Why I Recommend Writing For At Least An Hour A Day

Last year Inc. Magazine invited me to write a quarterly article for them for both Inc. Magazine and Inc.com. I wrote three – this is my last one. I’ve enjoyed writing for Inc., but earlier this year decided to stop writing for other web sites, at least for a while, as it had become a burden with all the other writing that I’m doing. I thought it would be fun for my last article in Inc. to be self-referential, so I wrote this article about why I write. You can find it on Inc.com at The Best Way to Improve How You Think.

I set out to be an entrepreneur and then an investor. I became a writer almost by accident. Now, I can’t imagine not writing–it’s something I do daily. It’s how I problem solve. And it’s crucial to my continued learning and growth.

In the late 1980s, I started my first company, Feld Technologies, which wrote custom software for companies. This was back when personal computers were becoming popular in a business context. But they were complex. Computer salesmen hawked them speaking a language you didn’t understand, in a style that could have worked equally well on a used-car lot.

Our clients wanted to understand what they were buying. They didn’t care about RAM or CONFIG.SYS settings. So I started writing memos about how the computers and the software they were buying would solve their business problems.

I moved my writing online in the mid-1990s and eventually to my own blog, Feld Thoughts. I had become an angel investor using some of the money I’d made from the sale of Feld Technologies, and those experiences provided plenty of blog fodder. My partner Jason Mendelson and I even churned out a series on venture capital financing. This was during a time when venture funding was in the dumps, and the process was opaque. In about 30 posts, we demystified it. Finally, after almost 20 years of writing, the light bulb went on for me.

I write to think.

Forcing myself to sit down and work through these ideas in a logical sequence for an audience of readers required me to refine my thinking on how I invest in startups. How could I make the financing process more efficient? What’s the best way to structure a deal? I learned a lot, both from my writing and my readers’ responses.

As a result, my approach to VC deals changed after those posts. I simplified my deal terms. I stopped negotiating over nonsense. I had no patience for long arguments over things that didn’t matter.

My thoughts really began to crystallize when I started writing books. In 2010, I co-wrote Do More Faster: Techstars Lessons to Accelerate Your Startup, with Techstars CEO and co-founder David Cohen. During this process, David and I nailed down many of the startup strategies that had been rolling around in our heads. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Techstars’s growth accelerated, as did the growth of the companies we worked with, after publishing that book.

This is not to say that everyone should write books. But some form of regular writing is one of the best ways to give yourself time for reflection and analysis. It could be any kind of writing. Consider Jeff Bezos’s approach to meetings. Whoever runs the meeting writes a memo no longer than six pages about the issue at hand. Then, for the first 15 to 30 minutes of the meeting, the group reads it. The rest of the meeting is spent discussing it. No PowerPoint allowed. Brilliant. (I’ve long felt that PowerPoint is a terrible substitute for critical thinking.)

As helpful as I find writing daily to be, it doesn’t always come easily. I often go through long, dry stretches where my writing is uninspired. I stare at the screen, pecking out a few words hesitantly. This used to frustrate me, but now I realize it’s just part of the process. Part of the trick is figuring out your most productive writing conditions; for me, it’s early in the morning or late at night, preferably with Pink Floyd, electronic music, or classical piano blaring.

Many people might find a blank screen with its blinking cursor terrifying. Where do I even begin? you might ask. These days, I much prefer staring at that screen to standing up in front of a crowd. I think better, and I learn much more.

  • Writing is like having a conversation with a smarter version of yourself. If you pay attention, you’ll learn something every time.

    • Wow – awesome – super great line. I will use it.

  • Thank you Brad for writing this. I love how you put it..”I became a writer almost by accident. Now, I can’t imagine not writing–it’s something I do daily. It’s how I problem solve. And it’s crucial to my continued learning and growth.” I find myself relating to this very much!

  • Wow, so good, Brad. You’ve inspired me – again 🙂

  • Very good timing! In retaliation for feeling completely uninspired through last week, I just published a post myself yesterday analyzing why I write and the benefits I get. I’ve been writing fairly consistently for the last 3 years and am still surprised when I look at the underlying reasons and goals behind writing.

    I realized that writing, for me, is about giving an idea a story that gets me excited about it or helps me see that an idea is just bad and should be mercifully put down.

    I can’t justify a full hour a day given my other obligations, but shoot for a minimum of 30 minutes. How much time per day do you spend reading? Do you also separate reading for “knowledge” versus fiction/entertainment?

    • What’s the URL – I’d love to see the post.

      I probably read 10 hours a week, but in chunks – it’s not a daily discipline for me. And I’ll be on vacation next week and will probably read 30 hours. I love to read.

      I don’t deliberately separate knowledge vs. fiction other than my routine of reading a “mental floss” book every three books I read (give or take.)

      • I’ve love your thoughts on the post! It’s at http://www.jayshirley.com/blog/2014/3/17/benefits-of-writing (definitely not one of my favorite posts as it was written in an uninspired moment, but the conclusion I came to was very helpful).

        I shoot for reading at least 30 minutes a day, but now I’m trying to power through some behavioral economics papers (love Coursera!).

        A couple years back my wife and I took our first (and only) cruise. Only regret was not enough books, and I didn’t switch to Kindle yet. Now I’m eager for another cruise just for the reading time!

  • Very interesting. I find that writing helps clarify issues for me too, even if I don’t always make the writing public (ex. detailed bullet points on an issue so I can be prepared for a phone call or meeting).

    Question for you though: Many times we are expected to come up with thoughtful opinions on the fly, such as during a discussion or in a meeting. Many times these opinions need to be about things that we haven’t thought deeply about, or previously written about (which helps develop our thinking in the first place). So how do you deal with this? How do you ensure that you are delivering thoughtful opinions on issues if you haven’t previously had the chance to clarify your thoughts on the issue through writing?

    • williamhertling

      Followup can always happen after the meeting. Rendering an on-the-fly opinion shouldn’t preclude contemplating the issue and revising your opinion after reflection.

      • True, but for efficiency’s sake, it would be ideal to not have to follow up with a change of heart or a new set of of opinions on an issue.

        • Sometimes after pondering something, I change my mind. I always OWN that I changed my mind – it’s never someone else’s fault, and I don’t try to obscure that I changed my perspective. I think most people accept and are comfortable with this.

    • Over many years I have gotten comfortable giving real time responses for many situations, but there are some where I say “I don’t know the answer – I need to think about it.” I’m never afraid to say that I need some time to contemplate or think through something. And I’m never bothered when someone else says the same back to me.

  • Brad, you are the man! Love the post and your blog.

  • ObjectMethodology.com

    I agree! Writing and meditating are great ways to become better at thinking and problem solving. I think people should write using pen and paper. Maybe a journal or diary.

    • Why do you think pen and paper is so important? I personally feel like anything is fine – pen and paper, or online, or some combo.

      • ObjectMethodology.com

        Great question! Using pen and paper is different from using a word processor (even a small one like I am using now to write this). It’s just wonderful to sit down and physically write on paper. Also you can get great paper that makes the experience even better.
        I really can’t describe it properly. It’s just one of those things in life that get you inside yourself.

        • I know many people who feel the same way. In fact, I used to carry a Moleskine and a pen in my purse. But for me, there’s something about the orderliness of a word processor; the uniformity; the formality, that helps me organize my thinking a little better.

          That, and my handwriting sucks. I can’t even read it.

          • +1 Not to mention that my pen hand can’t typically keep up with my brain, whereas with typing, sky’s the limit.

  • williamhertling

    I also write to reflect on ideas. I also believe in the permaculture principle that everything you do should serve more than one function. (There’s just not enough time in the day to not have the things you do serve multiple functions.)

    For example, last week I knew I’d be attending the Silicon Flatirons conference talking about the intersection between science fiction and entrepreneurship. I also knew that I owed a friend a guest blog post. I ended up writing about the power of the science fiction narrative to add value to scientific discussions (http://www.singularityweblog.com/the-value-of-science-fiction-in-understanding-the-singularity/), which helped me get my thoughts in order for the conference.

    The great thing about writing is that it always served at least two purposes: both the reader and the writer get something out of it.

    • That’s one of the things for me that has been incredibly rewarding about all the writing I’ve done. I learn a ton, and I hear from others that they learn as well. And, I learn from their feedback. It’s a powerful positive circle.

  • Would you consider Twitter as a writing outlet?

    • In the same way that Haiku’s are writing outlets.

  • This answered a half-formed question that’s been rattling around my head for years. As a retired programmer and product designer, most of my developer/designer peers in web and software are/were very visual. Whiteboarding helped them think through topics, where I’d be scribbling down words and later writing meeting summaries. I had kinda chalked it up to them being smarter folks or me being more type A, but I suppose I never considered that different people process and learn, differently.

    Maybe I ain’t so stupid after all, me thinks.

    • I had a short discussion with a developer friend today who described how he designs new features. He writes a story about them. An actually short story. It was fascinating and something I hadn’t heard before, but made perfect sense to me.

  • I need to thank you and Fred for showing the way… I have internalized writing as a way to clarify thinking and I did not have to spend 20 years, just followed you 🙂 thank you again.

  • Great post. I agree that everyone should write, even if it isn’t public. I think of writing as taking pieces of paper with content on them and smoothing them out to a readable, comprehensible form. There might still be some wrinkles and unintelligible content on the pages, but at least some of it is discernible.

    • I love the metaphor!

  • Being able to communicate well with words is super underrated – it will see you far in life.

    I’ve been inconsistently writing in public for a couple of years now and yesterday I made a commitment to write daily for half an hour. I’ve made it part of a new morning routine so I have no excuse to miss it.

    Writing both evolves ideas and generates new ones and can bring real clarity to the thoughts rattling around in your head. It also helps quieten the mind as I often feel I stop thinking about certain things once I have worked them out in writing. It’s kinda of like giving yourself time to figure things out.

    I’ve also come to realise that often the editing phase (re-arranging, cutting and cleaning up) is just as (or more) enjoyable than getting the bulk of the words out in the first place.

    I absolutely love this quote from Paul Graham – ‘expect 80% of the ideas in an essay to happen after you start writing it, and 50% of those you start with to be wrong’ (original article here: http://paulgraham.com/writing44.html). It’s so true and sums up how I feel about writing

    I love how good Paul Graham is at writing. His essays are super informative, concise and really easy to read. A brilliant, clear thinker. I consider his style a lot when I write.

  • Blaine Berger

    We are all writers now.

    If you improve your skill, can be coherent, and can think about the readers in all of your written communications, then writing well every day is quite fulfilling.

  • I think it might be safe to say I am coming to this topic from a slightly different perspective. I live with bipolar disorder, and as part of my treatment I’ve gone through electroshock therapy about thirty times. Lifesaver, but has done a number on my long term memory, as well as my ability to form new (short-term) memories – remembering things daily. I write to jog my memory, to keep track of my thoughts, facts, data – so that I might have a record of the details I need to synthesize and problem-solve. My language expression – written and oral – has not been notably affected, which makes this possible. It can be arduous, and I have to be vigilant – I’m an essential partner in a new venture, and if have to step up.

    The recording and writing are essential to making sense of my work and my life.

    • Emily – brave comments. I’ve found that writing is really helpful when I’m deep in a depressive episode. While a different situation, the clarity I get from actually committing to the words and putting them down on paper is powerful.

  • angilly

    This is something I struggle with regularly. I oscillate wildly back and forth between “I want to write a post to gather & share my thoughts!” and “oh my god I’m rambling and need to shut up now and this post is nowhere near done and I just changed my mind!” I find that, like you, I tend to codify my thoughts while writing (which usually involves those thoughts changing), and along the way I find myself freezing. Do you have similar issues? If so, do your posts tend to sit in a drafts folder for a few days or weeks while you mull over what you’ve wrote?

    • I don’t write drafts anymore. I just write it out, read through it once and edit it, and press publish. I used to polish more – and I do with my longer form writing (e.g. I probably read Startup Boards from beginning to end 17 times in my edit cycle) but for posts, emails, comments, short form I focus on getting my thoughts out there quickly.

      • My sense is that works because you’re such an experienced writer at this point that your thoughts translate to written word far more easily than someone who doesn’t write regularly. Would you agree?

        • I’m not an experienced writer and I tend to just write, edit myself and publish. Sure, you may be a bit rough in some places but often the time and effort to get it from 90% to 99% is disproportionate to how much that is noticed by the reader.

          Having said that, I had two people read and give feedback on something I wrote recently and it did help a lot. They interpreted things differently to how I meant and I was able to clarify that and simplify some areas.

          Worth trying, just don’t spend ages perfecting!

  • This really resonated well “I stopped negotiating over nonsense. I had no patience for long arguments over things that didn’t matter.” I’ve seen that with more experienced VCs as well, and the opposite with less experienced ones.

    Experience teaches you what matters and what doesn’t matter.

    • Yup. And I’ve never really enjoyed “the game” when it’s saturated with things that don’t matter. I try hard to continually clear the decks of anything irrelevant so I can focus on meaning. I’m certainly not perfect at it, but it’s front and center in how I do things.

  • Alex_Cruz

    A little acoustic guitar helps me write along with the list you mention. Thanks for sharing.

  • Mike Dee

    Awesome post. I know the value of writing, but over the past year I have struggled to produce. I’m going to iterate on what my ideal conditions are and see what happens. Your blog inspires me in the same way that Pink Floyd inspires you. Thanks for everything

  • John Doherty

    Really interesting post, Brad. I’ve actually had this discussion with Rand and we both admitted that we also write to think. I personally notice that when I’m not writing, my thoughts are much more muddled. Just this morning as I walked to work I was contemplating the value of writing even if you don’t publish. If you write to think, and you’re stuck at work, start writing. That’ll get the creative juices flowing and you’ll probably be able to solve the non-writing problem you were working on.

  • Roberto Krishan

    I write everyday and my blackberry is my “skrink” or my “canvas” where I dump life insights, business ideas, or a solution to a problem that I maybe having. I also record life learning lessons so to pass it on to future gens or friends. I don’t have a specific time to write, but the time comes every single day…either right after an espresso or in bed before going to sleep. Airports (like now) is also a place/time where the Blackberry comes out. I’ve been doing for 11 years now. For me, its like breathing…I cant go without it. All best, Roberto—

  • i couldn’t agree more. writing helps me understand the world: http://john.do/why/

  • Also recommend walking – A 15 minute walk outdoors is an incredible way to work through ideas, problems and to talk to the creator. You get answers back too 🙂 Thanks Brad

  • Mark Glennon

    Amen, especially as an antidote to PowerPoint which is, as Prof. Tufte at Yale wrote, a blight on communication and analysis. http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/11.09/ppt2.html

  • this works for trading stocks and futures too. keeping a journal can help you think. I also found that if I type notes on a computer, I remember zilch. Write them in a book, remember a lot.

  • Awesome article. This applies to everyone. Great tips for songwriters can be gleaned from this. “I write to think.” Nice.