—can humanize your brand in a way that many authors fail to achieve.

2. Don’t expect to like it

The fact that writers want to write is often a trap door into believing that writing itself is enjoyable. It absolutely is not. Like working out, it has its moments, but on the whole, there’s a reason it requires an enormous act of the will.

If you assume writing will be pleasurable, then when it’s not pleasurable, it’ll be even harder to begin writing. The NAVY Seals have a saying: “Embrace the suck.” It means that when you’re staring at a task in front of you that you know will be unpleasant, you have this mindset: “I’m going to crush this thing even though it will be extremely uncomfortable.” When it’s finished, you’ll no longer have the lingering anxiety, sense of disappointment in yourself, or desperation that comes with lingering projects that never seem to finish themselves.

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“We’ve allowed that concept of “Writer’s block” to become romanticized. But let me ask you this: Have you ever heard of a plumber getting “Plumber’s block”?”

I hear people say all the time: “I want to retire and write a book.” You don’t need to retire to write a book. You just need to write it. Make the time. It doesn’t take years. It just takes focus, and an embrace of the pain inevitably involved in every creative endeavor.

Embrace the suck.

Don’t expect to like it.

It makes the whole process of writing—start to finish—easier if you accept that it will be hard from the outset.

Think about it this way: When you get writer’s block, you feel incompetent. You feel powerless. We’ve allowed that concept of “Writer’s block” to become romanticized. But let me ask you this: Have you ever heard of a plumber getting “Plumber’s block”? No. He does his job, even though it requires him to work with filth. But what happens as a result? Clients are so thankful. He gets paid. He gets a reputation for getting the job done. As a writer, your entire career will live or die on such a reputation—and that reputation will live or die on whether or not you can show up and perform, day in and day out, like the plumber.

3. Centralize your productivity architecture

I have an acquaintance who is currently attempting to replace his full-time income with writing income. He is constantly switching back and forth between several pieces of software and storage so that he has to use 4 programs simultaneously (that’s 4 windows open) while working on his brand. He uses Microsoft Word for writing (stored locally on his computer), iCal for his blog schedule, Google Drive for product files and documentation, and Evernote for logging his ideas.

Don’t use 5 productivity tools, 4 writing softwares, 3 social media services, 2 digital asset libraries, and a partridge in a pear tree.

Centralize your content schedule, blog list, documentation, brand script, and all other brand-related files in the same place. If possible, locate everything—workflow, product files, email list, and legal files—in the same place. Obviously, Google Suite (G Suite: Custom domain-specific email, Drive, Docs, Gmail, etc) is an ideal solution to most of this.

The strength of G Suite is that allows you to plan and strategize in the same place. That is—you can write and manage from the same single sign-on. Alternatives such as Microsoft Cloud, Teams, and Word are often too bulky since they are forced to run locally on your computer. Their cloud functionality has an unpalatable lag. And their collaboration lacks sharing and social features that enable you to sell, share, and co-create that Google does extremely well.

With G Suite, all of your writing, strategy, scheduling, and correspondence work within a highly synchronous, feature-rich meta-tool that enables you to seamlessly navigate and integrate your entire workflow—from idea to publication to monetization.

Obviously, as your business grows, there are other important tools you’ll need to include in your workflow—an email subscription service, client management solution, etc. But as far as your self-contained productivity workflow is concerned, make sure you are using a single sign-on for as much as possible.

4. Log all writing ideas

This is a simple (but important) note. Keep a single list for all writing ideas that “occur” to you. While you’re falling asleep. While you’re taking a shower. While you’re eating dinner. As a writer, you can’t control when the lightning of an idea will strike, but you can control if that lightning gets stored in a bottle.

Always have a document accessible (in no more than two clicks) on which you can log article, blog, book, podcast, video, social media post, business strategy, and networking ideas.

What tool is best for this? You could use a Google Doc. That would work very well. However, this is the one occasion in which I will make an exception to my Google-only rule, and that is for Evernote Premium.

Evernote Premium has a searching/tagging feature that is mobile-optimized in a way that enables you to search your own ideas much better than Google. For example, every idea that you have about “Courage” you could tag with “Courage,” and every idea for your book project, you could categorize under “My Book.”

The ability to utilize these categories and tags to create a swiftly accessible and easily searchable information architecture for all of your stream-of-consciousness thoughts allows you to benefit richly from your own genius in a way you never have before.

Pro Tip: Do not use Evernote Basic (you must use Premium). You’re better off with a pad and paper than Evernote Basic. When you build a habit of using a software, you don’t want to have a tool that is limited to WiFi and cell data. You want to be able to seamlessly compose notes, tags, and access your writing strategy’s information architecture offline (it syncs later). Trust me. I tried Evernote Basic. After 2 days I bought an annual plan for Evernote Premium and have never regretted it.

5. Don’t get stuck in the purgatory of research phase

The research bane is the worst kind of quicksand trap that can completely destroy your writing routine. I hear from so many writers who tell me: “I started an article!” I ask “Why didn’t you finish it?” They say: “I’m still reading a few articles on the topic.”

Stop. Write from your brain. Write from your heart. Don’t do research for every single piece of content you write. Don’t think of research as something you do before you write. Think of research as an ongoing project on the side.

Personally, I do research in seasons. I’ll write about 3 months of content, schedule it for publication, and then spend the next month or two reading things that I find interesting and relevant to my target topic. As my content queue reaches its end, I write another batch of content based on what I’ve learned.

Write first. Research later. If you don’t know what to write, it’s easier to produce content from experimentation and experience than it is from research. Write simpler, more observational content until you’ve had the time to dive more deeply into the other authoritative sources in your niche.

Furthermore, don’t overvalue research. What are other people doing that’s working? What isn’t? What’s missing? Write on that—on the fly. Don’t think of yourself as a researcher. You’re not writing just to repackage other peoples’ content. You have your own voice, your own ideas, your own content to produce. Produce that.

One final point on research: don’t waste time reading entire books. Learn how to speed-read, to skim, and most importantly—know how to find ideas. Very often, all you will remember from a book is a single idea. This is a good thing. Read only until you latch onto an idea that you love (or hate) and give that idea your own angle (or constructive criticism).

Produce content first. The raw process of content production (writing) is the sharpening stone on which your wordsmithing and brandcraft become sharper, more effective, more readable, and more relevant.

6. Always Outline First

If you fail to outline your content first, your writing will read like a diary. Content that isn’t pre-outlined is basically your stream of consciousness. Here’s a process for outlining your content before you write it:

  • Pick a topic to write on.

  • Pick an idea within that topic.

  • Make a claim about that idea.

  • Make a list of ways to make that claim defensible, actionable, or digestible.

  • Turn each point in that list into a main point in your content.

  • Make the font of those points bigger and bolder.

  • Write your introduction to your main claim.

  • “Fill in the blank space beneath each point to explain how that point supports, illustrates, expands upon, nuances, or makes practical your main claim.

  • Write your conclusion.

That’s it. Follow this outline protocol, and you’ll have a streamlined process for content production that will enable you eventually to increase the speed and frequency at which you create without diminishing profundity or quality.

7. Set (and keep) a publishing schedule

A schedule keeps you accountable. If you “write when you want,” you might write 5 pieces of content a week for … a week … then 2 the next week, then 1, then 0, then 1 six months later.

By keeping yourself to a schedule, you implement an accountability structure that secures volume for your writing brand—which is essential for (1) your brand’s SEO value, (2) the process of becoming a better writer, and (3) your ability to nurture your audience relationship through the continual adding of value to their lives.

8. Make time for reflection

It’s possible to kick your mind into high-gear writing for a while. But most writers have a deep well to which they must return. A certain feeling. A song. A sadness. Something that cuts beneath the buzz of life and allows you to take a deep, Kierkegaardian gaze into the chasm of your own mortality to drawn on the deep human themes that make anyone want to read about anything—family, values, painful experiences, overcoming difficult obstacles, death, anxiety, depression, hopelessness.

Not everything must be about these things—in fact, you should write directly about them sparsely, or your audience will become exhausted by your depth. But even the most shallow, superficial, salesy marketing pitches can still be successful if they know how to appeal to these deeper, primal themes that move the soul.

Make time to access that. Keep a wineskin full of this depth in your satchel. Otherwise, your writing—no matter how eloquent, tactical, or apparently valuable—will feel tinny to readers. The ability to draw on your connection to your deeper self is the fundamental skill by which you add depth, and communicate empathy, through your writing.

9. Prioritize speed when typing

Write first. Edit later. It’s an acting cliche: “Acting is reacting.” Well, writing is about rewriting—or better, editing.

Michelangelo believed that he didn’t “create” the Statue of David. He believed that the statue already existed within the marble, and that it was his job to remove the marble that wasn’t part of the statue.

Don’t think of your first draft as Michelangelo’s sculpting of the Statue of David. Think of writing as the act of going down to a mine and hacking at solid marble rock until you get a huge chunk of marble. Then, you can chip away the parts of the marble that don’t belong—until you have your beloved Statue of David, er, piece of writing.

This is important. If you spend too much time trying to craft the perfect piece of writing your first time through, you could extend your writing time by up to 4x. And that significantly increases your chances of becoming discouraged about your piece, disillusioned about the possibility of becoming a successful career writer, and depressed about your own writing potential.

That’s why it’s most important, when cracking your fingers against the keyboard like a pickaxe against solid marble, that you focus on speed, frequency, and producing massive overall volume as quickly as possible. Hone quality of thought, eloquence of speech, and fittingness of voice later. Write fast. Editing is easy. The faster you write, the easier editing will become.

Conclusion

Implement this protocol in your writing process, and you will find that the frequency and quality of your writing production is much higher than you previously thought. You have a hidden potential to outpace, outproduce, and outperform other writers in your space, in quality and quantity, which means that your potential for gaining market share among your audience is extremely high.

But it starts with the process. It starts with putting the right routines, practices, and protocol in place to achieve both prolificity and productivity which, combined with quality of writing and value of the content for your audience, always yields success.

Use the eBook below to learn how to plug these tips into a larger writing strategy that grows your audience and increases your writing quality.

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