What to Write About

This is page one of a guide to Writing Well.

Our goal

This page covers:

What makes nonfiction good

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. There are five novelty 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.

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.

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:

  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 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.
—Albert Einstein

2. Write an intro

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.

What is a hook?

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.

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 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.

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 downfall.
There's a reliable technique for getting yourself to sit down and write—to completely break through procrastination every single time.

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 they most want answered on your topic. Find the answers then turn those into hooks.

Note that there are many ways to write. I'm sharing approaches that I find most reliable. There is no right or wrong way—only what works best for you.

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.

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.

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."

The spine of a good intro

In a nonfiction essay that explores new ideas, an effective intro often follows 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 intro below (1) hooks you with a half-told story and (2) explains the importance of the idea so that you care to hear the rest of the story.

Intro — 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

3. Combat skepticism+

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.

Example of combatting skepticism

Below is the introduction to my Build Muscle handbook. I've indicated 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.

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. Integrate feedback

My favorite writing trick is to only write my introduction then ask friends who represent my audience this question:

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

I pick and choose the responses that resonate with me. This is how I de-risk my post from lacking novelty: Am I headed in a direction that's maximally interesting?

(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.)

In addition to asking friends for ideas, I also ask them to score the intro:

  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 ensures we're headed in an interesting direction. And we've generated goodwill so that readers are eager to continue.

On the next page, we write the rest of our essay: we fulfill our hooks and generate fascinating ideas.

Afterward, in our rewriting phase, we'll come back to tighten up our intro.

A reminder that the last page of this guide has a downloadable cheatsheet that handily recaps everything you're about to learn.

Plagiarism disclaimer

I've noticed bloggers and course creators repurposing my work and passing it off as their own. Please be thoughtful about plagiarism. I keep a third-party timestamp of my handbooks, and I can see the history of changes on your site by using Archive.org. Together, they identify when someone has taken my work.

Continue to the next page

Page II — Writing your first draft

A process for ensuring your writing is interesting.

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