Writing style

Was there a source for my writing style or was it self discovered?


Adapted from Gage Skidmore

My dad loves talk radio. I remember as a kid driving around with him and the car tuned to WGN an AM station based here in Chicago. One of the personalities the station hosted was Paul Harvey. Paul Harvey had a popular segment called “The Rest of the Story”.

I wasn’t in love with talk radio, but I enjoyed Paul. He always told some odd bits of someone’s story and concluded with the name of a fairly well known person he had just described.

The surprise made the stories interesting.

Murray Davis discovered this when he looked at what research papers spread more than others.

An audience finds a proposition ‘interesting’ not because it tells them some truth they thought they already knew, but instead because it tells them some truth they thought they already knew was wrong.

We love movies when the bad guy doesn’t hurt someone when we expect it. We devour books where the good guy unexpectedly turns out to be evil. We crave surprise.

And so a big part of my writing style is simply trying to surprise people.

Did you know that young kid who no one wanted to play on the radio turned out to be Justin Bieber? Or the two guys who struggled to become actors, so they decided to make their own movie instead, catapulting the careers of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.

On and on I’m looking for morsels of Paul Harvey/Murray Davis-like surprise. Is there something I can poke at that people currently assume? Or is there even something I can hold back through the course of the story that might surprise people at the end?

“Meanwhile, back at the ranch”


I remember a Chemistry class I had in college. There was this Teaching Assistant (TA) who collected Beanie Babies and decided to sell his entire collection for a pretty good sum. He did it because he wanted to use his money to buy his girlfriend an engagement ring. This has nothing to do with anything, I just remember that being something cool the TA did.

The TA was also the one to show me one of the first “viral videos” ever to hit the internet. It was a cartoon filmed with cutouts using stop motion animation of 4 kids swearing like crazy and Santa spinning Jesus over his head before throwing him across a field of snow.

That was the second ever short episode of South Park that Trey Parker and Matt Stone created in 1995. Today, South Park is one of the most successful cartoons in history.

I picked up a book once about writing. I can’t remember the name of it or the author of this chapter but it was all about an important technique the author used in their writing: weaving. Weave stories together. And that stuck with me.

I started seeing it everywhere. You see it in authors like Malcolm Gladwell, Simon Sinek, The Heath Brothers, South Park.

Wait, one of those isn’t like the other.

South Park’s season 21 premier weaves stories about Amazon’s Alexa replacing people’s jobs and a fake TV show called White People Renovating Houses. Back and forth the show moves from this group of people arguing about Alexa taking over the world and the remodeling show. Until they converge.

Some call this storytelling technique “Meanwhile, back at the ranch”, nodding to the days of the early silent cowboy films that needed to use subtitles to signal to people they were now literally going back to the ranch for the next thread of story.

But you see it constantly in the shows and movies you love. One thread starts, and before it reaches a peak, the story moves you to another thread keeping you in suspense.

The weave also helps in another form of surprise: showing you interesting contrasts between two things you might not have thought of being related before: Justin Bieber and ridiculous hard work, Stealing Cars and Frankenstein, Sansa Stark and building an audience.

Don’t get caught stealing

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

One of my favorite vloggers right now is How to Dad. He’s got a bunch of funny videos showing exactly what his channel’s name describes: weird shit he goes through raising his kids.

He’s been showing more videos recently of his daily life and you can see the things he’s “borrowing” from other vloggers. The selfie-sticks, the drone shots, the timelapses, the musical score. Except the musical score is now often him singing, playing the flute, or banging on his kids toys in his shower and recording the result. It’s a musical score unlike anything you’ve probably seen on a YouTube vlog.

He’s taken pieces of things that have inspired him along the way and added his own bits of creativity to make it truly unique.

Yes, I’ve been inspired by a great many people. And consciously and subconsciously I stand on their shoulders. But I make sure I’m only trying to take a piece of influence. I like his story structure. I like her use of surprise. I like how he uses narration in his videos. And I take all these pieces of things and merge them into a new whole adding my own unique bits.

For example, probably unlike many of my favorite authors, I spend an inordinate amount of time paying attention to People Magazine, Vanity Fair, and Variety. One, I try like How to Dad, to add my own ingredients. And two, because I think there’s some great lessons from those channels people haven’t explored past their surface.

Stop doing the same thing every single time

If I came home on a weekend from college, I would go back to school late on a Sunday night because my mom and I couldn’t miss watching X-files together after dinner on Sunday.

X-files was a fantastic show. Its peak season in my opinion was Season 5. That’s where they really stretched themselves creatively. They broke the usual formula of an episode and told stories through different main character perspectives, with different film making techniques, etc.

That’s how all my favorite shows have worked. Sure they often have a go-to style, but they aren’t afraid to change it up constantly.

And so there’s a style to my writing I reach for a lot, but I’m constantly trying new things and source material. Maybe tonight’s vlog episode is about the psychology of getting my daughter to swim and what that means for us as humans, or it’s simply a montage of the Highrise team enjoying our meetup.

I can’t stand formulaic output over and over, and so I’m always looking for new styles and mediums to use.

Do what you’re not passionate about

Photo by Lauren Peng on Unsplash

And finally, my writing style is a product of me being interested in everything. I don’t know if it’s something I’ve been born with, or something I learned from my parents. I played every single sport growing up from Figure Skating to Football. I enjoy Justin Bieber and Phish. In college I took classes in Thermodynamics, Philosophy, Advanced Calculus, and Acupressure.

I love variety.

And that’s a big reason I can’t stand things like conferences in my industry. We’re all doing the same thing, and now we’re meeting to all talk about the same thing we’re all doing? Yuck 🙂

My favorite conference/trade show I attended recently was a show in Food Technology. I didn’t have a direct use for any of the crazy robots and food packaging technology. But it was interesting seeing the trends in food product design and dissecting how they could be applied to other industries.

Everyone is so obsessed with doing what they’re passionate about. Spend more time on things you start with zero interest in. Become interested in just being interested.

So was there a source for my writing style or was it self discovered? Both. It was a lot of influence from people I enjoy and admire and also an attempt at being uniquely me.

Put those two things together in everything you do and it’ll take you far in writing, work, and life.

P.S. You should follow me on YouTube: youtube.com/nathankontny where I share more about how we run our business, do product design, market ourselves, and just get through life.

And if you need a zero-learning-curve system to track leads and manage follow-ups you should try Highrise.

Get to the point

It’s the single best way to improve your day-to-day writing.

If you want to consistently improve your everyday writing, there’s one really straightforward thing you can do…

Get to the point.

When you get to the point quickly, your writing becomes instantly clearer. Clarity makes your writing easier to understand, easier to retain, and more enjoyable to read. All of that makes your readers happy.

Here are a few pointers in how do do that.

Avoid the long windup

The long windup is the most common (and most painful) mistake I see when reading.

Common offenders are things like a grand introduction about yourself, a discussion of why your post is important, a massive outline, or a long setup story that buries a one-line reveal.

You don’t need any of that, and your readers don’t want it either.

When readers run into a long windup they either 1) skim to find the main point or 2) just leave. Either way they’re irritated and are probably going to miss the valuable parts of your writing.

So let’s avoid that by keeping the following in mind:

  • You shouldn’t have more than a couple short paragraphs before you’ve stated your main point. If you do, start editing.
  • If you have any of those offenders I mentioned above, cut them and re-read your draft. I’ll bet it’s far clearer and more effective.
  • Assume your readers are there for a reason. If they’ve clicked in, they’ve already expressed interest. Give them what they want, not a bunch of setup.

Here are a couple good examples of short intros and getting to the point:

A direct, well-written pull request by Conor.

Work ethic by Jason F.

Edit for your audience

While writing and editing, you should repeatedly ask yourself two questions…

  1. Who, specifically, am I writing this for?
  2. What do I want them to know when they’re done reading?

If there’s anything in your writing that doesn’t support your answers, it’s time to get editing. You’ll find yourself getting to the point a lot faster and more effectively.

For example, let’s say your answers are…

  1. I’m writing this for Ruby programmers
  2. I want them to learn a few tricks I’ve learned over the years

Bam. Your writing is instantly narrowed in focus. You can tailor your writing specifically to programmers familiar with Ruby. And you can jump right into the tips and tricks, not a bunch of basics about the language.

Be direct, not incomplete or cold

I want to be clear — getting to the point/being direct is not the same as being cold, unfriendly, or incomplete.

Getting to the point shouldn’t come at the cost of watering down your supporting case. Be direct and get to your point, then support your case and tell a compelling story. Be mindful though — don’t add fluff. Be precise.

Along the same lines, being direct doesn’t mean you can’t be friendly (especially in messages or emails). Being warm never hurts — how you say something still helps in getting your point across.

Practice (at the right times)

Don’t worry, everyone struggles with getting to the point sometimes. Every early draft I write has extraneous fluff that ends up getting cut.

The good news is that I (and you!) have plenty of opportunities to practice every day. Every time I write — a message in Basecamp, an email, a pull request, or a blog post — is a chance to keep working at it.

But let’s be honest, I’m not constantly working on it. There are times where I need my writing to be sharp, and other times I just need to get it done. That’s OK!

It’s hard, time-consuming work to do your best writing. So don’t worry about doing it all the time. You don’t have to polish every piece of writing. Instead, pick your moments and really try to nail those.

Remember, getting to the point means greater clarity, and clarity is king when it comes to writing. It saves time, avoids confusion, and enhances comprehension. Combine that with a strong supporting case and a friendly tone and you’ve got writing gold! ✍️💰

If this article was helpful to you, please do hit the 💚 button below. Thanks!

We’re hard at work making Basecamp 3 better every day. Check it out!

Rewriting bad writing

Become a better writer by taking a poorly written piece and rewriting it yourself

Once in a while I read something so complex and poorly written, when I’m finished I have no idea what I just read. It’s insanely frustrating.

While writing isn’t an easy skill, people make it way harder than it needs to be. They think choosing complex language shows skill and smarts.

It doesn’t! Writing plainly and clearly does.

Somewhere along the way, Jason Fried dropped a lesson on our team: if you think something is poorly written, rewrite it.

It 1) is a chance to learn 2) shows you’re willing do the work beyond complaining and 3) helps you think about how to handle a similar situation. Ultimately the exercise makes you a better writer.

Let’s do it.

Case study: A Mozilla project announcement

Below is an overly complex, hard to read project announcement. Try to fight your way through it. 😰 My rewrite follows.

Disclaimer: This is an isolated critique of a single piece of the author’s writing. It’s absolutely not about them as a person or their other work. I’ve written plenty of bad stuff too. Please feel free to go back and critique the hell out of my writing, it’s a good way to learn.

Mozilla’s version

Announcing Project Mortar

In order to enable stronger focus on advancing the Web and to reduce the complexity and long term maintenance cost of Firefox, and as part of our strategy to remove generic plug in support, we are launching Project Mortar.

Project Mortar seeks to reduce the time Mozilla spends on technologies that are required to provide a complete web browsing experience, but are not a core piece of the Web platform. We will be looking for opportunities to replace such technologies with other existing alternatives, including implementations by other browser vendors.

In order to keep costs low, we may use APIs internally that are not considered web standards. These APIs will not be exposed to the web. Solutions that both reduce our support cost, achieve the desired user experience, and make use of web standards will be preferred.

The project will start by investigating how Firefox handles PDF rendering followed by looking into lower cost approaches to providing Flash support as it’s usage continues to decrease. Project Mortar is currently investigating using the minimum set of Pepper APIs needed to support the PDFium library and the Pepper Flash plugin. If successful, this work will allow us to completely remove NPAPI support from Firefox once NPAPI is disabled for general plugin use.

Keep an eye on https://wiki.mozilla.org/Mortar_Project for status and future updates for this project.

Here are the main problems with this announcement:

  1. Its super long sentences are hard to parse and understand.
  2. It uses a lot of impersonal third-person language.
  3. There’s too much detail/fat drowning out the main message.

Let’s fix those and see what we can learn.

My version

Today we’re launching Project Mortar.

The goal: advance the web by reducing Firefox’s complexity and long-term maintenance.

We all want to make the best browsing experience for our users. That means we need to spend less time building non-core web components. Especially when we can replace them with existing alternatives.

We’ll keep our eyes open for the best options, like those based on web standards. Occasionally we may need to use our internal, closed APIs. Together they’re our best chance at reducing support costs while still giving users a great experience.

We’ll start with two major areas in Firefox — PDF rendering and Flash.

We’re starting with PDFium and Pepper Flash as possible replacements. We’re currently looking at what Pepper APIs we need to pull this off. If all goes well, we can completely remove NPAPI support after it’s disabled for general plugin use.

We’ll continue to post updates on the project wiki.

As always thanks for reading and for your continued support!

I don’t mean to pat myself too hard on the back, but I think that’s a a lot clearer and easier to understand. 😉

What do you think? Better or worse? What did I do right or wrong?

Write your version in the comments below and let’s discuss — remember, it’s a good way to learn!

If this article was helpful to you, please do hit the 💚 button below. Thanks!

Writing is a big part of what we do at Basecamp. It plays an important role in making Basecamp 3 and its companion Android app as great as they can be. Check ’em out!