Posts by "daniel clough"

8 Things I Learned From a Writing Legend

On Writing Well will change how I write forever. I found myself furiously taking notes because I didn’t want to forget the best bits — and I want to share a few of them.

The book is for anybody that wants to learn how to write, and mostly everyone will benefit from getting better at writing. Whether you’re sending a quick email or the CEO briefing the company — getting your ideas across succinctly is important.

1. The most important sentence is the first one

I knew this, but it was a nice reminder. When I start to read something, I want to know quickly that it’s worth my time. If I don’t get a reason to keep going, I won’t. There are too many things competing for my time and my attention span is shorter than it used to be. If I become uninterested for about half a minute, I’m already thinking about bailing.

The first sentence needs to grab the reader and give them a reason to go onto the second sentence — and so on. You have to hook them immediately and steadily pull them in as you build into what you’re saying.

If you’re publishing online, this advice extends to the title of the article. If you don’t compel the reader to click, they won’t even reach the first sentence.

I don’t give much thought to how I start my writing. I made more of an effort with this article. I started with a bold statement that ‘On Writing Well will change how I write forever’. I also promised to ‘share some of the best bits’, giving a reason to keep reading. Hey, if you’re still reading, I guess it worked. 😉

2. The essence of writing, is rewriting

This was my biggest take away, and it was emphasised throughout the book.

I’ve always appreciated clear, beautiful sentences. It’s easy to assume someone either has a way with words, or they don’t. But remember, the perfect sentence probably started as a crappy one.

Good writers spend more time rewriting, than writing. A lot of fussing and tinkering — making it clearer, tighter, simpler. Removing words or whole paragraphs that aren’t doing work. Changing the order of things. Reading it aloud to see how it differs from how you speak.

Paul Graham is one of my favourite writers. His essays take weeks to write. Even this very short 423 word essay took over an hour. He spent twice as much time rewriting, compared to writing. He also has close friends give feedback on early drafts, forcing more rewriting.

It sounds like a lot of faffing about. Is it worth the effort? I think so.

People make decisions and take actions based on what you write. You want them to be the right ones. They change their minds or become inspired. Or they don’t. It’s important to give yourself the best chance of getting the outcome you want.

The other benefit to rewriting is it forces you to take your time. I often get a strong sense of clarity when I take a break and return with fresh eyes. It’s not unusual to delete or re-arrange large chunks — or sometimes pick another direction altogether.

I’ve become lazy lately and often skip rewriting. I’m going to change that, starting with this post.

3. Narrow the story, think small

I struggle with this a lot. I start off writing about one thing, but soon find myself trying to tackle a handful of connected things too.

Let’s say you want to write about strategy. It’s a big topic of it’s own, and there are lots of points you can make about it. You might find yourself saying that strategy must be clear and well known by everyone. You then find yourself drifting into it being a leader’s responsibility — before you know it, you’re covering large topics of leadership too.

You’re better off narrowing it to one aspect of strategy and finding something specific to make your point. Far better to convey one thing well, than several unclearly.

Try it. You might be surprised how easy it is to get back to the wider point you wanted to make in the first place. You realise all you need to do it clarify it — the narrow story did a good enough job of getting it across.

I need to fight hard against the tendency to cover big topics or many things in one go. As soon as I go down this route, I start to get overwhelmed by the size of the task — and then I get bored of writing. I resort to covering each topic in less detail (and less well), and end up covering a number of things poorly. The point is lost.

The right thing to do is pause and not go down that route. Come back to something narrower and more specific.

4. Look for the human element

The human element brings a story to life. Where you can, interview people and get them talking. It will help turn a seemingly drab topic into something fascinating.

William Zinsser gives the example of when he was asked to write a long article about Sotheby’s, the London auction firm. He found out that Sotheby’s was broken down into various domains (silver, art etc.), each one with an expert in charge. In interviewing each of them, he stumbled across some great anecdotes that helped liven up the story (unloved objects buried in the strangest of places etc).

Another example is writing about the growing problem of homelessness. It would be easy to tackle the topic in a factual way, but much more interesting to tell the story of a homeless person. It would get to the heart of what it means to be homeless (how people end up being homeless, how hard it is to reverse the situation, the dangers of being on the streets etc.) You can weave the main point you want to make throughout the story.

5. Imitate your favourite writers

I sometimes worry about too closely imitating my favorite writers, but Zinsser encourages it.

If you like how someone writes, give yourself permission to be inspired by them. Take note of how they use language and practice using their tricks. As time goes on, you’ll settle into who you’re supposed to be. And you’ll be a better writer for it.

6. When the end presents itself, grab it

If the first sentence is the most important, the last sentence comes a close second. It’s the last thing someone remembers.

I’ve always struggled with how to end something. I don’t give it much thought until I start to notice I’m getting there — and then I lazily fall back on summarising everything above. It never feels the right thing to do. But it’s like that email you write in a fit of anger, knowing you shouldn’t send — you do it anyway.

William Zinsser’s advice is, if you’ve made the point you wanted to make, look for the nearest exit. The best type of ending often comes as a surprise to the reader, but feels right all the same. Try to end with something that encapsulates your idea, but also jolts the reader with it’s sharpness and unexpectedness. Some other ways to end are coming full circle or ending with a quote.

7. Use a dictionary and thesaurus

I was surprised by this. The closest I’ve come to using a dictionary or thesaurus recently is a quick search for the meaning of a word on google.

But it makes sense. Two of the biggest mistakes a writer can make is being unclear or boring. It forces the reader to work too hard. A thesaurus helps you find interesting ways of saying something. The dictionary is a good place to check you’re using the right word.

I’m going to make an effort to use both in my writing over the next few months.

8. Writing is hard work

Getting just a few paragraphs to flow together and be a joy to read is hard. It requires clear thinking, patience and an obsession for the smallest details. It can be frustrating work. Only a burning desire to want to write better than everyone else will pull you through.

It seems fitting to leave you with a quote from William Zinsser himself:

A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard

Writing Well

I finally got round to starting On Writing Well by William Zinisser yesterday and I’m loving it. I knew I would like it when I saw the names of some of the first chapters — Simplicity, Clutter, Style, The Audience, Words, Usage.

It starts with emphasising that it’s hard to write well. The skill in keeping things simple and stripped back. Thinking through the order in which you say things. Making sure sentences and paragraphs fit together well. Removing the unnecessary.

He makes the point that readers have an attention span of about 30 seconds, so there is no room for confusing them. If you make the reader work too hard, you’ll lose them to someone else.

Here is a fantastic example from the book of how writing can become tighter and simpler:


How awesome is that? I can’t think of a better way to show how unnecessary words and sentences creep into writing.

It’s a reminder to me that I’ve become lazy in my writing. I rarely do any editing and forgot that it is the most important part of writing. Carefully removing unnecessary chunks and words. Changing the order of things. Sometimes deciding not to publish the post at all.

I’m looking forward to finishing the book. Even in just the first few chapters, I have a renewed motivation to improve my writing!

What do you think or do differently to mostly everyone else?

I’ve been watching some of the early Curb Your Enthusiasm episodes recently and theres no two ways about it — Larry David certainly thinks and does things differently to mostly everyone else.

It got me thinking, is that really such a bad thing?

Ok, so you might not want to replicate Larry David’s approach to life (although it’s an entertaining way to consume time). But, if you think or do some things differently to mostly everyone else, it means you’re consciously not taking a path that the majority expects of you. It makes you interesting and unique. It makes you stand out a little — and that’s a good thing.

I would say nearly all of the people I think are successful and interesting, tend not to follow a normal path — or they have several things about them that are unusual. It might be something they believe, that others would mostly disagree with. A habit or hobby that is different to the norm. Maybe they take unusual risks. But there is always something unique about how they think and act.

Off the top of my head, here are a few:

  • Jason Lengstorf sold everything he owned and has been traveling the world and working remotely for nearly two years.
  • Steve Jobs dressed in an unusual way, wearing the same outfit mostly every day — new balance trainers, jeans and a black roll neck.
  • Wim Hof has some unusual disease prevention and fitness habits. He takes ice baths, practices extreme breathing, swims long distances under polar ice and climbs Everest in nothing more than a pair of shorts.
  • Mark Zuckerberg & Bill Gates made risky decisions early in their career and dropped out of top colleges to start businesses.
  • Richard Branson had an unusual approach to impressing his girlfriend. He bought an island (that he couldn’t afford at the time).
  • Alastair Humphreys set off on his bike one day and ended up cycling around the world. It only took him four years.
  • Benjamin Franklin started his day in a way unlike the majority. He would take an ‘air’ bath, which involved opening the windows of his house and then sitting in front of the window naked, to get the full effects of the fresh air.
  • Nate Green works a very focused and productive ~ 4 hours a day and spends the rest of his day away from the computer, not doing work.

It got me thinking. What is it that I think or do, that other people would consider unusual?

  • I ditched my smartphone for a Nokia 130.
  • I’m not on Facebook.
  • I wake up very early. At the moment about 5:30am, but in the past I would wake at 4:00am and be in the office for 6am.
  • I’m a minimalist. I own fewer things than most people and am constantly throwing things away — normally to the dismay of Ella (usually because I’ve throw something out that she wanted to keep!).
  • I stick to a paleo diet — so don’t eat dairy, grains, legumes or processed food (well, for the most part!)
  • I don’t own a microwave. I think they look cumbersome and ugly.
  • I have zero interest in politics and don’t vote. I also do my best to ignore news.
  • I chose to step out of a high paid career to pursue a life with more freedom (this is a work in progress).

Ok, not all of the above are overly unusual, and I certainly stray from them now and again. But, they do tend to put me in the minority.

It’s also worth noting that this isn’t confined to people, it also applies to companies. When you’re looking for a company to work for, I think it’s useful to look for things that they do differently than most other companies.

Again, it might be a view they have, something about their culture, the CEO, the way they work, how they are structured etc. Beware of gimmicks though. I’ve seen some companies stand out, but only because stand outing was a specific strategy to attract talent. It wasn’t genuine.

Basecamp is a good example of a company doing a number of things genuinely differently. One that jumps to mind is they work 4-day weeks from May through to August. How cool is that? They don’t do it because it sounds cool, they do it because they believe it works for them.

What do you think or do differently to mostly everyone else?

Back to the title of the post. What do you think or do differently to mostly everyone else?

If you can’t come up with anything, it doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong. But, it might be a sign that you don’t experiment with things outside of the norm very often. And sometimes it’s the things outside of the norm that can add surprising value to your life.

Food for thought.. 🙂

Book review: When Breath Becomes Air

I read ‘When Breath Becomes Air’ by Paul Kalanithi last week and it was awesome. I loved it so much, I finished it the same day.

Paul was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in his thirties, just as he was about to complete his training as a neurosurgeon. With the blink of an eye, he went from doctor to patient – just as everything he had worked so hard for was starting to come full circle.

The book is a reflection on his career and how he faced his illness and mortality. The surgery stories are just mind-boggling. I can’t get my head around how surgeons approach long, risky operations with a sense of normality. It makes you appreciate how gifted and special they are.

The braveness and selflessness with which Paul coped with his illness is inspiring. You have to read the book to get a real sense of it.

I’m also envious of how good the writing is. It’s deeply personal and easy to read, which must have been so hard to write. He effortlessly moves between being funny and dealing with devastating setbacks. The writing is so good, you often feel like you’re in the room with him.

I’m finding myself thinking about a few things after reading When Breath Becomes Air:

Paul left behind a wife and an eight-month-old daughter. The moments he savored with his daughter before he passed were incredibly moving. I could feel myself welling up, and even as I write this, it feels uncomfortable. My daughter Fearne is nine months and I couldn’t begin to think about not being a part of her life with Ella over the coming few decades. It made me think about being grateful for what I have and savouring my own moments with them even more.

I’ve also found myself reflecting on being a good person and living a good life. If I was asked ‘what is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Paul Kalanithia?’ – I would say ‘he was a good man’. I would like for people to think that about me.

One of my favourite all time books and highly recommended.

Here are a few links for further reading:

Paul Kalanithi – Wikipedia (his interviews and essays are grouped here)

Be remarkable at something

I just finished So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport. It’s easily the best thing I’ve read this year.

It’s not too long and very easy to read. I found myself nodding at mostly everything in it. The timing was perfect, as I’ve just had some breakthroughs of my own in respect to my career and life. This book helped set some things straight.

The key argument in the book is that skills are more important than passion when it comes to finding work you love. In fact, trying to find your ‘calling’ or follow a passion can be terrible advice.

Sure, some people become passionate about something early in their life and it’s obvious they should follow their dream. It’s common to hear professional athletes say they knew from an early age, exactly what they wanted to be. My gut tells me that this type of situation is very rare – less than one percent.

What’s more common is that we bumble through life and settle on something. We get there almost randomly. If we’re lucky, we fall in love with it – or at least like it. But, some of us end up not liking what we do – or worse, hating it.

So, if we’re not to follow our passion, what should we do?

Cal Newport’s advice is to become really good at something. Pick something you like, that seems interesting, and then focus on becoming remarkable at it. At first, don’t worry whether it’s your ‘calling’ or if you’re passionate about it.

Becoming good at something takes time, patience and focused practice. You need to put in the work. I know that sounds obvious, but how many people do you think relentlessly attack something with the goal of becoming remarkable at it? What percentage of them follow through? You’ll be in the minority, I promise you. And as a result, you’ll stand out in a sea of average people. It’s a competitive advantage that’s surprisingly easy to have.

Once you become really good at something, a couple of things start to happen. Firstly, you’ll notice you get more autonomy and control (itself, an important part of being happy). Secondly, you get leverage.

But what to do with that leverage?

Let’s say you’re happy with the work you’re doing – even passionate about it. It’s ok to stay in that place. You earned the autonomy, freedom and interesting work. Maybe you can use your leverage to get even more freedom. You might persuade your boss or company to reduce your working hours for the same pay. Maybe negotiate a more flexible set up – a better schedule, more holidays or a sabbatical. You’ll be surprised how far people are willing to bend to retain remarkable people.

Just know that taking this route will probably mean at some point, turning down promotions. That will be hard to do. You’ll likely have to walk away from more pay and a path people expect you to take, in order to keep hold of your freedom. Do so knowing that this path will ultimately make you less happy and less passionate – even with more pay. Have the self-awareness to know what makes you happy and stick with it. Being happy is more important that doing what others expect of you.

But maybe you want more? You like your work, but you want to explore something more interesting that you can become passionate about. There is some good news. Once you become remarkable at something, opportunities start to present themselves. Keep an eye out for projects that are interesting and will stretch you further. Take them on and keep stretching yourself. You’ll find these projects can slowly lead to work you become passionate about.

Maybe you want to switch things up though. You’re remarkable at something, but you’re just not feeling what you’re doing.

Start to look around for work outside of your industry, work that your skills are transferrable to. For example, let’s say you work in a finance team and are particularly good at what you do. You could apply those skills to work in a completely different country or industry. Maybe you find yourself working for an interesting start up, with a more varied role, in an area you’re passionate about. If you’re prepared to sacrifice pay a little, your options become even wider.

Few decisions in life are irreversible. So when you’re on the lookout for interesting work, don’t panic about making a big career mistake. See decisions as small bets. If things start to not feel right, shift gears again until they do.

The key to all this is putting in the work to become remarkable at something. You have to build career capital by focused practice over a long period. And then use that career capital to do interesting work you can become passionate about.

The book describes quite a few examples of people who built career capital and then left a job they despised. They decided to start a business in an area they were hoping to be passionate about, but had no experience or career capital in. It mostly ended in returning to a job they disliked. Once you’ve built career capital, you have to hang onto it.

I was close to making exactly this mistake recently and nearly through the baby out with the bathwater. It wasn’t that I didn’t like what I had become good at (although I thought this at first). It was that freedom had become a bigger priority in my life, to the point that I was becoming unhappy. The answer was redesigning my life so that I still leveraged my career capital, had interesting work and more freedom. This is still a work in process.

The last word.

Don’t over-worry over finding work you can be passionate about. It can be torturous. Speak to anyone who has a job they love and most of them will describe a path they had absolutely no clue they would take. And there is always a lot of randomness in it. Connecting the dots forward is incredibly hard – virtually impossible. You have to keep taking small steps, have faith and just keep moving forward. Focus on getting good at something and keep seizing opportunities when they pop up. Things will usually work out, and in ways you couldn’t have imagined.

If you thought even some of this made sense, go read So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport. I think you’ll like it.