Mise en Place Writing
On my mailing list, Joe writes:
I want you to write about writing and how you’ve made it a habit.
- why do you do it?
- what’s the sudden shift in doing it more recently?
- what’s your process? idea -> draft -> review? -> publish
- how do you chose what to write about?
Thanks Joe! I think the How is a lot easier to answer than the Why, so I will just focus on that here and discuss “Why I Write” in a future piece. As for the How - I call it Mise en Place Writing.
TL;DR - I haven’t made writing a habit. I’ve made pre-writing a habit. By decoupling writing from pre-writing, I can write more, faster, and better.
Mise en Whatnow?
Wikipedia defines Mise en place as:
a French culinary phrase which means “putting in place” or “everything in its place”. It refers to the setup required before cooking, and is often used in professional kitchens to refer to organizing and arranging the ingredients (e.g., cuts of meat, relishes, sauces, par-cooked items, spices, freshly chopped vegetables, and other components) that a cook will require for the menu items that are expected to be prepared during a shift
The idea is that cooking is faster, easier and more enjoyable if you have all the stuff you’ll need to do prepared beforehand. It’s basically all the fun parts of cooking separated from the boring parts. If you’ve ever had the chance to do a cooking class in a foreign country (A great way to appreciate local cuisine in personal travel or team retreats), notice that it’s fun because all the prep is done for you.
Of course, for chefs, typically you’re also the one doing the prep so you’re not really saving any work. But it can be nice to break work up into more palatable (pun intended?) chunks of “prep” vs “cook” instead of “Prep & Cook”. In fact, if you prep early, you also get a chance to spot missing ingredients that you’ll need, and be able to run out and get them, rather than discovering that you don’t have them while cooking (!).
Writing isn’t Just Writing
What’s true for chefs is even more true for writers. The actual act of writing is only the final assembly stage of a longer, more involved process. Instead of grocery shopping (or stocking up), chopping, measuring, cutting, peeling, slicing, we have ideation, research, peer review, audience testing, reframing, illustration, organization, and more.
The key insight of Mise en Place Writing is that we should decouple writing from pre-writing.
Writing is an intensive, focused process. It takes me anywhere from 1-5 hours to pump out an average article - in that time I am doing nothing else.
That’s a lot of continuous time dedicated to just one thing - rare in today’s attention economy. If I were to add to that ideation and research and organization and so on, it’d take even longer, and I’d do a poorer job of it. Ironically, this is the stuff that actually has high leverage on what readers will take away from what I write. So I should spend more time on that.
Components of Pre-Writing
Pre-writing is low intensity and often serendipitous, dependent on thoughts flowing into you rather than you putting thoughts out. Here is a nonexclusive list of things that can be realistically counted as pre-writing:
- 💡Ideation: Literally, what are possible things you could be writing about? Raw Idea Velocity is the focus here - remember you’re not signing up to actually deliver the thing - but if you had a flash of inspiration or insight sometime somewhere, write it down. It’s not uncommon for me to watch a good talk and come out of it with 2 ideas of things to write about.
- If you feel like you lack ideas for things to write about, your bar is too high. Even if it’s been definitively explained elsewhere, you can still get value learning in public by explaining in your own words to others who think like you.
- If you have too MANY ideas - I can sometimes relate - run it by a mental filter of What People Want. You’ll want to take note of what people are interested in. Or, y’know, just ask them what they want.
- 📚Research: Links, facts, quotes, stories, demos, repos, tweets, talks, podcasts, timelines, histories, taxonomies. Your research journey starts immediately after the Idea. When you get the Idea Flash, definitely note down its origin. That’s research. This is the “meat” of many genres of blogposts - concrete pieces of information that readers can take away. Can you imagine doing comprehensive research just before you write? You might never end up writing! You’re collecting all the stuff you’re going to use to write in future, except you’re doing it as you come across it.
- 👀Peer Review: Research will be a lot easier and faster with Peer Review. This is an advantage of having a network - a small group of people who know more than you, that you can tap on to get more research direction and to get a feel of immediate objections to address.
- 👨👩👧👦Audience Testing: This is a little wider net than Peer Review - instead of consulting people who know more than you, you’re now testing the messaging on the people you’re writing this for. This is an extra step I rarely do for my blogposts, but, for example, I’ll do this when chatting with developers in conferences and meetups to gauge reaction. Broadway shows have the concept of Workshopping in a smaller audience, with the understanding that everything from plot to props to cast can be changed based on feedback, before the show actually launches live. For more highly produced pieces of content, like talks, workshops, or books, this is worth investing in so that you have the impact you hope for.
- 🖼️Reframing: The initial idea might not be what you actually end up writing. Whether it is due to audience feedback or delayed inspiration, you might find a more interesting angle to approach the topic, or find a better analogy. It’s cheaper to pivot the entire focus of your writing when you haven’t written it yet. Just by illustration - this post you’re reading was originally titled “How and Why I Write” - good, but not as interesting and memorable. I found a better framing, and reframed.
- 🧱Organization: Deciding on a structure for your article sets it apart from a stream-of-consciousness rant. It lets people zoom in and out of your thoughts by skimming or diving in as needed. If you really need to deliver a message, use the Tell them what you will tell them, Tell them, and Tell them what you just told them metastructure, that highlights the structure itself. I don’t always do that because it can feel repetitive. But structure choice is important. See, for example, that I’ve brought you along this list in roughly chronological order.
- 🎨Illustration: A picture speaks a thousand words. Think about how you can help the reader give a visual reference for what you will describe - as a bonus, it makes your thesis a lot more sharable. Some things might be harder to illustrate - Maggie Appleton has great ideas on how to illustrate the invisible. Mental imagery can work too - You’ll notice I don’t use many visuals here - but I am invoking a cooking analogy that you already have entrenched in your head.
Alright, alright, I couldn’t resist:
As you can see, there’s a lot that you can do to improve your writing before you write. We should have a separate workflow for pre-writing.
The Pre-Writing Workflow
The idea of grooming a backlog is key to productive writing. For the past few months I have been accumulating a backlog of ideas that could be interesting topics to write about. As of right now it stands at around 50-70 topics.
First, make sure you have a cross platform note-taking tool - I evaluated Evernote, Notion, Roam Research, and SimpleNote, but currently am using OneNote because it is free forever with the backing of Microsoft, and has good offline support. I might move to Joplin in future, or write my own. It’s not really about the tool - at my scale, it’s trivial to switch tools - but the feature set needs to support the workflow.
And the workflow is this - anytime you have any content idea anywhere - reading something, watching a talk, listening to a podcast, having a conversation with a friend, thinking to yourself in a shower - you need to note it down in a searchable place. If it attaches to some other relevant piece of thought, you collect these together in a growing list of ideas, quotes, soundbites, links, talking points and so on.
It has to be easy and fast. I don’t know about you but I can forget ideas in minutes. If I don’t write it down it might be gone forever. I’ve been known to jump out of the shower dripping wet just to go write something down.
Human Brains are great at abstract thinking and creative inspiration. Computers are great at storage and search. Use them as your second brain.
Each note you make is a little kitchen, and you’re assembling the pieces in place for a future you to come in and just get to cooking.
The Infinite Kitchen
When practicing Mise en Place, Chefs are limited by available kitchen space-time. Yes, I am invoking space-time equality. You not only have raw table square footage limits, but food laid out must be consumed within a certain time as well.
Writers have no such restriction.
You, the writer, have an Infinite Kitchen in the Cloud.
Screw struggling to come up with 1 blogpost a month. You’re now simultaneously preparing 50 blogposts at once. You’re adding ingredients as they come in, you’re chopping them up, rearranging, taste testing, noting what you’re still missing, throwing entire kitchens out, smashing two kitchens together.
Have fun! Get messy! Get weird! No one else is watching!
And then you write.
I’m currently writing one post a day. It’s a high bar - most people don’t have the luxury. It also means the quality of my writing is pretty much limited to what I can do in 1-5 hours - not anywhere close to what people can achieve with a sustained 20-100 hour effort on a monster skyscraper or even a book. So I don’t intend to keep it up forever.
But the process of writing is the same whether I write once a day or I am trying to create something more involved. I still separate pre-writing from writing.
Each day, I go through my growing list and think about what is the most interesting thing I could write about that day. The nice thing about having a groomed backlog is that all the related links and notes and thoughts from myself over time is collected in a list ready for me to flesh out into a full piece. It’s just less intimidating that way. But there’s also a little dopamine hit from this concentrated dosage of inspiration from all my past selves who have sent this message into the future.
You don’t have to write once a day, it’s a stupid goal to aim for and I don’t really know why I do it apart from the challenge. But you can probably see how this workflow adapts to writing at any frequency. Once again, the key insight of Mise en Place Writing is that we should decouple writing from pre-writing. With that, our writing improves, as well as our enjoyment of writing.
Improvisation is OK
With all that work done pre-writing, I might be giving you the impression that I am strictly separating everything all the time and I don’t deviate from the plan once I enter Writing Mode. Not true. Writing Mode is another opportunity to re-experience the pre-writing and the writing job all at the same time, just with the benefit of some extra prep that I’ve done before hand.
Improvisation is OK.
A lot of people put heavy emphasis on editing. I agree that it can add a lot of value. But I don’t do a lot of it. For one thing, I don’t have a ton of time. For another, I find it often doesn’t add as much value as hoped. You can run things by Hemingway or Grammarly but they are no substitutes for human judgment. Finding a good editor is harder than just grabbing a coworker, but that’s what a lot of people do and accordingly they don’t get the same value as a good editor would.
I wish I had more insights here but I just don’t have a ton of experience with editing. I will say that I edit my posts a lot after publication - they are all intended to be living documents in a Digital Garden - so if something doesn’t read quite right or someone chimes in with a crucial thing I overlooked, I will go change it. But usually, it’s more important to err on the side of getting it out there rather than be bogged down in heavy editing, especially when it can be edited post-publication.
I don’t have an idea for a strong ending, so I’ll just end with some notes.
I am strongly influenced by the thinking of Tiago Forte’s Building a Second Brain and David Perell’s thoughts on Writing.
I’m not trying to build a brand about anything, which is a weakness and an advantage at the same time.
- I’m interested in many things, so I cast a wide net, therefore I can write about whatever I want on any particular day.
- The downside is that people who follow me or subscribe to my newsletter don’t really know what they’re getting on any particular day. Therefore my efforts do not compound.
In terms of Learning Gears, I’m very much in Explorer mode right now. But when I need to switch to Connector and Miner, I know how to pivot.
But you might see how the Mise en Place idea can work even if you focus on one particular topic and are trying to build anything from a personal brand to a full fledged content marketing practice in that area.