Notes on writing for yourself

Three weeks back, I wrote Notes on Blogging for folks interested in blogging. In response to my question – “are you blogging for yourself or blogging for others” – a few folks wrote in wondering why someone would blog for oneself. What’s the point if you aren’t spending time building a following?

So, I thought I’d share what I’ve gained from the process. As the list is long, I thought I’d share my top 5:

(1) Discipline: I committed to writing every day in May 2008. I struggled for most of 2008 and 2009. I used to cheat by just sharing a quote for the day in those years to just get my post for the day in. I finally got the confidence to write “long form” (i.e. not cheat by sharing a quote) every day in late 2010. Every day since then, my belief in my discipline has grown.

That belief means I never question my ability to follow through on a commitment. If I can write every day, I should be able to do just about anything I set my mind to. Integrity is making and keeping commitments. Disciple is the foundation of integrity.

(2) Learning curve: We learn from 3 sources – from books or posts that share synthesized information, from people who share synthesized information, or when we synthesize information. Synthesis requires us to reflect on what we’ve done, boil what we’ve learnt to its essence, and incorporate that lesson into how we operate.

The word “essay” comes from the French word “essayer.” Essayer means “to try.” We write to try and figure things out. The process of attempting to figure things out every day has helped me synthesize.

And, this practice of daily synthesis has taught me how to learn. As an outcome focused competitive kid, I hadn’t learnt how to do this in the first twenty years of my life. I didn’t realize that learning requires an intense focus on the process – without regard for the outcome. Ironically, ignoring the outcome turns out to be the best way to consistently achieve good outcomes.

Learning how to learn has been a gamechanger. It has made my life richer.

(3) Writing: Aside from writing to figure things out, writing is a highly valuable professional skill. I work as a product manager at a technology company and writing is a key part of my job. Writing comes easily after all these years. It helps me do my job significantly better.

(4) Learning mindset: I hated screwing up before I started writing here. After I started writing here, every mistake gave me a blog post topic I could write about. I wasn’t just screwing up now. I was reflecting, figuring out how I could do better, and reminding myself to do so. Writing here has changed how I perceive mistakes.

Mistakes still hurt. But, channeling that pain into learning helps me make progress and appreciate the importance of pain in the process of learning. It has also helped me become much kinder to myself.

I realized later that being kinder to ourselves is the path to becoming kinder and more compassionate to everyone around us.

(5) Meditation. Practitioners of Zen buddhist/Hindu meditation focus on clearing the mind when they meditate. The stoics, on the other hand, talked about another variant of meditation – the kind where you reflect on your day and analyze how you lived. I haven’t found a better description of what writing here everyday means to me. It is how I meditate. It grounds me, reminds me to be grateful, and gifts me perspective.

These reasons are why I recommend committing to writing regularly. You can do it on a blog or do it on a journal. Pick what suits you.

Yes, there is the possibility that it may not work for you. As with all good things, it isn’t for everyone. At least you’ll have tried.

I would however posit that, more often than not, a person who commits to regular writing will find that it was one of the best commitments they’ve ever made.

Transition words

The logic of writing as you learned in school
Turns out to mean little more than an obsession with transition
And the scattering of rhetorical tics – overused, nearly meaningless words and phrases.

In fact.
On the one hand.
On the other hand.
In one respect.

These are logical indicators. Emphasizers. Intensifiers.
They insist upon logic whether it exists or not.
They often come first in the sentence,
Trying to steer the reader’s understanding from the front,
As if the reader were incapable of following a logical shift in the middle of a sentence,
As if the sentence had been written in the order the writer thought of the words,
Without any reconsideration.
These words take the reader’s head between their hands and force her to look where they want her to.
Imagine how obnoxious that is,
The persistence effort to predetermine and overgovern the reader’s response.

I have vivid memories of being coached to use more transition phrases in my final year of high school. I have used them in plenty in my posts over the years. So, Verlyn Klinkenborg’s admonitions hit home.

I hope to use fewer transition words going forward.

Sound writing style

A friend recommended Jason Zweig’s series on writing better. I started with the first post recently and loved it. There were two notes that stood out.

First, he cautions against writing in the first person – i.e., using phrases like “I think.” I’m not sure how much of this advice is relevant to writing a personal blog. But, it is advice I’ve heard before and I can see why it detracts from the content.

The second note that resonated was a quote on sound writing style from essayist H L Mencken –

“the essence of a sound style is that it cannot be reduced to rules — that it is a living and breathing thing, with something of the demoniacal in it — that it fits its proprietor tightly and yet ever so loosely, as his skin fits him. It is, in fact, quite as securely an integral part of him as that skin is…. In brief, a style is always the outward and visible symbol of a [writer], and it cannot be anything else. To attempt to teach it is as silly as to set up courses in making love.”

This hit home as I’ve wrestled a bunch with myself over the years on my writing style. For example, I’ve gone through phases where I made a concerted effort to avoid writing in the first person. On some days, I manage to do that. On others, I don’t.

Over time, I’ve just attempted to keep focused on improving my ability to synthesize what I’m learning and ship every day. That often means making trade-offs on the “right way to write.”

I’ve come to make peace with those trade-offs and begun to accept this eclectic mix as my own.

Writing is telepathy

“What is writing?” – Stephen King asks in his masterful book on the subject. “Writing is telepathy.”

He goes on to demonstrate with a beautiful example (shortened).

“Look- here’s a table covered with red cloth. On it is a cage the size of a small fish aquarium. In the cage is a white rabbit with a pink nose and pink-rimmed eyes. […] On its back, clearly marked in blue ink, is the numeral 8. […] The most interesting thing here isn’t even the carrot-munching rabbit in the cage, but the number on its back. Not a six, not a four, not nineteen-point-five. It’s an eight. This is what we’re looking at, and we all see it. I didn’t tell you. You didn’t ask me. I never opened my mouth and you never opened yours. We’re not even in the same year together, let alone the same room… except we are together. We are close. We’re having a meeting of the minds. […] We’ve engaged in an act of telepathy. No mythy-mountain shit; real telepathy.”

We’ve all read works and posts by others that have spoken to us. Their thoughts seem to reach us at a time when we didn’t even know we needed them. We see the world they describe with clarity and relate to it.

Writing is telepathy.

Talk like you write

One of my favorite pieces of advice on writing is from a post by Seth that ended with – “Write like you talk. Often.”

In drawing parallels with speaking (we don’t get talker’s block), he makes the case that the best way to write better is to write more. Even if we start by writing poorly, the process of doing more of it will push us to become clearer and crisper over time.

I was mulling the flip side of this piece of advice recently. Just as internalizing the “Write like you talk. Often” idea might do us good, what if we also internalized “Talk like you write. Intentionally?”

There’s often a lot of wisdom in the middle path.

Writing for self vs. writing for others

I’ve had the pleasure of speaking to folks interested in writing publicly (on a blog of their own, Medium, Linkedin, etc.) over the years. As you might imagine, I’m a huge proponent of writing regularly in public as the act of doing so can have a transformative effect on our life by pushing us to be more accountable to ourselves, to think more clearly, to reflect more often, and to synthesize what we learn.

While most of the questions at the beginning of these conversations tend to be tactical, the place where I think the rubber hits the road is the conversation around purpose – is the writing intended for oneself or for others?

This is a fundamental choice because the process and rewards vary significantly.

When you write for yourself, the process takes a lot less time. Since you are writing primarily to clarify your thinking, you don’t need to worry about polishing or distributing your content – you just start a blog in a small corner of the web and get on with writing. As part of the thinking process, you focus entirely on optimizing your learning versus trying to figure out what your audience would be interested in.

So, you focus on iterative shipping by writing to think and improving how you think over time. As a result, you get to treat everything you write as a hypothesis and don’t worry about the consequences of being wrong. Finally, sharing what you write on your favorite social network is strictly a choice if you feel the social pressure + time to benefit trade-off is worthwhile. Even if you do decide to share, you don’t need to obsess about notifications and feedback. If it isn’t a “hell yeah,” you can choose to not share it.

Like all decisions, this choice has accompanying consequences. The consequence of writing for yourself is that the rewards are almost entirely intrinsic. You might earn yourself a few subscribers over time – but, your subscriber count, follower count, website visit count, monetization (if any), fame, etc., will likely never be anywhere as good as someone who focuses on writing for others.

Conversely, if you started out writing for others, expect less intrinsic benefit. The correlation between popular content and valuable/learning filled content isn’t high. :)

Like many things in life, I find that this misalignment between expectations of process and outcome drives most folks to quit after writing publicly for a couple of months. While they might have set out to write for themselves, there often are unsaid expectations about building a massive subscriber base – or vice versa. The end result is disappointment.

So, if writing publicly is on your list of new year themes/resolutions, I hope you’ll take time to clarify the purpose and your expectations on process and outcomes. While I can’t speak for writing for others, if these are aligned for the purpose of writing for yourself, I can say with reasonable confidence that the long term benefits of doing so are extraordinary.

WordPress introduced “.blog” domains in 2016. I am a late adopter but, in the spirit of better late than never, I’m happy to share that the primary domain of this blog is now

While I’ll be keeping “” for the foreseeable future, I am also testing out as a back up name that may be easier to share with people I meet in person. But, the primary domain will always be “ALearningaDay” and I’m glad to have found the perfect domain name match in “.blog”

We’re currently in the age of podcasting – so much so that the idea of writing a daily blog almost seems a bit quaint. But, the skills we gain from blogging regularly – critical thinking, synthesis, and writing – are evergreen. More importantly, I’ve also come to realize that it is important to find a medium that suits your personality. I’m glad for new mediums like podcasting and vlogging as writing isn’t for everyone.

But, since writing is that medium for me, I am grateful for companies like WordPress and Feedblitz that provide the tools to enable folks like me to focus on showing up and writing. And, of course, to you for your attention and encouragement.

Breaking up with the first draft

I spent some time over the summer re-learning how to write better documents at work. As I look back at the lessons I learnt by observing what I actually changed in how I approached writing, the biggest one was willingly breaking up with the first draft.

Barbara Minto in “The Pyramid Principle” made a strong impression when she said the biggest writing problem most people have is learning to separate the thinking from the writing. She poked fun at how the first draft takes on an “incredible beauty” in the author’s eyes that we don’t like to disturb.

I found her observation to be spot on. We write the first draft for ourselves – to clarify our own thinking. And, if we embrace the process of rewriting, we write subsequent drafts for our intended audience.

There’s a meta learning in this too – we have a tendency to get comfortable after an initial learning period in any new skill. It takes a lot of effort to fight inertia and break out of version 1.0 into the next. And, then again to the next. To get better, we need to embrace “what got you here won’t get you there,” push for feedback and learning, and embrace reinvention.

It is how getting better works – in life as in writing.

Explaining problems better

Here are 5 questions I’ve been thinking about a lot as I seek to explain problems better (no shortage of ongoing issues :-))-

1. What is the problem?

2. Where does it lie?

3. Why does it exist?

4. What could we do about it?

5. What should we do about it?

I’ve been finding it helpful to just write out my answers to these questions and then rearrange them in some version of “Situation-Complication-Solution.”

The principle here is to do a better job separating the thinking process from the writing process. And, the first step to separating the thinking process is ensuring the thinking is done in the first place.

(H/T Barbara Minto’s Pyramid Principle for recommending these questions when approaching problem solving)

Committing to rewriting

When we write, the first draft is simply a crystallization of our thinking. The first draft, in essence, is for us. The challenge with writing well is rewriting that first draft with our audience in mind. Doing so helps us separate the process of thinking from the process of writing.

While this sounds simple in practice, this turns out to be very hard. As Barbara Minto articulately describes – “Once you put ideas in writing, they take on an incredible beauty in the author’s eyes. They seem to glow with a fine patina that you will be quite reluctant to disturb.” 

This is true – at least in my experience.

One approach to solving this problem is to lay out your thought process on a piece of paper before writing. That, however, may not work for everyone. While I’m keen to test it, I’m not optimistic about my attempts to do this well.

The alternative solution I’m more hopeful about is to start writing by making a strong commitment to rewrite as soon as I complete the first draft. Setting this expectation will hopefully make it easier for me to not get lost in the “glow” of my first draft.

Here’s to experimenting with both.

PS: Thankfully, the tools we use today are perfect editing and rewriting. It is a pity if we use our current suite of editing tools like typewriters.