Tim Urban’s writing process

Tim Urban and I have one thing in common — we’re both master procrastinators. But he tends to get much more creative with procrastination than I possibly can! His TED talk is one of the most watched talks on the interwebs.

Hearing him on Tim Ferriss’ podcast last year made me his fan! The dude’s a genius in the making and is humble about it. What fascinates me the most is his writing process. I mean writing a 500-word post is a challenge… he writes posts that are 10/30/50/70 thousand-words long! That’s like a book! He doesn’t have a set routine like most content creators out there, but that’s what makes him more human. And he’s got his own reasons for that as well. (What do you expect from procrastinators?)

Anyway, I thought it best to save these gems I’ve gathered from across the internet for your (and mine, of course!) writing reference. I’m sure you’ll find these as useful as I did myself.

Wait But Why — The Mailbag

Can you share any advice on becoming a good writer? – James M. (Dublin, Ireland)

1) Write. I wrote 300 blog posts between the ages of 23 and 29 before starting Wait But Why. It can take a while to find your voice and your tone and your style. In the beginning, you’ll be all over the place, the same way you are when you try a new sport or video game or musical instrument. That’s good—you’re experimenting on a canvas. Don’t judge your own writing at this phase—you’re experimenting and searching and playing—you’re not doing your best writing yet. If your mammoth is freaking out too much and ruining things, start with an anonymous blog.

2) Don’t be a complete perfectionist, but don’t settle for writing you know isn’t working. Even if you’re experimenting, if something you’re trying isn’t working, try to figure out why, rewrite parts, start over and try a new approach, etc.—keep fiddling until it clicks. Each time you go through the hard, painful work of agonizing overwriting that isn’t working and eventually get it to click, you become a better writer.

3) Read a lot. It’s like fertilizer.

4) On one side of the spectrum, you’re completely copying the exact style and even the wording of another writer you like—let’s call that a 1. On the other side, you’re completely unique, writing in a way the world has never seen before—let’s call it a 10. Your goal is to start somewhere in the middle and then work your way up the scale as you mature as a writer. That said, having influences is inevitable and perfectly okay because true 10s don’t exist. This same concept applies to stand-up comedy, music, or any other type of art. It’s a badge of honor to say The Beatles are one of your influences, but no one likes a songwriter who’s blatantly copying The Beatles. Without getting to a 7 or 8 on the uniqueness spectrum, there’s likely a ceiling on how high your writing career can go.

5) While you’re experimenting with your writing, keep your mind open to all creative possibilities. The first 290 of the 300 blog posts I wrote in my 20s had no visuals. Only towards the very end did I try drawing something one night. And only then did I realize how much I liked combining hand-drawn visuals with my writing. That could have easily never happened, and if it hadn’t, Wait But Why would be an all-text blog today.

6) If you get feedback as you grow as a writer, be careful who it’s coming from. The person giving feedback should A) believe in you, B) be rooting for you, and C) be completely aware that what they’re reading isn’t your max potential but you experimenting, gaining confidence, and trying to figure out your voice. A person who satisfies all of those is great to get feedback from. Someone who fails any of those criteria is going to do you more harm than good, and will often be the person who makes you quit prematurely and never try again (even if you don’t realize they’re the reason that happened).

7) Remember that in most cases, the ideas behind the writing are more important than the quality of the writing itself. You’d rather have great ideas and pretty good writing than the other way around.

Tim also featured in a Pacific Standard interview where he briefly described his “secret sauce”

The posts are exhaustively researched and reported. What’s the process? Do you have any journalism background? How long do they usually take?

No journalism background, and I don’t consider myself having any particular journalism skill. The whole thing is basically a longer version of me going on some Internet spiral about some random topic and then telling my friends about what I learned later. To research, I start by opening up 50-100 Chrome tabs of articles, e-books, videos, and PDFs, and just working through them (opening up a bunch more in the process from links that are in the articles). Then I take the mess of notes I have from all that and spend a bunch of hideous hours trying to figure out what a post outline would look like and which of these notes would make the cut for that post. Then I do the actual writing, then all the drawing/visuals, then revision. The whole thing takes 40-80 hours per post.

I found this Y-Combinator’s interview that’s chockfull of (highly valuable!) advice and delves deeper into his writing process. Watch the video or review the notes for insights:

Here’s a detailed account of his writing process from start-to-finish. It’s got a chunk of information that you will want to chew on slowly.

“If you consider one through 10 knowledge on something, 10 is like the world’s leading expert, PhD’s get you to maybe seven or an eight, my goals is I’m starting at two or three, as a layman. If I’m a really curious layman, I’ll be a three, ’cause I’ve already known. And I’ll get myself of up to, like you said, a five, maybe a six. Becoming an eight would take years. I would have to focus in on one topic only.

“My goal as a blogger is after I’ve gotten to level six, to then package everything I just learned and the road I just went down, I basically look at the road I went down and said if I could do this road again how could I do it efficiently now. And how could I package this in a way that doesn’t just take someone down this road efficiently, and thoroughly to get them to where I am, but does it in a way more fun way than I just had. I want the reader to have a lot more fun.

“The question is about how do I go down my road to get myself from that two to a six. I start with Wikipedia, or general kind of Googling. What I’ll do is I’ll Google the question I have. If I want to understand cryonics, whatever it is, I’ll Google, “What is cryonics?” “Cryonics vs. cryogenics.” ‘Cause I don’t, you may all have heard those terms. And I’ll Google, “cryonics scam,” and I’ll Google, “Does cryonics work?” And I’ve heard Peter Theil said something. So, I’ll say, “Peter Theil cryonics,” and I’ll Google, “Alcor cryonics,” ’cause I heard there was a company called Alcor. And I’ll Google, “How many cryonics companies are there?”… “Cost of cryonics.” I’ll Google all of these, each in a different tab. Then in each tab, I’ll basically without even looking, I’ll just open every link, eight links on each tab. I’ll open up like 70 or 80 links. Among those are four different Wikipedia articles, and then a bunch of just articles written, secondary source kind of articles, written is Gizmodo and other places like that. None of those alone is an awesome source. It’s that on the whole, the group of those articles, will give me a foundational understanding. Wikipedia’s good for a foundational understanding. It’ll give me a foundational understanding.

“It’ll also tell me what the big opinions are. I’ll realize where the big disagreements are, where the kind of uncertainties are, and it just kind of like orients me in general. And I’m like okay, I now understand what I need to start learning even.”

I just loved his take on notetaking and how he synthesizes information. And here’s where he and I totally connect. We like to immerse ourselves in the research process (read a fleet of trucks’ worth information… as you’ll notice below) with one major difference — he eventually does resurface. I just drown!

I have a big document open that I’m pulling quotes that’s really interesting, or fact, or stat, or an opinion, and then when I see a counter opinion, I’ll find that opinion, I’ll put it underneath it into the document so they’re next to each other. And then I have a lot of thoughts of my own as I’m going. I’m suddenly bursting with thoughts, and I’m bursting with metaphors. I’m saying this is a lot like, or I’ll say cryonics is kind of like long term patient care. Or it’s like pausing you biologically, and I’ll just write it down, right? And I’ll write down all my thoughts as I go, ’cause a lot of the best ideas just kind of come out as you’re researching.

At that point, I have a foundation but there’s a lot more I need to learn. I’ll feel very insecure about my knowledge in many different of these areas. And I’ll just have certain things I don’t understand at all. I’ll have to go deeper. I won’t understand why freezing your cells is not good, but vitrifying is. I’ll want to dig deeply into that. I’ll just first look at why water expands when it freezes, and I’ll go read about that for a half hour. And then I’ll look at vitrification, and I’ll realize, oh, vitrify, we vitrify embryos and organs. How does that work? What actually goes on in the cell? What goes on in the actual atoms? What’s happening? Antifreeze, then I’ll go into how antifreeze works in cars to understand what antifreeze is, ’cause there’s an antifreeze type solution. Is it the same solution, is it different? And I just start going down rabbit holes after rabbit holes.

Then all start to understand what the best argument is for cryonics, and I’ll understand the science behind it. Then I’ll have my own thinking about how I want to frame how I can explain this. I’ll want to track my own thought process. I’ll go from skeptical to kind of like super excited to then a little less excited but a believe or something, and I’ll want to track that, ’cause I assume a lot of readers are going to go through that. I like to talk about where my own head’s at at the end of a post, because I feel like I brought readers here as a group discuss, even though I’m the only one in the room.

Then I want to go and do a hardcore session on the skeptics, what they say. I want to go and just Google things like “cryonics scam, cryonics won’t work, cryonics bogus science, pseudoscience.” I’ll just Google these things, and I’ll read as many articles as I can. And it’s not that I want to get to the bottom, especially a lot of times there is no bottom right now. The skeptics are many and they’re diverse in their viewpoints, but there seems to be some big fatal flaws, and it seems like the cryonics people aren’t acknowledging them or whatever. Or, you look the other way and you say, you know, actually the skeptics don’t really seem to understand what’s going on here. They seem to have a knee jerk reaction.

Some of them even talk about freezing a body, which that’s the first thing you learn when you read, is that’s not what’s happening. In which case, I’ll have a sense of them like, the cryonics people actually are seeming like the more serious thinkers right here versus the skeptics, or whatever it is. But I want to understand that too. At the end of that I have this huge pile of thoughts and research. And then I go onto the next phase, which is outlining, and the writing, and then drawing, and then revising. By the end of that, I know the shit out of the topic.

But when I’m really done, and especially since you then solidify it by outlining it and then writing it, and then discussing it, usually the next week, you solidify it. But by the time I’m done, again I’m not a true expert. I’m not going to advice a cryonics company on a new kind of technique to use. Nowhere near that level. But what I can do is basically talk to any laymen and answer basically any question they have. There’s almost no question at the end of that where I can’t, not just give you answer, but I can explain the science behind it, and I can explain the different contrarian views to the prevailing opinion. And this is just the internet.

One of Tim’s most popular post is his jibe on Artificial Intelligence. It’s one of the densest articles you’ll find on the internet. Yes, it’s so well written. You will want to print it out and read it over and over again. It’s that damn entertaining (and well written, of course!).

And here’s how he wrote that mammoth of a post:

(For) AI, I didn’t talk to a soul. I read three books, probably 200 articles, including, once you understand stuff well, then you want to get to some really hardcore science. You get to the papers, I started reading all these mindless boring papers. I read a bunch of philosophy papers on this stuff. I just got deep in. But I just read for maybe two weeks.

80 hours of reading and taking stuff out, you can get the pretty big picture, especially if it’s an industry that we’re not even sure yet is a species. We’re arguing about it. You can understand everyone’s viewpoints pretty well. And one good book like Superintelligence, in the case of AI, can give you a really, really great foundation right there. Then you can just kind of tack on information to that foundation, or poke holes in that foundation, and then you end up with a solid understanding.

And I should fittingly wrap this post with a Tim Urban quote (which quite explains why he does what he does):

A lot of people think they need to be great at math or coding. A lot of what we need are smart philosophers, smart people who can make great metaphors, people who can talk about ethics. It doesn’t matter what you’re good at. You have a role to play in this.

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