Why write at all?
May 10, 2019
An essay on why I hadn't started writing in spite of being aware of the apparent benefits it has brought people whom I admire.
People I admire recommend writing
I was listening to the Indiehackers podcast episode where Rob Walling tells the story of how he got started as a bootstrapped entrepreneur.
What stuck with me was that he seemed to attribute much of his success to writing a weekly essay on his blog.
Among other things, he shares how his writing allowed him to grow an audience which he would later leverage to launch his book.th
One reason this part of the story stuck with me is because it's not the first time I've heard it.
When you write regularly, good stuff tends to happen.
They are not claiming there to be a direct relationship between writing and beneficial consequences, like, say, between caloric intake and bodyweight.
No, they're saying that there is something about a regular writing practice which somehow results in you experiencing benefits you would have had a hard time anticipating beforehand.
What they are saying is that writing benefits you… somehow
Although Rob was able to leverage the audience he had grown in order to sell his book -- he did not set out to write with the explicit goal of writing and selling a book.
The book emerged from his consistent practice of blogging in public.
Nat Eliason also touches on this topic in a recent essay while discussing the success of a Kegel exercise app he developed:
I didn’t make Stamena until I saw how much traffic my articles were sending to the app store for someone else’s app. ...
When you already know you have a stream of people asking for a product, making that product gets much less risky. ...
This logic is probably why so much passive income advice comes out to some form of “start a blog!” That’s not terrible advice, but most blogs don’t make money. The better advice would be “start a blog that talks about things people will pay for.”
Analogous to Rob's story, Nat did not start writing articles on Kegel exercises so he could sell a Kegel app.
Instead, through his practice of regular public blogging, that opportunity emerged.
Opportunities emerge when you write a lot.
That seems like a fair enough statement, but is there anything else we can say about why that would be the case?
Is it simply due to an increase in your surface area on the internet?
I suspected that wasn’t the case and I tried to figure out if perhaps there is more to a regular writing practice that would warrant this consistent, yet somewhat nebulous advice.
What can be said about how writing benefits us?
Writing without publishing helps us refine our thoughts and edit them
One way we think about writing is as a process where words are chosen and transferred onto paper (or a screen) in order to communicate an idea.
In this mental model of writing the idea is clear, all that is left is to find the right words to accurately map it into language.
This, as I've discovered, is not a very accurate mental model of writing.
A more accurate, and more helpful, mental model is one where you start with an idea that is not entirely clear, and in your attempts to capture it with words, sentences and paragraphs, it becomes more refined in your mind.
Prof. Dr. Jordan Peterson stresses this point in some of his writing and in some of his talks.
He describes writing as formalized thinking and refers to it as one of the most important things you can practice in life, in general.
You can find out more about his ideas on writing in a quirky little word document, an essay-writing tutorial for his students, which has been floating around on the internet.
In it he says:
The primary reason to write an essay is so that the writer can formulate and organize an informed, coherent and sophisticated set of ideas about something important.
The act of writing, he says, helps you formulate your thoughts. But he goes a bit further:
Why is it important to bother with developing sophisticated ideas, in turn? It’s because there is no difference between doing so and thinking, for starters. It is important to think because action based on thinking is likely to be far less painful and more productive than action based upon ignorance. So, if you want to have a life characterized by competence, productivity, security, originality and engagement rather than one that is nasty, brutish and short, you need to think carefully about important issues. There is no better way to do so than to write. This is because writing extends your memory, facilitates editing and clarifies your thinking.
You can write down more than you can easily remember, so that your capacity to consider a number of ideas at the same time is broadened. Furthermore, once those ideas are written down, you can move them around and change them, word by word, sentence by sentence, and paragraph by paragraph. You can also reject ideas that appear substandard, after you consider them more carefully. If you reject substandard ideas, then all that you will have left will be good ideas. You can keep those, and use them. Then you will have good, original ideas at your fingertips, and you will be able to organize and communicate them.
According to Prof. Peterson writing requires you to explore a topic and in doing so you are required to clarify and edit your thoughts.
You stand to benefit from clearer thoughts because actions rooted in clear thoughts will do more to bring you closer to your goals.
Writing is not like taking dictation from an internal thought stream.
This used to be my mental model.
It's inaccurate and unhelpful.
Writing is thought-refinement through exploration.
Writing and publishing increases our surface on the internet
This is the most straight-forward benefit and the one that is the easiest to intuit.
As you write more you increase the amount of space you inhabit on the internet, through which you are increasing the odds that one of your ideas reaches someone and resonates with them.
As a result they may interact with your idea, spread it, or both.
Writing about something makes it available to you when you are speaking
Sean Wes talks about this in this podcast episode.
The best [podcast] improv comes from writing.This podcast, a lot of what we talk about and a lot of things I touch on are things I've written about before. Sometimes I go off of my outline but most of this is just off the cuff with just a few prompts. And because I've written about things before it comes to my mind and even if it's improv it's still good.
He says that because he wrote about certain topics they come to mind during the podcast and he can speak about them off the cuff.
Writing and publishing gives us the ability to iterate on ideas
Once you've refined your thoughts you can take the additional step to publish them and invite others to interact with them.
Through these interactions your idea might evolve.
Everything you write and publish can be seen as the start of a conversation.
Conversations about ideas can allow you to iterate and improve on those ideas.
Starting a conversation about an idea may also tell you whether or not the idea is worth iterating on at all.
Through iteration, ideas may lead to opportunities (business or otherwise).
Thinking of a published piece of writing as a prototype has the added benefit of lowering the internal barrier you maintain for yourself when it comes to publishing.
Publishing our writing keeps us honest
Prof. Jonathan Haidt in his book The Righteous Mind explains how the public nature of the academic review process helps balance out the individual biases held by the researchers taking part in it.
The governing dynamic is that we behave differently in public compared to how we behave in private.
If we believe we are being observed and that what we say or write will be scrutinized by others, we are more honest and by extension more scientific. Writing in public contributes to us being more honest and accurate in our thought processes. The more accurate our thoughts, the more helpful they will be in aiding us while we navigate reality.
Adam Wathan touches on this in his Indiehackers interview. In it he explains how weekly interactions with his following keep him honest and keep him focused on making progress.
There is also something called the False Consensus Effect, a known psychological bias that affects all of us. What it comes down to is that we tend to overestimate to what degree others agree with our opinions. That is, until we publish those opinions and are able to observe those reactions (or lack thereof).
Writing and publishing persuades
Writing seems like it could leverage many, if not all, of the 6 principles of persuasion as identified by Dr. Robert Cialdini.
A valuable blog with a regular publishing schedule could contribute to the influence you wield through the principles of consistency, likeability, authority and reciprocity.
Increasing your influence may lead to opportunities or may give you the ability to seize upon them when they present themselves.
Writing regularly may help you hone this skill.
Writing will help you with your reading
Taylor Pearson says the following:
The more I write, the more I need to read. Last year I got really busy and stopped reading for a month. When I sat down to write an article, I couldn’t think of anything to say.
When I’m reading consistently, my ideas for new articles to write, new approaches to consulting engagements, or new things to do in my personal life turn into a torrent.
Was any of this really a surprise?
I was aware many successful people recommend writing.
I was aware a blog could probably increase the serendipity in your life.
I would have believed that there were probably multiple worthwhile benefits to a writing regularly.
Why, then, did I never start writing?
If it wasn’t a surprise, why didn’t I act on this earlier?
When I started writing this essay, I asked myself this question and no answer came to mind.
None. My mind drew a blank.
I didn't have a clear reason.
Or perhaps I should say, I wasn't clear on the reasons.
That is, until I started writing.
Through the process of writing this essay, answers to this question have emerged and have become clear.
This, as I’m coming to understand, is arguably the most powerful benefit of writing.
Writing is idea-refinement through exploration.
Here is what my exploration uncovered:
I never clarified my thoughts about why I wasn’t writing
Possibly the main reason why I wasn’t writing regularly is, ironically, that I never took the time to write about it.
Without writing about the question why I wasn’t writing, I never explored it in earnest, and never clarified my thoughts.
Now, after writing about it and organizing my thoughts on the subject, I am able to present them to you here.
I didn’t consider myself a “writer”
One of the first feelings I identified as potentially holding me back from writing is a feeling of not feeling like a writer.
Nathan Barry writes about this very feeling and perhaps it can be fully described as a manifestation of impostor syndrome.
Having said that, I never felt like I lacked the capability of being a writer -- a feeling I believe is a prerequisite to impostor syndrome.
Being a "writer" was not part of my identity.
Productivity expert James Clear talks about how identity forms the basis of behavioral change.
Lasting behavioral change, according to James, comes from a change in identity.
Change your identity and your behavior will follow.
Keep your identity unchanged, as I did, and your behavior will remain the same.
I didn’t think whatever I would do would make an impact
I didn’t think anything I would write could have much of an impact, because my reach seemed severely limited.
This is another thing that Prof. Peterson invites us to reflect upon.
He makes the case that we are connected to millions of people just by two or three degrees of separation.
Without appreciating the results of this simple thought exercise, we’re likely to underestimate our potential impact.
I certainly was doing so.
I felt discouraged every time I discovered I didn’t understand a topic
A second feeling I identified is something that occurs when I choose to write about a topic and I erroneously (and naively) assume that I understand it.
When, through the process of writing and trying to pin down an idea, I realize I cannot, I become disappointed.
I can sense my internal time estimation for finishing the article (or essay) as quickly growing and becoming increasingly uncertain.
Before, I might have thought I could finish the article in an afternoon, now I'm not even sure another day would be sufficient.
(This has happened to me a lot while writing content for my men's breakup advice blog and has happened multiple times while writing this essay.)
My inner talk shifts to: "Who do I think I am writing about something I don't even understand?", never realizing that uncovering and grappling with the unknown lies at the heart of what writing is.
Writing is exploring -- not taking dictation.
If you consider yourself an explorer, unknown territory is the norm.
I tried to connect the dots looking forward
Let's imagine we're speaking with Rob Walling back in his early days, right before he committed to writing on a weekly basis.
Imagine we were trying to convince him to start a weekly writing habit with full knowledge of the exact results it would bring to him and his career in the future.
Now imagine the argument we could formulate in that situation:
"Rob, you need to start writing on a weekly basis because it's going to lead you to launch a successful book (which you don't yet know you want to write) to your audience (who you don't yet know.)"
Even with perfect knowledge, not only does this seem like a strange argument to be making, it also doesn't sound very convincing.
This reminds me of something Steve Jobs said during his famous Stanford commencement speech:
You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.
The dots definitely connected for Rob, but he would only be able to make those connections looking backwards.
The serendipitous benefits of writing will only be apparent looking backwards.
This was never as clear to me as it is now.
How can I act on this now?
By writing about why I wasn’t writing, I’ve clarified why that was the case and why I should write going forward.
I want to write because I want to refine my thoughts on certain topics.
Above all, I am interested in improving the quality of my ideas and my ability to communicate them.
I want to write in public because I value accuracy and because I appreciate the power of iteration.
In writing this essay I’m also making a public commitment to writing and I’m also proving to myself that this is now my identity, laying the foundation for lasting change in behavior.
Lastly I have a new level of appreciation that any serendipitous opportunities that may come from my public writing won’t be seen looking forwards, only looking backwards.