The goal of your first draft isn’t to say things well. Save that for rewriting.
Your first draft is for generating ideas:
This works best when you’re exploring ideas that most interest you. The more self-indulgent you are, the better your article. More on this shortly.
When you write a first draft, you write it for yourself. When you rewrite it, you write it for everyone else.
Start by writing down half-formed thoughts.
Brainstorm without structure. Uncork your mind to see what floods out.
Ideas will come from a few places:
It’s normal if not many ideas come to mind immediately. You’ll often discover your best ideas while writing — not before. You write in order to think.
You'll discover even more ideas by resting and reflecting on what you’ve written. The act of writing compels your brain to draw connections between ideas. It can’t help itself.
People think you need to be inspired to write. No, you write in order to get inspired.
While brainstorming, focus on ideas that are interesting or surprising.
To generate interesting ideas, continuously make your next point whatever interests you most. Skip everything that bores you.
If something bores you, it probably bores your readers too. And if something entertains you, it probably entertains them also.
You are your reader's proxy.
That’s the irony of self-indulgent writing: writing for yourself is the quickest path to writing something others love.
When ideas stop flowing, ask yourself:
Repeatedly ask these two questions and keep moving in whichever direction interests you most.
I just write what I want. I write what amuses me. It’s totally for myself. I never in my wildest dreams expected this popularity.
In addition to interesting talking points, you're also looking for surprising ones.
Surprise is anything that contradicts what readers know or expect you to say. It makes them think, “Wow. That’s different.”
Generate surprising talking points using Paul Graham’s Method: First, learn all the basics on a topic. Then, if you can find new information that surprises even your knowledgeable self, it’ll surprise laypeople too.
Again, you are your audience's proxy. There's no need to guess what will surprise them. Hunt for something that surprises you, and you'll surprises them too.
Something wonderful happens when you focus on what interests and surprises you: your voice emerges.
Readers begin to notice:
Readers love this. It makes your writing feel personal.
Unless you’re currently writing a first draft, skip to the next page:
Revisit the advice below when you're writing a first draft. Otherwise, it won't stick and you'll get bored reading it. And I don't want you to stop reading before getting to the next page, which is best in the guide.
By this point, you’ve generated intriguing talking points to support your argument and explore its significance.
But your points are buried in a messy brainstorm.
Now, extract the points that most intrigue you. Then, order them into an outline.
Here’s an example outline for the objective of Challenging the status quo:
Supporting points set the stage for your argument. Resulting points explore what happens when your argument is true.
Supporting points typically come first and resulting points typically come last. But, there is no correct outline. Hundreds of paths lead to your objective. Say as little or as much as you want.
Take a moment to examine your outline. What’s still needed to convincingly and logically tie your points together?
In the outline above, I found two gaps worth plugging:
If you procrastinate occasionally, that’s normal. Forgive yourself.
If you procrastinate endlessly, that’s a problem. Read on.
Procrastination consists of two universal reflexes:
You can do something about both.
Always make the next step as small as needed to not appear tedious.
That's the benefit of writing your intro first: it's a small, approachable step. Next, your only goal is to get feedback and iterate on it.
Use a website blocker and leave your phone in another room.
No one who’s grown up with the Internet has the strength to ignore it for more than one hour if they're already at their computer.
I use the Chrome extension Block Site for its Work Mode: I blacklist time-wasting sites and it blocks them in 25 minute increments.
I also listen to atmospheric music to reduce my susceptibility to distractions. A steady beat without vocals helps put writers into a trance. Here’s my writing playlist you can follow. I'm listening to it as I'm writing this!
Procrastination over the span of months is a sign you chose a topic you’re not as passionate about as you thought.
It's time for a new topic. A new direction.
Revisit the topic objectives and cross-check them with what motivates you today.