The Writing Funnel

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A few people have complimented me this year on my writing, usually with a self-deprecating comment along the lines of "I could never do that." My response is to first thank people, but then to also speculate that "oh, I'm sure that's not true" - I'm sure they could in fact write just as well as me. The fact of the matter is that, while words come easily to me in many cases, it's not always a cake-walk. More importantly, for me writing is as much therapeutic as it is intended for communicating ideas.

Toward that end, I thought a few people might appreciate an expansion on my approach to writing, since I do firmly believe that others not only can write, but should write. The security industry, in particular, has a very small core that needs new ideas and commentary to keep it fresh and to help stimulate evolution. New voices help us find new ideas, which in turn lead to innovation.

So, what exactly does writing look like for me? The best analogy I can give is that of a funnel. At any one point in time, I have lots of ideas swirling around in my brain. These ideas, notions, comments, incidents, etc., are often derived directly from daily interactions and experiences, and are generally representative of unresolved thoughts. For me, these unresolved thoughts tend to stick until I can find a way to make peace with them. One of the most effective ways I've found to achieve that peaceful resolution is through writing about the idea (hence the therapeutic aspect).

Sometimes this source of ideas can be problematic, as has been the case in the past month or so. If you follow my blog at all, you may have noticed that I've not really written much in the past couple months. This is for 3 main reasons. First, I've been working on other writing projects (articles for publication, presentations for a conference, and a book proposal). As such, my writing focus and energy has been dedicated to projects that simply can't make it to my blog.

Second, I've been rather burned out on writing+communicating. This can occur for a number of reasons. Oftentimes, the primary reasons are the first one listed here (other projects), but the other is really a fundamental question of energy. Coming out of major conferences like Black Hat and Defcon can provide stimuli, but can also completely destroy any motivation I have for interacting or communicating. Simply put, if I'm exhausted, I'm not as motivated of a writer. Add on work difficulties and you get the picture.

Last, sometimes I get stuck with too many or too few ideas. Lacking inspiration for writing can be a major downer, and is often tied to lacking energy or motivation. It also may mean that I'm not doing anything overly interesting with my life and need to get out of a rut. The other problem, and one that can be just as frustrating as not having ideas or motivation (if not more so), is having too many disparate ideas competing for brainspace. Using this funnel metaphor, the brain only has so much bandwidth through which ideas can pass. If you have too many ideas competing for that bandwidth, then you essentially hit a deadlock problem where each idea tries to claim the bandwidth at the same time, preventing anything from getting through.

This last problem can be one of the most frustrating situations to work through. Here you are, an intelligent person with something important to write, and you can't get the darn words to flow because you can't get other ideas out of your own way. :) Yes, it really does feel that way at times, doesn't it? (or maybe it's just me) As such, I thought I'd cover how I approach most writing projects, as well as some of the things I do to get unstuck when the funnel gets jammed.

Writing Process
My overall writing process can be broken down into three *line words: Offline, Tagline, and Outline. In fact, I have an idea, let's coin the phrase right now "Falcon's *-line Approach to Writing" (that's "star-line", btw). :) Hey, why not claim the invention, right? I'm sure I actually learned this somewhere else, but I don't remember where.

The *-line Approach:


  • Offline: When I write a major post (like this one), I do it offline. Not necessarily "offline" in the sense of being with paper and pen, but at least not staring at the blog interface. TextEdit is my best friend for writing. It's simple, it's straight-forward, and it allows me to quickly get my thoughts down - with inline spellchecking! - in a format that will be easily transferred to my blog later. For me, writing offline allows me to do a few things. First, it removes the pressure of the blinking cursor. That is, I'm not looking at the timestamp at the bottom of the blog post interface thinking "shoot, I should have already posted this 5 minutes ago!" Second, it allows me to more easily layout the post and get some logic around it. My blog interface, in particular, is not overly conducive to large post layout, so working in a single TextEdit window can help. Third, working offline means that I can save a partial thought or unresolved idea and come back to it later. I don't necessarily do this a lot, but it can be helpful if/when I get stuck, or if I simply run out of time for writing.
  • Tagline: This next step flies in the face of everything I think I've ever been formally taught about writing. However, for me it is the single most important aspect to making a good article or post. When I have an idea, I'm rarely ever able to put it into written form until I have reduced it to a single tagline (or "headline" if you will). Truly and honestly. Take my recent article on risk tolerance for The ISSA Journal as an example. I was asked to write a piece on risk tolerance, but really didn't know what to do with it. I attempted a couple outlines, but nothing really clicked until I came up with the tagline of "Elasticity: Will your organization bend or break?" From there, everything flowed naturally. From the tagline I was then able to write the outline.
  • Outline: If the tagline is the most important trick for me, then the close second most important trick is outlining. It is imperative (for me) that every major post (including this one) be outlined, at least a little bit, before I get too far into it. Here's why: outlining allows you to get your key points documented and organized so that your writing can be more organized, but also so that you don't have these ideas blocking your writing. One of the problems I've encountered in the past is that if I don't outline my article, then a good chunk of my brainspace ends up focusing on these sub-points rather than focusing on the writing itself. I would say that at least 90% of the time my outline will change as I write, but doing the outline first strongly facilitates the writing process.

Of course, while this approach is good and fine, it may not be exactly right for everybody. In fact, I would encourage you to develop your own process and self-informing tips to facilitate your writing process. Also, don't feel that you must strictly adhere to any process. Not all of my posts are written in the above manner. Some of them are simply not large enough topics to warrant this level of effort. For example, my recent post announcing my immediate availability was written online in a matter of a few minutes with only a cursory review of what was written. The post was also only 2 paragraphs long, so certainly didn't warrant use of a formal process.

More than anything else, I find that the *-line process helps me get my thoughts organized and out of my brain so that I can then focus my energy on the bulk of the writing itself. However, that being said, every time is different. While I definitely follow this general approach, each sitting has unique attributes. Today I'm listening to AC/DC, other times it's Ziggy Marley, and other times it's nothing at all.

And then there are the times when I can't seem to write anything at all... no matter what I do, whether it be process or music or Gracie Jiu-jitsu, the words simply will not flow. What then?

Stuck?
Following are some self-informing tips that I've developed to help get through periods when I'm just not having any luck getting something written. Sometimes these blocks are a result of lack of comfort with a topic, while other times I simply cannot get adequately focused or motivated.


  • Free form: One of the ways I get my brain unstuck is by letting myself just write. It may not be good writing, it may not be on-topic, it may be complete and utter garbage, but it does not matter. I just try to write about any of the topics I have in mind. I oftentimes don't follow my *-line process because I cannot get my brain focused and organized enough to be rigorous in that manner. I would say that 99% of the time I end up completely tossing everything written in free form, but that does not mean I don't come back and write on the topic, either later or even right away. If you are stuck, I highly recommend sitting down - maybe even with pen and paper - and just getting some words, thoughts, ideas, etc., written.
  • Remove distractions (like the bloody car alarm that keeps going off somewhere down the street this morning!): Multitasking is a myth. The brain can only do one thing at a time. As AJ Jacobs says in his latest book, it should not be called "multitasking" but rather "taskswitching" because that's what you're doing. If you're having trouble writing, I would put even money on the cause being distractions. Maybe it's email, IM, Facebook, Twitter, the wrong music soundtrack, having any music on at all, noises in the office, house, or on the street, etc, etc, etc. If you're having trouble sitting down and writing, then attack the distractions first. For example, I had trouble getting started this morning with this very piece because a little green "new mail" icon kept showing up in the Dock, causing me to check email. And Growl kept informing me of new tweets in Tweetdeck. And so on and so forth. I closed my mail client, I closed Tweetdeck, I switched soundtracks, and I cranked up the volume to block out the obnoxious car alarm that keeps going off down the block (well, mostly, anyway). If you're getting stuck, then I highly recommend looking for distractions that are getting in your way and then removing them.
  • Remove the pressure (who says you must write something right now?): Self-induced stress can be a huge block to writing. If you're sitting and staring at a blank screen and you don't feel inclined to write, then don't. One of the silliest things we can do to ourselves is make up arbitrary rules about what we "must" do and when we "must" do it. Especially if you're writing for your own site, why create the additional pressure? If you're feeling pressure that's keeping you from writing, then focus on how to reduce or remove that pressure first, and then think about writing. On the other hand, deadlines can be highly motivating. However, to work, they usually have to come from a third party.
  • Find your groove: I had trouble briefly this morning getting started on this post. Why? I had the wrong music playing. Seriously. I had an idea, I had a tagline, and I even had an outline, but the words simply were not flowing. I switched from Reggae to Hard Rock and *boom* there was an explosion of text. This tip ties into the others above, but I think it's important to highlight it separately as well. If you're not in a comfortable seat, then you may have trouble writing. If you have the wrong music on (or any music on, in some cases), then you might have trouble writing. Too hot? Too cold? Hungry? Thirsty? Gotta pee? Anything like this can keep you from finding your groove. BTW, don't overlook habits and routines. Athletes typically have a set routine to get themselves into the competitive mindset before a match. Consider developing and following a routine to get yourself ready for writing, too.
  • Talk to yourself... out loud... (yes, seriously): I'm convinced that people on the street often think I'm crazy. No, it's not because of the EFF t-shirts. It's because I'm often talking out loud to myself. I don't do this consciously, but I am occasionally aware that I'm doing it and stop. However, for writing a piece, this can be very useful; especially if you're trying to achieve a conversational tone in your writing. At least half of the above text was written on dictation. I spoke as I typed and made corrections along the way when phrasology didn't seem to work the way I wanted. The reason this technique can be helpful is that we work out problems and thoughts in different ways. Some people are very good at internalizing problems, resolving issues through circumspection and analysis. Other people - myself included - need to talk through problems, either as a sounding board, or even through friendly debate and discussion. If you're a "talk it out" kind of person, then try talking through your writing block. You may feel silly at first, but if it works for you, then it will seem far less silly. :)
  • Do more research: Sometimes the reason I can't get the piece written is because I simply don't have good enough information to make sense of the topic. You might have a great idea, a great tagline, and a workable outline, but still be stuck. It's at points like this where performing a little extra research, and enhancing your outline as a result, can do wonders for your process. You can never know too much about a given topic, and every additional citation you bring in will lend credibility to your argument(s).
  • Make some notes, then walk away: If all else fails, do a brain dump of your thoughts, and then walk away. Unless you're under a required deadline to produce a piece on a given topic, there's no reason to keep abusing yourself over a piece. If it's not flowing, then don't force it. If you walk away, then you may actually find that your brain subconsciously sorts things out and, with a fresh start, will allow you to more readily complete the bit. More importantly, you should enjoy your writing process. If you aren't enjoying the process, then don't suffer through it. There are few rewards for self-inflicted punishment, especially when it comes to writing.

Not Everything Writing Should Be Published
Hey, guess what? I wrote two other pieces this week already, and you haven't seen either one of them. Guess what else? You won't see them, because they're gone, deleted, destroyed, wiped out. Why would I do this? Well, mainly, because not everything written should be published. The simple fact of the matter, for me anyway, is that writing helps me organize my thoughts. It is, in fact, truly therapeutic. As such, I often start pieces that I either never finish, or toss when completed, simply because the topic is not appropriate or well-developed or the piece itself isn't very good.

The example I can give you from this week relates to my current unemployment. One of the common questions I've gotten from recruiters/headhunters is "what's your ideal position?" I really couldn't answer that very well. I honestly hadn't had a chance to think about it, because things were moving too fast. So, I sat down and wrote a fairly lengthy piece (offline) that described in great detail what I was looking for. I wrote about my likes, my dislikes, the kinds of work I thought might be a good match, where my skills are strong, where my skills are weak, and so on.

However, when I got done with the piece, I had a flash realization: there was no way in the world I could afford to publish that piece, because it could end up doing more harm than good for my career and prospects. Why box myself in? It just wasn't a good idea.

Bearing in mind the swirling of ideas through the funnel, let's shift metaphors and remember that toilets also swirl, and sometimes the best thing you can do is push the lever and flush those thoughts. In many ways, writing is like a colonic: it helps remove ideas, notions, problems, issues, etc, from your brain, freeing brainspace to deal with more important things in life. This is what I mean when I say that writing can be therapeutic. Why be stuck with old, rotten, fermenting thoughts in your brain when you can simply expunge them to make room for new, interesting, creative, or innovative thoughts?

More importantly here is to realize that, just because you've gone through the process to develop an idea does not mean that anybody is really going to care about what you're saying. Every time I publish something, I wonder if anybody will care. Most of the time I publish it anyway, but in certain instances I simply trash the post and move on. I'm all for putting ideas out there for discussion or provocation, but sometimes you can just feel that the thought is not properly developed and will result in negative, rather than positive, feedback.

So, anyway, those are my thoughts and suggestions on writing. Hopefully you found this useful. Also, I hope that you will post your approaches and ideas and tips here in the comments (*NOTE: there's often confusion about posting comments here - please read the fine print in the pop-up box as it tells you what to do). I hope to hear from you soon! BTW, bear in mind what they say about free advice: sometimes you get what you pay for! :)

1 Comment

"Business Writing and Communication: Managing Your Writing" is the best resource for improving my writing I've found out of half-a-dozen books I've read on the subject.

http://www.amazon.com/McGraw-Hill-36-Hour-Business-Writing-Communication/dp/0071441271/ref=sr_1_7?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1255984691&sr=8-7

Ken Davis (author) also maintains a blog which I've found useful as an ongoing refresher.

http://www.manageyourwriting.com/

Other tips: Keep writing short and simple. There's research that demonstrates books written that way sell more and have their ideas spread farther and faster:

http://www.stevenberlinjohnson.com/2007/10/this-may-be-old.html

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