Just over six months ago, I rebooted my personal site and started blogging. So far, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the response. It’s encouraging to know people like reading my own brand of stupidity.
As celebration, I decided to reflect on the lessons I’ve learned. The part of me that loves all things meta wouldn’t forgive myself if I skipped a chance to write a blog post about my blog.
1. Just Write. It’ll Get Better
Of my four most recent posts, not counting this one, three are among my favorites. That’s not a coincidence.
If you’re worried you can’t write well, write anyways. Everybody cringes when they read their past writing, me included. It’s all part of the process.
The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pounds of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work-and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.”
(David Bayles, Art & Fear)
Or said more succinctly,
Sucking at something is the first step to becoming sorta good at something.
(Jake The Dog, Adventure Time)
2. Your Writing Environment Matters. Take The Time To Find One That Works For You
My old site ran on Blogger. It worked, but I quickly lost motivation to update it. Blogger abstracts its functionality behind lots of tools, and I got sick of it. To create posts, I had to open Blogger’s site and write in their Microsoft Word-esque editor. To change the site layout, I could either use a drag and drop interface, or edit raw HTML. Plus, the Google+ tie-in was vaguely annoying.
In contrast, Github Pages has been a complete joy. It’s transparent, I have total control over my site’s design, and best of all I get free edit history thanks to Git. I know it’s incredibly nerdy to say this, but getting to write my blog posts in Markdown using Vim is fantastic.
So far, my blog uses images, audio clips, code highlighting, Youtube embeds, spoiler buttons, typeset math (from KaTeX), comments (from Disqus), and analytics (from Google Analytics). Not only does it all work, I know how it all works, which is a huge plus.
If you’re familiar with Git, it’s surprising how natural blogging in it feels. I can switch between different drafts on a whim, and can move from coding to blogging with ease if I need to take a break from debugging. The only issue I’ve had so far is a conflict between KaTeX and the Markdown rendering engine, but even that wasn’t so bad. After figuring out the problem, I added a hotfix the same day.
If you don’t like your writing environment, you aren’t going to write. There are lots of obstacles between having an idea and writing about it. Your environment shouldn’t be one of them.
3. It’ll Take Longer Than You Think. No, Longer Than That
I never planned to have an update schedule. As a student, I knew my work loads could shoot up in an instant, and I didn’t want to feel obligated to write something when I didn’t have the time to do it properly.
What I didn’t expect was how long writing would take. Without fail, every post I write takes longer to finish than I think it will. This is even after I try accounting for the planning fallacy. As said by Douglas Hofstadter,
Hofstadter’s Law: It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.
(from Gödel, Escher, Bach)
Proving Hofstadter’s Law wouldn’t be so bad if I didn’t do most of my writing at midnight. To show why it’s awful, here are the commits for my first technical post.
Pictured: my slow descent into madness
- Initial work saved Thursday, 2 AM
- Completed a first draft Friday night, working from 9 PM to midnight.
- Started revising Saturday night. Started at 11 PM, hoped to finish by 2 AM. Still working at 3:40 AM.
- Final launch at Sunday 6 PM. Attempted to fix my sleep schedule for Monday, failed miserably.
I have literally lost sleep to blogging. It’s silly, it’s stupid, and I don’t see it changing anytime soon. In fact, I’m doing some late night writing right now. Check the commits for this post. You should find a commit at 1 AM, another at 2 AM, a few 3 AM commits mixed in…
Pictured: my descent into madness, complete
It’s okay to get frustrated at your writing speed. Everyone wishes they could write it well the first time, but no one does. Try not to let it bother you, and keep going. I find that taking my rage out in commit messages helps.
More things. All the things. man whose going to read these commits anyways (Sat Dec 19 03:36:46 2015)
Time to in medias res this shit up (Sat Dec 26 16:50:37 2015)
Too lazy to make good commit message (Sun Jan 3 18:28:00 2016)
URGH JUST SHIP IT. (Sun Jan 10 11:50:03 2016)
Incidentally, this is why you should consider a CFAR workshop. Reading about logical fallacies doesn’t actually stop you from making them. I haven’t done one because the cost is scary, but I’ve considered it.
4. Don’t Worry About Your Ideas. Worry About Your Time
In the past 6 months, I’ve written fourteen posts. Fifteen, if you count this one. That averages to just over one post every 2 weeks.
I have blog-worthy ideas more often than once every 2 weeks. When I started this, I was worried I’d run out of things to say, but the opposite has turned true; I have too many ideas, and need to filter them aggressively.
I consider myself a slow person in all aspects of life. I rarely solve a problem at first glance, unless I’ve seen a problem that’s very very similar. I almost never ask questions in lecture, because I’m usually so lost I can’t articulate what I’m confused about. And when it comes to writing, I have to phrase an idea once in the head and thrice on the page before I’m satisfied.
Being slow isn’t bad, but it baffles me that web serials like Worm and blogs like Slate Star Codex can update over once a week. I certainly can’t do that. It requires a level of discipline I don’t have yet.
I think people undervalue how impressive sticking to a schedule is. We’d all be a lot better off if we valorized organization more.
5. Your Writing Style Is Your Speaking Style. Embrace It
When I started this blog, I chose to keep it colloquial. It’s my blog, and it’s my voice. If I want to use contractions or swear a bit, I will, formal writing conventions be damned. If my posts drag on, that’s part of who I am, I won’t hide it.
I don’t want to feel obligated to write a certain way, or present only certain parts about myself. I write things I’ll want to read later. If other people read them too, that’s cool.
Once I started writing like how I’d talk if I had the time to phrase things just right, I started noticing patterns. I start sentences with “and” or “but” or “because”, since I like the abruptness of the conjunction. I say “A and B and C” instead of “A, B, and C”, because sometimes I don’t like the mental pauses from the commas.
I use sudden paragraph breaks to emphasize specific sentences. I insert parallel structure to connect disparate ideas.
Parts of this are just for good style, but style isn’t a list of conventions you have to follow. It’s how you say the things you want to say.
When you write, you’re trying to say something. So actually say it. Don’t couch it in formal writing. If that means you add Internet memes everywhere, then so be it.
There’s a time and place for formal writing. Blog posts are neither the time nor the place.
6. Do Peer Review Whenever You Can
I usually don’t ask friends to read my posts before I share them. I want to work on my revision skills, and it feels cheap to outsource it to other people.
However, sometimes I decide I want more polish. I’ve asked for feedback on three posts: The Other Two Envelope Problem, “How Do You Feel About Grad School?”, and A Gentle Introduction to Secure Computation
Every post improved by an order of magnitude.
It’s hard to describe how much peer review helps. After reading so many drafts, your brain starts blurring the words together. You miss the forest for the trees, and getting another reader helps immensely with untangling this.
Even the best writers send drafts to editors and friends. There’s no shame in it. What’s more surprising is how little I valued it before now. It took me until my secure computation post to begin appreciating it, and I think I still don’t value it enough.
7. Effort Doesn’t Drive Quality, Experience Does
The first was very difficult for me to write. I didn’t know why I liked Doctor Whooves Adventures, and even after that post I find it hard to explain why I hope the series isn’t dead. Over two weeks, I agonized on how to express my love for the show. I went back and forth between different excerpts and ideas, and eventually posted a final draft to a lukewarm response. Looking back, I can see why.
In comparison, the post on AlphaGo was written in a single night. I wanted to strike while the iron was hot, since I knew interest in Go would be fleeting. Thanks to prior experience with the research areas involved, I got the gist of the paper in a single read, and thanks to thinking about these topics for over a year, I was able to quickly articulate my feelings on the result.
On review, my strongest posts are almost all technical. It’s what I have the most experience writing. I’ve been writing proofs since high school, gave a math talk in 11th grade, and did two research presentations last semester. Of course my technical posts are going to be better than my non-technical posts, I’ve had years of practice for the former.
That’s not saying all my non-technical writing is bad. My best post is still my non-technical think piece about grad school. What I’m saying is that if you’re going to write about something unfamiliar, don’t be surprised if it takes you ages to churn out something mediocre. The first draft of my graduate school post was awful, and it took a month of revising over winter break to get it to that state.
8. Try Not To Get Hung Up On Popularity
We all want other people to care about us, even when we give ourselves reasons why they shouldn’t. Writing is no exception. In fact, it’s an extra dangerous area. When you share a personal story or spend hours thinking about the easiest way to explain something, you can’t help but grow attached to your work. It’s like a little baby, and watching your baby get ignored is like a punch to the gut.
It’s obvious, but it bears repeating: popular things are not always good, and good things are not always popular. I’m a bit obsessed with checking my blog views, more than is healthy, and I need to remember to divorce my feelings about a post from its view count.
What people think about your work matters. But don’t let it rule everything about you. According to Google Analytics, my three most viewed posts are:
- A Gentle Introduction to Secure Computation
- “How Do You Feel About Grad School?”
- Mystery Hunt 2016 Wrap-Up
The first stuck on Hacker News for a day, and the last got shared to the Mystery Hunt subreddit. Note that both reasons for the high view count are only tangentially related to the actual quality.
If I cared only about view count, I wouldn’t bother writing about a My Little Pony made-for-TV movie, because I know most people won’t be interested. But I care about it, and that’s why I did it.
We’ll see how I feel about these lessons in the future. If there’s one constant in the universe, it’s that everyone thinks their past self is an idiot.
As for the next few months? I plan to start flushing my queue of non-technical post ideas. On the short list are
- A post about Gunnerkrigg Court
- A post on effort icebergs and criticism
- A post about obsessive fandoms
- A post detailing the hilariously incompetent history of the Dominion Online implementation
I may also try writing some short stories. I haven’t done creative writing since high school, but after reading so much web fiction, I’m up for giving it a shot.
At my current rate, four posts will take two months. With planning fallacy, maybe three. Knowing that I still overshoot my estimates…six months? Hopefully I can do more than that though.
I’ll close with a quote, something as “me” as I can find.
SP: Do you see now, Doctor? This land is divided, and there is no fixing it.
Doctor: Oh, I do see…I see that this cannot stand. I see that things are wrong here. Things are very, very wrong, and I don’t like it very much. I see that there is pain here, and I don’t like that either. I see that you’ve grown complacent. I think everyone has. There is nothing worse for life than complacency, and I shall not have it. I might not know many things about this land of myth and magic, but I know that Twilight is on the other side of this conflict and I know that this conflict is causing misery. I’m going to correct both those things.
(Doctor Whooves Adventures, “Bells of Fate”)
Keep going. Keep trying. Because whether it works out or not, it’s sadder to not try at all.
Onwards and upwards!