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My System for Writing

People from time to time ask me how I manage to write all the articles on my website despite having a family and a demanding full-time job. My simplistic, off-the-cuff answer is "one sentence at a time" :) Seriously, however, over the years I have developed a personal writing system that I would like to share with you. My system consists of three interdependent aspects: time, discipline, and motivation.


The first key is to make time to write. Ideally this should be a decent period of time each day during which you are undisturbed and at peak mental capacity.

The minimum period of time that I find effective is usually around 15 - 30 minutes. This is because it sometimes takes time to get into a good flow of writing. The maximum period of time that I find effective ranged from 45 minutes to 1.5 hours. This maximum is based on how well I can maintain my flow of writing and my motivation / discipline. If I get stuck, especially on a new section for which I do not have a clear outline, I tend to stop and let it percolate in the back of my mind. The longer the writing session goes, the more likely I am to run out of steam (motivation / discipline) - e.g. by getting distracted by email or my RSS reader. I find that practically this means that I am generally unable to continue writing for more than 1.5 hours.

So how do I find the time to write? I get up early each morning, before the rest of my family, and use the time to write. I sometimes write in the evening, but I find I often do not have the mental energy for this after a long day at work. So I tend to save the evenings for other activities, such as exercising, and dedicate the mornings to writing. Successfully doing this day after day takes motivation and discipline.


The second aspect of my system is maintaining a high level of motivation. I have found that if I am not motivated to write regarding a particular topic or section then my progress is usually quite slow and I am easily distracted.

One way I keep my motivation high is extremely simple: I primarily choose topics that I am motivated to write about. When a new idea comes along, motivation to write about it is usually quite high initially and decays over time. So the ideal is to start writing about such ideas immediately. Other times I am wrestling with a topic at work or researching it on my own and gain some insights that I feel like sharing.

My motivation in these cases is linked to the goal of helping others learn and grow, which is part of my professional vision. In some cases, as I have started writing about an idea, I realized that I only had a sentence or two of meaningful content, which by my standards is not enough to share via an article. This typically rapidly deflates my motivation, and I move on to a different idea.

This concept of linking the act of writing to the achievement of a larger, more personally-meaningful goal is another valuable technique for boosting motivation. In the last year I have started to tackle some larger projects (which is one reason for the decrease in my posting frequency), and I find that having this linkage is extremely powerful in maintaining motivation over the long term. Having this motivation helps in dedicating the time to write.

Motivation is powerful, but it tends to fluctuate. When motivation fades, discipline is needed to maintain consistency of purpose.


The final key to my system of writing is discipline - consistently applying deliberately-designed techniques and practices that help me write. Discipline has also helped me discover these methods through ongoing reflection and improvement on what is working versus what is not

A large part of discipline is consistency, which helps build up productive practices into positive habits. One example is my practice of getting up early each morning to write - I do this every morning, weekends as well as workdays.

I have found that there is an initial hurdle to overcome when sitting down to write, especially if I am struggling with a section. This difficulty often caused me to switch to email or the web as a distraction from which I tended not to emerge, resulting in me making no progress for that block of time. One practice I have developed to overcome this is to have a firm plan in mind the night before of what specifically I am going to write the next morning. As I get up in the morning, I immediately begin recalling my plan as a way to help prime my mind for action. Not only does this help me stay focused, but I also find it reduces the start-up time necessary to get into the flow, thus allowing me to be productive with even a short block of time.

Outlines are another practice I regularly use, even for short pieces of writing such as this article. These outlines are often quite informal, focusing on the main points I plan to write about. The purpose is not to identify all the content, or how it is organized - I often add more points that come to mind as I write, or restructure as the material comes together. Instead, I use outlines to help eliminate one of the causes of getting stuck - not knowing what content to write about. (It is still possible, unfortunately, to get stuck regarding how to write the content.) Outlines are also helpful in dividing the writing into sections: each section acts as a mini-milestone that I can aim to complete during a writing session, thus helping me remain motivated to write.

I have a technique for maintaining the flow while writing and minimizing distractions that involves the use of 'todo' labels. The general idea is that when I identify something to do or consider that falls outside my current focus, I document it with a 'todo' prefix. This keeps it preserved for later action, which helps to get it out of my mind now. Here are some common examples of how I employ this technique:

  • When I want to link to an article on my website or elsewhere, I leave a 'todo'. Finding the link is often quite quick, but I do this to avoid distractions.
  • When I have an idea for a piece of content for a future, unwritten section, I jot down a brief note with a 'todo' in that section, then return to what I was writing.
  • When I get quite stuck on a particular paragraph or section, I leave a 'todo' comment and switch to another area. This is especially common when I have a long list of points outlined: I start writing the points for which I have the most motivation, leaving 'todo' flags on ones I skip. I then use the momentum I have built writing these more motivating points combined with the promise of almost being done them all to return to these few remaining points and grind them out.
  • When I have an outline consisting of sections, like this article does, I start by writing down the section headings with 'todo' labels on each. This serves as a road-map for me to follow while writing. It also helps me see the overall structure of what I am writing.

This is my system for writing - it may not work for you. But I do suggest at least experimenting with some of these techniques and practices if you have not tried them before. I encourage you to leave a comment describing what practices or techniques you have found helpful.

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2 Comments on “My System for Writing”

  1. James says:

    I always find your posts informative. Thanks.

  2. Alexander says:

    Thank you for the inspiration. I love hearing how other people write, because it really gives me motivation for myself. As you said, I think its great to find a topic that you are motivated to write about at the moment. Keep up the great work.

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