I’m writing this post to summarize blogging advice that I’ve shared with multiple people interested in blogging. My advice (and this post) won’t be very coherent, but I hope people will still find this useful.
Also, this advice is targeted towards blogging and not necessarily writing in general. For example, I have 10 years of experience blogging, but less experience with other forms of writing, such as writing books or academic publications.
Motivation is everything when it comes to blogging. I believe you should focus on motivation before working on improving anything else about your writing. In particular, if you always force yourself to set aside time to write then (in my opinion) you’re needlessly making things hard on yourself.
Motivation can be found or cultivated. Many new writers start off by finding motivation; inspiration strikes and they feel compelled to share what they learned with others. However, long-term consistent writers learn how to cultivate motivation so that their writing process doesn’t become “feast or famine”.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to cultivating motivation, because not everybody shares the same motivation for writing. However, the first step is always reflecting upon what motivates you to write, which could be:
- sharing exciting new things you learn
- making money
- evangelizing a new technology or innovation
- launching or switching to a new career
- changing the way people think
- improving your own understanding by teaching others
- settling a debate or score
- sorting out your own thoughts
The above list is not comprehensive, and people can blog for more than one reason. For example, I find that I’m most motivated to blog when I have just finished teaching someone something new or arguing with someone. When I conclude these conversations I feel highly inspired to write.
Once you clue in to what motivates you, use that knowledge to cultivate your motivation. For example, if teaching people inspires me then I’ll put myself in positions where I have more opportunities to mentor others, such as becoming an engineering manager, volunteering for Google Summer of Code, or mentoring friends earlier in their careers. Similarly, if arguing with people inspires me then I could hang out on social media with an axe to grind (although I don’t do that as much these days for obvious reasons…).
When inspiration strikes
That doesn’t mean that you should never write when you’re not motivated. I still sometimes write when it doesn’t strike my fancy. Why? Because inspiration doesn’t always strike at a convenient time.
For example, sometimes I will get “hot” to write something in the middle of my workday (such as right after a 1-on-1 conversation) and I have to put a pin in it until I have more free time later.
One of the hardest things about writing is that inspiration doesn’t always strike at convenient times. There are a few ways to deal with this, all of which are valid:
Write anyway, despite the inconvenience
Sometimes writing entails reneging on your obligations and writing anyway. This can happen when you just know the idea has to come out one way or another and it won’t necessarily happen on a convenient schedule.
Some topics will always inspire you every time you revisit them, so even if your excitement wears off it will come back the next time you revisit the subject.
For example, sometimes I will start to write about something that I’m not excited about at the moment but I remember I was excited about it before. Then as I start to write everything comes flooding back and I recapture my original excitement.
Abandon the idea
Sometimes you just have to completely give up on writing something.
I’ve thrown away a lot of writing ideas that I was really attached to because I knew I would never have the time. It happens, it’s sad when it happens, but it’s a harsh reality of life.
Sometimes “abandon the idea” can become “write later” if I happen to revisit the subject years later at a more opportune time, but I generally try to abandon ideas completely, otherwise they will keep distracting me and do more harm than good.
I personally have done all of the above in roughly equal measure. There is no right answer to which approach is correct and I treat it as a judgment call.
Quantity over quality
One common pattern I see is that new bloggers tend to “over-produce” some of their initial blog posts, especially for ideas they are exceptionally attached to. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but I usually advise against it. You don’t want to put all of your eggs in one basket and you should focus on writing more frequent and less ambitious posts rather than a few overly ambitious posts, especially when starting out.
One reason why is that people tend to be poor judges of their own work, in my experience. Not only do you not know when inspiration will strike, but you will also not know when inspiration has truly struck. There will be some times when you think something you produce is your masterpiece, your magnum opus, and other people are like “meh”. There will be other times when you put out something that feels half-baked or like a shitpost and other people will tell you that it changed their life.
That’s not to say that you shouldn’t focus on quality at all. Quite the opposite: the quality of your writing will improve more quickly if you write more often instead of polishing a few posts to death. You’ll get more frequent feedback from a wider audience if you keep putting your work out there regularly.
Great writing is learning how to build empathy for the reader and you can’t do that if you’re not regularly interacting with your audience. The more they read your work and provide feedback the better your intuition will get for what your audience needs to hear and how your writing will resonate with them. As time goes on your favorite posts will become more likely to succeed, but there will always remain a substantial element of luck to the process.
Writing is hard, even for experienced writers like me, because writing is so underconstrained.
Programming is so much easier than writing for me because I get:
… such as an IDE, syntax highlighting or type-checker
Fast feedback loop
For many application domains I can run my code to see if it works or not
Clearer demonstration of value
I can see firsthand that my program actually does what I created it to do
Writing, on the other hand, is orders of magnitude more freeform and nebulous than code. There are so many ways to say or present the exact same idea, because you can vary things like:
Choice of words
Sentence / paragraph structure
Diagrams / figures
Oh, don’t get me started on examples. I can spend hours or even days mulling over which example to use that is just right. A LOT of my posts in my drafts have run aground on the choice of example.
There also isn’t a best way to present an idea. One way of explaining things will resonate with some people better than others.
On top of that the feedback loop is sloooooow. Soliciting reviews from others can take days. Or you can publish blind and hope that your own editing process and intution is good enough.
The way I cope is to add artificial constraints to my writing, especially when first learning to write. I came up with a very opinionated way of structuring everything and saying everything so that I could focus more on what I wanted to say instead of how to say it.
The constraints I created for myself touched upon many of the above freeform aspects of writing. Here are some examples:
Choice of words
I would use a very limited vocabulary for common writing tasks. In fact, I still do in some ways. For example, I still use “For example,” when introducing an example, a writing habit which still lingers to this day.
Sentence / paragraph structure
The Science of Scientific Writing is an excellent resource for how to improve writing structure in order to aid reader comprehension.
Diagrams / figures
I created ASCII diagrams for all of my technical writing. It was extremely low-tech, but it got the job done.
I had to have three examples. Not two. Not four. Three is the magic number.
In particular, one book stood out as exceptionally helpful in this regard:
The above book provides several useful rules of thumb for writing that new writers can use as constraints to help better focus their writing. You might notice that this post touches only very lightly on the technical aspects of authoring and editing writing, and that’s because all of my advice would boil down to: “go read that book”.
As time went on and I got more comfortable I began to deviate from these rules I had created for myself and then I could more easily find my own “voice” and writing style. However, having those guardrails in place made a big difference to me early on to keep my writing on track.
Sometimes you need to write something over an extended period of time, long after you are motivated to do so. Perhaps this because you are obligated to do so, such as writing a blog post for work.
My trick to sustaining interest in posts like these is to always begin each writing session by editing what I’ve written so far. This often puts me back in the same frame of mind that I had when I first wrote the post and gives me the momentum I need to continue writing.
Do not underestimate the power of editing your writing! Editing can easily transform a mediocre post into a great post.
However, it’s hard to edit the post after you’re done writing. By that point you’re typically eager to publish to get it off your plate, but you should really take time to still edit what you’ve written. My rule of thumb is to sleep on a post at least once and edit in the morning before I publish, but if I have extra stamina then I keep editing each day until I feel like there’s nothing left to edit.
I’d like to conclude this post by acknowledging the blog that inspired me to start blogging:
That blog got me excited about the intersection of mathematics and programming and I’ve been blogging ever since trying to convey the same sense of wonder I got from reading about that.