So you’re hyped and eager to pour yourself into writing.
Maybe you have too many ideas, or maybe not enough — either way, you don’t know where to start. That’s where I was just a few weeks ago.
To execute on the momentum and capture the spur of inspiration I felt, I looked into writing advice from some of Medium’s most prolific writers such as Tim Denning and Nicolas Cole.
Combining their tips, I built a relevant, in-depth content map and generated over 60 article ideas within one day.
Let me walk you through the exact steps I took.
Step 1: Pick 2–3 Topic “Buckets” to Focus On
Maybe you already know what topics you want to write about.
Maybe you don’t. Or you have too many ideas.
Tim Denning says it’s best to pick just two topics.
Nicolas Cole suggests you pick one niche topic and one broad topic, as well as one “industry topic”.
I was less worried about the industry one. Maybe, like me, you come from an industry you don’t necessarily want to write about.
What’s more important is to find one thing that speaks to everyone and another thing that speaks to a very specific set of people.
If you write only about broad topics, you’re competing with a lot of other writers and it will be harder to get a foothold. When you write about niche topics, you’ll get traction much more quickly, but you’ll only reach so many people. A mix of the two seems to do the trick.
Here are my topic choices: mental health (broad), careers & life (very broad), psychedelics (very niche).
Step 2: Map Out, Rank, and Break Down Your Topics
In this next step, you’ll branch out further from your core buckets.
Your content map will have three levels: buckets, topics, and sub-topics.
The easiest way to get to levels two and three is to draw a classical mindmap. I did it in Excel, in true consultant fashion, but on paper may be easier.
There are no limits, but don’t go rogue. Specificity wins. A handful of topics per bucket and a few ideas for sub-topics per topic are more than enough.
In the next step, you’ll want to rank your ideas on the topic level.
Give each topic two scores from 1–5: one score for how badly you want to write about it, and another one for how much you think readers will care about it. This, again, comes from Nicolas Cole’s book on online writing.
Use the total score to rank topics within your core buckets and you’ll have guidance on which topics to prioritize first. We only need to rank topics (level two) and not subtopics (level three) at this stage.
Here’s what the final list looks like for me:
Mental health: Addiction & recovery (the science of addiction, healing trauma, eating disorders), emotional wellness (coping, communication, empaths)
Careers & life: Finding purpose (intuition, creativity), happiness habits (simplicity, lifestyle choices, conscious living)
Psychedelics: Lessons learned (from personal journeys), advice for beginners, science (neuroscience, consciousness, biology), culture, politics
Note: Don’t be too worried about your content map being “MECE” (mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive). You’re not writing an academic paper.
Step 3: Brainstorm Article Ideas Based On 5 Common Types of Articles
This is where we get into the fun part, generating titles for actual articles.
Again, Nicolas Cole has made it easy for us by outlining the five types of articles in online writing:
- Actionable Guide
- Curated List
- Credible Talking Head
Number 5, the credible talking head, refers to things that simply get read because the author has credibility in the field. The other types don’t need much further elaboration. If you’re curious to learn more, buy Cole’s book.
Now, the fun part. Go through your sub-topics and come up with a few ideas for article titles for each one. You’ll quickly have 50+ ideas.
As a general rule, you’ll want to find titles and themes that trigger emotional reactions in your readers: either they want to be or do something badly, or they badly don’t want to be or do something.
Don’t worry too much about the headline. This exercise is just about capturing potential themes, you can brainstorm titles when you do the actual writing.
At the end of this exercise, you should have a nice long list. But there’s one more thing to make your content map even more relevant.
Step 4: Review Highlights from Previous Articles for More Inspiration
This is probably my favorite tip of them all.
Tim Denning shared it in a podcast. It’s super simple but highly effective.
In your highlights, people tell you what they want to read about.
Go through all your previous articles (especially those with traction) and take note of sections that were highlighted by multiple people.
This is what intrigued them, what they want to remember, what they want to come back to. This is what they want more of from you.
When I went through this exercise, my first viral article became a treasure chest for follow-up stories. I generated at least 10 more articles ideas, most of which were neatly slotted into my content map.
This is all you need to do and within no time, you have a fully fleshed-out content map with articles you want to write and people want to read.
You’ll never run out of ideas.
And when you do, you just repeat the four steps.