6. Writing, in seven dimensions

To practice smarter, describe the skill you want to gain.

Welcome back to Week 6 of CURZIISM!

Going deeper on mastery

In Issue #3, I argued that in developing skill, practitioners try to grasp a hidden and intricate ‘True Art’. Novices see this form in a blocky way, but masters see it with precision:

The Novice senses using 1950s radar, while the Hobbyist has a grainy Polaroid camera. The Master has 360 degree 4K video, petabytes of data, slow-motion spectral analysis and X ray magnification. 

I used wooden carvings as a visual metaphor for skill at fishing:

While I consider this model actionable in principle, I didn’t say much about how to act on it. This seems worth rectifying, since ‘mastery’ is rather important to my worldview. If my worldview is a tree, ‘mastery’ gets a big sexy branch, not a twig. In the hyperlinking of my mind, the entry for ‘mastery’ has incredible SEO.

So for Issue #6, I thought I’d demonstrate the ethos of ‘discovering the unseen ideal’ in a concrete case: my attempt, over the last 6 months, to develop the ability to write publicly on a consistent schedule.

The following post will help apply the ideas in Issue #3. If you haven’t read that post, the general theme of skill building will be less clear, but the .

… Still here? Okay. Let’s jump into it.

Broad strokes

The first step in gaining skill X is to do a fuckload of X. This is true whether X is fishing, poetry, physics or conflict resolution. After this, it can be helpful to try to describe the skill that you’ve been trying to develop: how it works, what its components are, and so on.

You want to start with a very general sketch of the skill. Don’t try to make this first pass into a final, perfect description.

Gurney Journey: Three Steps in Blocking the Hand

Sing it to the rafters: broad strokes, broad strokes, broad strokes.

I consider this a descriptive rather than an inventive process. You’re trying to reveal the Form of the skill in its natural habitat, not create something new. You want to come up with something that characterizes experiences you’ve actually had, not ones you wish you had or think you should be having.

Sometimes sculptors describe themselves as trying to find ‘the man in the marble’. This might provide a suitable image for this counterintuitive frame of ‘analysis as discovery’.

this is the acclaimed stone piece
Auguste Rodin - Christ and Mary Magdalene.

This essay contains a demo of this approach. I’ve been trying to gain a set of writing skills over the last 6 months; I’ll describe my best guess at how these skills work by breaking ‘writing’ down into 7 distinct dimensions.

On the other end, I’ll come out with an incomplete, suggestive approximation of the true ‘theory of writing’. The theory isn’t meant to be perfect - it’s intended to be a guide for action, a practical tool for tracking and thereby gaining further skill.

Broad strokes, broad strokes, broad strokes.

Dimensions of writing

When I decided I wanted to become decent at writing publicly, I didn’t have much polished writing to speak of, and I had almost nothing published online. I decided that the first step of getting good at writing was getting myself to write at all.

That process was rather extenuated. But the final act that clinched it was this:

I occasionally make this kind of public commitment, sometimes involving a monetary bet, in order to force my own hand. So far, it’s working! If I’m an honorless buffoon, it won’t be because I defected on the writing commitment.

This production schedule made me a lot more, well, productive, in terms of total writing output. Since production is clearly a dimension of the skill I’m trying to build, we can use it to start our list:

(1) Total public writing output

Another dimension that I’m tracking is writing quality. I think of ‘quality’ in a variety of different ways:

  • Whether I’d like to read what I wrote

  • Whether I’d find the content useful, if I didn’t already know it

  • Reception by others

  • Value to others

  • Contribution to my life’s mission

  • Intellectual solidness of the core idea

  • Eloquence of transmission

  • ‘Voice’ or aliveness

(This post itself is an experiment in ‘aliveness’, where I’m trying to write about something that’s immediately on my mind, rather than something I thought of last week.)

For now (broad strokes!) it’s fine to amalgamate the various quality dimensions into one:

(2) Total quality of a given piece

How are we doing so far, in terms of building a theory?

[Output]×[Quality] isn’t the worst way to assess a writer. It even recommends a course of action: just maximize both dimensions! But this is not that practically useful. Importantly, there’s a tension between the two dimensions, which the theory doesn’t offer a clear way to handle: overly focusing on output can damage the quality of the piece, and overly focusing on peak quality can kill the rate of output.

For example, the best thing I’ve written in the last 6 months was probably Michelangelo's Shelter, which (topically) was a reflection on the difficulty of producing things of beauty. If I could share something at that level every week, I’d be pretty happy.

But the Michelangelo piece took a lot of effort. I held onto it for about three months, abandoning it for several weeks at one point, before a collaborator urged me to give it another shot, and I finally polished it to the point of shareability. While that level of quality might be possible to attain in a weekly newsletter (if my skill and efficiency improved), this level of effort would be impossible to maintain, without it starting to unbalance the rest of my life. (I swear I have a life.)

You could say that all production attempts fall somewhere on this line:

If Michelangelo’s Shelter is a higher-effort higher-quality work, and my tweets are lower-effort lower-quality works, this Substack is somewhere in between. The Goldilocks approach is intentional; I switched to Substack in the first place because it favored a faster production schedule than blogging, but demands higher quality than Twitter.

Notably, just because there’s a tradeoff on this ‘Production Possibilities Frontier’ doesn’t mean all writers trade off as expensively. A pro writer’s low effort work might knock your high effort work out of the park:

Forgive me, I haven’t used MS Paint in like 15 years.

When I make gains on some dimension, I try to figure out what I’ve traded away in return, so I can ensure I’m making net gains, not just running around in circles. I’d argue that this is an important writing subskill in its own right. Masters navigate tradeoffs skilfully, while amateurs fumble into overly ambitious projects, or drop quality too low in an effort to keep sharing.

So we can add a dimension:

(3) Understanding key writing tradeoffs

Let’s keep going.

I recently noticed that during the first two weeks of the newsletter, I produced and discarded about 4000 words each week, while during Week 3, I got the wastage down to about 2000 words. Compared to my prior, slower writing behavior, this was an unexpected sign of progress:

Efficiency seems like an important dimension of progress. And while wasted word count isn’t likely a perfect metric, it describes what I’m seeing well enough for first-pass, practical purposes. So we can add it:

(4) Efficiency per post (wasted word count per newsletter)

I also track efficiency in more experiential ways. Some weeks, I’d work my ass off, be totally drained, finally finish something, and still hate the thing I wrote. Everything was terrible and horrible and I’d want to spend the next two days asleep. I had to keep an eye on this; when you’re working hard on something new, it’s easy to turn a budding passion into a vector of self-abuse. Even discounting ‘hedonic negativity’ itself, hitting a breaking point might dent my (potential) love of this kind of work. Joyless writing is crappy writing anyway.

That’s the case against anguish. But, anguish is not always a bad thing. While I obviously care whether I’m suffering, I’m careful to also to track the relation of anguish to productivity, specifically the production of quality work that I actually like. If I could buy a 30% increase in quality for a 10% increase in anguish, I’d take that trade happily, probably several times in a row.

Picasso had his Blue Period, after all.

Picasso's Blue Period - Wikipedia

So while strictly increasing anguish is goofy, strictly reducing it can’t be right either. That way lies stagnation. We don’t perfectly understand how anguish fits in, but it clearly has something important to do with the skill of writing, so we can add it to our list:

(5) Efficiency per post (anguish per newsletter)

One thing that helped with getting the right anguish balance has been a certain attempt towards mindfulness. This self-awareness needs to be employed ‘live’, while I’m literally putting words on a page. This is something I hadn’t anticipated would be as important as it seems to be.

I’ve had plenty of experiences where I spend 30-45 minutes staring at a half-written blog post, without really noticing that the ideas have stopped flowing and the text isn’t growing and I’m getting more and more frustrated. It’s rare that forcing things out pays off, and usually it wastes a lot of energy. It’s often much better to take a break, take a shower, work out, meditate, or spend some time clarifying things like your audience or the purpose of the piece or the long-term goals of your writing endeavor. Doing this has helped me put more net hours into writing, not less.

This is distinct enough to characterize its own skill dimension:

(6) Live awareness

But to counter any potential dogmas, I’ll note that while this example of live awareness suggests more break-taking, I don’t necessarily intend it to; on rare occasions, ’forcing it’ helps me cough out a shitty draft, which can’t stand on its own but which I’m later glad to have available.

One last dimension I’ll note is that I also find it useful to track the dimension of joyfulness. I consider this VERY distinct from mere ‘lack of anguish’. I don’t see it as ‘the same dimension, just opposite’ either; sometimes a high-anguish week might also be a high-joy week, especially if the anguish gives rise to high quality work that I’m proud of.

It fits in somehow; let’s put it on the list.

(7) Enjoyment of the work

Synthesis

I haven’t noted every aspect of the writing process - either of my writing process, or of ‘writing in general’. But I didn’t intend to. This rough draft is good enough to help my process, so it’s good enough for now. (I sometimes focus more on the learning that comes from the process of analysis, than the ‘output’ of the analysis itself.)

Nevertheless, we have some output, so let’s see what it looks like. Let’s collect our list:

(1) Total public writing output
(2) Total quality of a given piece
(3) Understanding key writing tradeoffs
(4) Efficiency per post (wasted word count per newsletter)
(5) Efficiency per post (anguish per newsletter)
(6) Live awareness
(7) Enjoyment of the work

Re-number, categorize, and reorganize:

A. Production
  (1) Total public writing output
  (2) Total quality of a given piece

B. Efficiency
  (1) Wasted word count per newsletter
  (2) Anguish per newsletter

C. Motivation
  (1) Live awareness
  (2) Enjoyment of the work

D. Meta
  (1) Understanding key writing tradeoffs 

Not bad. If I wanted to push this model further, I’d probably figure out how to work in things like:

  • Development of a ‘writing process’

  • Adherence to structured routine

  • Ability to stray from routine where useful

  • Understanding of audience

  • Understanding of where I have ideas

  • Relating my ideas to a broader discourse space

  • Building an audience

  • Knowledge of various writing styles

  • Grammar, etc

The most important thing about this attempt to describe ‘the True Art’ is that it describes things close to my experience. I’m describing things as I encountered them, not describing some distant and abstract ideal.

This model, rooted in my specific experiences with writing, may be more useful to me than anyone else. But this is expected, and even desirable! Except in special cases involving collaboration, skill models don’t need to be understood by anyone but the practitioner. Your thoughts and experiences are idiosyncratic, and so it can be helpful to analyze them in an idiosyncratic way.

Over months and years, directed reflections of this type can multiply the effects of practice, helping early efforts give way to something greater.