Why I write

16 minute read

Conviction level: 95%

Writing is selfish.

Well, perhaps not all writing. If you’re writing for yourself and never intend for anyone to read it, you’re an exception [1]. But the majority of writing is intended for someone else to read and respond to. Whether that be a paper at school, email at work, or self-referential blog post on your web site, you’re yelling to get your audience’s attention, with the purpose usually to inform, entertain, or persuade [2]. When you want someone to read something you wrote, you’re forcing your ideas into their mind. You’re stealing their time, their most precious commodity. Content creation is also attention appropriation.

Not all writing shouts at you with the same intensity. That school paper which you’ve used double spacing after each fullstop, increased the font size of punctuation marks, and messed with the line spacing between lines is a weak whimper, created to fulfil some criteria and hopefully never referenced again once you’ve been graded. But good writing, great writing, comes at you with a ferocity and intensity like a storm at sea, demanding your complete focus [3]. Little of our writing is going to be good, and even less will be great, but we still write with the hope that our intended recipient glances at it. We want that theft of your time. We want to be read.

Yet we have to face the inconvenient reality that most of our writing goes unread. We shout into the abyss, but the abyss doesn’t shout back [4]. It’s deathly quiet. Take Howard Marks’s experience with his now-famous memos::

Marks is known for his Chairman’s Memos that he has been his creative outlet since 1990. He describes the first decade of printing them — literally on paper, inserting them into stamped envelopes and physically mailing them off into the world — where he received precisely zero response. “We didn’t even know if anyone got them.”

How then, do we handle this sad situation? Marks explains how he dealt with this:

The answer I think is that I was writing for myself. Number one, it’s creative, I enjoy the writing process. Number two I thought that the topics were interesting and that I wanted to put them on paper. Number three, writing makes you tighten up your thinking.

and Morgan Housel follows up with his rationale for writing:

Writing is the ultimate test of whether your thoughts make sense or are merely gut feelings. Feelings about why something is the way it is don’t need to be questioned or analyzed in your head because they feel good and you don’t want to rock the boat.

Thus, we should write for ourselves first and foremost. This particularly applies in non-fiction writing, where we’re discussing an idea. Formalising our vague thoughts concretely helps us identify weak spots in our understanding. You’ll have encountered that feeling before when elaborating your idea on paper and discovering a logical gap, or when explaining something to someone else and realising you don’t understand the topic as well as you thought. Having an audience is awesome, and feedback is fantastic, but we should write without the assumption anyone will be interested in what we have to say. Writing for ourselves is its own reward, and any other benefits are positive surprises. I’m not saying to avoid publicity, but to remember that publicity is a bonus and should not be your primary driver. If it is, I fear you’ll burn out quickly.

Which brings me to the point of this post, which is to explain my reasons for starting this blog [5]. I’ve briefly described my rationale in my about section, which coincidentally is similar to the reasons discussed above [6]. For me, the act of writing is helpful to organise my thoughts, reflect on inconsistencies, and synthesise information. A few years ago, I started compiling interesting things I’d come across and emailing these to friends. Of course, I was hoping that I was adding value to them, but the main benefit to me was and still is how it forced me to record information in a succint and understandable format. Whenever someone talks about an issue I’ve written about before, my default is to send them the relevant email as a follow up [7] . As the years went by I added more people to the list, and even received thoughtful replies that improved my understanding. I comfort myself with the thought that noone has asked to drop off the list yet, though I’m wondering how much of that is a combination of (1) feeling too awkward to ask and (2) not even reading the email in the first place. Hmm…

With the email system going well, why did I decide to set up a public blog then? I was nudged initially by a friend, and became more serious about it after a change in personal circumstances. These were the pros and cons that factored into my decision:

Pros:

  1. Easier searching and categorisation of my content. I’d be able to tag and find posts by category, and could more easily forward them to whoever was interested. Gmail search wasn’t enough since the emails did not have standardised titles or tags
  2. Accountability for my thoughts. Putting my opinion out there would force me to be accountable [8]. You might have noticed the conviction level disclaimer in front of the newer posts, a method I’m testing to calibrate the accuracy of my beliefs. I’m mostly ranking conviction level in steps of 20%, with the occassional 5% or 95% cop-out. I think getting more granular than that would be false precision for myself, but wanted to publicly put my opinions out to build credibility
  3. Build my personal brand. This will be the topic of another post, but I believe that there’s a trend of individualisation as more people move away from work and company oriented identities to becoming their own brand, such as the influencer movement in marketing and publicity
  4. Force me to learn a tiny bit of technical knowledge to set up the site the way I wanted it to look
  5. Low (20%?) chance of the content reaching a larger audience and getting to learn from the increased feedback [9]
  6. Even lower (5%) chance of the blog reaching an audience at scale

Cons:

  1. Setting up whatever site I was using could be annoying and time consuming. Will elaborate on my difficulties faced below
  2. The permanence of public content would mean that I could be liable for a controversial opinion I post here
  3. Potential doxxing of my private information and general harrassment. I’ve been reluctant to post private details on my own social media, so creating a public site is opposite to my general inclination
  4. Abandoning this blog after running out of the initial wave of motivation. A half serious discussion on the terror of writing regular content can be found here
  5. Running out of good material to write and then having to churn out bad material to hit my 1 year target

Come to think of it [10], I should have used a decision journal framework to document this, but I guess that’s a missed opportunity. However, the above pros/cons list was enough to convince me that I should at least attempt to start a site, and see how I liked the experience. This goes back to what I’ve discussed about liking the idea of something vs liking actually doing it. After thinking through the above, it was time for me to find out, and I started looking into how to get started.

I had a few requirements. I wanted a custom domain, which ruled Medium out. If I was writing to build a brand, the first step was to have the domain name be my own. Unfortunately leonlin.com was already taken [11], but fortunately adding my chinese initials worked to get an available name on the cheap. I bought it from the appropriately named site namecheap

Ideally I wanted everything to be free, aside from paying for the domain name. This ruled out Wix, which apparently only lets you have a custom domain on the paid tier. Wix features also seemed to be more suited for building a company website rather than a blog e.g. limited formatting options, functionality etc.

I also wanted a simple site, and apparently that ruled out wordpress. Discussions online mentioned stability and update issues on wordpress that I didn’t want to have to deal with. I didn’t understand some of the commentary and features mentioned, but it seemed like wordpress was bloated and slow.

I also wanted some amount of customisation, ideally allowing me to learn a light amount of coding. This led me to Github pages, which seemed to fulfill all the criteria I had if I was willing to put in the work to learn how to set the site up. One advantage of using Github pages was that I’d be able to learn firsthand about an application that was popular among the more technical community and hopefully figure out why it was popular. Another advantage was that Github pages is a static site generator, which apparently means it’s light and quick to load. There was also a large (but confusing!) library of custom themes that would help setup but allow tweaks, and updating was supposed to be simple as well. Github also thankfully had desktop functionality and didn’t require me to install Ruby or gem files locally, though the functionality is reduced and I can’t seem to delete folders on web for some reason.

There exist a myriad of other options besides Github, but given the amount of support and my requirements, I went with Github pages. I may decide to move this eventually if I change priorities, but it seems to have functioned well so far.

I knew what I wanted to use, so it was time to set it up. Creating an account was simple, but I was quickly lost after that. It didn’t help that more detailed information on how to actually get a site running was scattered across different sites and also outdated occasionally. I’d find a helpful tutorial online by some helpful indian youtuber and then learn that gh-pages branch was no longer required and half of the steps he took were irrelevant now. I’d find five different ways to setup a custom domain, none of which seemed to fit my simple situation [12]. And people had strong opinions on whether to include the www in a domain name

One feature I thought about for a while was whether to allow comments. I decided against it, as the comment section for public posts tends to devolve into spam or irrelevancy based on my experience. For example, see the top comments from the post Zuckerberg recently made about FB’s new priorities:

FB comments

My thoughts on comments are shared by others. A separate moderated forum would be ideal, though I doubt that this blog would ever get popular enough to require that. In the meantime, people that are interested in discussing the content here can email or message me on twitter.

I spent longer than I’d rather admit on choosing the theme for the blog. I ended up going with Minimal mistakes, which was clean, customisable, and free. It took me a significant amount of time editing some of the code to get it to look like its current state, which is a combination a preference for simple layouts and me giving up on some of the features I can’t seem to fix:

Issues I still need to fix but don’t know how or haven’t looked into:

  1. Why are the post previews only two lines long? (See image at end of this list)

  2. Is there a way to spellcheck my posts while I’m still in the draft stage?

  3. How do I search for a word within my draft post, like a find or replace function?

  4. On mobile, the email and twitter info collapse into a button with the label “Follow”. This is apparently the same text as the RSS feed “Follow” section, so editing this label to “Info” messes up the RSS feed title.

  5. Indentation of pictures and quotes within a sub point doesn’t seem possible? e.g. I’d have inserted the post preview picture below after the first bullet point but it messes up the numbering

  6. Is there a better way to preview the post? The regular preview after saving doesn’t show all the formatting, and there doesn’t seem to be a view unpublished draft option

  7. One of the main features of Github is how updating via commits work. I still don’t understand that and don’t know how to push the commits on the main theme down to my repository without copying every single file individually. Help.

2 line previews gah

It has been highly frustrating trying to set everything up, and even something as simple as adding those images above took time. I don’t regret the decision yet, as I’ve learnt minor details about how the web works and have a product to show for my learning as well [13]. One other surprise perk is that I now have a formal system of noting down ideas and articles that I want to write about in the future since I realised keeping a list would be helpful. As Paul Graham noted, the internet might make this the golden age of the essay [14], which further supports my personal brand and individualisation thesis. I’m excited as to where this idea might go and hope to keep writing.

All that said, here are some predictions:

  • 80% odds of this blog having minimal following (<100 readers) in 1 year
  • 20% odds of this blog reaching a sizeable following (>1000 readers) in 3 years
  • 5% odds of this blog having a post that’s widely shared (>1000 readers) in 1 year
  • 80% odds of this blog still being updated in 1 year
  • 60% odds of this blog still being updated in 3 years

As you can see, I’m not placing good odds on the popularity of this site. Perhaps that’s a natural hedge, but I think that going through the process of thinking, writing, and revising my thoughts is probably the biggest likely outcome for this experiment. And that’s enough reason to do it.

At the end of the day, my writing is for me alone.

My writing is selfish.

Footnotes

  1. Diaries are probably the big exception here, though even the best selling diary was written with intent on publication, which was surprising for me to learn about. I don’t have stats on the proportion of publicly written material vs privately written material, but would assume the majority of material written is intended for others to read. Even writers famous for being reclusive still ended up publishing their work. There’s a selection bias here, since they’re famous becuase they were published, but I think people are writing to be read. This list of quotes by famous authors on why they write is relevant to browse through, I particularly like these quotes:

    “Writing is my way of expressing – and thereby eliminating – all the various ways we can be wrong-headed.” – Zadie Smith

“When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art.’ I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.” – George Orwell

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” – Flannery O’Connor

  1. The “author’s purpose”, as some of us might have been taught. Mildly annoying to note that a quick search on author purpose’s turns up different categorisations, though most overlap to some degree
  2. Great writing stays with you.
  3. A butchering of the meaning of a quote but I think serves to make my point. I believe this applies both to school, work, and published writing. Think about how often you yourself have skimmed a paper, scanned an email, or just glanced at the headline of an article. I believe most writing is never read in full.
  4. Talk about burying the lead huh
  5. I hadn’t read either Marks’s or Morgan’s comments prior to setting up this blog; I came across them before writing this post in a convenient coincidence
  6. Admittedly lazy, though I suppose some self-promotion doesn’t hurt
  7. Also echoed by Fred and Howard on their blogs
  8. I have reluctantly put my email and twitter info on the blog, will see if that’s helpful or not
  9. Real time example of how writing helps in thinking better
  10. By someone who appears to be just squatting on the site till 2020 as part of a half finished school project. I suppose I could have offered to buy him out but I don’t think my name is worth that much…
  11. It took a few tries to link the custom domain to the blog, and none of the tutorials online seemed to have the same settings that I had
  12. There’s this set of principles I read somwhere before by a guy who talks about a list of things everyone should know how to do, and setting up a website and custom domain is one of them. I can’t recall who or where I saw it, which is unfortunate as there were other interesting remarks on that list, but it’s stuck with me as something worth learning about.
  13. I originally wanted to discuss Paul’s writing in detail, but couldn’t find a way to insert it into the article. Some quotes I found interesting:

    When I give a draft of an essay to friends, there are two things I want to know: which parts bore them, and which seem unconvincing. The boring bits can usually be fixed by cutting.

The sort of writing that attempts to persuade may be a valid (or at least inevitable) form, but it’s historically inaccurate to call it an essay. An essay is something else. […] An essay is something you write to try to figure something out. Figure out what? You don’t know yet. And so you can’t begin with a thesis, because you don’t have one, and may never have one.

I’m not as sure about this. You’re still trying to make a point in your writing. Might be semantics though.

Why not just sit and think? Well, there precisely is Montaigne’s great discovery. Expressing ideas helps to form them. Indeed, helps is far too weak a word. Most of what ends up in my essays I only thought of when I sat down to write them. That’s why I write them.

Nice to see agreement here with what I discussed above

An essay you publish ought to tell the reader something he didn’t already know.

I’d much rather read an essay that went off in an unexpected but interesting direction than one that plodded dutifully along a prescribed course.

With the caveat that the direction is interesting, which is probably the crux of his argument. Avoid boring people?

So if you want to write essays, you need two ingredients: a few topics you’ve thought about a lot, and some ability to ferret out the unexpected.

I think a lof of this flows out of reading and talking to a variety of people

One of the keys to coolness is to avoid situations where inexperience may make you look foolish. If you want to find surprises you should do the opposite. Study lots of different things, because some of the most interesting surprises are unexpected connections between different fields.

I’ve written about specialisation vs generalisation before

Anyone can publish an essay on the Web, and it gets judged, as any writing should, by what it says, not who wrote it. Who are you to write about x? You are whatever you wrote.

I agree that the internet has helped good ideas succeed on merit, though there’s an inherent advantage for a famous person’s ideas to spread compared to someone more obscure. The reduction in cost of publication does mean your ideas can stay discoverable for a longer period of time. With luck you’ll get the response you desire, though it can’t be your driving motivation.