Why and how to write things on the Internet

Recently I noticed that most existing “why you should write a blog” articles (e.g.) have at least one of two shortcomings, according to me:

So here’s my own take on this genre of post, with positive reasons why you, yes you, should consider writing things on the Internet, and a guide that’s as concrete as I can manage for how to do a decent (imo) job at it.

To put my money where my mouth is, I’m offering to be a draft reader for anyone who is motivated by this post to start a blog; see Appendix: standing offer for details.

Why

More awesome friendships

In my opinion, the strongest reason for any random person to start a blog is that you will have more awesome friendships—both in the sense that you will meet new awesome people as a result of your blog, but also in the sense that writing will cause you to have more interesting ideas,1 which will make your existing friendships more awesome because you’ll have better stuff to talk about.

Most other important things in life, like job opportunities and romantic relationships, are downstream of the quality of your friends, so this is pretty great.

Examples from my own blog:

From other people’s blogs:

The bar is lower than you think

Most people dramatically underestimate the impact that their writing has on others.

It’s easy to think that you have to put out really “interesting” writing in order for other people to like it.3 I think that’s true for going viral, but not true for having a blog that your friends enjoy reading, makes acquaintances feel more positively towards you, etc. In my case, for example, even in 2014, way before my blog was “good” by my current standards, some of my early “uninteresting” posts about effective altruism contributed to some of my middle-school and high-school friends getting interested in effective altruism, which ultimately had a big impact on their life direction. It’s easy to underrate how important this is because people don’t usually give this feedback. For instance, I didn’t learn about most of those friends’ updates until years later!

Think about the last time you read something important to you—maybe it motivated you to do something differently, or changed the way you thought about something. Did you write to the author and let them know? Personally, I have literally never done this, as far as I can remember. (Huh, maybe I should…) Similarly, you should expect that most people who love your writing aren’t going to tell you that directly.

So: lower your bar for what’s worth writing about! My personal standard is anything that I’ve said more than once in a conversation. (In practice I don’t write that many posts, so I use that as my longlist and then prioritize by how interesting I think the topic is going to be, but if I wanted to write a lot more, I wouldn’t be constrained on topics.)

A blogger who I think gets this really right is Jeff Kaufman—Jeff has a lot of high effort posts, but also a lot like:

And people love his blog—he has tons of subscribers and engagement (just look at the 70 comments on the jam post)!4

How

Here are my top two pieces of advice for writing things on the internet:

  1. Publish consistently.

  2. Notice and pay attention to feedback.

The easiest way to get demotivated about writing is to compare your first post to the polished output of your favorite writers, conclude you’ll never get that good, and give up. This is a mistake. Almost nobody’s first post is amazing (see e.g. mine); instead, most writers learn incrementally about what works and what doesn’t as they publish more. The two commandments above are about going through that feedback cycle as fast as possible. All the specific advice below is given with the intention of optimizing for this.

In fact, my suggestion is to make all your writing-related choices to optimize for this. If something seems like a good idea in principle, but would make it harder for you to write consistently or slower to get feedback, don’t do it.

For example, I used to spend a lot of time polishing individual posts and getting feedback on drafts before publishing. But a few times I ended up procrastinating on publishing a draft because I got feedback that I felt like I should incorporate, but seemed like it would take a lot of work to do that (e.g. a suggestion to reorganize large parts of the post). In each case I eventually published without incorporating the feedback and people really liked the post anyway. I would have been better off just explicitly deciding that the feedback was too much work and ignoring it.

Build a consistent writing habit

This is a common theme of nearly every piece of writing advice (e.g.). It also matches my own experience; my ability to write improved the most when I committed to writing every week and, briefly, every day.

Separately from the quality of your writing, consistency is also important for getting readers. People are less likely to subscribe to your blog, or remember to check it, if it looks like it updates very infrequently.

Finally, blog posts are one of the ultimate examples of searching for outliers—the best ones are massively better than the average. And one of the best ways to improve your chances of getting an outlier is just to take lots of shots on goal.

Obviously, I don’t currently follow my own advice here, mostly because my day job has been extremely busy for a long time. However, I think that without my years of relatively consistent writing I’d be much worse at it today, and I still think writing is valuable enough that I’m actively trying to delegate other work so that I can spend some of my day-job-time writing for Wave’s company blog.

My suggested starting point for a writing habit would be to commit to (1) opening your text editor and writing at least one word every day, and (2) publishing (and publicizing that you’ve published) something every week. (Of course, what habits will work for you is super individualized—you should figure out the right shape of the habit for you!)

Publishing frequently might be uncomfortable at first if you think that nothing you have seems original or interesting (which is common for new writers). I suggest lowering your bar. If you feel resistant to lowering your bar, see Alexey Guzey’s Why You Should Start a Blog Right Now § “But I don’t have anything original to say and I would be just repeating things said elsewhere on the internet!”

Come up with ideas to write about

As mentioned above, an important first step here is to lower your bar for what’s worth writing about.

Mechanically, I suggest keeping a list of topics to write about, which you can populate with some mix of focused brainstorming plus noticing particular ideas as they randomly strike you (in a conversation, in the shower…). This will both help you build the habit of noticing ideas, and make it so that when you want to sit down and write, you don’t get too blocked on deciding what to write about.

Next, start paying attention to topic ideas. These can come from lots of different places. Here are some that have worked for me (with examples from both my blog and others’):

Write about the ideas

The most important thing here is to write about whatever you’re most excited to write about (n.b. not what you think you should be most excited to write about, or what you’re most excited to have written about), since this is the most likely to generate consistent output. I recommend trying to keep your list of topics roughly ranked by how excited you are. (Only roughly because at least for me, the precise ranking changes pretty often depending on what mood I’m in!)

On the mechanics of writing itself: people get all fussy about this, but I think it’s basically not important—just do whatever makes it easiest for you to publish. You can iterate and improve on it on over time. I’ve found that writing an outline first helps me separate the “think really hard about structure” part from the “grind out a bunch of words” part, but lots of other people, including my past self, have more success with just writing things straight through.

Set up your blog

You are not allowed to spend more than 30 minutes on this part until you have written four blog posts!

The most important thing about either of these is that:

Get your initial set of readers

[Disclaimer: I did this eight years ago when the world looked very different.]

You want two things from your initial set of readers:

  1. More-involved feedback from a few draft readers.

  2. A larger set of normal subscribers whose aggregate reaction can help you navigate towards writing that resonates with a larger group of people.

I didn’t start using draft readers until a few years ago, but have found them super useful for getting more feedback than you can extract from the vagaries of social media reactions. For some people, I’ve also found that sending them draft posts ended up sparking more interesting discussions between us, so I recommend this as a mechanism for improving your friendships as well!

A couple notes on draft readers:

My suggested strategy for getting readers:

Writing quality tips

I already wrote down my top tip, which is don’t worry about quality so much!! Don’t even try to improve (other than by incorporating feedback on drafts) until you’ve written at least two posts.

Once you’ve written two posts, email me with the links and I’ll send you the link to the section I originally put here. (I wrote down my top 5 writing tips but then this post felt too long so I cut them!)

Appendix: standing offer

I’m always excited for there to be more blogs in the world, so if you want to make one, I want to help!

If this post motivates you to start a blog, include me in the email you send to draft readers and I’ll be a draft reader for at least your first post. Contact info here. Small print: this is a best-effort offer, not a binding commitment; if this post somehow convinces like 200 of you to start blogs I might not get to all of them.

Appendix: a few relevant objections and rebuttals

“this is signaling/bullshit”

It’s true that some of the advantages of having a blog come from signaling, but I disagree that that means it’s bullshit. Signaling is extremely useful and without it many things wouldn’t work. You should try to be time-efficient with your signaling, but you should also think of it as a productive activity. Writing is one of the most efficient forms of signaling, which makes it a good use of time.

For example, as a person looking for friends, there’s an effectively infinite number of people I could try to be friends with. One thing I care about in friends is whether we’ll have interesting conversations. If someone has an interesting blog this is pretty good evidence that they’ll be interesting in person. So it’s much more time-efficient (orders of magnitude so!) to make friends with interesting bloggers than to try to make friends with randomly-selected people until one of them turns out to be interesting.

“but your blog is good and mine won’t be”

For at least one sense of “good” (popularity) this is not true. My blog is not particularly popular—as of the time I started drafting this post, I have around 1500 email subscribers, and when many of the examples above happened, it was much less popular than that. (1500 might seem like a lot, but this is after over 200 posts. If you start out with 10 initial subscribers, you can get there by growing your subscriber base with 2% by each post, which is extremely achievable.)

(See also: at over 1000 followers/readers, Twitter/blogging are the best dating apps, 1000 true fans; my blog was useful well before I had 1000 readers.)

You might object that although my blog isn’t popular, it still has higher quality ideas or writing than what you would produce. Even if this is true now, again, that’s after I’ve written 200 blog posts. If you read my posts from 2014 (e.g. 1, 2, 3), you’ll find that the posts, while still ok, are much less interesting, and yet my blog was still useful.

“writing takes a lot of time”

I draft at about 10 words per minute, which as far as I can tell is good but not exceptional.6 A typical blog post for me might be around 1500 words, or about 2.5 hours to write. Multiply by two for outlining and editing, and I could do post one post a week with about 45 minutes a day of writing.

Writing takes a lot longer than that if you’re trying to make one particular post very good, but I don’t think that’s the right strategy: instead, as mentioned above, you should be going for consistent volume so that you can take lots of shots on goal and learn from what resonates worse or better with your audience.

“The prospect of committing words to paper fills me with a nameless dread”

(Or more general reasons for finding the process of writing painful)

I personally don’t mind writing, so can’t speak from direct experience. But other friends who have this problem have suggested various things in the category of “pretend you’re talking to a friend instead of writing”—for example, writing it in the form of an email (or even a series of chats!) to a friend, using dictation software (which I hear is probably better than the last time you tried it), or recording yourself explaining it verbally and getting that transcribed. (In each case you’d want to edit the text afterwards, but it’s always easier to edit than to write something from scratch!)

“what if I write something that I regret?”

This can mean a few different but related things:

  1. Triggering an angry journalist, Internet outrage mob, or both. I think most people overestimate both the risk of this happening, and the downsides if it does, because it often happens in high-profile ways (e.g. the New York Times doxxing Scott Alexander). Scott was both very high-profile and wrote about particularly charged topics (politics and social justice), often in a style that wasn’t very robust to being taken out of context.

  2. Getting hostile comments. This is probably going to happen if you have posts that get a lot of traction (e.g. on Hacker News or a subreddit). Personally, I’ve found this to be mildly annoying, but once I noticed that it was happened to basically every HN post regardless of quality, I stopped caring very much.

    I’ve also noticed that I get the most hostile comments on my posts that are written less formally, with less hedging or caveating, so I suspect that being careful to present evidence and make your claims with appropriate levels of confidence can help reduce the risk of hostile comments.

  3. Making claims that you later come to disagree with. This isn’t particularly bad, for two reasons. First, readers generally have an expectation that if they’re reading old posts, they might no longer be endorsed by the author; second, almost nobody will read old posts (unless you write something that really has legs—and if that many people like it, it’s unlikely to be completely wrongheaded).


  1. You might think that you could simply have the same thoughts without writing them down, thus saving yourself the effort of blogging. I know some people for whom this actually works. If you’re one of them, great! You have less reason to have a blog. However, my own experience is that writing things up publicly forces both (a) forces me to think them through more rigorously, and (b) helps me come up with additional related considerations that I wouldn’t have thought of if I kept the idea completely in my head. For example, when I wrote In defense of blub studies, the idea that I had before I started writing was roughly “a lot of people should invest more time in learning the fiddly details of computer systems,” but I only fully articulated many of the reasons why, and e.g. the fact that blub studies has a positive feedback loop, in the process of writing the post. ↩︎

  2. e.g. Milan, Jeff ↩︎

  3. In reality, the causation goes at least as much the opposite way: people who find blogging useful keep doing it, and eventually figure out how to have high-quality posts. ↩︎

  4. Jeff notes:

    There is a tradeoff here, though: my signal to noise ratio is low enough that many people ignore all my posts even though if I only published the best 5% of them they’d happily read them.

    Except, at least for me, this isn’t a real tradeoff: I’m not able to just write the 5% of posts that will be the best. When I try I end up just not publishing anything for months. I wrote about this some a few years ago: https://www.jefftk.com/p/blogging-thresholds

     ↩︎
  5. “Doesn’t RSS work for that?” Yes; I and all three other people who still use RSS will be thrilled if you support it! But if you want your boring normal friends to be able to subscribe, you need email too. ↩︎

  6. The best data source I could come up with on writing speed was word counts from SAT essays. For the 2005-2016 SAT, students had 25 minutes to write an essay, and scores were strongly correlated with word count. The example essays scoring ≥5/6 were around 350 words, a drafting speed of 14 words per minute, 40% faster than me, assuming the writer spent the entire 25 minutes on the essay. A score of 5/6 (from both essay graders) appears to have corresponded to about 93rd percentile.

    On the other hand, these students probably weren’t trying very hard for quality, so some discount factor is appropriate when comparing to my blog-post-drafting speed. For example, I believe I got the top score on my SAT essay section, which I assume means that I wrote more quickly than 10 words per minute, although I don’t remember for sure.

    Note that here I’m using “good but not exceptional” relative to readers of this post, not relative to the general population, and making the perhaps-unfounded assumption that if you’re spending your spare time reading articles about blogging on random websites, you could probably get a fairly high SAT Writing score. ↩︎

Thanks to draft readers Irene Chen, Milan Cvitkovic, Jeff Kaufman, Elizabeth van Nostrand, Avril Kenney, Ben ThompsonSam Zimmerman.

Comments

email me replies

format comments in markdown.

Your comment has been submitted! It should appear here within 30 minutes.
Younes

I just want to tell I agree with your tips and share some anecdotes with you and thank you for encouraging more people to blog.

I want to give you some anecdotes to tell your readers about but this time from non English sphere.

The first anecdote is that I managed to blog daily -and still- for more than 3 years in a row now.

I think you don’t need to read about what I get from that. I get a lot writing better, more quality connections (strong networking), and everything good you said that blogging can give you, yes there are trolls. But the pros outnumber the cons.

My blog is Youdo.blog (you can use Google translate)

I can relate with everything you wrote in your email like that the quality improves with consistency and outputs. Yes the quality matter but the quantity definitely leads to quality. Of course I see now my 2022 posts are way better that those of 2014.

second anecdote is of an Arab dev (twitter @tareefdev) who found his wife through blogging. And he recently launch a RSS hub (elfehrest.com) that aggregate Arab personal blogs (just personal blogs not corporate) and in a matter of months he reach +500 blogs after a lot of people said that Arab personal blogs are dead.

I just wanted to tell you this to enforce your argument pro-blogging and in case you want to mention some folks outside the anglophone sphere (i.e rest of world) that benefited from blogging.

email me replies

format comments in markdown.

Your comment has been submitted! It should appear here within 30 minutes.