1000 words

Posted on August 22, 2019

I have challenged myself to write one thousand words this week. I’ll do the same next week and hopefully start to build a habit. One thousand words isn’t very much to read but, at the moment, it feels like a lot to write; hopefully as the habit builds and the creative juices start flowing a bit more easily I will be able to increase to 2000 words (and maybe beyond).

Most of the (non-email, non-messenger and non-code) writing I’ve attempted to do over the past few years has been of a technical nature. e.g. a blog post exploring some aspect of machine learning. This type of writing is not good for efficiently hitting a word count because I end up spending just as much, or more, time on the technical aspects rather than the words. For this type of post to ever get finished I would need to choose a topic I am very comfortable with to start with but this is less interesting.

So instead I am trying to pick a topic that I can write about in a more “stream of consciousness” style so that it is the writing that takes the time and energy rather than anything else - I want to be able to get in a state of flow quickly and more easily. Then, once this skill is improved, I will be able to start to apply it elsewhere.

Are my motivations purely professional with this? i.e. if I didn’t anticipate a business benefit would I still be interested in doing this? In some ways, yes. I guess I believe that being able to write (and write well) is virtuous and I admire people who can do it regularly. But there are lots of things like that and I certainly don’t have time to do them all so why focus on this one?

I think the reason for ranking this so highly as a skill I’d like to develop must be mostly because of the professional impact I expect it will have. I’ve seen many people (Kevin, Rand, Paul Graham(?), it feels like there should be more) build a lot of success of writing. I feel like I’m doing lots of interesting stuff, maybe on the cutting edge, that is under appreciated because I don’t tell anyone what is going on. For someone like me who doesn’t live in London and who doesn’t like “sales” writing is a good way to get the word out about what I do and what I’m interested in. Seeing how other people have succeeded with this in the past gives confidence that this is a viable strategy.

BUT! In some ways blogging is dead; RSS is in decline and people are more likely to consume directly from Twitter, Facebook or Linkedin (maybe instagram too?) rather than longform content elsewhere. It is very reasonable to say that it is not possible to use the methods of the noughties to grow and reach an audience today.

Luckily for me, my audience is small and (I think - not sure how to check this really) they do read longform stuff online. Whether this is the stuff I want to write or not is another question but the point I’m making earlier is that the type of writing I’m doing isn’t the blocker; the blocker is that I’m not doing any writing at all!

The first step is to start writing (happening now) to improve this skill and develop the habit. The second step will be to start writing something that I’m happy to publish online and then the third, if I ever get there, will be to write good stuff for the right audience. Maybe that third step is actually multiple steps each of which is difficult but I’ll worry about that when I get there.

“happy to publish” online is a weird bar to set. I publish some extremely low quality inane stuff on my twitter and I don’t have a problem with that. I’d also be fairly easy going about publishing this bit of nonsense somewhere on the internet (especially considering it is almost certain that no one will read it) but I’m not sure I’d want to publish it on E-Analytica. The kind of people who I want to reach there are probably not the kind of people who would be interested in reading this unless they knew me already. I guess that is the conflict of blogging; they can’t all be zingers but is it a blog if you only post once per year. And do you need more than that?

In the old days (10 years ago!) you’d want regular content so that you’d always be in people’s feeds. Now this has moved to social media where mediocre content won’t get spread around as much so it might be better to save the energy for publishing more of the good stuff.

“save the energy” is a bad choice of words there - the blocker isn’t the lack of high quality writing, it is the lack of any writing - I really mean “don’t publish the mediocre stuff” or something like that. Which is what I’m doing by default with this piece in my scratchpad.

I imagine a growing collection of half formed thoughts and dead end essays each of which contributes to my growing fluency and each of which may contribute paragraphs and ideas to the “great content” that I might one day produce. That is optimistic but, if it doesn’t work out, I’ll still have done some regular writing and improved my fluency which is virtuous in itself.

The other option is “publish and be dammed” and I do find this quite tempting. On another blog, or on E-Analytica but separate from the main site hierarchy. The latter feels like an authentic expression of self (which I like) but which may also inhibit me writing at all. And the other thing is that it will lead me into the temptation of spending a lot of time on publishing workflows i.e. updating hakyll, site templates etc. Time that I could more usefully spend on something else.

But the allure of “just make it easy to publish and you’ll write more” is tempting. However, it should be rephrased as “just make it easy to publish and you’ll spend less time optimising your publishing workflow”.

I’m over 1000 words now and haven’t worried at all about directory structure, where to store stuff, CI or automated post tagging so I think the above point is a good one. When I’m writing; write! Worry about the other stuff some other time.