How to Write

The idea for this blog came from reading a book recently which had a profound impact on me. “Everyone Can Write” by Peter Elbow,

Written by a noted English professor, well known for developing new ideas in teaching creative writing, many of which have become very influential. I realised that whilst his theories were focused on the writing process, they were far more generally applicable to any area of creativity.

But for now, I will explain how it led me to write this blog and why I am writing in this way.

What type of audience?

He starts by describing his personal journey from a high-performing student to dropping out of a PhD with writer’s block. He suggests this results from the fact the “audience and expected response have a huge influence on the experience of writing”. He provides the below grid which I have partially filled with my own experience.

how to write

The experience of writing as a student is overwhelmingly in the top right box (e.g. writing essays to be marked by a teacher). Attributes that are valued are primarily from conforming to the expectations of the audience – accuracy and precision is far more important than creativity. In truth, creativity is often discouraged because the student’s role is to regurgitate the ideas of others with sufficient deference, whilst changing the words enough so that it is not plagiarism. Perhaps this is why I always disliked writing essays so much! I would really enjoy doing all the reading, making notes and discussing ideas; but found the task of writing the essay rather painful and one to be avoided if at all possible.

My writing experience

Since leaving education, most of my writing has been to allies and pain-free. When I started writing investor letters and presentations in 2005, I found the experience quite enjoyable and the discipline of having to convey my thoughts on a regular and timely basis was useful. However the fund grew as did the number of investors, so that my letters were being read by hundreds of people and I became increasingly aware that I was being evaluated. To be fair, much of this evaluation was positive. Many people would compliment my letters and say how useful they found them, but even positive evaluation is evaluation. Of course, not all evaluations were positive! I would frequently have to defend my words in investor meetings.

What I found was that over time my writing became safer, less creative and more formulaic; it also went from being an enjoyable task to an unpleasant yet necessary one. This chimed with the journey that Peter Elbow described. I found his solution to the problem inspirational; how he managed to return to academia and indeed become a world-renowned teacher. He found he could only write if his first draft was deliberately “garbage” or rather free, engaging his creative mind and turning off his analytical mind. To this end, he pioneered “free-writing” which is spending 10 minutes writing continuously anything that comes into your head. The only rule is that you have to write continuously. This is what I am in the middle of right now….

For years, many friends and colleagues have encouraged me to write a book. Feeling this is a top-right corner activity, I want it to be “good” and since I have no confidence that my book would be any good, it is impossible to even begin.
A blog is different – frankly most are terrible – and no-one seems to mind!
I am trying to write this pretty much as free-writing
i.e. no planning, very limited editing, just writing thoughts that occur to me and only sharing with encouraging friends.

Perhaps one day, I will share this blog more widely but if I do, I must remind myself of the dangers. That top-right box is a pretty hard place to be. I have much respect for blogs like which manage to be well-written, informative and accessible to a broad audience. My experience of most other blogs is that they are not interesting, and further that they retreat into purely writing for allies, in more recent terms for their own “bubble”. For example, investment blogs written by pro or anti-government interventionists may write pieces which are intermittently incoherent. However since they are only being read and responded to by fellow believers, the only evaluation they receive is either wildly and blindly supportive, or from a non-believer who can be dismissed a priori.

I would like to write on ideas from a broad range of topics that I find interesting. Commonly areas where I think there is another way to address the problem or where the public debate lacks a coherent framework in which it can be discussed.