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More people should write (jsomers.net)
150 points by jsomers on Oct 13, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 49 comments

This is a special case of a more general rule: Do things.

I'm going to try to write more. I already have learned a lot by:

* photography. If you spend time thinking about the photographs you take, and use what you discover in that process to change how you take future photographs, you will learn a lot about the world around you. You start to see things that you previously ignored.

* painting / sketching / drawing. Totally different from photography. You are free to represent what you want how you want. Your work can range from highly introspective (can be great while your subconscious brain is solving some other problem) to very literal. I haven't kept up with this because the professional world doesn't look kindly on developers who are splattering ink across a page when they "should" be coding, but it was very helpful in my college years.

* music composition. You think you know something about music? Try to compose some! You will listen to music differently. The deeper you go, the more you learn. Music is an unimaginably vast subject and conventional music theory only gives you access to a tiny fraction of the space that music occupies.

* (audio) Field recording. Have you ever taken the time to listen? To really listen? Probably not. You can get audio recorder apps for your iphone, or use a standalone digital audio recorder. Take these recordings home, and listen to them on decent headphones. Then go back to where you made the recording. Think about how the recording and what you hear are different. We selectively filter out a lot of the world around us, particularly in the audio domain.

* electronics. In support of my audio hobbies, I've built several audio devices, ranging from simple synthesizers up to rhythm machines and modules for larger systems. In the software world, we lose track of the physical world. It is mind-boggling how much effort you have to put in to source parts for a moderately complex project.

and finally:

* Coding. Those of us who code understand software in ways that people who don't do not. It doesn't make it any easier to use other people's software (sometimes harder), but it does change the way you think about things.

TL;DR: Don't just learn stuff, try doing stuff as well.

I agree with all of your points above, and I very much agree with your final point that doing >= learning.

However, I'm going to argue that writing is nonetheless a special case.

I was trained as an architect. Unlike photographers, painters, composers, and coders, pre-architects cannot refine their understanding of architecture by doing it. They are confined to various simulations of architecture: models, drawings, renderings, animations, etc. While the emphasis of my course was heavily skewed towards the visual, I personally found that writing was by far the most valuable of all forms of simulation.

The reason is that writing has a unique ability to conjure worlds beyond itself. When I do a 2-point perspective drawing, your brain will conjure it into something greater: a three dimensional space. So far, so good. But can you tell me what the air feels like in that space? Is it perfectly still, or moving through a breezeway? Is it dry or humid? Cool or hot against your skin? Does it carry the sound of echoed footsteps, or birdsong, or traffic, or is it completely silent? Does it smell like rain, or concrete, or freshly-cut grass? Do you feel the radiant heat of stones that have been baking in the sun? Or the humid air which has been evaporatively cooled by a fountain or rich foliage? Can you imagine all these things in sequence, as you move through the space? Can you imagine what the space will feel like at night, or in the rain, or when it is completely empty or thronging full of people?

A single drawing can never convey all of this, and there are many things that drawings can never effectively convey at all. But a few paragraphs can easily conjure all this and more. This isn't the magic of writing, specifically: it's the magic of language: a powerful virtual-reality engine that is very likely hardwired into our neurons.

I found that the the pre-architects who wrote about their work -- and took the writing seriously -- were able to engage with their designs in a far richer capacity than the students who focused on the visual representations alone. This convinced me of the unique importance of writing. It is absolutely true that whatever you want to understand, doing it is better than just learning about it. But doing it and writing about it is best of all.

TL;DR: Doing + writing > Doing

You make an interesting and compelling point. I often write brief notes about the various creative projects I'm working on or half-formed ideas. I'll try to do some longer-form writing on my next project.

I am sincerely encouraged. My biggest block has been that writing is hard and I have been way too critical of my own work. Looking for the perfect method, etc has stopped me from progressing. Thank you for your comments

I used to teach tennis. When my boss was about to move to the next level with a student, he often asked the little kid the question: "Can you learn to swim without getting in the water?" Stuck with me for a couple years now and it applies to many other situations off-court, including this one.

Also make sure to do some less cognitive ones as well. Get certified in SCUBA, get your motorcycle license (take the MSF safety class), play a new sport. All these even if you never plan to pursue it after the cert/license.

The more the diverse your experiences and knowledge, the more interesting and fruitful leaps in abstraction you will be able to take.

I've done MSF which is incidentally GREAT as general driver's training. I've also got a US Sailing Basic Keelboat cert somewhere. Sailing has also had a big impact on how I think - learning to deal with forces much greater than you is very worthwhile.

If you live near a ski area, pickup the cheaper weekday season pass and do night skiing twice a week until you can handle the black diamOnds with ease.

Apply this to everything you find.

You should post this in a blog :) Agreeing with you 100% and want to thank you for going meta.

Thanks! I'm pretty erratic about blog posting. I'm sure I'll get to writing eventually, but I need to come up with a unifying theme to write about. Then I should be able to put out regular installments.

That which interests you and your thoughts about it are your unique unifying theme. Please write more.

> Walk around with a pen and a scrap of paper.

From http://www.diyplanner.com/docs/commonplace1:

"In Sir Arthur Conon Doyle's tales, Sherlock Holmes kept a large and sprawling commonplace book upon his shelves, essentially his own home-grown encyclopedia of people, places, crimes, and pertinent facts, like the colour of mud from various locations, or the consistency of tobacco ashes. In the middle of a case, Holmes would rush to his commonplace, haul down a book, and read out a newspaper article concerning (say) the disappearance of a hydraulics engineer a year prior. His attic of a brain remembered vague references, but the books held the details that allowed him to pursue his work."

He had a personal wiki.

EDIT: and since I'm on it, those who use Tomboy in that capacity will be probably happy to hear that Tomdroid[1] — a Tomboy client for Android with synchronization through Ubuntu One — finally can not only view notes but also edit them and sync back. Not the version from the Play Store yet but the beta with all the new features is available as .apk from their Launchpad website.

[1] https://launchpad.net/tomdroid

I've had a personal wiki for about 7 years. The amount of knowledge in it is, by far, the most precious resource in my career.

It is tremendously useful ! http://www.monosapiens.com.br/blog/wp-content/uploads/dumble...

The only problem with it, is the frequent guilt I feel for now writing in it often enough.

What software do you use to keep it? How do you access from multiple machines?

Would you mind showing it?

seconded. would be fascinating.

The things that bother me most when thinking about writing are the facts that while writing about myself I won't be writing about anything particularly exciting for anyone. If writing about another subject I won't be writing anything better than what you can already find on any given book written by an expert. So what does one write about?

I try to fight this and I manage to write something once in a while, but I can't help but feel like I'm "cheating" the reader by wasting their time reading me. What is a good way to fight this feeling, other than forcing myself to post on a blog occasionally?

I think that the author of the post was trying to address exactly this question of purpose. I'm basically going to reiterate what he said, but here's my own take on it:

You can get over your hurdle in two ways:

- You can trust that your writing will be exciting for the future you. When I started keeping a journal, it really did seem so forced. But sure enough, when I read it a year later, I was captivated by the forgotten person and experiences on the page.

- You can trust that the activity of writing will help the present you to collect and develop his thoughts. Usually, I start a journal entry by writing about some dream, memory, or recent event. In thinking about my reaction to the event, I wind up making a general observation about one of my own beliefs or characteristics. At that point, I forget the event and just go on a tangent about that general topic. An example would be "Steve was wearing a hat today. I don't like it when people wear hats. I think that hats are [insert thesis here]."

I wind up thinking deliberately about something that I've never paid much attention to before, and the act of constructing a written linear narrative forces me to be thorough and precise in a way that my mental narrative isn't. If the topic is some concept that's unrelated to me, then I'd say this helps me to form actual opinions about the world, and to be a more confident in my decision making. I'd also agree with what the post said about "preoccupations". And if the topic is myself, then I find that it somehow helps my self-esteem to look at myself from a distance. Everybody looks more graceful from the outside.

In trying to collect my thoughts on the original topic, I usually find myself making more claims about other interesting topics - and so I sometimes run out of time to write before I run out of things to write about. An example of this would be the claim that I just made - "everybody looks more graceful ...".

+100 for the personal journal idea, for the same reasons. I started keeping one just a couple years ago, and even with that short timespan I found it's fascinicating to look back and remember all the interesting things that I've experienced.

> I won't be writing about anything particularly exciting for anyone. If writing about another subject I won't be writing anything better than what you can already find on any given book written by an expert.

How do you know that? Does it matter? If you don't want to write for the public, write for yourself. Put what you write in a folder and let it sit for a (week|month|however-long). Keep writing, keep putting stuff in the folder. Every once in awhile, read what you wrote. Eventually you might have something you'll want to publish. If not, it doesn't matter. You've written because it's fun to write, because you like writing. The more you write, the better a writer you can become.

Agreed. Don't write because of the audience. Write because it helps you process your thoughts and feelings.

I haven't even started writing publicly yet, for similar reasons, but my hope is that what'll happen is that I'll keep on getting better from the practice, learn more about things I've written about in the past, and be able to turn out increasingly useful stuff. I don't expect any of the info to be truly new, but if something took me a day to dig out of a few references scattered across the web, and I can preserve it all in one place, it'll help the next person trying to do the same thing.

The internet is a big place. Maybe only 10 people in the world share your views. Why cheat them?

Invite your readers to contact you and tell you what they liked.

Sadly, even if you have a comment section at the bottom, nobody will bothers to give their opinion.

A public comment is different from a private email.

Also? This thread is happening.

Yes, please write. I want to read what you have to say, and as a pleasant bonus, writing will improve the way you think and lead your life.

>I want to read what you have to say

That's interesting because after reading and participating in a number of blogs and message boards over the years, I am really tired of what people have to say. Only because so much of it, at least within the realm of opinion and debate, is so predictable.

A lot of it is rubbish. But I'm willing to accept that such predictability and rubbish is to be expected in argumentative contexts and that perhaps writing more could lead to improved rhetoric and less repetition. Being more widely read couldn't hurt, either.

"90% of Everything is crud"--Ted Sturgeon

Much of it is rubbish. So is almost every painting, almost every book of fiction, almost every poem, and for that matter, nearly every person you meet of the appropriate gender. Like grains of sand. But when you find the rare nugget of gold... It makes up for all the time you spend panning dirty water.

Long-form can avoid this problem, because to put together a cohesive piece, you have to do a little reflection and possibly research. Plus, it is considerably higher investment on the part of the author, so if it has been said before, they'll be more likely to write about something else.

"possibly" research? Sorry, but the attitude that research -- i.e. the consideration of history and the big picture -- might "possibly" be a part of longform writing is like saying math might be a part of good physics theories

I see where you are coming from, but some long-form writing is itself the research. Paul Graham (IIRC) said that his essays were a way of exploring ideas. In some of my writing, I have this to be the case also. And then, of course, there are writings where the actual banging words out is a tiny sliver of the total time taken, when compared to the research component.

If people came by their beliefs about the importance or unimportance of writing by the effects of stray cosmic rays, only the ones who end up believing writing is important would bother to write up their belief.

That is what the statisticians call a selection effect, and it is important to keep it in mind when weighing a piece of writing about writing.

Yet another article on HackerNews about people who have nothing to say about algorithms or code, they just want to be the big motivators, the oracles!!

This is great article, and I totally endorse what the author is saying -- although I would leave you with a word of warning: Don't write simply because you want to "compete" or be like the other great authors out there. Several years ago when I was in high school I came across pg's essays and was bedazzled by it, and wanted to write articles like that of my own. (But I never got around to it.)

The fact was, I didn't have anything really that great to say. So even if I had written stuff back then, I don't know if it would have enriched the lives of others as much as the writings of certain other people have.

Hm, whatever. Just my 2 cents. I'm probably wrong.

My students often told me they didn't have anything to say. They were silent. Empty. They felt anxiety. Panic. Terror. 'Good' I'd answer. 'You are a writer. You are at the place from which writing comes.'

-- Donald Murray in Shoptalk

A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.

-- Thomas Mann

A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them.

-- William Stafford

You have to sink down to a level of hopelessness and desperation to find the book that you can write.

-- Susan Sontang

Utterly sterling selection of quotes there. The Stafford one resonates with me the most personally – I can't count the number of times I've realized a greater subtlety and complexity to my position on something after I've written a paragraph or so on it.

I totally agree, Stafford's quote is "par excellence"

I completely agree. Not to be too self promoty because thats what we are aiming for at my site www.varely.com but I think everything can be better through more people expressing themselves. There are so many different experiences that we've all gone through and we should be sharing those. In my cases it can help people so much just by knowing people have gone through situations that you have.

For selfish reasons being a good writer and communicating well lets you expose your true talents and intelligence. I honestly think evaluating someone through their writing for the most part can be a more effective test than looking at a persons resume. Anyone can bring a resume and hit all the write points but writing well lets you communicate your interests and passions. You can really show how passionate you are about a subject and how well you an articulate your ideas. In start ups I think thats one of the most important things and in general its valuable.

I also agree when you say you are going to write you conduct your life as if you are going to write. I think it makes you a little more present in your situations because you realize that you want to take note of life. You want to recognize the small things in life that may go unnoticed but are significant.

Earlier this summer I made a commitment to write 1,000 words a day. I haven't always been consistent, but I am now at 87 days in a row. That writing has turned into a popular book, many blog posts, and now I'm halfway through a second book.

This process has changed my income, influence, and how I tackle complicated projects. Just start writing.

The first book is here: http://NathanBarry.com/app-design-handbook

He doesn't have to tell me to write, because I already write 500 words a day at this personal site: http://kibabase.com

It could be on any one of my essays, such as Book Reviews, Self Quantification, or Learning Principles. They are always work in progress, even if they stagnate at a certain size.

Moreover, a lot of my energy is spent on this page: http://kibabase.com/articles/notes-and-thoughts

Notes and Thoughts is my ever evolving bucket for all my random thoughts. With the exception of Why I Unlicense, all essays essentially originate from there. often as a one paragraph essay. It contains the most random idea, such as why democracy sucks, my plan for building a lamp bot, and the idea of legoization. Not only I add items, I also modify them to be readable writing. Even TODO items get revised.

Wonderful article. This is the second article in hackers about writing. I am pushing my small son to always write.

Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man. ~ Sir Francis Bacon

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

That's one of the reasons why I've enjoyed keeping up with school. I never finished (yet), but I've been taking a class or two per semester for the past 4 years or so. Keeps you thinking in different ways and introduces you to new things!

When I started writing I thought one needed to be an expert to write good stories but I was wrong. My first article,http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3840706, generated a lot of interest. The article was full of grammatical errors, but people didn't mind. I have since improved and learned a lot of things through writing. I would encourage people to try it.

"A preoccupation, in that sense, is a hell of a useful thing for a mind." Well said! Here's to more frequent talking into pages.

though, brevity can be a blessing

Thanks so much for this encouraging post.

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