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Last active Jul 4, 2019

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Backup: Julian.com/guide/write
### Page 1
Intro
Style is a small part of writing well. The majority is thinking clearly.
If you can think clearly, you can find something to say. That’s the point of writing publicly.
You see, this guide is a ruse: its secondary goal is teaching you critical thinking.
By thinking critically, you navigate contradictions and connect the dots others aren’t seeing. You challenge the status quo. You contribute insights. Sometimes, you make people feel.
That’s what it means to have something to say.
To write well is to think well.
Why become a great writer?
There are many reasons to write. My favorite is leverage.
Leverage
If you have something important to say and you say it profoundly, you send strangers down paths they badly need.
It’s a disservice to humanity to keep great thoughts to yourself. Especially when you consider the scale of writing: articles can reach thousands.
Writing is the most radical thing you can do without money. Skilled writers change the world from their couch.
That’s leverage.
Connection
My favorite perk of writing is meeting interesting people.
The most efficient way to meet interesting people is to become someone they want to meet.
How? By doing cool things and blogging about it. Or podcasting about it. Or recording videos.
When you produce content with an authentic voice, people want to meet the person behind that voice.
It's the easiest way to expose yourself to the greatest number of people.
Clarity
Writing is mostly thinking, which means becoming a better writer makes you a better thinker. You learn to communicate more clearly and persuasively.
Smart writers became brilliant by writing. It's how they realized their potential.
Topics
This handbook covers nonfiction, but much of it applies to fiction. For reference:
Nonfiction: Opinion pieces, guides, real stories, reporting
Fiction: Novels, screenplays, poetry
You'll learn both phases of nonfiction: discovering ideas and rewriting them.
Discover ideas: Choose worthwhile topics
Discover ideas: Generate insights‍
Rewrite for intrigue: Keep readers engaged‍
Rewrite for clarity: Be understood‍
Rewrite for succinctness: Get to the point‍
Rewrite for style: Expose your voice
I’ll provide a cheat sheet at the end, but I recommend taking notes. Reading without note-taking is like exploring new territory without drawing a map.
Who should read this?
This handbook is for:
Aspiring writers who fear publishing themselve online: This will provide you with confidence in your process — so you hopefully take the leap and publish.
Professional writers wanting to reach the top 1%: You’ll acquire new writing insights, and you’ll better understand what makes you write well.
Who’s Julian Shapiro?
I write handbooks on mastering complex topics. They’ve been read by millions.
I’m also a columnist at TechCrunch, and the writer of a boring programming book published by Pearson. You can learn more about me here.
Here's a blog post that demonstrates my writing ability: What to work on.
A quote to kick us off
What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you.
– Carl Sagan
### Page 2
What are you writing about?
The best topic to write about is the one you can’t not write about.
It’s the idea bouncing around your head that urges you to get to the bottom of it.
You can trigger this state of mind by focusing on two principles. First, choose an objective for your article:
Open people’s eyes by proving the status quo wrong.
Articulate something everyone’s thinking about but no one is saying. Cut through the noise. Example post.
Identify key trends on a topic. Use them to predict the future. Example.
Contribute original insights through research and experimentation. Example.
Distill an overwhelming topic into something approachable. (This guide.)
Share a solution to a tough problem. Example.
Tell a suspenseful and emotional story that imparts a lesson. Example.
Now pair that objective with a motivation:
Does writing this article get something off your chest?
Does it help reason through a nagging, unsolved problem you have?
Does it persuade others to do something you believe is important?
Do you obsess over the topic and want others to geek out over it too?
That’s all that's needed: Pair an objective with a motivation. Now you have something to talk about.
Next, you'll find your perspective on the topic. That’s what your introduction is for.
Which idea, of all those swimming inside your brain, are you compelled to pursue the way Ahab was driven to hunt Moby Dick?
– Steven Pressfield
What’s on this page
This page teaches how to choose worthy topics and write introductions for them.
Introductions with a twist
In school, you were taught introductions do two things:
Describe the importance of your topic.
Summarize your key points.
Ignore that advice.
Your real objective is to hook readers into reading more.
It doesn’t matter how you hook them, so long as you later fulfill your hook.
A hook is not a gimmick. It’s a fundamental psychological principle: A great intro — like an electrifying opening to a film — buys goodwill with your audience.
Buy enough goodwill and readers overlook a weak first half of your article. They ride the momentum of your great opening.
A great intro is an insurance policy for your mistakes.
What exactly is a hook?
A hook is any half-told story:
Questions — Pose an intriguing question, but don’t give the answer.
Narratives — Share the beginning of a narrative, but withhold the conclusion.
Discoveries — Highlight new findings, but only a portion.
Arguments — Present your case, but not how you arrived at it.
Hooks tease your best talking points. They urge readers to keep reading.
This guide’s hook was telling you that writing is mostly thinking, and that I’ll make you a better thinker by the end of this guide.
How to generate hooks
You create hooks by finding questions you want answers to:
Ask yourself, “If someone else wrote my intro, what are the most captivating questions they could pose to make me excited to read this?”
Write those questions down. Even if you lack the answers.
Rank your questions by how much they interest you.
The top questions become your hooks: Pose them in your intro and don't reveal their answers.
You and your audience evolved the same storytelling machinery in your heads, so questions that hook you will hook most of them too.
When generating hooks, you discover what both you and your audience genuinely care to learn about.
If you’re stuck
If you can’t come up with questions, you don’t know enough about your topic yet.
Read to fill in the gaps. Knowledge is ammunition for recognizing which are the good questions to ask.
Question examples
If you’re writing about bodybuilding, interesting questions might include:
Can you build a significant amount of muscle within three months? How do all the celebrities playing superheroes do it?
Turn this into a hook → Yes, you can build a significant amount of muscle in three months. I’ll walk you through how celebrities do it.
Is it possible to build all that muscle without going to the gym? Can you buy affordable home equipment instead?
Turn this into a hook → You can build that muscle without going to the gym. There’s affordable home equipment that makes it possible.‍
Or, maybe it’s one of life's big questions:
How can we comfortably live our lives when hundreds of millions still suffer through poverty, famine, and war — through no choice of their own?
Or, perhaps it’s “boring” research on job statistics:
Which easy-to-get jobs will pay much higher wages in the near future? In 2019, which careers are the best investment in my future?
Which jobs are still considered great, but are on track to have their wages cut in half over the next few years, and will leave you without transferable skills?
Everything can be made interesting when framed through compelling questions.
Your questions don’t have to be mind-blowingly interesting. They just have to be good enough for your target audience to keep reading.
Hooks become talking points
When you identify a good hook, you also identify an interesting talking point. Because the question's answer becomes an idea you’ll explore in your article.
This means if you find really interesting hooks, you’re forced to write a really interesting article that can answer them.
That’s the point.
Hooks show you what a job well done looks like. This is why you're reading a whole page about introductions and hooks.
Hooks save time
It gets even better.
When hooks are the first part of your article, you have a critical opportunity to ask others for feedback: “After reading my intro, do you want to keep reading?”
If they say no, you saved yourself from writing an article no one cares about.
If they say yes, you'll have confidence you've found an interesting perspective.
Writers think the best time to ask for feedback is after their first draft. No, the most efficient time to ask is after writing your introduction.
Combatting skepticism
Think of hooks as pulling your readers toward you.
There’s also a force pushing them away: skepticism.
Often, skepticism outweighs the strength of your hooks, and readers quit reading early. You can do something about this. You can proactively counter the five types of skepticism within your intro:
Superficial: This is the skepticism of readers not believing you’ll share things they don’t already know.
Solution: Tease your original insights in your introduction.‍
Irrelevant: Readers don’t believe you’ll cover key points they care about.
Solution: List the points you’ll cover.‍
Sloppy: Readers don’t want to sit through more bad writing.
Solution: Rewrite your intro to be clear, succinct, and intriguing.‍
Implausible: Readers don’t believe you’ll answer your hooks well.
Solution: Make your hooks realistic. Don’t over-sell.‍
Untrustworthy: Readers don’t believe you're qualified to write about your topic.
Solution: If you have relevant credentials, share them. If not, make your hooks so captivating that they can't help but continue reading. Make the rest of your post so insightful, logical, and well-researched that they don’t question you further.
An example of combatting skepticism
For an example of an introduction that both hooks you and combats your skepticisms, click the button below to show the first section of my Muscle Guide.
While reading its intro, identify the sentences that establish credibility, novelty, and depth in an attempt to combat your skepticisms.
Muscle guide intro+
How to ask for feedback
Let’s return to the topic of asking for feedback. It's the only way to validate that your hooks work.
It's important to ask for a specific type of feedback:
Ask several people to rate your intro from 1 to 10 on how interested they are in reading more. Also ask, “If you were writing about this topic, what questions would you most want answered?” If their questions captivate you, swap them in.
To avoid high scores from friends just wanting to be kind, tell them: “Don’t be afraid to give me a low score. The more that people tell me this isn’t good yet, the more I'm motivated to make it even better. You’ll be helping me focus.”
Keep asking for feedback and rewriting your intro until you reach an average of 8/10. An 8 validates you’ve identified a compelling perspective. It’s a sign that self-doubt is probably unjustified.
I've never averaged above 8.5/10. Just aim to make your intro interesting enough to get readers wanting more. Don't chase perfection.
Where are you in the writing process?
This page explained the importance of a captivating intro, and how hooks are the backbone of an intro. By generating hooks, you also discover what to write about.
The next page explains how to generate answers to the hooks you raised.
Here's the writing process you'll follow:
Choose a topic
Write your intro, and use it to brainstorm talking points
Get feedback on your intro ← You're here
Create a starting outline ← The next page covers this
Explore talking points within your outline ← And it covers this
Rewrite for clarity, succinctness, and intrigue
Cycle between rewriting, resting, and receiving feedback
Copy edit for grammar, word choice, and flow
Overcoming procrastination−
If you procrastinate occasionally, that’s normal. Forgive yourself. If you procrastinate endlessly, that’s a problem. Read on.
Beating short-term procrastination
Procrastination consists of two reflexes:
Avoiding tedium.
Indulging in distractions.
You can chip away at both.
Avoid tedium by making writing easy
Keep making the next step as small as is needed to not appear tedious.
A benefit of writing an intro first is that it's a small, doable step.
When first sitting down, your only goal is to write a brief intro.
Your next goal is to get feedback and iterate on it. Once it scores 8/10, your enthusiasm will turn into momentum: Outline the rest of your post and tackle only one section at a time.
Make it impossible to indulge in distractions
Use a website blocker and leave your phone in another room.
This isn’t optional.
No one who’s grown up with the Internet has the strength to ignore it for more than an hour when they're already sitting at their computer.
I use the Chrome extension Block Site for its Work Mode: I blacklist time-wasting sites and it blocks them in 25 minute increments.
You can also listen to atmospheric music to reduce your susceptibility to distractions. A steady beat without vocals helps put you in a trance.
Here’s my writing playlist. I'm listening to it as I'm writing this.
The reality of long-term procrastination
Procrastination over the span of months is a sign you chose a topic you’re not as passionate about as you think you are. It's time for a new direction.
Revisit the six objectives and cross-check them with what motivates you today.
Takeaways
The best topic is whichever fulfills a meaningful objective and motivation for you.
Start your brainstorming process by prematurely writing your intro. In discovering how to make your intro interesting to you, you'll also discover how to interest and hook readers. It'll become clear what the captivating talking points are.
Ask others for feedback after you've written your intro. Sanity check your hooks.
If feedback-givers have skepticisms, proactively address them in your intro. If they have other questions they care about, swap them in if they captivate you too.
Ultimately, your intro serves two key purposes: It helps you generate worthy ideas and it hooks readers into reading the full article.
### Page 3
The goal
The goal of your first draft isn’t to say things well. Save that for rewriting.
Your first draft is for generating ideas:
Brainstorm talking points.
Connect the dots between those points to learn what you’re really trying to say.
This works best when you’re exploring ideas that most interest you. The more self-indulgent you are, the better your article. More on this shortly.
When you write a first draft, you write it for yourself. When you rewrite it, you write it for everyone else.
– Stephen King
Start with your objective
Before writing, choose an objective to focus your thinking.
Here again are the objectives from the previous page:
Open people’s eyes by proving the status quo wrong.
Articulate something everyone’s thinking about but no one is saying. Cut through the noise.
Identify key trends on a topic. Then use them to predict the future.
Contribute original insights to a field through your research and experimentation.
Distill an overwhelming topic into something approachable.
Share a solution to a tough problem.
Tell a suspenseful and emotional story that imparts a lesson.
An objective reveals what your article must accomplish to be successful. You can work backwards from it to identify your talking points.
There are two types of talking points:
Supporting points: Which points are needed to make my argument?
Resulting points: What are the implications of my argument being true?
Writing your first draft is the art of generating these two talking points.
The first draft process
Here’s the process you'll explore:
Choose an objective for your post.
Write a messy braindump of your ideas.
Transfer your best talking points to an outline.
Write your first draft using that outline.
2. Write down your initial thoughts
Start by writing down half-formed thoughts.
Brainstorm without structure. Uncork your mind to see what floods out.
Ideas will come from a few places:
Hooks: Answer the captivating questions raised in your intro.
Experience: Reflect on observations and anecdotes.
Research: Acquire knowledge.
Experiments: Run tests.
Brainstorming: Voice-record then transcribe your thoughts.
Mental models: Think critically.
See my companion post on mental models (coming soon). When I said this guide’s secondary goal is to teach you critical thinking, this is partly what I was referring to.
It’s normal if not many ideas come to mind immediately. You’ll often discover your best ideas while writing — not before. You write in order to think.
You'll discover even more ideas by resting and reflecting on what you’ve written. The act of writing compels your brain to draw connections between ideas. It can’t help itself.
People think you need to be inspired to write. No, you write in order to get inspired.
– Paul Jarvis
Interesting talking points
While brainstorming, focus on ideas that are interesting or surprising.
To generate interesting ideas, continuously make your next point whatever interests you most. Skip everything that bores you.
If something bores you, it probably bores your readers too. And if something entertains you, it probably entertains them also.
You are your reader's proxy.
That’s the irony of self-indulgent writing: writing for yourself is the quickest path to writing something others love.
Sustaining your momentum
When ideas stop flowing, ask yourself:
How can I make my point more convincing?
What are the interesting implications of what I just said?
Repeatedly ask these two questions and keep moving in whichever direction interests you most.
I just write what I want. I write what amuses me. It’s totally for myself. I never in my wildest dreams expected this popularity.
– J.K. Rowling
Surprising talking points
In addition to interesting talking points, you're also looking for surprising ones.
Surprise is anything that contradicts what readers know or expect you to say. It makes them think, “Wow. That’s different.”
Generate surprising talking points using Graham’s Method: First, learn all the basics on a topic. Then, if you can find new information that surprises even your knowledgeable self, it’ll surprise laypeople too.
Again, you are your audience's proxy. There's no need to guess what will surprise them. Hunt for something that surprises you, and you'll surprises them too.
Your voice
Something wonderful happens when you focus on what interests and surprises you: your voice emerges.
Readers begin to notice:
What you care about.
The perspectives you see the world through.
Readers love this. It makes your writing feel personal.
We’ll talk more about voice on the next page.
Pause — stop here ✋
Unless you’re currently writing a first draft, stop reading this page now. Move onto the next: Writing Well.
Revisit the advice below once you're writing a first draft. Otherwise, it won't stick and you'll get bored reading it.
And I don't want you quitting before the next page, which is best in the guide.
Next page →
3. Turn your talking points into an outline
By this point, you’ve generated intriguing talking points to support your objective and explore its significance.
But your points are buried in a messy brainstorm.
Now, extract the points that most intrigue you. Then, order them into an outline.
Here’s an example outline for the objective of Challenging the status quo:
State that the reader’s current view of the world is false.
Supporting point
Establish how so many people being wrong about this hurts our world.
Supporting point
Establish what’s required to get everyone to change their view.
Supporting point
Predict how the world would be different once the transition is complete.
Resulting point
Explore the exciting byproducts of the world being different.
Resulting point
Supporting points set the stage for your argument. Resulting points explore what happens when your argument is true.
Supporting points typically come first and resulting points typically come last. But, there is no correct outline. Hundreds of paths lead to your objective. Say as little or as much as you want.
Fill in the gaps
Take a moment to examine your outline. What’s still needed to convincingly and logically tie your points together?
In the outline above, I found two gaps worth plugging:
State that the reader’s current view of the world is false.
Supporting point
Provide supporting evidence for your claim.
New supporting point
Establish how so many people being wrong about this hurts our world.
Supporting point
Establish what’s required to get everyone to change their view.
Supporting point
Predict what a transitionary period would look like.
New resulting point
Predict how the world would be different once the transition is complete.
Resulting point
Explore the exciting byproducts of the world being different.
Resulting point
More objective outlines−
Below are sample outlines for each topic objective.
Articulate something everyone’s thinking about but no one is saying.
Coming soon.
Identify key trends on a topic. Use them to predict the future.
Coming soon.
Contribute original insights to a field through research and experimentation.
Coming soon.
Distill an overwhelmingly complex topic into something digestible.
Coming soon.
Share a clever solution to a tough problem.
Coming soon.
Tell a suspenseful and emotional story that imparts a lesson.
Coming soon.
You can spreadsheet this process
If you like to spreadsheet things, clone this to help structure your brainstorming.
Hover over the cells with black triangles for more context.
4. Write a draft with your outline
So far, we've brainstormed ideas, extracted the best, and formed an outline.
Now we write our first draft.
Each item in your outline is a section to be written.
Begin writing one at a time. Tease out every thought in your head.
Don’t worry about writing well: Your first draft is for generating interesting and surprising ideas. Don't let writing quality get in the way of that.
Let the draft breathe
If your outline changes while you write, that’s expected. When it's logical to introduce a point you had planned to discuss later, introduce it now. Let the flow of your argument naturally reshape your outline.
You won’t know the right way to structure your writing until you’ve written at least one draft.
Where you are
I'll refresh where you are in the first draft writing process:
Choose an objective for your post.
Write a messy braindump of your ideas.
Transfer your best talking points to an outline.
Write your first draft using that outline.
Don’t feel constrained by your outline.
Discover new ideas in the process.
Remove weak ideas.
Re-organize what’s left over.
Here's how those steps fit into our overall writing process:
Choose a topic
Write your intro, and use it to brainstorm talking points
Get feedback on your intro
Create a starting outline
Explore talking points within your outline
Rewrite for clarity, succinctness, and intrigue ← The next page covers this
Cycle between rewriting, resting, and receiving feedback ← And this
Copy edit for grammar, word choice, and flow
Writing an outro
Outros are optional. If you include one, it should frame why your article was worth reading. There are two tricks for doing this.
Share a poignant takeaway
Identify your article’s significance by re-reading it and asking, “What was this really about? What was I trying to say?”
Distill the answer into a single, punchy sentence. Make readers think, “I should memorize this witty advice.”
You can also include a relevant quote from someone your readers respect.
Provide next steps
Ask yourself, What about the world can my readers better appreciate thanks to my article?
Share where they go next to continue the journey they started with you.
For a writing guide such as this, I might conclude by sharing the bloggers whose work I enjoy. Then I might urge you to reverse engineer their articles and study what makes them great.
Next, refine your thoughts
Your first draft is a sacred place for generating ideas. Because it's while writing that you often discover your best insights.
You write in order to think.
But now it’s time to rewrite those ideas into something wonderful. Onward.
### Page 4
Rewriting
Your favorite authors’ first drafts are bad — no better than yours.
However, they aggressively rewrite their first drafts.
They know that when an idea is first written down, it’s articulated in whatever disjointed way immediately comes to mind.
So they rewrite it in pursuit of four objectives:
Clarity
Succinctness
Intrigue
Logic
The process of writing your second draft is the process of making it look like you knew what you were doing all along.
– Neil Gaiman
Clarity
Clear writing is writing readers can follow.
It’s okay to make readers work through the implications of what you’re saying, but it’s not okay to make them piece together what you’re saying in the first place.
Readers must easily understand every point.
We'll explore two tools for increasing clarity:
Simple sentences
Examples and counterexamples
Simple sentences
Write sentences that a thirteen-year-old could follow.
If they can understand you, so can everyone else.
That isn't to say children should understand your references and jargon. Do not over-simplify your language and weaken your ideas. Rather, children must be able to follow the logic of every argument.
While talking to children, you instinctively simplify:
You use plain phrasing.
You use fewer ideas per sentence.
Use these techniques in your writing too.
Use plain phrasing where possible.
Here’s a sentence with complex phrasing:
"The obstacle facing media organizations is to chart an economically sustainable course through a landscape of commodity journalism.”
Let’s rewrite that sentence plainly:
“News companies are having a hard time staying in business because anyone with a blog or Twitter account can report the news now."
That's how you talk to a thirteen-year-old. In fact, that's how you should talk to everyone all the time.
In the revised example, I removed abstract words like "charted" and "landscape," and I reduced a conceptual idea into a specific example.
By removing grammatical overhead, the underlying point stands out.‍
Grammatical simplification such as this doesn't make your writing worse. The complexity of your writing should emerge from the strength of its ideas, not from how those ideas are worded.
Just don't drop key information while simplifying. This, for example, would be bad:
"News companies are not doing well today."
That loses the point of why news companies are not doing well.
Simplify your sentences without dumbing down your ideas.
Use fewer ideas per sentence.
There's another simplification technique you use when talking to children.
Consider this bad paragraph:
“There is a fast growing collection of data describing the structure and functional capacity of human gut bacteria in a variety of conditions. Ongoing efforts to further characterize the multitude of functions of gut bacteria and the mechanisms underlying its interactions will provide a better understanding of the role of the microbiome in human health and disease.”
Let’s rewrite that for a thirteen-year-old:
“There’s a lot of research on gut bacteria. We’re quickly learning what roles bacteria play and how they interact with each other. Researchers want to better understand how these bacteria affect our overall health.”
The original paragraph's sentences contained two ideas each. That’s a problem. Your brain interprets the meaning of a sentence after it's done reading it. So, the longer the sentence, the more details you hold in your head at once. That makes understanding a complex point even harder.
Don't be mean to your readers. Make it effortless to read your words.
Beware rephrasings
When authors restate a point, they point it out:
“In other words…”
“That is to say…”
“Put another way…”
These are often red flags: the point that came before needed to be rephrased to be understood.
Instead, delete the rephrasing and reword the original statement to be self-evident: use plain wording and use fewer ideas per sentence.
If simplification can't achieve the necessary clarity, it's time to provide examples.
Anything that can be said can be said clearly.
– Ludwig Wittgenstein
Provide examples
Providing examples is another tool for improving clarity. Examples make abstract statements specific. Your brain best remembers things this way.
A few tips for providing examples:
Provide before-and-after examples, or counterexamples, to clarify what you don’t mean. Help readers orient themselves on a spectrum of right and wrong.
If you make examples fun and topical, readers pay more attention.
Examples with many moving parts should be diagrams.
Don't waste time with examples if you're confident your point was self-evident.
Takeaways for clear writing
If you write something unclear, you're writing for an audience of one: yourself. You might as well be writing in your diary.
Instead, be clearer than you think is necessary. Use simple wording, use simple sentences, and provide examples.
Simple language doesn't weaken your writing. It strengthens your points by helping what matters stand out.
If you imagine you're writing for an audience of thirteen-year-olds, you'll deliberately think and write more clearly.
Succinctness
After you've rewritten your article for clarity, you’re left with a better understanding of what you’re trying to say.
‍That’s when you can rewrite it for succinctness: remove everything you now realize is not required to make your point.
Succinctness is a ratio. It’s the number of meaningful words per paragraph — regardless of how many paragraphs there are.
Your goal is to make your writing so succinct that it can’t be summarized further; it shouldn't be possible to compress it into a tweet without it losing critical elements.
Books that can be summarized are not worth reading.
– N. N. Taleb
How to be succinct
You cut filler from your writing with a three-step process.
Step 1: Rewrite entire sections
For each section:
Read all its paragraphs.
Take an hour-long break.
Rewrite the section from memory — focusing only on key points.
The version written from memory will take a more direct path toward your points. The fluff falls away while you focus on trying to effectively re-articulate your idea.
Step 2: Remove unnecessary words
Next, go through each sentence in your rewritten section.
To be brief on the sentence-level, you should remove filler words that don’t add necessary context to the sentence. This isn’t intuitive to novice writers: these extra words cause readers to unwittingly slow down and do extra work while reading. That makes it harder for them to recognize the sentence’s true point. Reading many extra words is also a chore for your brain. And when you exhaust readers, they quit reading.
Stop. That was a terrible paragraph. Let’s rewrite it without its unnecessary words:
To be brief on the sentence-level, y̶o̶u̶ ̶s̶h̶o̶u̶l̶d̶ remove f̶i̶l̶l̶e̶r̶ words that don’t add necessary context t̶o̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶s̶e̶n̶t̶e̶n̶c̶e̶. T̶h̶i̶s̶ ̶i̶s̶n̶’̶t̶ ̶i̶n̶t̶u̶i̶t̶i̶v̶e̶ ̶t̶o̶ ̶n̶o̶v̶i̶c̶e̶ ̶w̶r̶i̶t̶e̶r̶s̶:̶ extra words cause readers to u̶n̶w̶i̶t̶t̶i̶n̶g̶l̶y̶ slow down and do extra work w̶h̶i̶l̶e̶ ̶r̶e̶a̶d̶i̶n̶g̶. That makes it harder for them to recognize the sentence’s t̶r̶u̶e̶ point. R̶e̶a̶d̶i̶n̶g̶ ̶m̶a̶n̶y̶ ̶e̶x̶t̶r̶a̶ ̶w̶o̶r̶d̶s̶ ̶i̶s̶ ̶a̶l̶s̶o̶ ̶a̶ ̶c̶h̶o̶r̶e̶ ̶f̶o̶r̶ ̶y̶o̶u̶r̶ ̶b̶r̶a̶i̶n̶.̶ And when you exhaust readers, they quit reading.
That leaves us with:
To be brief on the sentence-level, remove words that don’t add necessary context. Extra words cause readers to slow down and do extra work. That makes it harder for them to recognize the sentence’s point. And when you exhaust readers, they quit reading.
With the unnecessary words removed, it's clearer what we're trying to say.
This helps you accomplish the final step.
Step 3: Rephrase paragraphs from scratch
Your last step is to rephrase what remains as succinctly as possible.
Again, here’s what we have:
To be brief on the sentence-level, remove words that don’t add necessary context. Extra words cause readers to slow down and do extra work. That makes it harder for them to recognize the sentence’s point. And when you bore readers, they quit reading.
Let's rephrase that from scratch:
Your sentence is brief when no additional words can be removed. Being succinct is important because filler buries your talking points and bores readers into quitting.
Bingo.
Repeat the (1) word removal and (2) rephrasing from scratch process for every paragraph. When you’re done, your article will be a third as long and less boring.
This protects against readers abandoning half your articles (Source).
When filler is removed, readers gain momentum: they make it to the end without pausing to wonder what's for lunch.
When you buy a novel, you're not paying for the words the author put on the page. You're paying for the heavy lifting the author did to remove the unnecessary ones.
– Dan Brown
Try this yourself
Make this paragraph succinct:
'Q System One was a quantum computer. The machine was the culmination of a year—or decades, depending on how one measures—of labor and ingenuity from IBM scientists. The researchers had assembled this stalactite of nested canisters in the recesses of the company’s neo-futuristic research center in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. The white, refrigerated contraption dangled from a nine-foot, cubic, aluminum and steel frame. In the innermost chamber: a special processor whose progeny could help solve some of the world’s most intractable science and business problems. This particular generation featured the firepower of 20 quantum bits, or “qubits,” the powerful data units upon which these dream machines operate.'
First, remove unnecessary words. With the clarity of what remains, rephrase it succinctly.
After writing a post, I try condensing it into a tweet. If I can, I delete the post and just publish the tweet. But if I have to split the post over multiple tweets, I know I have something post-worthy, and I publish the post.
Intrigue
Intrigue is the quality most responsible for reader satisfaction. When you're highly intriguing, readers overlook your clarity and succinctness issues.
Two things make writing intriguing: insights and surprises.
The psychology of intrigue
Recall my psychological principle for introductions:
The hook principle — "A captivating intro buys goodwill with readers so they overlook an imperfect middle."
Pair that principle with a second:
The peak-end rule — “People judge an experience largely based on how they felt at its most intense point and at its end. This implies they do not judge the experience based on the average of every moment.”
Together, these two principles guarantee readers enjoy your writing:
Have a captivating intro that buys goodwill.
Have at least one peak of insight or surprise.
Have an ending that satisfyingly justifies why the piece was worth reading.
That’s it. There’s your formula for intriguing writing. The rest of your article can be weak and most readers will still enjoy it.
Take comfort in the implication: Not every paragraph has to be interesting.
Applying the peak-end rule to cinema: Many boring indie films are held together by an intensely poetic scene and a cathartic ending. That’s all they need for people to love them.
We already learned intrigue
On the last page, I shared my process for generating insight and surprise: use yourself as a proxy for the reader, and lean into what excites you.
To form your article’s peak, simply condense your most insightful and surprising talking points into one section. Craft a climax.
The previous page also discussed how to make your ending satisfying: poignantly summarize how your ideas are relevant to the reader’s life going forward.
Sustaining intrigue in long pieces
A reader's goodwill eventually fades. The longer your article, the greater you must work to sustain its intrigue.
I do this with a technique I call dopamine counting:
Ask feedback-givers to highlight every sentence that gives them a dopamine hit — the little moments of "that was interesting." For each hit, increase a counter at the end of the corresponding sentence. Like this (3).
If there are sections without dopamine hits, make those sections shorter or inject more insight and surprise into them.
Rinse and repeat until your article has a steady cadence of dopamine hits.
If you've read this far, dopamine counting is the technique that got you here.
Place gold coins along the path.
– Roy Peter Clark
Takeaways
The trifecta of intrigue: 1. A captivating intro. 2. A section of intense surprise or insight. 3. An ending that satisfyingly justifies why the piece was worth reading.
In long pieces, aim to evenly distribute dopamine hits. Rely on outside feedback; you can't accurately judge this yourself.
Where you are
Let's re-frame where you are:
Choose a topic
Write your intro, and use it to brainstorm talking points
Get feedback on your intro
Explore your talking points in your first draft
Rewrite the body for clarity, succinctness, and intrigue
Cycle between rewriting, resting, and receiving feedback ← You’re here‍
Copy edit for grammar, word choice, and flow
Feedback
The difference between good writers and bad writers is good writers know when their writing is bad.
– Dan Brown
How do you know when your writing is bad?
You ask for feedback.
Feedback is not optional. It's the most efficient way to improve your writing.
Asking for feedback
Ask for feedback from the audience you’re writing for: Have them score how satisfied they are between 1 and 10 after reading your article.
Keep rewriting your article until you average 7.5+ across a handful of respondents. That puts you in the "interesting article" category.
Do not waste time on perfection. It's impossible to get a 9+: One reader's 9 is not the same as another's, so trying to satisfy everyone results in a bloated post that satisfies no one.
Template
Here’s a template for requesting feedback:
Could you score this from 1-10 on how satisfied you were after reading it?
Don’t be afraid to give me a low score. The more people tell me this isn't good yet, the more I'm motivated to make it even better.
Also, feel free to point out problems with:
Logic — What didn’t you agree with?
Clarity — What was unclear?
Interest — What bored you?
Brevity — What unnecessary things should be removed?
Expansion — What unanswered questions were you left with?
Thanks to Brian Tait and Matthew Mueller for their feedback on this guide.
Your future self
Your best source of feedback is often you with the benefit of hindsight.
But you need a break to get that perspective.
Take it from Stephen King: he shoves his manuscript into a drawer for six weeks before writing his final draft. When he re-opens it, he sees its flaws with fresh eyes.
I’ve found a week is often enough time to sufficiently defamiliarize myself.
Incorporating feedback−
A few rules of thumb for incorporating feedback:
If you agree with it, implement it.
If 3 out of 10 people have the same feedback and you’re ambivalent about it, incorporate it if it’s a quick change.
If 4 or more out of 10 have the same feedback and you disagree with it, you are wrong. Check your assumptions and your ego: Ask them why they feel the way they do. Put yourself in their shoes.
I consider my writing done when:
I've fulfilled my topic objective.
I've hit a 7.5+ feedback score.
I'm no longer making significant edits while rewriting.
Addendum: Style−
Style has three components:
Voice
Presentation
Creativity
Pardon me while I open a wormhole into your brain and thrust style advice into it.
See, that’s an example of style. I could have just said: "And now let’s learn about style."
Style is voice
How would your friends describe talking to you? Perhaps they’ll mention your:
Tone of voice
Sense of humor
Eccentricities
Viewpoints
Convey those same traits in your writing, and readers will recognize your voice.
The more authentic your voice, the more they'll relate.
Authenticity
If you're comfortable doing so, practice being radically honest: Discard your reflex to self-censor. Reveal your vulnerabilities. Talk like you do with friends.
Even bad writing is enjoyable when the author writes like they’ve known their reader since childhood. It’s a breath of fresh air. It feels personal.
Inauthenticity
Inauthentic voice happens when you read a lot of someone else’s work and absorb their style.
Writers also absorb fake prestige: They use words like "plethora" and “myriad.” But if they don’t use those words in conversation, they shouldn’t use them in their writing. They’ll just look pretentious.
The antidote to inauthenticity is reminding yourself how you talk with friends. Record yourself talking, transcribe it, and work off that.
"The authenticity of who you really are, as opposed to who you wish everyone thought you were, is what your audience is looking for." — C. Robert Cargill
Style is presentation
There are infinite ways to tell your story. How you tell it is a matter of presentation:
Wait But Why uses cartoon drawings and analogies to explain complex topics.
Maddox uses dark humor, crude GIFs, and videos to shock and entertain.
Would analogies, anecdotes, humor, or multimedia better entertain your readers or help convey your points? If so, consider using them.
Style is creativity
Style is also creativity, which is the art of delighting readers with poetic thought and language.
Here’s an example of creative style. On the next page, I'll share more examples.
I will cover creativity in future updates. Subscribe at the bottom of this page.
Takeaways
An authentic voice resonates best with readers: your way of speaking, interests, and perspectives on the world are a breath of fresh air.
Shed the style you’ve absorbed from others. Write nonfiction the way you sound.
Optionally incorporate multimedia, anecdotes, analogies, and humor to reinforce your points and to entertain.
Addendum: Copyediting−
Copyediting is the process of combing through sentences word-by-word to:
Fix spelling and grammatical errors
Improve formatting
Improve word choice
This makes your writing only marginally better. Don't spend too much time on this.
Below, I'll cover:
Grammar
Visual density
Adverbs and adjectives
Synonyms
Grammar
If you write clearly and punctuate mostly correctly, you know all the grammar you need. If not, here’s my companion post on punctuation.
If you really want to dive into grammar, here’s the book to buy!
Visual density
Emphasize poignant sentences by separating them onto their own paragraphs. Readers will then slow down to better appreciate them. (Scroll up to see all the one-sentence paragraphs on this page.)
Use paragraphs of five sentences or fewer. This cushions paragraphs with white space, reducing the perceived reading workload. Short paragraphs also provide readers more opportunities to pause and reflect on your ideas.
Vary your sentence length. Gary Provost elegantly visualizes why:
Minimize adverbs and adjectives
Use verbs that embed the meaning of their adverbs. For example, “She spoke loudly” could be “She shouted.” This keeps sentences brief and improves flow. Applied to a 50,000-word novel, the difference is noticeable.
Only use adjectives and adverbs if they add important details. Otherwise, they’re filler. In “The portly man jumped onto the small boat,” does it help to know that the man is portly or that the boat is small? If not, remove those words.
Swap synonyms
Swapping words for their synonyms serves two purposes: enriching and reducing your language.
Enriching
You enrich words by swapping them for new ones with greater specificity or emotional weight.
For example:
“Here is my story of breaking into Hollywood” can become “Here is my tale of breaking into Hollywood.”
Or, “After college, I traveled to India” can become “After college, I journeyed to India.”
Reducing
Reducing words is the opposite of enriching: it's reverting to more common language to make sentences easier to read.
For example:
“I obtained maximal status” could become “I reached the highest status.”
Or, “Her diction is brilliant” could become “Her word choice is brilliant.”
If the reduced word doesn't lack important details, use it. By default, keep sentences simple. After high school, no one pats you on the back for using big words.
There are three types of words: (1) words we know, (2) words we should know, and (3) words nobody knows. Forget those in the third category and use restraint with those in the second. — John Grisham
Plagiarism disclaimer
I've noticed bloggers and course creators repurposing my work and passing it off as their own. Please be thoughtful about plagiarism. I keep a third-party timestamp of my handbooks, and I can see the history of changes on your site by using Archive.org. Together, they identify when someone has taken my work.
### Page 5
What we’ve learned so far
Your goal is not to foster the writing habit. Your goal is to fall so in love with ideas that you can’t not write about them. Find your objective and your motivation.
Don't fully think through your ideas before writing. It's inefficient. The best way to think is by writing. It compels your brain to connect the dots.
Avoid guessing what readers want. Instead, be a proxy: Selfishly entertain and surprise yourself, and you'll entertain and surprise many of them too.
Your writing is clear once your thoughts are self-evident.
Your writing is succinct once everything unimportant is removed.
Your writing is intriguing once the average reader effortlessly makes it to the end. A hook, peak, and satisfying ending are your trifecta of intrigue.
Treat feedback as a science. Measure your scores and iterate. Remember that the best feedback often comes from you with fresh eyes.
Rewriting your thoughts to be clear, succinct, and intriguing is a lot of work. You won't love writing until you find a way to love rewriting. Make a game out of it.
The writing process
Choose a topic
Write your intro, and use it to brainstorm talking points
Get feedback on your intro
Create a starting outline
Explore talking points within your outline
Rewrite for clarity, succinctness, and intrigue
Cycle between rewriting, resting, and receiving feedback
Copy edit for grammar, word choice, and flow
Follow as much of that as you want. They're suggestions, not rules.
Practicing
Don't practice by aiming for a weekly output of words. Word count is a dumb goal that measures the volume of your output instead of the quality of your input.
Heck, rewriting often reduces your word count.
Instead, focus on improving (A) the quality of your thinking and (B) your eye for rewriting. Writing persuasive essays is an efficient way to do this.
Persuasive writing requires logic and clarity. If you’re neither, readers don't follow your arguments to become convinced of them. And if you're neither succinct nor intriguing, readers quit before reading your full argument.
See if you can write posts that persuade friends to change their minds. Ask them to score how much your writing sustained their interest.
Make this is a game, not a chore
‍Great writers make a game out of rewriting:
How young of a reader can I successfully convey my argument to?
How many unnecessary words can I delete?
How much of a page-turner can I make this?
How much higher can I push my feedback score out of 10?
The more posts you run this process on, the better the writer you become. Personally, I believe I wrote 30 posts before rewriting finally clicked for me.
Dissect good writing
To learn what a job well done looks like, dissect your favorite posts: highlight the best and worst parts of each and identify what makes them so.
Here are writers whose work I enjoy (in no particular order):
Kevin Simler
Sarah Constantin
Nadia Eghbal
Scott H. Young
Derek Sivers
James Clear
Maddox
Slate Star Codex
Marc Andreessen
Paul Graham: Watch Paul write a post in real-time.
Send me your writing
If you use this guide to write something wonderful, share it with me: @Julian!
Come see why my followers want to be writers. I’d love to hear your answer too.
Writing prompts
Here are two topics I’d love to read about:
How can you drastically re-imagine high school and college? They’re inefficient, they kill students’ passions, they make science boring, and they put you into massive debt.
How can we comfortably live our lives when hundreds of millions still suffer through poverty, famine, and war — through no choice of their own?
My favorite reader submissions
The Kanye West Story
How I run a company with ADHD
Why I write
For me, the eureka moment in writing comes when I think “It’s possible no one’s said this before. I just contributed something new to the world, and I worded it brilliantly. And now people will read this and think, ‘Wow. I never thought about this. That gave me a big dopamine hit.’” When I get that reaction, I feel like I’ve carved out a special corner of the web — where people come without expectations and leave enlightened. I want my ideas to bring that experience into the world. I want my site to be packed with those experiences. This is the dance of writing that I enjoy.
– Julian
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