Why Write?

6 minute read


It now has been over a year that I have had this domain and already a few months since I put something on it. So now the time has come to overcome resistance and put the first piece of writing on here. The best way to convince myself to actually write, I thought, is with writing itself. So this is a blogpost about why to write blogposts. If this convinced me to publish something online, it might just do the same for you.

Why write publicly?

To answer this question, I first have to answer why one should write at all, and then why the hell one also has to do it in public.

Writing is thinking. I love this conversation between historian Charles Wiener and Richard Feynman: When Wiener calls some of Feynman’s notes a “record of his day-to-day work”, he objects: “No, no! They aren’t a record of my thinking process. They are my thinking process. I actually did the work on the paper.” “Well,” Weiner said, “The work was done in your head, but the record of it is still here.” “No, it’s not a record, not really. It’s working. You have to work on paper and this is the paper. Okay?” Writing is not merely transcribing your thoughts, writing is a generative process. Ideas expand when you write about them. Most of what you write was not consciously accessible to you before you actually wrote it. Dave Chappelle used the metaphor of letting ideas drive: “The idea says, ‘Get in the car.’ And I’m like, ‘Where am I going?’ And the idea says, ‘Don’t worry, I’m driving.’ And then you just get there.” Michael Nielsen even describes this as if the essay had some magical desire on its own what to be about.

Written language is more rigorous than thought and allows for higher complexity. Thinking through an argument, it is easy to be fluffy and unspecific in the parts you do not really understand. When trying to write it down this diffusivity has to collapse. It is harder to fool yourself that you understand something when you write it down. Having a problem with formulation often hints at a problem with understanding. Additionally, written text allows for more complex thought, as you don’t have to hold onto everything in memory, the same way mathematics and programming languages allow you to extend the space of expressible ideas.

Writing gives you access to your past thoughts. Being able to see how you changed your mind is valuable: It allows you to build upon your past thinking, improve and edit it. You can see mistakes you have made more clearly to avoid making similar ones in the future. Being aware of how you were mistaken in the past might also increase your understanding for people holding different opinions than you in the present.

Maybe you were already convinced that writing is pretty useful, but like me, you feel pretty safe and comfy just journaling a little for yourself. So why should you start writing publicly?

Writing publicly makes you put in your best effort. The fear of writing publicly has two sides: It can be crippling and making you do endless revisions to your text, but it also ensures that you make your writing precise and correct, as you are responsible for what you say and anyone can read it. Writing privately, I often only jot down a rough abstract sketch of an idea, thinking I will remember all the context, that I will be able to think it to its conclusion with all its implications in the future. This thought is mostly mistaken.

You will fail fast. Even if you scrutinize your public writing carefully, you will inevitably make mistakes. While this is uncomfortable to do in public, allowing outside criticism ensures a fast feedback loop, updating your false beliefs, leading to faster learning.

Finding like-minded people. There is so much randomness in the relationships we form. The internet can be used to remove at least the strong locality bias. But using the internet to actively find like-minded people does not scale. You have to let the others find you: Writing publicly is automatic networking for introverts. A blog is like a lighthouse beaming your interests all over the internet. It is passive social income. You do not have to actively search. Enormous amounts of potential wealth, relationships, collaborations are wasted because specific people don’t know each other. Every person who starts to be a bit more open and vulnerable about their interest and who they are helps to reduce this barrier to connect with the people you really click with.

Why not to write publicly?

With all those great benefits, why did I not write publicly before? In one way or another it all boils down to fear. Fear of embarrassment, of making mistakes, of writing something wrong, or maybe worse, of writing something no one finds interesting. For every topic I could write about, there is certainly someone more knowledgeable about it. Yet, if everyone would think this way we would have a collective action problem, where nobody writes anything risky anymore to protect himself, and no new ideas enter the epistemic commons.

Like I do not expect to be able to just pick up a violin and start playing or pick up a brush and instantly create great masterpieces, I also cannot expect to be especially good at writing from the start. Writing is somehow similar to running: For all other sports the thought of not needing to learn any technique would be ridiculous, but for running you just expect to be able to do it.

Visa never misses an opportunity to tell people asking for advice on how to get good at X, to do X 100 times. I don’t know if I will ever reach 100 blogposts, but at least this helps me to manage my expectations of my own writing and finally get started.