Years ago a good friend asked me for some advice on maintaining a high output of written content. I don’t recall exactly what I told him, but since I’ve been writing a lot lately and plan to do so indefinitely, I thought it might behoove me to gather some thoughts on the subject.
There are a few different ways of approaching this task, the lowest level of which is to record as many ideas as possible. I nearly always have a notebook nearby for the express purpose of capturing any of the potentially valuable minnows of thought glinting in the stream of my consciousness. These can include things like ideas for improving software that I use frequently, ideas for fictional universes or games, aphorisms and random insights, hypotheses, reactions to things I’m reading, etc.
Don’t forget to include particularly fruitful conversations had via email or social media. I do a bit of soul-searching and philosophizing on Facebook, and because I’ve put a lot of effort into cultivating a robust network of very bright people, this often provokes interesting debates in the comments thread. These in turn can become the basis for longer thought pieces on this blog and elsewhere.
An extensions of this process is searching for areas of confusion that crop up repeatedly. For example, over the course of the past five years I’ve given talks in Asia and the United States on the Intelligence Explosion Hypothesis and Existential Risk. One obstacle I have constantly run in to is the tendency to anthropomorphize superintelligent AIs. Upon encountering the Orthogonality Thesis many people’s default reaction is to model a superintelligent AI as simply being a smarter version of themselves, thereby failing to subtract away the fact that humans come with messy, pre-installed utility functions which an AI likely won’t share.
Now, the Orthogonality Thesis might be right or wrong, but that isn’t the point. Since I’ve spent a lot of time parsing the nuances of the debates surrounding these topics and discussing them with groups of people I’m in a good position to see where the most common sources of confusion are, and this hints at an excellent target for my writing energies.
Once you’ve gotten into the habit of recording thoughts and interactions the next step is fleshing these out into something more substantive. For me this process tends to begin with either google docs or the drafts section of this blog. As it stands I have in the neighborhood of 50 future blog posts in various stages of completion, accrued over the past five years of writing.
And this stage can be approached from several angles as well. If you’re more disciplined than I am you can pick an individual piece and try to see it through to completion. This is usually easier if you’re facing some kind of deadline, self-imposed or otherwise. It’s also generally required if you’re writing a series of articles on one subject.
Myself, I try to write about half an hour every day, which might be spread out over several different drafts. Of course I give preference to whatever my highest-priority project is, hence why most of my recent output has focused on The STEMpunk Project. If you don’t have a corresponding center of gravity you’re free to spread your efforts as thinly as you like; as long as you’re writing a few hours a week and not ceaselessly multiplying the number of projects you have in circulation you’ll usually have at least one or two things nearing the ‘publishable’ stage.
Alternatively, it’s also possible to have a word count target such as ‘write 1,000 words a day’ instead of a time-base one like ‘write a half hour every day’. I eschew this approach because I’m focused on quality over quantity. A carefully-crafted aphorism can often be a more effective vehicle of communication than a dense, 900-page treatise. Your mileage may vary.
Either technique will result in words on pages, and that’s the goal.
All this having been said I also have found another, counterintuitive, piece of advice to be useful: I don’t berate myself when my writing lapses for a little while. Humans vary in their workload, energy levels, and facility with the written word, and sometimes my schedule is just too packed for me to get any writing done. If you look at my archives you’ll see there was a sizable gap between the last post of 2015 and the first one of 2016, the result of taking on more responsibility in my day job and planning The STEMpunk Project.
But since I’m not paid to write it doesn’t make much difference if I occasionally get too busy to play the scribe. Had I hated myself for not writing every day without fail I’d have probably been too discouraged to pick up blogging again.