LEGO bricks and a modular approach to content writing

For me, a piece of long-form business writing needs structure. And that means putting some thought into what it is you’re writing. How many sections will there be? Does it need an executive summary? Will there be a foreword from the CEO?

In other words, what parts am I (the writer) going to need to build this content? And how do you (the client) envisage the end product looking?

This modular approach to content is something I’ve used for years. To use an analogy, defining your structure and elements is very similar to building something out of LEGO bricks. Each element comes together to build the final content – but every brick is vital to the design, integrity and overall look of the finished product.

So, should you be treating your writing like building a LEGO house?

Read on and you can decide if my methodology works for you, or if I’m just a kid(ult) with a LEGO obsession.

Be creative, or follow the LEGO instructions?

Before we start, I need to make one thing clear…

The whole point of LEGO is that it’s a modular building system that can literally build ANYTHING. Kids (and adults) can take these modular elements and build whatever pops into their head. That’s what being creative and innovative is all about – having the vision in your head and seeing where the bricks take you.

In this LEGO/writing analogy, what I’m talking about is building a specific product, based on a specific design. In other words, following your LEGO instructions to build a pre-defined design. In the real world, that design could be a LEGO house, a jet plane, the Millenium Falcon or a castle. 

The key here is that my modular approach to writing uses the client brief to define what kind of end product the client wants. Do they want a huge Space LEGO moon base? Or are they looking for a cute cottage with plastic flowers in the garden? 

If the client can’t define that brief, it’s going to be super tricky for me to deliver on their vague and woolly definition. 

That’s not to say that I can’t create content without a brief. I’ve written dozens of reports, white papers and guides where the majority of the ideation and structure has come from me, not the client. The point is that it’s simpler, quicker and more effective if the client knows what they want – and you’d be astounded how many clients literally have no clue what they’re looking for.

A brief that tells me what to build 

When I’m working with a client on a long-form piece of content, it helps immeasurably to have a detailed brief, ideally with a preferred structure for the finished content. 

This brief is the ‘LEGO instructions’ I work from, giving me the best possible idea of what the final content will look like, how many sections there will be, and what the main messaging for the report/paper/guide will be.

It’s also massively helpful to have some key points and a summary of the overall messaging. You’d be amazed how many marketing teams decide to write a ‘white paper’ or a thought leadership report, but without actually deciding WHAT they want to say. 

For me, these key points are vital. They’re the LEGO bricks I’ll use to build the initial draft, so I need to know if the client is looking for something that’s made of standard 4-stud bricks, all in red, or am I going to have to find customised parts that are unique to their particular design. 

To put it another way, does the client know what they want to say, or are they expecting me to do the ideation? Or, as sometimes happens, have they half written the content and want me to ‘give it a polish’ or (worst of all) ‘sex it up a bit…’?

In my experience, you can actually end up spending longer editing a roughly-written draft than just writing it from scratch. An analogy would be the time it takes to construct a LEGO house if someone has started building it, but without reading the instructions. This then results in elements in the wrong place and lots of bricks left over.

It’s quicker and less labour-intensive to start with a fresh pile of bricks, rather than having to pick apart the LEGO house and start over.

Can the content still evolve over time?

You might say that blindly following the ‘LEGO instructions’ could lead to an inflexible way of writing. But that’s not the case. This modular approach means that the content doesn’t have to be written in stone. It can be re-designed, new elements can be included and ideas can change. And because we’re dealing in ‘LEGO bricks’ these elements can be re-arranged and re-structured however you want them to.

The important thing (for me, anyway) is that you define the foundations and structure before you start. This superstructure can evolve and change, but you still have a core idea that the content is based around.

I could change the colour of my roof bricks on my LEGO house, or add a chimney that wasn’t part of the original design. But the foundations and superstructure are the same – just re-imagined and updated in different ways.

With this superstructure in place, we don’t need to completely rebuild our ‘LEGO house’ if the CEO changes their mind, or if a new piece of messaging needs to be included. In short, we don’t need to rip apart our LEGO house and start again – something that takes time, effort and expense, especially if you’re charging out based on the time spent on the project.

So, what does a good brief look like?

So, if the ‘LEGO instructions’ are so important, what should marketers be including in their brief to the content writer? This is never written in stone, and every content writer is likely to want a slightly different brief template. But for me, these are the key things I want to know if I’m going to create the long-form content you’ve envisaged.

  1. Tell me who your audience will be – explain to me who will be reading this long-form content. Is the intended audience your target customer, or are you writing to an expert audience of peers? Tell me as much as possible about the audience demographic and why (you think) they’ll be interested in this content. 
  2. Tell me the key things you want to tell them – summarise the key ideas, messages or product benefits you want to get across. If you don’t know what these are, you probably don’t know why you’re actually writing this long-form content.
  3. Explain the value of this offering – what is this content going to help me (the reader) do or understand. Or what problem is the content going to help me solve? Tell me why the reader should care enough to spend their precious time reading your report.
  4. Tell me how long you expect the content to be – is this a longer blog post of 1,500+ words? Or is it a deep-dive report that will be around 3,000 words? Knowing the desired length helps me (the writer) know how much detail to include, and how forensic we can get with each of your key messaging elements.
  5. Tell me the intended format – will this writing end up as digital content on your company blog? Or will it be a glossy, expensive report that’s hard-copy printed and handed to investors and shareholders etc? Digital content can be more concise and interactive, while printed copy can’t include links and needs to be printed with page numbers that are multiples of 4 (16 pages, not 17 pages etc.)
  6. Give me a link to your style guide and tone of voice – if you want content that sounds like your brand, that’s far easier to achieve if you share your brand style guide with me. If you have a tone-of-voice guide, that’s even better and will give me a handle on which words to use, and which words I should avoid.
  7. Tell me the deadline for the content – if you need a long, 3,000-word report by the end of the week, I need to know this up front. Content writers cannot work miracles (even though we try), so if this content will take five days of solid research, writing and editing, you’re not going to get a draft by tomorrow. Be realistic, think about the work that’s involved and don’t rush the process. You can have it fast, but not good. Or you can have it good, but with a longer timeframe. Very few writers will opt for the former.
  8. Tell me who to send the draft to – if five different people need to review the first draft, tell me who they are and give me their contact details. If I can share a draft with everyone, and you all comment on the same version of the draft, that’s way simpler to deal with when picking up edits, suggestions and amendments. The nightmare scenario will be getting to version five of the draft, and the CEO then leaving a comment that says ‘Hmm, not too keen on the cute cottage. Please build the moon base instead’. That’s the kind of comment that’s likely to see your LEGO model bashed into several hundred pieces, lol.

Are you a LEGO content writer too?

So, here’s the tricky bit. As a marketer, writer or business owner, is this how YOU approach writing a piece of long-form content? Are you a LEGO content writer, like me? Or do you have a different approach that gets the job done? 

Drop me a comment and let me know your approach to long-form content.

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