how i write: a process
Hello and welcome back, friends!
Last last month was the third anniversary of my blog, which is absolutely wild! Three whole years of writing down every silly thought I've ever had and releasing them all into the world. It still amazes me that people actually want to read anything I write, but I'm so grateful for it.
One of the most common things people ask me is how I write blog posts. I've had this conversation with a lot of people, and they all say the same thing: "I'd love to start a blog, but I wouldn't know what to write." And I've never really had a concise answer for them, so I decided to make a serious attempt at writing about writing.
Of course, there's no perfect formula to writing a blog post. But these are the exercises I go through when I write, so I hope this helps some of you.
1. learn as much as possible about as many things as possible
I disagree with the fundamental idea of specialization facilitated by our educational institutions, or that you should focus your attention on one area of expertise only. Our whole education system is designed around this concept—it pressures us to limit ourselves to one specific topic, which in my opinion is one of its greatest flaws. It's much better to be well-rounded, because even in the most straightforward disciplines, nothing is ever completely black and white. Learning simply for the sake of learning is one of the best things you can do—it makes you a more intelligent and more nuanced person.
Biz Stone, the co-founder of Twitter, credits his success to his background in theater and his competence in conceptual blending (one of the most useful mental models in existence), and Elon Musk frequently cites philosophy to inform his innovation practices.
The "jack of all trades" example is actually interesting for another reason: Most people have heard "Jack of all trades, master of none" as a critique at some point in their lives. What they don't know is that there's a second part: "...but better than a master of one."
This applies to a surprising number of idioms. "Curiosity killed the cat...but satisfaction brought it back"; "great minds think alike...but small minds rarely differ." I think my absolute favorite is "blood is thicker than water," because people often use it to justify unhealthy family relationships. But in fact, it's a shortened version of a longer expression: "The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb," which means the exact opposite—that relationships formed out of trust are more important than relationships built on the mere premise of familial ties. #THEMOREYOUKNOW
See what I mean? I could write an entire post just on idioms. This is what happens when you read an excessive amount of random trivia.
You can't just expect to be a good writer by making the decision to sit down and write. You need context. Reading is one of the best ways to achieve this, whether it's newspapers, scientific journals, fashion blogs, Medium pieces, Reddit posts, instruction manuals, cereal boxes. Even if you don't agree with what you're reading—especially if you don't agree with what you're reading—it's good to consider alternative perspectives.
But you also have to do things. Ask questions, indulge your curiosities, explore the world around you, actually talk to people, go out and live your life! Think about how tiny your sphere of knowledge is when you stay inside on your computer all the time. That's actually one of the reasons I took a break from blogging. But I'll get to that.
I'm really not joking when I say that one of the most difficult parts of writing is just starting.
Sometimes you're struck with a fit of inspiration; words come to you easily and sentences flow like liquid mercury flowing down a...sloping thing (brownie points if you can name the movie). Sometimes you have to think a little bit. And sometimes you're stuck on that one sentence that just doesn't sound right for six days.
And that's why it's helpful to have a starting point. It can be anything—an observation, a question, a particular feeling. It doesn't have to be profound or well-articulated. Just something that catches your attention. Write that thing down! In fact, write everything down. I like to keep a little Muji notebook with me, or I'll text myself little notes when I think of them. But the point is to always be thinking, because you never know when it'll turn into something (microjounaling is a great start). I've written blog posts from a single word. And that word may or may not have been "falafel" written on a notepad at 4 am the night prior because I couldn't sleep until I'd written it down, and for some reason thought it vastly important at the time.
Don't be afraid if at first it sounds stupid or shallow or inconsequential. Sometimes you'll watch a movie or something and have a lot of thoughts on it, but you're not quite sure exactly what you want to say yet. Write all of those thoughts down. Every single one. Don't overanalyze. Don't edit. Just write down exactly what you're thinking, unfiltered. If you don't like the way something sounds, write it in all caps as a placeholder and come back to it later.
3. break it down
Now look at what you've written. What message are you trying to get across? Figure out what your big ideas are, and move your content around so it falls under the right ones. Write an outline of your thought process, stream of consciousness-style, and use those main points as temporary section headers. Sometimes when I'm lost or I've gone on too many tangents, I take a step back and ask myself, so what? What am I trying to accomplish with this piece? Is what I'm writing following my direction of thought? Is it building up to the Big Ideas? Doing this helps me refocus and remember exactly what the heck I'm actually writing about.
Once, in a fateful essay review session with one of my TAs, I gave him three more pages than the limit allowed, which was highly unusual as I normally prefer academic writing to be as concise as possible (why say it in five sentences when you can say it in one?) and I rarely meet page limits, but there were so many things I wanted to write about. He put the pages down with an exasperated sigh, pinched the bridge of his nose, and said words I will never forget: "Just...answer the question." Coincidentally, this was the same advice all of my high school teachers gave me for AP tests. Does what you've written strengthen your point, or is it just fluff? It sounds stupid, but when you think about it, what are you actually trying to say? You'd be surprised at how often you lose sight of it.
The important thing is to have a point of view. Find something you feel strongly about, or even medium-ly about, and explain your thoughts. Then do your homework. Find out what other people think about it. If they agree with you, what parts of their argument interest you? If they disagree with you, why? If you can't think of anything interesting to write, the first thing you can do is to just start with developing your personal opinions into an informed perspective, and go from there.
4. connect the dots
The most effective and informative writing is clear, simple, and direct. Minimalism at its best. Essays, editorials, how-to articles, thank-you notes. But blog posts are a different story. I like to write how I talk, which is why I end up using so many parentheses. I'm not always trying to be informative; sometimes I just like writing to write. And that's pretty much all I have to say about that (how many movie references can I fit into one blog post?).
But this is why having an outline is excellent. Now you just have to fill in the gaps between your main points—elaborate, clarify, add transitions, add details, etc. This is where it all comes together. This is where you go from jumbled statements to a cohesive story. In my opinion, this is the most difficult of the process, and probably where I spend the most time.
5. edit that sh*t
One of my favorite Medium writers, John Saito, wrote an excellent piece called "Design words with data" in which he advised, "Write with your heart, edit with your head." This is a great approach, because it helps you write with both authenticity and discipline. When you start, you should write with emotion (remember that point of view I mentioned?). Just get everything on the page, because it's much easier to cut than to add. I read something once that said true value comes not from adding everything you can, but from taking away everything you can.
A great way to edit is to read it out loud. Does it sound natural? Does it flow? Most importantly, does it sound like you? I've found that a lot of really intelligent people are terrible writers, and my theory is this: they have such intricate mental processes that they have difficulty translating their thoughts into human-speak. They end up using a lot of unnatural-sounding words or awkward phrasing. So read it out loud, or have Google Translate read it to you. The ear is much more unforgiving than the eye.
Also, get other people to read your stuff! I usually have a couple of different people read versions of my posts, to ask them for their opinions or to help me out when I'm stuck. They'll catch things that you didn't, or tell you if something is confusing or unclear.
Then, sleep on it and edit again. Writing always looks different in the morning with a fresh eye, I promise.
6. wrap it up
Now it's time to tie everything together and finish with a nice little bow. I talked about the Red Thread rule in my reflections on language post, which asserts that you should be able to follow the theme from start to finish. I like this metaphor because it's very visual; you can picture the silver needle guiding the Red Thread toward the end, in a line of neat stitches. But there should be momentum in writing. It should all be going somewhere. And that's where you kind of put a stamp on it, tie all of your points together, and cut the thread. Someone once told me that you should endeavor to have one quotable line in every single thing you write. That is, something that sticks with your readers, something that echoes in their minds, the one takeaway if they remember nothing else. Who knows? It could be the start of someone else's blog post.
And lastly, give it a title. What do you want readers to know when they're scrolling through their feed and see it? Normally, I favor ones with abstract titles or that have a couple of layers of context, but I've found that these usually devolve into stupid puns (which I love). But whatever feels right to you.
7. set it free
This part still gives me a little anxiety, but if there anything I've learned from blogging for three years, it's that you just have to put it out there. My AP World teacher back in high school refused to give us extra time to check our answers after tests, saying, "What? Would you like some more time to second-guess yourself?" And I still think about that a lot, because I think it's applicable to a lot of things in life (whether or not this helped us in AP World is another story).
8. rinse and repeat
I said that one of the best ways to become a good writer was to read more. But equally important is writing more. Shocking, I know. One of my favorite references is best-selling fantasy author Gail Carson Levine's Writing Magic: Creating Stories That Fly. It's a very short but very useful book for writing fiction (but also, "e-mails, essays, greeting cards, love letters, skywriting"), in which she lists some rules for writing. These are the first four:
1. The best way to write better is to write more.
2. The best way to write better is to write more.
3. The best way to write better is to write more.
4. The best way to write more is to write whenever you have five minutes and wherever you find a chair and a pen and paper or your computer.
So write whenever you can and whatever you can. Sometimes you'll love what you write and sometimes you'll hate it. But just like every other discipline, the way you master it is through good, old-fashioned practice; to learn from your mistakes and soldier on until you get better. And all kinds of clichés.
Writing isn't for everyone, but I still maintain that it should be. It's a great way to clear your head and articulate your thoughts, and it's nice to keep track of your progress over time. So I hope you enjoyed this little peek into both my mind and my process. Good luck!
year two: things i've learned from blogging