A writer’s job is to bring order to chaos. It’s our duty to descend into the cluttered world of ideas and then structure whatever insight we manage to wring from its hands.
Therefore, writing is by definition a messy process. The goal of this post is not so much to get you to adopt my version of it — although I will give you the tools if you wish to do so — but to get you to examine your own.
When I recently did, I found I constantly ask myself six questions about writing. Before, after and during. All the time. They’re definitely not a checklist. More of a blurry circle my mind spins in.
I want to show you those questions. Show you you’re not alone. Seeing my lose structure should help accept your own. Then, you can set out to find the little that’s there. So you can build on it. That’s the plan.
1. What Do I Care Enough to Say?
When I’m staring at a blank page, which is often, this marks my starting point. I think about the last few days and weeks.
- What was important?
- What did I think a lot about?
- Did anything life-changing happen?
- What have I learned?
- What’s an issue worth addressing?
- What made me angry?
This keeps me from talking about topics only because they’re popular. I find I end up there often enough, even if I don’t do it on purpose. This time, I noticed myself in front of the same writing questions over and over again.
I’m rarely alone with my problems. The people who have the same ones usually show up once I start talking.
Plus, if I care, it’s easier to get others to.
2. Is It Real?
I don’t always ask this second, but I should. The sooner I can catch myself structuring a fake idea, the better. What do I mean by fake?
If it’s not an idea I have truly lived, experienced, or researched deeply enough to publish my own account of it, then I won’t share it. Period. The process I’m sharing with you today is what I actually go through.
Why self-publish if you’re not gonna be yourself? It’d defeat the whole point of giving us your unique perspective.
People can smell fake stories from the headline, because they already stink when you write them. How honest you are correlates to how easy it is to write.
This is a one-strike policy. If only I always caught myself before it’s too late.
3. Is It Useful?
Ironically, a piece of advice from a billionaire helped me obsess less about becoming one. In an interview, Elon Musk said (emphasis mine):
Well, first of all, I think if somebody is doing something that is useful to the rest of society, I think that’s a good thing. Like, it doesn’t have to change the world.
Then, talking about his own story, he proceeds:
You can get a doctorate on many things that ultimately do not have practical bearing on the world. And I really was just trying to be useful. That’s the optimization. It’s like, “What can I do that would actually be useful?”
And, to help estimate the usefulness of your aspirations:
Whatever this thing is that you’re trying to create, what would be the utility delta compared to the current state of the art times how many people it would affect?
That’s why I think having something that makes a big difference, but affects a small to moderate number of people is great, as is something that makes even a small difference, but affects a vast number of people.
If you want to serve the greater good, usefulness is the optimization. But that doesn’t mean you have to serve a single, great good.
Think about how microscopically deep the change you cause can run. Yesterday someone emailed me about restarting a practice from one of my posts he’d picked up a year ago.
- Is what you’re sharing practical, even at a subconscious level?
- Can you coach people through the process in an empathic way?
- Even if it’s a small change they might not immediately realize, how much could that amount to?
- Can you be okay with never finding out?
The questions I ask about writing could be useful in shaping yours. Hence, this post was worth a shot. Even if I can never measure its full impact.
One more benefit of being useful? It’s the ultimate antidote to being fake — because it’s really hard to give practical advice when you don’t know what you’re talking about.
4. Will This Inspire the Reader?
People think rationally, but act on emotions. If you can take a useful idea, attach it to an arrow of inspiration and send it right into the reader’s heart, change is more likely.
I could have just talked about the usefulness of being useful, but I told the Elon Musk story instead. Usefulness determines how far people read, inspiration what they do after they stop.
You can tilt the balance to one side, but having both increases the probability of your seeds falling on fertile soil.
5. Has This Been Said Before?
Everything’s been said before. The question is how and how often.
I see many step-by-step-writing posts on Medium, but few that talk about the mayhem of their process and even fewer that dig deeper into it.
Being different doesn’t guarantee being original, but there can be no originality without difference. So I’ll take my chances.
Similar to inspiration, being original makes it more likely to be noticed. Again, writing is a game of probability.
6. Will This Entertain the Reader?
Now would be a good time for a joke. Luckily, making people laugh isn’t the only way to entertain. Entertainment is really just another word for engagement.
Can what you write hold the reader’s attention? Or, in Seth Godin’s words:
In a world with infinite choice, where there’s always something better and more urgent a click away, it’s tempting to go for shorter.
In fact, if you seek to make a difference (as opposed to gather a temporary crowd), shorter isn’t what’s important: Dense is.
Density can be of many kinds. Of emotion. Of insight. Of mystery. Seth puts it in a nutshell:
If you found the string of insights I presented so far useful enough to read until here, then I guess you’ve been entertained.
How Can You Remember This Model?
I didn’t number the questions because I never answer them in sequence. But lists are so much easier to remember! How can I structure this fuzzy model just enough so you won’t forget?
Six questions, six corners. That’s a hexagon. So much for the visual. My favorite mnemonic device is the acronym. Sometimes you’ll be lucky and the letters form a normal word. This time, I wasn’t.
Thus, meet your new favorite Youtuber: iCuber. His or her videos are inspiring, full of Care, Useful, never seen Before, Entertaining and Real. Here’s their logo:
Imagine the kind of videos you’d like to see from iCuber. By the time you know what he or she looks like, you’ve already remembered the symbol. Now you can walk along the edges and pick up the questions when you want to.
There. A little less mess.
The Real Takeaway: Question #7
That’s the beauty of chaos: no rules. Each writer can come up with their own. Has to. The goal of sharing my process isn’t for you to adopt it. It’s to start observing your own.
The real idea is to begin asking this question:
Descend into the chaos. Grab an idea. Structure it. Bring order.
You’re a writer, after all. That’s your job.