Note: There is an updated version of this piece here. It’s probably not very different, but has had some more editing done to it.
This is an advocacy piece. I would like you to write more because I would selfishly like to read what you have to say – if you don’t have a blog, create one. If you do, update it more often.
Based on conversations with friends I’ve had, I know there are a lot of people with really interesting opinions and viewpoints who never flesh them out into the great long form piece that I know is in there. I would like them to flesh them out because I want more interesting essays to read.
So, yeah, that’s my purely selfish motivation for writing this piece, but everything I’m saying in it is something I 100% believe, so please ignore my ulterior motives and instead listen to what I have to say: I think you should write more.
I firmly believe that this blog is the best thing I do.
In two senses really: Firstly, it arguably has the most positive impact on the world of anything I do, but also it’s the most self-improving thing I do.
The first one is debatable and hard to measure. There are a few charities I give money to (not enough. Fixing that is on my should-do-but-probably-won’t list, and will probably remain there until I get my act together) that could arguably count. Work sometimes counts, but it tends to be either a large chunk of a company that isn’t making a major positive difference (or possibly is but in a niche I don’t care that much about) or a tiny fraction of something making a modest positive difference. I’ve written a bit in the past about the positive impact I try to have with this blog, but honestly if this blog disappeared from the earth a few people would be sad but I doubt the world would become a drastically worse place.
But the second one? Hands down. Reading a lot probably comes second, but it’s not a close second (I think writing a lot would not be nearly so useful if I didn’t also read a lot, but I still think that if I had to choose between doing only one of writing and reading, writing is the more beneficial one).
It feels like I’ve got this magic make everything better tool which no one else has cottoned on to, and that’s a shame. So that’s the main reason you should write more: Not so that I (or anyone else) can hear what you have to say, but because it will make your life better.
Why will writing make your life better?
There are a lot of reasons, but here are what I think are the big ones (in order of least to most important):
Writing makes you better at writing
This is obvious, right? You practice something and you get better at it.
But why should you care? Getting better at writing is only important if you actually care about writing.
It’s because writing is not just something you do for yourself: It’s an incredibly valuable professional skill.
People make a big deal these days about how computer skills are important for every job, but it seems much less commonly observed that writing skills are important for every job. An extremely large proportion of business communication is written: Think how much time you spend in email.
Wouldn’t it be nice to be better at that?
And it’s not just nice: it’s super useful. Consider how many unclear or incoherent emails you’ve been on the receiving end of. Wouldn’t you like it if those were clearer, better thought out and generally held to a higher quality of writing. I don’t mean spelling and grammar here. I’m talking about conveying the point in a way that is easy to understand.
Your coworkers would like that too. By raising the quality of your writing you will make their lives better, and if making their lives better isn’t enough motivation for you, note that by making their lives better you are making them more likely to respond usefully to the email you’ve sent them (and making them like you more so more likely to respond usefully to you in general).
You can and probably do get better at writing email just by writing email, but anecdotally at least this seems not to happen all that much. I think it’s a mix of people not thinking of email in those terms and not getting the right feedback from it. Fortunately, by learning to write in other contexts you can just transplant those skills wholesale to when you’re writing email.
It’s also useful for the rare occasions where you need to really craft that perfect email. I’ve sent a couple work emails in my life where people who have read them have basically gone “This is an amazing piece. Can I forward this to several people I know who should read it?”. This is a good reaction to have (though I must admit these emails haven’t been super-effective, but that’s mostly because they’ve been “Here are these structural problems with the company” and the structural problems with the company have prevented the email from being acted upon. Writing is useful but not always enough).
So, yeah. By writing more you will make your work life better.
Writing helps you learn things
One of the single best ways to learn something is to explain it to other people. Writing gives you an opportunity to do that: By writing about something you are forced to think of it in a way that you can explain to other people, which forces you to structure it in a way that you can understand.
I saw a great dialogue on twittter recently (I forget who between I’m afraid) which went something to the tune of “I don’t understand half the thing she writes about” to which the author in question responded “Confession: I don’t understand half the things I write about until I’ve written about them”. This also corresponds to my experience: Quite a lot of my blog posts are me writing about things so that I can understand them.
There is in fact an entire book on this subject (“Writing to Learn” by William Zinsser) which is still on my to read pile, so I won’t say too much more about this for now.
Writing teaches you to think
A piece of feedback I often get from people is that I think things through pretty thoroughly.
This is not a natural trait for me.
Oh, I naturally think about things a lot, but my native thought process is “Here’s a thing and here’s a thing and oh have you thought about that other thing and hey kittens are cute oh god why are things so terrible what were we thinking about again oh yeah stuff which is related to this other stuff is…” etc you get the idea. It’s not exactly thorough so much as scattershot.
The mechanism by which I turn this chaos into thinking things through thoroughly is that I write blog posts about it.
I don’t necessarily publish blog posts about it, but a lot of my blogging happens inside my head – I draft posts by teasing out a chain of thought and forcing structure onto it until something that starts to resemble a blog post emerges which I then later turn into a post. You can do this and then not actually sit down and write the blog post, and it’s still just as useful for structuring your thoughts, butit’s very hard to learn to do this without occasionally actually sitting down and writing the blog post.
This discipline of learning to structure my thoughts has been amazingly helpful. If this is something you have difficulty with or would like to improve, you should write more because it will literally make you better at thinking.
But I can’t write more because…
So that’s a bit about why to write more. But you can’t, because reasons. I think most of those reasons are excuses, and where they’re not excuses they are surmountable. Here are some common ones.
I don’t have the time
You probably do. I mean, some people genuinely don’t have the time, but for the most part people don’t find time they make time and “I don’t have the time” means “I’m not making this a priority”. Somehow every november hundreds of thousands of people find the time to write 50,000 words (note: I blog a lot and 50,000 words is more than my annual output).
Try setting aside a half hour block a week to write. See how it goes. You won’t write a lot in that time, but it’s a good point to start from. If it turns out to be easy to find that time, see if you can find some more time.
I think it’s also worth noting that you don’t actually have to be fully awake to write. Think about the thing you want to write over the course of your day, then either when you get home and want to veg out or in the morning before work or whenever you can just splurge out some words. A bunch of my blog posts are written in this state and so far no-one has called me on the difference (this may not reflect well on the rest of my blogging).
I don’t have anywhere to write
There are lots of free blogging platforms. Try tumblr, or medium, or wordpress.com.
If you really don’t want to write in public, fire up a text editor or MS word and write in there. Or fire up your email client and send yourself an email.
If you want to write with an audience but not in public, maybe try Facebook and see if it annoys your friends too much. Or I hear livejournal is still a thing, and it has good privacy controls for this.
No one would want to read what I write
I think you’re probably wrong, and what you have to say is likely to be more interesting than you think it is. I’ve found I’m a terrible judge of which of my posts people will actually interest people.
But if you’re not wrong, that’s OK. Almost none of the above relies on anyone reading it. The process of external feedback is helpful, but it’s in no way essential. You should start with the principle that you’re writing for yourself and other people are welcome to come along for the ride if they feel like it.
I’m terrible at writing
If only there were some sort of way to get better at that…
It’s dangerous for me to have a public presence due to race/gender/sexuality/etc.
This is a completely legit concern unfortunately. It’s also one I have no personal experience with dealing with, so I’m hesitant to offer too much advice on this one. If you’re comfortable doing so, try writing in public with a pseudonym. If not, I’d strongly encourage you to still try writing even if you feel you have to do it in private. Other people may have better advice than me here.
I don’t know what to write
So I’ve convinced you that you should write, and I’ve convinced you that you can write.
What do you do now? How do you decide what to write about?
Here are some suggested starting points. Pick one. If you can’t decide on one amongst several, pick the easiest one.
- This is a thing that happened to me recently that was amusing.
- This is a thing that happened to me recently that was annoying.
- I disagreed with someone over a thing. Here is a persuasive piece for my side of the disagreement.
- Here is a thing people often fail to understand.
- Here is a thing people do that is annoying.
- This is a thing people new to my job often get wrong.
- This is a thing people who interact with people who do my job often get wrong.
- This is a thing I am trying to learn
- This is a review of a book I read recently
- This is a review of a film I watched recently
- Here is a cool thing about the place I live
- Here is a thing that makes my life better when people do it
- Here is a thing that makes my life worse when people do it
- This is a thing I know that you might not have heard about
- This is a thing I learned recently that I was surprised I had not heard about
If none of those grab you, allow me to offer my services as a muse: If you still can’t think of anything to write, email me. I’ll try to help you out.
Also, if you do write more as a result of this, I’m happy to offer my services as a publicist and tweet about it if you want people to read what you’ve written (things that are obviously spam need not apply, but I’ll otherwise do this even if I don’t agree with what you’ve written).
So, go and write something already.