Making Survival First Part 11: The Writing Process
It's not that Survival First took four years to create. Survival First took the time it needed to take - which happened to be four years. In this post I'm going to explain what took the bulk of this time - the writing process. The first thing I want to get out of the way is that this is not some prescriptive "How to Write a Book" piece.
There's a lot of good reasons you wouldn't want to copy my writing process. I don't hold myself to deadlines. Instead of time-blocking I keep my calendar empty and write when I feel like it. I lose focus easily. I tab switch too often from writing to business, phone, email, Instagram or the many social events that capture my interest.
Counter to my professional training, I write in outline form. Despite having been told a thousand times not edit while I write, I do it anyways (but with decreasing frequency). I switch too often between outlining, writing and editing. I use tools that weren’t designed for book writing.
I suspect professionals are more likely to cite this as a "How Not to Write a Book" post. But this is MY process born from my personality, tendencies, and psychic landscape. It worked for me. I'll describe the process I haphazardly cobbled together that let me write Survival First.
I'm more of a jogger than a sprinter. Instead of burning myself out on heroically long writing sessions I tend to do a little over a long time. Scribe's author coaching program matched this pace. They taught us to aim for a very-reasonable 250 words per day. The logic is simple. A low barrier makes small, but consistent wins easy, and habits easy to form.
I did not do this.
I didn't care how much I wrote, but instead how much brain energy I gave. As long as I spent at least thirty minutes to an hour "braining" on the book - thinking, writing, outlining, editing, then I was happy. Even if I didn't write a single word, any progress was enough. With time writing went from "that weird new thing I do", to "the thing I (almost) do everyday."
My "writing process" is actually more a thinking process. I think with two brains. The first is Meat-Alexander, the in-flesh human that is actively click clacks on the keyboard.
But the real heavy duty thinking happens passively in the background by the the mysterious, hyper intelligent, often finnicky, thought musing homunculus operating in the background.
I'll call him Alexander GPT.
Me, as in Meat-Alexander, will have some grand idea I'm trying to untangle which I’ll hand off to Alexander GPT to muse on. Alexander GPT works when Meat-Alexander is driving, sitting the sauna, showering, lifting weights, walking around the neighborhood or hanging out with friends.
Let's take this piece for example. Meat-Alexander took roughly six hours to put this post together. Alexander GPT however, has been working on this piece for the last three months. I knew I wanted to write this piece and started the outline a while ago, but wasn't sure how I would approach it. So I submitted this thought request to Alexander GPT and let work his magic in the background.
Alexander GPT has a few thought tricks he likes to use - splitting, inverting, and word challenging.
Splitting an idea is when I break one idea into a set of smaller ideas. Splitting myself into Meat Alexander and Alexander GPT is one example.
In Survival First I split the concept of survival into three ideas: money, time and energy. I split energy into logical energy and emotional energy and tackled each separately. This became foundational to how I approach risk in the book.
Inverting is where I try to find a deeper truth in an idea by toying with it’s opposite. The first time I saw this technique was in Robert Green’s 48 Laws of Power and 33 Strategies of War. He ends each chapter by exploring the counterpoints that oppose his main ideas in the chapter. In doing so he turns opposites into a unified thought.
Later, after reading Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy, did I learn this was an ancient thought technique. Aristotle wrote the “knowledge of opposites is one.” Baruch Spinoza describes the truth finding process “by finding the synthesis where opposites and contradictions meet and merge.”
I gave my ego a pat on the back after realizing I was following in the mental footsteps of ancient masters.
I obsessed with word choice. Words create the frames we use to organize reality. All words create different frames. Most of us use default words which create default frames, which is why people tend to converge on similar ways of seeing reality. I’ve found challenging these default words frames let’s me think outside the box and approach ideas in ways nobody else is.
I got very far in writing Survival First by challenging default business ideas like risk management, competition and business models. Obsessing over words like these helped me untangle them and build a new vocabulary that supports the entire structure of the book.
Now let’s talk tools. Sometimes I'll pen-and-paper journal to thought vomit whatever is frothing to the surface in my head. Sometimes this is purest way for new ideas to take root in my head.
For everyday writing I use my laptop like any ordinary millennial. However, I never draft on Word or Google Docs. They’re great for editing and formatting, but terrible for organizing ideas.
Like I said before, my writing process is more of a thinking process. I found a thought organization tool called Roam Research that reflected this. (I imagine something like Notion could be used similarly). I don’t think Roam was meant for book writing, and I don’t know any other authors who’ve used it. I skip Roam’s advanced and instead use it’s basic features to organize everything in my head. This goes for everything that goes into a single piece, or entire folders of related posts (like this Making of Survival First series). This is where Roam shines for me.
Using Roam made it easy to create, shape, and manipulate thought blocks like Legos until they form cohesive structures.
I always start with the standard intro, body, and conclusion method. I'll break each section into further chunks. In the intro, what are the main tensions? Where do I begin? What is the hook that will get readers interested? Why is this piece relevant? In the body I jot down supporting ideas and split whatever idea needs to be split. The conclusion will quickly wrap up what I wrote and learned.
With the general structure in place I'll vomit a bunch of thoughts, ideas, and sentences onto the screen like a bunch of puzzle pieces. There's no real structure to this. Sometimes I’ll write with general thoughts, words, ideas, or sometimes completed sentences.
Here’s some examples.
If I'm stuck I'll write down things I know, stuff that's true, and ideas I need to untangle. Eventually, ideas become sentences, sentences become paragraphs and paragraphs become into something resembling a cohesive narrative.
Once I’m roughly 90% done with this stage I'll copy-paste it into Google Docs (or in this case, Substack) and begin editing for readability. I described my full self-editing process in Part 5 here, but I’ll skim a few basics. My editing filter is about iterating on a series of questions:
Can I say this with less words?
Can I say it in a funner way?
Is it clear?
Is it relevant?
Is this really how I would say it to somebody?
Eventually after passing my piece through these questions I’ll (hopefully) have a fully cohesive piece that guides the reader along the journey I want them to go on.
So that’s my writing process. Is it efficient? Definitely not. Could it be better? Totally. Should you try and copy me? Eh, figure out what works for you. Like I said in the beginning, this is MY writing process. It’s not perfect, but good enough is good enough for me.
Hop aboard the book launch train baby!