Building the Writing Habit

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

Key learnings from this guide

All of these takeaways, and more, are recapped in a cheat sheet at the bottom of this page.

Building a writing habit

Personally, I'm ready to write a piece once I've reached two thresholds:

You don't need multiple novel ideas to start. Good ideas emerge in the process of writing:

  1. Choose a topic
  2. Write your intro, and use it to brainstorm talking points
  3. Get feedback on your intro
  4. Explore your talking points in your first draft
  5. Rewrite the body for clarity, succinctness, and intrigue
  6. Cycle between rewriting, resting, and receiving feedback ←  You’re here
  7. Copy edit for grammar, word choice, and flow
  8. There are many good ways to tell a story. Be satisfied when you’ve found one that you yourself would be excited to read.

If being given this process is not enough to get you to write, you might be struggling with one of the following blockers.

Blocker: Fear of public scrutiny

Writers fear having their posts judged.

Curiously, these same writers have no problem Tweeting strong opinions.

The difference? The medium. So the story goes: People read tweets as low-conviction and off-the-cuff whereas blog posts as interpreted as the author's rigorously researched, ironclad gospel.

Therefore, if a blog post contains errors, readers have license to intellectually attack the author — because the author is dangerously peddling nonsense.

At least, that's what half the aspiring writers I polled tell themselves.

Instead of worrying, strategize solutions to manage anxiety:

Blocker: Don't have good ideas

I have two shortcuts for finding topics you're passionate about:

If you find it hard to sit yourself down and open your faucet of ideas, talk to someone: Call a friend, tell them what's on your mind, and jot down the interesting remarks you both make. That'll generate talking points to write from.

If you're passionate about an idea but you lack the interesting insights, you need to consume before you produce: Read blogs and books on your topic, highlight interesting parts, and bank good ideas to pull from when writing your first draft.

Blocker: Concerned no one will read

Nearly every blogger started with an audience of one: themselves. If you feel it's not worth your time to start from the bottom like everyone else, I doubt you're truly passionate about writing. You're after fame. If that's the case, do something attention-grabbing on YouTube. That'll be quicker.

If you are in fact in love with the written word, know this: thanks to the algorithmic and discoverable nature of online distribution, all good work is eventually recognized. And, when it catches, readership growth can be exponential.

The audience building process is simple, but it takes persistence: continually write high quality posts then put a bit of time into spreading the word. Potential distribution channels include newsletters, SEO, reddit, Twitter, and so much more.

Finally, here's where to start: cater to a niche of passionate people. Write thoughtful, quality content that no one else is offering them. They'll be ecstatic that someone is finally speaking to them. They'll engage deeply and shout your work from the rooftops. That'll make audience growth a lot easier.

Once you've saturated your niche, incrementally expand: Let's say you began by writing for American bicycling enthusiasts. Next, you could expand to bikers across the world. Then to hikers and runners, and eventually to all outdoor enthusiasts.

Blocker: Can't overcome procrastination

If you procrastinate occasionally, that’s normal. Forgive yourself.

But, if you procrastinate endlessly, that’s a problem. Read on.

Beating short-term procrastination

Procrastination is the result of two behaviors:

  1. Avoiding work you perceive as tedious, such as outlining a blog post.
  2. Indulging in shorter-term rewards like playing video games.

Avoiding tedium

Chip away at your post by focusing on the parts that are fun and quick to write. Do this a few times until momentum takes over and you find yourself writing the whole article.

That's the benefit of writing your introduction first, as per my method: Your intro is a small, approachable step. The next step is simple too: gather feedback.

Iterate from there.

Avoiding distractions

Have you noticed how much writing we get done on planes? Despite having our knees and shoulders scrunched together?

Why is that?

It's because there's nothing else to do. No one to talk to.

This reveals a contrarian truth about writing: Needing a comfy chair, room, or ambience is a myth. If you're waiting until your room is the perfect temperature to begin writing, you're lying to yourself.

What you do need is to be militant about the removal of distractions:

Sit yourself down and write a weak draft as fast as you can. You'll find yourself procrastinating much less during rewriting, because all the upfront tedium is gone.

The reality of long-term procrastination

Procrastination over the span of months instead of weeks is a sign that you chose a topic you’re not as passionate about as you first thought.

It's time for a new topic. A new direction.

Revisit my topic objectives and cross-check them with what motivates you today.

Should I even be a writer?

You should be a writer if two things are true:

  1. You have strong opinions or nagging questions you want answered.
  2. You can build the discipline to fully reason through your ideas.
My youngest child asked me the other day, ‘Mummy, if you had to choose between us and writing, what would you choose?’ And I said, ‘Well I would choose you but I would be very, very grumpy.’
—J.K. Rowling

Practicing

Don't practice writing by aiming for a weekly output of words or posts. Word count is a dumb goal that measures your output volume instead of your output quality.

Heck, rewriting often reduces your word count.

Instead, focus on improving the clarity of your thinking and your eye for rewriting.

Writing persuasive essays is an efficient way to do this.

Persuasive writing requires logic and clarity. If you’re neither, readers cannot follow your arguments to become convinced of them. And if you fail to be succinct and intriguing, readers quit before digesting your full argument.

But what should you write about? Simply ask yourself, What's bothering you most right now? Write a post where you work through that—and get to a conclusion.

This is how I start every time. Writing is therapy that you publish for the world to learn from.

Note that I share a lot more advice on honing your writing on my Twitter feed.

The steps

  1. Write short posts that persuade your friends to change their minds.
  2. Ask them to score from 1-10 how much your writing sustained their interest.
  3. Rinse and repeat until you're regularly churning out 7.5+ posts.

Make this is a game, not a chore

Great writers make a game out of rewriting:

The more posts you run this process on, the better the writer you become. Personally, I believe I wrote 30 posts before rewriting finally clicked for me.

Dissect good writing

To learn what a job well done looks like, dissect your favorite posts: highlight the best and worst parts of each and identify what makes them so.

Writers who post frequently (say, twice weekly) are rarely worth reading consistently. I read for insights. And no writer can generate profound insights on a fixed schedule.  I aggregate writers who publish sporadically. When they post, they truly have something to say.

From the writer's perspective, frequent writing is good for building a writing habit and improving writing skills. But that's mutually exclusive from my point.

Writers I like

If you love a writer because their work elegantly captures how you feel about the world, you're reading for entertainment.

If instead you love a writer because they challenge your perspective and expand your thinking into new territory, then you're reading for education.

With that in mind, here are writers whose work entertains and educates me:

And don't forget to dissect this guide itself. Leave feedback here.

Example of dissection+

First, read the post below in its entirety. Then, re-read it while referencing my commentary underneath.

My dissection

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Writing examples

Below are blog posts that exemplify the topic objectives:

  1. Articulate something everyone’s thinking about but no one is saying. Cut through the noise. Example post.
  2. Identify key trends on a topic. Use them to predict the future. Example.
  3. Contribute original insights through research and experimentation. Example.
  4. Distill an overwhelming topic into something approachable. (This guide.)
  5. Share a solution to a tough problem. Example.
  6. Tell a suspenseful and emotional story that imparts a lesson. Example.

My all-time favorite introduction

One of my favorite moments of the year involved a beetle doing yoga on a desert dune. In the Namib desert in Africa, the darkling beetle's day begins with an ascent of a massive sand dune. A tiny creature faced with a Himalaya-sized trek. Undeterred, it marches on, its legs as skinny as a runner's, up towards the summit above which a fog from the Atlantic hovers.

When it gets there, the beetle inverts its body into a headstand and stands very still. Then magic occurs. No, wait, it is something more fantastic than magic, it is nature. This is a planet about to do some of its very best work.

Droplets of water form on its shell as the fog condenses on its body. Then slowly, using grooves in the beetle's casing, the water rolls into its thirsty mouth. This is how life is sustained on earth.

— Rohit Brijnath

My all-time favorite essay

Enjoy this read from Arthur Koestler.

The wonder of writing

What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you.
– Carl Sagan

Cheat sheet

Below is the cheat sheet for this entire handbook.

If you enter your email below, the cheat sheet is emailed to you so you can easily reference it in your inbox. You'll also be notified when my next guide is out.

If you liked the quality of this handbook and want to learn how to play piano or how to write fiction, get excited because I'm releasing those handbooks next. You can get them a couple months early via email:

✋🏼 Dope — you're good to go. If you don't see cheat sheets in your inbox, check your spam folder. And come say hello on Twitter.

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
  7. Cycle between rewriting, resting, and receiving feedback
  8. Copy edit for grammar, word choice, and flow

Objectives

Motivations

Introductions

First draft steps

  1. Choose an objective for your post.
  2. Write a messy braindump of your ideas.
  3. Transfer your best talking points to an outline. Use supporting points and resulting points: what is needed to make your argument, and what are the implications of your argument being true?
  4. Write your first draft using that outline.

First draft writing process

Clarity

Succinctness

  1. Rewrite sections from memory. Focus on the key points and let the fluff fall away.
  2. Then remove unnecessary words from each paragraph.
  3. Then rephrase paragraphs to be as succinct as possible.

Intrigue

Feedback

Style

Copyediting

Practice

Julian's blog posts

Personal
What to work on

Choosing your big projects

Mind
Mental models

Navigating life strategically

Business
Fearing competitors

How to handle the stress

Mind
Not being annoyed

The power to stay rational

Personal
My favorite stuff

Shows, films, artists, podcasts

Skills
How to punctuate

Writing clear sentences