The Four Elements to Becoming a Better Writer

There's nothing that writers love more than reading about writing (although, reading about reading comes in at a close second). Everyone's looking for a universal secret that sets apart the best writers or makes the writing process easier. Unfortunately, that secret doesn't exist.

The only consistency I have found across all great writers is that they show up. They define themselves by an insatiable desire to write–it's a core part of their routine and they put in the work every single day. 

While you might not self-identify as a "writer," that's okay. Journaling for reflection, working on your communication skills, and piecing together a 300-page novel are each valid objectives. But if you want to improve your writing–the foundational skill to each of these–you have to consistently show up, work at it, and make it part of your routine.

Over the past year, quite a few people have reached out asking for details on my own writing process. While I consider my writing skills to be a work in progress, this is my attempt to detail what my current system looks like. I don't pretend to have all the answers, but my hope is to provide you with a few tactics that you might leverage on your own.

Takeaways:

  1. Reading, writing and learning fuel each other. Channel your intellectual curiosity and you'll never face a shortage of ideas.

  2. Timing is important but it's not everything. Determine what's sustainable for you and stick with that.

  3. Writing is about momentum and a relaxed state of concentration. Don't interrupt this unnecessarily.
     
  4. Editing demands grit. It's here where the great writers set themselves apart. 


How do you come up with ideas?

Reading, writing, and learning fuel each other. Anytime I've struggled to come up with new ideas, it's almost always because I'm not reading enough or challenging myself to learn anything new. If you channel your intellectual curiosity, this problem takes care of itself. 

Read, listen to podcasts, make sure you're learning something new in every environment you're in. This is how you begin building a network of mental models which allows you to uncover new ideas and connect concepts in interesting ways.

When you commit time to pursue knowledge and exercise your own curiosity–in whatever form that takes–you'll never face a shortage of new material and ideas to choose from. 

I keep a running list of all my ideas, potential topics, and relevant thoughts in Notes (iOS) and Evernote. This way I don't lose track of anything that comes to me throughout the day. 

When do you write?

Timing is important, but it's not everything. It can either be an excuse to avoid putting in the work, or it can be turned to your advantage. While many great writers have tended to write early in the morning, you shouldn't obsess over replicating their routines. Find what works and is sustainable, for you. The most important thing is getting started.

Once you're in the habit of writing, if you want to fine-tune your process, consider your internal clock. Writing is an intensive, creative process that demands significant focus. If at all possible, pick a time of the day when you're at your peak level of concentration. Otherwise, it will be tough to sustain.

I'm a morning person–my most productive hours are between 6:30 and 10:30 AM. Each morning I wake up at 6:00 AM and write for at least a couple hours before heading into work. I guard this time seven days a week, as it's the most important part of the day for me. Weekends are slightly different, with a few hours of writing in the morning, and a second shorter session at a coffee shop in the afternoon. 

This will inevitably change over time as your position in life changes. Five years ago, I was the exact opposite and only wrote at night. Allow yourself to adapt, but make sure you don't lose the habit.

What does your writing process look like?

Sometimes I begin writing an article because I have a general idea of what I want to say. Other times, I'm trying to figure something out for myself. Either way, for me, writing is about momentum.

When I sit down to work through a new idea, I'm not writing for structure or format. I'm not writing to assemble a cohesive argument. And I'm not writing from an outline. I'm writing to get every relevant thought I have on that topic down on paper. For a single article, this can take anywhere from an hour to a few days.

The motivation during this initial phase is to get to a place where I'm not thinking about the act of writing. If I start thinking too much about what I'm doing, I can't achieve a state of relaxed concentration where I am at my most creative and coming up with my best work.

As one achieves focus, the mind quiets. As the mind is kept in the present, it becomes calm. Focus means keeping the mind now and here. Relaxed concentration is the supreme art because no art can be achieved without it.
— W. Timothy Gallwey

Other than my initial approach, I've found a couple of tactics that help facilitate this momentum, flow, relaxed concentration–whatever you want to call it. 

The first is that I'll listen to the same song for hours on end to help induce a deeper state of creativity. I've found that listening to one song on repeat often helps jumpstart things and push me towards the proper state of mind. I'm not the first one to discover this, it seems quite popular among writers and software developers.

The second tactic I use is to help steal some sense of momentum when things have stalled. To overcome inevitable lulls, I'll double back and rewrite the previous sentence or two. It's a mental thing where I feel like I can carry that energy through better if I'm able to create some type of forward motion.

Think of it as riding your bike up a hill. If you mount your bike in the middle of a hill, it can be difficult to make your way to the top based on the immediate level of resistance. Whereas if you start at the bottom (less resistance) and build some momentum going into the climb, you'll be able to better carry that through to the top. It's amazing how often this gets me back on track heading into a new section. 

How do you edit/refine your articles?

This is where the attention to detail comes into play. My rough drafts are very rough drafts. As a result, I spend a significant amount of time editing, rewriting, and refining.

After I have all my thoughts down, I go back through the material to identify common themes and distill the most important ideas. Certain insights may (or may not) appear, and I'll draw from those as I begin to organize the article. 

I'm never finished writing at this point. Often, there's quite a bit of work to be done. After I've arranged the article and developed some sense of structure, I'll go back and immerse myself in certain sections so I'm able to simplify ideas. Again, if I get stuck I'll use the tactics mentioned above to capture the same sense of flow I had during the initial writing process. 

This part of the creative process often feels similar to a puzzle. You're piecing together fragments and determining how they best fit together. And it's in the process of uncovering and assembling those fragments that you find yourself and your best ideas in.

From the outside, writing appears romantic. You just pour your ideas onto a page then call it a day. But those who live it know the grit it entails. The editing process demands the greatest persistence of all. And it's never something you can rush through.

Grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress. The gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon, his or her advantage is stamina. Whereas disappointment or boredom signals to others that it is time to change trajectory and cut losses, the gritty individual stays the course.
— Angela Duckworth

No one is above this final piece of the writing process–not even the greats. Ernest Hemingway rewrote the ending of A Farewell to Arms 47 times. Harper Lee spent two years working with her editor, Tay Hohoff, reworking the entire plot and cast of characters in what would become To Kill A Mockingbird

It's foolish to expect perfection each time you sit down to write. If you get to the point where you've stared at what you've written for too long and begin to hate it, step away for a few days. Time and distance are often the true tests of quality.

But regardless of your objective, the most important part is sitting down to practice the craft.

Writing is not about some stroke of genius and it’s not pretty. It’s about grit, showing up, writing, editing, rewriting, and refining.