How to Start Writing

published3 months ago
5 min read

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3 Things I’ve Loved this Week

Word I love: Tsundoku (積ん読) refers to the phenomenon of acquiring reading materials but letting them pile up in one's home without reading them. It is also used to refer to books ready for reading later when they are on a bookshelf. Anyone who’s been through my home knows that this word applies to me.

Book I’m Reading: Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein. This book has been sitting on my bedside (see: Tsundoku) for a year, and I’ve finally gotten around to reading it. I like Epstein’s work because he makes complex concepts accessible. As someone whose career has spanned a variety of industries and sometimes feels like a game of pinball, it is refreshing to read about the reasons why changing one’s mind is a good idea.

Quote I’m pondering: “Failure isn't a necessary evil. In fact, it isn't evil at all. It is a necessary consequence of doing something new.” -Ed Catmull

This quote is from another book that’s been sitting on my bookshelf for far too long, Creativity, Inc. I like this quote because it flips the vilification of failure and suggests that not only is failure not bad, it is a necessary part of doing great work.

How to Start Writing

When my friend Karen X Cheng launched her startup, GiveIt100, she invited me to teach all the steps necessary to learn to do a handstand. She also suggested that I turn my expertise into a short book. In 2014, I self-published a book called How to Do a Handstand, which – due more to the timing than the quality of my writing – sold thousands of copies. I fell in love with writing and the mental clarity that comes from articulating and editing my ideas.

A few years later, I self-published my second book Responsive: How to Create a Thriving Organization, based on my annual immersive event Responsive Conference. Unfortunately, that was also the year that I sold Robin's Cafe, went through a difficult breakup, and burnt out. I stopped writing altogether.

This year, in an effort to get back into writing, I launched the Evolve newsletter. In the last five months, I have published more than in the preceding five years! Today, I’ll share why writing is a valuable skill to practice, how to start writing, and how to overcome writer’s block.

Why Write

Writing Clarifies Thinking

There are a lot of ways to improve your thinking – meditation, rhetoric, and others. But writing is one of the best methods I know. The process of articulating an idea, and then revisiting and honing it, results in clearer thinking.

Get to Know Your Ideas

When I sit down to write, I often don't know what I'm going to say in advance. In writing, I discover beliefs and opinions that I didn’t even know I’d held. The discipline of writing forces me to express an idea. Afterwards, I can test and refine it.

The Editing Process

I write a lot of words that never get published – and that’s the point. Just like a professional athlete will practice their discipline thousands of times for every competition, the most important part of writing is the process of revising and editing. We get better with practice.

Practice with Practice

I seek out skills that reinforce my ability to learn. Conducting interviews teaches you to ask better questions. Surfing teaches you to relax and not fight the power of the ocean. Writing trains you to think clearly. Pursue disciplines that train you to be better outside of that discipline.

Test Your Ideas

Publishing your writing creates stakes – even if the consequences are low. I have to reckon with typos and flaws in my thinking. When I share an idea, other people engage with it, which allows me to evaluate my idea further.

There’s No Such Thing As Writer’s Block

I have on my desk a water flask given to me by the bestselling author and marketer, Seth Godin that says, “There’s no such thing as writer's block.”

What we call “writer's block” is the internal state where your self-judgment or fear of failure supersedes the desire to write. We ascribe the term “writer's block” to this sensation and disclaim the responsibility for our feelings. Identify that self-judgment or fear, and then begin.

How to Start Writing

Start Small

When I set out to write Evolve, I set myself the task of writing for a handful of minutes each day. My goal was to send a 500 word email to a few friends once a week. Today, I'm averaging 2 hours a day, have written more than 100,000 words, and I’m planning my next book! But my aspirational goal still remains small. Now, my goal is to write 1,000 words each day – quality be damned. Set your baseline for success as low as possible. When you make your objective so small that success is almost inevitable, you’re more likely to build a new writing habit.

Practice Every Day

Inertia is hard to overcome when starting from zero. It’s easier to continue with what you’ve already been doing than to start from nothing. Even if one or two days go by where I don’t write, I find it more difficult to get into the groove of creating than if I maintain a daily practice. However small your habit, strive to do some little bit of writing every day.

Writing is a Discipline

As a former professional athlete, I work out everyday whether I want to or not. By contrast, I’ve always waited for inspiration to strike before sitting down to write. Treat creativity as a discipline – something that you return to everyday, whether you feel like it or not. Judge your progress by whether you showed up that day, not by how much work you got done.

The Importance of Setting

In War of Art, Steven Pressfield describes a variety of good luck charms that he has on his desk. When I first read Steven’s book, I dismissed the need to have everything in place before sitting down to write, but in the last few months I’ve come to recognize the importance of setting. As we say in restaurants, mise en place or everything in its place. When I write in the same location every day, have a cup of tea in hand, and have my Timebirds Timer running, it is easier to get into a creative groove.

Write and Edit Separately

Writing and editing are different stages of the creative process. Both are important; good writing requires each. When I look back on the struggles that I had writing Responsive, they are due to attempting to edit and write the book at the same time. First, create your messy first draft. Then, edit and critique your work.

I wish that I had kept writing after Responsive got published, which I’d intended to do back in 2017. But as the saying goes, “The best time to plant a tree was ten years ago. The second best time is today.”

Until next time,

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