When the writing process met the theory of constraints
Image: Damir Spanic/Unsplash
“Should I write at my own blog, or at Medium?”
Of course, the question is worth considering if you’re a new writer. But a more pressing question you need to focus on is:
“How do I write something I’m proud of?”
Writing is meant to be fun and stimulating. It turns out best when you enjoy the process. Not only do you write better, but you keep writing. So the best place to start writing is wherever you get the most enjoyment from. It doesn’t really matter where it is, especially when you’re just starting out. Here’s why:
When You Start, Your Constraint Is Your Writing
In The Goal, author Eliyahu M. Goldratt introduces the theory of constraints:
Improvements made anywhere beside the bottleneck are an illusion.
In case you’re scratching your head, I made a diagram to illustrate this idea. Lastly, let’s say each piece of writing starts off as an idea, and your goal is to move it downwards as quickly as possible to add value to it (and make money). The pink bars are the measure of capacity. The red bars are the actual flow of effort and value produced and extracted:
Let’s unpack what each of these mean, starting at the far left:
The inefficient writing process: This process involves a lot of writing and editing, but is bottlenecked first by its opportunities to publish. For example, maybe the writer using this process writes only for Fast Company or New York Times. They’ve developed a strong reputation which enables their promoting capabilities. But because they don’t sell their own products (e.g., books) or offer services (e.g., speaking), they’re not maximizing what they earn. Writers pursuing this method are not interested in monetizing. Instead, they choose to focus on the craft of writing.
The suboptimized writing process: This is the process of the cautious new writer we talk about in the opening section. They’re often so fixated on the place they publish, they don’t consider developing the critical parts of the writing process (ideating, writing, and editing). This process shows them eventually becoming capable of promoting and building an audience, but the underdeveloped early phases limit the amount of value they create. I see that first question, “Should I write at my own blog, or at Medium?” as an attempt to optimize for:
- Promoting (e.g., SEO, network effects, etc.)
- Monetizing (e.g., Medium pays for writing, whereas WordPress doesn’t)
- Building audience (e.g., You can speak directly to readers in a newsletter, but if you write at Medium their algorithm determines your distribution)
But really, this person is best suited by focusing on writing better. Once they widen those parts of their capabilities, they’ll be able to create a larger volume of, which enables them to produce and eventually extract a lot of value.
The optimized writing process: The third is an expert writer; one that’s able to earn most of what each piece is worth. They still aren’t making the maximum money on everything they publish, but they’re getting close. Maybe they haven’t gotten their back catalog organized, so they don’t circulate (i.e., syndicate and republish) their work as much as they’d like to. Or, maybe they have so many ideas and drafts, but they’re not able to edit fast enough to keep publishing going. A lot of professional authors fit into this mould.
The high impact writing process: This process creates the maximum amount of value with each article, and extracts every single dollar out of it. This person publishes amazing work, perfectly optimizes their SEO, has a group of core fans that promote their work, sets up sponsorships and affiliate links without messing up their own reputation, and regularly attracts a ton of new readers to their audience. They also have a back catalog they often excerpt or republish at other places. This is the perfect writing process. I know of only a few people who have come close to mastering this mythical process. (I’d love to hear suggestions.)
When You’re Starting, Focus on Ideating, Writing, and Editing
Nobody starts off writing their first article at the “optimized writing process.” When you’re first starting off, you shouldn’t worry yourself about all of those factors anyway; the main constraint is how much you’re actually writing. It’s about ideating, writing, editing, and publishing your work.
If you’re not ideating, writing, editing, and publishing regularly, then the rest doesn’t matter:
- Your distribution won’t matter because you won’t have any writing to distribute
- Your payment won’t matter because your work is not worth paying for yet
- Your audience won’t matter because you won’t have anything to send to them
At the beginning, focus on writing better, faster, and more. The “better” part is the most important (quality), but shouldn’t come at so great a sacrifice that the other two (speed and quantity) aren’t always slowly improving. Make acceptable, not perfect; and always make sure you keep publishing.
Of course, when you write regularly, and you’ve got an audience, you might need more time to polish each article up. You can then reset your speed and quantity metrics (e.g., instead of four times a week, just once a week). Juggling these three factors will balance you out.
When to Focus on an Ideal Place to Publish
Let’s say you’re writing regularly, and notice that each of your articles are producing the results of an inefficient writing process. You’re starting to ideate, write, edit, and publish good writing that you’re proud of. But, you’re only monetizing a small part of it.
This is the time to focus on where you’re building your home on the internet. By then, writing should no longer be too serious a constraint; you’ve developed your skills as a writer, your ideating, writing, and editing capabilities are there, and you’ve refined your skillset.
You’ve also likely developed a body of work that’s starting to get readers, hopefully passively through search engine traffic or social media. In situations like that, migration can be painful (e.g., you might be kicking yourself for not setting it up at your own blog), but it’s important to remember…
You could not be writing at all.
It’s a challenge I face, and I see others wrestling with too. Starting to write is easy; constantly figuring out something worth writing, and polishing it up, is hard. It needs to stay enjoyable if you’re going to succeed at it. It’s easy to give up from the discouragement, or from a sense of overwhelm. The enjoyment and intrinsic motivation can counterbalance this.
When you’re first writing, it’s important to dial back; it’s the same as learning to cook. Signing up for a meal kit delivery plan can be crucial to starting the habit of cooking and building capacity. Eventually, when you’ve gotten a grip on cooking, you’ll make your own meal plans and order your own groceries. But if you give up, then you lose a chance to build a rewarding habit (and to enjoy the results).
The Key is Focus
Naturally, in a lot of situations, you can improve more than one thing at any given moment. In theory you can become a better writer, find more places to publish, and promote better at the same time.
But focus can be the difference that makes or breaks your efforts as a writer, especially for anyone starting this part-time. When you identify your focus, then you can also set more realistic and reasonable goals, level your expectations, and move forward with a plan. At the beginning, every extra drop of effort needs to be focused into making something you’re proud of. You can sort everything else out after.