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The four of us were talking about the writing tricks we use, and we thought you might enjoy hearing our styles.

How Brent Writes

I use RememberTheMilk.com to track my blog post ideas.  I can use it from anywhere via a web browser, phone app, whatever.  I can tell when I’m in the mood to write because I’ll come up with 4-5-6 blog post ideas in a row in a matter of minutes.  When that happens – and it’s almost always in the morning – I look at the day’s schedule and figure out if there’s a way I can spend a few hours writing.  Seems like it strikes in spurts, too – weeks will go by without me producing a single blog post, and then suddenly I’ll have several days in a row where I just can’t stop sneaking away to write.

I can write anywhere, but I can’t be around people I know, because then I feel guilty for not spending time with them.  (This also means no email and no Twitter.)  This usually means that I grab my laptop or iPad and head to a coffee shop or pub that doesn’t mind me sitting there for hours, banging away.  Right now, my favorite writing place is Kroll’s Bar and Grill in Chicago.

I can only write with music playing on headphones – almost always with just one song on endless repeat.  The music affects the tone of what I write.  Bubbly pop music like Lady Gaga and LMFAO produces fun, relaxed posts like my SQL Server 2008R2 Review and my AlwaysOn Availability Groups introduction.  Client findings seem to work best while listening to Tokyo Police Club’s manic upbeat stuff like Your English is Good and Wait Up.  I wrote all of my chapters for 2008 Internals and Troubleshooting while listening to the long version of Death Cab for Cutie’s I Will Possess Your Heart.  Over.  And over.  And over.

I write in a text editor first.  I stopped using WYSIWYG stuff a long time ago because I got too caught up in presentation rather than content.  The words themselves have to seduce me on the screen, just by themselves, without any makeup.  When I’m pretty happy with what I’ve got, I move it into the final production tool (WordPress, Word, PowerPoint) and then start applying the makeup.

How Jes Writes

Sometimes, I think that I could write non-stop, all day, every day. It wouldn’t always be good writing, and it wouldn’t always have a point, but I can put words down all day long.

I have a list of blog ideas – technical and non-technical – in a OneNote notebook. I put down the topic or the title as soon as it comes to me, and a couple sentences if I have more. The next step is to fire up a Word document and put together an outline. Sometimes, that’s as simple as two or three bullet points. Sometimes, it’s a lot more complicated.

The act of writing requires discipline, mixed with a little inspiration. I try to block off specific times to write – that way, I can’t always put it off until I “feel” like it. Of course, if inspiration hits, I will sit down and bang out as much as I can when it happens. If I’m away from my computer, I usually have a notebook with me (I love Moleskine), and I’ve been known to scribble away and then type it up later.

My environment is very different depending on whether I have a technical or non-technical blog. As I write this, I’m in my office, door open, dog running amok around the house, music playing, laundry going, drinking coffee. If I have a technical topic to write about – especially if it involves code or examples – things are very different. Silence rules. I go in my office, I close the door, I turn on the light, I turn off music, close email and Twitter, open Word and whatever tools I need, and go. I don’t want to be bothered – at all, about anything. I’ll hack away for an hour or two, take a break for a snack, and go back at it. I like to finish technical blogs in as few sittings as possible, so I try to start these on a weekend, or during a week I don’t have a lot of stuff happening in the evenings.

When I’m done, every piece of writing gets set aside for at least a day. Then I re-read and edit it, sometimes a couple of times, and schedule it!

How Jeremiah Writes

As much as it pains me to say it: haphazardly. My process isn’t as disciplined as it used to be (or as disciplined as I’d like it to be). That being said, I’ll outline what I do right now and where I want to be.

I keep track of rough blog post ideas in Remember the Milk. As I flesh out the ideas, I add notes and links to references that will help me flesh out the article. Remember the Milk is critical for my workflow because I can get to it anywhere – ideas don’t happen when you’re sitting in front of the computer. They often strike when you’re at work, on the bus, or stuck in traffic. Being prepared with a lot of different ways to record a good idea is critical to saving that idea for later.

I’ve tried using any number of WYSIWYG editors – they help me agonize over font choice. I’ve tried distraction free editors – they get in the way of working with reference material. When I want to write, I use a text editor. Sublime Text 2 works for me; it has tools for writing prose and tools for writing code. Once I’m in the editor, I draw up a rough title and introductory paragraph – the first paragraph works as an outline. After putting together an outline, I write slugs to draw the reader through the article. It’s after I’ve outlined that I start writing.

I’m a big believer in revision. The first time through an article, I write down my thoughts as quickly as possible while trying to stick to the outline I’ve put together. If there are interesting diversions, I make a note of them and carry on. After the first draft, I let it sit and work on something else.

Clutter is the disease of American writing.

William Zinsser said that. He’s right. During my editing process, I distill my writing. Once I reach minimalism, I build it back up; carefully adding words where they’re needed. I repeat this process several times until I’m as happy as I’m going to be with the results. Whether I’m writing prose or code samples, I use this approach.

Unfortunately, I don’t succeed every time. My least favorite writing is something I produce quickly. I feel that a moment of genius or art has struck and that I can happily push “Publish” and move on to something else. The discipline of revision isn’t there and it shows in the quality of the work – it’s sloppy, jumbled, and dissatisfying. In a perfect world, I could revise each piece three or four times.

My writing process takes time and discipline and is a piece of habit. Great writing doesn’t come from a burst of inspiration, it comes from daily exercise. Relentlessly tuning my prose makes it easier to write something better the next time through.

How Kendra Writes

I admit it: I hate writing sometimes. Writing is very difficult for me. Here’s how I cope.

Mainly, I try to play to my strengths. I have some good skills that I value. I’m really good at a few types of writing, and I’m also a really fast typist. When I’m working in a form of writing I’m good at, I’m much more productive than when I work in a form where I struggle.

Here’s where I shine: I’m great at describing a problem and creating an action plan to solve the problem. I’m a star at documentation and writing up recommendations. I love the balance of trying to add just enough detail and links so that the nuances are clear, without getting so bogged down in detail that the meaning is hidden.

I practice this type of writing a lot in my work. When I write this way, I don’t really need much of anything except my laptop– it’s pretty easy for me to “get lost” in the writing. I tend to stop noticing things around me. I try to remember to stop and drink water or stand up and move around periodically.

Here’s where I struggle: more creative forms of writing. Blog posts are incredibly hard for me. We try to be very thoughtful about blog posts on this site and have a lot of internal discussions about how we can write the best posts possible. It’s just not as simple and straightforward as business writing where you’re out to slay a specific dragon. It’s more about connection and humor and finding meaningful things to share with a much bigger audience.

Here’s what I’ve done to try to make myself better at writing things where it’s hard for me:

  • I don’t force myself to write creatively at very busy or stressful times.
  • I encourage myself to write creatively when I’ve finished my task list for the week or had a great night’s sleep on a weekend morning.
  • I remind myself that I am good at writing, even if some forms are hard for me. (There’s no worse thing for you as a writer than to tell yourself that you’re a bad writer.)
  • I encourage myself to let writing flow creatively in one session, then use another session to go in and edit furiously.
  • I stop writing when I’m still feeling good about it.
  • I save off content in Evernote and periodically pull out older content and work on it again– I don’t set myself a quota for finishing.

I also sometimes get to integrate the forms of writing where I’m strong into the website, too! I created most of the sp_BlitzIndex® documentation in one long afternoon of thinking and writing about indexes– and I’m so proud of it. Those pages would not have made a good blog post, but they’re a way I was able to contribute sharing information in a meaningful and helpful way.

To me, becoming a better writer is all about mindset and strategy. Observe where you’re strong, appreciate what you’re good at, and build from there. Don’t try to write like anyone else, just always strive to write as well as you can.

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  1. All of you give genuine, honest tips – although Kendra’s works best for me. Thank you.

  2. Thanks for another great article guys. I think I spend more time on this site than any other on the web.

  3. Very nice! Seeing the different techniques was pretty awesome. Look to incorporate some new ones into how I try to write this year. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Good article guys and gals. I always love reading what you write.

  5. Great article. Good timing to since one of my new years goals is to become a better technical writer.

  6. Another text editor to try is the Write Space app for Google Chrome. I use it most of the time.

  7. I so <3 Kendra; Putting in a bullet point list like it's a technical document, I think I share in the same challenges with her in writing. Interesting that she is creative on the art side, but doesn't feel she carries it to the blog side.

    - Thanks for sharing guys

  8. nice NON-sql article . i always like whatever u right

  9. Good to know the writing style of each one of you.

    Brent, under your post, RememberTheMilk.com is pointing to your own site and not http://www.rememberthemilk.com/

  10. Catching up on old blog posts. Well done guys.

    It’s interesting Kendra, that you thrive in business writing or writing action plans and struggle at blog writing.

    I’m the opposite, my blog writing is the real me and my “business writing” takes extra effort. I mean for me it’s easier to write “performance sucks” rather than to come up with “the performance is unacceptable according to the standards we require.” (Although I wouldn’t write that either. But you know what I mean)

  11. You know I used to have a “conversion” program off of a Dilbert CD that would do almost that exact conversion. “performance sucks” to “the performance is unacceptable according to the standards we require.” that is.

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