HACK / MAKE

Tips on Writing And How They’re Really Just Tips on Life

I’ve found a few things in what’s nearing a year of doing it regularly that have helped me in writing. Some are things that help me write better and some are things that just help me write, no matter if it’s good material or not. When I thought more about these things, I realized that they were universal, not just a writing technique or tactic, but something that’s applicable to things at a higher level. Here’s a few things I’ve learned:

Write in Markdown. I’m just going to get this out of the way first. The rest of the post will assume you’re smart enough to adopt writing in Markdown. It’s a syntax to ease writing for the web and it makes reading and formatting what you write so much easier. The clean syntax will also help you edit your writing since you’re have a good overview of what the output will be.

Get to the point early. When I find myself rambling and not really getting to a clear point, I finish my sentence, start a new line, hit the # a couple times—that’s Markdown—and create a new header titled “Why”. The why is the meat of the post I want to be writing—the functional component, if you will—which anchors the entire post. Without the why, the how doesn’t matter. When I’ve pegged the why, I can usually go back, edit and write the rest of the post more succinctly. Both are important, but the why informs the how. Get to it early, and your ideas will be clearer and better threaded through your writing.

Use comments to help guide yourself. Maybe an idea comes up but it doesn’t really fit where you are. Jump down a few lines and use an inline HTML comment. It’ll look like this:

<!-- This is an idea I want to come back to. -->

I use a TextExpander snippet so that /// expands to a comment with my cursor right where it needs to be.

A series of comments will help you create a linear outline and make it easier to visualize the progressions of your ideas through the piece. I often use comments to spit out words that I know aren’t any good and just need to get them out to start formulating my thoughts. Comments can be proposed ### headers that you just haven’t found the right words for yet, or maybe what developers call pseudocode: jot notes that capture the basic idea of what you want to accomplish in a chunk of writing.

In code, it can be something like this:

//loop through $tweets and print each tweet

The function to do that can take more than a couple lines of code but plain-English pseudocode can help you quickly capture your intentions so you aren’t chasing the wrong problem or forget what you’re trying to solve.

If you are using HTML comments, you don’t even need to remove them before you post it. They won’t publish to the visible body of your post, but if someone looks at the source they’ll be able to see it. View Source on this post and you’ll find a comment I used to direct myself while writing.

Write even when you don’t have ideas. Most of the better stuff I’ve written or posts that have gained the most momentum haven’t been ideas that began as grande or novel. A lot of them were link posts I thought I had about a sentence worth of input on. But when you dig and often when you just let your mind be quiet and allow words to percolate, something inside of you makes words. It sounds weird, but if you’ve experienced it, you know exactly why I mean. The more you just start writing even when you don’t have ideas, the more the ideas will appear as magic from your creative soul. Mumbo Jumbo or not, I dare you to try it. Find a blog post to link to, write a couple sentences, but don’t stop there. Keep writing and follow this next tip. You’ll be surprised what you’ve got in you if you just let it come out.

Write past the first logical close. I’ve been trying to push myself to go deeper in the things I write. If I have a clear idea, it often can be straightforward to lay that idea out and wrap it up. But I try to not just end there. This post, for example, could easily have been a list of a few tips that have helped me write better but I decided to push myself further than that and not to stop at the first place it made sense. I don’t let myself stop where it at first feels comfortable because I know—with a little more of the clackity noise—some bigger, greater ideas may just fall out onto the page. Sometimes they don’t and I just delete the extra crap that came out, but more often than not, what I end up with is much better.

What It Means in Life

Write in Markdown. OK. This isn’t as applicable as the others, but do it anyway.

Get to the point early. Use this in emails, phone calls, awkward conversations with your girlfriend or spouse, meetings, and when you’re not sure exactly how to say what’s on your mind. Be concise and just lay things out. Remind yourself why it is you’re doing something. If you can’t remember, you probably shouldn’t be doing it. Make the point of the things you do and say clear and you’ll have more confidence that the things you do and say are the right things. Keep the point clear and you’ll build trust with the people around you.

Use comments to help guide yourself. Jot notes. Write things in your Field Notes or use an app like Day One. Make plain-text notes or write something down in Evernote. Where it is doesn’t matter but what matters is this: there will be arrows that show up along the path. Signs will be posted and you might not notice them right away. Like writing, ideas will come up before they are ready to happen but if you don’t capture them, they can be lost. Don’t worry about how everything will fit together right now, just capture these signs in whatever comments you can and eventually things will start to connect. Your job is to collect the pieces and when you have enough of the parts, it will be obvious how they fit together.

Go past the first logical close. If you wrap it up early, if you give in and give up, you’ll only get that much returned. I’ve found so many places where just a little bit more effort and a little bit more thought has pushed ideas and relationships much further than if I just settled where they made sense at first. Ever been in a meeting and just when things are wrapping up, someone says, “Wait. How about this?” Then they drop the big idea you’ve all been digging for for hours. That’s what I’m talking about. That person’s mind endured through long discussions and was able to pull out the genius when everybody else’s brain closed up shop. You want to be this person. So dig deeper and don’t settle. Don’t wrap things up when you first think they’re done; that’s just when you’re getting rolling and the greatness is about to show up.

Always let the greatness show up.

Thoughts or comments? Let's talk on Twitter or send me an email.