I’m Lou Franco, and this is Episode 5 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.
Recap of Episodes 1-4
The first four episodes of Write While True will help you write first drafts. They are each about 10 minutes long if you want to catch up.
But to sum it up:
If you are writing on the side, you’ll get a lot more writing done if you schedule it for about an hour a day for 3 days a week to start. Try Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Start each session by doing morning pages and then try to assemble a first draft from pre-written notes and the flow carrying over from morning pages.
Listen to the episodes for more details on each part of this technique. If you do this, you’ll start to have a bunch of first drafts. In the next few episodes, I’ll talk about how to develop them.
I was stuck at first drafts
I mentioned in episode three when I talked about first drafts that I didn’t really understand the writing mantra: writing is rewriting.
For my school writing assignments, I’d check spelling and grammar, but what I turned in was not that different from the first draft.
As I progressed in my career, I developed my writing, but I can’t say that I had a system. There wasn’t a process that made sure that bad first drafts became shippable.
When I wrote chapters for my book “Hello iOS Development”, I got feedback from editors, which helped a lot. The same was true when working with Smashing’s editors. They gave good feedback, and improved the work a lot, but I didn’t draw lessons and techniques. Just tasks.
It was hard to read my own work with a critical eye and see how to develop it on my own. I appreciated the professional help, but I only had limited access to it.
So, my first drafts were either just sitting there unfinished, or I’d publish them even though they still needed a lot of improvement. To tell the truth, I’d still rather do that than let them sit there.
But over the past couple of years, I’ve started to see what the editors were getting at and I think I’ve gotten a little better at shaping my work on my own.
Developing a critical eye
The thing that was obvious to me in my first drafts is that they didn’t flow logically. When I was done writing it, I could understand what I was getting at because I already know all of the content.
Eventually, I realized that this was a symptom of a deeper problem.
Like many people I write to think. And, it helps. I set out with only inklings of an idea and by the time I am done, I usually have a coherent a complete thought. The writing contains it, but it doesn’t communicate it.
There’s a difference between writing to think and writing to communicate and I finally understand that.
Video: The Craft of Writing Effectively
I put a video in the show notes that goes into a lot of detail about this. It’s a recording of a lesson given by Larry McEnerney, the Director of the University of Chicago’s Writing Program.
He’s trying to teach graduate students in all disciplines the importance of valuable writing. His contention was that up until this point in their lives, their teachers read their work because they were paid to read it. And now, they had to produce work that people would pay to read, with their money or with their time. Because that work was valuable to them.
The bulk of the video is about explaining what valuable writing is. He calls writing that changes what the reader thinks about the world.
He frames every rule about writing as being centered around the reader. He says
Anything you write has the function of helping your readers understand better something they want to understand well.
This was a big help to me in understanding what the rewriting was for.
Pick a reader and a message
The key lesson I learned is that the beginning of the process of writing is tied with my own thinking, like I thought. All of the techniques I discussed so far are about developing ideas in the first place and getting down raw material.
But, then you need to change your focus to communication, and the first step of that is to pick a reader.
Almost every question you have about your piece can only be answered in the context of knowing who the reader is. Is this the right tone? Are these the right words? Do I need to include this background? Can I use emoji? You can’t answer any of that until you pick a reader.
And don’t pick yourself. When you are developing the first draft, you are the primary reader, but that’s a problem going forward. You already know all of the things you want to communicate, and you already believe the premise and the conclusion, and you already think it’s important.
So, when you read an early draft, you don’t need all of the steps in a particular sequence. You can perceive the whole thing at once. But a reader encounters published writing sequentially.
And while the reader can’t literally be you — it makes a lot of sense for the reader to be like you. In your community or profession.
When I was planning this podcast, I picked the audience of programmers that want to write more on the side. I have been a part of that group for many years. I know specific people just like me, and sometimes I am thinking of them directly as I move a draft forward.
So, again, the point of publishing is to help a reader make progress. So, the first step is to pick a reader.
The second step is to have a message. What are you trying to communicate? What change in the reader are you trying to make?
Here are some other ways to think about it:
- What question are you trying to answer?
- In what way do you want to change what the reader thinks about the world?
- What action do you want the reader to take?
- What problem of theirs are you solving?
- What progress in their lives are you helping them make?
When I develop a first draft, the first thing I do is go to the top of it and write down a specific reader and a sentence describing the message. Everything I do after that is driven by that choice.
In my intro, I asked you to listen at your desk, ready to write when I am done speaking.
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.
This week’s exercise
So, if you’ve been doing the exercises from the previous episodes, you should have a couple of first drafts. All you need to do now is think about who the targeted reader is what you are trying to communicate.
Be specific. I sometimes pick a specific person as a shorthand, but you could pick an unnamed reader, but don’t pick a generic one or yourself.
If you are writing programming tutorials, list out what your reader needs to know already. If you are writing career advice, what stage of their career are they reader in? Can you be even more specific? Don’t worry about being too narrow right now.
Then, pick a single question to answer or a single action to take. We’re talking about pieces that are blog or article sized. If you’re working on something bigger, think of this as being a section of a chapter in that bigger work.
Thank you for listening. This has been Write While True and since true is true, go pick a reader and message for your drafts. In the next episode we’re going to talk about what to do next.