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How to win friends and influence people with an iPad in a coffee shop (raganwald.posterous.com)
111 points by timf on June 15, 2011 | hide | past | favorite | 28 comments

If I was writing a book, I'd do a terrible job, because my nose for what people want is broken. When I write essays, I don't care, I write everything and I let Hacker News and Twitter sort out the wheat from my chaff.

Personally I think this is a bad idea, because what is popular on HN rarely correlates with what I consider to be quality writing. If your goal is just to get an article on HN, that can be done pretty easily: give it a provocative title, discuss one of a handful of topics (e.g., node.js, Clojure, Scala, Rails, Apple/iOS, etc.), and make it easily skimmable within 30-45 seconds.

If HN popularity was a reliable metric for quality, TechCrunch would deserve a Pulitzer. If you want to write short pieces that attract the interest of a programmer while their code compiles, HN is a decent metric. If you want to write something with lasting meaning or value, it is not.

(Obviously, that isn't to say that nothing on HN has lasting meaning or value -- just that the correlation between lasting quality and HN popularity is weak, at best.)

Sorry, I deleted another reply. My essay perhaps does a poor job of explaining what I meant when I used the word "quality." I meant quality of exposition, not quality of ideas. So I meant, it's more important to get your ideas out there quickly than to polish, polish, polish, or worse to avoid writing at all because you fear you don't write well.

The subject of whether your ideas themselves are good is another kind of quality. If they're your genuine ideas and they genuinely interest you, that's good enough for me. It may not be good enough for HN, but if you're writing "honestly," you have my support and admiration.

If someone wants to try "HNO" (Hacker News Optimization) just for the false reputation, well, I can't help them and they probably know more about how to game aggregators than I can even imagine.

But if you have genuine ideas that interest you, my discussion of "quality" is strictly about the delivery.

Love this pair of observations about how books get judged by their worst parts, but collections of online posts for their best:

Another problem with a book is that it's One Big Thing. Very few book reviews say "Chapter two is a gem, buy the book for this and ignore chapter six, the author is confused." Most just say "He's an idiot, chapter six is proof of that."


Thanks to Twitter and Hacker News and whatever else, if you write a good thing, it gets judged on its own. You can write 99 failures but you are judged by your best work, not your worst.

Microcontent (and even decontextualization) for the win.

Its a bit like the paradigm of buying single songs from an iTunes album, rather than being forced to buy the whole album with the rubbish songs too - a step forward!

Whilst I agree that there is more chance of having one successful essay on the Internet, I don't buy the notion of decontextualisation.

If it takes 99 essays to write one which meets the demands of your audience, you can't help but think they've switched off already.

No because your one successful essay is the only one that your audience will ever read. The others are just read by your friends and coworkers or your hardcore fans, if you have any.

Well said, I agree completely. Having lectured on "How to Start" - my thesis is basically "Start small." If you can't start it at a certain size, start smaller, and if you still can't start it a certain size, go smaller still. In fact, it turns out there is nothing too small to start. The act of starting and doing at even the tiniest scale is the key. So if you are a designer, design or redesign the paperclip. If you are a programmer, make something tiny, a single function app, or site. And yes, like Mr. raganwald has discovered, if you are writer, start small. A sentence, a tweet, a poem, or a blog. Start small, take small steps, make small bets, but work long. When your competitors have finished, work on, when your peers have retired, work on, and slowly, piece by piece, amazing things happen. I believe it's the law of making things. And I believe it's almost Newtonian in it's truth.

I think it really boils down to "Start!" and to the fact that what you might see as "so talented" in other people is actually just the result of them having spent much more time on X than you have - meaning that you can do or learn practically anything you set your mind to and put effort into and there are lots of ways to be more efficient about it but ultimately, you will have to "start!".

Mm. I agree in principle, but i have always thought that the "just do it" (for whatever value of "it" you choose) is a rather glib assertion.

The process of doing isn't sufficient in of itself to improve. The key to improvement is feedback and self-analysis with an eye towards better quality. Raganwald admits as much. Sure doing is a prerequisite to feedback, but the important part is how you learn from yourself and others, and how you go about that process.

Great comment, thanks!

My assertion is rather glib, however underlying it is this suggestion: If you have a choice between writing blog post and thinking about a process for handling feedback and self-improvement, I say write the blog post first and work out what to do with teh feedback when you have it.

When I started pro to-blogging in 2004 by publishing raw HTML on a web server, I did not have a process. I still don't if you compare me to people like Jeff Atwood who (used to) blog on a schedule and could easily articulate things like his market demographics.

I suggest that while it's better to be Jeff than Reg, it's still better to be Reg than Unknown. Of course, we probably agree on this as well.

"I suggest that while it's better to be Jeff than Reg, it's still better to be Reg than Unknown."

That depends on what you have to say, and on what your goals are.

If what you say is controversial enough, you could make more enemies than friends. Alternatively, you could just expose that what you have to say is worthless garbage, or that you're an idiot. (I'm not referring to you personally, of course, just to writers in general)

Of course, some believe bad publicity is better than no publicity, but I'm not so sure that's true.

  It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool,
  than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.

           -- George Eliot

  If a young writer can refrain from writing,
  he shouldn't hesitate to do so.

            -- André Gide

  I occasionally play works by contemporary composers,
  and for two reasons.  First, to discourage the composer
  from writing any more, and secondly to remind myself
  how much I appreciate Beethoven.

            -- Jascha Heifetz

I don't know about controversy, but exposing yourself as an idiot is a very low risk, and has even lower likelihood of negative consequences. If I write something idiotic, and someone posts in on HN, it never makes it to the front page. This can happen 99 times in a row. AFAIK, there is no penalty for writing idiotic things, there is no ban applied to my blog.

I think the kinds of things you are quoting are archaic. They belong to a world of books, where people write four or ten or at twenty books in a career, and each one is precious and carries with it much reputation. I don't see the same thing with blogging at all.

Even if it was, so what? If you're young and make mistakes, who cares? Are you afraid that some day, someone will say "He's an experienced guy, but when he was nineteen he wrote a piece of garbage?" Self-censoring because you are an idiot or inexperienced makes no sense whatsoever: If you don't trust yourself to speak, how do you trust yourself to know whether what you have to say is interesting?

Reputation is asymmetrical. People start companies and fail many times, but one success makes a career. While I was writing garbage in 2004, people told me that I had no idea what I was talking about, and then one day in 2005 I wrote a rant called "What I've Learned From Failure," and immediately everyone forgot the garbage.


Should I really have waited a year to write that? How would I know to write that piece but not to write "Are you a perfectionist?," which I wrote the week before? How would I know to write that one but not "Passionate Communication," which I wrote the following week?

"there is no penalty for writing idiotic things"

There might not be an obvious, direct penalty, like someone charging you money for every essay that wastes their time or which they find insultingly stupid. But there could be indirect penalties, such as a potential employer reading and disliking what you wrote and not offering you a job based on it. There could be other social penalties as well. And it's not like the people who snub you because of what you wrote are necessarily going to tell you that your writing was the cause. You might never know; but that doesn't mean there was no penalty.

"I think the kinds of things you are quoting are archaic. They belong to a world of books, where people write four or ten or at twenty books in a career, and each one is precious and carries with it much reputation."

What you write on the internet could have a much larger impact on your reputation than what one used to be able to get away with in the print world. It used to be that if you wrote something that sucked and yet still somehow managed to get it published, it wouldn't sell much, and it would be forgotten. Now whatever you write (on the internet especially, but also in print) may never be forgotten, and could haunt you for the rest of your life. So the potential consequences for yourself are quite a bit more severe than they were when those quotes were written.

The other thing to consider is your reader, and the harm you do to them by publishing crap. You could be wasting a lot of people's times, if they actually read it. (Again, I'm using "you" in the general sense, not you in particular. For all I know, your writing could be marvelous) There's already a ton of garbage published, and more garbage is published every day. Do you really need to contribute to the tidal wave of crap?

Now, there's a difference between writing a lot for yourself, stuff that no one else would ever see, and things that you actually publish. Writing a lot in private could at least make you a better writer. But it might be a good idea to be a bit more selective about what you actually publish. There's something to be said for publishing just the gems, rather than everything and anything that happens to come out of your mouth.

I respect your POV. Everything has risks, even your commentary: One person might read it and think that you are a sober, responsible individual, while another (especially on a startup forum) might read your words and worry that you are too risk adverse.

So I agree there is a potential cost, and if it's too high for you, I respect your position even if I don't follow your strategy.

The other bits of strategy you espouse would not work for me personally. If I write privately, I don't get any feedback. For example, let's start with the assumption that this essay is terrible advice. How would I know that if you didn't read it and tell me so? How would I know that the extra length looks like malicious SEO optimization if some nice person elsewhere didn't accuse me of trying to manipulate Google?

Only by publishing my writing do I get the feedback I need to improve. And I get it immediately, no delay, and with no sugar-coating or tactfulness that might come from circulating my writing to a trusted group of friends.

Also, you say only release the gems. How would I know what is a gem and what is not? I don't want to bore you with more examples, but many of the essays people have thanked me for writing were ones I didn't think would go anywhere. Were I only releasing the ones I thought were gems, I'd never have written them.

Now as to harming the reader. I take the position that HN takes care of that. If I write something and it dies on the new page, only a few people wasted their time. I'm not suggesting that there be no filter on my writing, I'm suggesting that aggregators like HN are the filter.

Compare and contrast this to the situation a few years back, when people used RSS feeds. In that case, all of my subscribers would probably read everything I write. Yes, after a while they would drop my feed if I was wasting their time. But today... I don't even offer an RSS feed or a consistent source of my writing.

If people like it, it gets around. If not, it doesn't waste that much time because it doesn't get the upvotes or the retweets to do much damage.

I can answer the question of whether my writing is marvellous. It isn't. At best, it follows Sturgeon's Revelation: 90% of it is crap. My argument is that publishing 90% crap is working for me, although I can appreciate the argument that either it isn't really working for me or that it isn't a good idea for someone else to blindly copy my strategy.


I agree that it's always better to write something than nothing. But, sometimes it's not much more. You have to have some basic levels of quality and coherence of thought to get picked up to the point where you actually have readers.

And until that point, you're out shopping your content around yourself, asking your friends what they think. That's a process i find challenging unless i'm proud (at some level) of what i have written.

Perhaps another angle on this is, you see a lot of good writers saying that all that they needed to do is write more. I have to wonder if there's an element of self-selection in such statements.

All that said, i need to spend more time writing both code and prose. ;)

It is not ever better to be Jeff — what poverty of thought!

I've enjoyed your blog thoroughly for the last 6 years or so, but I would much rather you be Reg to a smaller audience and Unknown to me than be Jeff to the world.

while the quotes are of very interesting people, my belief is different:


"The process of doing isn't sufficient in of itself to improve."

Not always sufficient but it's certainly necessary and the barrier most people have is they don't "do" enough. Feedback and self analysis frequently follow from the doing and a lot of self-analysis occurs during the doing.

I'm torn. I recently started my own site and have been following the 'write every day' protocol. I'm not always in the mood and don't always have special inspiration, but I maintain the schedule.

A friend recently resurrected and redesigned (after 2 year hiatus) his site and it looks amazing. His writing is amazing. Problem is that the site is complete and he hasn't written one post because of his perfectionist nature.

Is there a right answer here? What is better: continuously writing in the name of honing skills or withholding talent in the pursuit of perfection?

Another blogger advised the former, saying that as far as blogs go your mediocre content will simply be forgotten and a really good piece may make HN and go viral. In other words, just do as raganwald suggests and be prolific before all else. There is no real downside to maintaining a schedule and just going for it.

For beginners like myself I tend to agree with that statement - practice, hone your skills, develop your methods and thought processes and continue writing every day.

So good. I've basically pursued this strategy for the last year and it's worked out really well for me. You often have no idea what people are going to find valuable - so produce more and let the people decide.

This is the same advice given by every good photographer. David Bailey once said, the easiest way to double the quality of your portfolio is to throw away half of it. When you see an exhibition by a top photographer, you might be looking at the best 50 out of 50,000 images. But you have to be shooting, all the time, to pull this off.

He writes essays on an iPad?

That was written in Mail on an iPad using an Apple bluetooth keyboard, then emailed to posterous.com. This is the reason for the horrible line breaks, but I left things that way deliberately. Certain "simplistic" tools force me to concentrate on writing and not on formatting, and that helps me write more often. I'm a big fan of markdown for this reason, and tools like Github, Byword, or Textastic that embrace markdown are my preference.

But I usually write essays using TextMate or Byword on an iMac. I sometimes use Mail on a Mac, but the formatting when it reaches posterous.com is nicer.


Delete after "Write", then add full stop to the end.

After his point in paragraph three, I realized this guy's just writing what amounts to highbrow SEO-filler, so I stopped reading.

Yes, quality matters. But quality isn't measured by how "polished" an essay is. That is a gross misunderstanding of quality-in-writing... QUALITY REQUIRES HAVING SOMETHING WORTH SAYING, and saying it concisely.

Now that you've explained SEO-filler, I refute the supposition thus: You explain that SEO-filler is written with the intent of attracting search engine referral traffic. I have no such intent, therefore my writing is not SEO-filler or anything else related to SEO.

Never ascribe to malice, that which can be explained by an author's love of reading his own writing.


SEO filler is content written for the explicit purpose of raising your site's traffic by ranking higher on search engines. In order to be good filler, it has to look informational; but it actually contains no useful information.

Your essay spends pages and pages expounding the claim that verbal diarrhea is a good thing. Is it a joke...?

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