“What’s the secret of writing?”

The secret of writing is: Apply butt to chair.

“But what if you’re blocked? What if the coffee cup is empty, the ashtray is full, the page is still empty, and you’re cursing at the universe?”

Then the secret of writing is: Apply feet to sidewalk. (More)

Sticky Ideas, Part I – The Secret of Writing

As progressive Democrats, we need sticky ideas that people will hear, remember, repeat, and act on. So this week Morning Feature explores Chip and Dan Heath’s Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. Today we discuss ideas that are simple, unexpected, and concrete. Tomorrow we consider credible, emotional stories. Saturday we conclude with a Stickiness Clinic, helping each other put it all together.

As a writer, I’ve often been asked to talk about writing, and one of the most common audience questions is: “What’s the secret of writing?” I always give the answer I offered in the introduction: Apply butt to chair. Writing is a difficult skill, and like any other difficult skill we get better with practice. To write better, write more.

Applying butt to chair usually works. But not always. Sometimes the words just won’t come, and that’s frustrating. Like any other difficult skill, writing is even more difficult when we’re frustrated. At some point we stop thinking about the topic we’re supposed to write, and start thinking about why we can’t write that topic. The more frustrated we get, the more we think about why we can’t write … and the more frustrated we get.

That sounds like a loop because it is. How do you get out of that loop? Apply feet to sidewalk. Take a walk. Anxiety is a physiological state, and a rhythmic exercise like walking helps release the anxiety. That lets the ideas flow again.

The secret of writing is: Apply butt to chair.

And if you’re blocked, the secret of writing is: Apply feet to sidewalk.

That’s easy to remember. It’s a sticky idea. But why is it sticky? That’s what Chip and Dan Heath explore in their book. Sticky ideas share common characteristics. To start with, sticky ideas are….


Apply butt to chair. Apply feet to sidewalk. They’re simple ideas. But not simplistic. Simple does not mean “dumb it down,” “use sound bites,” or “go for the least common denominator.” Instead, it means finding the core of a message: the key that unlocks the rest of an idea, even if you’ve forgotten some details or the details don’t fit a specific situation.

The Heaths offer a military example called Commander’s Intent, such as: Occupy that hill to protect the unit on your left. That may be the first sentence in a detailed plan that includes routes of advance, known enemy positions, fire support targets, radio call signs, resupply points, and even where to place the battalion aid station. It may be a good plan. But as military theorist Helmuth von Moltke wrote, “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.”

Maybe they reinforced that hill, or moved their positions. Maybe they’ve decided to attack your position. You won’t know until your troops make contact, and then they will be very busy and very scared. Messages will get garbled or exaggerated. Units will get lost or disorganized. The details of your plan are quickly obsolete. But your intent – Occupy that hill to protect the unit on your left – remains. Even if your troops can’t reach you, even if their situation bears no resemblance to your plan, they can make their own decisions and look for other ways to occupy the hill. Your intent is the core of the plan: the key that unlocks the rest of the idea.

Now consider the first part of our progressive agenda: People matter more than profits. It’s a simple core that unlocks a bigger idea. The specific issue may be mine safety, health care, banking regulations, or minimum wage laws. The details will often be very complex. But the simple core idea – People matter more than profits – will steer us toward more progressive solutions. Sticky ideas are simple. They’re also….


The secret to writing is: Apply butt to chair? Shouldn’t the secret to writing be about a clear theme, or an outline, or a distinctive voice, or something “writer-ish?” Well sure, if you want to bore your audience. They’ve heard all of that before, starting in junior high school English classes. It wasn’t enough or they wouldn’t be asking you for the secret to writing! Our brains tune out the familiar and hone in on the unexpected.

Moreover, Apply butt to chair doesn’t quite answer their question. It hints at an answer. It’s like a treasure map that says: “To find the answer, start here.” The follow-up answer – Apply feet to sidewalk – is also unexpected, the next clue on the map. Sticky ideas invite us on a journey of discovery. They intrigue us like mystery novels or crossword puzzles. They arouse our curiosity, and that makes them more memorable. We may not be able to recall minute details out of sequence, but give us the start of the treasure map again and we can remember our path and what we discovered along the way.

Now consider the second part of our progressive agenda: The earth is our home, not our trash can. “The earth is our home….” You can already hear the distant choir singing Kumbayah. Yawn. But then … “not our trash can.” Whoa! Ick! No more Kumbayah. You mean our home … like my house is my home? Hrmm. I should think more about that. Its unexpectedness makes the idea sticky. But sticky ideas are also….


Apply butt to chair. Apply feet to sidewalk. Your butt is right there, as is the chair, your feet, and the sidewalk. You know how to sit. You know how to walk. Pick one and do it.

Contrast that to: “Writing is a cognitive skill and requires regular practice to achieve mastery. Should you encounter anxiety while writing, moderate exercise may release the muscular tension arising from the fight or flight response, triggered by the limbic system when we encounter stress.”

You can wake up now. That second part is both true and mind-numbing. It makes me sound like an expert, but you probably tuned out halfway through that paragraph. If my goal was to sound like an expert, I succeeded. If my goal was to share some useful tips for better writing, I failed.

Experts love abstraction. Indeed the ability to consider a problem abstractly, in terms of general principles and relationships between them, is what defines an expert. We need experts, but abstract ideas only stick for other experts. As progressives, we need messages that stick with Fred, our archetypal median voter. That means concrete ideas that let Fred see himself or someone he knows … doing something!

Again, consider the second part of our progressive agenda: The earth is our home, not our trash can. “Earth” and “home” are abstract, but “trash can” makes them concrete. You know what a trash can is. You have one at home. Suddenly “home” is “where I live,” and most of us don’t want our homes to look like trash cans. Now Fred can see himself or someone he knows … doing something: cleaning up the trash. That’s concrete, and it makes the idea stick.

Sticky ideas are simple, unexpected, and concrete. Tomorrow we’ll see they’re also credible, emotional stories. Like a story about writer’s block. I’d tell you one, but I’m already late….


Happy Thursday!