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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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. ;)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Never ascribe to malice, that which can be explained by an author's love of reading his own writing.
Your essay spends pages and pages expounding the claim that verbal diarrhea is a good thing. Is it a joke...?