Thoughts from 200 days of blogs

Today I hit 200 days straight of writing and publishing this blog. I was inspired to do the challenge by a Seth Godin interview on Modern Wisdom, Chris Williamson’s podcast, where they talked about the importance of process in your work. For 200 days, I have sat for an hour at my laptop each evening and shared my thoughts in 500 words.   

Here are the lessons I have learnt: 

1, Just write what you are thinking – the beauty of focusing on the process and the daily deadline is you remove the need for the work to be perfect before you publish. I sit down at the end of the day and write what is on my mind. I was always terrible at writing at school, from special 1:1 English lessons with learning support at primary school to poor marks on essays during GCSEs – I could do maths and science, and I could talk for England, I just did not get writing. It took me years and a lot of work before it clicked, but I still feel self-conscious about producing extended writing for work. The beauty of writing for its own sake is you have space to learn and develop a style – and connect your thoughts with the words you put on the page.

2, Consume with intention – A side effect of writing what is on your mind at the end of each day is that you start to look out for things that make you think, challenge your assumptions, or inspire you. Life becomes a little richer because you pay more attention. My mum instilled a habit of reading through example, constant trips to the public library, periods of no TV growing up, and paying for my first-years subscription to the Economist when I started at the LSE. With a constant flow of input, producing a daily output becomes easy. 

3, Challenge your thinking and make connections – If I got my reading habit from my mum, I inherited my memory from my Dad. I am not a fast reader; I like to read, reread, and spent time deep in thought when something strikes a chord. My wife often catches me in these deep contemplative moments where I stare out the window vacantly, making random connections from something I learned six years ago. When she asks what I am thinking about, as a running joke, I tend to reply ‘football’ (apparently the second most common thought for an Englishman) or, if that fails ‘The tension between utilitarianism and free will’ (an essay question from my ‘Modern political thought’ module at uni). These periods of contemplation allow me to pull up related memories of something I heard on an audible book while shopping in Tescos, from a random article, or a conversation over coffee many years ago. I try to capture these connections in my writing, spending a bit of time finding the source of the memory and adding it to the essay.

4, turn comments off and write your authentic thoughts – I decided that I was writing for the process and not the outcome at the start of this journey. I would be lying if I said I did not care if anyone reads my posts, I have an ego like anyone else, and I am humbled that 184 people worldwide follow my blog and get 20-30 views per day from every corner of the world. It is unbelievably satisfying when someone in a conversation mentions they have read the blog or that something in a post connected with them. However, in the podcast that started my practice, Seth says that he turns comments off so that the anticipation of people’s reactions will not colour what he writes. I wanted my writing to be authentic, so I turned them off too. I have the link to my social media at the top of each page, so I know if there is a fact check, something accidentally offensive, or someone wants to connect, they can; it is just not directly accessibly under my writing. The Economist famously does not include bylines on their articles for a similar reason, and I think it is a great way to remove some of the fear of putting your thoughts out into the ether. 

5, Technology is incredible – Grammarly might just be the best invention since the printing press for writers who lack confidence. I use Grammarly with the assistant turned off as my word processor, then turn the assistant on for edits. Grammarly has a clean interface, the editing tools in the premium version make a substantial difference, and the immediate feedback is teaching me to be a better writer. We do, however, disagree on the use of the Oxford comma, but no technology is perfect. I publish using WordPress.com as its reader tool provides an instant audience. I save articles to Instapaper to read later and highlight key ideas, and I link it to Readwise to automatically save the highlights and send me collections of these daily. I do most of my book reading with a Kindle for the same reason. I link Readwise to Roam Research which allows me to find anything I have ever highlighted with a particular word to supplement my memory making connections. I automatically post links to everything I write to my Twitter account, link to my blog via my Instagram, and post a link to anything I write related to Learning Design to my Linkedin profile.

My life now

I drove down to the south coast a few days ago, and my wife put on a podcast with Alan De Botton, who made a brief comment on how religions all seem to understand that the effectiveness of learning is highly related to the architectural environment where you learn. That observation got me thinking, while driving, about learning spaces and the vast investment universities make in beautiful campuses. The seed was watered today when I visited the Canterbury Cathedral – how much easier it must have been in 1000 AD to understand the idea of an all-powerful God when you were sat in an incredible, gigantic, and ornately decorated space. The idea will continue to percolate while I stare out of our Margate Airbnb’s third-floor window overlooking the sea. Tomorrow I will find the podcast again and listen to the clip to note it down accurately before searching out some research on how our learning is connected to the environmental context. I will then sit down in front of the sea-facing window and write 500 words on the importance of learning spaces.

Think first, then write

Cal Newport recently published a post titled ‘In Defense of Thinking‘ where he writes about the importance of spending time thinking about what to say before writing. He argues it is the deep contemplation, not the writing, that is important. This idea is in direct opposition to writers’ advice to just sit down each day and get in a predefined word count done.

My working habits are simple: long periods of thinking, short periods of writing.

Ernest Hemingway

When I started studying at the LSE, I had not written an essay in several years. In the first few weeks, I read the university’s ‘Strategies for success’ study skills handbook guidance. The guidance given was that a large portion of the marks came from the quality of the answer to the essay question rather than just writing everything you could remember about the topic. The argument should be laid out in a single sentence in the introduction, with the rest of the writing build around this. The handbook said to think of an essay as a game where you show you can think and have read widely and then evidence your knowledge, analysis, critical skills and understanding. 

The typical format of the exam essays was to spend 45-60 minutes on a single question. From this time, we were taught to use 5-10 minutes to plan out the answer and structure of the argument. Within the 45 minutes, the aim was for around 1000 words that included a structured introduction, conclusion, and at least four paragraphs, each covering a specific justification of the answer. This structure was critical in making you think about the reasoning of your argument and structure theories, examples, rules, and texts to support it.

Writing guides like Writing that works by Keith Roman and Ninja Writing by Shani Raja suggest you start by structuring the narrative as bullet points before you write it out in continuous pros. Andres Erricson in Peak suggests that good writers start with what they want the reader to do before building an argument. The 5-10 minute essay plan, the bulleted narrative, and beginning with the call to action are tools to help you think about what to write before you start to put it into extended writing.

Experts do it differently. Consider how my coauthor and I put this book together. First, we had to figure out what we wanted the book to do. What did we want readers to learn about expertise? What concepts and ideas were important to introduce? How should a reader’s ideas about training and potential be changed by reading this book? Answering questions like these gave us our first rough mental representation of the book – our goals for it, what we wanted it to accomplish. Of course, as we worked more and more on the book, that initial image evolved, but it was a start.  

Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool

When you pick up books on writing that talk about the practice of writing as a method to beating writers blog, question if the approach being given will lead to quality writing. That last 45 minutes of actual writing might be the end product of hours of reading and thinking before sitting down to work. Separate your thinking from your writing and only write once you have something meaningful to say. This practice is about quality over quantity in your writing and about making you more intelligent in the process.

An introduction to persuasive writing

Most of the time, we try to make writing complicated or create an outline without considering the outcome we are trying to achieve. Next time you write something, try and first think about what you want the reader to do with the information and put it at the top of the page. 

Next, try to limit your writing to the three most critical points that the reader needs to know to take that action. Keeping the number of points to three helps the reader remember them, keeps your writing concise, and makes you spend time doing more in-depth analysis on what matters. Note down the three points and supporting evidence as bullet points in an order that flows.

Good ideas ought not to be dressed up in bad prose.

Barbara Minto

Once you have the call to action and the main points written down as notes, turn them into full sentences. You can use Grammarly to help you with your language and polish the piece without spending much time on editing. Evaluate the work once it is written to make sure it fulfils the original purpose of making the reader take action, if not, revisit your three points and make them stronger.

Great wirting is talking edited

Steve Crescenzo

Use a final read-through to read it out loud and pick up any issues with flow. If it is easy for you to read it out loud, then it will be easy for someone to read it in their head. Correct anything you need to, and then you are done.

The four simple steps to writing persuasive arguments

  1. Put down what you want the reader to do 
  2. note the three most important things the reader needs to understand to take that action 
  3. Write 
  4. Ask yourself: If I was the reader, would I take action based on what is written?