I am a recovering bullet-writer. Slides comfort me, but a blank screen with a blinking cursor terrifies me.
For the past 3 years, as a consultant, everything I have written has been in bullets. Mostly on Powerpoint slides. And worse, filled with buzzwords and corporate speak. Once in a while I’d remember my college days of writing for fun, open up a blog or a paper from back then, and sigh. Then I’d try to crank out a few sentences that turned out more of a rocky parched stream bed than a river of words. Making sentences that were not “syntheses” felt foreign to me. What have I done to myself? I wondered more than once. And how can I get my non-corporate voice back?
After quitting my consultant gig, I turned to Amazon for help. It surfaced a gem of a short read — Everybody Writes from Ann Handley, the Chief Content Officer of MarketingProfs, the producer of a marketing podcast that I respect. Another exceptional book on the writing process soon found its way to me as well — Writing Down the Bone by Natalie Goldberg, an exceptionally beautiful book flowing with emotional authenticity and with fresh metaphors leaping out all over. Together, the two books almost completely erased the anxiety I had about picking up a pen (I highlighted many places in both books to revisit, to keep the anxiety tame). I went from being stuck on writing a single piece for a month, trying everyday but petrified when I faced the screen, to actually having a little fun.
Here is my own take on the key points from the two books on the steps in writing. Hope it’ll help you on your journey too.
And, because I am a recovering bullet-writer, here is a slide that captures it.
Step 1 – Note down a direction before you write
Before starting to write, think about the key direction of the blog post as well as how to relate to the audience, even if not fleshed out. Writing is often a process for working thoughts out, but it’s helpful to have a general sense of the direction versus sailing into the open water with no direction, which would frequently result in turning around in circle and not moving at all.
So, turning the stethoscope on the resident, what is the point of this post?
- Why am I creating this? It’s to summarize my learnings from the two books that transformed how I feel about writing and shape my current process (so much less painful), so that I can refer back to it and so that other aspiring blog writers can also benefit from its lessons. It’s also a real world trial of the lessons — what better way to test the approaches they suggest than by sharing the approach with others through writing. (The pop intellectual in me also appreciate its meta-ness)
- So what? Why does this matter to the people I’m trying to reach? So that they can get a glimpse into these two great books and be encouraged in their own journey to blogging and improving their writing.
- What is my point of view? What’s my take on this subject? How to write is a rich subject. I want to focus on overcoming the psychological barriers and pains in first approaching or getting back to writing by using a step by step process that is irreverent and fun. For inspiration on what a point of view could be, see Paul Gillin’s list of 15 ways of framing an issue (from “Create Stuff They’ve Just Gotta Read: How to Write for #SocialNetworks”)
- How do I want to relate to the audience? I want to relate to the audience as a fellow explorer on the path of writing, stumbling over awkward sentences and trying to myself up from it. Hope my stumbling will be a source of comfort to them as they too feel frustrated by their sentences ending up in knots, or feel the knot of fear as they stare at a blank screen with a blinking cursor (Blinking cursor on white screen ought to be the opening scene of some horror movie)
Step 2 – Barf up the raw ingredients into That First Ugly Draft
The single most helpful writing book in college was one that likened writing to making soup, and gave me permission for a messy, organic process. A bland or even terrible first spoonful could turn into ambrosia somewhere in the many rounds of adding that and this spice (and even baking soda to correct for dumping too much cider vinegar in a soup). Few mistakes are irreversible in life, and none in writing.
Both Ann and Natalie echo this advice, but in different forms
Ann’s own process is to make a list (aka bullet points without the bullets!) — Single line summary of main point at the top of the page, and some key points below. She then expands the points into sentences, adding flesh to the bones. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s cellulite or muscle you are adding. Just keep on fattening, which often gives a feeling of progress to my mind, enough to put some leashes on the anxiety otherwise running amok on a blank screen.
You can start with index cards, sticky notes, mind maps, flow chart, etc – whatever feels comfortable to put pieces and points on and be able to move them around easily.
After establishing some raw materials, tie them all together. Move sentences and phrases around and add transitions to create a flow. Don’t expect it to be pretty (a big mental hurdle I struggle with). In fact, Ann gives it an endearing name – The Ugly First Draft or TUFD (as disgusting but nutritious to the flower as TURD) – and tells us to barf it up. Ok, maybe not a mental image I want to burn into our mind.
Step 3 – It’s ugly. Compost or Upcycle. And then plastic surgery with chainsaw and scalpel.
You have a TUFD (so are 95% of first drafts). What to do next?
First, walk away for a period of time. Gain some emotional distance from the draft. This is crucial, not only to get a fresh pair of eyes, but also to make the psychological burden of looking at an ugly and potentially cringe-worthy first draft a little easier.
Next, there are two schools of thought on what to do after a first draft – rewrite or upcycling.
Natalie recommends thinking about the writing process as composting and gardening. Each time you write about a topic, you are tilling and fermenting the raw materials in your mind a little more, getting a little deeper than the surface. Writing about the same topic from different angles continues the fermentation and tilling, until one day the compost sublimates and a flower will grow from this pile of compost.
Everybody Writes recommends an upcycling and fix approach on the first draft.
First, read through for the big picture. “Editing by chainsaw”, as Ann calls it, to cut away mercilessly and graft parts, even chopping the house into just a little plank and build a brand new palace with it (“upcycling”). Often times, the first paragraph or more could be chopped off without losing meaning. As Improv taught me, it’s more interesting to start in the middle of the action and skip the introductory preambles.
Second, edit line by line “with surgical tools” to fine tune the flow and language. This post has bone through the upcycling stage, but hasn’t been surgically beautified yet. In one of the future articles, we’ll cover the makeovers (quick and not so quick) that you can do to make your TUFD beautiful. And no pain needed.
Step 3.5 – Keep on writing; it gets better.
This learning from both Everybody Writes and Writing Down the Bones gave me the courage to write this post. They both also emphasized the importance of continuing, day by day, turning writing into a practice. For Natalie, writing has also become her zen meditation practice.
Even if the first piece is still not pretty by the end (as I’m sure I’ll think when re-reading this piece in two years), it’s alright. Iterate over the posts that you will write; do not let the one hopelessly ugly blogpost turn into an insurmountable cliff. Learn from each blog post and apply the lesson to the next. And it’s not a cycle that continues — it’s an upward spiral with time as its vertical dimension. When you are traveling on it at the start, it will feel like a circle. But I have faith that one day, I will look back on this post — as will you on yours — and realize just how far we have climbed.
May your journey be a long one, full of adventure, full of discovery. (From Ithaca, one of my favorite poems by C.P. Cavafy.)
What are writing tips that you have found transformative in your life? Anyone wants to be travel buddies on this pilgrimage and pair up for peer editing? Drop me a line!