I saw Steven Sinofsky use the phrase “Writing is Thinking” recently and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since. In his excellent annotated Twitter thread (what a time to be alive), he talks about the importance of writing as it relates to organizations and processes.
I believe in this concept so completely that I’ll take the importance of writing a step further: I find it valuable to write even if only for my own benefit. Writing is a linear process that forces a tangle of loose connections in your brain through a narrow aperture exposing them to much greater scrutiny. In my experience, discussion expands the space of possibilities while writing reduces it to its most essential components.
Of course even when I write for my own benefit, it is undoubtedly a bonus that at the end I have a document which I can easily share to invite critiques or enlist support. I know of no more scalable way to engage a large audience than the written word. Given that, I thought it might be helpful to share some of the things that have helped me in my journey to writing more.
When I was an undergraduate I took a seminar to help me write my senior thesis. It was led by a computer science professor, and I expected it to be about how to structure the document, how to make a strong argument, or maybe how to program LaTex. Instead, all he ever had us do was write. We had to write a lot. He didn’t care what we wrote as long as we produced pages.
It was only years later that I realized he was following the story of the pottery teacher. As the story goes, a pottery teacher divided her class into two groups. The first group would be judged on the quality of their finest pot. The second group would be judged by the number of pots they produced. At the end of the term both groups were invited to share their finest pots. By far the best pots were produced by the second group of students, whose assignment had been quantity rather than quality.
It is very rare that I publish something even to relatively small groups without having an editor review it. A good editor is anyone who tells you when something sucks. This is surprisingly hard to find so when I find someone who is unfailingly honest with me I value that person immensely. If you plan to write as much as I am suggesting, you’ll want to find several editors to spread out the load.
While great editors help you see your writing from another perspective they are not responsible for the final content. That means don’t take their notes unless you really believe them. Never abdicate responsibility for your content to your editors.
MAKE TIME AND SPACE
One thing that surprises some people is that I rarely take meetings on Wednesday. This is partly to ensure I support a Maker culture by not proliferating meetings every day of the week. A bigger part of this, however, is so that I have time to think, by which I mean write.
Writing, much like programming, illustrating, or any other creative pursuit, is best done without interruptions so you can occupy the entirety of your consciousness with the exploration at hand. My advice is to set aside dedicated time on your calendar, disable notifications, set your phone aside, and commit to your keyboard (or typewriter, or pen & paper, or whatever).
There are many software tools that can help you focus on a single application. In addition, when I’m writing for very large audiences I use an editor called Hemingway (targeting a fifth-grade reading level) as it helps me account for some of my bad habits where I prefer overly ornate sentence structure and word choice which makes my writing much more opaque. (← case in point)
MURDER YOUR DARLINGS
I learned this phrase from my friend Carolyn Abram who was Facebook’s first Content Strategist. One of the most common problems I run into when I write is that I get very attached to some specific structure or turn of phrase and I find myself struggling as I unwittingly contort the rest of the content around it. When I hit a wall in my writing, the very likely cause is that I need to revisit some fundamental part of the document. More precisely, I need to revisit some fundamental part of my thinking.
All of the above is half the equation, the other half is actually putting your writing into the world and seeing the response. You don’t have to go find the biggest group in the world; just writing for your own team or even posting internally on your wall are enough. Writing with the intent to publish will improve your writing as it tricks your brain into applying greater scrutiny to the ideas.
Once you start writing it will be hard to stop. As much as I write, I still have around 150 outlines of ideas I want to write but haven’t found the time to get to “paper.” Well, 149 with this post out.