About three years ago, I decided I would write an article a week. That would be my plan. Simple. I had been trying to write brilliantly for a long time and that wasn’t working, So I would just go with endurance. And, perhaps, I might finally escape obscurity as a professor and author.
Last week, I reached 3M followers. That is crazy. And it only took +200 weekly articles. The strategy that finally worked for me was essentially a very long walk.
I’ve been reflecting on this strange trip. So much of what I tried didn’t work. And luck and timing were big factors. But I also think there were some writing tricks and habits that really worked. And these are probably the only things you can control. So I thought I would write them down.
Here are the tricks and habits that worked for me on my long walk from obscurity as a writer.
I write and re-write 2-3 articles every Saturday morning
This is the core activity of my writing. Every Saturday morning, I get a cup of coffee and force myself to write 2-3 articles. Usually one article is completely new so that is a first draft. The others are usually re-writes of drafts from previous Saturdays.
I do this every Saturday. It forces me to generate new content every week, which really does add up over time. All my article drafts are in folders on my laptop. And I usually have 3-4 I am active on (and another 15-20 that are just outlines of ideas).
This process also slows down my writing – as any article I publish has probably been re-written 4-5 times over 3-4 weeks.
I re-think my latest article during the week.
During the week (I only write on weekends), I mull over the article I’m getting ready to public. I don’t let myself write and then publish quickly. I put in a forced break where I re-think. And I find this time really makes a big difference in the content.
I worry about first conclusion bias, the tendency for the brain to look for easy answers to complicated questions. My first conclusions are almost always wrong. And then there is a natural resistance to challenging your conclusions once formed (especially your favorite ones). So by putting in a break, I get away from first conclusions and force myself to challenge my initial thinking.
In my first draft, I only do analysis. And I avoid stories.
So much of business writing (and especially TV) is about finding compelling and entertaining stories. And maybe coming up with a contrarian and / or shocking headline. And this really does work for getting readership.
Unfortunately, these are also terrible approaches for accurate thinking and analysis. You end up putting together some compelling stories and then making a general point or conclusion. I call it analysis by anecdote. It makes entertaining reading but it almost guarantees that you will be wrong.
The best example of this I know is The World Is Flat by Thomas Friedman. It is compelling reading with a catchy title. Lots of cool stories. But the analysis is anecdotal and I think the conclusions are almost completely wrong.
Most accurate analysis is not actually interesting or entertaining. Most current events are not significant. The likelihood of something being both accurate analysis and entertaining is very small.
So I separate the process into two steps. When I do the first draft, I just do analysis. I resist the temptation to think about stories or to be interesting. I’m going for dry, clinical and very accurate analysis. The result is almost always very boring reading.
In my second draft, I replace analysis with stories, charts and photos.
When I feel like I’ve got my thinking right in a boring first draft, I then begin a translation process. I replace the text of my analysis with things that are more interesting reading (but with the same conclusion). I look for compelling stories that fit my conclusions. I use lots of photos. Generally I try and get rid of as much text as I can.
If draft one is boring but accurate analysis, draft two is converting my conclusions into a more entertaining form.
When my thinking isn’t happening, I read someone inspiring.
Sometimes I sit there on a Saturday morning and my brain just isn’t working. It’s sluggish. My thinking is mediocre.
My standard trick for this situation is to read people I admire. My go-to writers are Christopher Hitchens, Jordan Peterson, and Richard Feynman. I also might read McKinsey and BCG reports. But it’s not really the writing I’m interested in. It’s the subtlety of the thinking that I find inspiring. Usually after thirty minutes of reading, I start to feel ambitious and thoughtful again. It works every time.
Before publishing, I do a final edit of just deletions (in reverse).
When an article is done, I do one final pass where I just delete. I try and delete every paragraph I can. I try to delete every sentence. And within each sentence, I try to delete 2-3 words. It’s just a great habit.
I usually do this by reading the article in reverse. I find this prevents me from mentally skipping ahead.
Brevity is a big part of the value to the reader.
My book series is called One Hour China. The title itself tells the reader they can get through it quickly (in one hour). And I think that really matters. Brevity and time are a big part of the value to the reader.
People are busy. If you can say something in 500 words, it is much better than saying it in 800. And a 100 page book is better than a 300 page one. I try to cut absolutely everything I can. It’s not just about providing value to the reader in ideas and thinking. It is about doing it as rapidly and succinctly as possible. Less is more in writing.
Frequency is also part of the value.
It used to be you published a book every 1-2 years. Because that was how the book industry was set up. And for academic publishers it is like every 2-3 years.
But I am more and more convinced this is an artifact of the time. I don’t think that is how people really read and learn. They prefer smaller amounts of content on the same subject delivered frequently. I think they get a lot more out of that approach.
High frequency is valuable to the reader. Weekly articles are good (which I do). Daily or weekly podcasts are really effective for getting through a lot of content. Even short daily videos are helpful. And yearly books are not awesome. You’re better off just publishing a chapter a month as you write.
I am increasingly focusing on high frequency of short content – all within one area of thinking.
Final Point: Have a formula and stick to it.
I’m a huge believer in both long long walks and repetition. By setting up a weekly schedule, you set yourself on a long journey. And it really does add up over time.
But such repetition can also really help you make little improvements as you go. By doing the same thing every week, you get better and better at it. That is also really powerful. For my weekly writing, I am always trying to improve the below formula.
Value to Reader = Content Quality * Frequency / Content Length
Every article should be better thinking, delivered more frequently and with less time required. My comments above about writing more slowly and with multiple iterations is me trying to improve content quality. But even though I am writing slowly, I am publishing with high frequency. And I am always trying to cut the length. Note: Doubling the value to the reader by doubling the content quality is quite difficult. But cutting the length by half is pretty easy.
Anyways, I think that stuff has really worked for me. We’ll see how things proceed going forward. I’m moving more into video and podcasts right now. But most of my thinking comes from weekly writing.
Thanks for reading. And cheers from Mexico City, jeff
I write and speak about digital China and Asia’s latest tech trends.