Why You Should Start a Blog Right Nowcreated: ; modified:
Reddit discussion with >100 comments here.
Summary: in this post I explain why you should start a blog (to help others and to help yourself), what to write about, and how to start it. I hope to persuade you that you should start a blog even if you feel that you have nothing to say and even if almost nobody will read it.
What to write about
I looked over all of my writing and determined that it all originated from one of the following:
- I repeatedly gave the same advice to my friends
- I wanted to share my personal experiences and thought other people will find it useful
- I disagreed with people, left comments online, and had some ideas about stuff that I read
- I shared thoughts and ideas with friends via conversations, IM, and email and realized they might be interesting to other people
- I investigated things
- I privately collected stuff I find fascinating and figured other people may also find it interesting
- I wanted to create art
Most likely you do at least some the things I described above. And that means you probably have something to write about.
“But nobody will read my blog”
It doesn’t matter! Your blog may have the median of 0 visitors per day (as my blog had for the first two years). Your blog may be ungoogleable. Your blog may have no subscribers. But if you’re not embarrassed to tell people “oh, btw I wrote about this / collected some things on the topic on my blog”, the purpose of the blog is fulfilled, since this is the best indicator of your writing actually being helpful.
But there are a few other reasons to write, the most important of which is that…
Writing helps you think better
In a parallel universe I became a psychiatrist. In this universe I sometimes offer my friends to listen to their problems like a therapist would have and to maybe give them a few comments. In the last couple of months I did this to two friends and both of them told me almost the same exact thing: while preparing for the conversation with me, they ended up writing a lot of their thoughts and concerns down in a readable, essay-like form for the first time and this very act helped them to understand what is going on much better and to fix a lot of problems even prior our conversation.
This fact is very frequently lost when discussing writing: writing not only helps you to understand what’s going on and to crystallize your thoughts, it actually makes you think of new ideas and come up with solutions to your problems.
But this only applies to “essay-like” writing where you pretend to write for someone else and think about narrative and exposition and not just write down a few bullets for yourself. This is actually why you should not only write blog posts but also have a private journal with coherent text about what’s going on in your life and in your head. I write in my journal anywhere from a few times a week to once every few months.
The analogy is as follows: you probably had experience learning some math or physics or whatever else where you listen to the lecturer and you understand everything perfectly and then you try to actually solve the problem and you realize that you have no idea how to do it. This is the way thinking and everything else in the world works. You can read all the self-help books in the world. You can read all the blog posts in the world. It’s not enough. Good thinking doesn’t happen by passive osmosis of other people’s good thinking. You have to actually write essays and journals to debug yourself and your ideas.
(btw, this is exactly why Bezos forces everybody to write memos in form of essays (a))
“But I don’t have anything original to say and I would be just repeating things said elsewhere on the internet!”
Consider a university professor teaching a course. Does she say anything original? Do you think she should cancel her course because somebody else discovered the things she wants to teach? Or does she have to cancel her course simply because there is a similar course at some other university?
Or consider yourself. Do you avoid having conversations with your friends when you think you have nothing original to say? Do you share things with them? Do you give advice? Do you help to understand things?
As a concrete example, consider my most popular post ever: What Should You Do with Your Life? Directions and Advice. Let’s go through it section by section:
- a bunch of links I collected
- semi-trivial advice that basically says that you should start working on something and then share it with other people
- a few notes on cold emails, which are basically a rephrase of stuff I read on twitter + two examples of my cold emails which are just rephrasing all the other good cold emails I saw before
- a bunch more links I collected
- a bunch more links with quotes
Does this post contain a single original idea? I don’t think it does. Is it useful? Well, yeah, it is. But this brings me to a more general idea…
Why unoriginal writing is useful
Because it helps in the process of discovery and in the process of supporting underappreciated ideas.
- Mendel’s ideas were basically ignored for thirty-four years after his publication. The guy who decided to publish his unoriginal thoughts on Mendel’s work in 1901 was necessary for the appreciation and the spread of Mendel’s ideas.
- it might be the case that the person reading my notes about cold emails previously saw n mentions of the thought “sending cold emails is important” and my post might be the final (n+1)st encounter of this idea that finally convinces them that it’s important and finally makes them send an important cold email
- this is also largely the value of e.g. Tim Ferriss’s podcast. There’s not that many new ideas in every episode but if you listen one episode a week, there’s a good chance some of the most important lessons will finally get stuck in your head and will motivate you, even if not strictly teaching you anything new
If you’re still unsure about the value of (un)originality, watch this Tessa Violet video where she explains all of this perfectly. My rephrasing of some of the points she makes:
- almost all songs and almost all writing is very similar to each other. All songs are very similar and the artists especially are very aware of their influences
- you’re not a well the produces art by itself. Most art is a riff off from something we experienced, saw, heard or read, thus necessarily not very original
- when Tessa was just starting out, one exercise she did was she picked a song she loved, looked up the chords, and asked herself “what would this song sound like if I had written it?”
- this can be applied to writing! Take some blog post that you love and try to figure out what would you change in it / how would you write it
You should still watch the video in full - I covered like 20% of it in these bullets.
A note on your ideas feeling less original than they actually are
Your own ideas mostly seem trivial to you because you have the right concept structures in place to support them. You wouldn’t come up with these ideas otherwise. So it’s easier to notice your own ideas in a dialogue: your friend has different concept structures and notices them.
Corollary: don’t be afraid to say obvious things.
Corollary 2: it is ok if it seems to you that you do not have nontrivial ideas of your own. It is just hard to notice them.
A note on academics and value of unoriginality
Academics gain prestige by publishing novel stuff. This gives them a warped perspective on what is valuable. You can’t publish a paper that would summarize five other papers and argue that these papers are undervalued in a top journal but in the real world the value of doing that might be very high. The mechanisms of discovery are broken in academia.
How to start a blog
- go over your emails and IM and see if some of the conversations there fit the themes I wrote about in the first section of the post
- try noticing the things I wrote about in the first section (e.g. do you tend to say the same things to your friends) for a while and write down some notes in a text file. Tab Snooze this post one week into the future to make sure you’re doing this.
- clear out an entire day to write (yes, this is possible however busy you feel you are. Let it be some next Saturday or Sunday)
- write during that special day
- launch a blog on wordpress / github’s jekyll / whatever. It doesn’t matter in the beginning and you can always change the stack later. At first just make sure to actually publish something. I started out with github pages and then moved to Hugo on Netlify.
“Writing is really hard”
Yes. It will get slightly easier, though (I’ve been writing quite a lot for the last few years and big posts still require insane amounts of effort). Here are a few tricks to make it easier:
- pretend that you have a conversation with a friend and dictate to your phone or write into a chat with yourself (a) and then edit the resulting text
- or do actually have a conversation with a friend explaining your idea, while recording it. Then transcribe and edit it into a post
- a friend comments after actually trying this: “i’m shocked. just sat down and wrote a big text, based on a recording. will edit it and post it later”
- or pretend you’re writing an email to your friend (by opening email and literally writing the letter). Then edit this email into a post
- “my friend is a grad student who has taught several freshman writing seminars and says that by far the single greatest improvement in writing is when he tells them to write to a specific person they know” (a)
- like literally, if you were talking to a friend and realized that this is something that could be interesting to other people, write an email to your friend and then edit it into a blog post
- try The Most Dangerous Writing App (both this and the “dictate to yourself” thing are from Devon Zuegel’s advice on writing (a))
- DO ACTUALLY TRY THIS DON’T FLINCH AWAY. This app might seem like the dumbest thing in the world but it DOES REALLY HELP. And if it doesn’t work, you will just lose 5 minutes.
- a friend of mine whom I recommended to try this app a few days ago first said there’s no way this works, I pressed him to try it regardless, and it worked
- same for all the other advice in this post basically
- if you’re writing a post and you don’t like it, don’t be scared to just start writing it from the beginning again. I rewrite most of my posts from the ground up several times. Like literally - I write an intro and then if I don’t like it, I just try to figure out how to make it good and then rewrite it completely. The first draft is just there to keep the juices flowing.
- See my So, you want to write something…
Probably the #1 struggle I hear students mention when they talk about writing is the “staring at a blank page” phenomenon. Just try and get something on paper. Even if it’s total stream of consciousness word vomit, that’s still something you can edit and re-organize into an actual paper.
Secondly, it helps to realize that there is zero obligation or expectation to be perfect on the first try. My advisor always said the explicit point of a first draft is to get you to a second draft. I think I was on like, draft #15 or 16 by the time I actually finished my bachelor’s thesis. [emphasis mine; also I rewrote this post 2 times and rewerite post of the posts at least 1-2 times before publishing]
A few more reasons to write
- even though most blogs will remain deeply unpopular, some people will achieve and maybe go beyond the level of originality and insight of Scott Alexander and will change other peoples’ lives just as he did. I want as many people with such potential as possible to start writing and to not be disaffected after initial apparent lack of success (it took Scott Alexander from 2005 to 2013 before his writing became truly popular). Since in advance you don’t know what level of success you’ll achieve, it’s worth trying even if right now you’re doubtful about that ever happening
- also, whatever profession you choose, if your name becomes known within its practitioners, that will help enormously with your career
- having a blog may be useful as a way to demonstrate that you think well when you e.g. send cold emails
One more question to ask yourself about your writing
Would you save the post that you wrote to your OneNote/Evernote/whatevernote if you randomly stumbled on it on the internet? If you want your writing to stay with people, you need to first make sure that it would have stayed with you!
Appendix: Why did Peter Thiel write Zero to One?
To convince a couple of people that they do indeed have a secret that is worth something and to actually do something with it, despite the consensus being that all the low-hanging fruit is already plucked and that working for the giant corporations is the way to go.
“Some people really benefit from hearing advice that everyone knows, for the same reason we keep schools open despite every subject in them having been taught before.” (a) by Patrick McKenzie (this one is especially funny because when I came up with this idea of “but professors still teach completely unoriginal things” from a few sections ago I was 100% sure I invented it independently but no it was just me rephrasing Patrick)
I think it actually goes even much further than memory. With writing, it is fundamentally the process of externalizing an idea which allows you to play with it in ways that I don’t think are so easy when it’s in your head. I’m certainly not capable of it. Writing things down can reduce the amount of ego that you have as you fiddled with an idea. Maybe I’m just crazy, but when I wrote them down and almost pretend like the person who wrote that wasn’t me, it was like, that’s past Devon or someone else entirely. I can detach myself from it much more in a way where, when I am a thinking through something just in my head and lying in bed wondering. I’m not going to be as rigorous about it. Now that’s not strictly worse. There are other things like everyone has great thoughts in the shower for instance. It’s very common. But it doesn’t serve all purposes, especially if you’re trying to vet and find the nooks and crannies of an idea. When you write it down, when an idea has inconsistencies or gaping holes, they are clear and right in the face when it’s written down in a way that is just so easy to gloss over when they’re in your head.
The Greatest Exercise in Procrastination by Masha Taktasheva:
I thought writing something that you already have in your head is very easy. No, it’s not easy at all. Though you seem to have a structure in your head, you can often see gaps in your argumentation and inconsistency of thoughts once you tell them to another person or write it down on paper. You can believe that you perfectly understand everything in your thoughts and it’s all properly aligned, but this is quite hard to achieve. …
I wanted to say everything. And said nothing. I perceived the text about “something” as a comprehensive list of all thoughts that I had, have and will have about “something”. It sounds silly, but I was stuck with this when I had actually started to put my thoughts in order. But you don’t have to be afraid. In regular conversations, we express a lot of thoughts, which are often incomplete and untidy, but this doesn’t make them any less important. After all, the text is just my thoughts converted into words with some delay.
At every step and every level there’s an abundance of detail with material consequences.
It’s tempting to think ‘So what?’ and dismiss these details as incidental or specific to stair carpentry. And they are specific to stair carpentry; that’s what makes them details. But the existence of a surprising number of meaningful details is not specific to stairs. Surprising detail is a near universal property of getting up close and personal with reality.
You can see this everywhere if you look. For example, you’ve probably had the experience of doing something for the first time, maybe growing vegetables or using a Haskell package for the first time, and being frustrated by how many annoying snags there were. Then you got more practice and then you told yourself ‘man, it was so simple all along, I don’t know why I had so much trouble’. We run into a fundamental property of the universe and mistake it for a personal failing.
More importantly, learn to rewrite.
The best stuff is rewritten over and over again. I know everything I’ve published that has done well has gone through several drafts and incorporates feedback from dozens of other people.
“But I’m not a great writer.”
Neither am I. But I am great at taking my first “vomit” draft and spending weeks to make it better and better, over and over again.
The Ultimate Guide to Writing Online by David Perell:
Popular blogs don’t exist by themselves. Your blog is like an island, and you need to join an archipelago. Finding a community like Ribbonfarm or Less Wrong is one of the fastest ways to spin up an audience. And if you can’t find a community, write for a specific person with a big audience. Whether you write for a community or an individual, if you can attract the gaze of big accounts who promote your work, your audience will grow.
You’re Good Enough, You’re Smart Enough, and People Would Like You (a) by Zvi Mowshowitz:
The problem is that our calibration is bad. The Fear has gone too far, and is keeping too many people quiet too often. Calibration is hard, and calibration of your own skill level is very hard. It speaks well of us that we would rather think of ourselves a level below where we are, than think of ourselves as a level above, but getting it right would be better still. We also are too afraid of trying to go one level too high, and not afraid enough of false humility. I am going to suggest that everyone adjust accordingly.
Consider levels on the following (0-5) online scale: Absent-Lurker-Commenter-Poster/Blogger-Organizer-Leader. You could have a similar offline scale: Absent-Silent-Talker-Presenter-Organizer-Leader.
My rule of thumb would be: Assume that you are ready to be one level higher than you think you are ready for.
The people I listen to need to talk, because that’s how people think. People need to think…True thinking is complex and demanding. It requires you to be articulate speaker and careful, judicious listener at the same time. It involves conflict. So you have to tolerate conflict. Conflict involves negotiation and compromise. So, you have to learn to give and take and to modify your premises and adjust your thoughts – even your perceptions of the world…Thinking is emotionally painful and physiologically demanding, more so than anything else – exept not thinking. But you have to be very articulate and sophisticated to have all this thinking occur inside your own head. What are you to do, then, if you aren’t very good at thinking, at being two people at one time? That’s easy. You talk. But you need someone to listen. A listening person is your collaborator and your opponent […]
The fact is important enough to bear repeating: people organize their brains through conversation. If they don’t have anyone to tell their story to, they lose their minds. Like hoarders, they cannot unclutter themselves. The input of the community is required for the integrity of the individual psyche. To put it another way: it takes a village to build a mind. …
A client of mine might say, “I hate my wife”. It’s out there, once said. It’s hanging in the air. It has emerged from the underworld, materialized from chaos, and manifested itself. It is perceptible and concrete and no longer easily ignored. It’s become real. The speaker has even startled himself. He sees the same thing reflected in my eyes. He notes that, and continues on the road to sanity. “Hold it,” he says. “Back up That’s too harsh. Sometimes I hate my wife. I hate her when she won’t tell me what she wants. My mom did that all the time, too. It drove Dad crazy. It drove all of us crazy, to tell you the truth. It even drove Mom crazy! She was a nice person, but she was very resentful. Well, at least my wife isn’t as bad as my mother. Not at all. Wait! I guess my wife is atually pretty good at telling me what she wants, but I get really bothered when she doesn’t, because Mom tortured us all half to death being a martyr. That really affected me. Maybe I overreact now when it happens even a bit. Hey! I’m acting just like Dad did when Mom upset him! That isn’t me. That doesn’t have anthing to do with my wife! I better let her know.” I observe from all this that my client had failed previously to properly distinguish his wife from his mother. And I see that he was possessed, unconsciously, by the spirit of his father. He sees all of that too. Now he is a bit more differentiated, a bit less of an uncarved block, a bit less hidden in the fog. He has sewed up a small tear in the fabric of his culture. He says “That was a good session, Dr. Peterson.” I nod.
Sometimes I identify turns of phrase that I’ve picked up from other people. Other times it’s more subtle; a style, a way of looking at the world, a method of reasoning. All of these are just different levels of pattern. My writing style is a slurry of the writing styles of everyone I’ve read and enjoyed, with some pieces chunkier than others. I think my worldview and my reasoning style are too, it’s just less obvious.
I worked on a book chapter for 2 months and deleted almost all of it. Feels like the writing equivalent of watching a suffering patient die. It’s sad, but at least the suffering is over. RIP, illogical chapter. (a)
Writing is the ultimate test of whether your thoughts make sense or are merely gut feelings. Feelings about why something is the way it is don’t need to be questioned or analyzed in your head because they feel good and you don’t want to rock the boat. Putting thoughts onto paper forces them into an unforgiving reality where you have to look at the words as the same symbols another reader will see them as, unaided by the silent crutch of gut feelings.
Good writers don’t walk around all day with 100,000 words of eloquent wisdom in their heads. No one can do that. They take some vague feeling they’ve been thinking about, dig into a bunch, write down what they’ve discovered, realize half of it doesn’t make sense, delete most of it, write some more, realize the new stuff contradicts itself, panic when they realize they don’t understand the topic as well as they thought they did, talk to other smart people about why that is, learn something new that reminds them of this other thing that might tie into the second paragraph, discover that this thing they believed before they started writing isn’t actually true, realize that if that thing isn’t true then this other thing is probably really important, and so on endlessly. Grinding through this process reveals bits of context that are hopefully new discoveries to the reader. More importantly, they were likely new discoveries to the writer before they set out writing.