Recently, a reader asked me if I had any tips on being a writer.
I never considered myself a “writer” (most writers don’t), even though I have been publishing online in various forms for the last 10 years.
The question forced me to think. I started writing, so I could think (see #2 below).
When I finished typing a reply, I noticed I had written a short essay on lessons about the craft of writing.
Writing is hard. Never easy. But with practice, it becomes easier.
So here’s what I learned throughout 10 years of writing:
1. Write for Yourself
When I started writing, I wrote for myself. To this day, I continue to think that.
Some people will find it interesting. Some won’t. Such is life. Either way, I’ve said what I wanted to say.
Here’s the irony:
By writing for yourself, you’re more likely to write something others love. Readers are smart. They can feel the authenticity of your writing. And the best way to be authentic is to write for yourself.
Another benefit of writing for yourself is that the process of writing is the reward itself. You’ll begin to (gasp!) love writing.
If you love something, you’ll keep doing it. It’s human nature.
And that’s how you write every day, for years.
2. Write to Think
Most people believe you have to think and then write.
Writing is thinking.
Putting words on the screen is a tool to disentangle your thoughts. Use it to try to understand the world better.
As you’re typing, your brain becomes curious. You might start with a topic in mind but at some point, the essay gains a life of its own. It becomes a magical creature, pushing you to new paths and ideas. Follow that curiosity. Writing is a process of self-discovery.
Who cares if the published essay is different from what you started with?
When you finish an essay, you’ve learned something new about yourself. Your writing might be helpful to others, but it’s always helpful to you.
3. Publish, Often
There are many benefits to publishing often.
With time, you’ll develop an audience. More than fame or money, an audience gives you accountability. There’s someone waiting for your words and ideas.
Because of this newfound accountability, you’ll want to write more. By writing more, you’ll become better at the craft of writing and generate more interesting ideas.
Sometimes, your audience will even send you ideas. Or propose topics you haven’t explored yet, sending you in a rabbit hole on new things. It’s awesome.
Don’t skip polishing your piece. Edit until it flows. Easy reading is hard writing. But at some point, let it go. Press publish.
Listen to feedback and adjust your next pieces if needed.
Keep what’s working, discard the rest.
4. Design a Writing Routine
To publish often, you’ll need routine.
The work of an artist is never complete. There’s no finish line. All you need is to keep going.
Focus on systems rather than chase goals. The best way is to design a routine.
Somerset Maugham once said: “I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”
That’s a professional.
Choose a specific time every day. Use triggers to signal your brain it’s time to write, such as grabbing coffee or tea. Listen to the same playlist while writing. Put your phone on airplane mode (or better yet, in another room). Disconnect from the internet.
Find what works for you. And then do it every day.
Do anything you can to get the wheels moving. Only when you start can you turn your thoughts into words.
You might think routine is not for creatives. That it restricts freedom.
Quite the opposite.
Routines help establish good habits, taking you from amateur to professional faster.
You write because it’s what you are.
5. Have a Deadline
There’s a reason why most students cram a few days before an exam.
Whether you want to publish one piece or many per week, it helps to have a deadline. You kill two birds with one stone: you focus on the process and you publish often.
Make it a statement: “I’ll publish one piece every Wednesday by 4 PM.”
Now, it’s a commitment. You have to get it done.
With time, you’ll learn to write faster and better. You’ll also get better at letting go of perfectionism. Done is better than perfect, I like to say.
But sometimes, life happens and you miss a deadline. Make everything you can to stick to the next one.
Don’t get in the habit of letting yourself off the hook. Deadlines only have power if you are truthful with yourself.
6. First Quantity, Then Quality
When you’re starting out, go for quantity over quality. Being a great writer takes years, so focus first on being a consistent writer.
If you’re anything close to a perfectionist (which most artists are), you never really think you’re good. I include myself in this group.
So all you have to do is keep publishing and hope it resonates with someone. Yes, you get better over time. But it comes from sitting every day to write.
Being a consistent writer also generates more feedback, both internal and external.
You learn faster what you enjoy writing about and what your audience wants. Write at the intersection.
7. Use Simple Tools
Writing requires incredible focus for a long period of time. The fewer distractions you have from your writing, the better.
George R.R. Martin wrote almost 2-million words for The Game of Thrones series. He wrote them on WordStar 4.0, a DOS-based word processor from the 80s. It looks like this:
I write all my first drafts on Text Edit:
It has everything I need. Nothing more, nothing less.
So forget fancy tools. You don’t need to have more. You need to do more. Because simple tools offer no distractions, they bring your focus back to do more, time and time again.
Cover your entire screen with your piece. By putting it full-screen, you can’t see other icons or apps that can distract you. All you need in front of you is that blinking cursor pushing you to write.
8. Write Down Ideas
Inspiration is everywhere.
A conversation with a friend, a thought while watching a show, a new connection while you’re running. Writing is also a great way to find new ideas.
But most ideas come at the most inconvenient times (thanks, brain!) The worst feeling in the world is forgetting great ideas.
Get used to writing ideas down. The moment your brain goes *blim here’s a new thought for you*, write it down. I use Apple Notes.
Don’t judge the ideas. You can only tell if an idea is good or bad when you start writing. All you need now is to make it intelligible so “future-you” can understand what was on your mind.
By writing your ideas, something magical happens. Your brain starts to process them in the background. It searches for connections with what you already know. It looks for clues in your environment and experiences.
You’ll also become better at having ideas. It’s a muscle. Train it and it becomes stronger.
Ideas are prompts. By writing them down, there’s always something to write about.
Decide which ideas are the most interesting right now and get cracking.
9. Keep a Swipe File
If you’re lucky, you’ll read something that speaks to your soul. A novel idea. A well-told story. An interesting way to explain something. A beautiful sentence.
When you encounter one of these magical unicorns, save them. I use Roam. If you prefer offline, index cards are great for this.
Over time, you build a treasure chest of your favorite things.
Here’s an example (from this post):
“I don’t currently have a hospital bed. I have a modest but very comfortable regular bed in a regular bedroom where I sleep with my regular wife. She’s my favorite part of the bed.”
Isn’t that beautiful?
Use your swipe file as inspiration when you write.
You can find many from mine sprinkled through this essay.
10. An Essay is Never Finished, Only Abandoned
When I write, I want to create the best resource available online on a given topic. Of course, this is an impossible goal. You put a lot of pressure on yourself when you think like this.
Over the years, I’ve changed my perspective. I now think of published essays as incomplete by default. I’m writing what I know about a topic right now. It’s what I’ve learned so far.
If I come across a new resource, I can always edit the essay later. Most of the time I won’t, or I’ll end up writing a new essay. Both cases are fine.
With a simple shift, I’m able to publish more often.
And who knows, maybe I’ll edit this 10 years down the road.
But for now, this one is published.