Writing as a practice


Sunday, 8.17pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Writing is my love. If you love something, you find a lot of time. I write for two hours a day, usually starting at midnight; at times, I start at 11. – A. P. J. Abdul Kalam

Writing is a process that, according to MIT, has four steps: prewriting; drafting; revising; and editing.

This misses out several important steps including: worrying, obsessing, messing, questioning, procrastinating, avoiding and complaining.

I used to think writing was a linear process. You started at the first word, put down more words, and kept going until you ran out of time.

And then you hit the publish button.

Now I think a little differently, but unpacking exactly how may not be the easiest thing to do. Let’s give it a try anyway by asking some questions.

Who do you write for?

Writing is always done for someone. When you start you often write for yourself – the act of writing is often the way in which you figure out what you think.

Sometimes people write for a specific person. Warren Buffett said that he addressed his annual letters to his sisters to help him remember to keep it accessible and jargon free.

In academic writing you write your thesis for your PhD supervisor and papers for the reviewers.

In journalism, I would guess, you write for your editor.

Somewhere along the way perhaps you get good enough or well-known enough that the gatekeepers are no longer important – and you write for your fans. You start to write the kind of stuff they expect to get from you.

Some writers throw out the rules and write however they want. I recently read an article that was written by two people who wrote separately, commented on each other’s ideas and created something that was presented as a mix of the two. It was interesting, as an idea, but hard to read as a piece of text.

How do you write?

I have always started writing and figured out where I’m going when I reached the end of the piece. That’s the way this post is written and how most of the others on this site were written.

Recently I read a piece on essay writing by Jordan Peterson and it opened my eyes to something that I had never considered before.

Peterson sets out a process to follow that starts with an outline and then goes through multiple drafts and finessing of sentences.

But the most important thing was that he wrote about how to use an outline. Instead of writing an outline and then going on to write the paper as a linear process he described how you should actually go from one to the other and back again. Write your outline, start filling it in and then go back from what you’ve written to the outline – and change it if it makes sense.

This may seem like an obvious and trivial thing to you but it’s actually really quite significant. We think that we make a plan and then go and execute it, put up scaffolding and then put up the building. What Peterson’s process gives you permission to do is alter the plan and move the scaffolding as part of your writing process. Not just permission – it encourages you to go between the two making your outline and text work together and sing.

How do you think?

Peterson’s essay is about the mechanics – about how to create a structure and form your thoughts. But how do you get those thoughts in the first place?

They come from reading and taking notes and reflecting on what you’ve collected – and that means you need tools to do that. Note-taking tools, idea-capturing tools, and concept-writing tools.

There’s an idea called literate programming where you think about what you want to do and put it down in prose and then you write the code that implements what you want.

This could work in writing as well.

Imagine writing down what you’re trying to say as a comment on the page and then writing what you want to say as text on the page. One bit is about the thinking – I’d like to say this thing in this way and connect it to another idea from over there but how do I do that and it’s really quite hard – and the other bit is about the sentence that you’re actually going to include in the paper.

You can use this idea of literate programming to do literate writing – putting comments and content in the same document and extracting the content that will be published while preserving the thinking that went into it – thinking that may contain some of those other elements that you don’t get in the four step writing model.

Why do you write?

The days when you write for money are numbered. AI systems like ChatGPT will read and summarise material better than you will be able to soon. They’re the ultimate research assistant and the cost of what they produce will inevitably trend towards zero – the marginal cost of production.

In the future you will write only because you want to.

Cheers, Karthik Suresh

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