Writing pipelines

Recently I’ve been trying to increase my ability to write and publish. I’ve always admired and envied people who are able to write about interesting ideas, and I’ve wanted to be able to do that myself, but my wishing hasn’t produced much in the way of results yet.

A lot of processes can be thought about in terms of a pipeline of multiplicative factors. If you are trying to sell a product then you might build a sales funnel that starts with an advertisement that directs people to a landing page, and the landing page has sales copy that tells people more about your product and invites them to try a demo, and then if they like the demo they can buy the full product. So each step along that process is multiplicative. And you can look at each step separately and optimise it.

One of the factors to look at when figuring out which step to improve is to think about where the greatest losses are occurring. If 80% of the people who see the landing page then go on to try the demo then you could at most increase sales by 25% if you improve that step, but if only 10% of people who try the demo then buy the product then you could potentially raise sales by 1000% by improving that step. If you have any step in that process that isn’t working at all then that’s a multiplication by zero and no amount of improvements elsewhere are going to do you any good.

So it’s often helpful to figure out which step in the process is causing the greatest loss of potential results. But in the case of writing, I didn’t really have a model of what the process of writing was, so I didn’t even know where to look. This is an attempt to identify the process.

What would a writing pipeline look like? The very rough model that I quickly put together looks something like this: Generate ideas → capture ideas → organise ideas and identify those I’d like to publish → draft and edit → publish.

Obviously, this is an idealised model. In reality the steps won’t happen strictly in order, but hopefully this will clarify what some of the individual pieces are that I can play with.

What do these steps mean?

  • Generate ideas: You need something to write about and something to say about it. This might include ideas that come up when having a conversation with friends, or while in the shower, or might be the result of more systematic, directed thinking about a problem.
  • Capture ideas: It’s good to have shower thoughts, but if you forget them as soon as you step out of the shower and get into the day’s work then it’s as if they didn’t happen in the first place. The process for capturing ideas might include carrying around a pen and paper, and actually taking a moment to stop and use it when the idea comes.
  • Organise and identify: If you’ve got a collection of notes, how do you arrange them such that you can find the relevant ones when needed, and how do you make the decision that an idea that you’ve had is actually worth writing up and publishing?
  • Drafting and editing: This is the step that most people think about when they think about the work of writing: arranging ideas into a readable and compelling form. You could split this into separate drafting and editing stages if you like. There is already a lot of writing about how to do this step.
  • Publishing: This doesn’t sound like it should be much work, but it’s a crucial step. Do you have a place where you can put your written work so that other people can see it? Also, do you have things that would prevent you from doing so, such as fear of other people seeing what you’ve written?

Having identified those steps, I’m able to go look through that now and identify which of those are a problem for me and which are coming more easily. It turns out that the blocker that I seem to have is that I rarely think of an idea that I’ve had as something that I might publish. I can organise the ideas, and in fact I have a Zettelkästen system for doing so, but I don’t do anything to identify the publishable ideas.

What I’d ideally like is to have is a writing pipeline that works as effortlessly as possible. I’d like to have ideas flowing through this pipeline without forcing myself to do work that I don’t enjoy doing. But in order to do that, I think it’s reasonable to apply a bit of force initially so that I can discover where the problems are.

With that in mind, I now have a Beeminder goal in place to produce a draft that I would be happy to send to a beta reader. That’s downstream of the identification step, and so forces me to identify publishable ideas. So I’m hoping that with a bit of practice I’ll find the things that are preventing me from doing that step and will be able to fix those problems. You might ask, why not just have a Beeminder goal for identifying things that I could publish? If I just said that an idea was something that I could write about, I’m not sure that I would actually believe in what I chose. I think there needs to be some feedback from the downstream stages of the pipeline to the prior stages that they’re actually producing workable outputs.

With all that said, there’s still a lot that I don’t know about how this pipeline. I’ve come up with this model in my head, but I don’t know that I’ve really identified or conceptualised all the steps correctly. But I’m willing to treat this as a working model that I can refine later if necessary.