Modular Writing

I love Lego. 

You don’t need more than 2-3 Lego bricks to create an abstract mini-model. With a bit of imagination, even a single brick can become a dog, a house, a car, an airplane, or a person. In no time, you forget the plastic bricks, and the model becomes alive. But you can use the same bricks to build more detailed and elaborated models. The largest Lego models are made of thousands of bricks. When you observe such an impressive structure, it seems like every Lego brick has its designated place — as if it was made to fit precisely there. In most cases, the bricks are the same generic, abstract pieces you would have used in your imaginative play. 

When you think about the concept you are trying to represent with Lego, you can also play with different scales and resolutions. You can capture an idea with just a few Lego bricks. Of course, it will be highly abstract. Most details will be obscured. Many will be left to the player’s imagination or considered less critical. But the same concept can be captured by thousands of Lego bricks, with fine details and great depth. It is as if each Lego brick is expanded and replaced by dozens or hundreds of building blocks. The magical thing about Lego is that you can always take your model apart and reuse the bricks for a new play. 

I love Lego. Whether you play with the basic set of bricks or build a giant model using a detailed instruction book, the bricks are designed for limitless options. Any two Lego bricks can connect in multiple ways, and the more bricks you have, the more combinations you can create. The simplicity of the Lego bricks makes them the universal metaphor for modularity. 

Our default writing experience is not even remotely similar to building with Lego. It starts with the way we read a text.

When we read a text, we see it in its final form. We see it as a monolith — words, sentences, and paragraphs that cannot be separated. Many texts are divided into parts, chapters, or sections, but we nevertheless treat them as linear in nature: we read them from beginning to end in the order they are prearranged on the page. We don’t typically start reading a book in the middle, and we don’t read an article starting from its final paragraph. From the minute we learn to read, we know we should start at the beginning of the text and progress forward naturally. Most of us think of writing in the same way.

For most people, the default writing process is simple: start with a title and a blank page, write and hope for the best, and refine later. Occasionally, we have a vague, high-level structure in mind, and we translate it into headings. But even in these cases, we jump right back to the top of the page and work linearly. Many people write linearly when they don’t really know what to write. They don’t have a clear notion of how to develop their message, and they hope it will evolve naturally as they write. More people use this approach when they do know what they wish to say. After all, if I know what I want to say, why not just say it? It just makes sense. Most people will do some processing as they write. But they apply this processing on the fly — while writing the text. When using this approach, deep editing and refinement are likely to happen after a draft is already written.

Writing what comes to mind in real-time with minimal processing and post-editing could work. But if you want to make the most of your ideas, you cannot rely on such a naive process. We should aim to maximize the effectiveness of the text we write and its impact. And the only way to achieve that is to intentionally create an effective design — a structure that will help us communicate our ideas better. 

And this is where we can adopt a more Lego-like approach. 

The Importance of Design 

How you communicate your idea is as important as the idea itself. 

Effective writing starts with having good ideas. The ideas you communicate are the value you provide your audience with, and the better they are, the greater the value becomes. No amount of good writing can cover up the lack of good ideas. At least not for long. But having good ideas is rarely enough. The same idea can be articulated in infinite ways. Some of them are more engaging, and some are less. Some make the idea simpler to understand and apply, while others might confuse the readers and throw them off track. You can write about the same idea in a way that will not leave any impression or in a way that will make it memorable and impactful. 

Your goal is not just to have good ideas, but to write them effectively and impact your audience. And when it comes to the way the text operates on the audience, the structure of the text, its design, and how it flows can make all the difference. 

Consider a 2000-word text describing an abstract concept, with just the last paragraph providing a vivid metaphor that brings it to life. Instead of creating this vivid vision in the readers’ minds from the beginning, this text is asking the readers to grasp something they still don’t know much about, just to prove them right or wrong at the very end. 

Consider a text full of questions and implicit potential answers. It might make the readers curious, but will they feel you have provided them with meaningful value if you just leave them wondering for too long? 

Imagine a relatively short text, breaking down a topic into no less than ten ideas. Will the audience consider it deep and professional, or will it create the impression that you, the author, are just all over the place, shooting aimlessly but not saying anything meaningful on any of the ideas? 

Many such questions and dilemmas don’t have a clear-cut answer. Effective writing is not science, and there is no single formula that works (although there are plenty of “formulas” that don’t). But many decisions you make as you write are design decision that can impact your audience. When you write naively, capturing your thoughts in real-time, you still make such important design decisions, even if you do it unconsciously. Considering these decisions, debating them, and evaluating different options is crucial in writing a compelling text. You won’t always have a clear answer, but the dilemma itself will elevate your writing. 

Of course, you can address all these questions after having a draft ready. Most people rely on the editing process to do that. But having this discussion after you have already written the text is the least effective thing you can do. Many of these decisions can affect the text dramatically and yield deep, significant changes. Once a draft is in place, you are already biased, if only because of the time and effort you have put into it. You are likely to fall in love with what you have written and be less inclined to change it. 

The best way to make better decisions about how to structure the text is to play with different options and see which works best. You have to experiment with other alternatives and challenge each of them, and you have to do that without investing too much in writing and rewriting your text over and over again. We need a modular way of playing with text. We need modular building blocks — the textual equivalent of the Lego bricks. I call these building-blocks Content Bits. 

Bits: The Building Blocks of Writing

A Bit is a piece of content that captures an atomic thought. Bits have many forms (or types). A Bit can be a statement, but it can also be a question. It can be a quote or a reference to another resource. There are visual Bits and textual Bits. Examples and metaphors are extremely handy Bits and are likely to be embedded in your text. When you write the lineup for a talk or a workshop, a Bit can be an interactive activity with the audience. Just as there are many types of Lego bricks, there are different types of Bits. 

Like Lego models, more elaborated ideas can be constructed from atomic Bits. The article you are reading is made of about twenty Bits. Now that you know that, you might notice them as you read the article, but to someone not familiar with this approach, a good essay will seem like a solid, monolithic text. 

This is the first Bit of this article, as I captured it when I was collecting my thoughts before starting to play with the design of the text:

The description of Lego bricks as a metaphor for the power of modularity is an atomic thought, at least the way I think of it. It could be useful in different contexts and for various purposes. But even if it was specific to this article, there is nothing in it that suggests where it belongs in the logical flow of the text. I decided to use it as the opening Bit of the article, but I could have decided to place it after describing the linear writing experience. It would still make sense logically, but I decided it would be less effective. 

Capturing this thought as a Content Bit enables me to play with it, move it around, try it in different contexts, and evaluate what works best. When combined with other Bits, such as The Linear Writing Experience Bit, it creates a more extensive idea — just like combining Lego bricks creates a bigger model. But I could have decided not to use this Bit or replace it with a different metaphor. After all, it is just one building block in the design of this text. Some building blocks are pivotal to the idea you wish to express, but many are interchangeable and designed to make the concept clearer, more engaging, and impactful. 

The key attribute of a Content Bit is that it can stand by itself. It might have less impact if it is not read in a specific context, but it is still meaningful. When you build with Lego, the building blocks are ready-made, and you cannot affect them — you can only use them. Content Bits are your own creation, so what makes an atomic thought is not always obvious. As we will soon see, this attribute will become part of how we play with Bits. 

Because Bits are atomic ideas, you can combine them in different ways. You can change their order, remove some and add others, and gradually shape the text you are designing. If you think about the idea you wish to communicate as a collection of Bits, you can experiment with different ways to deliver the message and see which design works best. Designing content using Bits provides you with the modularity you need to maximize its effectiveness. 

Before we understand the power of collecting Bits and playing with them, notice how Bits are written. As long as I am designing the content, I settle with just a couple of bullets to capture the essence of the thought. I avoid phrasing it and writing the Bit in its well-articulated, publishable form. For a visual Bit, I would probably use a rough sketch of what I am trying to express visually or a short description of the image I will capture later. 

Content Bits should be as lightweight as possible to promote experimentation and maximize modularity. I want to avoid investing too much effort in phrasing the Bits because I will probably not use all of them. And even when Bits are part of the final design, their phrasing is likely to be affected by the context in which I will use them. I don’t want to think about the final form of any Bit just yet because this will reduce my motivation to play with these building blocks and move them around freely. 

Keeping the Bits lean, capturing their core, but not much more than that, makes the design play highly efficient. At the same time, it allows me to reuse Bits across different types of content and different goals. 

Collecting Bits

You don’t really need to collect Lego bricks. There are hundreds of Lego sets you can buy with all the pieces you need to build a predefined model of your choice. But as anyone who bought more than one such set for themselves or their kids knows, at some point, different pieces from different sets all end up in one big box. And this is when anything becomes possible. 

When you have a collection of Lego bricks, your imagination kicks in. You start to experiment and connect different pieces in different ways until something works. Your collection of Lego bricks is the raw material for your imaginary creations. 

I aim to achieve the same when I am designing my textual creations. 

Before you can play with different ways to design your text, you need enough Content Bits to play with. To collect Lego bricks, you need to buy them. Luckily, Content Bits are free. 

The best way to collect Bits for writing is to start associatively. You start with the core idea you wish to write about, and then… anything can happen. A collection, by definition, is unstructured, and so is the act of collecting Content Bits. When you think about the core idea, whatever comes to mind is worthy of being part of this collection. Whenever you come across a relevant piece of information, an example, or a cool metaphor, you can add it to the collection. The Bits you collect are merely raw material. You will probably not use all of them, but for now, the more of them you have, the better. 

This associative exploration can evolve into methodological research. But even when it does, you can always add associative thoughts and ideas to your collection. Associative insights will help you enrich your text with unexpected connections and fusions. These unprocessed thoughts you collect can lead you to surprising discoveries, even if you won’t use them as is at the end. 

I keep my collection of Bits for a given content item unordered and unstructured until I feel I have enough raw material to mold into a design. Starting to organize the Bits too soon creates bias and might lock you into a particular path. Eventually, you will have to pick a course, but you might miss better opportunities and discoveries if you choose one too soon. The unstructured collection also allows me to add Bits on the fly as they emerge. The minute I have a thought (or a discovery) related to the text I am about to write, I open my Bit collection and add it. I don’t need to consider where it fits or even whether it is worthy enough. This approach invokes the way we naturally think and create. I don’t want anything to get in my way when I am still collecting Bits. Structure is crucial, but it should be introduced at the right time, and not sooner. 

The most important thing to keep in mind when collecting Content Bits is to keep them in a format (or on a platform) that will enable you to play with them later. The whole purpose of this collection is to promote experimentation, trial, and error. Using, for example, a Microsoft Word Document to collect Bits will not be effective. Moving them around, trying different flows and structures, or even moving a few of them aside as you consider omitting them, is too cumbersome using a standard word processor. 

This is an example of the Bit collection I’ve worked with when designing one of my previous articles. I used Miro and its virtual sticky notes to capture thoughts and ideas for the article. This cluttered collection is miles away from being an actual design of an effective text. But as a collection, it is perfect. It is lightweight, but even more importantly, it is incredibly modular. I can literally move Bits around, push them aside, and see practically all of them on one screen. New Bits emerge thanks to that layout, supporting my associative collection mode. 

As I’ve captured Bits for that article, some clusters emerged. I used them to arrange Bits visually around core ideas. It might seem like the beginning of a structure, and maybe it is. But at this point, everything is still open, and I continue to collect more Bits and try different clustering options. At some point, which is not always easy to identify, I create a new workspace and start to shape the structured design. 

Playing with Bits

So, we have a core idea and a collection of Bits inspired by it. It is mostly unstructured at this point. What we have at hand is far better than just having an idea and writing a draft. But, with this associative, unordered collection of thoughts, we can still miss the opportunity to design an effective and impactful text. Remember: how you communicate an idea is as important as the idea itself. So, instead of writing based on the unstructured collection, we will start to play with these building blocks. Our goal is to use the Bits to create an effective design that will help us communicate our ideas. It has to flow naturally. It has to be engaging. And it has to leave some residue — to resonate with the audience. Poor content design can kill a perfect idea and fail to deliver it. A good design will take an idea and make the most of it by reaching more people and to a greater extent. 

Playing with the Bits we have collected is an act of experimentation. It may seem like quite a detour, but any insight we come up with during this design play is far less costly than trying to communicate a good idea using poorly designed text. When you can consider different options without rewriting the text, you are widening the solution space. Instead of seeing just one alternative for articulating your ideas, you see numerous possibilities. The good ones will shine above the rest. 

By the end of the design play, we should have the text structure defined. We will know which Bits are in and which should be left out. We will know the location of each Bit in the flow. And we will have a good sense of what is the content of each Bit (not in its final, well-phrased and natural form, of course). When we manage to achieve that, the actual writing becomes fluent. When we are immersed in writing, we don’t need to consider the logical structure, struggle with finding examples and metaphors, or consider whether something is in place or not. We just need to write. We can be 100% invested in the phrasing, the color, and the tone of the text. 

This is an example of part of the design of one of my previous articles. The Bits are on the left, and the content of the highlighted Bit is on the right. Unlike the unordered, free-form collection, this view is strictly structured. It is linear and hierarchical, and every Bit has a well-defined location in the logical flow of the text. If you read the Bits in that order, you get a perfect sense of what the final text will look like, which is the purpose of the design. Writing this article simply meant expanding each Bit to its full-text form in the order the Bits are arranged. It wasn’t trivial — it still took a mental effort, but I dedicated this entire effort to the quality of writing and not the logical structure of the text. 

So, this design has structure and order. But here is the cool part of working with modular Content Bits. Before I finalized the design, I was able to try different options, move Bits around, and play with them with practically zero overhead. In this case, I used the Ulysses app for writing. One of its greatest features is how easy it is to move parts of the texts around. Unlike regular word processors, the concept of working with small blocks of text and playing with them is inherent to this tool. As I worked on that article, I changed the grouping of Bits, their order, and even split and merged Bits when I realized it makes more sense from a design perspective. And it was easy doing all that, just like playing with Lego is. 

Every so often, I discover that something is missing — that I need a new Bit to fill some logical gap, explain something further, or demonstrate an idea. Nothing prevents me from adding new Bits during the design play. Having enough raw material before starting the design play is essential, but new thoughts and insights can certainly emerge once you start playing. 

Ulysses and Miro are examples of useful, modular tools. But you can achieve the same level of modularity with a pack of sticky notes and a whiteboard. As long as the method and tools you use allow modularity with little or no overhead, you can arrive at outstanding and unexpected results in the design phase. 

One of the benefits of having a lightweight, modular design before writing the text is validating it. When I have a design I am happy with, I read it top to bottom based on the bullets I have captured in each Bit. I am literally reading the skeleton of the text before I start turning it into actual, vivid content. It is an excellent opportunity to see the complete picture and its logical details and verify it makes sense. I often make some changes as I read the design, and I have no problem doing so because even at this point, the changes are easy and inexpensive to make. 

If you share the design with friends and colleagues and validate it with them too, you will soon realize you can quickly perfect the way you are about to communicate your ideas. And the best thing is that you can do that before you immerse yourself in the actual writing. 

When we wish to communicate our ideas in writing, we want to sit down and write. It seems like the natural thing to do. Playing with modular Content Bits, experimenting with different designs, and considering what works and what doesn’t seem like an overhead, but the benefit is evident after you try it a couple of times. 

Meaningful communication has to be intentional. Dumping the ideas running in your head on paper can work occasionally, but it is not a repeatable, effective method for creating great content. If you wish to communicate your ideas and make an impact, you must either design your communication upfront or rely on costly editing once a draft is ready. You will have to do both in most cases, but the more thoughtful the design is, the less radical the editing will be. A good design enables you to focus all your writing energy on the words, sentences, and paragraphs your audience will eventually read or listen to. 

Modular writing enables you to explore possibilities instead of falling in love with the first draft you write intuitively. 

A side benefit of using modular writing is your ability to reuse Content Bits in different contexts and mediums. Once you have a logical structure of an idea and the building blocks that create it, you can take the same skeleton and build different types of content around it. 

I often use the design of an article or part of it when developing a talk or a workshop. Since the Bits are phrased just as key points, I can elaborate them differently depending on the audience and the goal of the specific content. Another common usage is to take one or two Bits and turn them into a short social post. The phrasing and the tone would probably be different. I might add a cool visual so that the post will be more captivating. But the essence of the Bit, its core insight, remains the same, just like using the same Lego brick as part of an elaborated model or a simplified, abstract one. 

Content Bit are the perfect building blocks to play with. With time, I build a grander collection of Bits — a grander Lego set I can play with and reuse as needed. 

Modular writing is useful for more than just long-form publication. You can use the same approach when writing a professional email to colleagues or when designing the agenda of a meeting. Any professional communication can benefit from collecting thoughts first, arranging them in a way that creates the most impact, and only then bringing them to life. 

It might seem like a considerable overhead for an email or a meeting. Some might consider it even an overhead when writing an article. But as long as you have a goal — a message you wish to deliver or an action you want to promote — intentional writing is better than its free-form alternative. 

The best way to deliver a message is to design it using modular building blocks and playful experimentation.


Try to identify two Bits in the article above. What is the core idea of each of them? Would you have placed them in a different part of the article’s design?


Think of an idea you need to communicate, whether it is in the form of a blog post, an email, a presentation, or a long-form article. Try the modular writing approach and experiment with at least two different ways to structure the text.

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yellow spice version: 2022.05.0017

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