Before You Start
In which I share a few questions to answer before you begin any storytelling project
Last week, I wrote about my novel as a product and shared why I started a focus group. Today — in the spirit of ‘starting’ that comes with the first month of the year — I’m sharing a few questions to answer before starting any kind of content vertical: a newsletter, a podcast, a blog, a social series, and more.
There’s so much content out in the world competing for your audience’s attention. How do you ensure that yours doesn’t join the noise?
It would be best if you asked the questions curated below before starting. I didn’t know to ask myself these questions when I started writing this newsletter in 2019. It was just a way to develop a consistent writing habit but has now evolved into:
a means to document and share my interests and ideas.
a way for me to share insights I think you might find valuable on art, storytelling, media and culture.
I’m confident that my newsletter doesn’t tick all the boxes; I’m stringing together and attempting to marry a bunch of different and often unrelated interests. This can sometimes cause chaos. I’m sharing because a great man once told me: ‘Do as I say, and not as I do.’
These questions will help you refine and polish your idea. It’s okay to start without having clear answers to all of them. As you work your way through, clarity may set in. You may also create a focus group to help answer some of these questions.
What are your goals?
When we create, we have an inward goal most of the time. We want to become better writers or creators, earn more money, or position ourselves as experts in specific fields. We want to document aspects of our lives for posterity’s sake. The list is endless.
There are outward goals too. We want to help fellow creators understand the rules of content creation. Or we want to educate them about being better writers.
Every project should start with an exercise where the project owner attempts to articulate the core goals: why does this project need to exist? What can this project help me achieve? What can it help others achieve?
Who is your audience?
Or: who will relate to my idea. This should be well defined. By defining and researching who your reader or listener is, you can determine what kind of content makes them feel at home.
If you’d like to do something for middle-aged women, for instance, find out what they care about and what problems they have that you can use your expertise (knowledge) to solve.
Find out where they go for solutions to these problems or answers to these questions. You can create a survey for them to fill out (or interview them. It could be as simple as a chat). Just do the homework.
The worst kind of content has no clearly defined target audience.
What is the clear focus of your idea?
Zoom in. Narrow it down. Pick a niche and run with it. Some of my favourite podcasts do this successfully, such that I know what to expect every time a new episode comes out — and even so, I’m always pleasantly surprised by the content.
Here are a few podcasts with obvious focus:
Masters of Scale: The clear focus is how startups go from zero to ‘gazillion’: how they scale.
The Turning: Although a limited series, the underlying idea is to uncover the less-popular side of Mother Theresa’s life and the women who left their lives and families to join her order (it might as well have been vaguely about nuns).
This is Criminal: A podcast about the people behind the crimes.
What does the project look like?
Think format, platform and distribution.
Do I want to start a blog, podcast, newsletter, video series, live show?
Do I want to use Substack, Mailchimp, Reuve, YouTube, Instagram?
How do I reach my audience? How does my audience easily find me?
Several questions to ask. Responding to some of the other questions will help you answer this set of questions.
What are some existing references?
I particularly like this question because it helps me know what projects are similar to mine, what kinds of content already target my audience, and what I can learn from them.
It also helps determine how I can make my content unique. It’s an opportunity to consider if the solution is to partner with someone already creating similar content.
What do you need to get started?
Here, you think about your resources and limitations. Do I need to collaborate with someone who has more expertise than I do? Do I need to build a team? Or is this a one-person project? You also think about timelines. What do I need to go live with this project by March 2022?
I’ve previously written about working backwards. It’s an excellent way to create realistic timelines.
That’s six questions to ask yourself. Of course, there are other questions: what am I calling this project? What is the distribution cadence? How do I maintain my consistency? What is the long term plan? (Another favourite: what can this project become?) But I’ll leave it at this. Feel free to shoot me any questions in the comment section.
Starting a story that holds your reader
First sentences are important. So important that I still remember the first sentences that sealed the deal for me with some of my favourite novels.
"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
Leo Tolstoy in Anna Karenina
But in the writing stage, crafting the perfect first sentence can be crippling. You want it to be profound, so you write, delete, write again. You want it to be shocking. So you write something vague and outlandish. Working hard to create the perfect sentence can be counter-effective. You end up writing a sentence that is not you — unoriginal. A filler sentence.
Instead, why not work smart?
Here’s a trick I learned during my MA. When rewriting and editing drafts of your work, consider deleting the first sentence or paragraph, especially if this sentence or paragraph is a darling. You love it so much, you can’t let it go.
Sometimes, you might discover that the second sentence or paragraph holds more gold than the first.
Of course, like all writing rules and tips, you should ignore this rule. But it’s worth considering.
Designing an organised reading system
After reading Atomic Habits, the book by James Clear on building good habits, I realised that I’m a fairly good habit builder (except in months, I let myself go and want the earth to swallow me.)
Here are a few insights from the book:
Habits are compound interest — the tiny things matter
Focusing on your system is much better than setting and resetting goals. Systems help you reach the results you want. If you consistently fall off the goals you set for yourself, it’s not because your goals aren’t great; it’s most likely because the systems and structures you put in place aren’t designed to help you succeed.
Let go of the idea of you are. It clouds your judgment and affects your habits. You think you are this kind of person, so you behave how this kind of person behaves. Instead of accepting that you’re a terrible reader, think of yourself as a good reader and do things that make you a good reader: read. It would be best to focus on who you want to become and less on what you want to achieve. “Your identity emerges out of your habits. Every action is a vote for the type of person you wish to become.”
This year, make your habits obvious, attractive, easy, and satisfying.
Our environment shapes our behaviour.
I already practice the system and environment principles.
Here’s a classic example of how an efficient system is helping me accomplish my reading goals. I had initially set a goal to read 30 books this year. It’s January 20, and I’m six books ahead. I’m reading books seven and eight (rereading Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine and Girl, Woman, Other). I suspect I’ll finish my ninth book just as the month ends next week.
If I keep this pace up, by December 2022, by God’s grace, I’d have read at least 70 books.
Here’s how I’m designing my system:
(I use the continuous tense because it’s a work in progress. I’m continuously optimising.)
Time: I carved out 1hr30 minutes to read every weekday. It’s on my calendar, so I get notified 30 minutes before, 10 minutes before, and five minutes before. There’s never an excuse to forget.
Tools: I’m taking advantage of ebooks and audiobooks (legally purchased, of course!), which I could never do before. By listening to a book while reading it, there’s no way for my attention mind to wander to social media and start endlessly scrolling. It’s such a relaxing time. The Audible and Kindle app are both helpful in tracking the progress of your current read.
I signed up for Goodreads, which helps me track the books I’m reading and my habits. I can see my reading list, what I’ve read, and my wishlist. I can even create custom shelves with the app. It also shows me what others in my community are reading.
Space: I read in solitude, right after eating, right after working out. With little interference from outside, there’s no excuse not to read.
Size: I pace myself by spacing the heavier reads with lighter and shorter reads. I already created a list of books on my Notion page at the start of the year. But I’m open to recommendations.
You see better results when you have an efficient system in place.
Things I Enjoyed This Week
Have a great weekend. ❤️
Thanks to Blessing for helping with the research and Tobi for proofreading.