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Writing a lot is not enough

January 3, 2021

I've published an article or a book review every week for the past six months. But is publishing consistently the right thing to do to get better at writing?

The lesson of the pottery class

The pottery class parable is a story about the two groups that each wanted to create the perfect pot during a single month of practice. One group wanted to create as many pots as possible in order to create a perfect pot, while the other group wanted to create just one perfect pot. The highest quality pots were produced in a group that created a lot of pots.

I wanted to apply this lesson to my writing, which is why I’ve created Word Raft, a community for writers that want to improve by publishing weekly. Each published article is like a pot, and the more pots we produce, the more we improve our writing.

Do a hundred of something to become great at it

This parable is similar to "the rule of making a hundred things". I’ve heard it from Visakan Veerasamy, and it says that you need to do something a hundred times to become great at it. To become great at making omelets, you need to make a hundred of them. Only then will you notice how great omelets are made and notice the differences between great ones and bad ones.

This is true for writing too.

You won’t have a taste for great writing unless you produce a larger quantity of written pieces. And a hundred written articles is a good goal to aim for.

Writing a lot does not make you a great writer

But just doing something a lot of times is not enough. Speaking a lot does not make you a great speaker. Writing a lot does not make you a great writer. As David Perell says, everyone who writes hundreds of emails a day would write like Hemingway if it did.

What does matter is how much time you spend perfecting the craft. How much time you spend trying to improve and recognizing errors. In other words, how much time you spend editing and rewriting.

I've noticed that my articles are better if I spend more time rewriting them. There's a great Quora answer by Venkatesh Rao about that. He thinks that we should spend 80-90% of the total time of writing an article on editing and rewriting. The first draft should only take a small percent of the total writing time.

Let the articles marinate instead of publishing them right away

In "Learning How to Learn", Barbara Oakley mentions two modes of thinking: focused and diffused mode. While focused mode is good for analytical problems, diffused mode produces novel ideas and makes interesting connections.

I would like for diffused mode to be a bigger part of my articles, but there's limited time available for that. Since Word Raft sets a deadline for publishing articles on Sunday at midnight, I usually start writing them on Fridays. So there are usually around two days for the marination period, and that's why I end up not thinking about my articles in diffused mode.

Of course, the diffused mode produces the idea for each article. But it’s replaced by the focused mode after the title is written. This is why my articles usually don't explore interesting new paths.

The title lock-in

Since there's no time for diffused thinking, my articles usually start with the initial statement in the title followed by a lengthy elaboration. I would like to change that and become more exploratory with my writing. And the good first step is not getting locked-in by the title of the article.

The article that only follows the initial statement expressed in the title is the most boring to read and the most boring to write. I find it more interesting to write an article that will guide me wherever it wants to. I want to follow interesting paths instead of only expressing my opinions.

I think a right way to change this is to stop giving that much importance to the title while writing the article.

Developing a taste for writing

We usually don't have the patience to put in the work to become better at something. We seek shortcuts, hacks, and tricks that should give us the results right away. The same goes for writing. No one has a patience to write a hundred articles to become a better writer. Usually, they'll write ten and then wonder why they haven't advanced much.

I'm also guilty of this. Since 2011, I've only produced 44 longer-form articles. Yet, I'm arrogant enough to believe that I've already learned how to produce a quality article.

This is why I have started to question whether being consistent is the right goal for me. Whether I should stop publishing every week and publish higher quality articles less often instead.

I realize now that I was just seeking excuses to stop writing as regularly as I do now.

Quality should be the top priority, but it's hard to produce quality article unless you have some experience under your belt. It's much more difficult than just deciding to make it a top priority. That's why I'll continue to publish weekly.

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