One of the biggest pieces of feedback I get from this blog is on the frequency and consistency of the posts: roughly 2000 words, every Monday morning. So I thought I’d spend this week’s post talking about my general process of writing.
This is not my first attempt at writing for an audience. You can still see posts from my old blog, I wrote occasionally for school newspapers, and I write a LONG “Happy New Year” email to friends & family every year. I always loved writing, but I did it fairly rarely. And even now, I’m not exactly productive - most professional authors can get 2000 words a day (7x my pace).
My writing quality also leaves a lot to be desired. I tend to speak with a lot of conditional phrases and parenthetical statements, so I tend to write the same way. And I don’t think I’ve written anything that has been completely grammatically correct - I *always *find errors after I publish.
That said, I’m probably more productive than you are. So here’s what I’ve found useful.
You are qualified enough
Imposter syndrome is a huge problem for aspiring writers. I feel it too. Someday one of you will respond to a post with “you’re totally unqualified to talk about this” and my fear will be realized. I’ll probably stress eat an entire pizza and cry myself to sleep.
But there’s another flavor of imposter syndrome which appears to be more common. That fear is: I need to reach , then I’ll be “qualified” to talk about this. Before that, I would just be a total arrogant jerk if I were to pretend I knew what I was talking about.
The next milestone could be graduating from university, or getting enough experience in your field of interest, or attaining a high enough leadership position etc. In my opinion this fear is kibosh.
For example, if you’re in high school, not only are you qualified to talk about it - your writing will be far more compelling if you write about it now, then after you’ve reached some age or title which you think “gives you permission” to do so. I’m too old to write about high school, or college / graduate school…those experiences were long enough ago that effectively any specific anecdotes have turned into a fog of lost memories.
I wonder if autobiographies would be more interesting if they were written while a person was living their life (say, 1 chapter per 5 year period), rather than at the end of it, when they felt there were most qualified to sum it all up.
You have expertise that few other people have. The problem is, in your chosen field, if you look upwards you see people more qualified than you. They’re the ones who really should be writing, right? And since practically everyone can look up to someone else, imposter syndrome is this universal feeling. It’s turtles all the way down.
So let me make it clear: yes, you probably don’t have the perfect qualifications. No, I don’t care. The question isn’t about your qualifications, it’s about whether someone has written the story that you would write. And they haven’t. There is a massive shortage of compelling, high quality writing.
And this is more than just a “you’re special too, you little snowflake” sermon. Given a specific domain, there are almost always needs that haven’t been met by the existing literature. Do you really think no one had written about cancer before Siddharth Mukherjee did?
Quantity > Quality
When you sit down to start, you’ll find that what you write doesn’t quite meet your standards. It might seem dull, or the writing isn’t quite as captivating, or you’re talking about something you think no one cares about, etc.
The good news is the solution is to churn out as much stuff as you can. Get it all down on paper. Follow Ira Glass' advice.
I suspect people procrastinate on writing partly because they think good writing is some type of Dragonball Z energy blast that you save up and then explode with at the right time. Maybe, but I doubt it. Everything I’ve read about writing suggests that it’s much more pedestrian, like regular exercise. Here’s Neal Stephenson on his approach:
Sometimes people are led to believe that writing is a kind of fine art, where some mysterious inspiration strikes and magic happens. I think it’s more like cabinet making or soccer playing, where if you do it a whole lot you get good at it, and if you stop doing it you either stop getting good at it or you actually lose ability.
Jeff Atwood & Rachel Kroll seem to have similaradvice. They got started, and built up very successful reputations, by writing frequently (far more than I do) and slowly gaining an audience over years.
Everyone seems to have ideas in the shower, but I think we misunderstand why. Our brains are input / output machines, and for most of our lives, there is a constant stream of input. We’re watching TV, reading the internet, interacting with friends, etc. We also generate output constantly - even if you aren’t speaking, there’s always something on your mind.
The only reason a shower is unique is: 1) you’re usually always alone 2) the water noise is so loud that you can’t hear anything else 3) the steam prevents you from looking at anything (your phone, for example). How many times can you read the back of the shampoo bottle, anyway?
So the shower is the one time, in daily life, where you effectively have no inputs. (I’m excluding sleep, as you aren’t conscious. But sleep’s effect on creativity has been well documented too.)
Even if you have no inputs, your brain still needs to create output - you are always thinking about something, aren’t you? And so your brain ruminates on past ideas, and generates new ones. That’s why you get your a-ha moment while your hair is wet.
For those of you who do a lot of boring, repetitive tasks you’ll notice that you’ll have similar moments while you are mowing the lawn, washing dishes, or vacuuming (circumstances where your visual and audio inputs are similarly minimized). There is no magic in hot water.
I find the same happens to me when writing. I sit down to a blank page, and have a rough idea of what I want to write about, but somehow the words take me on a path that I didn’t really expect to go on. Writing isn’t a mechanism to “save ideas”, it’s a mechanism to create them. Similar to showering, when writing I’m only looking at the page, and not listening to anyone else. The only difference is, the ideas get put in a place that everyone can see them, rather than bouncing around my head forever.
Kill your ego
There’s another problem that I had when I started writing. Basically, I wanted to sound impressive. I wrote in a way that portrayed me as a real intellectual - one of those smarmy bastards whose work was good for your bookshelf (even if it never left the bookshelf).
The main problem with writing that way is it’s boring. Really boring. When I attempted to write “like an intellectual” I couldn’t even reread my own writing without taking breaks. If you’re bored by your own writing, how do you expect the friendly (and unfriendly) reader to wade their way through it?
The best way I’ve found to solve this problem is to write as if I’m speaking to a friend. I make jokes. I curse. I’m not writing for some poor English teacher 100 years from now who has to analyze every word to see if I have a deep relationship with the color green.
If you read this with your morning coffee and enjoy it, that’s enough. You don’t have to worship me. And I hope to God that if I publish like an arrogant twit you’d puncture my ego before I got too far.
Write for an audience
Some people are satisfied with writing in a journal that only they will ever read. My problem is that it’s hard to motivate myself to do that. Having an audience is fun!
I’m not prominent enough to have trolls or spammers, so many of the responses I get are quite interesting. A significant number show a depth of intellectual thought that I hadn’t plunged to on the topic of interest.
There is one big downside to having an audience…there are some things I simply can’t talk about with this group. That probably includes politics, religion, and current events (I would like for these articles to be useful years from now). I don’t talk about my day job outside of Sudopoint. I don’t stray too far into technical nuances because a large portion of my audience doesn’t write code.
That’s a lot of limitations! I think about all of those things for much of my week, and I tend to write about what I’m thinking. If there was a mechanism to achieve the depth of thought I get in these posts, but on those topics, I probably would take advantage of it. But there isn’t, perhaps until the next social network comes around.
Even with those limitations, and excluding reader feedback, writing here is worth the trouble. I’m beginning to build up a bank of ideas that I can then reference in other conversations. Effectively, writing is a way of scaling your ideas - not implementing them, but spreading the ideas themselves. As much as one cringes at reading Naval or Ben Thompson or Tim Ferriss, the reality is that when those people say things, people listen. Already I’m starting to see the occasional reader push an idea that was mentioned here. “You’re in people’s minds, dude!”
The number of people who read your stuff is usually way larger than you might think - even with a very small blog following (say, a couple dozen people), you can spread ideas far faster than you could in direct conversation. I’m already starting to see these notes with “Fwd: Fwd: Fwd:” replies. And I only started a couple months ago.
Send me your stuff!
So this is an open invitation - if you’re writing something and want to feel the warm glow of a reader actually enjoying it, email it to me. I have plenty of time, and want to encourage folks to start writing more. Especially since my audience, at this moment, is mostly comprised of friends and allies who are super smart, but don’t really share their ideas in a scalable way.
I want to hear what you have to say.