Cedric Chin, blogger at Commonplace and founder of Postcognito, joins Stew Fortier to discuss common writing pitfalls, putting theory into practice, and how to capture your audience’s attention online.
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Rather than just summarizing theories in his writing, Cedric puts the theories that interest him into practice in his real life. “There is a rigor that comes with practice, right? If it works for me, it's likely to work for someone else. If it didn't work, that's still valuable information” Applying ideas to see if they work can be a shortcut to avoid lengthy and often misguided analysis. “Let reality be the teacher. That's one of my principles.” It’s even more important to notice when reality doesn’t add up. It usually means you’ve found a topic worth writing about.
Cedric isn’t afraid to publish his thoughts and experiences even when he doesn’t have all the answers yet. “ Sometimes I will write something and admit that I don't know what's going on here, but I'm going to find out. For example, at the end of last year I wrote a series about forecasting and how it's really difficult to forecast and it seems like a lot of business people don't bother with forecasting at all. Instead, they try to prime themselves to be very observant, and they designed their organizations to be highly adaptive. I wrote that I had no idea what's going on there. But I noticed it, I wrote about it. Then my readers will sometimes email me with observations and further topics to investigate.”
Sometimes an indirect approach can yield the best results when you’re trying to comprehend a new subject. “When you read around the topic, you usually start seeing patterns. So you don't read one book, you read a couple of books, which helps you figure out a way into the topic, especially if the topic is really difficult.” Look for examples of fiction that address the theory you’re interested in and start there.
Cedric frequently refines his ideas by filtering his thought process through his closest friends. “Usually the first draft of many of my ideas are in conversations with friends,” he explains. “I'm trying to explain something to them, and I fail miserably most of the time.” It’s okay if your ideas aren’t that great at first. “Usually when you see the blog post, you see something that is well explained and the ideas are well formed. What you don't see is the endless months of conversations with random people where I just completely screw it up.”
Writing online is distinctly different than writing a book. There are just too many distractions on the internet that your writing has to compete with. “What you want to do is grab hold of the reader's attention early on in the piece. One trick that I notice a lot of writers doing is they use narrative. With every piece, I'm always asking myself ‘Is there enough like, speed here? Is there enough speed to keep the reader going to the next section?’ Narrative is one one way of doing that.”
Teasing is another technique that Chin uses to keep his readers engaged and “skiing downhill” without heavily relying on narrative. “You basically tease the reader in the introduction, saying that at the end of the piece, they will be a slightly better person in some way.” If that doesn’t work, you can always hook the reader’s attention with a cliche repackaged as an insight that resonates with their sensibilities. “It's not really an insight. It's just something that the reader already agrees with, so they’re like ‘Oh, yeah, I totally agree with this and he also has my viewpoint so I shall continue reading.’”
The first thing that Cedric tells his friends that want to start writing online is “don’t worry, nobody is going to read it.” Publishing your writing for the first time can be intimidating to the point where it’s difficult to get started. It’s more important to build a cadence and not worry about what you’re shipping in the first six months. “I think it took six or eight months before anyone noticed anything on Commonplace. I actually look back to that time with some fondness because I was really experimenting with the format and trying to figure out what I wanted to write about for distribution.”