How to start writing online
Why I'm writing online, what barriers I faced, and what helped me get started.
Around the beginning of the year, I made a goal to write more and publish online. Now that I've overcome what has been blocking me, I wanted to share what I found helpful. If you have an itch to write online, here are some of the barriers I came across and what helped me get my first article (this one!) published.
The thrill of writing and the power of the internet
In 2014 I had just finished selling pest control door-to-door for four hot months in Austin, Texas. Although grueling, you can make a surprising amount of money doing this and I wanted to reward myself with a vintage car. A neighbor at our apartment had a little Datsun roadster that caught my eye, and after watching the video Dare to Be Different in a Datsun 240Z far too many times, I pulled the trigger on a partially restored 1972 Datsun 240Z.
I loved this car and wanted to share my adventures with it online. So I started a blog on WordPress called Me and My Z. My third post, 7 Reasons Not to Own a Datsun, got a lot more traction than I had expected. Without any promotion of my own, it was shared across Facebook groups and Datsun enthusiast forums, and after one month it was seen by over 10,000 people from all over the world.
This experience taught me that there are passionate communities all over the internet connecting over basically everything.
Why write online?
Julian Shapiro shares three reasons why you should write online: clarity, leverage, and connection. And I would add a fourth, creativity.
Have you ever tried to explain a novel idea or exciting new concept to someone but when it comes out it doesn't make any sense or doesn't make the impact you were hoping for? I often run into this problem when I try to untangle a complex thought for the first time.
If you have valuable ideas but can't communicate them, then the value is lost inside your head. And if the ideas aren't clear enough in your head to communicate them, do you really understand them?
The best way to further develop and refine ideas in your head is to write. And then share them.
To write well is to think clearly. That's why it's so hard.
- David McCullough
In 2008, writing under a pseudonym, Satoshi Nakamoto wrote the paper that first introduced Bitcoin. Bitcoin has since surpassed $1T in market cap and has brought blockchain and cryptocurrency into the mainstream. This watershed moment happened when Nakamoto wrote down his idea and shared it via an email mailing list.
That's the power of the internet. Millions of conversations are happening every minute online. When you have your own corner of the internet and share things that are interesting to you, you have the opportunity to reach many more people than you ever could in real life.
The best way to connect with those who share similar passions is through the internet. It's a more efficient way of networking and it doesn't require small talk.
Every time you share an idea on the Internet, robots carry them around the globe until they find your future friends—and they basically work for free.
- David Perell
When I was younger and had more time on my hands, there were few days where I was not creating something. Whether that was building a treehouse, filming a silly home video, writing a song, drawing cartoons, or playing Legos, I always had a creative outlet. As I have gotten older my time spent on creative projects has become less frequent. Writing and creating online gives me an outlet and motivation to create and share more.
Being a perfectionist
The beauty of the internet is that you can share your journey. This means that not everything is going to be perfect. People want to participate in the process. They want to see behind the scenes. Shipped is better than perfect.
Trying to be someone else
When I started thinking about sharing something I would get in my own head and think "would <insert smart person I follow> publish something like this?" The answer would almost always be, "no."
But "no" is just the answer I should be looking for! That means that I am sharing something unique to me. Maybe I won't be as articulate or insightful in the beginning, but that's one of the reasons I started writing in the first place.
We're all terrified of being revealed as amateurs, but in fact, today it is the amateur—the enthusiast who pursues her work in the spirit of love, regardless of the potential for fame, money, or career—who often has the advantage over the professional.
- Austin Kleon, Show Your Work
What if I look stupid?
What will my friends and family think? The truth is, they probably aren't even going to read anything I write.
Nobody is rooting for you to fail.
You may succeed. You may fail. But, for the most part, nobody cares one way or the other.
This is good. The world is big and you are small, which means you can chase your dreams with little worry for what people think.
- James Clear
The book Show Your Work was very helpful in overcoming the psychological barriers I mentioned. It helped me get out of my head and see the value of sharing my work and "working with my garage door open." It helped me get past my aversion to self-promotion and feel more comfortable sharing my authentic self online. It is a quick read and I recommend checking it out.
Too much reading, not enough understanding
When I sat down to write, my first challenge was the blank page. I had a lot of ideas from books and articles I had read but I wasn't sure how to link everything together and communicate a clear message. I had nothing saved or written down to draw from.
I went back and started curating all the links and highlights of things related to the subject. I soon had dozens of pages of notes and references. I started writing what came to mind, hoping that some structure would appear. Sadly, it just became an overwhelming mess. So I would start a new document and try again. After doing this about five times, I realized I was going in circles.
The problem was that I had a lot more links and highlights than I did my own thoughts and writing. While going through the links and trying to condense them into my own writing, I found that I hadn't absorbed or understood as much as I thought.
So I decided to do more reading 😆 and purchased Sönke Ahren's How to Take Smart Notes. After learning some basic principles, I wished I had read this book at the outset.
This book teaches that when you are reading something it is not enough to just copy and paste highlights. You need to write down in your own words what it means as if you were addressing an audience. Besides being necessary for understanding, these fully formed thoughts then become the content for your writing.
Organizing and connecting ideas
Another key component of taking smart notes is cross-referencing.
Creativity is just connecting things.
- Steve Jobs
To think critically and make novel associations the brain requires external scaffolding. As you research and generate new ideas you need to link all of your fully formed thoughts along with their references. This is known as the Zettelkasten method.
I recently started using Roam Research to do this. Its one-sentence description is: "A note-taking tool for networked thought." It allows me to link different pages or add a hashtag for different topics. This creates a bidirectional link between pages which builds a network or graph, linking all of my notes.
Doing this in practice takes discipline but it has definitely helped me so far. As my notes grow they become a place to make associations and find insights, rather than an overwhelmingly long document of ideas and links.
Getting a website up
I'm a believer in practice over gear. Start taking photos with your phone before buying a professional camera setup. Borrow your friend's snowboard before going out and buying the expensive gear. See if you like it and prove to yourself that you are going to stick with it.
Taking my own advice, I started first by researching and writing a lot. But I never published anything. If I had something written I needed to lower the barrier of publishing it. I needed to be only a few clicks away from getting it out.
I decided to try Ghost because it is built specifically for content creators to publish online. It has free templates and is open source which gives me the ability to customize the site as I please. And Ghost has its own built-in editor which makes it as frictionless as possible to create content and share it.
I recommend having something independent of social media. You can still use social media to promote or engage with people but you should have something that you have complete control over. Personal websites and email addresses have been around since the beginning of the internet and are going to stick around independent of social media.
Here's to the first post of many I plan to share in the future 🍻. My goal with this post was to get something shipped and start building momentum, and I hope it can be helpful for you as well.
I plan on posting roughly every month. Things I am interested in that you might see on here: ambient computing, smart building technology, startups, books I am reading, pizza tips/reviews, music/guitar stuff, and interesting things I find online. It's all still an experiment. But if you're interested in keeping in touch, consider subscribing.
If you have any feedback or comments, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm interested in learning more about any writing tools or strategies you have found helpful.
1. I was recommended this book by Ali Abdaal in his YouTube video How Writing Online Made me a Millionaire.
2. Andy Matuschak explains the problem of retaining understanding through reading in Why books don't work.
3. The problem I faced after getting past the point of the blank page was what David Perell calls Writing Sprawl. His advice is to create a 100-word summary and cut out everything that doesn't fit.
4. This passage about the mind's reliance on external scaffolding from Neil Levy is cited in How to Take Smart Notes:
"In any case, no matter how internal processes are implemented, insofar as thinkers are genuinely concerned with what enables human beings to perform the spectacular intellectual feats exhibited in science and other areas of systematic enquiry, as well as in the arts, they need to understand the extent to which the mind is reliant upon external scaffolding."
5. Shout out to Evan Armstrong for recommending Ghost to me on LinkedIn.
Thanks to Jacee Horne for reading drafts of this.