by Habbi 25 Aug 2019

This series is for the person who wants to write more and is curious about my tools and processes. Readers of part I and II will know my writing process happens in three stages: (1) collecting ideas, (2) composing drafts; and (3) editing until I have something worth publishing.

What we call “writing” is actually made up of three distinct activities: coming up with ideas, turning those ideas into drafts, and then editing those drafts into publishable pieces.

– Jeff Goins, here

It matters much more that you write than where you write. The tools only matter if you do the work. This post is to demonstrate how to systematise this three step process. The products I like all do one thing exceptionally well: get the heck out of my way so I can get the job done. They're not very loud.

Do not to mistake their lack of flashiness for a lack of impact though. The problem with fancy tools is we put off the keyboard-slamming by fiddling with settings, trying features or adjusting the look of our page under the guise of productivity. This is procrastination, make no mistake.

So find tools that enable you to write. If you already have them, you don't need this post. The tools should not be the star of the show, your words should.

get in the habit of collecting interesting links, quotes, phrases, and writing down observations

– from part I

1. Start Collecting Ideas

and references and links and quotes and highlights and

If you are new to writing, I would recommend designating a single place for ideas. This could be a single note on your phone (how Taylor Swift does it, apparently) or a sophisticated system of folders organised by topics (CGP Grey's choice).

Two things I would advocate for someone who's new to this: a clear system and something that's easy to access. It is worth noting that ideas are not necessarily just words, so make sure your system can encompass different media formats (videos, links, jokes, private conversations, voice memos, etc.).

For me, most ideas for me end up in OmniFocus or Apple Notes. Both for the same reason: easy access and no limits on how long the note can be. Some add a shortcut to Apple Notes from the Control Center that can be accessed even when the phone is locked. When you need that hard-to-grasp thought to materialise into a more tangible format, being quick matters.

Creating a Collection

When I revise my ideas, I want them to move to a better home. I liked the idea of grouping together similar ideas into topics though and Notion ended up being my pick for something that has a little bit more substance than just an idea. This Writing About Writing series, for example, existed as a collection called Writing Process in Notion.

Notion: I use on my Mac

The two killer features in Notion for me are rich links and linking between the notes within the app itself. Rich links basically means that the link is shown as the link preview (like they appear on social media, with a picture and a description) and not just the URL (the string of letters).

The linking between notes functionality means that a list of, say writing topics, also becomes navigable into each collection. This doesn't seem like a lot, but it's so elegant. It simplifies my system by an order of magnitude.

Its clean interface also makes it very inviting to just dump a whole bunch of notes into (like Kindle highlights) and stream-of-consciousness write without a care for wordcounts or other limits.

2. Drafts

The One That Just Comes Out

There are two types of stream-of-consciousness writing in my mind. One is where it just happens and you just need whatever writing app closest to you to catch it. I'm talking full drafts now, not just a little note here or there.

For this, I tend to use:

  • Apple Notes
  • Bear
  • Notion

I want the product to be as invisible as possible. I just want to write and not be distracted by anything else, and all three of these do that well.

The Ones That Don't

The second type of stream-of-consciousness writing, is when you're stuck in your mind and can't get anything on the page. If you read part II, this is when your editor is in charge and you're overanalysing every word before it's even on the page. 

You need permission to suck.

Byword I use on my Mac.

It's a Markdown editor, so you can't even change the font or the font-size or anything. What can you do? Write. They even somehow disable auto-correct which is amazing because you don't get distracted by spelling and grammar.

It feels low stakes, so it's great to just open during a meeting or when trying to get my thoughts in order. It exists as this organic document just on my screen, that I may even end up not saving when I'm done as any relevant snippets have ended up in an email, blogpost or in my task manager.

I'm guessing a lot of people use Apple's inbuilt Notes for this, and like I always say, whatever tools work for you, great. You do you boo. As someone very prone to any form of procrastination, the very intentional selection of features (or a lack thereof) in Byword makes it an appealing option for me.

ILYS is a website, I also use on my laptop.

If you're totally stuck in your head, nothing breaks your editor in my experience like ILYS. It blacks out the entire screen only showing you one letter at a time, and you can't even use backspace. You will not be able to see whatever garbage spills out of you until you've hit the wordcount you set out for yourself. And if that word count is maybe 800 or 1200, you better believe, y'all be needing to get some words down to hit that.

Your only option is just to keep writing. If you let yourself get into the rhythm, you are forced out of your head and you get into a tone that is much more conversational than your editor would normally allow. Looking past the initial throwaway 2-3 paragraphs, often you're able to articulate something that you don't even realise until you read it back.

This is extra helpful when doing something that could be described as "self-promo-y" because that's when our editor tends to go into overdrive. And it's not just me who thinks that. I have a friend who launched a new project at the start of the year, and her social media posts announcing it to the world came from a session like that using ILYS. Powerful that.

When the idea has enough substance, we can move it into a writing platform and get a draft together. And then, when it's ready to transition into a polished piece, we can move it into a publishing platform.

– from part II


Grammar & Readability Checks

Nothing spells incompetence like a lasy misteik, so enlisting grammar-robots is critical. We all know about spell check, but these copy-scanning bots have a lot more to offer.

Most notable are features that scan for sentence structure and readability. A readability score ranks your text on something called the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level. It basically tells you how far along the educational system a person has to have gotten before they can understand your text.

While writing at college level may seem real fancy, you're severely limiting your audience with that. It's more powerful to explain yourself in simple language. When the ideas are complicated, you want maximum comprehension. That means writing at as low of a grade level as you possibly can. 

Grammarly: I have a Grammarly extension on my browser that corrects my writing as I go along. It's annoying, but good. We mainly clash on my use of commas.

HemingwayApp: My absolute favourite is HemingwayApp. It's easy to use, but the feedback is good and actionable. Understanding how to read into their highlighted recommendations is something you'll get better at over time.

Reading begets writing. To write, read.  
As a better reader, you'll also be able to tell if your writing 'reads well'.

to publish

As I'm getting my text spellchecked, I start moving my draft into a publishing platform. It changes the setting, and forces me to switch tones from casual and careless to clear and concise. I'm aware of the reader now. This is no longer my personal thought in textual format, this is a conversation.

Some write directly into a publishing platform, and sometimes I do. It can be helpful to keep a draft 'off site' though so you're not working with the original.

Promogogo, I use on my Mac

Full disclosure, my job is to make Promogogo. But also I totally love it (maybe because if I don't like something, we change it). I love the control it offers without any coding required. My favourite part of working within a publishing platform is that I'm working with the text as my readers will see it. 

This can be very uncomfortable because I become keenly aware of how much work is left to do. If you're new to writing, you might be shocked at how your all-over-the-place garbage doesn't neatly fit a publishable format. 

While painful, this is great. Nothing is worse than text that lacks structure, so now it's time for your editor to earn its keep.

The best strategy for editing is detachment. Absolutely do not get attached to your garbage. If it doesn't work, out it goes. If you have to throw out entire paragraphs, so be it. If you're writing to publish, you've committed to writing for someone else to read. Do not subject your reader to garbage.

And here is where it gets even harder, and that's when you like something but it doesn't support the structure or the overall vision. The only right course of action here is to get rid of it. "Kill your darlings" they call this ruthless approach to editing. I find it very fitting, since it's only garbage.

are we there yet?

When your prose falls effortlessly, you know you've succeeded. Your reader too should think, 'oh, what a pleasant read. this is what the outcome of writing looks like' without the knowledge of the tortured process it took to get here.

I find writing to be very much a 90% done, 90% left type of process. I read and re-read what I wrote probably 50 times before I publish it, and make small fixes along the way. I like reading on the phone, because the smaller screen is less forgiving: it's easier to catch errors or awkward phrasing. Others read their work aloud, but I can get there by reading in my mind.

I tend to not stop editing until I've read it through so often I become a little bit nauseated and sick of my own words.

That's when I press publish.

my other published pieces: