What I Learned from Writing Online - For Fellow Non-Writers

[ writing ] · 7 min read

I’m not a writer. I’m just someone writing to learn, share my ideas, and make new friends. In the process, I’ve written more than a hundred posts on this site.

Writing has been fulfilling. When I try to write about something, gaps in my knowledge are exposed. Putting my thoughts on paper (or the screen) clarifies my thinking. And as I write, I get inspired with new ideas. An unexpected benefit of writing online is that it acts as a “bat signal” for my interests, helping me find like-minded friends.

I’ve gained some lessons from writing over the past few years. Maybe they’ll be useful for you too.

You may never feel qualified to write about x—write anyway

Who am I to write about any subject? What can I contribute, beyond the experts who are working on it full time?

Actually, a lot. Expertise lies on a spectrum. I find that I learn best from people who are just two to three steps ahead of me. Thus, sometimes, the best person to teach and write about something isn’t the expert who’s been studying the subject for years, but someone who just grokked a concept or tool and can coherently write about it for laymen.

Will you ever feel qualified enough to write about something? Maybe. Likely not. Your taste for good writing will almost always surpass your abilities. You can always find and appreciate writing that’s smarter, sharper, and easier to read than your own. Nonetheless, push through that feeling of never feeling good enough and just write anyway.

First, write for yourself

Assume no one’s going to read your writing—what will you gain from it? With every piece you write, try to make sure there’s something in it for yourself.

I write about topics I want to explore and learn about. For example, I wanted to learn more about data discovery platforms and feature stores. Thus, I dived into papers, tech blogs, and conference videos. Then, to solidify my understanding, I wrote about it. As I wrote, I found and patched gaps in my understanding. Even if no one reads my writing, I gain from the process of writing to learn and clarify my thoughts.

I also get fulfillment by writing to share and help others. In my interactions with mentees and acquaintances, I noticed questions around similar topics, such as my OMSCS experience, how to set up my python env, the differences among data/ML roles, etc. After repeating myself several times, I documented my responses online. As a bonus, now I can just share a link when I get a similar question.

Then, write for one person you’ve met or want to meet

Writing for just one person keeps your message focused. IMO, it’s better to have a handful of people who love what you share than to have a thousand indifferent readers. Write for everyone and you write for no one.

This doesn’t mean that your audience stays as that handful of people though. Initially, you might captivate only 1% out of 1,000 people. But over time, as the 1,000 grows to 100,000 (and with the power of the internet it does), you’ll find 1,000 fans. Write for one person and you write for thousands.

Writing scales better than in-person conversations

Writing is O(1)—it takes the same effort to write for one person or 100,000. Ideas in written form spread further than via in-person conversations, with significantly less effort.

I’ve spent days preparing a deck to share at a conference or meetup with hundreds of people, but few translate into meaningful relationships (am I doing it wrong?) On the other hand, the same effort in each writing has attracted new friends, and I’ve had founders, VCs, and potential teammates reach out with opportunities based on what I’ve written.

Think in terms of years and decades

The biggest benefits in life accrue from compound interest, be it investing, relationships, or career. The same applies to your writing.

Write about topics that can add value for a long time. Usually, it’s the fundamentals and transferables that people will still refer to five, ten years down the road. As a negative example, while my post on FastAPI and Jinja templates has the highest amount of regular traffic, it will probably be irrelevant in a few years. On the other hand, my writing on machine learning design docs is a resource I’ll reference and share for years to come.

Along the same vein, don’t obsess over short-term metrics such as clicks, likes, or reshares. Likewise, don’t contort your writing to optimize for SEO. If you need to measure something, use longer-term metrics such as number of people helped, number of friends made, or opportunities due to your writing.

Finally, write in a portable format. Who knows how much worse Medium’s reading experience will get? Will Substack still be around in 10 years? I recommend Markdown as it works with static site generators such as Jekyll and Gatsby. Regardless of what you use, make sure it’s lightweight and easy to migrate.

Quantity > quality (at the start)

On the first day of pottery class, the teacher split students into two groups. At the end of the term, the first group would be graded on the number of pots produced. The second group would be graded on the single, best pot created.

Which group made better pots at the end of the term? The first group. Through their numerous iterations and mistakes (read: lessons), they improved their technique and sense of aesthetics. On the other hand, the second group focused too much on theory and how the “best” pot would look, neglecting hands-on practice.

The same applies to writing. Don’t spend months trying to write the perfect essay. Similarly, don’t obsess over finding your niche or voice before writing your first post.

How much should you write before thinking about quality, niche, or voice? Probably a couple dozen. Yes, it’s a lot, but shipping a post every week will get you there in a year or two. Also, writing that much will help you get over your inhibitions of writing online, and is great practice for getting over writer’s block.

Protein bars > empty-calorie snacks

Assume your audience is made up of smart, busy achievers who eat and exercise well. They’re likely to prefer high-nutrition food, though they do snack occasionally.

I think writing’s the same. Your writing is nothing if not useful. Write thoughtful, valuable pieces that teach or share an idea; content that your audience will learn and benefit from. Nonetheless, the occasional shitpost is forgivable and could lead to something useful.

Inspiration is fleeting—act on it immediately

I jotted down the outline for this on my phone’s Notes app while walking my puppy. If an idea comes while I’m in bed, I record it as a voice memo on my watch. I’ve lost too many ideas because I didn’t record them somewhere immediately. (Maybe they weren’t that good in the first place?)

Sometimes, I get lucky and the muse visits. An entire essay comes streaming into my head. When this happens, I just write the stream of consciousness knowing I can edit it later. I’m wary about breaking the flow because my experience tells me that a two-hour session of inspired writing can be more productive than incremental additions over weeks.

Actively seek feedback

Find friends who also write. Learn from them. Share your work with them. Any feedback you get is a gift. Here are three questions I’ve found useful:

  • What was interesting? Please highlight in yellow.
  • What was boring? Please highlight in orange.
  • What was confusing? Please comment.

• • •

What are some lessons you had from writing online? Please reach out and share or comment below!

Thanks to Yang Xinyi for reading drafts of this.

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