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January 28th, 2008

The lunch lady cure for writer’s block

Remember your elementary school days of cafeteria consistency? No, not that it was consistently bad food ;-) , but that the menu was decided far in advance and reliably included “Meatball Monday” or “Pizza Friday.”

This wasn’t accidental. It’s not like school districts and lunch ladies (and gentlemen) didn’t realize that lunch menus can be decided on a whim.

Rather, when you’re cooking lunch for several hundred hungry 5-11 year olds, planning and routine simply makes sense.

And it makes sense when you’re writing a newsletter for several thousand newsletter readers, too.

When you’re making lunch for one or two people, it’s easy enough to run to the store if you’re missing an ingredient or two. But, when you’re cooking for hundreds, and you need *a lot* of any one ingredient, you must plan ahead.

The audience size isn’t the only reason planning makes so much sense, though. And, it’s this other reason for planning a menu that relates so clearly to your newsletter.

Having a plan stomps out writer’s block in a way that other writing advice simply can’t match.
You’ve been there–stuck, trying to follow someone’s advice to “compile your top ten tips for readers.” You know that advice isn’t foolproof.

Lunch lady planning is foolproof because it’s so detailed it leaves no space for you to be afflicted with writer’s block.

How to create a master menu

If you publish your newsletter monthly, you’ll create a quarterly plan. If you publish weekly, or every other week, you’ll create a 6-week plan. So, just adjust these instructions for your frequency. (Publish less often than monthly? It’s time to amp up your game. For this article, though, create a 2-year plan.)

Create a master list of three topics that encompass most of what your newsletter typically covers. Go as broad or as deep as you need to to find three. (In other words, if your overall topic is, “Leadership,” go a bit deeper until you find something like, “Authority,” “Empathy,” and “Persuasion.” For my newsletter, my three would be, “Connection,” “Writing mechanics,” and “Distribution.”)

Next, distribute your three master topics throughout your calendar. So, assign the first Monday’s issue of the month to Authority. the second Monday is Empathy, and the third is Persuasion. If you publish monthly, the first month of the quarter would be Authority, the second Empathy, and the third Persuasion.

Put your calendar into your newsletter notebook, and refer to it at the start of creating each issue. (That’s the key, by the way, to make sure you refer back to this calendar.)

Making space for creativity

Unlike the lunch ladies we’ve been talking about, you can accommodate lots of creativity in your plan. If you see that this issue’s “supposed” to be about Authority, but you’d much rather talk about Empathy, that’s wonderful–it’s your newsletter! In fact, if this issue is scheduled to be about Authority, and you decide you’d rather talk about Technology, that’s great, too.

Your master menu isn’t about stifling your creativity. Rather, it’s there as a guide to help you do two things–make sure you’re giving your readers a “balanced” newsletter (with plenty of variety from among your primary topics) and to help you when you’re stuck for something to write about.

When you sit down to create your newsletter from your master menu, after you’ve looked over your scheduled topic, brainstorm other possibilities. Has there been an industry development you’re itching to talk about? Is there something in the news that you’d like to discuss with your readers? Wonderful! Talk about that. But, for those times when you’re not feeling as inspired, turn to your master menu.

Your master menu is your plan to keep your readers well fed with great content. It’s also a great strategy for keeping writer’s block at bay without using an editorial calendar (which you might find overly constrictive). It’s the approach used in cafeterias far and wide, and it’s just as valuable an approach for your newsletter.

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