I’m writing a book with Julien Smith. Since starting the project, both Julien and I have realized that it’s a lot harder to write a book than blog posts. It takes a whole different kind of discipline than what I do when I write blogs. It’s a lot harder. Because of this, and because people asked me about my writing habits, I thought I’d share a bit about the process I use. This might be useful. It might be a waste of your time. Depends what I do that synchs with what you do. Writing is as personal and varied as most things worth doing in life. Your mileage will vary.
My Writing DNA
Before we get into this, a bit of DNA. I’ve been writing in some form or another since grade school. I’ve wanted to be a writer my entire life. I learned how to read early, starting with Stuart Little, Charlotte’s Web, and The Trumpet and the Swan, and then rapidly into comic books. I’ve read voraciously since I can really remember. I still get through more than two books a week, even in busy times. I read a sampling of over 700 blogs a day.
I’ve written since forever, and in high school, I started getting awards. I won the National Council of Teacher’s of English award. I won a spot at the Breadloaf Young Writer’s Convention at Middlebury College (where Robert Frost taught). I have written daily for decades at this point.
All this to say it’s not like I just showed up at the playground and was Michael Jordan. I’ve been at this a while. Your mileage will vary. But that’s okay.
The Formula: Read, Write, Write- Part 1: Read
First stop in learning how to write more, write better, write effectively is to read. Read all the time. Read for hours a day if you can. Can’t find the time? Kill your television. Kill some of your video game playing (some). Kill other distractions. Reading is a super power. The more you learn from reading, the more you can improve tons of areas of your life. But what you also do is learn how others write, and you can use that.
Let’s stop there. There’s a difference between just reading and reading to understand how a writer works it. Want to learn magic? Get Made to Stick by the Heaths. Learn HOW they make the book so interesting. Not the ideas, but HOW they write it. Read Freakonomics and learn how storytelling makes a book into a killer bestseller. Read every Seth book (well, except for Meatball).
Want to know three fiction books that broke me down and turned me into everything I could be?
Shipping news taught me brevity. Fight Club taught me how not to pull a punch. Slapboxing taught me how to really pull raw emotions out of the air. Does this help my nonfiction writing? You bet it does.
The Formula: Read, Write, Write- Part 2: Write
People ask me how I write so much. One trick is that I write all day long. Not always with paper. Not always with a computer. But I’m always writing. If you and I are having coffee and my eyes glaze for a second, I’m probably thinking about how something might be worded, or I just got a new topic idea for a blog post. When I’m reading, I’m thinking about writing. When I’m at the gym, I’m thinking about posts. When I’m working on something entirely different, I’m also writing. When I’m writing, I’m writing something else.
Distracting? Sure. Whatever. Get used to distractions. If you don’t, you’re doomed. Truly. There’s nothing BUT a signal-to-noise ratio. And while you try and cut noise to perfect signal, I’m finding the hidden patterns. Learn how to surf noise and you’ll learn how to jump gates.
So, lesson two is to write all day. Only, this writing I’m talking about is the kind that doesn’t actually land anywhere. It just means that your mind is primed for those moments where you get a moment to write.
The Formula: Read, Write, Write- Part 3: Write
I write daily. I write emails. I write thousands of words 140 characters at a time into Twitter. I write proposals. I write blog posts (hey, here’s a blog post!). I write for the book with Julien. (Of these, the last is the hardest, but only because I’m afraid. Books are so… forever.) Writing begets writing.
Once you get into a steady diet, you don’t fall off the wagon for much of anything.
To write, think about structures. If it’s a blog post, is it a long one, a short one, a list, a what? If it’s writing for your big book, how are you going to structure things? Julien and I did our book in six major chapters, with a few minor bookend chapters to set the concepts up. Once we had that structure, we filled in each chapter with our mindset on every main point.
So, we’d name a chapter after a major theme in our book, and then we’d write what we could think about to support it. We’d write it in no particular order, and then try organizing it once the chapter was almost finished. That way, we’d go back in and do transitions to make for better readability.
Structures, even if atypical, are your saving grace in knowing how to write what you want to cover. My blog posts have a structure. I write a paragraph that leads you into the post. I lead with the major stuff. I build on that. I end with a question or three to get you talking. Every time. Go back and read 10 of my posts. Take them apart. You’ll see.
Get in, Get Your Hands Dirty
Writing isn’t an “I should start doing that” kind of endeavor. Just start somewhere. Stop somewhere. Look around. One last book plug: On Writing by Stephen King. The first half is more like an auto-biography. Interesting, but you don’t actually need it. The second time I bought this book, I started at the writing section, ripped the book apart there, and duct taped the cover back on, thus making it the book I wanted. You can do that, too.
King basically teaches you to stop being such a sissy and just start writing. It’s tough love writing lessons, that’s for sure. But you know what? Writers need that more than not. The writers who need gentle writing are doing it for therapy, not business.
Writing has made me a better speaker. Writing is why I’m a businessman. Writing is how I interpret the world. Others make music. Others paint. Others create code. Me? I communicate. It’s what drives everything forward for me.
Does This Help?
How does this influence your thoughts on writing? Did you see anything in there that reminds you of you? What else can I answer for you?
You know the drill.