You’ve heard how the best way to learn is by teaching, right?
Try grading instead. The single biggest practice that improved my writing was reviewing other people's essays. David Perell made me do it.
I took his class Write of Passage, and on the very first day we were told to write an essay. And give feedback.
To random strangers.
About their essays.
That didn’t seem right.
He expected me to give advice? Wasn’t he the teacher? I wasn’t qualified to do this, I barely knew how to write my own. That’s why I was taking the class!
But it was an assignment. And if school had drilled one lesson into me, it was to always do the assignments (yeah, I was that kid). I opened up a classmate’s essay and started reading.
And I noticed something weird.
Parts of the essay were super engaging, he’d written hilarious stories with insightful takeaways.
But other parts left me confused. I had to reread the sentence multiple times to understand what was being said. And on other essays I’d feel the urge to skim past topics I usually cared about.
Why was I feeling bored by information I valued? Why was I enjoying reading about a topic I never cared for?
And then it clicked.
The best content makes the audience feel a certain way
Excitement, intrigue, surprise, they need to be in there. They’re what converts Spartacus from a relic of history into a hero you’re rooting for.
Epiphany in hand, I started paying attention to the emotional journey the essays were sending me on. That’s the journey I want you to go on as well.
You can do this.
You read a lot, right? You’re reading this right now! How does this text make you feel? As you read each sentence, notice the feelings you’re having.
Are you excited?
Or were your eyes glazing over?
The right words create magic
Dissect the text
Want to peek behind the curtain?
- Why did I feel that emotion?
- What made me this engaged?
- Why was that passage so boring?
Then try to improve it. What could have been done differently? Change the structure a bit, see what happens. It’s okay if you don’t find a better option, but it’s important to take a few minutes to try.
Let the problem simmer in your head.
As you become more conscious about the emotions—both good and bad—different writing styles evoke in you, you'll notice patterns hiding in plain sight. You’ll spot techniques being used. The structure of the Matrix will be revealed.
The text will transform from words dropped on a page into a set of tools you can recognize, pick up and wield.
Do it for long enough, and those patterns become instinct. You flow with the melody on the page, in sync with the rhythm, the music sings on and on, right up till the wrong string gets plucked.
You feel it. Something’s not right. And you know what needs to change.
And you’ll inevitably read stuff which doesn’t pack that punch. They’re useful too! If your interest is slipping, pay attention and ask why? Contrasting good examples with the bad etches the patterns firmly in your mind. Darkness lets you notice the light.
Opportunities are everywhere
This technique isn’t limited to essays.
My friend Robbie Crabtree is a trial lawyer who dissects the emotional nuances in movies. He extracts the essence and infuses it into his courtroom speeches, life imitating art. I’ve learned a crazy amount by reading his material, and I highly recommend checking it out.
The mathematician Richard Hamming taught himself to give gripping speeches by observing other lecturers and noticing how their styles made him feel.
I even apply these tactics at work. I’ve written countless design docs and bug descriptions over the years. Not all of them were closely read. Some weren’t read at all, and I had to repeat the information over and over again in person. It was a pain, but I can empathise. I’ve tried to read documents which made my eyes glaze over and it’s a struggle.
But some docs read like a novel. Why?
They emphasize different things.
Surface different facts.
They lay out information in a different order.
I adopted those tactics and my writing gradually became more compelling, my thoughts more clearly expressed, and I was more likely to get a response.
Everything is an opportunity to learn, even filing tickets for a bug. I’ve had tickets leave me scratching my head about what needs to be done, I barely understand the complaint! But other tickets clearly lay out all the important details, I immediately know what needs to be done. Guess which one gets fixed first?
Every time you see something a person has written, or said, or created, that’s a chance to learn from them. Don’t limit yourself to their ideas. Learn how they share them.
The writing class is over now, but I thank David for making me review all those essays.
It turns out I was qualified. And you are too.
Try it out. Read. Notice how you feel. Think about why. And copy the best.
Don’t just teach