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?
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.
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:
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.
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.
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 a loose 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:
The brain is no place for serious thinking. If you're thinking about something important and complicated, write it down.
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.