product designer, cyclist, armchair urbanist

On Writing

Here's the beautiful thing about writing: it's a great equalizer. Writing your thoughts costs you nothing except your time, and whether your platform is as large as a national publication or as small as your personal Tumblr on a dusty corner of the internet, you have a voice.

As precious as the written word is, it's extraordinarily difficult to do. Typing words on a keyboard is easy, so what's hard about writing?

Our thinking isn't linear and tight, so when the scattered arguments in our heads get squeezed into the linear medium of the written word, they come out tangled. Arguments that feel strong in our heads transform into something limp and unfinished on paper.

The work of writing isn't putting down words. The work is threading together your thinking, experiences, and research—that's where the magic is. Writing starts haphazardly in modules, and gains power as you stitch the pieces together like a quilt. Your audience gets a collage.

So write like you talk, and write like you think: in scattered, isolated pieces. Then step back, get a bird's-eye view, and put the puzzle together. Editing is writing, and editing is the magic1.

Write. Write for yourself. As long as the subject holds your attention, write the next sentence. Keep writing the sentences until you've satisfied your curiosity and the patchwork is big enough to hold the weight of your idea2. Keep writing long after the feeling fades. When the lights dim and the city sleeps around you, push hard into the night and work the sentences to get them right. Let the writing work you into a trance and wring your mind dry of everything good it knows.

Writing is magic because you bear your heart to the world. You share your story and your research, and you let the world around you into your space. When I read your writing, I see how hard you worked, and I can see how much you wanted me to enjoy it.

Keep going. Keep working with the words, rearranging the sentences. It's worth it. Someone will notice your care.

Write because you have to. Write because your experiences need logged. Write because none of us knows how much longer we have. Write for the joy of the work and the freedom of getting something off your chest. Write to teach, write to make someone laugh. Writing can be lonely and thankless. But you have to keep writing.

Writing is just words, you know? No, even simpler—it's just characters. Lines and shapes and white space and a set of rules to keep it all in check. But it's magic. It has the power to change a life in the quiet of a room. It has the power to renew and educate and serve. It has the power to cause great good.

Labor hard for the written word. Write when no one is looking. Do it for yourself first, and then try to do it for others. Anytime you write, you won't have wasted your time. Everyone wants an audience. Some are content with an audience of one, others long for thousands, and some have readers in the hundreds of thousands or millions. But start with yourself as your audience, and take it from there. Then bring someone along, and let the movement grow as slowly as it must.

This essay is the last in a series of writings for a three month writing challenge with my friend Ben Callahan. We wrote and published something publicly every week for three months. Here's Ben's final piece—it's worth your time.

1I learned about the idea that writing can happen in modules from this episode of Dorm Room Tycoon with Malcolm Gladwell. When I heard that, I felt a sense of happy relief. I usually write in chunks just like he described, and I always assumed it was a weakness. Now I know better.

2I learned to think like this in one of the best pieces I've ever read on the art of writing: Omission, by John McPhee in the New Yorker magazine.