Advice on writing
August 5th, 2018
Sergey Zavadski emailed me today asking for advice on how to start writing, and I figured I'd share my response here and open an invitation for suggestions from others!
The biggest advice I'll give is to find ways to hold back from self-censoring. There are three key tools I use to do this myself, though there are probably other clever ways I haven't considered.
One is called The Most Dangerous Writing App, which deletes your writing if you stop for more than a few seconds. It's an incredible way to pull the ideas out of your head. I'm continually surprised by how much my thoughts are already structured when I thought I didn't have a grasp at all on the question at hand. It was just in a way that was invisible to me, and this exercise forces me to extract it.
The second is I often walk around the city recording my voice on my phone. To an onlooker this looks like I'm on a call, but actually I'm just talking to myself! I then use GoTranscript or a voice-to-text tool to transcribe the audio. Both this and the first strategy share the property of forcing you to "move forward" with rather than constantly revising what you've already written. Different people are blocked on different things of course, but I find a common pattern is paralyzing oneself with self-editing. The first draft is the hardest part, so you shouldn't make it harder than it already is. I find anything that turns the first draft into an append-only exercise to be really useful. You can always go back and clean it up later.
The third is actually emails just like this! (This is what I originally sent to Sergey.) I find the act of composing emails to be much easier than writing from scratch something I intend to be a blog post. My guess as to why is that the correspondent gives me a fairly concrete prompt, a conversational style/tone to build off of, and an audience to keep in mind, which narrows down the scope of what I'm writing. It also helps that I feel like it is a "safe space"; if I already have an email thread with someone there's a benefit of the doubt established that you can't always assume when publishing straight to the internet. This reduces a lot of ambient discomfort and urge to self-censor. But then once it's written it's usually something I'm actually happy to publish, and anything that doesn't come across quite right I can just clean up. There have been several cases where I've written up a long private email and then asked the person if I could publish it. (This post is now one of them!) This has been a surprisingly great source of writing material for me.
In the spirit of this third tactic, I asked Sergey if he didn't mind I publish a version of this and mention him, and now here we are. :)
The art of writing is mostly about unblocking yourself. I find I don't really have a lack of ideas, more that I hold myself back from letting them flow out of me and onto the page.
Keep in touch!