The Writing Process

This is page two of a guide to Writing Well. Start at page one.

The goal

An artist with one great work likely doesn’t know what makes it good. If they did, they'd have more great works. So, in their case, I just appreciate the work itself.

But an artist with a streak of masterpieces, such as Christopher Nolan, is indeed a master. In that case, I appreciate the person: I try to reverse engineer their process.

So, what goes into a consistent writing process?

Our writing process

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.
– Stephen King

Start with your objective

Before writing, choose an objective to focus your thinking.

Here again are the objectives from the previous page:

  1. Open people’s eyes by proving the status quo wrong.
  2. Articulate something everyone’s thinking about but no one is saying. Cut through the noise.
  3. Identify key trends on a topic. Then use them to predict the future.
  4. Contribute original insights to a field through your research and experimentation.
  5. Distill an overwhelming topic into something approachable.
  6. Share a solution to a tough problem.
  7. Tell a suspenseful and emotional story that imparts a lesson.

An objective reveals what your article must accomplish to be successful. You can work backwards from it to identify your talking points.

Every argument has two types of talking points:

Writing your first draft is the art of generating these two talking points.

The first draft process

Here’s the process you'll explore:

  1. Choose an objective for your post.
  2. Write a messy braindump of your ideas.
  3. Transfer your best talking points to an outline.
  4. Write your first draft using that outline.

Step 1 — Write down your initial thoughts

Start by writing down half-formed thoughts.

Brainstorm without structure. Uncork your mind to see what floods out.

Your only goal at this stage is to get something slightly interesting onto the page.

It’s more efficient to pump out a bad first draft and improve it than to try starting from perfection. It's far easier to recognize how to make something good when you’re staring at something bad.

When something’s bad, you know to do the opposite.

Your ideas will come from a few places:

See my companion post on mental models. When I said this guide’s secondary goal is to teach you critical thinking, this is partly what I was referring to. Mental models help you reach your objective using logic instead of guesswork.

I diligently jot down ideas and group them into topics whenever they come to me. Later, when I'm struck by a strong urge to reason through an idea, I'll review the topically-related ideas and consider pulling them into my article.

It’s normal if not many ideas come to mind immediately. You’ll discover that the majority of your ideas arrive 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.
– Paul Jarvis

Interesting talking points

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.

The myth is it that expertise is what makes nonfiction writing great. Nope, it's curiosity. And, poetically, curiosity is the shortest path to career expertise.

Sustaining your momentum

When ideas stop flowing, ask yourself:

  1. How can I make my point more convincing?
  2. What are the interesting implications of what I just said?

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.
– J.K. Rowling

Surprising talking points

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.

Your voice

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.

Skip to the next page ✋

Unless you’re currently writing a first draft, skip to the next page:

Rewriting for Quality

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.

Next page →

Step 2 — Outline your talking points

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 a loose outline.

Here’s an example outline for the objective of Challenging the status quo:

  1. State that the reader’s current view of the world is false.
    Supporting point
  2. Establish how so many people being wrong about this hurts our world.
    Supporting point
  3. Establish what’s required to get everyone to change their view.
    Supporting point
  4. Predict how the world would be different once the transition is complete.
    Resulting point
  5. Explore the exciting byproducts of the world being different.
    Resulting point

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.

Fill in the gaps

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:

  1. State that the reader’s current view of the world is false.
    Supporting point
  2. Provide supporting evidence for your claim.
    New supporting point
  3. Establish how so many people being wrong about this hurts our world.
    Supporting point
  4. Establish what’s required to get everyone to change their view.
    Supporting point
  5. Predict what a transitionary period would look like.
    New resulting point
  6. Predict how the world would be different once the transition is complete.
    Resulting point
  7. Explore the exciting byproducts of the world being different.
    Resulting point

More objective outlines+

Articulate something everyone’s thinking about but no one is saying.

Coming soon.

Identify key trends on a topic. Use them to predict the future.

Coming soon.

Contribute original insights to a field through research and experimentation.

Coming soon.

Distill an overwhelmingly complex topic into something digestible.

Coming soon.

Share a clever solution to a tough problem.

Coming soon.

Tell a suspenseful and emotional story that imparts a lesson.

Coming soon.

Consider using mental models

As explained in my companion blog post, mental models help you logically reach your objective instead of winging your way toward it. If you wing it, you lack sturdy reasoning, which makes it harder to convince readers of your conclusion.

Consider how mental models can help us approach these objectives:

  1. Share a clever solution to a tough problem.
    → Use a mental model to identify the best solution.
  2. Distill an overwhelmingly complex topic into something digestible.
    → Create your own model to help others reason through the system.
  3. Prove the status quo wrong.
    → Use a model to study the underlying system and identify the truth.

You can spreadsheet this process

If you like to spreadsheet things, clone this to help structure your brainstorming.

Hover over the cells with black triangles for more context.
Below are sample outlines for each topic objective.

Step 3 — Write a draft using your outline

So far, we've brainstormed ideas, extracted the best, and formed an outline.

Now we write our first draft.

The outline should be specific enough to provide structure, but loose enough to not confine new thinking. Whenever we feel a tug puling us away from the outline, we must indulge curiosity and pursue that adventure. We will not hesitate to change direction on the fly.

Each item in your outline is a section to be written.

Begin writing one at a time. Tease out every thought in your head. Don't waste time being concise. Leave self-editing for the second draft. Your first draft is for generating as many interesting and surprising ideas as possible.

On the next page, you'll rewrite your draft for clarity, succinctness, and intrigue.

Let the draft breathe

If your outline changes while you write, that’s expected. When it's logical to introduce a point you had planned to discuss later, introduce it now. Let the flow of your argument naturally reshape your outline.

You won’t know the right way to structure your writing until you’ve written at least one draft.

Before you rewrite

If you can't summarize your draft in a couple tweets' worth of text, then you don't understand what you're trying to say.

Continually polish a private summary of your draft until you've tied every point together logically. Once you're satisfied, it's time to move onto rewriting.

Where you are

I'll refresh where you are in the first draft writing process:

  1. Choose an objective for your post.
  2. Write a messy braindump of your ideas.
  3. Transfer your best talking points to an outline.
  4. Write your first draft using that outline.
    Don’t feel constrained by your outline.
    Discover new ideas in the process.
    Remove weak ideas.
    Re-organize what’s left over.

Here's how those steps fit into our overall writing process:

  1. Choose a topic
  2. Write your intro, and use it to brainstorm talking points
  3. Get feedback on your intro
  4. Create a starting outline
  5. Explore talking points within your outline
  6. Rewrite for clarity, succinctness, and intrigue ← The next page covers this
  7. Cycle between rewriting, resting, and receiving feedback ← And this
  8. Copy edit for grammar, word choice, and flow
The brain is no place for serious thinking. If you're thinking about something important and complicated, write it down.
– Jack Altman

Writing an outro

Outros are optional. If you include one, it should frame why your article was worth reading. There are two tricks for doing this.

Share a poignant takeaway

Identify your article’s significance by re-reading it and asking, “What was this really about? What was I trying to say?”

Distill the answer into a single, punchy sentence. Make readers think, “I should memorize this witty advice.”

You can also include a relevant quote from someone your readers respect.

Provide next steps

Ask yourself, What about the world can my readers better appreciate thanks to my article?

Share where they go next to continue the journey they started with you.

For a writing guide such as this, I might conclude by sharing the bloggers whose work I enjoy. Then I might urge you to reverse engineer their articles and study what makes them great.

Next, refine your thoughts

Your first draft is a sacred place for generating ideas. Because it's while writing that you often discover your best insights.

You write in order to think.

But now it’s time to rewrite those ideas into something wonderful. Onward.

I hated English in high school. But if they called it Thinking, then I wouldn't be as terrible of a writer as I am today.
– Quoc-Anh Vu

Next page

Rewriting

How do you rewrite your ideas into something wonderful?

Next page →