I was reading a book about success this past weekend (Stickability) and was delightfully surprised to come across this comment on p. 140 about writing from Matt Mullenweg, the founder of WordPress:
“The best writing advice I’ve heard, and occasionally practice, is to write every single day first thing in the morning. You wake up, put the coffee on the pot—do whatever you need to do—and just write a thousand words or two thousand words or something, just get it out there. … You’re exercising that mental muscle. You’re sort of tapping into some of the creativity you had when you were asleep.”
As many of you know (and have used yourself), WordPress is one of the most popular content-management systems out there, represented by more than 60 million websites today and accounting for 15% of the world’s top million websites as of 2012 and 22% of all new active domains—according to numbers cited in Stickability. It is hands-down the most common blogging platform, used by half of the top 100 bloggers. [Full disclosure: WordPress powers this blog and website.]
It’s no accident that this open-source software is wildly successful. Mullenweg devoted countless hours over the years creating it with a vision for the entire world to be able to self-publish, deliberately making it easy to use and widely accessible. Indeed, the book neatly juxtaposes his utopian writing ideal with the story of inventor Nicola Tesla, who lived his life mostly poor as he ardently strove for universal access to newly invented modern electricity. Tesla’s purpose was to keep the know-how of electricity out of the proprietary and profit-driven grasp of companies who would have paid him handsomely to own the secret. Mullenweg’s open-source publishing dream is highly comparable.
What these two men shared—and what all great writers (great anything, really) need to have—is a burning desire. Mullenweg argues that to be a better writer, you need to exercise the writing muscle daily. The consistent repetition helps you form the mental habit. Whether or not you actually publish the output of your daily discipline matters less than your actual performance of the ritual. By training the brain in this way, you not only develop a rich trove of source material to potentially use later, but you also enable the ability to ‘flip the writing switch’ on command. In other words, the ability to write does not come naturally, but can be made more natural (i.e., instinctual) through rigorous practice.
This concept of flipping a switch or opening the floodgates evokes what one of my creative-writing teachers used to tell us in school: Turn on the faucet. Point being, don’t get mired in all the details of trying to create the perfect sentence or line when the first goal is to generate words. In one course, we were instructed to spend the first 5 minutes of every class free-writing; these sessions often sparked full poems, short stories and others forms of fiction down the road. We students may not have fully understood it at the time, but the key to inspiration was the rhythm.
At the early stage of creation, free-associating by brainstorming is more important than any polishing, which can always follow later. The trick is to regularly allow for unstructured writing and all the attendant exploration and wordplay, the genius of which sparks fragments and images for future use. The same truth applies to all writing: The more you bang out, the more stuff you’ll have to choose from when playing editor and actually assembling a specific piece of writing.
Seemingly simple, the idea promulgated by Mullenweg and success coaches alike that you get better at what you focus on is profoundly powerful. Therefore, it stands to reason that the more you focus on writing (like anything), the better you will get at it.
So, you want to be a better writer? Follow Mullenweg’s example and start by writing every day.
For more insights on how marketers can write better, see some of my previous posts: