5 Lessons I Learned from Writing Online (Guest post by Susan Shu)

[ writing ] · 6 min read

When I first started my blog, writing how-to guides which I thought that less than 5 people would read, I could never have predicted how far it would come.

Writing this blog has helped me make friends around the world, be invited to speak at numerous conferences, and more. Many of these conversations started with “I really enjoy reading your blog, Susan!”

Behind the scenes, it is tough work. Even after a year of writing and posting weekly, I’m still learning. I still struggle with deciding on a topic to write about, wondering if I’m really someone that knows enough about the topic. I still look at my articles and see too many ways to improve them.

Overall, I am happy and grateful about my writing trajectory so far, and here I will share the top 5 lessons I learned from writing in public with you.

Lesson 1: Five imperfect sentences are better than zero

In the beginning, it took me weeks to write one single post, and I would spend yet another week or more on editing the posts again and again.

Eventually I settled on a process to write faster, including learning to avoid using backspace during my first drafts. This technique helps to separate the idea generation phase from the idea destruction phase (editing), which prevents me from getting stuck.

This habit of resisting the urge to edit and polish as I write, has done wonders for my writing speed - not only for my blog writing, but also for making slides, preparing conference talk material, and so on.

Lesson 2: Getting started » anything else

Before I published my very first blog post, I hesitated for a long while. I wondered if it would be an embarrassing piece of writing, and doubted whether I should post it in the first place. In the end, the hope that “this blog post might be helpful to someone” won out.

Overcoming that first hurdle was inexplicably difficult, but it felt like a weight off my shoulders once I had posted my first piece of writing. If you are interested in writing (and posting it), but are feeling shy, getting started is the best way to overcome that.

It’s much easier to get started with a topic that interests you, not what you think “would be popular” or that “the most people would want to read”.

If long form posts aren’t necessarily your favorite to create, and is preventing you from getting started, you could try a recipe-like guide, a bullet point list, or a post in image form, etc. They could be Tweets, LinkedIn posts, or shorter form writing. You could create a plan for a video post on any video-based social media platform as well!

The medium with which you want to create is fair game for experimenting with, so that you can get started, and find your “zone of genius”.

Lesson 3: Writing for the “me of 3 years ago”

As I’m sure fellow writers and aspiring writers (you’re way closer than you might think!) can relate to, it’s difficult to find topics to write about, even after overcoming the initial hurdle of writing in the first place.

What I started out with as a direction for my blog, is to write what the “me of 3 years ago” might find useful and interesting.

For example, I’ve written some posts detailing the data science job search process, with the past me, who was a master’s student, in mind.

Now, both data science and game development, industries that I have built my career in, are industries with no straightforward path to entry. I think it’s important to share the tacit and hidden knowledge that’s often only learned on the job, that “I wish I had known”. And so I write about these topics.

As to how I gather specific post ideas, I keep a running list of topics on Notion, which I then select from.

I hope that by sharing how I started out framing and finding my blog topics, can help you with brainstorming yours as well.

Lesson 4: Why should I write it, and not someone else?

Let’s say I’m feeling hesitant to post about Data Science, (due to impostor syndrome or whatever reason), since I don’t have a formal degree in “Data Science”.

(Also, this would totally be due to impostor syndrome since I literally work in the field. But I’ll admit that when I first started out, I sometimes hesitated to post for this reason. I’m glad I’m somewhat less susceptible to that now… or am I??)

What I’ve learned over the past few years, is that there are tons of folks who don’t have a typical background (in data science or game development) that would still relate to my posts. And on the flip side, the perspective I provide is useful for those from “typical” backgrounds.

I’ve learned a few ways to reframe my mindset to alleviate the hesitation to write and post:

  • I’m writing for the “me of 3 years ago”. (Lesson 3)
  • I’m writing this post for for a friend or acquaintance so they can do it too.
  • I’m writing as if it were a career coffee chat - and someone specifically asked me how I did these things.

With the above framing, it’s easier for me to keep in mind that my specific experiences are of use to someone out there. So I should write about it!

Lesson 5: Allow your writing to grow with you

When I first started writing, I had accumulated many years of experiences to distill and share. This ranged from experience with graduate studies, to entering the DS / ML field, to creating video games.

As I’ve written more and more, I actually started to run out of lessons and tips to share! This is something I haven’t discussed much, but it’s an interesting observation. After my writings started to catch up with the unique lessons I had learned, I realized that it would be helpful to slow down, and focus instead on gathering new experiences.

So I’ve gotten back into the groove of learning and trying out interesting things that I usually wouldn’t. After this new season of learning, I can have a new repertoire of “mysterious processes I’ve figured out” to share!

Conclusion

It’s still pretty wild to me that people read what I write, and once again, it wasn’t what I expected when I first wrote posts like “how to pass the CFA Level 1 exam in 6 weeks”.

I’m hoping that by sharing these behind the scenes, the moments of hesitation and doubt, and what I’ve learned from overcoming them, can help in any way!


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