November 13, 2018

Tips for Writing

I've been writing this blog for 10 years, and writing code for more than 30 years. Some people have asked me how did you “find your voice”? Actually no one has asked me that. If they did I wouldn't really have a good answer. I've heard that everyone has 100,000 words of mediocre writing in them, and it's probably similar with lines of code. So write often, fast-forward to the good stuff, here are some tips for writing prose or code:

Physical Space
Find a quiet room in your house with a fan or white noise machine, or a crowded place with lots of people and just let them be the background noise, for free. Or play music if you prefer, with headphones, so long as the risk of someone coming behind and braining you is low. Headphones or earbuds are good if you are not in the position to colonize the sonic landscape around you, like you are one the bus, or it's the middle of the night.

Good quality speakers are better if you are alone, or with people who do not mind the music you are going to play. They might even appreciate that you are playing music so you can send them messages based on what music you pick. Messages like “get away from me” or “I'm dying inside” or “you are doing a good job living your life, I appreciate it”. At any rate, a good sound source is important to mask the sickening crunch of the keys as you bang your head on them long into the night.

Environmental Sounds
Speaking of head banging, make sure the appliances in your house are loud, almost deafening as their compressors and fans turn on and off all night long. Devices that beep at odd times are especially helpful. The very best is a phone alarm going off when you cannot find the phone, and when you have no idea who set the alarm or for what purpose. If you are in an open plan office the non-stop stream of annoying and jarring sounds comes for free. These all might seem like annoyances, but they can actually poke and prod you into doing the right thing with your text.

If you do need “noise coverage” but you cannot stand music right then, play white noise or “environmental sounds” like city traffic or thunderstorms. White noise tracks will often start out quiet and get louder, this will make you more alert, or they will start loud and get quieter, this will decompress you, let the air right out of the balloon. See the above album images for ideas of keyword to search for. Playlists designed to put you to sleep and actually keep you alert, depending on your state of mind.

Priming the pump
Read read read. Read books, magazines, newspapers, blogs, highway signs, fortune cookies, recipes, shampoo bottles, obituaries, Facebook posts, terms of service, bills, privacy disclosures, source code, tweets, twists and turns. Read stuff you like, but also stuff you don’t like. Don’t torture yourself, maybe don't read the full terms of service, but read a paragraph once in a while. Keep coming back to the same sources if they were too hard or boring the first time, you might find they do have a purpose in your life, but that purpose was not revealed until later.

Growing up my family subscribed to the Washington Post, on paper, there was no web back then. I used to read the stock market listings, just because it was soothing, with very little knowledge of what it meant. Some people read sports box scores for the same reason. The full-color Sunday comic section back then was amazing, I rushed to read the latest Calvin and Hobbes and Dilbert comics, among many others. Kids these days prefer memes made up of just a single image, how sad is that, how can a single image be that funny or contain multiple overlapping meanings? Hint: they can.

You should read often, for many different reasons. One is to find your style, but another is just to learn more about the world so you have more facts, ideas, and connections that you can make. Many believe that thinking is primarily is the ability to come up with good analogies, so you need to inculcate that ability, like a medical student needs to learn how to write illegibly. Besides reading consider listening to podcasts and audio books. Seeing text and hearing spoken language are different, and each will evolve your mind in a slightly different direction. Plus people will say things during an interview that they'd never take the time to write down.

Listen to meditation apps like Waking Up or the Insight Timer, if even if you don't actually meditate. The Insight Timer has over 13,000 recorded meditations and lessons, imagine how many printed pages that would be? Watch Twitch streams of gamers playing or programmers coding. See this list on Social Blade. Alexa can read you an audio book while you putter around the house.

First draft
A lot of people say throw down your first draft down quickly before you edit anything. I do this to a point, but I'm usually lured into editing as I go. The drawback of early editing is that you might later cut that whole section, and then the editing was a waste. However unless I have some decent paragraphs written to orient me, I will lose my motivation, I'll feel like finishing is hopeless. I need to glimpse that continuing is worth while or I'm not inspired to continue.

Generally the goal with writing is to communicate something to the mind of another person. What makes this hard is that words and sentences don’t always mean the same thing to two different people. Someone might even conclude the exact opposite of what you intended. You cannot prevent this entirely, but strive to be clear as possible and write truthfully. When things get too frustrating, find a good stopping point, like right now, put your draft away for a while. Even if just for 20 minutes.

The Signal vs. The creme

The reader's or listener's brain makes predictions as they go along. If their brain's predictions are almost always right, the reader will get bored, literally start to yawn, and will probably stop reading. They already know what you are going to say. If, on the other hand, their brain is always guessing wrong, they will get confused and frustrated, they have no idea what you are talking about, they'll probably stop reading very quickly.

You want to hit that sweet spot, where the underlying carrier wave is predictable and pleasing, where it is something the reader or listener can easily follow, and he will enjoy following it, but then there's a nice creme of novelty layered on top. This can be bitter or sweet creme.

Your carrier signal is as important as the creme. If you make it too simplistic, advanced readers are going to think you have nothing to say. However if you make it too complex, then less advanced readers will get turned off. It's okay to turn people off on purpose, it's like having a bouncer at the entrance; he throws out the riff raff, but be cognizant of exactly who you are turning off, and whether you are doing it on purpose.


I tend to keep rereading the whole piece from the top, looking for problems, for things that don't flow or don't make sense. Did I make an assertion and not defend it? Did I go into way too much detail on something? Do the words flow? Does the rhythm of the sentences seem pleasing? How is my word choice? Should I combine some sentences? Should I split apart some sentences? At what point do I myself get bored, while reading my own stuff? Do you a need to add some humor? Is it too jokey?

The number one skill you need to develop is the ability to read your own writing and recognize, intuitively, automatically, when something is not quite right. Separately you need to develop the intestinal fortitude, bravery, focus and patience to fix that things until it is right, no matter how many tries it takes. You are not done until you can read it through and find no glaring problems. If you cannot read it uneventfully, there's almost no chance another person is going like it.

It can feel a little OCD to go over the text so many times, but it's necessary, it's like sanding wood when you think your done there is another level of smoothness you can try for.  Edit at different times of the day, maybe after you just exercised, or maybe just before you eat. Maybe the morning you does not like what midnight you wrote? However don't count out midnight you, he might be the only one with the bleary intensity to cough up the good raw uninhibited stuff. However for me refreshed eyes are needed when editing, you need cold crisp reasoning to edit well.

The insightful essayist Paul Graham once posted an animation of his writing process, of just the screen as the text evolved. There were was a lot of rewriting, it made you realize it's okay to rewrite over and over.

Imagine you alone are a two dozen wikipedia authors in the form of a Being John Malkovich style writer-puppet, and the collective you is editing a single wiki article. One of you can look for punctuation errors, while another adds raw ideas, a third will check facts using Google, another keeps typing in funny remarks, yet another cuts them out because they were over the top. A quirky trick is change the font face and the font size, just temporarily. The text will read differently as 18 pt Garamond verses 9 point Futura.

Speaking of ideas, get ideas from anywhere, your family, your friends, your neighbors. Your friend's neighbors, your family's friends. If you live in a neighborhood crack into your neighbor's wifi network and sniff packets looking for ideas to steal. Or better yet just periodically talk to them about their day and the characters in their life. Use this material to generate ideas for your writing. If writing code, this is still valuable, you need a broad understanding of the world to use good analogies in your design, plus comments are in fact just prose, just regular writing.

Use Google every time you cannot find a piece of information, but also use it for inspiration. Use image search often, you can scan through literally 1000 images in a few minutes. You might find something random you weren't expecting. Whenever you get stuck, get unstuck quickly, don't ever stop dead.

Yet don't over rely on Google or your spell checker either. If you know something, inside your head, then close your eyes and breath in and out and see if something comes to mind. If you get a redline spelling error, resist clicking to suggestions, backspace and figure it out yourself. Use Google early and often, but not too early or too often. Avoid getting trapped in the honeypots that are all over the internet, luring in social bees and transforming them into cogs in the planet-wide advertising machine.

If you are fumbling with your typing, you are doing it wrong, you need to type slower. Slowing down on everyday tasks is like embedding bits of meditation into your daily routine. Type your passwords as slowly has humanly possible. Take a few laps around the house after taking out the garbage. Wash your dishes by hand and then also run them through the dishwasher. When shaving see how slowly you can drag the blade across your face, listening to the scratchy crackle of your whiskers being sheered off one at a time.

Read an entire bill or invoice that gets sent to you, especially if you have no time to do it. Write out a check very slowly. Address an envelope for that bill as if it were a wedding invitation. If stuck for an idea, sit quietly until a mail cart, clanking away on rickety tracks, delivers something from the depths of your musty, maze-like cognitive subbasement.

You need to be rested to write well. So get get enough sleep, things will look better and clearer the next day. Drink enough water, but avoid caffeine, sugar, artificial sweeteners, milkshakes and more than three Manhattan Ice Teas per hour.

Exercise at least 20 minutes a day. This can include walking upstairs because you forgot your reading glasses, doing a load of laundry, or washing the dishes. Or just kind of dancing around pretending you know Karate, or Tai Chi or Yoga.

Finally always do a quick metta meditation before or after writing. Living with a writer or coder is no picnic, so send good vibes to those who you love. Follow these tips and maybe they will help you on your writing escapades!

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