Wednesday, April 5, 2023

Why I Write

Sitting at my computer recently, I read the following message:

I'm halfway through your "Peer Groups in the Workplace" post… It's awesome. In the past I've [started to create] a Slack group with a bunch [of my] peers … and eventually hit cancel. I'm going to finish your post, and then create that group later today. Thank you for the push I needed!

Receiving and reading that message made my day. 

My last post described a number of changes I am making to my blog. I offered two reasons for those changes: making my writing more accessible and practicing writing with constraints. This post dives into the motivations (both selfish and selfless) underlying those reasons that ultimately keep me writing every morning. These motivations are the real driving forces behind the changes in my writing. 

Picture of desk with monitor,  keyboard,  trackpad, and a pad of paper to the right side.  There's a window behind the monitor.
My desk, ready for writing 

Each morning, for the last two years, I sit down at my desk and write for at least 10 minutes. That writing has produced several blog posts. In Writing to Be Read I wrote “I … write to change things: to convey ideas; to teach; to persuade.” 

I am presently a staff engineer (senior IC) at MongoDB. Changing things for the better is my job. Being a better writer helps me do my job better. I have invested time and effort over the past few years to improve my writing. Being a more impactful engineer remains my top reason for wanting to improve my writing. If my writing is not helping improve things somewhere, however indirectly, it’s not worthwhile. Ideally my writing is helping both my employer and the world at large. 

However, increasing my impact is a long term goal. I find there are several shorter term reasons that help keep me writing day after day, week after week. These reasons are critical for my public writing since that writing is strictly optional for me. However, my public writing is my writing practice, so these short term reasons keep me practicing. There are two broad categories: selfish ones and selfless ones. Both are important and they interact with each other. Let’s air the selfish reasons first. 

Selfish Reasons

There are three selfish reasons why I write: attention, esteem, and self promotion. The three feed into each other. I love the attention I get when someone reads my writing. I get a small dopamine hit every time the view count (or likes or shares) goes up on my blog and a larger one whenever someone shares my writing or provides positive feedback (such as the message at the start of this post). Such positive feedback is often a highlight of my day. 

Some people know me as a thoughtful and interesting person because of my writing. This esteem from others is worth a lot to me. It makes me happy to think about it. 

It’s even nicer to have a platform I can use to promote myself and my causes. My writing provides me that platform. The more people read my writing, the larger my platform. 

Selfless Reasons

Moving to the noble side of the ledger, I write to make the world a better place in some small way, both at work and beyond. This can be through sharing some hard earned knowledge, reporting on a work investigation, proposing changes at work, or something else. 

Sharing hard earned knowledge is the main focus of my blog. I have worked hard to learn and grow over time. Frequently, I have benefited from the experiences and learnings of others through their advice and writings. I would like to pay that forward. I would like to share my learnings and perspectives with others, so that they can learn from my experiences, just as I hope to continue to learn from others. I want to share my ideas, so that others can use my ideas and build upon them. 

Knowing my writing is having an impact is the biggest dopamine hit of all. When attention to my writing is leading to better outcomes for others. When people say nice things about me because I helped them. It’s wonderful. This is why I appreciated the message at the start of this post so much: I helped someone make part of their world a little bit better by starting a peer group. The message also represents attention, esteem, and promoting my issue (peer groups).   

Warning: Avoid

I want to be proud of my writing. I want to write things that I would like to read. This means there are some common writing patterns that I want to avoid. 

While I want people to read my writing and I want the views, I hate click-bait content. The recognizable headlines designed to get someone to click through, but with no real content behind it (“Love Your Children? Make Sure You Know These 7 Things If You Don’t Want Them to Die!”). I work to avoid reading click-bait articles, so I want to avoid writing them as well. 

That doesn’t mean I won’t make my articles interesting and catchy, but I do not want to deceive. I want to make it clear to the reader why they should read my article. 

A second pattern I see are “interesting” articles on important topics that don’t actually say anything. I find it disappointing to read an article on a topic I care about, only to find problems I already know, but no solutions. These articles are vacuous. They may feel like reading something deep, but the reader takes nothing away except (possibly) the sense that they thought deep thoughts. These articles are the empty calories of the reading world. I do not want to manufacture empty calories. 

Even worse than the articles that don’t say anything, are the hot takes and predictions. Unlike the vacuous posts, these articles say something – it’s just not deeply thought out and the writer’s opinion may change tomorrow. Almost universally, I am not interested in reading people’s first reactions to some event or idea. I am interested in reading people's thoughtful reflections on interesting topics. 

There is a reason people write click bait, vacuous articles, and hot takes: they are easy to produce at volume and people read them. I do not want clicks and views at the expense of writing click bait, vacuous articles, or hot takes. 

Why I’m Changing My Writing

The selfish reasons, selfless reasons, and things to avoid are why I am making the changes I announced in Learning and Growing in Tech. My hope is that my writing improves from those changes. My hope is that I get more attention, esteem, and a larger platform. My hope is that I have a larger impact on the world. Maybe some of those reasons resonate with you as well, and you decide to write more. Please let me know if you do. I would love to know about it, for all of the reasons described in this post.  

A special thank you to Cian and Alex for their feedback on an earlier version on this post,  and for helping me on my writing journey. 

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