Ignore writing advice, you want idea advice instead
If the idea is good - like, actually good - they’ll read your article. Even if the writing sucks.
Consider a mind-blowing podcast. You’ll finish it, even if it was recorded with a potato. Yet, the first thing an aspiring podcaster researches is what gear to buy, not which ideas to present.
Consider the opposite: bad idea but great writing. At best, it’s a bit funny, like applying make-up on a pig. At worst, it’s dangerous, like a convincing cigarette salesman.
Most non-fiction/business writers should ignore writing advice. What they really should seek out is idea advice.
So here’s some idea advice.
Idea mindset > Writing mindset
Instead of trying to wow them with your writing, wow them with the idea.
Assume your writing is so awful that the only chance you have is a killer idea. Make them stay not because of your writing style, but in spite of it.
A great writer can have you reading a description of a fruit fly’s ass, page after page. Assume this isn’t you and that you need to re-earn the reader’s attention over and over by developing the idea. Make them say “wow, I haven’t thought about it like that” every 200 words and they’ll stay. No matter how bad those 200 words are.
A writer mindset has you spending your time focusing on similes and alliterations and all the things you think you need to care about. But when you adopt the idea mindset, you realize your time is better spent discovering interesting topics, crafting unique perspectives, exploring shifts and countershifts. When you focus on the former, you become a better writer; when you focus on the latter, you become a better thinker.
A great idea poorly expressed is superior to a poor idea greatly expressed: superior in its impact on the reader, your career, your thinking, the world.
Get ideas by inverting the mainstream
For something to be interesting, it cannot be boring. And for something to not be boring, it cannot be all the same - it must stand out.
So we must have an idea that stands out from the mainstream. And the easiest way to get these ideas is to invert the mainstream - do the opposite.
- Everyone focuses on one aspect? Talk about how it’s overvalued.
- Everyone talking about the shift? Talk about the countershift.
- Everyone focuses on how to advance in the game? Point out an alternate game.
- Everyone believes x? Show them how it’s wrong.
A perfect example of an interesting idea is Taleb’s concept of Antifragility (things that gain from disorder). It’s so counterintuitive that it bothers you not to read what it’s about. Everyone is familiar with fragile things, but no one told us there is an opposite.
When everyone shares writing advice, you want to be sharing anti-writing advice. When others zig, you zag.
Obviously, we don’t want to be contrarian for the sake of being contrarian. But we want to appreciate that an idea that is not contrarian is likely to be boring.
Get ideas by following your curiosities
Another path to discover interesting ideas is simply to follow your curiosities. No one in the world has quite the same combination of your interests, expertise and perspectives, so you are likely to arrive at something interesting (new) just by embracing them.
Because your curiosities are unique, your path to discover ideas is unique. But it will probably consist of reading widely about everything and deeply about your interests, connecting seemingly unrelated ideas and jumping immediately when inspiration hits and you get that heureka moment.
Here’s a heuristic to assess how curious you are about an idea: the more discipline it takes to write about it, the less you are following your curiosity.
When you are inspired by an idea, all these connections and revelations fill your head, so you start writing notes down as fast as you can, so that none of the ideas escape your memory. You’ll see a page, two pages form effortlessly.
The more of the blog post gets done by mere inspiration and curiosity, the better the idea. If you find yourself constantly mustering discipline, relying on coffee and James Clear quotes for energy, from the very first word to the last, you’ve chosen a topic that is uninspiring and doesn’t teach you anything as a thinker.
Surely, it takes discipline to turn two pages of free-flowing ideas into a readable blog post. Curiosity doesn’t take you all the way. But the less discipline it takes - the more the idea pulls you back to the keyboard - the more likely it is that you’re following your curiosity. And when you do that, you’re developing ideas only you can - something new.
The only writing advice you need
Let’s assume by now you have an interesting idea - or maybe just a hunch that this idea, when developed, could be interesting. Now that we are past the ideating stage and are starting to write, shouldn’t we seek out writing advice?
First, let’s remind ourselves of the “idea mindset”: we want to focus all-in on the idea. We can ignore all niceties like alliterations right off the bat.
Secondly, what’s left of the writing advice you find online, you can probably do without. The writing corners of the internet are quickly approaching circle jerk levels.
As soon as some prolific writer guru says “writing is hard”, a bunch of other (self-important) writers race to the comments to say “so true”. How else would other people realize how hard they work?
If you follow certain (popular) Twitter accounts, you know what I mean. You’ve seen the self-glorification in tweets like these:
Imagine saying this in front of coal miners.
And when they need a rest from circle-jerking, writing gurus share the same tired stories and one-liners. We devour that stuff, as if finding the newest tip or formula would save our struggling blogs. “Everything changed when I found out how Jerry Seinfeld writes jokes”, said no one ever.
So the bottom line is, you can, with good conscience, ignore most writing advice. Even if the advice is popular and validates your feelings (actually, ignore especially this kind of advice).
For most of us, the only writing consideration is to write simply. That’s it.
Spend 90% of your energy on the idea, and with the remaining 10%, make the idea simple to understand.
Notice how we are technically talking about writing advice when we say “write simply”, but what we are really doing is minimizing the chances that you have a bad idea. If you write in a complicated way, you may fool yourself into thinking you have a complicated, great idea. There’s no way of knowing - no one understands your complicated writing!
But when you make it stupid simple, everyone sees if it is a bad idea.
Most writing advice, instead of ensuring you have a good idea, gives you the means to get away with a bad idea. Writing advice is popular because bad ideas (boring, mainstream ideas) are popular.
But we want to only work with good ideas, for our sake and the readers’ sake. Not because it’s easy but because it’s hard. So here’s what I mean when I say “write simply”:
- Simple words and simple sentences
A strong idea, clearly communicated, is all you need to "look like a great writer".
Trade a complicated word for a simple one. If you fear a sentence is too long, break it up into two sentences (even if that would anger your grammar teacher).
Don’t try to look smart. Don’t try to impress your English teacher or other writers. Just try to make the idea as easy to understand as possible.
There are easy word level choices to make your writing concise. Cut unnecessary words, combine sentences, all that basic stuff.
But most of the impact is created when you cut entire paragraphs, sections even. Not everything you write is genius but everything you publish should be. If a section doesn’t develop the idea or enrichen it, why keep it?
Not only do you trim your text considerably, you’ll also create an illusion of compactness. If each paragraph develops the idea and brings something new, your reader won’t have a chance to get bored. This is the equivalent of a YouTube video that has max 5 seconds between cuts or changes in camera angle. Before the reader dozes off, we snap them awake with something new.
Metaphors are the pinnacle of simplicity and conciseness. With one clever comparison or mental image, you can make the reader understand not only your point, but also its implications.
The metaphor connects your point, currently unfamiliar, to something familiar, making it instantly accessible. To make these connections, ask yourself: “What’s the most defining feature of my concept or idea? Where else is this feature presented?”
A metaphor instantly brings the reader to the same page as you. This is why so many brands desperately want to have a metaphor as their slogan; you can see it every time a startup positions itself as “Uber for X” or “Superhuman for calendar”.
If the metaphor feels forced, it is. What you’re looking for is that “Oooh, so that’s what you mean! Why didn’t you say this earlier?” reaction. When you find a strong metaphor, say it earlier.
(This is all the writing advice I’m comfortable giving you without feeling like a writing guru. And it’s all the writing advice you need once you have a strong, original idea.)
The Idea Manifesto
- Instead of trying to wow them with my writing, I'll wow them with my idea and where I go with it. If I just focus on the idea, everything else follows.
- To get good ideas, I’ll just need to follow my interests and think things through for myself.
- I don’t need fancy writing advice or hacks. As long as I present the idea clearly, my writing is successful.
- I don’t need to be great with words or impress other writers to be a writer.
- Most writing advice is not in my best interests because it merely helps me get away with bad ideas, instead of helping me get and develop better ideas.
- It is harder to come up with sensational ideas than sensational writing. But the path is more rewarding, and I'm up for the challenge.