Some tools and tactics that have helped me write
|Jul 23||Public post|| 11|
This is a Mailbag Monday in spirit. It’s a question I get asked a lot.
Dear Tony: I want to write more, but I often feel like I don’t have anything to say. How do you come up with topics? I don’t understand how writers like you can publish so consistently.
Dear NotHemingway: There’s no right way to write. Many of our greatest writers couldn’t get a word down unless they were roaring drunk (you may want to stay NotHemingway or NotFitzgerald!). That doesn’t work for me. But it might for you so I’d experiment quite a lot to see what works.
I’ll offer a sort of clinical take on the craft. To publish consistently, you only need to do a few things:
Start (come up with a topic)
Finish (make a point)
Publish (get it out there)
Writing is not an art or a science but a craft. There are wonderful books on the topic like Julia Cameron’s The Right To Write and Stephen King’s On Writing that I recommend. But when it comes to “coming up with topics” and "publishing consistently*, I think it’s as simple as what I’ve laid out above. Find something to write about, finish the damn thing, and send it.
Now this doesn’t guarantee you’ll enjoy writing or that others will care about your writing but getting from start to publish is the correct thing to focus on. It’s better to publish ten terrible things than to not publish one incredible thing. If you learn to create, then that brilliant thing will eventually find its way out.
With that in mind, here are some tools and tactics I’ve found helpful at each stage.
The goal here is to get words on the page. For me, this is mostly about finding a prompt that I’m interested in exploring. It’s very difficult to write about something I’m not naturally curious about. I did enough of that in college and consulting and I’m not interested in ever doing it again.
The dream is to wake up, sit down with a blank page and a cup of coffee, and start writing and just see what comes out. I’d say half of my posts came about this way.
I try to consume zero information before starting. I’m channeling my subconscious here. To romanticize a bit, I want to codify the information I processed in my sleep.
Sometimes I need a little help with a prompt. Here, you’ll want to assemble a set of tools you can use to generate prompts. Musician Brian Eno created a card-based creativity tool called “Oblique Strategies” which I like as an example as a set of tools. On each card, there’s a saying like “use an old idea.” You flip through the cards until creativity is sparked I guess… I don’t know I haven’t used it.
My version of this is reading. I meticulously curate about two dozen newsletters that I read every word of. I’ll just start reading until something strikes me. Usually this is something I agree with very much (and want to add to or remix) or something I disagree with very much (and want to contest or reframe).
And Mailbag Monday is another example of a creative hack. If I don’t have something to offer a blank page, and nothing from my reading habit inspires me, I can now reach into the mailbag.
 Finish is mostly about lowering your standards. But it’s also a little bit about knowing how to make a point.
Lowering your standards is obvious. Many writers I know complain about having hundreds of unfinished drafts. This isn’t necessarily unhealthy! But by and large most people are overly conservative with the “finishedness” or “quality” bar. Many drafts are ready or very close to ready for publishing. They’re not doing anybody any good sitting there gathering dust.
Perhaps more important is knowing how to make a point. A post often doesn’t feel finished because at its current stage it’s more a collection of information organized around a topic and less a clearly outlined argument. In my experience, the path from a bunch of info to an interesting point is a lot of reduction. Read it over, flag the single most interesting thing, and then reduce until you’re just making that one small but focused point. Sometimes it’s faster to rewrite the whole thing around that argument. I do that often.
 Publish is easy once you internalize two things: (a) nobody cares about you and (b) the potential benefit of publishing vastly outweighs the potential risk.
Writers get nervous about publishing because they’re self-conscious. What if people hate it? I’m afraid of embarrassment. It’s possible. But in my 100+ posts over the last year, nobody has hated anything. Unless you’re writing something incredibly offensive, people that don’t appreciate it will just ignore it. Low stakes.
Even if you’re wrong and somebody points that out, you benefit. You’ve learned something. Now you can go back and improve your piece and have some useful knowledge for future ones.
More importantly though, your writing might really help somebody. Publishing your thoughts can really benefit you the writer, but it’s also an act of generosity. You’re spending time and energy to give away your unique knowledge. It’s a beautiful, positive-sum thing and I wish more people would do it.
Now do all this on a time consistent basis (e.g. every morning) and you’re off.
Good luck! I hope you grow to love it. And I’m always happy to help up-and-coming writers. Tweet at me, comment on this post, or email me and I’ll do my best to respond. Writers, what did I miss? Leave a comment below.