Insights from a Year of Weekly Writing (Growing in Public Part 2)

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Part 2 of 2

Writing is hard. Writing is damn hard. Roughly a year ago I started a journey I had no real idea would progress the way that it has, and I wrote last week about how fast that year has flown past me.

I started this blog practically out of a task we were given as postgraduate students, but it became more than that. For years I had wanted to start writing, after gaining so much insight from other writers and feeling like I could do the same in some way, shape or form; but I lacked the motivation. I lacked a trigger. My postgrad gave me that, and what a hell of a ride it has been.

Ironically, our blogs were intended to be a place where we could share and record what we were learning. And while that is definitely the case, this blog has been something that I have learnt so much from.

The first segment of this Growing in Public mini series, that I published last week, was about why I started this journey, and what led me to that decision. And this second and final segment is about what I’ve learnt (and continue to learn) along the way.

Hopefully you find this as useful as I have.

Keep your eyes open

I’d like to say that I’ve always had things to say. That my muse and I are so well acquainted I can call on him at a moment’s notice, that ideas are pouring out of my ears and my fingertips ache for a keyboard more than I have moments to indulge them. Alas, that would be a lie. In fact, it’s more the opposite.

I barely have ideas when I sit down to write. I don’t sit down and write about what I’m feeling in the moment; even most of those ‘writing as thinking’ posts I’ve made have been things I wanted to write about beforehand. I rely on a list, a list that I populate outside of the act of writing; like when I’m sitting at my desk at work, in a meeting about something completely unrelated (or maybe subtly related) or even while listening to a podcast or watching WandaVision.

But that list, believe it or not, doesn’t populate itself. There have been days where I have ideas, and there have been many days where I’ve stared at proverbial brick walls; and let me tell you, that’s not fun. When you know you need to write about something and you feel you have nothing to say, that’s some kind of torture as a writer. So what do I do to avoid this? I keep my eyes open.

Keeping my eyes open means I pay attention to what’s happening around me. I look for the story in experiences. I look for the lessons in moments where I may not have noticed them before. By always looking for the story, funnily enough, I’ve become a better listener and I’ve become a better observer.

I look at the world around me a little closer. I listen to podcasts and whenever I think something along the lines of, “uhm, I’m not sure that’s the case,” I see that as an opportunity to flesh something out with you.

Seek, and you shall find.

Pay attention to what people say

This is somewhat of a lead-on from my previous point, but there is immense value in listening to someone. And by listening I mean really listening, not simply waiting for the other person to finish talking so you can slam the greatest one liner of the century (even though we try).

Listening to people makes you genuinely think about things, what they’re saying and what that means to you. Whether you decide to use that information or not is completely up to you, but by listening you open yourself up to new perspectives and the potential for learning something grows exponentially.

Look for the lesson in everything

When you open your eyes to learning something, when you look at the world around you hoping to find something useful, you tend to experience a rather profound positivity loop. Suddenly, the guy who bumps you in the queue isn’t an asshole, it’s someone who reminds you of the personal space around you. It’s a change of perspective.

When you look for lessons, what you’re really doing is admitting that you have something to learn. That you’re lacking in some way and that you’re okay with that (which you should be if you ever want to grow). You admit you know nothing about something, and you are ambitious in your quest for bridging that gap.

Starting small (and staying small)

If you know me personally, you’ll come to realise quite quickly that I have a tendency to overachieve. Whether it’s the essay asking for 20 references and I leave having 100, or the artwork I’ve drawn with corners so smooth you’ll never see them, I don’t like leaving things half-assed.

This is by no means a blessing, so I’ve come to learn, as it very easily leads to burnout and anxiety about my work. To combat this tendency, I’ve had to learn to consciously stop myself from doing things I really want to do, saving myself unnecessary hand-ache and sleepless nights. One of these places where I’ve implemented this, is with this blog.

I started with knowing that I was going to write every week. It didn’t matter what it was going to be about, as long as it helped me, as long as I could look back and see that I learnt something from it. I stopped myself from setting unrealistic guides and research-intensive outlines. I’ve stopped myself from taking it in directions I’m dying to.

I want to take this to an audio-level. But I’m not ready for that yet, because I know the editing hours are going to be more than I can commit to. I also want to take this blog to a video-level. I’m not ready for that either for the same reasons. I know that if I can record these articles in video then I’ll automatically have audio, but I have other commitments I have to uphold.

I seem to enjoy filling my plate before I’ve finished my first meal, and while I’ve learnt a lot about how I chew and delegate my meals, I’ve choked more times than I like to admit. So now I make sure this particular plate is less filled than it can be. I can always have dessert later.

Slow and steady wins the race, because you eventually realise it’s not a race at all. And if you want to guarantee a sustainable continuation of a habit, whatever it is, make it so easy that you know you can kick it up a gear at any moment, while ensuring that you don’t. For now.

Experimentation is your friend

When I started this blog, I wrote in markdown in a lovely little Mac app called Paper. This app is so simple I’ve been frustrated with how much I can’t do with it, but ironically that’s why it’s held a dear place in my dock ever since I first came across it. I started using it to jot notes when I didn’t have a fully functional word processor around (or I was lazy) and it did the job. The free version is also more than sufficient for what I needed, and still is to this day.

From there I started using Google Docs (because I’m not a MS Office fan — fight me). This was great because now it synced up with my Google Drive, the unsung hero of my academic and professional career. I could now open files and work on them on my phone, my iPad and my laptop whenever I needed them. I’m at a different computer? No problem, let me just open this online quick and finish it up.

Google Docs also took my formatting game up a notch when it came to developing my writing before publishing. Heading presets and linking features, with the ability to embed imagery and links easily, made for a great drafting experience. With Grammarly installed on my browser, this also meant I could edit easier while writing, and see my flaws as I was making them.

There was something missing with this program, however, and I eventually felt like I needed a change. That’s when I rediscovered Notion. In contrast with Google Docs, Notion is a native app with categorisation and formatting tools I didn’t know could be so useful. It also has the added benefit of letting me write in rich markdown, meaning I could write how I used to while having it format seamlessly, simultaneously.

Now, I continue to write with Notion, building a vast library of content (56 articles strong now!) that I can reference as fast as my mouse will allow. I have no doubt that I will move onto something else eventually, when I feel the time is right, but what I find more valuable is what I’ve learnt about my writing through each program.

How I write now would have stressed the living daylight out of me when I first started, but now it’s a muscle I’ve strengthened slowly over the past year. You don’t have to start big, and you don’t have to start complicated. What matters is that you start and figure the rest out at your own pace. And when you’re ready, experiment with something new. You never know what you can learn until you try it.

Better to be done than perfect

This may seem like a no-brainer, but as a creative professional this is something far easier said than done. I’ve had problems with this in the past, and I still have to actionably remind myself, but some things are not worth being perfect. This is usually because their external value is so small compared to the value you place on it internally, that it becomes a waste of time to continue refining past a certain point.

I’ll often try to perfect a sketch because I know that I want to share it, while knowing full-well that it’s supposed to be rough and raw. I know this and I still continue to refine things unnecessarily, sometimes to my own detriment, or to the detriment of the team that I work with.

There is value in seeking perfection, absolutely, but there is no inherent value in really achieving it because perfection is subjective. It doesn’t exist objectively and changes from person to person. The moment I started applying this, and stopping myself when something was done and fighting the urge to perfect it, I started seeing the effect it had on my other work.

Suddenly I had ideas about things that were worthwhile working on. Taking something from 20% to 70% has far more value than taking something from 90% to 95%. There’s a time and place for finesse, but those times and places are few and far between; and when you learn to spot them, you can start to put value into the things in between that really matter.

This is an ongoing lesson, but one I feel I make an honest step towards every time I stop myself from going too far.

Edit second

The temptation to edit my writing as I write is strong. Turns out that’s actually a common tendency amongst writers, and many creatives in other disciplines as well. As I read articles by some of my most inspiring writers, I see them subtly (and sometimes blatantly) reference how important it is to write before you edit in a chunky sense. Let me explain.

We often write a sentence and then edit it before moving onto the next one. We change some wording, correct our spelling and make sure that we’re happy with it before we continue. The problem with this, is that it isn’t a good representation of how we think. We don’t think and then restructure our thoughts before moving onto the next one. We think and speak and only later reflect and wish we could change things. The same should be true of our writing, only we have the opportunity to change it before we share it.

Through my blogging I’ve learnt that it’s (more often than not) far more insightful to write and get everything out before going back to edit everything together. Instead of writing one sentence and editing it before moving onto the next, I write the entire post and then edit it in its entirety some time later. This process lets me formulate my thoughts and my musings and get them out of the confines of my mind as a whole, and then to refine them with more focus.

I’m seeing grammatical errors right now as I write this very sentence, but I know that if I go back and edit them then I’ll have lost my current train of thought; and I’m not about to stop that train until I’m all out of track.

Write for yourself

I expanded on this in Part 1 of this mini series, but this is also something I referenced in my 2020 Design Manifesto. As designers and artists we are trained to create and design for others before ourselves. We often provide both a product and a service simultaneously. Where many of us learn at first by creating for ourselves, by designing things that we want to design and see manifested in the world, we usually end up caught in the trap of doing those things for others as a priority.

While, in all honesty, there is nothing wrong with creating for others because it keeps us accountable and gives us the sense of purpose and fulfilment we perpetually seek, the priority shift is dangerously subtle. Before we know it we are no longer creating for ourselves, and because we can’t pay our own bills we don’t always see the utility in shifting it back. This is why I started this blog.

As a place to continue to provide for myself before those around me, I prioritise my own happiness and sense of fulfilment. I write not just to help the person one step behind me, but to facilitate my own learning and my own growth. When I grow, my skillset evolves, and when that evolves I have the potential to provide more value for those around me. Do you see how that positive feedback loop starts to feed itself? That’s why it’s important to write (or create anything, really) for yourself first. Feed your soul and your soul will feed the world.

Get better at the technical stuff

As with my point on experimenting with tools and platforms, so should you experiment with the technical nature of most things. I don’t mean just technologically, but rather the nitty gritty of whatever you work with. As I’ve grown my library of writing, so too have I grown my knowledge of how writing works on the internet, from SEO to tags and from cross-referencing to the utility of multi-platform publishing.

I write my articles in Notion. I then edit them in Notion before publishing on Medium and my own website simultaneously, making sure that it’s possible for Medium members to come straight to my website should they choose to. My tags and SEO are developed beforehand so the process of publishing is swift and correlated between the two platforms so that the experience is the same either way.

I wasn’t doing this in the beginning, but as I found myself getting used to the process of writing itself, I started experimenting with what the tools themselves could allow me to do from a technical perspective. I’ve still got a lot to learn, but I’m far from where I started, which is what matters today.

The path forward

Many of these insights were not things that I set out to learn, but have rather been a byproduct of the journey itself. Because of that, I have no doubt this list will grow in the coming year, and many of these insights will evolve as a result. I look forward to that, and for continuing to provide what I can for you. For now, have a fantastic weekend, and I’ll see you in the next one.

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Zachary Styles

Full-time designer, illustrator and lettering artist. Part time lecturer. Part time student. Experiencing the world through words, both written and drawn.