To establish a sustainable practice of writing and publishing your thoughts might be the most valuable thing you can do for your career. Writing makes you smarter, and putting your work out there lets you connect with far more people than you otherwise would have — which means far more potential opportunities coming your way.
But of course, if writing were easy, everyone would do it. It’s not easy. It’s hard. We can make it easier on ourselves if we break the problem down into discrete chunks and then deal with them individually.
One of the major chunks you have to figure out is your process for repeatably, sustainably producing quality writing. A successful process is far more valuable than a single successful piece of writing because the process can produce many successful pieces, whereas a single piece without a repeatable process is a one-hit wonder.
So how do you develop a good process? Just the same way you create any good product: first you create a prototype, and then you learn and refine ad infinitum.
Something magical happens in product development the moment you get a prototype out of your head and onto paper. You’ve made the jump from 0 to 1. From here on out, what you have in front of you is a tractable problem: optimization. You test the process by attempting to use it. You note where it breaks. You design a fix. You test again. Maybe your fix didn’t work, so you design a new one. Maybe it did, and now you get to meet the next place where your process breaks. Repeat forever for the win.
As long as you don’t give up, you will eventually have a working process. With that, you’ll be able to reliably, consistently produce writing you’re happy with.
Write it down
To get started, you have to get your prototype process down on paper. For real: you have to write it down, or this won’t work. Two reasons:
- When you write it down, you’ll be able to see what you have and what you’re missing. You’ll spot conflicts. (“Huh, it makes sense that that part has been hard for me — I have two conflicting ideas about how to do it!”)
- Memory is shifty; written words are stable. When you write it down you’ll be able to refer back to it (“what was I supposed to do at this stage?”) and edit it (“ah, that’s what I thought yesterday, but today I know better!”).
Okay. So you’re going to write it down. What should you write?
Here’s a great template. It’s called the Writer One-Sheet. It’s adapted from David Perell’s online course Write of Passage.
- Five personal writing tips. What do you want to remind yourself?
- Tool stack. What tools do you use? (For reading, note-taking, drafting, publishing, email newsletter, etc)
- Writing habit. How often do you write? When do you write?
- Writing routine. When it’s time to actually write, what steps do you take?
- Publishing cadence. How frequently will you publish articles? Emails?
- Who do you write for? Pick a single person.
- What are the characteristics of the people you write for?
- What do you want your writing environment to feel like?
- What state of mind do you need to be in to write well?
- Procrastination. Where do you usually procrastinate and how can you prevent procrastination in the future?
- Reinforcement. How will you reward yourself for writing?
Here’s my One-Sheet
I’m publishing my current prototype here as an example. Please share yours in the comments!
Five personal writing tips. What do you want to remind yourself?
- Just get it down on the page. Let it be shitty.
- Don’t research while you write. Writing time is for writing.
- Put the phone away and turn the internet off.
- Write first thing in the day, after journal and meditation.
- If you get stuck, don’t stop. Move to something else.
Tool stack. What tools do you use? (For reading, note-taking, drafting, publishing, email newsletter, etc)
- Reading and note-taking:
- For books, Kindle app. I try to notice when something I’ve read causes a reaction (either an emotion or gets me thinking) and I’ll highlight it and add notes.
- For articles, if I’m on the computer, I use Evernote Web Clipper to create a simplified version of the article. It also lets me add highlights. Then it saves to Evernote.
- For articles, if I’m on my phone, Instapaper. IFTTT connection sends to Evernote.
- Random notes: Evernote.
- Drafting: for a couple months I was using Ulysses, which is great. But I’ve recently consolidated everything into Evernote and that’s working well.
- Publishing: WordPress. Tried Ghost but WP has such a huge community and library of plugins that everything tends to be easier.
- Email newsletter: I haven’t officially used this yet but I have Substack set up.
Writing habit. How often do you write? When do you write?
- Every day of the week, from 9a to ~10:30 is writing time. Not research or email or anything else.
- I do other parts of the process like read, think, discuss, take notes ad hoc throughout the day.
Writing routine. When it’s time to actually write, what steps do you take?
- Make a cup of coffee
- Leave my phone in the house
- Go out to the shed in the back yard
- Turn on the electric blanket
- Open my computer
- Turn off wifi
- Check in with myself to see if there’s inspiration anywhere
- Follow inspiration if it’s there, and do whatever’s least painful if it’s not.
- Send whatever I’ve written to my coach.
Publishing cadence. How frequently will you publish articles? Emails?
- Articles: Currently I’m experimenting with publishing one post per day. I’ve figured out a reliable way to do short posts (basically, I read and listen to podcasts, and I regurgitate something I thought was interesting). I can do that every day and it gets me exposure to some parts of the process. (It’ dakka.) I can also write a bunch of short posts and schedule them ahead using WordPress’s publishing scheduler, which frees me to work on longer pieces.
- Emails: I don’t currently have a process. How about! Once per month I send an email newsletter. The first of the month.
Who do you write for? Pick a single person.
- My cousin Angus. He’s a close friend who likes me and respects me. I know him well and have had hundreds of hours of conversation with him. It’s easy for me to think “how would I explain this if I was talking to Angus?”
What are the characteristics of the people you write for?
- Not expert in the things I’m writing about
- Likes me and respects me
- Doesn’t have unlimited time — wants to know the point
- Doesn’t want the nitty-gritty or the jargon. Wants it boiled down and simplified to the essence
- Likes precision
- Sense of humor
What do you want your writing environment to feel like?
- Quiet, peaceful. Like a reading room at U Chicago or like a meditation hall. Cozy.
- Nature is great
- Space to move — to pace, to jump around
- Audio privacy to talk out loud
What state of mind do you need to be in to write well?
- Internally harmonious —no big thing stressing me like “you need to respond to that email do it first!”
- Confident. Stuart Smalley style.
Procrastination. Where do you usually procrastinate and how can you prevent procrastination in the future?
- Research rabbit holes instead of writing. Enforce: no research while writing.
- Fiddling with words and copy too early. Remember: shitty first drafts. Save the refinement for later.
Reinforcement. How will you reward yourself for writing?
- Eat food after publish
That’s mine. Please share yours in the comments!