What to Write

This is page one of a guide to Writing Well.

A framework for writing

People read for novelty and story. The risk that readers face when reading your work is not learning anything useful or feeling anything profound.

That's why I use my first draft solely to find novel ideas. Novel ideas are those that are significant and not easily intuited. They're bucketed into several categories:

Then I use my second draft to make those novel ideas resonate—via:

In other words:

Writing Quality = Novelty x Resonance

That's our writing framework.

Resonance is how deeply your ideas take root in readers' minds. It's the art of capturing their imaginations and relating to their life experiences.

Start with your intro

One of my favorite writing tricks is to only write my introduction then to hand it to friends and ask:

"After reading this, what are the most interesting ideas I could possibly cover in the rest of the post?"

They can give you novel ideas that are better than your original intentions. This is how you de-risk your article from lacking novelty or utility.

Amazon has a similar strategy for deciding which products to launch. They start by drafting a fake PR announcement—as if the product were about to launch. They share the announcement only with employees. If their employees aren't interested in buying the product, Amazon goes back to the drawing board. They've saved years of misguided work.

That's our theme for this page: finding the best idea to write about. We'll cover:

1. Choose your topic

The best topic to write about is the one you can’t not write about. It’s the idea bouncing around your head that compels you to get to the bottom of it.

Here's a framework for finding your "must write" ideas.

Step one is choosing an objective for your article, such as:

  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. Use them to predict the future.
  4. Contribute original insights through research and experimentation.
  5. Distill an overwhelming topic into something approachable. (This guide.)
  6. Share a solution to a tough problem.
  7. Tell a suspenseful and emotional story that imparts a lesson.

Step two is pairing that objective with what motivates you:

  1. Does writing this article get something off your chest?
  2. Does it help reason through a nagging, unsolved problem you have?
  3. Does it persuade others to do something you believe is important?
  4. Do you obsess over the topic and want others to geek out over it too?

Your objective clarifies what you're trying to accomplish, and your motivation ensures you actually see it through.

That’s all that's needed to write with conviction: pair an objective with a motivation. When writers lack one of these, they tend to not finish their articles.

If the right objective and motivation combo isn't coming right away, that's okay. Start writing like you would in a diary to uncover what's in the back of your head. As you write, a clear objective will eventually emerge. At that time, do a ground zero rewrite with your focused objective as the central thrust.

Once you've chosen what to write about, the next step is uncovering what to say.

Which idea, of all those swimming inside your brain, are you compelled to pursue the way Ahab was driven to hunt Moby Dick?
—Steven Pressfield

2. Find your hooks

In school, you were taught introductions do two things:

Ignore that advice.

Your only objective is to hook readers into reading the rest of the article.

It doesn’t matter how you hook them, so long as you eventually fulfill the hook.

A hook is not a gimmick. It’s a fundamental psychological principle: A great intro—like an electrifying opening to a film—buys goodwill with readers. Buy enough goodwill and readers look past the weaker parts of your post—because they're chasing the high from your great opening. A hooky opening is an insurance policy.

What is a hook?

A hook is any half-told story. You raise a question and tease part of the answer:

Hooks tease your best talking points and relate them to readers' lives. They switch on the storytelling machinery in readers' heads.

Hooks serve two purposes: 

We don't need the answers to our hooks—yet. At this point, we're just trying to find the most interesting questions we can possibly pose.

Let's look at a few hooks.

1. Narrative hooks

With a narrative hook, you share the beginning of a profound change in circumstances, but you withhold the conclusion.

Provide just enough details for readers to feel emotionally invested.

My clothes turned to ice. I swapped them for a fresh pair—then realized I hadn't actually brought another pair.

The clothes I removed suddenly took with the wind off the mountainside.

I was now clothesless standing on an arctic summit. I had no way of avoiding full-body frostbite and death by hypothermia.

It was 3 AM and there wasn't a soul within miles.

That was the day I lost everything. And this is the story of what happened next.

2. Research hooks

With a research hook, you highlight fascinating findings—but only a portion.

I tracked all 90 living individuals who were born without the ability to sense pain.

80 of them are living normal lives by following strict day-to-day regimens.

The remaining 10, however, are defying everything we know about what it means to survive. They've led to the discovery of fascinating new drugs.

3. Argument hooks

With an argument hook, present a bold claim but withhold how you arrived at it.

There's a 90% chance that Cloudtex goes bankrupt within thirty days. This post walks you through the startling corruption that triggered their demise.

Asking a question isn't enough

For a hook to resonate, readers must be given enough context to care about the rest of the story.

Therefore, our intro must accomplish two things:

Hooks become talking points

When you identify a good hook, you've also identified a compelling idea to explore in the rest of your post.

And that's the point: great hooks force you to write something novel.

If you can't find good hooks on your own, ask others what questions on your topic they most want answered. Find the answers then turn those into hooks.

Are you bored right now?

If you don't care to learn about the ideation process, you can skip half this guide and continue at Page III (Rewriting) for rapid fire advice on improving your writing.

Examples of good intros

A good intro tends to follow this structure:

  1. Establish shared context.
  2. Surface a problem and what’s at stake.
  3. Explore the problem's significance.
  4. Tease a clever solution.

Study how the intros below (1) hook you with a half-told story and (2) explain the importance of their idea so that you care to hear the rest of the story.

1. The need for adventure

I’ve been running an experiment for the last few years. Each time I catch up with a friend, I ask them to describe the moment in their life when they felt most alive.

I noticed something interesting about their responses.

Over 90% of them describe a travel experience. Maybe it’s the time they backpacked Europe. Or the time they went bungee jumping in Australia.

Nearly everyone associates their most alive moment with traveling, despite the fact that we spend less than 5% of the year away from home.

But there’s another way to live where travel is not the rare escape. In fact, there’s a simple shift in your habits and beliefs that will have you feeling more alive than ever—without even leaving your city.

—Nick Costelloe

2. Why am I the only one

Flying forty feet in the air while dangling from little strings, dropping off a cliff and realizing you stuck the landing, whooshing down perfect powder lines—these are my bliss. I’m not alone. My community, my network, my people: we chase this flow together.  

There is only one catch: I’m almost always the only woman.

Investor-sponsored networking boondoggles have taken me to Maui to kitesurf, to Whistler for downhill mountain biking, and into the backcountry of British Columbia to chase the snow. Nature's ultimate playground is Silicon Valley’s ultimate networking. I’d feel honored to be invited as the only woman, but I’m the one sponsoring half the events, and I too can’t find more gals who want to join.

The sports I play require skill, training, and time. More fundamentally, these sports require a willingness to get dirty, maybe get a little battered, and take a few risks.

These same risks (and luck!) are required to join the ranks of the world’s richest persons (all men), or master Wall Street (mostly men), or raise a big VC round (97% men). The ability to take risk defines success in today's world.

So why am I always the only woman? Am I different? Or is something more basic—more fundamental—going on that anyone can learn but is by default blind to?

—Susan Coelius Keplinger

How to generate hooks

You create hooks by finding questions you want answers to then posing those questions in your introduction:

  1. Ask yourself, “If someone else wrote my intro, what are the most captivating questions they could pose to make me excited to read this?”
  2. Write those questions down. Even if you lack the answers.
  3. Rank your questions by how much they interest you.
  4. The top questions become your hooks: pose them in your intro, but don't reveal their answers.

You and your audience evolved the same storytelling machinery in your heads, so questions that hook you will hook many of them too. If they don't, target a different audience that likes what you like.

Turn questions into hooks

If you’re writing about, say, bodybuilding, you can turn questions into hooks:

Or, maybe it’s one of life's big questions:

Or, perhaps it’s "boring" research on job statistics:

Anything can be interesting when framed by an intriguing question.

Your questions don’t have to be jaw-droppingly interesting either. They just have to be good enough for your target audience to think, "This post won't be boring."

3. Combatting skepticism+

Think of hooks as a force that pulls readers in.

There’s also a negative force that pushes readers away: their skepticism.

Skepticism often outweighs the strength of your hooks, causing readers to abandon your writing. You can do something about this.

In your intro, consider proactively countering any major skepticisms—if they exist. There are five types of skepticism to counter:

If you successfully hook readers plus neutralize their skepticism, you generate goodwill: now they're invested in reading the rest of your post. That's the insurance policy we talked about.

Example of combatting skepticism

Below is the introduction to my Build Muscle handbook. I've identified the passages used to address skepticism.

Intro

This handbook is the result of a year's research into what the latest science shows is the most efficient way to build muscle.

Address the Untrustworthy objection: reassure readers you have the requisite wisdom to be authoratitive.

It's for both men and women. It's primarily for beginners, but there's plenty of science-backed advice for intermediates too.

I wrote this guide because much of the casual weightlifting advice is unsubstantiated or misleading. I can't blame bloggers for it, because some of the facts in this guide have not been broadly published outside of the scientific literature. 

As a result, this handbook contradicts some popular bodybuilding recommendations, including the myth that women have a harder time gaining beginner muscle, that exercise rest times should be kept to 1–3 minutes, that most body weight exercises are useful, that machine exercises are ineffective, and so on.

Throughout this handbook, I support my claims by citing studies and showing you how to measure your weekly gains so you can confirm you're growing. 

Speaking of growth, if you're starting without muscle, you can grow it fast if you're diligent about eating, exercising, and sleeping. You can gain up to 12-15lbs (6.8kg) of muscle in 3 months when closely following a researched program such as this. (Afterward, muscle gains slow drastically.) 

Address the Superficial objection: reassure readers you’ll share new knowledge they don’t already have.

These results are achievable for every man and woman. Having “bad genetics” is not a thing preventing beginners from gaining muscle. That's another myth.

In addition to thoroughly citing research, this guide is also comprehensive. I dislike tutorials that provide 75% of what you need to know then leave you with questions.

We'll learn what the research says about:

Address the Irrelevant objection: reassure readers you’ll cover topics they care about.

Inspired? Good. If you weren't willing to spend 1–2 years in the gym to get results before now, be excited because you can compress beginner gains into 4 months.

Oh, and I have nothing to sell you. This handbook is free. There's no promotion.

Address the Implausible objection: reassure readers you can deliver on your claims. In this case, I use the truth that I'm not trying to sell them anything.

4. Integrating feedback

It's easy to confirm that your hooks are interesting and relatable: share your intro with your target audience and ask if they want to keep reading.

It turns out that the best time to ask for feedback is after completing your introduction.

If your audience says they aren't interested in reading more, go back to the drawing board or consider whether you're targeting the wrong audience.

Here's how to ask for feedback:

  1. Ask several people to rate your intro from 1 to 10 on how interested they are in reading more. Don't let them choose 7—that's a cop-out. They have to decide between 6 (meh) or 8-10 (good).
  2. Ask, “If you were writing this post, what questions would you most want answered?” (If their questions captivate you, turn them into hooks.)
  3. To avoid fake scores from close friends, tell them: “Don’t be afraid of giving me a low score. If you tell me this isn't good, you spare me from wasting my time on an article no one wants to read."

Consider repeatedly rewriting your intro and asking for feedback until you reach 8/10. Don't aim for higher than an 8—ideas are rarely super interesting to everyone.

The elements of a great intro

A score of 8 validates you’ve met the three ingredients of a great intro:

Next, onto the fun part

By this point, we've written an intro that's validated we're headed in a novel direction. And we've generated goodwill so that readers are enthusiastic.

On the next page, we actually fulfill our hooks: we generate fascinating ideas.

Continue to the next page

Page II — Writing your first draft

A process for ensuring your writing is interesting.

Next page →