Discover more from Josh Spilker
You probably already have a writing habit
(now, what will you do with it?)
February is a great month for starting a writing habit.
Use this to your advantage and start writing.
No, it doesn’t have to be your tell-all memoir, the Great American Novel, or even relitigating your crappy 8th-grade poems.
A writing habit doesn’t mean what it used to mean.
In fact, there’s a good chance you already have a writing habit.
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Think for a second:
How often do you write on Instagram? Facebook? Twitter?
How often do you text?
Take notes in a meeting?
Send an email?
Write on Slack or Teams?
That’s a lot of words. More than ever before.
You already have a writing habit.
And we are used to an audience reading our writing (even if the audience is a handful or thousands upon thousands).
If we journal, it used to be for our own benefit.
Now it’s for an audience or a perceived audience.
Back in mid-00s, two Stanford professors collected over 15,000 pieces of writing from undergraduate students. This included their academic writing and any personal writing, things like poems, journals, emails, and texts.
Social media wasn’t as much of a thing back then, but their results were still instructive.
These 4 things stood out from the study:
The students were more committed to writing about their life than for their schoolwork
Styles can be changed quickly & easily for different audiences
Their writing was meant to be meaningful
Writing was collaborative and social, not solitary
Turns out you probably already have a writing habit.
What are you doing with your writing habit? How to make it meaningful
What you really want is a meaningful writing habit, not just your typical, everyday writing habit.
So how do you do that?
To be honest, I’m better at this in my day job than anything I’ve done personally.
I’ve had many stops and starts, periods of abundance, and periods of drought in more creative work.
But thinking about my own experience plus what the Stanford professors discovered, here are a few ideas that may help:
1. Take notes on what you read
This isn’t marking up a textbook. Most of us probably don’t read print books.
Now, there are lots of tools for notetaking or saving articles for later. I use Pocket and Refind. Then there is Readwise which shares highlights from your Kindle or other articles. There’s a bunch of tagging stuff.
Or you could copy a link into a Notion or Google doc and add in your notes. That’s basically what I do.
The transition is to be an active reader rather than a passive reader, looking for takeaways, new insights, inspiration, or craft notes.
This is a notes file or an ideas file or whatever you want to call it.
2. Journal about your day
I used to journal a lot. Mostly mundane things, like what happened or how I was feeling about certain situations. Journaling now seems different — more focused on gratitude, habit tracking, calorie intake, books read, movies watched.
How your journal really depends on your purpose. If it’s to record certain experiences (I journaled more when I was traveling in Belize this past fall) or for posterity’s sake (hey kid, look at all the fun stuff your father did) or to record personal experiments and learnings (look how smart I am!)
If you’re in an exploration stage, journaling can be helpful.
3. Share what you learn or experience
The advantage of journaling is it allows you to record unfiltered thoughts. The next stage is to filter what you’re learning or experiencing. There are multiple platforms for this now—rather it be on YouTube or on Instagram or on a humble Substack.
4. Shape an audience (if you’re into that)
Harder than it sounds. There are the techniques and tactics to making this happen. Certain formats you can employ.
I like saying “shape” because numbers don’t always mean you’re getting the people that you want to read your stuff.
Certain formats that you will like or not like. But again, what’s the purpose? Write a book? To have fun?
And then where’s your audience? What type of people are you trying to attract? They are more likely to find you if you are in their preferred channels.
This is inexact, but you have to make decisions about the channels your core people are.
At the same time, if you have the budget, try 2 or 3 channels. Right now, I’m mostly focused on Substack, LinkedIn, and Twitter.
Substack seems to have a more sophisticated audience than on Medium.
LinkedIn has more business-type content where I post a lot about SEO and marketing.
Twitter is a mix of the two, where pseudo-intellectuals seem to like posts. It’s also a channel I like so even though I don’t have much of a following on Twitter, I’m trying to get better at it.
Does that mean TikTok won’t work? No. I just don’t have the time or budget to make it work for me.
The barrier to entry for distribution is very low. It seems easy to get started (because it is). Maintaining a presence and strategy is harder than it looks. You can’t be everywhere at once, and do it successfully, unless you have a team working for you.
What are the benefits of a meaningful writing habit?
Sorting through your ideas.
The most transferable thing from writing in a journal to writing in public, if you’re so inclined is to ask questions and propose ideas out loud.
This requires a bit more editing and formatting and perhaps re-reading than what I did when I used a journal.
Not everything is appropriate of course — writing about family in public and your own private insecurities, can be difficult and they may not be along for the ride — this is the hardest thing about memoirs.
(Note: I watched part of the David Sedaris Masterclass and his thoughts on writing about family make a lot of sense. It boils down to exposing flaws without all of their secrets.)
Even if everything you write doesn’t make it out publicly, the process can help you find a voice and your point of view on a topic. Being interested in a story or a topic obviously makes this easier, but writing still takes work.
Find new opportunities
You can probably guess that I’m a bad networker. Mainly, because I grew up in the era where you would show up at random events and try to start a small talk with no prior context of the person, their work, or their situation.
(Parties freak me out in that way, but at least the word “networking” isn’t front and center, even though that obviously happens at parties).
By writing consistently online, you are able to meet different people and expand the pool of people that are interested in your point of view or your work.
This is why I think it’s valuable for non-writers to still find something to share, even if it’s once a week or once every few weeks.
Sure, there are formatting tricks and copywriting styles to master, but honestly, develop the habit first, and then improve on it.
I’m not the best at this — my followings don’t blow anyone away — but I haven’t had to submit a resume to a job in quite awhile (and I’ve worked for at least 6 companies over the past 6 years. I’m not super proud of that BTW but reasons).
Much of that wouldn’t have happened without me at least sharing something publicly.
Should you publish everything you write? That’s not the best question.
The better question is: Should you publish everything you think?
That’s where people get in trouble. Publishing random and stray thoughts.
But if you battle-test those by writing more in-depth, you may arrive in a different place.
Where can you capture these random ideas?
Instead of tweeting, facebooking or instagramming everything, you can write in something like Google Keep, Apple Notes or Notion first. It takes about the same amount of time, and you can review it later.
This is also a good system for storing random links, quotes, and observations.
A lot of people have complex systems for this, but don’t worry about having the most efficient system before you get in the habit first.
I’m still working on my system, flexing on a few of the tools I’ve used in the past.
I’ve moved from Google Drive to writing drafts directly in Medium or Substack, to now writing this in Notion.
What type of writer should you be?
Things won’t happen as fast as you want them.
You could write into the void for a long time.
Your ideal state as a writer won’t happen for a while. If ever.
Or as the Stanford study suggests, we’re already writing for an audience. Our writing has naturally become performative. Someone is reading your writing, somewhere.
You could find some hacks, but think about the type of writer you want to be — actionable and how-to’s?
Or thoughtful and measured and considerate?
Are you tackling big meaty topics or want to write about the best hacks on Google Sheets?
Unless you already have an established audience, writing that thoughtful stuff is harder, takes longer, and you may not have recognition for a long time, if ever. You okay with that?
The other stuff gives you a quick hit but fades just as fast.
Fewer expectations allow for more creative freedom.
Q: Do you have a meaningful writing habit? How do you stick with it?
Would love to hear about it.
Here’s my On Repeat Spotify playlist. Lots of emo!