This article was originally published in The Startup.
I write a lot. This blog is the tip of the iceberg. But seeing as writing is both my job and my hobby, I have (in spite of myself) built up some sort of routine. It helps me get into the mindset where I can shut off my internal dialogue and just write.
The trick is, I’ve found, to enjoy the whole process. To be able to write about anything and enjoy it. To love every step. To relish every day spent reading papers or court documents or reports or textbooks. To appreciate every round of edits, every millionth revision.
When you love a person, you love their flaws as much as their good points. The same goes for any creative process.
And you have to divorce that enjoyment from any external validation. If you NEED the warm glow of positive feedback or even credit, it’s impossible to be consistent.
If you love the process, you react the same way to failure as you do to success.
It’s not the end of the world if your work falls flat, gets mangled by an editor, or never used. The process is the reward. To quote Robert Pirsig in Zen & The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, it’s the sides of the mountain which sustain growth, not the top.
Having said that, this post is an explanation of my routine.
This is how I plan, get into the right mindset, develop ideas, and stay focused. This is what I do, all day every day. This is what I love. This is what I live for.
I do two distinct types of writing: my day job and my personal writing. The latter includes my blog, contributions to publications, and personal projects. Seeing as they’re very different, I’ll explain them separately.
When I write for work, it’s straightforward.
The whole process is semi-ritualistic and designed to put me into a kind of trance where I can just write.
Unsurprisingly, it starts with going to wherever I’m working that day (office, coworking space, coffee shop, library etc) and getting coffee. But I’ll work anywhere. Noisy bars, restaurants when I eat out alone, aeroplanes, gardens, museum reading rooms, or the emergency room are all good.
Then I plan.
Although I’ve tried every digital planning tool in existence, nothing beats pen and paper.
I keep it simple. One page (or half) for the day. Main tasks on one side. Notes and unimportant tasks on the other.
Each piece of writing I do gets broken down into the following steps:
- Links, metadata, and formatting
Of course, this varies a little. For editing or copy, I list item names and tick them off as I go. For long-form (i.e. 3000- 12,000 words) or anything with a defined word limit, I break it down into 250-word increments.
I do the writing part in the mornings or evenings. Everything else is for afternoons, late nights, or early hours. So I tend to work on parts of articles in batches. As I often have 50–100 pieces on the go at once, it’s faster to, say, do all the research at once, then all the outlining and so on.
To add a little more details to those steps:
- Research — Collect relevant information in one document.
- Outline — Go through my research, cut it down, then create an outline of the key sections.
- Structure — Working with the outline, get the structure right, then flesh out sections.
- Finish — Finish the writing, incorporate research, and organise the intro and conclusion.
- Edit — Check grammar and facts, move sections around, cut out as much as possible (20–50%.)
- Links, metadata, and formatting — Self-explanatory. Add links to related content on that site, footnote sources, and so on. Prepare the meta description, link, sharing snippets and anything else needed. Then formatting. Keyboard shortcuts save a lot of time.
This is essential. For me, clearing distractions means:
- Blocking all distracting websites with Cold Turkey. Unlike most blockers, Cold Turkey is impossible to circumnavigate. At $25, it’s one of the best purchases I’ve ever made. I also use StayFocusd at times to block everything except my text editor.
- Put music on with background noise cancelling headphones. These are a good pair: cheap (~$10), robust, and block out everything. I play the same few playlists and albums on repeat.
- Restrict my field of vision as much as possible. If I can, I’ll sit in a small space, or facing a wall. Otherwise, I use a hoodie or my hair to limit my peripheral vision.
- Open a notebook page to jot down any distracting thoughts, reminders and things I want to look up later.
As with many things, you can huge returns from a few small, simple changes. Blocking distractions while writing is one of those.
Then I start writing. Simple as that.
It’s my job so there’s nothing particularly special about the mindset.
At my best, I can do 10 hours of actual focus writing a day — that’s 10 hours minus any distractions or other activities. Once you factor in email, making coffee, getting sidetracked etc, that takes at least 14 hours to do. Mostly, it’s a lot less.
I used to do the Pomodoro technique which is helpful in a way unless it snaps your focus when you’re in flow. Now I just write until I’m either forced to stop for some reason, or I start losing steam. As soon as I’m tired, light-headed, or slow down, I take a break. Sure, you can keep going and look busy, but you’ll make mistakes and get less and less done.
The type of work makes a difference too. The more times I’m forced to switch tasks or do something outside my core strengths, the less I get done. Each time I have to completely switch tasks cuts out at least an hour of focus.
Anything will-power sapping cuts out focused time too. Journaling helps with this, as does any sort of mindfulness practice. I don’t meditate often, but I’ve found ways to incorporate mindfulness into my routine.
Having a defined editing process makes it easier to keep moving during those beautiful flow moments. A lot of people edit as they go, but I’ve found that makes me lose my train of thought.
The basic edits that most professionals know to make (or to not use in the first place) include:
- Avoid using too many long sentences. Extremely long sentences (I’m talking, 100+ words which is way too common) are a bad idea unless it’s a stylistic choice.
- Be aware of any words you tend to overuse. Everyone has these. In speech, we repeatedly use certain words which is fine, but it looks terrible written down.
- Avoid ‘weak’ or vague words: very, just, seems, like, think, quite, etc.
- Keep adverbs to a minimum. This isn’t as clear cut as never using them — which is near impossible — but most are unnecessary.
- Use the active tense, not passive. Pls.
- Don’t try to sound smart. This has the opposite effect. It comes across as amateurish and is the biggest mistake I made for a long time. Cut out the technical jargon, obfuscation, and digressions. You want your audience to feel like they are clever, not like you’re clever.
Yes, it’s good to break the rules and all that. Just not so much for work.
When I write for myself it’s completely different. I can’t sit down and work on it all day. I do very little planning.
The process feels a little more magical and superstitious to me. The actual writing part is usually painless. I either get a sudden idea or I look at my existing list, then know what to write.
To paraphrase Kris Gage again, it’s like knowing what you want for dinner. A topic or idea feels right, so I go with it.
I’ve always found the ancient idea of creation as a form of possession by a fickle muse appealing. It takes the pressure off. Can’t write? Blame the muse. Written something good? Thank the muse, don’t get big headed.
Getting the concept right is the challenge. I use something I call the Creative Sandbox method.
This involves creating a space where I can mix, intermingle, and explore ideas.
Creative sandboxing is, for me, a way of summoning the muse. To be clear, no, I don’t believe in literal muses, it’s just a helpful mental model.
My favourite creative sandboxes include:
I clip articles, extracts, quotes, phrases, my notes from books, words, and odd ideas. Then I go through them at random, reading parts, and making notes. If I have a rough concept, I search for that term and read the medley of notes that mention it. The trick with Evernote is to use it as a second brain.
A physical notebook
Sometimes I’ll spend a few hours writing in a notebook, pouring out everything in my head to see what emerges.
Random bits of paper.
Another method I LOVE is going to a bar and not bringing a notebook, just a pen. Then I’ll write on whatever odds and ends of paper I can find — receipts and scraps from the bottom of my bag, post-it notes, napkins, paper tablecloths, menus, whatever.
This is great fun. Try it. You look crazy but it’s a fantastic way to come up with ideas or to make progress with projects that are going slow.
Little scraps of paper are unintimidating. The lack of space forces you to distil the essence of what you’re thinking.
Some others include:
Going to writing classes, rambling conversations, going to museums to sketch, reading particular authors, or focusing on music.) Anything that involves blending concepts together until something new emerges.
Once the concept is in place, I write in a couple of short bursts. Fast. During the editing step, I barely recognise much of it and spend a lot of time moving around paragraphs.
A surefire way to improve the structure of a blog post is to move the first paragraph/section to the end or middle. Introductions are always the hardest part for me.
So I rarely go with the original first paragraph. They tend to be wishy-washy and too self focused. Launching straight into the main point is punchier. I’ve heard some people say they just cut out their first paragraph altogether.
Editing my own work is more intuitive. I’m lazier about it— I care more about how things flow than the technical details.
And then that’s it. Nothing fancy. No hacks or shortcuts. I can barely justify calling it a routine or a process.