Writing Coherently At ScaleRead time in minutes: 11
As someone who does a lot of writing, I have been asked how to write about things. I have been asked about it enough that I am documenting this here so you can all understand my process. This is not a prescriptive system that you must do in order to make Quality Content™️, this is what I do.
The Planning Phase
To start out the process of writing about something, I usually like to start with the end goal in mind. If I am writing about an event or technology thing, I'll start out with a goal that looks something like this:
Explain a split DNS setup and its advantages and weaknesses so that people can make more informed decisions about their technical setups.
It doesn't have to be very complicated or intricate. Most of the complexity comes up naturally during the process of writing the intermediate steps. Think about the end goal or what you want people to gain from reading the article.
I've also found it helps to think about the target audience and assumed skills of the reader. I'll usually list out the kind of person that would benefit from this the most and how it will help them. Here's an example:
The reader is assumed to have some context about what DNS is and wants to help make their production environment more secure, but isn't totally clear on how it helps and what tradeoffs are made.
State what the reader is to you and how the post benefits them. Underthink it. It's tempting to overthink this, but really don't. You can overthink the explanations later.
Once I have an end goal and the target audience in mind, then I make an outline of what I want the post to contain. This outline will have top level items for generic parts of the article or major concepts/steps and then I will go in and add more detail inside each top level item. Here is an example set of top level items for that split DNS post:
- Introduction - Define split DNS - How split DNS is different - Where you can use split DNS - Advantages of split DNS - Tradeoffs of split DNS - Conclusion
Each step should build on the last and help you reach towards the end goal.
After I write the top level outline, I start drilling down into more detail. As I drill down into more detail about a thing, the bullet points get nested deeper, but when topics change then I go down a line. Here's an example:
- Introduction - What is DNS? - Domain Name Service - Maps names to IP addresses - Sometimes it does other things, but we're not worrying about that today - Distributed system - Intended to have the same data everywhere in the world - It can take time for records to be usable from everywhere
Then I will go in and start filling in the bullet tree with links and references to each major concept or other opinions that people have had about the topic. For example:
- Introduction - What is DNS? - Domain Name Service - https://datatracker.ietf.org/doc/html/rfc1035 - Maps names to IP addresses - Sometimes it does other things, but we're not worrying about that today - Distributed system - Intended to have the same data everywhere in the world - It can take time for records to be usable from everywhere - https://jvns.ca/blog/2021/12/06/dns-doesn-t-propagate/
These help me write about the topic and give me links to add to the post so that people can understand more if they want to. You should spend most of your time writing the outline. The rest is really just restating the outline in sentences.
Writing The Post
After each top level item is fleshed out enough, I usually pick somewhere to start and add some space after a top level item. Then I just start writing. Each top level item usually maps to a few paragraphs / a section of the post. I usually like to have each section have its own little goal / context to it so that readers start out from not understanding something and end up understanding it better. Here's an example:
If you have used a computer in the last few decades or so, you have probably used the Domain Name Service (DNS). DNS maps human-readable names (like
google.com) to machine-readable IP addresses (like
184.108.40.206). Because of this, DNS is one of the bedrock protocols of the modern internet and it usually is the cause of most failures in big companies.
DNS is a globally distributed system without any authentication or way to ensure that only authorized parties can query IP addresses for specific domain names. As a consequence of this, this means that anyone can get the IP address of a given server if they have the DNS name for it. This also means that updating a DNS record can take a nontrivial amount of time to be visible from everywhere in the world.
Instead of using public DNS records for internal services, you can set up a split DNS configuration so that you run an internal DNS server that has your internal service IP addresses obscured away from the public internet. This means that attackers can't get their hands on the IP addresses of your services so that they are harder to attack. In this article, I'm going to spell out how this works, the advantages of this setup, the tradeoffs made in the process and how you can implement something like this for yourself.
In the process of writing, I will find gaps in the outline and just fix it by writing more words than the outline suggested. This is okay, and somewhat normal. Go with the flow.
I expand each major thing into its component paragraphs and will break things up into sections with markdown headers if there is a huge change in topics. Adding section breaks can also help people stay engaged with the post. Giant walls of text are hard to read and can make people lose focus easily.
Another trick I use to avoid my posts being giant walls of text is what I call "conversation snippets". These look like this:
I use them for both creating Socratic dialogue and to add prose flair to my writing. I am more of a prose writer by nature, and I find that this mix allows me to keep both technical and artistic writing up to snuff.
Just flesh things out and progressively delete parts of the outline as you go. It gets easier.
Writing The Conclusion
I have to admit, I really suck at writing conclusions. They are annoying for me to write because I usually don't know what to put there. Sometimes I won't even write a conclusion at all and just end the article there. This doesn't always work though.
A lot of the time when I am describing how to do things I will end the article with a "call to action". This is a few sentences that encourages the reader to try the thing that I've been writing about out for themselves. If I was turning that split DNS article from earlier into a full article, the conclusion could look something like this:
If you want an easy way to try out a split DNS configuration, install Tailscale on a couple virtual machines and enable MagicDNS. This will set up a split DNS configuration with a domain that won't resolve globally, such as
hostname.example.com.beta.tailscale.net, or just
I use this in my own infrastructure constantly. It has gotten to the point where I regularly forget that Tailscale is involved at all, and become surprised when I can't just access machines by name.
A split DNS setup isn't a security feature (if anything, it's more of an obscurity feature), but you can use it to help administrate your systems by making your life easier. You can update records on your own schedule and you don't have to worry about outside attackers getting the IP addresses of your services.
I don't like giving the conclusion a heading, so I'll usually use a horizontal
<hr />) to
break it off.
This is how I write about things. Do you have a topic in mind that you have
wanted to write about for a while? Try this system out! If you get something
that you like and want feedback on how to make it shine, email me at
iwroteanarticle at xeserv dot us with either a link to it or the draft
somehow. I'll be sure to read it and reply back with both what I liked and some
advice on how to make it even better.