I love writing. I’ve spent most of my career as a designer, which is very visually-oriented, but I find writing tends to be the easiest—and my favourite—way to express my ideas. I write a lot: articles for my website, RFCs and docs in my work, and fiction for myself.
The hardest parts of writing anything, I find, is untangling what I want to say, and then getting it written—not the writing itself. I’ve landed on a writing process that works well for me to do just this.
It’s a process similar to design or development: rapid iteration in minimal but meaningful tangible steps.
- Capture the idea.
- Revise and ship.
- Plus: avoiding a false sense of productivity.
Capture the idea
Sitting down to write and needing something to write about is a great way to run out of momentum before you’ve started.
I have ideas all the time. While I’m working. While I’m cooking. While I’m drifting off to sleep. But I used to feel pressure to refine those ideas before writing them down. And that meant I’d rarely write them down. And then I’d forget about them when I sat down to write something.
Now, I have a place to dump all my ideas in the most minimal form possible as soon as they come to mind. Sometimes this is just a sentence. Other times it’s a few quick bullets. Even just a word with some insistent question marks can be an excellent idea.
When I want to do some writing—because of a burst of creative energy or because I realize it’s been far too long since I’ve written something—I’ll look through these ideas and find one that tickles my brain in the right way, and take it forward.
This is what this article looked like as an idea:
# How I approach writinggoing from idea dump to skeleton to finished thingtools are a distraction from actual writing and give a false sense of productivity
A skeleton is essentially an outline. But something about calling it a skeleton makes it click better for me. Skeletons help me get at what’s inside.
And, a skeleton separates the “act of writing” from “figuring out what you want to say and how you’ll say it.”
For me, a skeleton is a set of bullet points. Bullet points make it easy to write simply, to make changes, to shuffle up the order of thoughts, and to spot when the flow and pacing isn’t quite right.
I’ll usually ask for feedback from the amazing folks with endless patience who’re happy to review my writing after I’ve finished a skeleton. If I’ve shared my ideas well and I have a point, then it should come across in the skeleton. And if anything’s unclear or confusing or a trudge to get through, it’s easy to make changes here.
This is the skeleton for this article:
# How I approach writing- I enjoy writing- Much easier way to share my ideas- Write articles for my website, write RFCs and docs in my work, and write fiction for myself- I find the hardest part of writing anything is untangling what I'm actually thinking and want to say- I've landed on a writing process that works really well for me- The key is rapid iteration in the most minimal format possible at each stage- The process- Capture the idea- Skeleton- Draft- Revise and ship## Capture the idea- I have ideas all the time- I used to feel pressure to refine those ideas right away, which meant that I'd rarely write them down, and then I'd forget about them when I wanted to write something- Coming up with something to write about in the moment is super hard- So instead, I have a place I dump all my ideas in the minimal possible form as soon as they come to mind (I use Ulysses for this, future article about how I use Ulysses to come)- Every once in a while I'll look through those ideas and find one of them tickles my brain in the right way in that moment, and will take it forward## Skeleton- I don't remember who first introduced this term to me- A skeleton is essentially an outline. But something about calling it a skeleton makes it click better for me.- I think about it like: where an outline is the broader strokes ahead of writing, a skeleton is secretly writing the article- It's a bullet-pointed train of thought as I walk through the idea- Often I'm not quite sure what my idea is, or how I'd like to communicate it- A skeleton separates "the act of writing" from "figuring out the idea," making it easier to just get the whole thing down- As a set of bullet points, it's easy to make changes, spot when the flow and pacing isn't quite right, and reorder things altogether- When I finish putting together a skeleton and it flows nicely and makes sense, and I'm confident in what I'm trying to say and how I'm saying it... suddenly, the first draft is almost already done- Up until this point I'm not thinking like a writer, which makes it much easier to build momentum- I'll usually ask for feedback and review after I have a skeleton together. If I've shared my ideas well, they should come across in the skeleton. If anything's unclear or confusing or if there's any pacing issues, it's super easy to make changes now## Draft- When the skeleton is ready and reviewed (if needed), I move on to the draft- Often, all I have to do is remove the bullet points from the skeleton, and boom, first draft is almost done, and just needs a bit of rewording, detail, or examples- Since I'm no longer working on the idea or how I'm conveying it, I can start thinking more like a writer and focus on style and prose## Revise and "ship"- After refining the draft, I'll do a few more passes to revise- I've been pushing myself to stop as soon as it's "good enough" and resist the urge to keep polishing- I'll "ship it" as soon as I can- It helps to know I can (and do!) make changes at any time- That's it!## Bonus thoughts around tooling- I've consistently found that setup and tools and apps are the biggest distractions that pretend to be useful and important- My biggest jump in productivity came from:- Having a simple and easy way to publish my articles and then just sticking with it—so that instead of faffing around with my website or trying to choose where to write, I know exactly where and how I'll be publishing the article- Choosing my writing tools once and sticking with it—so instead of faffing around trying new apps and workflows, I know exactly how and where I'm going to go through the writing process that I know works for me- This isn't to say you should never try new things (unless you're G.R.R. Martin, who famously continues to write in a 19XX copy of Wordstar on a XYZ). Experiment with your your writing tool and try new things—but do so separate from when you intend to write, or it'll give you a false sense of productivity while you're not actually _writing anything_
After I’m happy with the skeleton, I move on to the draft.
The neat thing about a good skeleton is I often only have to remove the bullet points, and boom! the first draft is almost done. A bit of rewording, detail, or supporting examples may be all I need.
Since I’m no longer working on the idea itself, I can start thinking about style and prose.
Revise and ship
The draft usually needs a couple quick passes of revision. I don’t create separate copies for revisions—I keep iterating in place. I’ll go through it several times with an eye for word choices and rhythm, and will often share it for extra rounds of feedback from my early readers.
I still have to push myself to stop as soon as it’s “good enough,” and to “ship it” as soon as I can. Even if I feel it could be better.
It helps to know that unlike in print, I can—and do!—make changes any time.
(Based on early feedback on this article, I went back in and re-ordered the sections along with other minor tweaks. If you’d like to compare, here’s the previous version of this article).
Avoiding a false sense of productivity
I’ve found time and again that setup and tools and apps are the biggest distractions that pretend to be useful and important.
My biggest jump in writing productivity came from three things:
- Having this process figured out and not overthinking it.
- Choosing my writing tools once and sticking with it. Instead of faffing around trying new apps and workflows and otherwise getting distracted with things that aren’t writing, I know exactly where and how I'm going to do the actual writing.
- Having a simple way to publish my writing and then just sticking to it. Instead of faffing around with my website or trying new platforms or otherwise getting distracted with things that aren’t writing, I always know exactly where and how I’ll share what I write.
None of this is to say you shouldn’t try new things (unless you're G.R.R. Martin, who famously continues to write on a DOS-based machine in a copy of WordStar 4.0 released in 1987). Experiment with your publishing channels and writing tools and try new things—but do this separate from when you intend to write, or it’ll lull you into a false sense of productivity that ends up with not actually writing anything.
For this particular article, I had to redo chunks of my website to support embedding and syntax highlighting for markdown. But I waited until the article was ready to be published before I started working on those changes.
That’s it! This process works super well for me.
It’s worth mentioning I don’t work on a single article at a time, herding it through this process stage-by-stage. I find it gets boring fast. Instead, I have many articles at every stage of this process all the time, and I work on whichever captures my energy in the moment when I feel like doing some writing.
In my next article, I’ll dig into the tools and environment I use for writing.