On writing

Degas is a well-known French painter. Less-known is the fact that he played around with poetry. One day he explained to the poet Stéphane Mallarmé his struggle with writing. He said he had many ideas and yet he couldn’t write. Mallarmé answered:

Poems are not made out of ideas. They’re made with words.

There it is. That’s the best definition of writing I’ve ever heard come across. It’s all about the words. The way you connect them, the way you get rid of them. It’s about each sentence you choose, how you craft the rhythm of your sentences. I learned that varying between short sentenced and longer ones gives a personal rhythm to your writing. It helps my writing a great deal. I just did that.

I have always dedicated time to writing. Moving to Germany had a big impact on it, because speaking a different language at work fundamentally changed the way I think. I often find myself thinking in English. I dream in English. While I’m grateful about the experience, it had a negative impact on my writing. I feel limited when I write in English. I know I’m not a native speaker and I feel it every single time I write. My writing isn’t clear and fluid, there’s too much clutter. I’m a clumsy person in every day life but I’ve never felt that way in writing. My experience at school spoilt me. I used to always be the “good writer” in any class. I put no effort and yet my writing was good. The distance between my experience with Italian writing and English writing blocked me. I did not know how to fix it and a few years passed. That’s how life works: if you do nothing, nothing happens. But I couldn’t give up on writing. I like it too much. I like the act itself, it calms me down. It gives me the silence that’s so hard to find in this frenetic world.

I did what I always do when I want to know more about something: I read a few books. I must confess I was sceptical about reading on writing. I’ve always thought of writing as something you’re good at; that was my experience as an Italian student. By now, I’m convinced nothing works like that. And I’m happy I could get past this prejudice (that’s all it is). Here is a list of books I read with a short review:

  • The element of style It’s the classic everyone recommends. And rightly so: it’s a must-read. If you care about improving your English writing, this is the book for you. I have not got around to buy a dead-tree version yet, so I’m using my Kindle application to consult it every now and then. But it deserves to live on one’s desk.
  • On writing well It’s a good book. I loved the first chapters, but I can’t say I liked the rest of the book as much. After the introduction, each chapter covers writing techniques on different topics (like travelling, interviews) and some of them were too boring. I did skip some chapters, overall a good read.
  • Writing tools Above-mentioned books can teach you most of what matters about writing in English, so this book may feel a little repetitive. I enjoyed it anyway for two reasons:
    • Each chapters comes with a workshop section. The information is helpful and actionable. Great features.
    • Some repetition doesn’t hurt when you’re learning.

Reading these books taught me that writing works like everything else. Put hours of practise in and you will get better. That’s common sense: you want to get better at something, you practise it. But we’re not taught like that when it comes to writing. The problem is that we think of artists as people with innate talent. You’re either born like Dostoevskij or you’ll always write crap. Of course, this isn’t true. First of all, the goal isn’t becoming the most important novelist of the history. The goal is to enjoying writing. The goal is to feel confident about sharing what you write. If you don’t intend to write for money, you can ignore the audience. I suggest you do that anyway though. More on this part later.

Rewriting is the best part of writing

These books taught me something else. They changed my perspective on the writing process. It was a radical and enlightening discovery. They taught me to love the rewriting process. Before this experience, I had been considering the following steps:

  • Research the topic
  • Take notes
  • Get the draft

Then I would proof-read the draft with the help of someone else’s eyes and I would call it a day. It was a presumptuous process. These books, in particular on writing well, teach you to love the rewriting process, they help you understand its value. I realised I could work on my drafts and apply the rules I was learning. It was a fascinating discovery. I built some confidence as I could see I was learning. My sentences were getting better, the proof-reader started having an easier life.

Rewriting my drafts generated a series of ideas that made me love writing even more. It forced me to think of ways to get to the first draft as fast and as effortlessly as possible. That changed everything for me and two techniques emerged in very little time:

  • Note by note.
  • Outline expansion.

I couldn’t come up with a better naming for now, as a programmer I know how hard naming can be. I will explain what I mean in the coming paragraphs.

As I kept rewriting my drafts before moving on to proofreading, I realised I had never written a draft and rewritten it in one sitting. I had always put at least a few hours between the sessions. My personal explanation is that writing a draft and rewriting one require different mindsets. When I write a draft, my goal is to write everything I want to write so I can move on to the real work: the rewriting sessions. When I rewrite something, my goal is to remove all the clutter. I want to get rid of whatever is superfluous: unnecessary adverbs, adjectives, sentences or even entire paragraphs. Rewriting keeps my ego healthy. I have to tell myself “get rid of this entire paragraph you spent 30 minutes on. It doesn’t say anything”.

One question I feared when I started to rewrite my drafts was “how much rewriting is enough?” It’s a fair question, it comes up often when I talk about writing to people. I don’t know if there’s an answer that works for everyone. I don’t believe answers have such a feature. But I can share what I do: I have an upper limit of three sessions. I gave myself a hard non-negotiable limit because I’m sure there’s always room for improvement. The limit helps me to move on to other things and constrains the amount of time I spend on a single piece of writing. The time constraint gets the best out of me. I focus deeply on what I’m writing and those sessions make me feel satisfied and productive.

Note by note

I have been trying to write every day for a long time, yet I’ve struggled to come up with topics I wanted to write about. A few weeks ago, I started looking into React (a JavaScript library for building user interfaces). I was completely new to the topic and the ecosystem around React can be overwhelming. I started taking notes to help me with the learning process. After a couple of coding sessions I was looking at my notes and I realised I could transform them into a draft with little effort. That was the first time I used the note by note technique.

I started taking notes about everything I do. I don’t care if what I’m writing down is worth sharing or not. I don’t even ask that question. The point is to give myself a chance to take a bunch of notes and transform them into a draft at a later stage. Now I can get from notes to a first draft of over a thousand words in thirty minutes. This is really fast for me.

Nowadays, when I’m about to run out of items in my draft queue, I check my notes. And I always find something I can expand into an article. I found a way to write every day. It only took me seven years.

Outline expansion

I use outlining every time I have no clue what I’m doing. As that’s true for most of what I do (and yes, that’s true for you too. Don’t lie to yourself), I organise lists this way every day. When it comes to writing, it helps me to structure ideas that have been on my mind for a while. This article is a perfect example. As soon as I started researching how to improve my English writing, I knew I would want to write about it at some point. I outlined my thoughts like this:

on writing

- use all the day one writing with the "on writing" tag
- Books I read quick review
  - The element of style
  - On writing well
  - Writing tools
- The absolute necessity of getting an editor
- Make a habit out of it
- Build a drafts queue
- Get to the draft as fast as you can:
  - note by note
  - outline with paragraph expansion (use the article itself to explain it)
- Share everything you write (example of the vim article)

This is the actual outlined list I used for the article you’re reading. I shared the raw version so that it’s easier to explain how I use outlined lists. In short, it’s a guideline for my thoughts. It works like this:

  • I paste the outlined list into my editor.
  • I expand one point after the other.
  • If a point doesn’t fit where it is, I move past it.
  • If I’m left with points I couldn’t expand, I get rid of them.

As you can see from the example above, “make a habit out it” and “the absolute necessity of getting an editor” did not make it to the final article. I believe they are important topics but I couldn’t find a way to make them flow with the rest of the content. Furthermore, “get to the draft as fast as you can” ended up being three different paragraphs. While writing the article, I realised I cared too much about “rewriting”, so only mentioning it didn’t work.

As with the “note by note” technique, I try to expand all the points in one session, but it doesn’t always work for me. Sometimes I get tired of using this technique, because I don’t have enough content in the outline list already. In that sense, the “note by note” technique works better as it’s faster. For example, I wrote the first draft of this article in one sitting. It took me less than two hours and I couldn’t be happier with the result. But it was almost 1900 words and the writing session left me very tired.

Share everything you write

We have the tendency to overestimate our forecasting capabilities. It’s called overconfidence effect. I feel the effect of this bias every time I publish something. 2017 is a perfect example: the only article I thought wasn’t worth sharing got more attention than the rest of the articles together. I couldn’t believe it. I decided that the best strategy against this bias is ignoring it completely. I won’t ask myself if an article is worth sharing or not. I’ll share whatever I write because I love writing. Besides, from time to time someone tells me they found my writing helpful. That’s a beautiful and powerful idea: I do something just because I like it and that helps someone else. I wish many more things in life would be like writing.

Thank you for reading me and stay tuned for the next article!

You can subscribe to my newsletter if you liked this article. I will send you an email every time I publish something new. No spam, just articles.