Thirty Minutes a Day

In this week’s TechFlash podcast, Todd Bishop asks me how I find the time to blog. I said that writing is how I develop a point of view, and that having a point of view is part of my job.

It’s a bit like trapping a soccer ball. You’re taught to trap the ball dead to your feet, but it’s easier and more aggressive to knock the ball in the direction you’re already moving.

In the same way, developing a point of view gets you moving in one direction, which usually sets everyone else on the field — customers, competitors, the media — chasing after you. I’ve always thought this is the secret to Michael Arrington’s success, that while everyone else is trying to absorb the news, he can re-direct its energy on goal.

So it’s worth my time to blog, but the trick is finding the time. I blog very early and very late at night, because I love it, whenever I can. I’m not Raymond Carver but I often think of him writing short stories inside a locked car, while his kids banged on the windows. I try not to write at work.

And I write fast out of necessity, trying never to spend more than 30 minutes on a post. I do this in part out of necessity, but also because I’ve learned that the more time I have to spend on a post, the more likely it’ll just be a mess. It has taken me years to write simple, fast blog posts. I try to think like a skier and take the fall line through an idea.

Here are a few tricks for doing just that:

  1. Have a point of view before you start. I got the idea of blogging at Jiffy-Lube speeds from one of my favorite bloggers, Fred Wilson. When he told me his daily posts take 30 minutes, I said “NO WAY.” He looked back at me coolly: “Were you asking me how long a post takes to write, or how long I have to think about it first?” I give myself an hour, and usually go on a run first.
  2. Come right out and say it: My twin brother reads my writing and often responds with the same complaint: “I’M TWO PARAGRAPHS INTO THIS THING, AND I STILL HAVE NO IDEA WHERE YOU’RE GOING.” A novelist once gave me similar advice about the opening page: “Let the s*** be flying.” A useful test is if you can’t state the gist on Twitter — not just what it’s about, but where you come out — you haven’t thought it through.
  3. Keep it short: 800 words is the length of a New York Times op-ed. These days, 300 words is what people really want to read.
  4. Use the basic tools of writing: use character, dialog, analogy, allusion — whether the allusion is to a poet or your favorite TV show. I just read a post about how start-ups are like the first ski run of the season, quoting a John Cusack movie on strategy (“Go that way, really fast. And if something gets in your way, turn.”) It was perfect.
  5. Get it out awkwardly & then make it exactingly right: sometimes I catch myself expressing an opinion without the proper caveats just because of the way it sounds. That’s rhetoric, not writing. Most of us actually prefer reading blunt, precise sentences stumbling through stubborn facts. Ezra Pound once said of Ford Madox Ford that he never hesitated to dent a pretty word or phrase to get at what he was really trying to say. This is what takes the most time.
  6. Be yourself: most writers try to take their personality out so it sounds proper. I like the goofy ones better.
  7. Just hit publish: the great political blogger Andrew Sullivan says blogs are like sharks. If they don’t move, they die.
  8. Focus on what’s new. For example, every company, including yours, was affected by Google Instant. And last Wednesday, everybody wanted to read about it. Every blog starts out like Jack Handey’s Deep Thoughts, with random treatises on leadership. Posts on topical events usually get more traffic, discussion and links.

Anyway, that’s what I’ve learned so far, but it’s still a struggle for me. I’d love to hear in the comments how others do it.

Discussion

  • Bahn

    still easier said than done… i want to ask the 5'7″ nate robinson how he dunks but i doubt it would help my cause.

    • http://blog.redfin.com GlennKelman

      Too kind Bahn. Eagles mating in mid-flight have probably never experienced the thrill that Nate Robinson has…

  • http://www.wac6.typepad.com William Carleton

    Wow! I love this! The style, speed and color in this post exemplifies exactly the advice you are imparting!

    • http://blog.redfin.com GlennKelman

      Thanks William. It's always nerve-wracking writing about writing, sort of like cutting a barber's hair…

      • http://www.wac6.typepad.com William Carleton

        I hear you! And yet it's such a fun craft, and when you enjoy it so

        much, you can't help but reflect on it . . .

  • http://www.Kens411.com Ken Brand

    I'm a slow writer. Love any tips that help speed and improve things. No doubt, thoughtful thinking beforehand is something I have to work on. I usually start with an idea, and flesh it out during the writing process, I like your idea of think it thoroughly first. Also, I find that what Stephen King said is true for me too, “Writing is refined thinking”. When I'm done writing something, I know exactly where I stand. Thanks Glenn.

    • http://blog.redfin.com GlennKelman

      I'm a slow writer too. Have you read Stephen King's On Writing? It's very lively and useful. He doesn't allow himself lunch until he's produced 2,000 words. Sometimes it takes him until 2 or 3 in the afternoon.

      • http://www.Kens411.com Ken Brand

        Yep, I've read his book, I thought the 1st half was sorta boring, the rest was useful. Of course, while he's writing all day, we're pushing string, herding cats and helping people buy and sell homes:-) The other thing I've learned is that I'm BAD at proofreading my stuff. I learned to read it out loud, and or proof it reading from the bottom up.

        I enjoy your style of writing, your personality beams right through, and your topics are in the realm of real estate, but you're coming from such an odd (unique) angle, there's lots to learn. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  • Cynthia Nowak

    Great tips! Another one I learned from you is the importance of the image: be unexpected, thought-provoking, funny. I, too, use my run time to craft a headline and lede, and then rush home to peck it out before I forget … or analyze it too much. Granted, lately my posts are about the joys of motherhood so there's not much controversy to consider. What I've found to be the most time-consuming part is picture selection. How do you factor that into your 30 minutes?!

    • http://blog.redfin.com GlennKelman

      Well hello there Cynthia! I'm a loyal reader of Nowak Nibbles so I think the student has become the teacher…

  • Dtuman

    I think people are either born with the skill to write fast and easy and some need to learn how. Even then, they sometimes never get there. And for many literary writers, who make it their job to write books and live on the written word, it's agony. As the late, great sportswriter Red Smith once said, “Writing is easy — just open a vein and bleed.”

    Love your posts, Glenn.

    • http://blog.redfin.com GlennKelman

      It's painful for me to write, even more painful to write fast, but I either do it that way or not at all…
      Love the Red Smith quote…

  • http://blog.redfin.com GlennKelman

    It's painful for me to write, even more painful to write fast, but I either do it that way or not at all…
    Love the Red Smith quote…

  • Karen Jones

    Glenn—you've given a great “recipe” here that we can all borrow from. I find that arranging words into meaningful writing is so much like putting together a great meal: use good ingredients, combine them in a thought provoking way without too much fuss, and produce a nourishing product. I always appreciate your writing, thanks for sharing your approach—Karen

    • http://blog.redfin.com GlennKelman

      Great to see you commenting on the blog Karen and thanks for the kind words!

  • http://www.digitalquarters.net Ben Elowitz

    Thank you for this. I envy how good you are at this. “30 minutes? No way!”

    –Ben

    • http://blog.redfin.com GlennKelman

      Hi Ben, mostly I just stopped trying to produce masterpieces, which I'm not sure is such an admirable impulse. When I want the good stuff, I go to your blog (Digital Quarters).

  • Rohan Dey

    I think this is where twitter have become so successfull for people who fail to write long but they do have opinion too, its easy to put your instant thought in just 140 chars.

  • Lawinc2010

    According to statistics, 80% of US corporations fail to maintain their corporate minutes. For such corporations, the failure to prepare corporate minutes can have devastating consequences. Without properly drafted corporate minutes, the separate legal entity status of your corporation can be discredited. Ultimately, without corporate minutes, the courts, the IRS, and other taxing authorities can allow plaintiffs, creditors and other entities to sue you personally for debts and actions of your corporation.