This is a two-part post that I decided to stitch together because of their relatedness. In the first part, I will give an update on the direction of this blog. Then, I will share my take on writing in general.
A 2021 update
I have decided to take writing more seriously, and be more deliberate in practicing how to write well. I have also developed a number of ideas in my head - some more structured and some more free-floating - and would like to further refine and shape them by writing them down.
Not every idea will reach this blog - only those that I have taken time to flesh out with a few rounds of re-writing will reach your eyes.
So far, the ideas that I want to work on center around a few themes: corporate work, happiness, stoicism, economics, and life in general. I will likely stop writing about machine learning and finance, short of one or two irregular posts.
Readers who come to this blog for posts on the NUS Master of Statistics programme and would like to send me an email to ask questions, fret not - I will continue to respond to you.
I will also increase posting frequency from once a month to twice a month - this is made possible because of a writing routine that I have managed to put myself in, since late last year. I will explain what this routine looks like in a bit.
Most of my posts will take the form of short essays, ranging from 300- to low-thousand-word essays.
This second part, which I call ‘On Writing’, will shed some light on what you have read above. ‘On writing’ is a wordplay on the book titles ‘On Writing Well’ by William Zinsser - dubbed by some as a bible for writing - and, of course, ‘On Writing’ by Stephen King.
Writing is in itself, thinking. Feel free to let the words flow from your mind, onto the paper. Thoughts which are unclear and cloudy, can become clear and concise once they reach the tip of your pencil.
The act of writing, which is nothing more than simply putting words in a sensible order, forces you to articulate your points, your thoughts, your arguments. The act of writing forces you to communicate in complete sentences, to both your readers and yourself. Unlike speaking or thinking, you have to be grammatical, coherent, and fluent in writing. No filler ‘erm’s or ‘ah’s are allowed, no leaps in thought process are permitted.
This is the primary benefit of writing - gaining clarity. Yet many struggle to write, choosing only to think about their ideas, or talk about their ideas, rather than to write about their ideas.
We think that every piece of writing we do must be a complete work - a product, sharpened and refined and masterfully composed to the best of our ability. So we choose not to write, perhaps out of fear that the brilliant ideas we have may be, on paper, mediocre at best.
This mindset is wrong. We should treat writing and thinking as equals - if we don’t hesitate to think, we should not hesitate to write.
What to write
Sometimes, we don’t know what to write - especially after we put our butts on a chair and flip to a blank page in a notebook. I have encountered many occasions where good ideas to explore in writing (let’s call them story ideas) are plentiful, when I am out for a run or for errands. But they disappear without a trace the moment I try to write about them, some few hours later.
The trick to deal with the mischievous disappearance of story ideas, and the writer’s block, is simple. Write the idea down as soon as possible, when it forms in your head. Capture it, don’t let it escape. Doesn’t matter if you use a smartphone or a notebook, doesn’t matter if you write a single word or a short paragraph - anything that lets you capture the idea, do that. Just as your car keys only appear when you stop looking for them, good story ideas only appear when you are not in front of a screen or a piece of paper. Yet refining those ideas is best done with a keyboard or a pencil.
You may not have any ideas that particularly interest you. That’s fine too. You can free-write: simply writing what comes into your mind at the moment. It could be the weather, the birds outside your window, the monitor you are staring at, the coffee you are drinking - anything. The key is to start writing. Often, once momentum is established, you will keep going.
Or you could use a writing prompt. There are many creative writing prompts on the internet. Here’s one that I just Googled: ‘Start your story with a major news event breaking — one that will change the world forever.’ You can also subscribe to daily writing prompts that arrive in your inbox every morning.
My favorite writing prompt is to look to my bookshelf, pick any book (doesn’t matter if it’s fiction or non-fiction), randomly open up to two pages, read them, and then write whatever that may come into my mind. I like this method because it’s simple, allows me to avoid using any electronic device (I write with a pencil), and restricts me to a selection of topics or themes that I enjoy - since I own a copy of that book.
Where to write
Now that we have talked about ‘what to write’, how about ‘where to write’? By that I don’t mean writing at home or in a cafe, writing on screen or on a notebook. I mean a more ‘conceptual’ location - do you write in a journal? Do you keep a notebook full of semi-developed ideas? Do you write on pieces of blank A4 printing paper and transcribe them into the computer each time you finish? Do you write in separate Google Docs or Microsoft Word documents, and store them in Google Drive or your Desktop?
This is largely a question of preference. For me, I maintain a few of these ‘locations’:
- a notebook I call ‘Morning Pages’1 where I free-write,
- a notebook where I write as I read - quotes, arguments, anything that interests me or is research-worthy,
- a journal / diary where I write more personal notes
These are unstructured and freeform - I just write whatever I am thinking or reading.
For ideas that I feel more strongly about and that I wish to work on further, I transcribe them into my Notion notebook on the computer. This blog post is one example of free-writing in Morning Pages, transcribed into Notion for further work2, then into RMarkdown to publish into this blog.
Use the approach that suits you best. I prefer to not use electronic devices unless I have to, such as when I have story ideas that are enjoyable to expand upon - these can benefit from the efficiency of a keyboard.
When to write
In the first part of this post, I mention a writing routine that allows me to increase my posting frequency on this blog, from once a month to twice a month. This routine is simple: every morning after I wake up, I brush my teeth, make my bed, make my coffee, eat some breakfast, come back to my room, and simply free-write for one hour in a notebook I call ‘Morning Pages’ (hence the name). That’s it. I rely on the writing prompt I described earlier - look to my bookshelf, pick any book, randomly open up to two pages, read them, and then write whatever that may come into my mind.
This routine usually takes place between 7am to 9am everyday. Then I am free to begin my day of work or rest or errands, having completed an hour of writing. This routine is inspired by the one single writing advice that have consistently appeared in books like ‘On Writing Well’, ‘On Writing’, ‘Economical Writing’, ‘Welcome to the Writer’s Life’ - and that is to write (almost) everyday, without fail.
I am not sure where this path of writing will lead me to, but I am keen to explore, and see the what comes up at the end. A published book or two, hopefully - or at the very least, my own leisure and enjoyment.