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Choosing to Write

"If I waited till I felt like writing, I'd never write at all." --Anne Tyler

Every week I sit down and write an article for this blog, and every week it's challenging. Sometimes it's also scary because I'm not sure I'll write well enough or that the subject will be interesting enough. Sometimes it's also fun because I'm writing about something especially fascinating to me. But it's always challenging to put my thoughts down in writing, organized in a way that will be clear and understandable.

For the past two years I've committed to writing something every week, so I have to figure out what I can write about in a reasonable amount of time while still saying something meaningful. This is a hard task to do consistently, and trying to do it myself has given me great respect for the writers that do it for years and do it well. I try to spend about 4-6 hours a week on writing, enough to get into a topic, but not so much that I don't have time for anything else. I don't worry about length too much as long as I stay on topic without rambling.

Time is the main constraint because I have a lot of other things I want to do with my time. I don't want to spend it all hashing and rehashing articles, but I do want to make sure I'm delivering something every week. It would be too easy to sit on my articles week after week and edit them to death. I've pretty much posted every article I've written before I thought it was 100% perfect. I know I can always make more edits, say things differently, or expound on details. I'll never get an article to that perfect state, so I need to put a stake in the ground and ship it. Then I can start thinking about the next article. Each article is what it is, and I'll get better over time.

Because of the time constraint, I've learned that it's easiest to write about things that I'm already thinking about or working on. If I had to do a ton of research or other work before writing about something, it would be difficult to write with any competence and still get an article out once a week with time left over. That may seem obvious, but the pull to write about things that are slightly beyond my realm of expertise is strong.

Sometimes I'll let that desire get the better of me when I feel the topic is especially important or interesting. For example, I don't study economics professionally, but I do read about it a lot and the current trends in inequality are a pretty big deal so it was worth the extra time it took to write. I've also spread more outside the world of software development recently with excursions into Mathematics and Physics. These subjects are fascinating, and I learn more about them the best way I know how, by studying books, analysing problems, and now writing about what I've found and what my impressions are.

I've learned quite a lot through writing, and one thing I've learned that I didn't expect was that the articles that I enjoyed writing the most and think are the best writing I've done are not at all the most viewed posts. I could be totally off-base, and the posts I think are my best (like this one or this one) actually aren't. But I think something else is at play. I post on Hacker News and sometimes on Reddit.com, and nearly all of my most popular posts are ones that caught the wave on these news sites.

I find this interesting because from watching the front pages of these news sites, you may think that the best articles on any given day generally filter to the top. There is definitely filtering going on, and better articles head to the front page while worse articles drop off fairly quickly. But from the perspective of an individual blogger, the fact that some articles grab interest and others don't appears mostly random with a lot of luck involved. If the right set of people doesn't see a post at the right time, it will drop right off the new page without getting noticed. That same post might make it to the front page if the first people that saw it were different. That's probably the best behavior that can be asked for with these sites, where the front page holds articles of generally good quality, but not necessarily every good post gets voted up. Not that I'm whining about my posts not getting noticed—it doesn't really matter—I just find the process interesting and illuminating.

Another thing I find intriguing about my most popular posts is that one of them is a honeypot. It was a fluff post pointing to the other blogs I've read that I thought were exceptionally good. This one post attracts nearly all of the comment spam I get, and it's always in the form of "Love your blog. <link to random, generic IT company>" These comments are filtered out automatically, so I'm the only one that ever sees them. I didn't even have to set Blogger up that way, Google has it that way by default. Do the spammers realize this filtering is happening? Is the spam meant for me? Strange. I'm not even sure how many real readers look at this post and how much of it's popularity rank is due to the spammers.

One last thing I've learned is that focus is important. Yes, that's something I should have known already, but I learn it anew all the time. It's easy to get distracted by shiny things and go off on tangents. I even allow for that inevitability in the tag line of this blog. Every time I go off exploring some new thing, I find it difficult to keep making progress on the other things I want to get done.

I do think there's value in exploring and learning about stuff that's tangential to my main interests, but I need to temper those excursions so they don't take over all of my free time. Keep your eye on the prize, so to speak. That's why I find it funny looking back at my list of things I want to master in my lifetime. Eleven things is too much, and with hindsight I can easily eliminate four of them as simply being hobbies or things I won't really pursue in the future. That leaves seven things I want to master in my lifetime (to my personal definition of mastery), two of which I already feel that I've accomplished. That's much more manageable and might even leave room for new future interests.

It's useful to have exploratory periods where you're expanding your horizons to see what's out there, and then have consolidation periods where you concentrate on one thing for a while. It's a natural ebb and flow of learning that allows you to be aware of more subjects outside of what you normally do while still learning something deeply.

Next year I'm due for a consolidation period, so I want to narrow the topics I write about as well as the topics I learn about. This past year I let my writing topics go far and wide. Next year, I'm aiming to focus on software development, at least for the first part of the year. Partly, this refocusing is because writing and learning are so intertwined. I write about what I'm learning about because it's easier to pick topics that are interesting and fresh to me, and vice versa, I need to learn about what I'm writing about for obvious reasons. Learning and writing kind of drive each other. If I add focus to that combination, I can make better progress on the things I care about.

I've found that I enjoy putting things I'm learning into my own words in an attempt to explain them. I find great value in sharing knowledge, and I hope that some of the things I've written have sparked ideas in others. I could try writing more about stuff that would appeal to a wider audience, but that doesn't seem genuine to me and would probably show. I could write about stuff that I've known about for a long time, but I wouldn't be as interested in writing about stuff that's no longer challenging to me and that would show as well. I find that the best topics to write about are those that I'm dealing with and learning and doing right now. I sincerely thank you, my readers for taking the time to look at my articles and share your thoughts here and there. I can't wait to see what another year of blogging holds. Happy New Year!