How to become an effective writer. These five steps worked for me

I used to spend too much time on writing. Sometimes it took me a whole day to write a post of only 500 words. When I look back on these days of toil, I realize the actual writing had only cost me around an hour. The other hours were devoted to staring at the screen and relentlessly editing the article. My mistake? I had mixed two writing processes:

  1. the writing process
  2. the editing process

I think the second process is easy to get started with. It feels like a job that has to be done. A check mark in a box. But the first process, the writing itself, is a different matter. That’s what they’ve invented procrastination for. That’s why there are so many web sites and magazines about productivity. Coming up with the right story and words is incredibly hard.

No, let me rephrase that. Getting in the flow for coming up with the right story and words is incredibly hard.

I used to allow all sorts of things to distract me while writing. My phone and desktop notifications were obvious culprits. But the biggest distraction of all didn’t seem like a distraction. Actually, I thought it was part of my productive behavior.

Well, no.

Because there’s nothing more distracting during the act of writing than editing.

I behaved like a menacing editor

You might recognize my old behavior. I wrote a sentence and hit the period key. But before starting a second sentence I already found my cursor back at the second word and replacing it with a better synonym.

I kept repeating this. I behaved like a menacing editor criticizing every sentence seconds after I had written it down. No wonder it sometimes took me a day to come up with a short blog post.

By separating the writing and editing process, I’ve become an effective writer. No more staring at blank screens. No more cursing at my text. I get in a flow and the words just come streaming out.

Here’s how I work these days.  Continue reading “How to become an effective writer. These five steps worked for me”

Finally watched ‘The Internet’s Own Boy’

Last night, I watched this documentary about Aaron Swartz (1986 – 2013). He was the co-founder of Reddit, RSS and the Stop Sopa campaign.  Impressed by how relentless this wunderkind lived. Basically he died because he wasn’t interested in the start-up money and fame, but pursued his ideals for a better world. Both a very tragic and inspiring documentary.

(Thanks to Tim and Erik for the HT)

Getting past the dynastic Bush Clinton narrative

In a delightful honest and transparent post, The New York Times‘s public editor Margaret Sullivan expresses 17 hopes and dreams for her newspaper in 2015. She kicks off with this one:

“Presidential campaign coverage that does not seem based on the idea that the presidency is dynastic, and must be handed down to a Clinton or a Bush.”

This is a very important hope for all journalists. To not give in to the seductive narrative of the two dynasties, but to cover the ideals and ideas of the candidates. Whether they’re called Bush, Clinton..,

or Warren.

The Problem With The King Of Clickbait

This The New Yorker profile of a young ‘viral guy’ shines a light on the supply side of the ‘ads race to the bottom’. It’s hilarious. Especially when the journalist visits his childhood home and meets the dad, who ‘speaks in passionate bursts that sound like unrelated fortune-cookie aphorisms spliced together’.

But it’s also a depressing article. It shows how the viral guy, whose name is Emerson Spartz, obsesses over getting pageviews and then plastering his sites with ads. Originality doesn’t meet his business standards, he says, because copy/pasting viral hits from your competitors generates more revenue for less effort.

“We’ve stopped doing that as much because more original lists take more time to put together, and we’ve found that people are no more likely to click on them.”

Here’s a screenshot to give you an idea what you’ll end up with if the above is your business ethos:, a site by Emerson Spartz

I don’t mind that Spartz has chosen this business model and I’m impressed he has built a company around it.

The problem with the king of clickbait though, is that a growing amount of journalists think they should compete with him. They adopt his tactics. They start preaching the viral Evangelic in their editorial offices.

Thinking about how you can reach your audience is fine. But lowering your journalism standards to go viral isn’t.

And that’s exactly what happens when you – as a journalist – look at Emerson Spartz as a source of inspiration.

You’ll then only focus on getting pageviews. You won’t worry about building relationship with readers. You just want to trick them in clicking on your next listicle. You’ll simplify stuff.

It’s a short-term strategy. And if you’ve chosen it, there’s no way back. When the advertisement revenues dry up, you won’t be able to ask for a donation or a subscription fee.

Because you have no loyal readers left.

You’ll end up hoping that you’ll have another hit on Facebook. As Spartz says, ‘Facebook should be eighty per cent of your effort’.

It will probably be right around that time when the audience is getting fed up with the click bait and will be looking for a thoughtful alternative. Deep reads, analysis. A news site that only serves their needs. That’s focused on getting them informed  rather than addicted.

A site they’ll probably be willing to pay money for.

One bespoke library please

A Saudi businesswoman wanted her London boardroom lined with books about the West’s engagement with Islam and the Arab world. The thousand-or-so books—a reader’s selection rather than a true collector’s library—cost £80,000.

A London bookseller reinvents itself as a purveyor of private libraries.

It takes all the fun of book collecting away. But it’s a brilliant idea by the bookseller.

Maybe other booksellers could come up with more accessible bespoke libraries?

A scenario:

‘I expect a child. Give me all the books I should read to him in his first ten years.’

‘That would be 400 euros please. We’ll deliver the books next week.’

(Via @thijsniks)

How to invest in growth according to Buzzfeed’s publisher Dao Nguyen

“When media companies think of growth, they tend to think of it as a marketing function. We talk about growth as a technology function—building tools and products, and making changes in your platform. That’s more lasting than a marketing campaign. Marketing campaigns end after you run out of money.”

I agree 100% with Buzzfeed’s publisher Dao Nguyen. She said this in an interview with Wired.

Some thoughts after 3.5 years of watching The West Wing

‘Did it make you a better person?’

That’s what a friend asked me when I had just finished watching The West Wing. It took me 3.5 years to watch all seven seasons (and I was already late to the party).

A couple of years ago, he told me he occasionally watched episodes before going to work. It gave him energy.

Before answering his question, this is what I learned from The West Wing:

  • Governing is hard. It’s easy to judge a president’s decision based on just one side of the story, as we all do on Twitter. But The West Wing made me realize how complex governing is.
  • Know and test your values. They will be challenged in ways you can’t imagine as soon as you gain influence.
  • Turn off your ego.
  • Campaigning is math.

I could go on for a while. These are just the first things that come to mind.

Then there’s the matter of working harder because of The West Wing.

I recognize this. I too want to make a difference after seeing Josh, Toby, Will, Charlie and CJ serving their fellow citizens. I too am determined to do everything in my power to use my talents to the best of my ability.

At the same time, there’s a danger in getting energy from The West Wing. It’s not hard to get motivated when you have to report to the Oval Office. When lives are at stake.

The West Wing can make your own work look futile. Especially when you’re the same age as Donna and Charlie. The trick is to get past this. To believe your work is already helping people too (and it probably does). And that you’re already giving almost everything you have. You can use The West Wing as an inspiration to give even more.

Journalists have recently wrote op eds that The West Wing is outdated. That we’ve seen our liberal dreams shattered to pieces with the Obama presidency (which I don’t agree with). House of Cards does a better job in showing how the world works, they say.

I think it’s hard to get more cynical than that.

The West Wing is a series about using your talents and making close to impossible decisions for the greater good. If I’ll try to live up to that, then yes, The West Wing made me a better person.

What’s next?

The ‘Everywhere’ Strategy

With De Correspondent, we publish our stories everywhere. Listen to our podcasts on our site, Soundcloud or iTunes? It’s up to you.

Recently someone made fun of our low YouTube numbers. ‘They invested all this money in a video and all they got was a couple of hundred views’. Well, he missed the thousands of views of the  Facebook video. Continue reading “The ‘Everywhere’ Strategy”

This blog is analytics-free

I’ve just removed my Google Analytics plugin.

Every time I published a post, I became obsessed with how it got picked up. Even when I didn’t care.

This article, for example, isn’t written to attract big audiences. My blog serves as a public notebook. It forces me to rephrase the incoherent thoughts in my mind into clear stories other people should understand.

But with the stats waiting there for me, I couldn’t resist checking how many people read along with my pondering about the future of publishing.

So I killed them.

Because the only metric that concerns me is how many new insights you and I get through this new blog.

Close The Door, Then Start Writing

I’ve just finished reading On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2000), a book about writing by Stephen King. Blogs like Brain Pickings often quote it. 

Stephen King On Writing book coverI only know Stephen King from the movie adaptations of The Shining, The Green Mile, The Shawshank Redemption. But after reading On Writing, I feel like I’ve known King for ages.

He writes about his wandering youth, drug addiction and a near-death experience – caused by a guy who had a hard time driving a Dodge van.  King does this to show why he writes. ‘For the buzz’ and ‘as a spit in the eye of despair’.

These are the things I’ll remember after reading On Writing:

  • Shut the door. King stresses that you shouldn’t ask people to read along. It’s about your imagination and you shouldn’t worry about explaining the story at an early stage.
  • Write two drafts. Don’t edit while writing the first one. You’re trying to uncover a fossil; a story of which the first idea has popped up in your mind and that you should now try to grasp in its entirety. Just worry about the story.
  • Keep the first draft in a drawer for six weeks.  
  • In the second draft, look for meaning and ideas. Rewrite the story in such a way that your theme comes out more clearly for the future reader. 
  • Formula: 2nd draft = 1st draft – 10%.
  • Alcohol and drugs won’t stimulate your creativity.
  • ‘Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.’


  • ‘God, if only I were in the right writing environment, with the right understanding people, I just KNOW I could be penning my masterpiece’.

Without making any false promises – ‘a good writer will never become a great writer’ – King encourages you to start uncovering fossils.

Of course this is a terrible summary of a wise and warm book. Please just see it as a lengthy recommendation to read On Writing. 

If I’ll, one day, will want to write a work of fiction, I’ll definitely read this book again. 

But first, I’ll read at least one of Kings novels. When you’ve come to like a person so much in just a couple of evenings, you want to know what he has created. 

Stephen King – On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2000)

Elizabeth Warren: ‘Enough is enough’

I’m just posting this video here for future reference.

Of course I had read the profiles about senator Elizabeth Warren, but after having seen this senate speech about the damning influence of banks on the US (and thus the rest of the world), I now truly understand what she stands for. And how she’s willing to get that message across.

Here’s the transcript of the full speech.  Continue reading “Elizabeth Warren: ‘Enough is enough’”