The dotted line principle: Start today, fill in the gaps tomorrow

Herbert Lui
Published in
5 min readJan 12, 2016


There are a thousand ways to write. This is one way to do it.

Best of all, you can apply this method to design, learning, development, business, and even your personal life (if you so choose).

It works for me but will definitely not work for everyone. So take it with a grain of salt. Its main intent:

Work on what you believe will make it easier to work tomorrow.

For me, starting and completing a shitty first draft makes it easy to rewrite or edit tomorrow. It’s better in that it’s much more inspiring than the alternative, which is slowly slogging through a shitty first draft. Admittedly I am not a particularly patient man.

It’s easier to fill in the blanks than to start something from scratch.

When most people sit down at their word processor, they expect to get it right in one take. So they write and edit, and spend five minutes just on crafting the first sentence. Then they move on to the second one. No wonder writing feels like like pulling teeth.

Writing doesn’t have to take a long time. Here’s how you can do it faster, and better:

The Dotted-Line Principle

A friend of mine recommended Jake Brown’s book on Tupac’s studio process. As you can imagine, Tupac was extremely rigorous with his creative process. He fit a lot into his tragically short life. As Brown writes:

“Tupac knew how to turn any controversy to his advantage, but behind all the shit talking, the rapper worked tirelessly to keep the wheels turning on his very own mini-industry, which in the last eight months of his life would include an average of 3 songs recorded per PM recording session for a total of 150, 2 movies, 8 music videos, countless live performances and media interviews with print and television media, and in the end, $80 million in revenue generated in one-year from his watershed.”

He left behind so much music that almost two decades after his death, and several posthumous albums, there’s still plenty of unreleased music.

Tupac managed this astounding quantity by creating during extremely quick recording sessions. His combination of natural talent and high amount of practice meant that he could often express his words in one take.

When he messed up, he would fill in parts he missed with another track or layer of recording. Musician Shock G says:

“He came in there and said it how he felt it, and he’d be gasping for air, a joint in his hand. Smoking weed and Newports all night, missing words here and there. So the way he would do it, was like the dotted-line principle. When he would gasp for air and miss a line, he’d put it on the next track, and maybe he caught that word. So he would triple his vocals to make sure every word was said.”

Tupac quite literally filled in the gaps of his vocals. You can do something similar with your writing, or whatever you’re working on. Even though you might not get it perfect in one take like Tupac frequently did, you could complete it as soon as possible. The Game author Neil Strauss writes in a Reddit AMA:

“And with the first draft, just write and don’t stop to edit. Get it all out.

When you’re done, somewhere in that mess of writing, will be your book.”

Whenever you run into a sticking point (missing research, tip of the tongue words, too tired to think, etc.), mark the spot with a “TK”. (For example, “TK research Shock G’s bio,” or “TK rephrase (punchier).”

Then, when you run through your first edit, use Tupac’s “dotted-line principle” — command+F or ctrl+F “TK” and fill in the gaps between your lines.

For me, it’s psychologically easier to edit something (or rewrite it), than to start from scratch. The momentum is already there and I can see the finish line.

Outlawz member Napolian recalls Tupac’s words:

“Whatever you lay, we keepin it, go on to the next song. We don’t have time to play, we don’t have time to be on the song for 30 minutes.”

Similarly, if you’re writing, you don’t have time to get stuck. If you see a fundamental problem, shelf the idea temporarily. Work on something else and ship that. Let the original problem marinate in your subconscious. Think carefully and ship often.

Increased quantity means you also have more work to choose from. That means out of 50–80 tracks, you could pick 10–18 to make up an album. Out of 15–20 drafts, you can pick 3–5 to edit and publish further. Done properly and with enough quantity, it could improve your quality.

You Will Improve

When you’re starting out, your first drafts are going to be terrible. You’ll need to spend more time editing than you’d like. But at the very least, you will have something that you can publish if you really wanted to. You might also find that gem of an idea somewhere in your quick first draft. That’s a step in the right direction. British Poet Cecil Day-Lewis says:

“First, I do not sit down at my desk to put into verse something that is already clear in my mind. If it were clear in my mind, I should have no incentive or need to write about it. We do not write in order to be understood; we write in order to understand.”

Before I sit down to write a draft, I take ten minutes to think about my idea. In order to focus my thinking before writing, I created a framework called the content canvas. I use it to make sure what I’m writing actually matters to the reader.

Seth Godin relates writing to talking. We never get talker’s block because we’re not afraid to speak poorly. Sometimes we’ll say things that sound great, and other times we’ll sound stupid. It’s the same with writing. He writes at his blog:

“Writer’s block isn’t hard to cure.

Just write poorly. Continue to write poorly, in public, until you can write better.

I believe that everyone should write in public. Get a blog. Or use Squidoo or Tumblr or a microblogging site. Use an alias if you like. Turn off comments, certainly — you don’t need more criticism, you need more writing.”

The thrill of publishing reinforces your writing momentum. Reader feedback will make your work better.

Most times, you just need to start the dotted line. It might not be perfect, but it make things better for tomorrow. And, more importantly, it could be enough of a foundation for a really great piece of work.

Herbert Lui is the Creative Director at Wonder Shuttle, a content marketing agency that makes impressions instead of buying them. Their most recent product is the content canvas. It’s a framework that marketers and strategists use to create useful, contagious, content.

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Herbert Lui

Covering the psychology of creative work for content creators, professionals, hobbyists, and independents. Author of Creative Doing: