How I Write Anything from Think-pieces to Memoirs.
One of my friends thinks she might have something she called “an English problem” because she finds it hard to express her thoughts on paper.
…many things in my head but I can’t express them outrightly. I seek for inspiration when I want to write but it hardly comes — I just believe it’s a gift [sha].
It might be a gift but I’d rather focus on the things in my control. A gift sounds like something that you either have or you don’t; it’s binary. But the shift in mindset that it’s something you can learn to do opens up a world of possibilities. You start thinking in terms of multiple options, not ones and zeros.
See, in secondary school, I was fairly good with math but there were concerns amongst my teachers about my proficiency in written English. This was because they had this common belief that students adept in math will struggle with essays and writing in general. I still don’t know how valid that assumption is but they must’ve believed I could learn to write because they offered to help.
All I needed from my end was effort and with help from my teachers identifying the patterns and working system, I got a B in my final exams.
I think most skills, just like writing can be learned and honed. But, before I delve into how I do it, I have to tell you that I didn’t dream up this strategy. It’s a mix of what I’ve experimented with distilled into five steps. So, it’s not magic. It is turning an unsexy idea into one hell of a Kardashian. You’ve got to love the end product, but the making isn’t sexy.
So, here are the not so sexy steps:
#1. I start with a theme
The most important part of any piece is the general idea of what you want to talk about. At work, I’m usually writing a piece, a proposal, or drawing up a strategy. When I’m doing this, I find myself explaining the context or theme to myself out loud and taking notes. I do this like a sounding board of sorts to sense-check what I’m going to write about. So as I take the notes, I build a general structure and all that’s left is to fill in the blanks in the template.
For my personal writings like memoirs, I’ve brainstormed a lot of themes or ideas I could write about like this:
So I link the theme to a story in my past that talks about that idea as you can tell from the right-most column in the figure above. I learned the idea of having a story toolbox from Ramit Sethi and on my phone, the folder I dump all my draft ideas and stories is saved under “Story Toolbox”. You already get the idea of a story toolbox; you open it and pick the tool you need, which in this case is a story and you use it. You’re just not beginning to think about the story because you’ve already done that a long time ago.
What I’m explaining is the idea of a story toolbox for my past stories merged with the idea of an idea toolbox for my future contents. And depending on how I’m feeling about a particular idea, I randomly pick any that interests me the most from the list to flesh out. The reason why I rely on how I feel about the idea at the moment of picking is that I’d need the high morale the idea gives me at that moment to quickly flesh it out.
#2. I write the catchy opening lines (or not?)
I used to want to make sure I get my opening lines right because it needs to engage my audience, right? So, I usually spend a lot of time tweaking a weak sentence for the opening lines. But that wasn’t efficient. I’ve since learned that this part is not as hard to write as I thought in that, you don’t have to think about it. Don’t force it. Don’t overthink it. See, don’t even think about it. Just start the piece anyhow your head feels. Just write. Don’t arrange yet, just write. Pour all your thoughts on the paper or screen until you’re exhausted. That’s when you’ll find your catchy line — amid all these thought-pouring without thinking of perfection.
One of the things I’ve noticed in people is how they try to write too perfectly. It’s not entirely their fault — I mean, you’re creating something that you feel the whole world would see (if it’s on the internet, the whole world can access it), so you tend to be extra cautious with how you do it. It happens to me too. But when I feel it, I shake my head and say: to hell with that! I’m going to write this piece as if I were talking to my friend. I don’t care what the internet thinks.
So, I usually find my catchy opening lines in the non-catchy ones.
#3. I write how I’m going to wrap it up
I usually like to write the end of my piece before I get to the end but not in every piece. For example, when I’m narrating a story, I know how I want to set the stage for the end and it’s fairly easy to do that. But with think-pieces, it’s tricky. I’m usually not sure how it’ll end. I don’t know where the idea will lead me to. I think I intentionally avoid a limitation in the sense that I want to explore the idea to deep lengths so I leave the options open. I let it take shape and just write. I let the idea evolve, I let it steam, I just let it.
So, is this really a wrap-up? For narration, yep. For think pieces like this one, nope.
#4. I fill in the middle
Here, I link the paragraphs to each other. Disconnecting paragraphs are the bane of a great story because no matter how great the story, memoir, or proposal is if your arrangement is haphazard, forget it. What makes a great piece is an effortless flow from one paragraph to the other — how every section, every idea, every paragraph is linked to each other. A story can be as simple as “how you brush your teeth” but the way you arrange it, the way you present it, the way you link every action you take to a follow-up actions; that’s what makes it memorable.
So, allow your story to be as sweet in the middle as it is at the beginning by linking your paragraphs (or other bigger or smaller sections you have) to each other.
#5. Then I give it a finishing touch
Knowing how to debug your own writing is a key part of finishing it. Here’s where I leave the piece and forget about it. Yeah, you’ve done the work, now stop obsessing over it.
Leaving it to revisit later gives me a fresher look on the piece — almost like a stranger look. You’ll be surprised what a 2-hour break from your piece can do. So, after the break, I perform standard checks like checking for the flow of the story, ease of reading, etc to debug it. Here’s my list of checkboxes that I tick off as I finish up the story:
- Flow: This cannot be overemphasized. It can make or mar your story. Get it right and you’ll get comments like, ‘you inspire me to write too!’. Mess it up and your audience will start losing trust in you.
- Ease of reading: I remove superfluous words. I remove negative words and reword as positives. I add humor. I check the coherence of the short stories in the piece and I break long paragraphs into shorter ones.
- Grammar and typos: I use Grammarly for this. Simple and easy.
- Visual aid: If you’re going to use icons or images, you shouldn’t have a cat image when talking about boxing. Ok, maybe if the boxer in your story owns a cat, it’s ok but asides that, it just doesn’t make sense. I make sure the images I use correspond to what I’m talking about.
There’s no one way to write well. It’s all about you and what you try to experiment with. You’ll never know how to write well unless you do the work and write a lot so, with volume, you get better. But there are guides and this is one of such guides so treat it as that — a guide to help you find your way of writing well.