I had originally intended to write a reflection post sometime in April, after I had published around six posts on my blog. The intention to do so was equal parts intriguing and equal parts convenient. The convenience came from how it would be a ‘placeholder’ should I not find something to write about. Better sense prevailed alongside the realisation that half a dozen posts is a rather small sample, particularly for a first-time blogger, to draw any meaningful insight out of.
Also, the first few posts is what I call a personal floundering to find a way to write regularly. I put off the idea for another time. After a slight delay in coming up with a post, this is what I wrote instead. As you can probably tell, I did not have to look too far from home for inspiration.
It has been a little under 3 months and I have written a dozen posts, this is that another time I was talking about. The bonus for waiting is (I think) I may possibly have something worthwhile.
Before I get to that, it is important to talk about a little personal system I have incrementally developed over the weeks to write, starting with a few aspects of how I manage information.
- I use Feedly to aggregate all of my information feeds into one convenient place. I did not do this specifically for ThisIsWater (TiW). It started out as my single-window for information consumption and to declutter my mailbox in early 2020
- Since the ‘Great Digital Purge of February 2020’, the emails I receive from publications that I have subscriptions to are organised through mailbox rules and filters.
- I archive interesting essays, research, etc., into ‘TiW_Prompts’ – a Feedly board which acts as a personal library, and I label them similarly in my mailbox.
The motivation to develop a system comes from something that I often tell myself – will power is overrated when it comes to building discipline.
The first couple of posts that I wrote (Phantasia) and (Inner Perseverance…) were outcomes of concentrated spurts of a few hours. It was aided by the fact that these ideas were on simmer for sometime along with some of their arguments. Firstly, I could not sustain writing like that. And secondly, I did not want to lose my discipline for want of better planning. Writing deserves attention. For the habit to endure, it has to be non-intrusive.
My current, very-much-in-its-early days system, is to ‘ship’ a post every Thursday through pre-set milestones. I get around to these milestones starting the very next day after I have shipped a previous post.
I have come to the realisation that our lives are basically a movie with incredulous plot twists every five seconds. The inception of realisations comes when we learn the antagonist designing these plot twists so precisely is actually us.
Wanting to do something else right when we are doing a specific thing is possibly the bane of our modern existence.
It is difficult to spend time doing something guilt-free. ‘I shouldn’t be watching this much Netflix’, ‘I shouldn’t be reading random things on the internet’, and the final nail – ‘I should be more productive’.
To avoid this constant, vicious circle of perpetual angst (that I am even otherwise trying to avoid), I moved most of my reading to the weekend so that I can add balance to my week.
(On a related note, Annie Dillard has a wonderful book called ‘The Writing Life’ where she talks about prioritising “presence over productivity”. Here is a blog post about the book.)
The first post I wrote after deciding to ship a post every Thursday was ‘Returning Attention to its Rightful Owners’. Like every other time humanity has tried to implement something new, it was remarkably distant from the expected outcome. I spent a lot longer on this post and accumulated on the day I sent it out than I had on anything else on TiW.
The reason is quite simple – I read extensively and I just could not pick one idea to write about. While each one had its independent merits, I had no way to objectively compare two or at times a few ideas and pick one. A classic ‘explore vs exploit’ conundrum.
I very serendipitously came across a book, right around that time, by Pete Davis, titled Dedicated. It talks about the tensions between two distinct cultures that dominate our present narrative – the culture of options and the counterculture of commitment. I am also in an interesting place professionally where some of my current choices look like different directions to the same end, albeit with different risk profiles. The book hit close to home.
The point that I am trying to make is certain decisions are significant and irreversible, and you cannot default to a choice with a time cutoff. (There are other methods you can deploy there. More on this another time.) You do not have to read the book to know that picking what to write every week is so ridiculously low-stakes that it does not matter as long as you pick some thing.
I pick a topic and have a premise drafted by Monday. The premise is just a few lines to set the tone for the post.
Write like nobody is reading. Rewrite like everybody is.
The more time I spent in forming arguments about the idea, structuring it, and drawing dreaded skeleton outlines beforehand, the less I actually wrote.
Worse, I did not make any measurable progress on developing the idea either. Only when I started writing did I manage to connect the dots. It is best to separate writing and rewriting to different times of the days or if you can (and you most definitely can), to different days.
Rewriting is a lot like the ninety-ninety rule in computer programming
The first 90 percent of the code accounts for the first 90 percent of the development time. The remaining 10 percent of the code accounts for the other 90 percent of the development time
I typically designate one 2-hour slot in the morning on Tuesdays to get about two-thirds of a first-cut ready, or two 1-hour slots in the morning and the evening that same day. This is to make sure I have enough time to rewrite.
I rewrite over Wednesday and Thursday taking stabs at it twice or thrice a day depending on where the draft is at. This rewriting takes approximately 10-15 mins per attempt (or stab). Sometimes, it is just specific segments where transitions are awkward or is too wordy. The quality of the draft significantly improves without having to spend a lot of time on it.
Another advantage of committing to an idea by Monday is that I give myself sufficient time, before I sit down to write, to think through different approaches and draw connections to the things that I already know. I am sheepishly pleased with some of the lateral linkages I was able to make in my posts.
When something better comes along the way, change what you do. I found this Twitter thread by Julian Shapiro that was so revelatory that everything I had known about writing seemed silly. While the whole thread is solid, sensible advice, the way I picked what to write about specifically changed. I started writing about things that I was interested enough to want to know more about.
Code and Common Sense was the first one that I published through this approach. I then went on to write ‘One Man’s Savings Is..’ about how the savings of the ultra-rich 1-percenters inadvertently widened inequality by tying up the middle and lower income households in unproductive debt.
I would have 100% been ambivalent about picking these topics because I would have questioned myself (into paralysis) if these were consistent with my earlier posts.
If I have to summarise my system, it will read the following way –
1/ Read extensively. Stick to what you usually read. It is usually more about removing subjects/ sources than adding them.
2/ Commit to an idea that interests you. Remember that there is a lot of noise around what is an interesting idea when the scale is general. When the scale is personal, you know what interests you and it is a ton of fun to follow through.
3/ Write well in advance to your shipping day. Rewrite as many times as you can before you actually ship it out.
4/ Improve when some things do not work – going back to your fundamental motivation to write should be your North Star when you come unstuck
Oh and once you have sent it along into the interweb, it does not matter what you get back – good things, bad things, or just crickets. Rinse and Repeat.
It is your labour of love. Pain and pleasure are both a part of it.