Why to Write

Some people write to exorcise demons, to achieve fame, or to make their fortunes. These are all well and good, if a tad grandiose, and if you’re able to make one of these work out, more power to you. I never expected any of these, and have not been disappointed. I honestly didn’t start this blog for any particular reason other than that I enjoyed it, but the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve realized that there have been some (mostly) unexpected benefits.

Skill Building

Anything that matters takes a long time to learn. Whether we’re talking about foreign languages, visual arts, sports, programming, musical instruments, whatever – it takes years to master. But while many of these things can be done sub-rosa – no one needs to know that you’re practicing the piano for hours every night – your writing skills are on display, every day. If you’re reading this blog (which, presumably, you are), then odds are good that you write email, reports, proposals, etc.

As with coding, the first hurdle in writing is correctness of meaning. Writing both clearly and precisely takes practice, and is harder than most people realize. Doing so concisely is an art (which, as my regular readers already know, I have yet to master).

The second hurdle is avoiding errors. Whether consciously or not, people will judge you based on your writing. A report filled with misspellings, grammatical errors, poor usage, inappropriately formal or informal language, etc., will create a negative impression. I frequently read resumes (by native English speakers) with typos and grammatical errors. This is the first thing I see about them, and my initial impression is that they didn’t even care enough to run a spell checker, or have a friend/spouse/mom proofread it. I wonder if they’re as careless with their code. Whether fair or not, this isn’t how you want to appear to a potential employer!

The final hurdle is style. In one of my previous companies there was a designer whose writing was so consistently and good-naturedly hilarious, that reading one of his emails or design documents was a real treat.

Writing is a skill, and the more you practice, the better you’ll get.

Figuring out what you think

We all have beliefs we’ve accepted uncritically, and one of the side effects of writing down a detailed argument (pro or con) is that you’re forced to analyze it in depth. Writing isn’t just about transcribing what you already know – an idea that starts out as a vague mass of half-formed thoughts, uninformed opinions, and magical thinking has to go through a transformation before it’s ready to present to the world. Getting it all down on the page, thinking through how to structure the argument / information, and choosing what to leave in and what to take out, is a hugely valuable process of organizing your thoughts on a subject.

Turning a critical eye on your own ideas can lead you to some awkward but important insights. I’ve occasionally changed my mind when writing about something, or discovered that what I had assumed were “facts” were just overblown opinions. Writing, rewriting, and testing with a safe audience (family, friends, etc.) gives you an environment in which to come up with the most compelling version of your ideas – as well as making sure they aren’t batshit crazy – before sharing them with the world.

Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra

When I was in high school, my best friend and I had both read all the same books and comics, seen the same TV shows, watched the same movies, and been through the same classes. Sure, there were important areas of difference (I was a computer nerd, he was a baseball player), but we had so much common context that we could have each other in stitches with just a couple choice words.

Over the years, I’ve frequently asked friends to read several books in order to jumpstart a common vocabulary (what? you haven’t read Snow Crash? here, borrow my copy). Likewise, I frequently ask people I work with to read specific books on technical management – it’s a lot easier to talk about flow and a productive workplace environment with people who’ve read Peopleware, for instance, than to start from scratch each time it comes up. Likewise, after reading Crucial Conversations, a number of us have adopted some of its vocabulary in talking about issues.

One of the unexpected benefits of writing this blog is that it’s served as a way to create a common vocabulary with some of my co-workers. They may not agree with me, but at least they know where I’m coming from. It’s also an easy way to get people up to speed – it’s more efficient (and, I think, less confrontational) to have a new team member read a blog post on how to be a star, and then to have a discussion about it, than to try to remember the salient points every time a new person comes on board. In some ways, this blog is a user’s manual for my colleagues, though one that’s getting a bit longish.

A Caveat

Anything you post – anywhere, even with privacy settings turned to their maximum setting – will eventually make its way into Google’s cache. Any employer, job applicant, investor, potential date, FBI agent – anyone – will be able to read that ill-conceived post that was “meant as a joke.” Assume that everything you write on the web, ever, is going to be trivially visible to anyone who cares, forever, and act accordingly.

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