How to write a thing

You can’t treat writing as some mystical, mysterious, only-for-the-called-and-gifted endeavor.

Not if you want to do much of it.

If it helps, think of it as content production. Personally, I hate that term. It’s like saying meal production instead of cooking.

But if it helps, who cares.

Whatever you call it, to do more of it, break it down. Then tackle one piece at a time. Maybe in order, maybe not in order.

Sometimes I start with #1 and take it all the way down the production line, 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5.

Other times I start with a random step and batch process whatever I have at that point of the production line. That’s usually more efficient (because BATCH PROCESSING IS MORE EFFICIENT pretty much always).

1. Pick it.

What are you going to write about?

I keep a list of topics going all the time.

If you read and write much, you’ll always have ideas to write about. If you have trouble generating ideas, try James Altucher’s method for being an ultimate idea machine.

Ideas but no capturing

Most people have plenty of ideas but don’t get around to capturing them. Most ideas aren’t worth capturing, frankly.

But it’s not obvious which ones are good and which ones aren’t. Well, sometimes it is obvious, but not always.

Capturing but no filtering

Some people try to capture all the ideas, all the time. They don’t filter, they just capture, and then later they go through what they’ve captured and apply a filter. At least, we hope that they do.

Some people wait for an idea to pop back up a few times before they bother with it.

Capture in a filter?

I am kind of in the middle. I filter while I capture.

If I think of something, and it seems interesting, I save it somewhere. If it seems like a boring or repetitive idea, I let it go. Unless it comes back over and over. Then I save it, and eventually I’ll play around with it and try to figure out why it won’t go away.

Sometimes (many times) it’s just my brain wanting to think through a potential solution for a problem, or figure out why some past experience bothered me, or understand the reasons for someone’s behavior.

I’m confused about people’s behavior a lot. I’m always trying to figure out The Why. Why did she say that? Why did he do that thing? What is she trying to accomplish? What is he avoiding? What are they after? These whys are not obvious (to me).

I like thinking about them, though. I like thinking about my own Whys. Most of the time, the real Why for something isn’t what I tell myself it is when I first make a decision.

You know what’s great about writing?

You don’t have to have an idea to start writing.

You can have a list of words and just randomly pick one or three and start writing about them. It’s a good exercise in finding connections.

You can look through your backlogs: a list of keywords,  your crummy first drafts, your folder of ideas and one-liners, the notes you made while reading, that stack of index cards, your saved research articles, that quote collection, your old journals.

2. Outline it.

I like to outline for big projects, longer pieces, and stuff that is complex or controversial or confusing (for me, anyway). I don’t outline for everything.

Outlining is a good way to get started writing when you don’t want to start writing.

Outlining is also a good way to waste time not really writing when you don’t want to start writing.

So, you know, use the power of outlining wisely. Don’t let it use you. It can be a gateway drug to the big P, is what I’m saying. The big P is Procrastination, obviously.

3. Schedule it.

Put it on the calendar meaning

  • the editorial calendar of your blog, if that’s what you’re doing or
  • the deadline you assign for finishing the thing.

If you’re writing a long thing, break it into chunks and put each chunk on the calendar.

You put it on the calendar to say you’re committed. You put a deadline on it to make yourself finish.

This won’t be helpful, though, if you are in the habit of breaking your promises to yourself.

Most of us are. I was for a long time. I was a real stickler for keeping my word to other people. But day after day I would make and then break my promises to myself.

Promises like this:

  • I’ll write one chapter a week.
  • I’ll get 8 hours of sleep.
  • I’ll eat better.
  • I won’t commit to so many social events next week.
  • I’ll quit saying Yes to everything that everybody asks me.
  • I’ll work on my favorite project tomorrow.
  • I’ll spend more time reading.
  • I’ll spend more time writing.
  • I’ll spend less time dealing with other people’s crap.
  • I’m going to sit down and plan out my week.
  • I’ll have salad for lunch.
  • I’ll write 250 words every day.
  • I won’t drink today.
  • I’ll make time for exercise tomorrow.
  • I’ll buy myself new underwear.
  • I won’t spend all my money eating out.

There’s going to be trouble when you’re doing that. It erodes something important inside of you. Integrity, maybe? We tend to focus on honesty and integrity as outward forces: Do you keep your promises to other people? Do you tell the truth to other people?

But it’s more important to learn how to tell the truth and keep your promises to yourself.

Quit making promises you don’t mean to keep.

Quit setting standards you know you won’t live up to. You’re training yourself to lie and you’re training yourself to fail and it’s not good for your ever-living soul.

Moving on.

4. Write a first draft.

What’s the ideal speed for a first draft?

  1. Go fast and get it down.
  2. Or go slow, one word, one line at a time.
  3. Or write at a steady pace.

Pace is up to you. (Depends on your deadline, really.) I like to write fast.

Whatever your pace: start writing and keep writing and try not to stop writing until you’ve finished the first draft.

If you’re writing the first draft of a long thing, we’re talking about finishing each chunk. Then eventually you’ve finished the first draft.

Ideal tool for writing the first draft: literally any software or app that will let you type words into it and save what you’ve typed. If you don’t have that, pen and paper.

I like writing on pen and paper in the earlier thinking stages: when I’m playing with an idea, making note of something, outlining. I like pen and paper for journaling. I like pen and paper for making lists, planning, and keeping myself organized. I like pen and paper for a lot of things. I don’t love pen and paper for writing a first draft but some people do.

5. Read it.

Read the first draft. Make sure it makes sense.

It’s also a good idea to have some people other than you read it and give you feedback.

I did this with a fabulous group of folks who were willing to be beta readers for The Real YouThey gave me some amazing insights. Stuff I wouldn’t have thought about or noticed, on tone, on organization, on supporting material, on flow, on word use, etc.

6. Fix it.

You can fix it as you read it. Or if not, you can mark it as you read it and then go back and fix it. By fixing it, I mean basic editing, fact-checking, and proofing.

I don’t mean heaving a big sigh and going back to rewrite the whole thing.

You can.

And maybe for some stuff you need to. But beware the Fixing stage as another entry level to the big P. Fixing can become an eternal endeavor. We want to make sure that doesn’t happen, because you have more stuff to write.

7. Format it.

Whatever that is for the particular thing you’re writing and the way you want to disseminate it.

8. Publish it.

Do it. Do it. Do it. Just publish it.

Publishing is like any other skill: you’re going to probably suck at first. The more you do it, the better you get. You improve your quality by practicing.

A mistake writers make is to focus on improving their quality by practicing writing, only. They don’t practice publishing. They think, I’ll just practice writing by doing a lot of it until I’m much better, and then when I am good enough I will publish something.

But publishing is its own skill. Separate from writing. Being good at writing will not make you good at publishing. Also, being good at publishing will not make you good at writing.

If you want to both write things and have those things published, you need to do both. Lots of both. Write a lot of things.

Publish a lot of things.

I have created multiple blogs. I can think of at least 6 right now. I have written a lot of content for each of those blogs. Guess how many of them are still around right now?


I’m sure you could find some of those posts somewhere in the internet archives if you  search long enough. That’s cool, but a waste of time. They were mostly crap.

But they were practice. Great practice. Writing practice and publishing practice.

Guess how you practice something if you want to get really good at it?

You do it. For real. You do it for real.

Guess how many people used to practice publishing by doing it for real?

Not many. My sister and I used to practice publishing by sending actual letters on actual paper to actual people. Sometimes we wrote newsletters and mailed to all our friends. She wrote a novel when she was in high school. I wrote a lot of terrible poetry from the time I was ten to well into my twenties. I should start writing poetry again. It’s great practice at writing. It wasn’t great practice at publishing, though.

Guess how many people can practice publishing now?

Everybody. Anybody. You and me, that’s for sure. I started to practice publishing when I was in high school and the Internet became a thing we could all use and everybody got a Xanga blog and a Myspace account. I haven’t stopped practicing since then. One way or another. I practice by publishing. It’s mostly terrible. But I think I’m starting to get the hang of it.