In September 2020, I left my job as a dev manager at a tech company. I had dreams of becoming an independant creator on the internet. I wasn't sure exactly what I wanted to do, but I assumed it would involve writing a lot of code.
Everything that has happened since then has been one surprise after another. Life can take some exciting turns when you follow your interests.
One of my surprises: In the 16 months since starting the adventure, I've written more prose than code. 188,500 words isn't an exact count, but it's a conservative estimate. Here's how I came up with the number:
- 52 monster articles at 800 words per article: 41,600 words
- 2 Sword & Source newsletters each month for 12 months at 800 words per newsletter: 19,200 words
- A complete guide for new Game Masters: 30,000 words (longest continous piece)
- 9 random generators at 8000 words per generator: 72,000 words
- 10 personal blog posts at 800 words each, as well as an in-depth Year in Review at 6700 words: 14,700 words
- My new Norse-inspired OSR campaign setting in LegendKeeper: 6000 words (and I'm just getting started on this - LK makes it feel SO fun to write)
- TOTAL: 188,500 words
At this point, not a week goes by where I don't write thousands of words. Because I'm publishing, I've had friends approach me and ask how I developed my writing habit.
Honestly, it's hard. This newsletter aims to make it a little bit easier by sharing what's worked for me. I promise no silver bullets - it will still take commitment. I'll walk you through how I approach the practice of writing, and the techniques I've used to build a habit. My hope is that you'll start or re-commit with me.
Commit to a publishing schedule with strangers on the internet
The most effective thing I did to write more was tell people they could expect a weekly newsletter from me.
When I first left my job I knew I wanted to build some software, but I didn't know what to build. So instead of looking for projects, I looked for a community. I was searching for a community that I would be excited to build for. My search lead me into the tabletop roleplaying game community - and I couldn't be happier about it.
This lead to my first project idea: a collection of mythical creatures called Novus Bestiary. Instead of building a big website I decided to start small and launched a weekly newsletter. Each week I would write about one new mythical creature. I got a couple dozen subscribers, and that's when the magic happened - now I had a group of people who had trusted me to deliver.
You can achieve this accountability in many ways. Writing circles, a writing buddy who calls you every week, or a promise to your partner. But for me, nothing beats public commitments to strangers on the internet.
Set realistic expectations for the time commitment
I won't sugarcoat it. Writing is hard. It demands creative energy. It requires your full attention. It requires you to stretch yourself. I still find it harder than software development.
You must come to terms with the fact that it is going to take time away from other things. In my experience, it takes significant time.
For reference, it usually takes me about half a day to write something like this newsletter. And that doesn't include the publishing or research phase. If you add those in, it's reasonable to assume it will take a full day to write, edit, and publish a solid piece.
This timeframe varies based on the individual writer and the level of research needed. As a starting point, I'd say you need to reserve a solid four hours every week. And I mean good hours - not whatever dregs you have left after already doing a full day of other work. When I first started I had to negotiate with my partner to be able to write on Sunday mornings - prime family time. I am forever grateful for her support and understanding.
There are schools of thought that suggest you can build habits with less time commitment. That's possible, but it doesn't work for me. What works for me is publishing - and committing to publishing means finding at least four hours a week.
Writing is easy. Thinking is hard.
If you think a lot about something, the writing feels easy. It's only hard when you start cold. The reason: Writing is thinking. Thinking is what takes the real effort.
What most people imagine when they think of their writing practice is the act of typing on a keyboard. But typing is only one small part of the job. You should break the concept of 'writing' down into its component parts:
- Thinking (the hardest part)
- Research (often hard to distinguish from Thinking)
"Drafting" is still a craft. It's a craft you can improve by studying grammar, structure, prose, etc.
But when most people say they want to "start writing more" they don't mean "I want to get good with semicolons". What they really want is to become clearer thinkers. They want to share their ideas with the world in a way that resonates.
The most resonant articles I ever wrote (eg. my blog post on quitting my job) were things I had thought about for a long time. The actual "writing" only took an hour, yet people called it "great writing".
Separate the steps
The best writing rhythm I ever had was when I would spend a day doing only the research for Novus Bestiary. I would then wake up the next morning and write a draft with no notes.
When you think about your topic in advance, you can trust yourself to remember what you need to say in the first draft. You then go back and fill in gaps with research during the editing step. My notes were nothing but a crutch when what I needed to do was write.
Thinking, drafting, and editing are completely different jobs. I forget where I read this, but the quote goes something like this:
When you are writing, be kind to yourself.
When you are editing, be mean.
Resist the urge to go back and rework sentences while you write. Just write. Getting your first draft done as fast as possible is the most important thing. It can and should be a total mess. Once you have a draft, you can go back, put on your ruthless editor's hat, and mold the words into something beautiful.
Use shorter feedback loops to improve
Learning to code is fun because it has short feedback loops. You can type some code, try to run it, get an error message, then go back to step 1 and try again. This complete loop is short, so it happens many times. Same with learning a musical instrument. Pluck a string, it makes a sound, it sounds bad, pluck again.
Learning to write feels very different. The feedback loops are harder to spot and they are longer. When I noticed this, I came up with a set of three concentric feedback loops. This gave me more reps, so I improved faster.
- Feedback from self. Your first and shortest loop is your own editing. Make sure this is its own step discussed above.
- Feedback from tools. You can drop an entire draft into a tool to get more feedback on things you may have missed. My preferred tool for this is Hemingway app. Embedded tools like Grammarly, that grab your attention while you draft, are a terrible idea.
- Feedback from others. This is the longest but the most valuable loop. After the first two steps, you should share your draft with a friend (or professional editor if you can). Nothing beats feedback from other people.
Thank you for letting me share my personal take on what helped me develop my writing practice. Honestly, it has been one of the most rewarding skills I've ever worked on.
To summarize the key takeaways:
- Make yourself publicly accountable for writing. Announce a recurring publishing commitment if you can. Newsletters or blogs are great for this.
- Writing takes a real time commitment. You can't add it in to an already packed schedule.
- Writing is hard, because it is actually thinking - a demanding act of creation.
- Separate the steps, and approach each one differently. There are thinking, research, drafting, editing, and publishing steps.
- Use feedback loops to improve. From shortest to longest: feedback from self, feedback from tools, and feedback from others.