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.

High standards and writing great memos

Jeff Bezos, in his latest letter to shareholders, had a great note on what he’s learnt about great memos.

Often, when a memo isn’t great, it’s not the writer’s inability to recognize the high standard, but instead a wrong expectation on scope: they mistakenly believe a  high-standards, six-page memo can be written in one or two days or even a few hours, when really it might take a week or more! They’re trying to perfect a handstand in just two weeks, and we’re not coaching them right. The great memos are written and re-written, shared with colleagues who are asked to improve the work, set aside for a couple of days, and then edited again with a fresh mind. They simply can’t be done in a day or two. The key point here is that you can improve results through the simple act of teaching scope – that a great memo probably should take a week or more.

There are two things I took away from this excerpt and the letter. First, it is fascinating to see the parallels between delivering high standards and approaching learning like a chef. To develop high standards, we must first learn to break things down to first principles, understand what “good” is and develop realistic expectations for what it takes to achieve them. For example, once we approach build new habits from a first principles perspective, we realize that the expectation that we can build a new habit that matters in 21 days automatically sets us up for failure.

The second lesson is about the difficulty of writing well. As Bezos notes, writing well is a product of revisiting and rewriting. In that sense, writing well is a lot like building a new habit – committing to something matters a lot less than constantly re-committing to it.

Un catchy titles

Everyone is fighting for your attention. One way to win this fight in the short term is to make every title a catchy title.

“Here’s what you need to know NOW.”

“Click this to learn the real secret of success.”

“You won’t believe what happened in XYZ yesterday.”

“ABC and DEF have declared war on each other.” (you’ll click to find out they haven’t)

Some of these catchy titles are, in fact, untrue. So, you realize you’ve been played all along. That, in turn, adds some distrust in the system and so on. But, the media companies will say they don’t have a choice. They do – but it isn’t an easy one when your business model is built on people clicking your articles. The catchy title fight is, thus, a street fight fought in mud and slush. Everybody involved gets dirty.

But, you and I don’t need to play that game.

We have the choice to just write about what we want to write about without trying to con folk into clicking. Yes, less people will see our work today. And, yes, we’ll have to do all that work to earn an audience (assuming that’s what we want) over time.

But, the folks who will have visited will have come seeking to understand what we’ve written. And, thus, we’ll have given ourselves a shot at actually reaching and, maybe influencing, the kind of folk we want to reach.

Everybody wins when that happens.

Dealing with writing frustration

When folks learn of a daily learning blog, one of the common questions is something to the tune of – “How do you think of an idea every day? Does it get easier over time?”

On the whole, yes. It certainly feels much easier to write now than 8 years ago. However, every once a while, there are days like today when no idea really seems good enough. I’ve played around with 5 post ideas in the past 15 minutes and nothing really seems to work. It can be downright frustrating.

I have come to find that this sort of frustration is caused by one thing – wanting to write as quickly as possible so I can move onto something else that is on my mind this morning. Calm and mindfulness facilitate good writing. And, in a state of mind like the one I am in right now, the more I try to push a post through, the less my muse cooperates.

The solution at such times isn’t to give up – it very well could be though. I’ve just found that it matters that I just keep writing. Write, then delete, Then, write again. Eventually, there comes an idea worth sharing.

And, when even that doesn’t work, write about the process.

Image Source

On writing every day

The biggest challenge involved with signing up for regular content generation is, well, content generation. Generating content becomes a lot easier if the content is tied with the news in some way. That way, there’s something new and interesting to write about every day.

I would argue that every daily blog is built on the idea of a news feed. Instead of seeing conventional news, we simply see a feed of ideas from the author’s brain. So, it is natural that Fred Wilson’s blog is mostly about technology, venture capital and entrepreneurship. And, it also makes sense that Seth Godin writes about marketing, taking initiative and writing among other such topics. As you might have noticed, what they write about has a lot to do with their chosen craft.

When I started writing here, I just wanted to change the way I thought about failure. I also fervently hoped that, over time, I’d build up my discipline muscles to be able to live up to my commitment to write a learning every day. I didn’t really believe I could, then. As I didn’t have any craft as a 19 year old in university, I was clearly not going to be writing about anything craft related. I wasn’t particularly wise either. So, I didn’t think I had too much insight to offer. But, hey, I figured anybody could look at their day and share a learning. So, this blog began as a theme-less blog. As time passes and I find myself committing to an industry (technology), I do find myself thinking about (often intentionally) technology more. However, a few posts aside, this blog has largely stayed, in my mind at least, theme-less.

Over time, however, I’ve realized that this blog isn’t really theme-less. It does, in fact, have a theme. Just one. It deals with an approach to life that is built on an idea – being a student of life. A few years into writing a learning a day, I realized that the act of looking for a learning every day had completely changed the way I saw the world. Things that were the same didn’t look the same any more. Writing here had changed me. And, I found myself switch from writing about my experiences and learnings all the time to writing about them some of the time. There arose a new genre of posts – posts about “how” to learn. And, since the grand theme was being a student of life, this naturally became about “how” to live. That was the moment it stopped being about me and my experiences and, instead, became about finding “the” answer to some meaty questions – how can you live a good life?, how do you learn?, how do you be happy?, etc. My experiences, thus, became just a means to carry out experiments and test the various theories that I thought made sense. This constant iteration-driven approach was intended at unearthing a set of principles which governed life on this planet. Lofty, I know. But, as with all worthy journeys, this was less about the destination and more about the journey.

All this brings me back to the idea of seeing a feed of ideas from the writer’s brain. As a result, blogging every day becomes all about seeing the world from the writer’s point of view. That is why I picked out topics folks like Fred and Seth write about – if they talk about their craft a lot, it is simply because they think about their craft a lot and see it everywhere.

(Seth, as per usual, has a shorter and better version of the above paragraphs in a post about “learning to see” that I’m unable to find right now. It is an idea I have only begun to appreciate over time.)

All of this, to me, is why writing every day is so powerful. It is just you, unvarnished – just your thoughts and your writing instrument stand between you and your readers. There is no act, no bullshit. You just learn to show up in your own authentic voice every day.

As of today, it’s been about 7 years and 7 months of daily blogging here. And, as I think about what this blog will look like in the next 7 years, I think I would expect to see more posts about my craft as my craft of choice becomes clearer. But, true to its roots, I expect the core of what I write to continue to be about “how” to learn. Teaching myself “how” to learn has underscored one thing – how we approach something is how we approach everything. That is why thinking about how to learn translates so beautifully into thinking about how to live.

I didn’t know any of this when I started on this journey, of course. It is only now that I’m beginning to grasp how this simple act of writing every day has transformed me. It has done what a great education does – not just changed what I see, but also shaped how I see. And, while I am benefiting greatly from a $200K education in the principles of business that is truly changing the way I see the world, I sometimes wonder what the real value of the sort of life education this blog has inspired is. It definitely gets an A+ for impact.

So, it follows that when I am asked the “how do I get started on blogging?” question from an aspiring blogger, I always try to get at the motive. If it is for someone else and isn’t something you’re getting paid to do, my experience dictates that it isn’t going to work in the long run. It is way too much work. The only way this can work is if you do so for yourself and if you focus on sharing what you see. That is why this blog goes against most conventional blogging advice – optimize heavily for SEO, spend at least as much time promoting as you spend on writing, get popular guest bloggers, focus on building an audience, etc.

The only thing I optimize for is showing up every day and sharing what I’m seeing. It is this simplicity that has made it work for me.

And, luckily, thanks to your thirst for learning related content on the Internet, I have gotten to have you join in the journey as readers and, then, hear from and engage with many of you wonderful people. So, for all of you who’ve joined the community over the course of this year, I thought I’d share the backstory of the thought process behind these daily notes.

As this year comes to a close, I’d like to thank you for sharing these notes with your friends and family, writing in every once a while, and, most importantly, for giving me a minute or two of your attention every day. It means more than you know. :-)

writing, write