The Secret to Being a Better Writer, According to a 'New York Times' Best-Selling Author

Although he has written some of the most iconic books of his time, and sold millions of copies worldwide, New York Times best-selling author and serial entrepreneur Tim Ferriss didn’t actually enjoy writing until recent years. Maybe you can relate?

Whether you’re a founder, investor, middle manager or junior exec you probably find yourself writing on the job all the time: proposals to clients, memos to staff, emails, social media posts, etc. But maybe the act of writing feels tedious to you — or even downright difficult, especially if you’ve embarked on a big project like writing a book. You may struggle to articulate your thoughts clearly, concisely and with a bit of personality. 

Writing well is not for the faint of heart. But it’s a skill that can be learned and sharpened, as Ferriss discovered. Despite the runaway success of his New York Times best-sellers The 4-Hour Workweek and The 4-Hour Body, it wasn’t until his latest books, Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers (also a New York Times best-seller) and Tribe of Mentors: Short Life Advice from the Best in the World, that Ferriss hit his writing stride.

Here are four steps Ferris recommends to every would-be (and seasoned) writer.

Start with a question.

One of the biggest changes Ferriss made to his writing process was to start with a question. Instead of looking at writing as a grueling task, he now begins by simply asking: What might this look like, if it were easy?

“The only two books that I’ve enjoyed writing are the last two books, so I’ve changed my approach quite a bit,” Ferriss says in this interview with Marie Forleo.

Beneath that overarching question, Ferris layers several, often-outrageous and hypothetical questions that he answers by hand, freestyle, in a journal. The exercise forces him to devise creative solutions to possible problems. Some of these hypothetical questions include:

If I had to write this entire book in two weeks…gun to the head, what would I do?

If I had to hire a ghostwriter (which I wouldn’t do) to write this book, what instructions would I give them?

If I had to write this book with money, or dictate the whole thing – couldn’t touch a keyboard – what might I do?

“I start adding all these difficult constraints, and then answering in this stream-of-consciousness, longhand (way), and inevitably…there’s going to be something in there that you say, “Ok, that is interesting. That’s something we can use,” he says.

If his solutions works, “now you’ve cut hundreds of hours or hundreds of self-floggings out of the experience,” Ferriss says.

That simple exercise has allowed him to find hacks he might otherwise have ignored that makes writing easier and more enjoyable.

Have a routine.

Having a schedule that eliminates needless decision-making is a must for Ferriss. During Tribe of Mentors, he describes his daily routine as “boringly uniform.” It looked something like this: wake up, meditate, exercise, work, lunch, back to work, dinner, sleep, repeat. He’d drink the same tea, eat the same breakfast, order the same lunch at the same restaurants every day — day after day.

“A rock-solid, daily routine where you do not have to think about logistics” is key, he says.

Learn to write.

If you want to draw, you might use crayons, finger-paints, pencils or charcoal to create your oeuvre but, at the end of the day, you have to know how to draw. Similarly, if you want to create a best-selling book, you have to know how to write. Otherwise, you risk being a one-hit wonder, he says. If you don’t know how to string together sentences effectively, you may start by taking a class.

“Go find a continuing education class with a writing teacher,” Ferris suggests as one option. “It can be creative writing, it can be non-fiction; it does not matter. That is one of the best investments you can make.”

Write first, market later.

If you’re a professional looking to position yourself as a thought leader in your field, you might decide writing a book is an excellent way to garner attention for your ideas. No doubt, it’s a huge credibility booster. It’s also a huge commitment of time and resources. Before you get lost in the shiny world of marketing your book, focus on the writing first, Ferriss says.

“It is so much more appealing and so much shinier and sexier to think about all these incredible launch plans,” he says, “and writers will do anything to avoid writing.”

Don’t do it.  Before you get swept up in the details of a book launch, plant butt firmly in chair and don’t move (figuratively, not literally) until the writing’s done. The most effective marketing tool is a finished product, Ferriss says.

“At the end of the day, you can cheat or game any system in existence, but that’s going to be very short-lived if the product or service does not stand on its own two feet,” he says.

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