How I write.
I’ve been writing on a regular basis for over ten years. If I had to guess, my average words per day must be 4,000 to 5,000 words.
I tend to think by writing. It helps to break down problems and situations into their fundamental components and then makes analysis more accessible. I also feel significantly more objective when I write, as if I am above my own life looking down, instead of within my life. Ray Dalio, in his fantastic book Principles, discusses at length this ability to both be within the machine that is an organisation, and also look down on the machine. This principle can apply to our personal lives just as well as it can apply to business.
My website has gone through many iterations in the last 12 years. It started out as a joint blog with a friend, then developed into a photography website where I featured the work of photographers across the world, and then as my interest in philosophy and life, in general, blossomed in my early 20s, it became a place to host my personal essays. This year, 2022, I decided to relaunch it properly under my own name, and I also set myself the task of writing and publishing an essay each and every day.
This was quite the new year’s resolution, and I was apprehensive if this was even possible. I had never written and publish at quantity before, and I was worried that I would exchange quality for quantity. In essence, would I just write a pile of meaningless shit without any depth? As I look back on the 250+ essays that I have written this year, I feel that, overall, I did an excellent job in being able to balance depth and the need to reach the goal that I set myself.
I went from a readership of zero to several thousand people a month reading my essay, so that is also something that is quite pleasing. Time is the one resource that is the most limited for everyone, and knowing that some people across the world feel it is worth giving up some of their time to read my thoughts makes it worthwhile.
Today I wanted to write about writing because I have received a lot of questions regarding how I manage to write so much. To put it into context, this year I have written 339,760 words across 275 essays which is equivalent to three decent-sized books.
This level of output does not happen by accident — I have obviously developed a system that works for me, to quickly capture and convert ideas into essays.
So this is what I want to share with you today. I hope that this is educational and that if you’re interested in writing, you can steal and copy specific approaches that you feel may work for you while disregarding the rest.
I like the idea of creating a model of how things get done. For instance, last week, I was working with a consulting client to review how to handle tens of thousands of service requests for the equipment that they provide their clients in the field.
While they were about to present a complex workflow chart, I went on the board and sketched out what I felt would be the core components of a model for the process of service requests.
Obviously, there is equipment out in the field, and there are clients. These are two components that are related, and together they can then be part of another component, which we can name “Service Request”. The service request will then obviously come with another component which is a description of the problem.
Now, different types of equipment require different skill sets and engineers to fix, and so this then highlights the need for some categorization for both the equipment and also the engineers (yet another component of the overall system).
And so on — we can see that we can think from first principles and build up quite an accurate picture of how something should work.
And so with the writing process.
What are the components of the writing process? What is writing?
At the base level, you need an idea. What are you going to write about? Why is it important? Why should anyone care? What value do you bring to the table?
That idea then needs to move through a set of steps, a process, to go from something nebulous that is stored in your head, to a set of words that make up coherent sentences. These sentences then make up paragraphs, the paragraphs make up sections, and then before you know it, you have an essay.
But, this is much easier said than done. The critical question is how can this be done, and how can it be done in a way that is not too frustrating. There will always be some degree of frustration when trying to make ideas concrete, that frustration is called thinking!
So, let me explain my model.
- Idea Generation
The first thing to be said here is that do not attempt to store all your ideas in your head. You are going to forget them, and then that’s that — they will never amount to anything. It is much easier to try and write them down immediately as soon as they drop into your head. You don’t need a fancy system for this, just the notes application on your phone or a plain text document on your computer will do. The important thing is that the process is frictionless. If you have an idea while working on your computer, open the text file, drop the idea as a bullet point, save and close. Get back to what you were doing. Repeat as required on mobile.
So now that you have a system to capture ideas, the question is how to generate lots of ideas. Well, you need to put yourself in situations where ideas will likely come to you. This won’t happen if you are just sitting in a room alone. You need to engage with the world. Read books, read other essays, and speak and debate with people on complex topics. I’ve recently started a Master’s degree, and this has been a great avenue to get more ideas about things that I want to write about. I suggest browsing YouTube and collecting a list of great channels that cover topics that you’re interested in. Any video you see could be something you can write about, that you can bring your unique way of seeing things to the world.
With that said, don’t put pressure on yourself to generate ideas every day. When sometimes comes to mind, just add it to your idea library. Eventually, you’ll end up with hundreds of ideas that you can browse through, and on a given day, you can review the list, and there will be an idea whose time has come. It will stand out to you. The reading and discussions in the months since you wrote that idea down will somehow start to make sense, the neurons in your brain will fire, and then you know that this is the right time.
I also want to highlight the importance of listening to people. This is something that I was terrible at until my late 20s. I had this idea that I was intellectually superior to most people, and so I would take pride in that I would easily get bored when they spoke because I could already guess what they were going to say. I was just waiting for my turn to speak and showcase how I was better. Then, something that Jordan Peterson said in a lecture hit home:
If you’re bored in a conversation, you’re the boring person.
This made me realize that the problem was not other people, it was me. My attitude to conversations was highly limiting. I had this fantastic resource around me, other people. They have an incredible diversity of experience, opinions, and ideas — and I wasn’t exploring it. So, I embarked on a journey to try and become a better lister, and understand the type of questions that can trigger someone to speak more deeply about their experiences and ideas. Most of the time, when I speak to someone, I come away a little more enlightened.
Ok, so now we have a method to capture ideas and ways to generate lots of ideas. Next up, we have to pick an idea and start researching!
For a long time, the word research had negative connotations for me. It reminded me of rather tedious high-school assignments, of reviewing bland thick textbooks that had lots of data but failed to tell an overarching narrative.
Now, I realize that research can be fascinating. It does not have to be confined to “research” time; life can be research. In the same ways that you can generate ideas to learn and write about at any time, you can also be researching at any time.
For instance, perhaps you have a new-found interest in a topic, let’s say honesty, and if a person should always be honest, or there are appropriate times to tell a lie. You don’t have to go and read a considerable philosophy book to research this topic. Speak to your friends and acquaintances. Steer the conversation towards these topics, ask deep questions, and listen closely to what they have to say. You’ll gain a massive amount of insight into the human condition in just a handful of conversations. You’ll get differing viewpoints, and then you can ask yourself why certain people think of a topic one way and other people in a completely different way. What are the patterns?
That said, I think reading does play a large part in the research phase, but the important thing is to pick the right books and to not be afraid to abandon a book if you’re not enjoying it. After all, if you’re not enjoying a book, is can only be down to three fundamental reasons. Either the book is far too difficult for your level of knowledge. Thus you get lost or are frustrated. Or, it is too simple, and you’re basically reading about things that you already know about. The final option is that the book is poorly written and a frustrating read due to stylistic reasons or because it is itself poorly researched. So I stress this point, feel free to abandon a book if you’re not enjoying it — there are plenty more out there on the same topic.
Regarding finding good books to read, I generally find that the books referenced by a book that I am currently enjoying reading are a great starting point. There is a conceptual map, similar to the world wide web and how it links webpages together with hyperlinks, that connects books together. The best authors will tend to reach each other’s works and then build on top of them. You can take advantage of this as well.
The other fantastic yet double-edged resource is YouTube. I say double-edged because it is effortless to get distracted on YouTube, but there is also an incredible amount of learning material. Think of any topic — and you’ll find hundreds or even thousands of videos discussing it in depth. This knowledge level has never been available before — and it is all freely available! I highly recommend installing the UnHook Chrome extension to create a distraction-free version of YouTube. I’ve previously discussed this here.
So, the overall message here is that research does not just have to be formal research; your entire life can be seen as research on understanding how the world works.
I don’t believe that during the research phase, you necessarily need to be taking notes. Having conversations, reading the correct articles and books, and watching the proper explanations can be enough. You will get to a point where you will have a lot of information swirling in your head, but it is not exceptionally organized. While this can be confusing, it is perfectly natural.
In fact, I often get slightly demoralized at this stage because it dawns on me just how complex a specific topic is. Once you know a little bit about something, you become self-aware enough to know just how much you don’t know!
And this is where the brainstorming phase comes in. Take a piece of paper, and start mind mapping and categorising the various points and ideas. Just this act alone will start to create new connections, and you can start to build an abstraction model of the critical things to consider. Try to understand the core themes and categories, group related ideas together, and discover patterns across the data and concepts. Your mind will then start to make interesting new links and discoveries, even to seemingly unrelated subjects.
The tricky thing is to know when to stop brainstorming. The issue is that brainstorming is never something that you can finish. There are always more links, ideas, and depth that can be added. But, at some point, you need to know when things are getting overwhelming and when you’re not getting a return on investment for your time. If you’re writing a book, you can spend weeks brainstorming. If you’re writing an essay, an hour or two should be more than enough.
So, now you’re at a stage where you’ve grasped the topic at hand, you’ve understood the patterns, and now it is time to plan the structure of your essay.
I have not always employed outlining in my essays, but I have found that the quality and structure of my ideas are significantly better when I do outline vs when I don’t.
Why is this?
Well, it is because it brings focus. When you’re outlining, you only have to focus on the structure of your essay, not the precise contents. This means you are just answering the questions of what you will be saying, why you are saying it, and in which order. You don’t have to worry about the precise structure of sentences and paragraphs and the exact words you want to use.
I am generally quite surprised that when I start to outline, a whole bunch of new ideas bubble up in my mind. I think that outlining is actually not a distinct process from brainstorming but is almost part of that process itself. As the structure becomes set, links and additional ideas often become rather self-evident.
Regarding practical considerations on how to create an outline, this does not have to be anything fancy. I used to use Google Docs, and I know I use a small Mac app called Bike that does pretty much the same thing. You can see an example of the outline for this very essay below:
Eventually, you have to start writing. I have noticed that many people tend to over-plan and over-strategize when it comes to project management, and I believe this may also be true with regard to writing. There are endless brainstorming sessions, and people focus on getting a perfect outline with all the points they want to cover. At some point, one has to realize that there are diminishing returns to any further Metawork (work about work), and it is time to jump in and do the actual work.
I recommend not writing in Google Docs or Word because it is somewhat of a distracting environment to write in. You have a lot of buttons and formatting options. Tools such as Paper, IAWriter, Ulysess and WriteRoom are far better-dedicated writing tools. You can make them full screen and turn on typewriter mode, and you’ll have a beautiful and clean environment that lets you focus only on the paragraphs, sentences, and words you are writing.
Regarding the approach of writing the first draft, you have two main approaches.
The first is to write the entire thing in one go. If you do not plan that your essay is going to be too long, perhaps less than 2,000 words, then this is a viable strategy because you may be able to get a first draft out in less than an hour. This is also a good approach if you’re writing on a narrow and very focused topic and you are not going to have various sections to your essay, but it is just going to be one main section.
The second approach is best for more extended essays: you tackle one main section of your outline per writing session. So, for instance, you may sit down and spend 20-30 minutes on your introduction, and then another day, you’ll come back and write the first supporting point of your main section, and so on. If you do this, I do recommend that you work from the top down, as this will provide coherence to your essay vs jumping from section to section. You can always go back later and tidy things up during the editing process.
The key idea when writing is to have one main idea per paragraph. There is no exact length that each paragraph should have, but anywhere in the region of 2-6 sentences and 100-200 words is considered normal in length. That said, don’t write too many sentences; try to keep them relatively short where possible. You may want to read my essay on simplicity in writing for more information.
Your paragraphs should be able to stand alone with their logic. Have a central point, and then provide support ideas and further information below. This ensures that your writing is easy to read and that your ideas flow well together. If your idea is too large to fit into one paragraph, then split it up into its constituent parts and then treat each one as a paragraph.
But, these are not hard and fast rules.
They can be broken.
This is very useful when you want to highlight something on its own line or for other stylistic reasons.
Like I’m doing now 😉
Another critical point is that you do not want to be overly focussed on quality during your first draft. Hemingway famously said that “the first draft of anything is shit”, and he was probably right. Beethoven did hundreds of sketches for his Piano Sonatas and Symphonies, but we only hear the final result. Take the same approach with your writing. The first draft is just that, a draft. You can then use the editing process to refine your ideas, choose your word more carefully, and ensure clarity in your messages.
Once you have finished your first draft, it is time to go back and read through your entire essay. Try and adopt the mindset that you are reading this essay for the first time and that you are not a subject matter expert. What is clear? What is confusing? Does the overall structure make sense? Is there an overarching line of thought that links the first sentence to the last?
I have two tools that I would highly recommend to improve your writing.
The first is Grammarly. This will check all your work for mis-spellings and grammatical errors at a basic level, but it can also help you improve your style. I have the paid version, and it is not something that I would imagine ever giving up both professionally and personally.
The second tool is called Hemingway writer. It is a free tool available online, with an optional paid version if you want to use it on your desktop offline. It scans your writing and highlights where sentences and paragraphs are too long and confusing. It is a great way to bring simplicity to the way you write. This is not a must-have like Grammarly but a highly recommended tool.
The main work here is to make your essay ready for the world. If you’re publishing it online, this means transferring the content across to your content management system and considering things such as linking to other valuable and related resources on the web. You can also consider cross-linking to your other writing. This is especially useful if you write consistently on a critical topic, unlike what I do, where I write about everything and anything. Yet, I still find some interesting links between essays at times.
When I used to have more time, I used to do some simple custom graphics for my essay to accompany a post and illustrate some key points, but this is something that I rarely do nowadays. I prefer the words themselves to explain the concept, but I do admit that for a lot of topics, graphics can significantly enhance the understanding of the reader.
A key question to ask yourself before you hit the publish button is this: are you proud of what you are about to put out into the world?
I went from writing anonymously to writing under my name for this very reason. I wanted to develop tight ownership and responsibility for the quality of my writing, and there was no better pressure than writing under my name and sharing my writing with people I know.
As a final point, remember to keep it fun. Writing shouldn’t be a chore; it should something interesting. If writing is a deeper version of thinking, breaking down ideas and making them accessible should be one of the most enjoyable activities possible.