How I Write
Cross-posted, as always, from Putanumonit.
Five years ago I started Putanumonit not expecting that anyone would read it. That year I had a chance to meet two of my favorite bloggers, Scott Alexander and Tim Urban, and discovered that they had both honed their writing skills on lesser known blogs for several years before relaunching as SSC and WBW. My plan at launch was to write for a small audience until 2020, then scrap Putanumonit and launch a new blog with everything I will have learned about writing.
Last week my friend Lynette called me to talk about blogging, and I realized that in those five years I did figure out a few things about writing. These aren’t technical tips of sentence construction and argument layout but relate more broadly to writing as a consistent activity.
So, here’s how five years of Putanumonit happened.
I write confidently and trust the readers to discount appropriately
It’s good to be clear about the general epistemic status of what I write and be meta-honest about writing my sincere beliefs (or sincere drug trips). But I don’t think this requires hedging every statement, reminding the reader of my inevitable subjectivity, or bloating the text with endless caveats.
I write under the assumption that I’m just one voice among many each of my readers is exposed to, more “rando on the internet” than “infallible guru”. I can imagine a silly reader using each and every piece of advice I’ve ever written to fuck up their lives, but dumb people can’t be helped either way. I trust smart readers to sanity-check my models, discount my apparent confidence, double-check factual claims, and reverse all advice as needed.
So this post is not universal writing advice, it’s how someone like me learned to write a blog like this. But the greatest compliment I could receive is hearing that Putanumonit inspired someone else like me to start another blog like this; hopefully this post will help.
I write in one sitting, but sit often
It’s almost universal advice to write every day, to keep an immutable daily routine of X minutes or Y words every morning or afternoon. I universally ignore this advice.
In part, it’s because I don’t write full-time. If I had to submit a daily column or a book draft I suspect that a daily routine would be unavoidable. But in part it’s because I’ve noticed that 80% of what I’ve written comes in multi-hour chunks. I’ve gone as long as 6-8 hours with almost no breaks on some of my longer posts, completely in the zone, my mind holding the entire blooming shape of the post and nothing else.
One day in late February I spent the day in the office struggling to get any work done while my mind was churning COVID thoughts. I came home exhausted at 8 pm, took off my shoes, then inexplicably went straight to the computer to start a brand new post with no outline or draft. After four hours I hit submit on what became my most influential post ever.
If you had asked me at 7:55 pm whether I was going to write a post that day, I would have thought it unlikely. But I sat down anyway, and the magic happened. If you plan to write in long spells you can’t wait for the perfect day when you wake up full of energy with a clear schedule and a buzzing mind — that happens too rarely if at all.
I sit down to write whenever I feel there’s even a small chance I’ll get into the writing zone and I have at least one hour free. Some days I end up on Twitter after 10 minutes of futile attempts to conjure a single paragraph and give up. Other days are like this day.
I write before I understand it all
I’m most likely to write for hours at a time when I’m excited about an idea. I get most excited about an idea while I’m figuring it out, not before or after. Before, it is too vague and confusing. After I’ve figured it out it’s stale and boring, I often forget why I was excited about it in the first place. It seems too obvious to write about.
This diagram by Sarah Perry perfectly illustrates this. The speed of compression (i.e. figuring out) is highest when I’m 50%-70% of the way to full understanding, and I have to resist the urge to delay writing until I’m at 90%. I do a lot of research and thinking as I’m writing, not just before.
I use Twitter as a first draft
If the time to start writing about a topic is 50% of the way through understanding it, at 20% is when I’d tweet about it to workshop the idea and get some quick feedback. Threads that resonate I then expand into full posts, and those that don’t I often scrap or think about the subject in different ways. I often get comments that inspire the main ideas in an article.
Twitter has different uses than a blog, its own culture and norms. But it’s a great aid for the collaborative thinking that turns into writing. As an added bonus, it trains one to write concisely when required by altering sentence structure and getting rid of fluff.
Writer’s block is fake
I think I believed in writer’s block when I was younger. One day I decided that it’s fake and it hasn’t materialized since. You can always just transcribe your internal monologue as it goes on in your head. Yes, it’s probably going to be bad, but now you’re dealing with the task of editing rather than with “writer’s block”.
I think what people call “writer’s block” is usually an aversion to some specific thing that they’re coerced into writing, like a school assignment. If you experience writer’s block on a personal blogpost you may be coercing yourself, for example by trying to write something inoffensive on a politically charged topic you feel strongly about. In this case the block is protecting your readers from drivel and you should start writing only when you grow some cojones.
I submitted to edited outlets
The pieces I wrote for Quillette and Ribbonfarm (among others) we’re hugely beneficial for my blogging. First, because I got paid for them, and it’s an important confidence boost early on to know that my writing was at least good enough to be worth $100-$200 to someone.
More importantly, both were written in collaboration with an editor. A good editor is like a coach, they can point out bad habits and offer advice that you then take with you to the rest of your writing career. I recommend to all new writers to try and sell a pitch to an edited magazine, even if writing it takes multiple times the effort of an unedited blog post.
I don’t promote my posts on forums I’m not active on
After a post is done I leave it alone for 24 hours to let my loyal subscribers catch any obvious errors or things I should not have written. Then I share it on Twitter, and few days later on LessWrong. That’s it. I don’t put my own posts up on Reddit, HackerNews, etc.
One reason is that I’m not really active on any other platforms, so it feels unethical to spam them with my stuff. A lot of my readers are active on each one and it’s up to them to share a post if they think it’s good (which I’m always very grateful for!)
And if no one shares it? That’s fine too. I often don’t have a feel for which posts will resonate with readers as I write them. Some of my favorite writing is completely unappreciated while semi-throwaway posts get tens of thousands of views. It’s a good dynamic if most people discover Putanumonit through my best and most popular posts first, as judged by my own readers. Whether the new readers stick around and go through the archive or just wander away with a vague recollection that I’m a smart dude, it’s all good.