Hi, I’m Lou Franco, and this is Episode 3 of Write While True, which is a writing program for programmers.
If you follow it literally, you’ll be in an infinite loop of writing. But I mean program as in a training program.
So, each week’s episode will challenge you with an exercise that will help you develop a writing habit. This is Season one, which is about foundational exercises.
You’ll get the most out of this if you listen to Write While True at your desk, and when it’s over, start writing.
The first season of this podcast is meant to be listened to in order, so if you somehow found this episode and haven’t listened to the first two, you should probably go and do that. They’re pretty short, and these episodes will make much more sense in order.
But let’s recap.
In the first episode, we learned a technique for easing into a writing habit and trying to jump start a flow state.
I described Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages technique. I do Morning Pages every day and sometimes stumble into an interesting thought. But that’s not really the point. The point is to just get writing. But, the biggest benefit is that I am training my brain to write on demand.
In the second episode we learned a way to build up a collection of small bits of writing over time. I recommended using note taking software while reading or consuming media in your field of study. You probably take notes already — I certainly did. But, quotes and highlights from a book won’t be useful later when you want to write. Instead I recommended that each note be a small piece of original writing.
Start by writing the ideas you are reading about, but in your own words. Your synthesis of the material you just read. This will show you that you understand it. But, it’s even better to write notes that are about your personal research and interests, informed by the material.
Your goal is that your notes are personal to you, not just a recap that you could find anywhere. And edit them to be nearly finished writing. Refactor them into smaller notes that are single ideas and then link them together … with each other and with your other notes.
Over time, you’ll build up a large web of small notes.
The combination of the mindset of Morning Pages and the raw material of smart notes is a great way to get past a blank page.
I have stared at a lot of blank pages. Technically, they were blank textareas, but you get the point.
And my process, if you could call it that, was to write a sentence, rewrite it, delete it, write a paragraph, delete that, change the font, check my email, check out twitter, watch a youtube, and then give up. It took forever to get anywhere.
I thought the problem was that even though I had a title and a vague idea, I didn’t have any plan.
So, of course, I tried outlines. I’d make a few top level bullet points and maybe some subpoints.
Outlines are great if your thoughts are fully formed and you know where you’re going. But, if you are still figuring something out, an outline is hard to write too.
Learning to make progress
I had heard that writing was rewriting, which I thought I understood. I got that I would of course do some copy-editing — I’d make sure the sentences were grammatically correct. I’d run a spell-check.
But, I didn’t realize the extent to which writing was rewriting. I was thinking too small.
I also didn’t see that I was trying to write complete pieces before I was done thinking.
It was different when I had to just write down something that I completely understood.
For example: I write iOS tutorials for beginners on my own site, app-o-mat.com, but I’ve also done them for Smashing Magazine.
When I do that, I usually have an example in mind and I know it well. I can usually just go through it step-by-step and describe how the code works. I’m not really thinking about the subject any more. I’m just writing it down.
Or, at work, if I was documenting a process, I could just keep an editor open while I was doing the process and then just write down each step. Again, my thinking was done — I was simply transcribing it.
Writing it down is easy. Writing something that you haven’t fully thought through is not.
It’s similar to coding in that way– if I know what to do without having to think about it any more, I can just code it up fairly easily.
But, I also have techniques for what to do when I don’t know the program’s final form. I build pieces I understand — I try things out. I do a proof of concept. I’m ok with it being a hacky mess. I just try to get something working. I know I’ll rewrite it or refactor it later when I finally understand how to solve the problem.
But, I didn’t apply this to writing. When my subject was vague and my thinking wasn’t done, I didn’t know how to start or how to make progress. I was focused on the end state too much. I was trying to start from nothing and get right to a complete piece.
What do professional writers do
Last year, I decided to study the processes of professional writers. I kept running into recommendations of a book called Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.
She recommends getting through a first draft very quickly so you can move into rewriting and editing.
In Bird by Bird she writes:
The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. You just let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto the page.
Just get it all down on paper, because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means.
How I make first drafts
This sounds a lot like Morning Pages—I think of it as one step beyond them. When I’m writing Morning Pages, I don’t edit and I don’t stop no matter what. The result is often gibberish. It’s certainly not usable, but I have no intention of using it.
If I slow down, and allow a little editing, and a little reflection, I can produce a very bad, but usable, first draft.
I try really hard not to edit too much, or pause long enough to get distracted. I let things go, keep moving forward, and make sure I get through it.
That’s how I use the ideas of Morning Pages to get a first draft. Every morning when I’m done with my morning pages, I immediately start on the first draft of something new. Either a new article, a blog post, or the next chapter in something bigger.
But, it’s the technique from the second episode, Smart Notes, that really jump starts my first draft.
I have built up hundreds of notes and about 30,000 words in Obsidian. That’s a lot of undeveloped raw material.
When I want to write about something new, I pick a starting point based on my vague idea, and then I explore the notes around it in Obsidian following the links. I grab a few paragraphs from several of the notes that seem related to the idea and paste them into my document.
My goal is now to try to form that into a first draft by connecting it into a coherent whole.
It’s partially pre-written material, there’s some connective writing and maybe a third to half of it will be new writing.
At this point, I still think of myself as thinking and refining my thoughts, not yet communicating. I am not going to publish the result of this anywhere yet.
But, unlike morning pages, I do intend this to be the basis of something I eventually publish. It’s just going to take a lot more steps to get there. I’ll be covering that process in next few episodes.
In my intro, I asked you to listen at your desk, ready to write when I am done speaking. At the end of this episode, you are going to try to write a first draft of something.
But first, I want to thank you for listening so far. As a new podcast, I am depending on you to spread the word if you found it valuable. I also want to encourage you to send your feedback email to firstname.lastname@example.org or find me on twitter @loufranco or look for me on LinkedIn.
I would love a review or rating in the Apple Podcasts app, stars in Overcast, or whatever else your podcast player allows. And subscribe if you want more episodes.
If you write publicly, please send me a link. And tell me how the challenge went for you.
I’ve been taking notes for a while — and they are a big help to me in getting first drafts started. I’ll go into much more detail on how to use them in future episodes, but I don’t want to rely on you having them today.
Notes will help you make first drafts, so start writing them. If you are having trouble, read How to Take Smart Notes — there’s a link in the show notes. The easiest way to get started is to just read in your field with your note-taking software open.
When you have thoughts, write them down. Synthesize your understanding of the material and see if you can apply it to your own ideas.
But you don’t need notes to do today’s exercise.
To get some practice with a first draft, write your own developer story: How did you get into programming? If this is something you’ve already written and want a different prompt, then write a review of the last book you read.
Try to get write a few hundred words on the topic in about 30 minutes or at most an hour. Write more if you want, but set the bar low. Don’t edit it too much and try to keep making progress.
It’s totally ok for it to feel like it rambles on or doesn’t make sense yet. This is a starting point. We’re not going to publish it as-is.
What you should have before the next episode
By next week, you should have a first draft done. If you want to write more, write more first drafts on different topics. If you’ve been taking notes while reading, use them as jumping off points.
The next few episodes will give you techniques for developing these first drafts.
So, this has been write while true and since true is true, get started on that first draft.