I had long resisted the navel-gazing urge to do a very meta how the sausage gets made type essay. Mostly because I think too much about things that do not matter very much.
On occasion of the successful—well, largely successful—migration from my previous platform to a new hosted WordPress set up, I thought I would throw my reluctance into the bin and document what my process of creating these essays is like. Aside from being an exercise in vanity, I always quite enjoy reading these process-based posts from other writers, so wouldn’t it be hypocritical if I didn’t contribute to the universe of these types of pieces? We must be good web citizens after all.
The following will document the snoot-to-tail process of writing these essays from idea conception to pressing publish and attempting to share with others. The process is current as at late July 2023.
The problem thus far with ideas for this place has never been in having enough ideas—rather the problem is having too many ideas. Ideas simply come from living and being receptive to the ceaseless churnings of one’s brain. Ideas come from the things I read, the conversations I have, things that I listen to, walking the dog, or even from writing essays on other topics. Ideas are amazing.
I originally maintained a list on my phone out of a fear that I only had a finite amount of ideas and it was therefore necessary to throw them in a vault so they wouldn’t escape. I also found myself adding ideas to this list at a rate that exceeded my ability to execute upon them by several orders of magnitude.
More recently, my approach is to simply let ideas percolate in the hotel-lobby of my mind. When it comes time to sit down and write a draft, I find there will usually be one idea that has risen to the forefront of my thoughts and so it feels quite organic to write about that.
I do see some value in returning to maintaining a list of ideas. Not because of my initial fear of some sort of hypothetical idea drought, but because I like the idea of a record of how my ideas develop over time. We are our ideas and we are always changing, and so having a reflection of this growth seems valuable. Especially if I organise the list in date order I have a de facto idea journal. It would be neat to have.
I try not to, in thinking about what to write, have regard to any notion of an audience and what they might like to read. Thinking about others, and imagining their potential reactions, has a chilling effect on creativity and idea generation. I acknowledge this is fully a luxury of this endeavour being purely for intellectual pleasure and not being a side-hustle. I would also say, though, that trying to chase any understanding of what an audience might want is a fool’s game. It is a distraction from investigating what is meaningful to us.
I suspect that the things I most enjoy writing about are not always the things that resonate the most with others. And I am perfectly comfortable with that. If doing a personal project gives you no intrinsic satisfaction, you really ought to wonder why you are doing it? Put another way, we should prioritise our own engagement and enrichment. As a habitual people-pleaser this has been a hard lesson to learn, but I am glad to be making progress towards this understanding.
What does serve as a barrier to thinking about what to write is my sense of whether I have sufficient things to say on a topic (and whether those things are sufficiently interesting, which does suggest I have at least some mental conception of an audience). My last essay—Of the Cozy Life—was an experiment in a short, more snacky format. I am not entirely happy with that essay, but I do think the format itself warrants further exploration. I would like to be more concise, that is to say that in the process of comprising these written essays I would like to manifest a desire to reduce the amount of words I use to convey my message to the audience, thus creating a situation where the resultant essay contains a smaller amount of words relative to earlier essays I have composed.
After I’ve settled on an idea, I sit down to write. I write the first draft out by hand. I find this tremendously valuable. The slow speed of my handwriting—relative to my typing speed—better suits the pace at which I can develop my thoughts and then articulate them in words. Constraints are always useful and so being forced to write a little slower helps me tremendously. If you are ever struggling to express an idea, do try writing about the idea by hand.
I also love writing things by hand. As I have mentioned once or twice, I am quite mad about fountain pens and am always on the lookout for more opportunities to use them. There is a genuine and quiet beauty about the way fountain pens work and write. The way the wet ink slowly dries on a page is often seductive in its own way. I use a tremendous variety of fountain pens and inks. I love flicking through the notebooks and seeing the different colours and line sizes from different nibs. It feels very personal in the way that typed words never can.
As for paper, I mostly favour Japanese paper. There are few countries I trust more in all matters of stationery than Japan. My current notebook is an A4 grid-lined number from Life Stationery which I am reasonably happy with. One of my all time favourite paper products are the Midori MD Cotton notepads. I also panicked-bought a lot of Tomoe River paper which I am hoarding and should be using instead of buying more notebooks. At any rate, the combination of a nice pen and nice paper simply cannot be beat.
Each essay usually takes two or three writing sessions to finalise the first draft. At the risk of dispelling the rather earnest image I’ve perhaps created thus far, I do not have very good discipline with writing. I will be usually writing while listening to a podcast or YouTube video in the background or in-between meetings at work. I have a fantastic admiration for the idea of waking up early and having a dedicated, quiet time for writing, a la Anthony Trollope. But I love sleep even more than writing, and so it goes.
I would like both a dedicated space for writing, as opposed to one desk that I use for simply everything from work to playing games to craft projects and so on. House prices and rent in my part of the world are rather challenging so this is not feasible right now. And, alas, my favourite local cafe does not offer a commodious set up for longform writing. Ultimately, however, I think writing in even less than ideal conditions is better, infinitely, than not writing. If you want to write, just write, no matter where you are, or what your setup is. Recognise that wanting a perfect set up is really just an excuse not to write.
My internal pessimism exposes itself time and time again in my fear that I’ll struggle to write anything valuable, but thus far I am quite amazed at how quickly and easily the words come. If anything I find myself struggling with just staying on topic and not getting lost in digressions and exploration of other quasi-related topics.
Once the first draft is completed I try to put a day or so before sitting down to type up the second draft in the creative blackhole that is Google Docs. I dislike Google both for its products and approach as a company. I am possibly still salty for their stupid decision to kill off Google Reader. But Google Docs gets the job done, and a lot of the more interesting other platforms are either expensive or not available on Windows.1About every second week I think I should buy a new MacBook Air for writing. Thus far I have managed to pull myself back from that ledge, but one day I might crack…
I redraft heavily as I type, both because I have thought of a better way of expressing myself and also I sometimes struggle to read my own handwriting.2¯\_(ツ)_/¯ I originally had a thought of posting the original handwritten drafts—replete with typos, struck-out lines and ink stains—but I fear no one would be well served by this, so it shall remain but a dream for now.
Just as I find good pens and paper in the first draft stage essential, I find a good mechanical keyboard essential for any extended typing. My current keyboard, the Keychron Q1, is delightfully satisfying to type on, even just with the stock Gatereon G Pro Brown switches. It also has a volume knob which is just incredibly delightful to use. While I don’t love the process of transcribing from paper to screen, it is an essential and necessary part of the process.
I live a bit of a double life. At work I frequently find myself called on to edit and review other’s work. I quite enjoy doing this and am very satisfied in clear, accessible writing. At rest, however, I am quite bad at editing and proofreading my own work. The breaks between each stage of the process—first draft, second draft, posting and so on—are intended to help give me a bit of space such that I’m more able to look over my work with a degree more objectivity. Fresh eyes really do make a difference. I’ve also started trying to proofread from the last sentence to the first which is helpful to a degree. I am sadly grateful for, and a little dependent, on the spelling and grammar check that Google Docs provides.
I’ve read two books lately that have proved especially helpful to my practice of writing: Good Enough by Avram Alpert and Future Tense by Tracy Dennis-Tiwary. Both books have helped me become more comfortable with a view of good enough, rather than pointlessly aiming at perfection. I find myself consciously challenging the bully in my mind that demands greatness and perfection. What really helped crystallise this attitude was Future Tense’s discussion of a study that showed, quite convincingly, that perfectionists quite often produce work that is much worse than those who aim at competent adequacy. It certainly is not an overnight transformation, and I hope to return to the topic of good enough in the future, but I really encourage anyone with similar perfectionist tendencies and inclinations to critically examine those views and the extent to which they may be maladaptive.
A title normally occurs to me quite naturally, or I just default to a Montaigne style “of Topic” but I do struggle with the little blurb-y bit below the title and before the body of the essay. This exposes my ineptitude with pithiness I fear.
I had an excellent writing platform—blogstatic—and then I ruined everything by moving to wordpress. I fervently believe that the best tools are the simplest tools. Quantum physics was conceptualised, after all, with nothing more than pen and paper. And yet, and yet.
It all started with footnotes. Ever since I was old enough to read things with footnotes I was immediately besotted with them.3If only I could remember the very first footnote I encountered, or the first coffee I drank or the first of many things that are extraordinary at first but become quotidien through repetition Footnotes are little wonderful pockets of discovery. They are a way for an author to give you a little additional treat, like a surprise amuse-bouche from the kitchen at a nice restaurant. The best footnotes feel like being taken aside and told something salacious privately.
Blogstatic, in its elegant simplicity, does not support footnotes. I had to manually format them using asterisks and a sense of naïve optimism that a reader, upon encountering a footnote marker, would both understand what this meant and scroll down to the bottom of the essay to read the footnote, potentially losing their place in the essay.
This unsatisfied desire led me to investigate my options. There are a lot of platforms out there. Most of them were suited for purposes that were not aligned with my goal of producing quiet—occasionally ponderous—essays with no desire to monetise. Ghost came close, despite the home page’s banner screaming TURN YOUR AUDIENCE INTO A BUSINESS, but ultimately their footnote implementation was rigid and limited.4Rigimited? Limigid?
Perhaps my expectations were unrealistic. I wanted something with the elegance and simplicity of blogstatic but with the features and customisation of wordpress. This does not appear to exist, as far as I know. And so, as vomiting follows drinking too much, I moved to wordpress.
I had a wordpress site maybe six years ago and found it quite a frustrating experience. Things were always breaking, plugins were complex and confusing, and there was always a low-level fear of being hacked. I was curious to see how things had changed in the meantime. In short, wordpress has certainly shifted its focus from being a tool for writing to a tool for building and managing websites, and especially ecommerce websites. The tool is even more complex and less suited to writing than I remembered. My hosting people provided a number of automations and plugins that are aimed at reducing the administrative duties inherent in running wordpress. It still is a dreadful time sink and I would not recommend it for those who simply wish to write.
Ah, but the footnotes are glorious.5They really are! At least they are after finding and installing and configuring and testing the right plugin. So it goes with wordpress.
There are a few other features that I like about wordpress: a more sophisticated media manager, and the ability to configure themes and templates freely. With great power always comes great responsibility, and so it is the case here.
Moving platforms took about a week. I wasn’t able to do a one click import, but the wonderful developer of blogstatic, Val Sopi, helped me out so much in getting my content into wordpress. I had to go through each post manually to tweak the formatting and settings, and I am still far from happy with my theme—where are the wordpress themes that are not ugly generic ecommerce feeling—but overall I am more or less settled into my new wordpress home. After the promotional price from my current host ends, next year, I will have to do another migration. What fun.
At any rate, once I have finished a draft I copy it from Google Docs into a new post in wordpress. I head to the Library of Congress’s solid ukiyo-e collection to find a post featured image. I do not have a compelling answer for the question of “why ukiyo-e?” other than the fact I, like so many others, am quite fond of Japanese culture and aesthetics. I try to find an image that has some resonance with the topic of the essay, even if it is only a tenuous connection. Sometimes I am delighted by the pairing and other times I feel I have missed the mark.
I resist the opportunity to use multiple tags. Thus far all my posts have sat within three: living, media, and art. At some point I would like to think about how well this approach is serving me—and of course you, dear reader—but that time is not now.
Once I post the essay I make a half-hearted, self-conscious attempt at sharing it with friends and family. The best outcome is that someone will engage with the essay and tell me their thoughts on the topics. I’ve had a number of conversations off the back of essays I have posted and it is a real delight. And so, I try to push these little word babies out in the world.
I avoid rereading old essays once they are posted. Finding a typo in something people have read makes me feel quite anxious so I practise some willful blindness. I think it’s far better to focus on writing something else.
In the process of writing this essay I’ve used up three fountain pens.6To be fair, this was three half used fountain pens as opposed to three freshly-inked pens Looking at the word count it’ll be my longest piece by a slim margin. So in a future essay, I’d like to delve into the question of why write—and why I think everyone should be writing more and using social media less.
Writing this process out has been quite useful. It has made me acknowledge that I have a project going that I haven’t yet abandoned like so many projects that have come before. I am quite proud of these essays and it took writing this piece to be comfortable with that pride.
It has also given me ideas for improvements to my process—returning to a list of ideas, making time for writing and so on. It has also made me realise that each essay really is a time commitment. From start to finish an essay probably takes between 10 and 15 hours. This is not nothing, after all.
So this is my process roughly six months down the track. Thank you for reading, and here’s to the next six months.
- 1About every second week I think I should buy a new MacBook Air for writing. Thus far I have managed to pull myself back from that ledge, but one day I might crack…
- 3If only I could remember the very first footnote I encountered, or the first coffee I drank or the first of many things that are extraordinary at first but become quotidien through repetition
- 4Rigimited? Limigid?
- 5They really are!
- 6To be fair, this was three half used fountain pens as opposed to three freshly-inked pens