I’m Lou Franco, and this is Episode 4 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, in each week’s episode I’ll 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 last three episodes were about techniques that I use to help me with new writing projects.
The first thing I talked about was my daily practice of doing morning pages. This is a warm-up exercise where I do three pages of long hand writing without stopping. This exercise trains my brain to write on demand.
Then, I told you to write notes whenever you consume content for research. Don’t copy and paste snippets. Instead, write out the ideas in your own words. Or develop your own ideas informed by what you just read. You are trying to build up a large web of interconnected small notes, where each note is a few paragraphs of finished writing.
And in last week’s episode, I told you how I combine these two practices to make first drafts. I use this process for blog posts, articles, this podcast, and to further develop larger projects.
Today, I want to talk about when I do that.
Doing it whenever meant never
In my career, I’ve shipped a lot of software as both a developer and manager.
But side-projects, like writing are a little harder. I did eventually ship some things, but they weren’t as predictable or systematic as my day-job or client work.
I assume that some people listening to this podcast think of writing as a hobby — maybe you blog a couple of times a month.
Maybe some of you are doing it more seriously — maybe you blog every week. Maybe you’ve made submissions to write for paid sites.
Some of you may be further along, perhaps you’re developing something bigger like an e-book or a course. Maybe you are planning a conference talk, or have a book deal.
Some of you write for work. Some tech jobs, like developer advocates, often have a large content component to their jobs.
Maybe you’re trying to transform your career to be mostly about content.
I have been all along that spectrum. Today, I am devoting more than half my time to making content. This podcast is an example, but I’m also writing programming tutorials for my site, app-o-mat.com.
Writing a lot helps me be more disciplined. The times that I’ve made the least progress on writing was when I was trying to do it on the side or as a hobby. This isn’t because of the relative amount of time I devoted to it. It was because I treated it as something I would try to fit in, and it never did. I could always find something else to do.
When it was a side project, it was always going to be a small part of my week, maybe a few hours.
But, most of the time those few hours became none.
What I learned from my work practices
Early in my career, I read the “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen Covey. The first three habits are about individual behavior and are focused on working with intention. Habit 1 is to understand that you can direct your own behavior, Habit 2 is to pick that direction, and Habit 3 describes the daily practice that will get you there.
Here is where I was introduced to the concept of important but non-urgent tasks. We’re usually good at doing urgent things, whether they are important or not. But, big goals are accomplished by doing a lot of non-urgent work. If we don’t plan them, they get pushed out by things that come up.
Covey uses the metaphor of rocks and gravel. If you fill a jar with gravel, you can’t get the rocks in too. If you put the rocks in first, you can put in some gravel around the edges. In other words, schedule your important work.
I bet that for your day jobs, you’re already doing this. I hope that if you program for a living, you are able to set aside big multi-hour blocks of uninterrupted time to concentrate on your coding tasks. If you do, you already know the power of scheduling focused time.
And Covey wasn’t the first person to write about this (he got this idea from President Eisenhower) and he’s certainly not the last. The list of business productivity books that boil down to “make a schedule” is long. There are techniques like time blocking, pomodoro, ideal weeks—each with a corresponding planner.
So, making a schedule for your day job is not controversial advice. If this is new to you or you struggle with this, I would recommend the books of Cal Newport, specifically Deep Work, and go to his site [https://www.timeblockplanner.com] Read about his method. This is essentially what I do. It’s simple, flexible, and a good start.
Since the suggestion of a schedule is so commonplace, I kind of take it for granted.
When I planned out this podcast, the subject of a schedule was penciled in for episode 12.
But, I had forgotten what it was like when writing was something I did on the side. And how not having a schedule meant it never got done. A couple of weeks ago I found a writing podcast that is centered around having a schedule and listening to it convinced me that I needed to talk about it sooner.
Aliya S. King’s advice
Right after I launched this podcast, I started to try to look for podcasts by professional writers to see what they talked about.
I found “Writing Practice”, a podcast by author Aliya S. King. The podcast is a recording of her free group coaching sessions.
She’s a self-described hip-hop journalist. She writes articles as a freelancer and also writes novels speculatively to sell later.
Her workday is mostly dedicated to the freelance work with deadlines. I assume that she approaches that work like most successful knowledge workers do. With discipline and schedules.
She treats the novels as something she does on the side. The theme of the podcast is that this is something she also schedules.
She called the podcast “Writing Practice” to get that point across. She’s constantly saying, “You need a writing practice”. Her group is mostly aspiring writers with day jobs. For many of them, writing is a hobby, a side project, or something they hope to break into.
If one of them tells her about a problem they’re having with writing, she’s going to ask about their schedule. She thinks that writing more will make them better. So do I.
She wants everyone she coaches to commit to three days a week for an hour a day, but she’ll let you do 15 minutes just to get started.
She knows that seed will grow.
And she says to do it first thing in the morning. She thinks your brain will talk you out of it if you wait. If you schedule it later in the day, even with the best of intentions, the day might just get away from you as the gravel fills in your jar.
I linked a particularly good episode in the show notes where she gets into why the morning is the best place to schedule this. Give that a listen.
Make a schedule
In this podcast, I am assuming that writing is something you do on the side. That your day job is programming. So, we’re gonna try to set reasonable expectations.
To start with I’d go with Aliya S. King’s recommendation of writing in the mornings of Mon, Wed, and Friday for about an hour or so.
To make that hour productive, I’d do it right after your morning pages for that day. Yes, I am saying 1 hour in addition to the morning pages, which I think you should do every day for 20 minutes.
You can always do more. And if you have to do less, keep it to 3 days and at least 15 minutes each day.
If you write full-time, then you have to treat this more like a job. I’d schedule several 2 hour blocks across the week. I personally commit to 15-20 hours of writing, but pick the amount that makes sense for your goals, leaving you with enough time to do the other things you need to do. This is just a starting point. You can adjust it.
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, I’m going to ask you to pull up your calendar and schedule some time.
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 email@example.com 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.
The weekly exercise
Ok, between now and the next episode, you should have 3 1-hour sessions blocked out in the morning. Pick times that you can do consistently each week — times that are unlikely to get interrupted by anything else.
As a default, try Mon/Wed/Friday first thing when you get up. I get up, make coffee and just start most days. Sometimes, I go for a run first thing, but then I do it as soon as I get back.
And warm up with morning pages. I still recommend that you do morning pages every day, even if you have no writing scheduled for that day. But if you are writing, do it right after the morning pages.
This has been Write While True and since true is true, go make a schedule.