How to Write: Lessons From a Physicist
From time to time a podcast resonates, because it arrives whilst I’m pondering a particular problem.
Today I was listening to The Tim Ferriss Podcast, on which Tim interviewed a guy named Safi Bahcall. Safi had started out as a theoretical physicist, then moved into consultancy with McKinsey, before setting up a biotech research firm. Safi has just released a book called Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas that Win Wars, Cure Diseases and Transform Industries.
Their chat was wide-ranging, but the topic that most resonated with me was Safi’s writing process. I've recently submitted a proposal for my first book, The New Iron Curtain. The first challenge is to convince publishers to commission me. Then I need to deliver a great book. This podcast gave me a few ideas to help both.
Safi talks about the structures and processes that he uses to break down any skill - from swimming to dating - and he has done the same for writing.
Lessons from the pool
In swimming, the first lesson that many novice adults are taught is: grab a kick float, and do lots of lengths, just kicking. In my own experience this method just knackered me out and demoralised me, leading to a loss of enthusiasm. Safi and Tim had the same problem, and both learned to swim through Total Immersion (TI). Contrary to swim-teaching convention, TI starts by saying: look straight down at the bottom of the pool, and don’t kick.
Many people look straight ahead when swimming, but this arches your back and alters your balance in the water. So you need to kick just to stay level, tiring you out without propelling you forward. By looking straight down, you don’t need to kick to balance, and you are more streamlined. So, going against convention can lead to quick improvements.
Writing against convention
The convention in writing is to read lots of books, to absorb different styles. This can be overwhelming, both in volume and in decision-making. So readers just get through the books, rather than fully absorbing the style and writing.
Safi chose a different option. For two years he read just two books, spending an entire day reading just one or two paragraphs, and dissecting them. He would question why the author had used that particular word, turn of phrase, or transition between sentences. Then he would try alternatives and see whether they worked. In doing so, he developed an ear for written language. It got to the point where Safi literally heard music as he read - a melodic symphony for good writing, and fingernails scratching a chalkboard with bad writing.
The books he read were The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov by Vladimiar Nabokov, and Essays After Eighty by Donald Hall. Nabokov liked to play with language and, through studying that book, Safi learned which words worked together in writing, and which didn’t. Hall was much more concerned about people and relationships and, through that book, Safi learned the value and technique of telling stories through characters.
The Five Hats
Safi believes that writing has three components: style, story and process. He achieves style and story through having a good process, which he breaks down into five “hats”, or forms of behaviour: two in the research and reading phase, and three in the writing phase.
The reading phase is broken down into RICLS and REAS.
RICLS is Reading for Information, Content, Lessons and Stories. This is where you read fast and deep, to get the raw meat of your research, chasing threads and footnotes that will end up in your story, idea or argument. It has nothing to go with style.
REAS is Reading for Ear, Art and Skill. This is finding the music of the language, working out transitions, pacing and word choice. This is where he read Nabokov and Hall: Nabokov for technical skills and word-play; Hall for warmth, emotion, people and characters. It was from Hall that Safi learned how to use the stories of characters to reveal an underlying idea. It’s far more powerful.
The Three Hats of Writing
Safi breaks down writing into three phases: Hunting, Drafting and Editing.
He uses the preparation of a meal as an analogy: Hunting is where you write down a recipe; Drafting is when you dash round the supermarket in a sweep to grab your ingredients; Editing is like cooking, when it all comes together into a delicious meal.
Hunting is when you plan out your writing project, hunting for the lesson, narrative thread, or series of anecdotes and stories that hold it together. This is largely a product of the Reading phase, but other techniques can help. When planning the New Iron Curtain, I used the narrative structure of the “Hero’s Journey” as scaffolding. I then thought about the three different journeys I had undertaken: the physical journey along Russia’s European frontier; my personal journey of change and discovery; and the intellectual journey, where I learned about life in the liminal space between East and West.
Drafting is the second phase, Safi uses the acronym FBR for this - Fast, Bad and (w)Rong (get it?). In this phase, you just write as fast as possible, without fact checking, or correcting for style or language. There’s a few reasons for this, but the main one is that you need to go fast and maintain momentum in order to follow the narrative thread. This foments creativity, and it can sometimes be ugly: poor worlds, bad spelling and no music to the writing.
There’s a reason for this. If you stop to fact-check, make edits or improve the writing, you lose momentum which is hard to regain: like slowing down, then speeding up on the highway, it requires a lot of energy to get back to your previous speed. The speed itself is also advantageous. Tim used bike-riding as metaphor: the faster you go, the easier it is to maintain balance.
As a metaphor for finding the narrative thread, Safi imagines a a little red sparrow, hidden in the undergrowth, which can lead you down a hidden path. To find the sparrow, you need Speed, Attention and Courage: the speed to look quickly, in a lot of places, for an idea; then you need attention to notice the sparrow when its there; then the courage to follow it when you see it. Tim points out the importance of sequencing: its no good if the attention comes before the speed, or you will take too long to find the sparrow.
That’s what I did for this blog post. Too often, I have thought of an idea, but not go round to writing it because of the time it takes - either referring to my notes, or going on the internet to fact-check, and then finding myself lost in a Wikipedia vortex, or YouTube funnel. I once heard a podcast by Scroobius Pip, in which he talked about breaking a writing day into segments: 1500 before lunch, 1500 after. The 1500 is broken down into three hours of 500 words each. Easy, I thought - I can do that!
Except that’s not what happened. I’ve heard Tim talk about a “Shitty First Draft”, but I wasn’t doing it shitty enough. I would get bogged down, lose the narrative thread and excitement of the topic, and find myself getting bored or demoralised. I’d write 500 words, but it would take hours, and not contain any of the magic that had inspired me in the first place.
It was only when listening to Safi that I realised that I simply had to keep going, no matter how embarrassed I was by spelling, punctuation, facts or word choice. When I started this blog post, I didn’t know how to spell Safi’s name correctly and just wrote “Sxxx”. I smashed forward, following the narrative and wrote a (comparatively) astonishing 1400 words in 45 minutes.
Which brings us to the final phase: Editing. This is where it all comes together and the glitches are rubbed out, typing and spelling corrected, and facts checked. Then the style is improved, using the experience from REAS. My first pass on this blog post took another 90 minutes.
I read Tim Ferriss’s first book The Four Hour Work Week back in 2007, and all his books since. I’ve listened to his podcast since episode 10 and used dozens of the tools, tactics and tips that he has revealed. But Safi’s writing techniques might be the best find yet.
The “Hunting” came from listening to Tim’s podcast whilst I was rowing and running in the gym - that took about an hour and a half as I made notes as I went.
The Drafting phase took me just 45 minutes to write 1400 words. No corrections for mis-typing, no stopping for style, and no fact-checking.
The Editing phase took 90 minutes initially, followed by another 30 minutes of re-reading and minor changes.
Three hours to write and finish a 1500-word blogpost. All because I listened to a podcast that gave me permission to get to the end quickly. That made it more satisfying to go back and edit, without losing the excitement that had inspired me to begin with.
Hunt; Draft; Edit.
Hunt with RICLS and REAS
Draft with FBR; and Speed, Courage & Attention.
This is an excellent system, which has already worked on this occasion. I’ll use it again and need to work out a way to bring the same momentum into my video production.
What systems do you use for the creative process?