Writing for self vs. writing for others

I’ve had the pleasure of speaking to folks interested in writing publicly (on a blog of their own, Medium, Linkedin, etc.) over the years. As you might imagine, I’m a huge proponent of writing regularly in public as the act of doing so can have a transformative effect on our life by pushing us to be more accountable to ourselves, to think more clearly, to reflect more often, and to synthesize what we learn.

While most of the questions at the beginning of these conversations tend to be tactical, the place where I think the rubber hits the road is the conversation around purpose – is the writing intended for oneself or for others?

This is a fundamental choice because the process and rewards vary significantly.

When you write for yourself, the process takes a lot less time. Since you are writing primarily to clarify your thinking, you don’t need to worry about polishing or distributing your content – you just start a blog in a small corner of the web and get on with writing. As part of the thinking process, you focus entirely on optimizing your learning versus trying to figure out what your audience would be interested in.

So, you focus on iterative shipping by writing to think and improving how you think over time. As a result, you get to treat everything you write as a hypothesis and don’t worry about the consequences of being wrong. Finally, sharing what you write on your favorite social network is strictly a choice if you feel the social pressure + time to benefit trade-off is worthwhile. Even if you do decide to share, you don’t need to obsess about notifications and feedback. If it isn’t a “hell yeah,” you can choose to not share it.

Like all decisions, this choice has accompanying consequences. The consequence of writing for yourself is that the rewards are almost entirely intrinsic. You might earn yourself a few subscribers over time – but, your subscriber count, follower count, website visit count, monetization (if any), fame, etc., will likely never be anywhere as good as someone who focuses on writing for others.

Conversely, if you started out writing for others, expect less intrinsic benefit. The correlation between popular content and valuable/learning filled content isn’t high. :)

Like many things in life, I find that this misalignment between expectations of process and outcome drives most folks to quit after writing publicly for a couple of months. While they might have set out to write for themselves, there often are unsaid expectations about building a massive subscriber base – or vice versa. The end result is disappointment.

So, if writing publicly is on your list of new year themes/resolutions, I hope you’ll take time to clarify the purpose and your expectations on process and outcomes. While I can’t speak for writing for others, if these are aligned for the purpose of writing for yourself, I can say with reasonable confidence that the long term benefits of doing so are extraordinary.

ALearningaDay.blog

WordPress introduced “.blog” domains in 2016. I am a late adopter but, in the spirit of better late than never, I’m happy to share that the primary domain of this blog is now www.ALearningaDay.blog.

While I’ll be keeping “ALearningaDay.com” for the foreseeable future, I am also testing out http://www.Rohans.blog as a back up name that may be easier to share with people I meet in person. But, the primary domain will always be “ALearningaDay” and I’m glad to have found the perfect domain name match in “.blog”

We’re currently in the age of podcasting – so much so that the idea of writing a daily blog almost seems a bit quaint. But, the skills we gain from blogging regularly – critical thinking, synthesis, and writing – are evergreen. More importantly, I’ve also come to realize that it is important to find a medium that suits your personality. I’m glad for new mediums like podcasting and vlogging as writing isn’t for everyone.

But, since writing is that medium for me, I am grateful for companies like WordPress and Feedblitz that provide the tools to enable folks like me to focus on showing up and writing. And, of course, to you for your attention and encouragement.

Breaking up with the first draft

I spent some time over the summer re-learning how to write better documents at work. As I look back at the lessons I learnt by observing what I actually changed in how I approached writing, the biggest one was willingly breaking up with the first draft.

Barbara Minto in “The Pyramid Principle” made a strong impression when she said the biggest writing problem most people have is learning to separate the thinking from the writing. She poked fun at how the first draft takes on an “incredible beauty” in the author’s eyes that we don’t like to disturb.

I found her observation to be spot on. We write the first draft for ourselves – to clarify our own thinking. And, if we embrace the process of rewriting, we write subsequent drafts for our intended audience.

There’s a meta learning in this too – we have a tendency to get comfortable after an initial learning period in any new skill. It takes a lot of effort to fight inertia and break out of version 1.0 into the next. And, then again to the next. To get better, we need to embrace “what got you here won’t get you there,” push for feedback and learning, and embrace reinvention.

It is how getting better works – in life as in writing.

Explaining problems better

Here are 5 questions I’ve been thinking about a lot as I seek to explain problems better (no shortage of ongoing issues :-))-

1. What is the problem?

2. Where does it lie?

3. Why does it exist?

4. What could we do about it?

5. What should we do about it?

I’ve been finding it helpful to just write out my answers to these questions and then rearrange them in some version of “Situation-Complication-Solution.”

The principle here is to do a better job separating the thinking process from the writing process. And, the first step to separating the thinking process is ensuring the thinking is done in the first place.

(H/T Barbara Minto’s Pyramid Principle for recommending these questions when approaching problem solving)

Committing to rewriting

When we write, the first draft is simply a crystallization of our thinking. The first draft, in essence, is for us. The challenge with writing well is rewriting that first draft with our audience in mind. Doing so helps us separate the process of thinking from the process of writing.

While this sounds simple in practice, this turns out to be very hard. As Barbara Minto articulately describes – “Once you put ideas in writing, they take on an incredible beauty in the author’s eyes. They seem to glow with a fine patina that you will be quite reluctant to disturb.” 

This is true – at least in my experience.

One approach to solving this problem is to lay out your thought process on a piece of paper before writing. That, however, may not work for everyone. While I’m keen to test it, I’m not optimistic about my attempts to do this well.

The alternative solution I’m more hopeful about is to start writing by making a strong commitment to rewrite as soon as I complete the first draft. Setting this expectation will hopefully make it easier for me to not get lost in the “glow” of my first draft.

Here’s to experimenting with both.

PS: Thankfully, the tools we use today are perfect editing and rewriting. It is a pity if we use our current suite of editing tools like typewriters.

Content, Structure, Structure, Delivery

In the age of 6 page memos and product press releases (thanks Amazon), writing has become a core skill at work. Great professional writing brings together insightful content, a logical structure, and good delivery.

Insightful content is what gets us through the door when we write. This is different from public speaking as you can get away without saying much and still give a good speech. Insert a few jokes, say things your audience want to hear, and you could give a good speech. But, writing well is much harder than speaking – your content shines through (or not).

Assuming you have insightful content, the element that most gets in the way of good writing is a logical structure. While many labor under the assumption that they’d be better if their grammar, vocabulary, and language was better, “delivery” generally helps move very good writing to great writing. Structure is what moves you from passable to very good.

The challenge with structuring documents is that our first draft is often our first attempt at thinking through the idea or question at hand. And, once we put our ideas down, the initial structure becomes art that mustn’t be tampered with – in our minds. That, then, gets to the challenge of good structure – we need to find ways to either separate the thinking process from the writing process by structuring our narratives upfront. Or, we must write our first draft and then do a complete rewrite by putting yourself in the shoes of your audience.

I expect to write more about structure as I spend more time learning how to do so. However, the first step is improvement is awareness. Today’s takeaway is simple – when you write next, obsess about structure.

Separating the writing from the thinking

“For the average business or professional writer, producing more literate memos and reports does not mean writing shorter sentences or choosing better words. Rather, it means formally separating the thinking process from the writing process, so that you can complete your thinking before you begin to write.” | Barbara Minto, The Pyramid Principle

I’ve decided to spend more time learning how to write better and thought “The Pyramid Principle” and “The Elements of Style” would be my go-to textbooks for the structure and style portions of this journey respectively. But, as Barbara Minto thoughtfully points out, we often confuse feedback in our ability to structure our writing as feedback to our style.

Structure is the first summit to conquer. To do so, I’ll need to do a better job separating the thinking process from the writing process.