No, that’s not the number of video games I’ve beaten in my life. And it sure as hell isn’t the number of women I slept with before my wife (that was less than 10).
It’s the number of articles I’ve written over a two year period on my site, and across the Internet on sites like:
- Roman Fitness Systems
- J Max Fitness
- Listen, Money Matters
That doesn’t count all the ghostwriting, emails, e-books, and social media posts I’ve written either.
I’m not writing this as some form of public masturbation about what I’ve accomplished (okay, fine, maybe there’s a little jerking off going on).
What spurred these thoughts are the handful of emails and messages from random people I’ve received in the last few weeks/months asking about writing. Most of these coming from people new to the world of online fitness.
This article serves two purposes then: 1) it’s a bit of a reflective piece for myself, and 2) it’s a piece I can now use when someone asks me about writing or content creation on the Internet.
So to the young bucks who’ve asked me about writing, here’s what you need to know about getting better as an Internet scribe.
Do the Work
How do you improve at anything?
Repetition. Repetition. Repetition.
It’s how you get stronger in the gym, how you get better at guitar, and it’s how you improve as a writer. The more you write, the more opportunities you have to improve. And that’s why if you’re an aspiring scrivener, you need to write every day.
Writing every day doesn’t mean you have to publish every day. But unless you completely excommunicate yourself from social media, you’re gonna write something. And as Tim Ferriss has said before:
“How you do one thing, is how you do everything.”
It took me a little while to learn this; and by little while, I mean one soul-burning John Romaniello “goddamn it” look before I realized that everything I write — Tweets; Facebook Posts/Comments; Instagram posts; Text Messages; Emails; FB Messenger conversations — should be treated with the same care and diligence I’d give any article.
There’s another reason why you need to write every day. The online world is saturated with content. And the way you make yourself stand out is to be really fucking good. Not mediocre; not so-so; not worthy of a gentleman’s C.
need have to be better.
And if you want to be better, you have to put in the work.
The simple act of writing every day, and paying attention to what you write—no matter the medium—generates awareness to how you write. And like the awareness that comes from tracking calories, you begin to deconstruct your own writing to see where you suck.
From there, you’re able to improve and get better. Because if you’re not getting better, you’re dying.
Vomit is Better Than Perfection
Some things write themselves.
You know it. You write it. Edit a bit. And, “voila!”, you’re done. But the deep shit—the words you bleed onto the page—sometimes need to come out in whatever way possible.
And if what comes out at first is incoherent babble, that’s okay—the first draft is supposed to suck. Everything sucks the first time.
Don’t try and be perfect. Let your sentences sound like the ramblings of a drunken madman teetering down Bourbon Street. That’s okay. Because you’re getting it out.
Most of the time, that’s the hardest part: getting it out. Your brain wants you to make it perfect; your soul needs to exude it; and your hands are sitting there stuck in the middle trying to placate both parties.
So nothing happens. You stare at a blank screen and tell yourself this is impossible.
Hemingway put it best:
Write drunk. Edit sober.
Let your soul bare itself however it sees fit. Then let your brain clean up its mess and make it sound better. Whatever you do, get the words down. Then go back and clean up the vomit.
The Building Blocks
Ultimately, writing is a lot like playing with LEGOs.
As a kid, I never claimed the rank of master builder. I pretty much built towers to see how high I could take them before I had my action figures demolish them.
But you can build some amazing shit out of LEGOs. And words are kind of like LEGOs. (And yes, you can choke on both.)
When you write a sentence and break it down—not only grammatically but visually (or how it flows when you read it)—you’ll begin to see how you can alter the structure, meaning, and cadence of a sentence with punctuation or changes in vocabulary.
Take the sentence below that I pulled from my first draft:
There are hard rules about grammar. And you need to know the rules—master them, actually—before you can break them.
If you look at this sentence as LEGOs, and punctuation and vocabulary as LEGO pieces, you’ll begin to see how you can add or change certain pieces that change the sentence completely.
Add a comma after the word “and,” and it adds a slight pause and emphasis for needing to know the rules:
There are hard rules about grammar. And, you need to know the rules—master them, actually—before you can break them.
You could also replace the em dash with parenthesis, which makes the words “master them, actually” more like an aside. But parentheticals only work when you’re able to remove the words within them without jacking up the sentence. In this case, it does; but to me, it loses a bit of oomph.
There are hard rules about grammar. And you need to know the rules (master them, actually) before you can break them.
There are hard rules about grammar. And you need to know the rules before you can break them.
Those small tweaks to punctuation change how you read the words in your mind or out loud. And if you wanted to change the cadence of the sentence, you could do so by adding a few more periods.
There are hard rules about grammar. And you need to know the rules. Master them, actually. Before you can break the rules.
(“them” needed to be changed to “the rules,” otherwise, that would have been a sentence fragment)
I don’t proclaim to be a grammar master. I’m still learning. But, I am experimenting with how to structure sentences, and when, what, and where the right punctuation should go to change the rhythm, emphasis, or spirit of a sentence.
Like the LEGO towers that my action figures shattered in my youth, sometimes a laconic sentence is more useful:
Master the hard rules of grammar, before you break them.
Read a Book, Read a Book, Read a Motherfucking Book
Before 2016, I’d read a total of 25, maybe 30 books. Last year, I read 27.
And besides the fact that many of those 27 books inspired articles or emails, the biggest lesson I learned from reading more books is that it makes you a better writer. Why?
If for no other reason than it’s research. Sure, you’re learning new ways to improve yourself or your business or diving deep into an exciting world full of interesting characters, but more than that, it allows me—as a writer—to see how the best wordsmiths craft their work.
- How do they create tension and mood within their writing?
- Why did they choose to use an em dash and not a comma?
- When, how, or why did they change cadence, and how did that change impact me?
- What words do these authors use that will expand my 6th-grade lexicon?
I love reading now. It’s the first thing I do every day. And it’s the one thing I feel—next to writing every day—that’s improved my skills the most.
Write By Hand
(Confession: I wrote this entire section on my phone while on the subway in NYC.)
Listen, I’ll be the first to admit, my penmanship is grotesque. Doctors have better handwriting than I do. Still, something happens when you write by hand.
Over the last decade, a few studies have even shown that there’s a clear distinction between writing by hand or on a keyboard. For instance, one study showed that the brains of children “lit up” when asked to write a word by hand vs using a computer. And some doctors believe that as you age, it’s better to write by hand because it improves motor skills, memory, and acts as a good cognitive activity as you age.
I can read the science and I can agree with most of it. But, for me, writing by hand—even the simple act of taking notes while listening to a podcast or reading an article—spurs something more visceral and taps into a creative vein in my mind that writing in Google Docs or iNotes can’t.
That doesn’t mean I write every word of an email, an article, or social media post by hand. 65-70% of what I write is done electronically. But the stuff that burns, that scratches at my soul, and threatens to haunt me if I don’t put it down, comes out on paper.
Where a word processor has distractions like a toolbar or even the ability for you to open another tab and check Facebook/email, what you write on paper stabs you in the eyes—forcing you to examine and come to terms with what’s on the page.
You can erase it and change it, sure. But the remnants of it—the shadow of your erasures or the strike through of your pen—stare back at you and remind you that those are words you wrote; words you believe.
There’s a cathartic connection—a bleeding—that happens when your mind connects with your hand; you struggle less and write more truthfully.
The Best Form of Flattery
Imitation does not mean plagiarization.
Do. Not. Steal.
That’s wrong, and if you do it, you’re a douche-canoe.
(Douche-canoe is something my friend Aadam says all the time—yes, he has two A’s in his name, that’s not a spelling error. And though I could have made you think I invented the funny word “douche-canoe,” I did not. Aadam did. See, I’m giving him credit and not stealing it.)
When I taught myself how to play the guitar, the first songs I played weren’t my own. I played everyone else’s. And when I did decide to write my first song(s), I imitated the chord progressions from the artists I was listening to at the time. (Thanks, Howie Day.)
But that’s how everyone who picks up a guitar starts their career.
You play Bob Dylan, Deep Purple, Hootie and the Blowfish, and once you’ve nailed the basic chord progressions of your favorite songs, then you’re more likely to experiment and find your voice and create your own music.
And in a lot of ways, that’s what I’ve done as a writer. Writers that I admire and find extremely engaging have been the ones I’ve tried to imitate. Not because I want to be them. But because I needed to play their chords to find my voice.
That’s one of the first things I’ve told anyone who has asked me for writing advice:
“take something you want to write, and write it as if your favorite author wrote it.”
Examine how they use and shape words. And then try and play their song.
But please, don’t steal. There’s a difference between stealing and imitating.
How to Unblock Writer’s Block
This is the 2nd time, and it won’t be the last, that I’ve mentioned Roman in this article. And it might sound like I’m sucking his dick a little bit (I am), but without Roman, there is no Side Quest Fitness; and really there’s no Robbie Farlow as I stand now.
But when it comes to writing, Roman knows his shit. And he often posts tidbits about the (or his) writing process on Facebook or Instagram. When he does, it’s fucking gold; and I hoard it in a secret folder on my phone.
For instance, this is is a screenshot of a comment he left my friend Aadam Ali when Aadam was struggling with writer’s block.
“So Robbie, what do you do when you have writer’s block?”
My usual response to this question is that I throw on some Dashboard, cast myself on the floor, and scream the lyrics to the heavens while I beseech my muse to return. I’m like half joking when I say that. (Half.)
The other half involves one or two of the following, and these are usually what I recommend others do as well:
- Take a walk
- Listen to a podcast
- Write something other than fitness
- Film yourself speaking about what you’re trying to write. Walk around your room with a camera on and just record yourself talking about what you want to say.
- Drink whiskey
- Play video games
- Learn a new song on the guitar
- Take a shower
- Sing This Bitter Pill as loud as possible
Writer’s block, for me, is usually a sign that I’m fighting something I should be writing. Or that I’m trying to make it “perfect,” instead of vomiting my soul on the page.
Writing What You Know
Before I ever decided to become a trainer or even launch my coaching business, I read articles by the giants in the industry. And these guys are smart. Like, the best of the best. But I’m no Tony Gentilcore, Dean Somerset, Dan John, or Ben Bruno.
Those guys dive deep into the science behind how the body works while you lift. But, me?
I love reading anything written by the best of the best, and (for the most part) I understand the super-sciency terminology they use.
But my friends who first came to me and asked about getting in shape, probably don’t. And the clients I work with don’t really care about the science either. What they want are the exercises that help them feel better, move better, and look better naked.
And it’s my job to take the knowledge I have, and that I continue to seek, and add a bit of a nerdtastic flare to it—providing my readers and clients with a frame of reference they connect with, be it video games, comics, Star Wars, or sports.
Those four things above are what I know. They are who I am; and the lens through which I view the world around me.
I don’t know everything about kinesiology. But, I do know how to connect diet to Indiana Jones, motivation to Lord of the Rings, leadership to Call of Duty, and pretty much everything else to Star Wars or my love for UNC basketball.
So that’s what I’m gonna write about. Oh, and Buffy.
It’s Not the Tool, It’s How You Use It
Before I joined the Roman Fitness Systems Mastermind, I remember having a long conversation with Tanner Baze about how we hated reading sales copy. We felt dirty. Icky.
Like the words we were reading were written by He Who Shall Not Be Named himself.
God, were we stupid.
We were looking at copywriting all wrong. Or, at least, I was (I don’t know about ole dtbaze).
Because the truth is, all writing is copywriting.
Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Rothfuss, King, Shakespeare, every single author who has ever written a story or a screenplay, was, essentially, writing sales copy.
Copywriting—in the sales realm—has one primary goal: to get you to buy whatever product the ad is selling.
And if it’s good copy, each word will sell you on reading the next line in the sales ad until you buy.
Oh, shit. That’s exactly what good authors do as well.
Each line sales you on reading the next line. Why else would you read a gigantic 1,200-page book if you weren’t buying each line and spending the only currency you can’t get back: time.
And of course there’s bad, smarmy, snake-oily sales copy out there that makes a ton of money selling bullshit.
But hey, someone made a gazillion dollars writing Twilight fan fiction that then became a best-selling series and Hollywood film franchise. So sometimes evil wins. And yes, you can use the power of words in 50 different shades of evil to sell bullshit.
Or, you can learn to harness the power and use it for good. And that’s what a good writer, or copywriter, would do: use words for the betterment of humanity.
Penis Pen is Mightier
Truth is: I’ve always been a writer.
I wrote my first story on a piece of cardboard I pulled from a trash bin. It wasn’t very good. It sounded like a five-year-old wrote it. Because a five-year-old did write it.
But I stopped writing around the time I got a Nintendo. And only picked the pen back up when I fell in love with poetry as a teen.
My years as a poet ended when a few friends accused me of being a bit too emo (whatever the fuck that means). And from that point, the only writing I engaged in were the mandatory papers I had to write in high school or college.
Secretly, though, I missed writing.
I may never be a Hemingway. Or a Strauss. And I sure as hell won’t ever be a Shakespeare. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t, or shouldn’t write.
Writing every day for two years has improved my quality of life.
I don’t wake up and despise the morning anymore. My thoughts are more clear. I’ve taken more stock into what I think and believe because I’ve been forced to write them down and confront those words face-to-face.
And, above all, I’ve found something that’s galvanized my soul and that I’m driven to improve upon every, single, day.
So if you’re an aspiring writer, whether you want to write fitness blogs, short stories, or a novel. Do one thing, and one thing only—write.
Write like a motherfucker. Then, continually look for ways to improve. Study the authors you read and imitate their style. Treat every word you write on social, in text messages, or in your journal as if it were being published in The New York Times.
And as the great Romaniello once said:
Don’t let the idea of “what your writing may become” interfere with the process of actually writing it.