Posted on Fri 17 October 2014

Lean writing

The more I write, the more I favor a "lean" writing approach. In the spirit of lean startups, I've developed a writing process that's focused on creating a solution to the problem as quickly as possible, and iterating on it.

If you're getting stuck when trying to write, or if you need to stick to a tough schedule of writing new content (I'm writing up to 5 pieces a week at the moment), this process can help you get past the blank page and create something valuable every time.

Shitty drafts

Anne Lamott's excellent treatise on shitty first drafts from her book, Bird by Bird explains how she approached the blank page problem in the past:

So I'd start writing without reining myself in. It was almost just typing, just making my fingers move. And the writing would be terrible.

Lamott says getting those first words on the page is a hard task for any writer:

For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.

I tend to agree. When you're on a schedule to write close to a piece per day, you have to get past the idea of writing great drafts. There's no time for mulling over the perfect opening sentence—you have to get something on the page. After all, you can iterate on a shitty first draft. You can't iterate on nothing.

(The first draft of this post is so bad, I'm wondering if I'll even end up publishing it at all. That's how bad it has to be sometimes to get you going.)

Solve a problem

As in the Lean Startup approach, lean writing must solve a problem. It's lean, so you don't have time to add flowery language and adjectives galore just for the sake of it. You have to write something useful, and valuable.

When you look back at your first shitty draft, remind yourself of the problem you're trying to solve. Are you trying to explain a foreign concept to beginners? Teach your readers how to do something? Argue a point in an ongoing debate?

Make it clear to your reader what problem you're focusing on, and solve it.

In this piece, I'm sharing my process for lean writing. That's the focus that keeps me grounded as I work through my first draft, beating it into shape.


Finally, the editing process. It's not my favourite; I'd write shitty drafts all the livelong day if I could. But it's necessary to get your work ready to publish.

At this stage it can be invaluable to get feedback from others. Everyone sees things differently, and a different perspective can highlight weak points in your writing or typos that you've missed. Having other people read your work can also help you make sure you're effectively solving the problem you set out to solve. If they come away confused, unsure of your point, or frustrated, your piece probably needs some more work.

I often think a post is ready to publish before sending it to Josh for review, and end up doing multiple revisions based on his feedback. But iterating is where the magic happens; after all, many writers agree that writing is rewriting.

I have rewritten — often several times — every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers. — Vladimir Nabokov

P.S. I make some stuff you might like: Exist, a personal analytics app to help you understand your life, and Larder, a bookmarking app for developers.

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