Automattic’s writing coach perk is underrated. I found out about it in my cohort sessions. Thanks Cami! It’s been a game-changer. Coach Cora has helped me shift how I think about writing.
I’ve realized there are many parallels between programming and writing. Like the value of having a process. Almost all my work revolves around the automation of software processes. Why had I never considered applying those principles to my writing? I had discovered fire.
Why build a writing process?
Communication is Oxygen
Communication is oxygen, it’s in the Automattic creed. In a distributed environment, that translates to lots of writing. Might as well make it efficient and enjoyable. Take time out of your schedule to breathe. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
You may have a hard time trying to justify taking the time to write. Squash that feeling. It’s good for both you and your team. Working at or close to 100% utilization will slow to a crawl everything that depends on you. Reflecting on what you’ve accomplished is an important step in your professional growth.
Automate, Automate, Automate
We all have the same 24 hours in a day. Building a process lets you maximize them. Each step of your process should have a specific goal so you can focus on one at a time. Can’t we all agree humans are bad at multitasking? This will reduce both cognitive overhead and wasted cycles. You will always be moving towards your most important goal – to get your message across.
The Parallels of Writing and Software Development
My writing process borrows from the lessons I’ve learned writing software. As a junior engineer, my focus was on building a solution. In reality, the solution is the first step. We code review, we test, we question. Our initial solutions don’t end up always being the ones that go to production.
Step 1: Prewriting
Old Cody Score: 0 out of 5
This was the hardest step for me to adopt. You wouldn’t start building a new product by jumping straight into coding. There’s planning and research. While researching writing processes I came across this:
Many tend to overlook this step completely.
They jump right into writing without taking the time to plan and organize their thoughts. And they end up with a low-quality piece that took a lot more time than they hoped.
Ouch. Brick to the face. This became more obvious as I went through each coaching session. My posts felt, to me, like a series of facts but missing an arc. I couldn’t understand why it didn’t flow. Good writing, like good software, requires work upfront. Eat your vegetables, Cody.
Define Your Purpose
You can’t write with intent if you don’t have intent. Are you trying to teach? To entertain? To get buy-in? There is no silver bullet approach. Each intent requires you to craft your writing to a different reader. Each of those readers will be in a different mindset. What does that reader want? How do we connect with them?
Reflect on Achieved Purpose
Your professional growth depends on your ability to self-reflect. It’s much easier when you can step back through time with your writing. Did you achieve those goals you wrote down? This also allows you to track your current trajectory and plan for the future. Will you achieve current goals within your expected timeline?
Step 2: Drafting
Old Cody Score: 4 out of 5
This was my old process. Dump words on the page and send it. I knew it was a naive approach to writing. When trying to build a new skill the most important part is, do. Over time the parts that need ironing out will surface. Use this to drive your decisions on what to improve. Avoid premature optimization. If you can’t figure out what to improve on you can always seek someone more experienced.
Drafting is the Deep Work of writing. We all know how much developers love their Flow States. It’s a different mode of thinking. You’ll want your big picture well defined to avoid getting lost in the weeds. I don’t focus on grammar or structure at this point. The idea is to get as much of my brain onto the page as possible. Save the little details for later.
Shut off Slack. Turn your phone over. Be unavailable.
Step 3: Revise
Old Cody Score: 2 out of 5
Sometimes I would frivolously waste time re-arranging content. Trying to make some sense through the structure as if it contained hidden meaning. You don’t derive intent from disjointed ideas. The intent needs to be in the ideas so that they don’t feel disjointed.
Take in the view from 1,000ft. From big to small, to big again. But this time we’re doing a bit of squinting to see if we can make out the shape. You won’t know exactly how code goes together till you build the feature. Once you have your MVP you can take a step back and reflect through the lens of your intent. Your drafting may have left some parts lacking. Some may need more research. Some questions you could ask yourself are:
- Do things need to be re-arranged?
- Do sections feel complete?
- Do the ideas flow into each other?
- Is my purpose clear throughout?
- What does the reader want?
Continue Shaping the Clay
When I did my first rough draft for this post I started to lose steam towards the end. The content of each section tapered off. The beginning didn’t feel representative of my intent. I ended up doing a second pass which brought balance to the whole piece. There was some shape to the clay.
Step 4: Edit
Old Cody Score: 0 out of 5
Editing felt even worse than eating vegetables, it’s more like doing squats. I’d try to justify this by saying “eh, close enough”. Click. Published.
Using the right tools also makes this less painful to me. Grammarly does, uh, grammar. It’s great. I use the free version but you can expense the paid through Automattic if you want. Another great tool is Hemingway which has a web app as well as a desktop app. It eviscerates your writing down to its vital content.
Make Your Message Shine
I found having a dedicated focus on editing helped remove cruft. Your draft mode brain spews words with little regard for clarity. When I edit I focus on the individual paragraphs. I’ll take each one and try to observe it in isolation. What is the meaning of this paragraph? Which sentences detract? Can I convey my message in fewer words?
Step 5: Publishing
Old Cody Score: 3 out of 5
This is always my favourite part. I love gifs. Never did much other than that before.
This step now serves as my deployment checklist. Some examples are:
- Find good gifs
- Link to external resources where applicable
- SEO-ey type review. P2’s are globally searchable so I try to think about words that might be useful in that scenario.
- Timing of publishing. I try to avoid publishing large posts back to back, I’ll let the first one sit for a bit to be consumed.
- Can a picture explain an idea better than your words?
My goal is to focus on the parts beyond the writing.
Everyone is at their own place in their writing journey. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Building a writing process takes effort but its rewards compound over time. You’ll deliver more impact and ship content faster. After all, isn’t shipping faster our goal?