Dear blogging diary,
I try to publish one post per week, but do you know this feeling when you just don’t have any good ideas? You browse through your list of potential topics, and all the time, you think: “Naaah, this one is not really interesting. No, already kind of written about that one in a previous post. Naaah, there is this great post on that one by someone else. He has said it all, and I agree with him.” You reach the end of the topics list, and your mind is still blank.
I am currently in my thirties (yes, also in years, but I mean in published blog posts), so still kind of a novice blogger, but it has already happened to me several times that the words just don’t come easily, the thoughts are not clear yet, and after half an hour, your output amounts to one tentative heading and two sentences or so. Everything you try, and every topic you start, feels like it will lead nowhere. For myself, I have found the following mental hurdles to be common:
1. The topic is not interesting
Maybe the topic is really not that interesting. Maybe you have to think about it more, turn it over in your head a couple of times, and collect additional facets. In that case, push it more to the bottom of your topics list, and revisit it some other time.
However, remember that there are millions of potential readers out there, and it is more than likely that some of them will find that topic interesting. Don’t pretend to know everything about your audience. Moreover, once you start to seriously write and think about a topic, you might well discover that there is more to it than you thought.
If you write regularly, you will automatically pay more attention to things happening around you, and, soon, you will experience those moments when it hits you: “I should write about this!” Make it a habit to add these topics to a list, and groom this list regularly.
2. Somebody else has already written about this
If you are a software developer, you probably don’t like redundancy. “Don’t repeat yourself” is one of our principles. Every piece of functionality should be defined only once, so that everything stays maintainable and easy to compose.
When it comes to writing, you might feel the same: If somebody else shares her view in an essay, and you agree, why on earth should you write about the same topic? You think: It will only be redundant, and a waste of time. However, you should think again, because putting your post out there is totally worth it, even if it will be similar, and for various reasons:
- First of all, only you can contribute your very own, unique view. Even if somebody else wrote “exactly what you would have written”, probably you can still give it a unique twist, share a related anecdote from your own experience, or explain something with even more clarity than the other author was able to.
- Good views and thoughts cannot be repeated often enough. Especially on the Internet, there are thousands of competing voices and opinions, and there is a lot of noise. If people read concurring views more than once, these views will be more likely to stick. Unfortunately, in a noisy world, you need repetition if you want people to remember something.
- Maybe your view is a blend of opinions you have read elsewhere. This is worth sharing! Highlight what you especially like in each of the other views and explanations. See “A Jump Start Into Software Engineering Recruiting” for an example where I mesh advice from several articles into one.
- If nothing else, just repeat something that made an impression on you in your own words. First of all, this will help you really internalize it, and help your brain to gain a firm grip on the subject. Do it for your own learning. And, secondly, you might be surprised what you discover along the way. Often, you will find out that you have much deeper thoughts on the topic than you originally thought. You only have to uncover them, and, voilà, there is your strong justification for yet another blog post on the topic.
3. I do not have a real opinion on this
If you don’t have an opinion on something yet, you can develop it while you are writing about the topic. Writing orders your thoughts, so start out writing just for yourself. Something valuable might come out, which is worth sharing even if you did not originally set out to share it.
For example, if you don’t know if you should advocate for strict TDD or not, try out both variations and write about your experiences. If you are not sure whether brain-teasers are a good idea in job interviews, do some research, and think about it for some time. If you have not fully decided how technical a manager of software engineers should be, weigh your own competing views by writing about them.
Even if this process will not leave you with a fully formed opinion, I am pretty confident that it will be clearer and crisper than before, and you can always revisit it later.
4. I am not an expert, I cannot give advice on this
This is basically a variation of “I do not have a real opinion on this”. First of all, keep this important principle in mind: You do not have to be an expert on everything you write about. Just as you can give a presentation to your colleagues on a technology you are only starting to use, you can write a blog post on a topic you are not that familiar with yet. Use writing and the research you will probably do along the way as a learning opportunity. After all, the best way to engrave a piece of knowledge into your brain is to produce your own material on it, be it a blog post, a presentation, a tutorial, or a video you put on YouTube.
This is how I came up with my recent post on delegation. Was I an expert on delegation when I set out to write it? God, no! Am I an expert now? I am not, but I certainly have a clearer idea of delegation than before, and I am aware of some things you should and should not do.
Also, remember that there are probably people of a wide range of expertise and skill level among your audience. There will be people with considerable maturity on the topic, but also novices. And experts are not always best suited to teach a novice. Sometimes, in fact, people learn best from other learners who are just one step ahead of them, because they, maybe unlike the expert, remember very well what it was like to be clueless about the topic, and how confusing it all seemed at the start. So, if you cannot be an expert who teaches something to the audience, be a learner who teaches something to other learners.
5. I am never going to finish this
Even if you are pressed for time, try to put in at least 20 to 30 minutes per day. The Seinfeld Method is about consistently practising every day, and about little else. It is not about trying to write a masterpiece every day, or even every week. You should be ok with producing mediocre work in between, because this is inevitable on the road to mastery. There will probably be a lot of not-so-great output before you create truly excellent work consistently. But the more you postpone and avoid this not-so-great work, the more unlikely you will be to actually reach this level of excellence.
Great painters are world-famous because of their five, ten, or maybe 20 best pictures, not because the many more that led up to their masterpieces. It is the same with great writers. The practice and hard work that they put in before reaching fame and fortune are not visible. But they were necessary.
It is the path that counts. Reaching the goal is just the final 10%. Don’t miss out on the 90% that are less glamorous.
Dear blogging diary, thank you for listening to my attempt at self-therapy. You know, sometimes, I think that it is almost a bit unfair to present a finished piece of writing to the reader - at least if it is a reader who writes herself, or wants to write herself.
Because, all the reader sees is a polished, finished piece, (hopefully) beautifully composed and elegantly concluded. It makes the aspiring writer think: “Damn, whenever I try something, I struggle even with the first paragraph.” What you might not know: Probably, the author of the essay was also struggling with the first paragraph. Maybe, she was wondering if she even had something to say. But, of course, you cannot see this from the final piece.
With source code written by somebody else, I sometimes had a similar feeling, and I know others did, too. You think “Wow, whoever wrote this must be really smart. This is genius.” However, the code was probably not written in 10 minutes. Maybe it is the fifth iteration of it, and the first and second versions were far less impressive. What I want to say is: Do not get discouraged by awe-inspiring work. Do not fall into “I could never do this” mode. Maybe you can.
I put the “Time investment” section at the end of most of my posts. They are intended to give fellow or aspiring writers a feeling for the time and effort that went into what they are reading. People should know that the words did not fall from the sky. Sometimes, it is an outright pain in the ass to get them out (my wife can testify that I am not a big talker). I usually go through at least three iterations before I am willing to publish a piece.
In closing: Writing fosters thinking, and forces you to dig deep in your mind to bring thoughts to the surface that would otherwise linger in the dark. You might find reasons not to write, but more often than not, they will go away during the process of writing. This is one of the most wonderful things about it. My conclusion is: Every minute spent writing is a minute well spent.
This blog post took me about 3.5h to write. The words did not at all fall from the sky, and the title is no coincidence, but reflects my state of mind at the beginning of this week.