This is page one of a guide to Writing Well. This page covers:
People read nonfiction to learn and to feel. My framework for ensuring a blog post accomplishes both is to start with a first draft that focuses on "novel" ideas.
A novel idea is one that's not just new to the reader, but also significant and not easily intuited. Think of it as new and worthwhile. I've identified five categories:
Novelty is what gives readers dopamine hits. You find novel ideas by pursuing your curiosity and noting what interests and surprises you along the way. If it intrigues you, it'll likely intrigue your readers too.
In drafts two and beyond, I then rewrite these novel ideas to make them resonate. Resonance is when ideas take root in readers' minds. It's the art of capturing their imaginations and relating to their life experiences so that they feel.
Ideas resonate when they're wrapped in:
In other words:
Writing Quality = Novelty x Resonance
That's my writing framework.
And it starts with choosing your topic.
We write to clear our minds, reflect on our experiences, force ourselves to dive deeper, satisfy our curiosities, teach others, build reputation, and hone our craft.
But the best topic to write about is always 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.
Sometimes, this means the ideal place to start is thinking through what bothers you most. Write a post to work through that—because the best writing is often therapy that you publish for the world to learn from.
Here's what that looks like in practice. Step one is choosing an objective for your post, such as:
Step two is pairing that objective with what motivates you:
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 full rewrite with your clear objective as your guiding light.
Once you've chosen what to write about, the next step is uncovering what to say.
It's not that I'm so smart. It's just that I stay with problems longer.
My process begins with writing an intro because intros help me find novel ideas.
I define an intro as the minimal information necessary to:
It doesn’t matter how you hook readers, 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.
And, most intriguingly, the flipside of a hook is a novel idea you can write about. Let me show you what I mean.
A hook is a half-told story. You raise a question then tease only part of the answer:
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 that will get people to keep reading. Later, our hunt for answers will become our pursuit of novelty.
Let's look at three types of 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 took them off and looked for a fresh pair—before realizing that I hadn't actually brought one.
The pair I just removed took off with the wind and over the mountainside.
I was now standing—bare—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.
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.
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 downfall.
There's a reliable technique for getting yourself to sit down and write—to completely break through procrastination every single time.
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:
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 they most want answered on your topic. Find the answers then turn those into hooks.
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.
While a hook pulls readers in, skepticism is what pushes them away.
Skepticism often outweighs the strength of your hooks, causing readers to abandon your writing. But, you can do something about this.
In your intro, consider proactively countering any major skepticisms that exist. There are five types of skepticism to counter:
If you successfully hook readers while neutralizing their skepticism, you generate goodwill: now they're invested in reading the rest of your post.
Below is the introduction to my Build Muscle handbook. I've indicated the passages used to address skepticism.
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.
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.