Three years ago a friend was complaining about writing his blog. It was hard, he couldn’t get the exposure, the hourly returns were less than he’d make working in Haiti, etc, etc. When I scoffed and told him to quit whining, he (very rightly) challenged me to do better.
Three years and over 400 articles later (a number of those are comments, but still, 400!), I’ll admit it. Blogging is hard. He had a point. It can be draining, humbling, and full of frustration. Spending hours writing (and rewriting) something just so it can be read by eight people, four of whom hate it, isn’t a fun endeavor.
But it’s also incredibly rewarding (not the getting read by eight people part — the writing in general). And the benefits more than outweigh the difficulties. So while I wouldn’t say it’s easy, at least not for me, I will say it’s great. And I highly encourage anyone who’s interested to give it a try. Looking back on these past three years, here are the top 15 benefits that have made this such a worthwhile investment.
1. You’ll overcome something that scares you. As an anxious introvert that struggled to speak out in public, the idea of publishing my ideas was terrifying. It took a force of will to hit publish that first time. After which, nothing happened.
Something connects with someone. Another doesn’t quite get it. A third hates you for no real reason. But at the end of the day, none of it’s a big deal. Recognizing that your internal fears are groundless is empowering. And it encourages you to confront those other misplaced fears that are holding you back.
2. You’ll appreciate that nothing’s perfect at first. First drafts are typically crap. The majority of thoughts that go into that first round never see the light of day. But just because they’re not used, it doesn’t make them useless.
Our minds need that mess. No idea is perfect at first. It improves with each iteration — each review and each revision. Once you realize that the first draft doesn’t need to be perfect, you take the pressure off starting in the first place.
Pulitzer-winning writer Jennifer Egan advises people, “You can only write regularly if you’re willing to write badly. You can’t write regularly and well. One should accept bad writing as a way of priming the pump, a warm-up exercise that allows you to write well.” Creativity is iterative. And it’s much easier to improve a bad draft than write a perfect one from scratch.
3. You’ll start noticing things. Most people don’t notice the world going on around them. They spend their free moments looking at their phones and getting social media updates. But if you want to write, you need ideas. And you get ideas from noticing what’s going on around you.
Susan Sontag wrote that “a writer is someone who pays attention to the world — a writer is a professional observer.” When you notice things, you pay attention to the people around you. You look at their behaviors and their motivations. You dig into their thoughts. Each thought is a potential idea. Each perspective is a potential angle.
When you start noticing, you recognize all of the interesting things going on around you. And you realize that everyone has more depth and nuance than you can see through social media.
4. You’ll get used to negative feedback. The best way to take the sting out of criticism is to get used to receiving criticism. When you put your work online, it will undoubtedly be subjected to the thoughts and opinions of those who disagree. Negative comments will come streaming in, complete with ridiculous suggestions and unhelpful advice.
It’s this freight train of criticism that helps toughen us against negative feedback. It conditions us to focus on the important and brush off the negative. The more criticism you receive, the better you can distinguish between those that deserve your respect and those that you should proudly ignore. As W.H. Auden wrote, “It would only be necessary for a writer to secure universal popularity if imagination and intelligence were equally distributed among all men.”
5. You’ll begin to see through your own excuses / problems / idiocies. When you write, it’s easier to take an objective view of your own life. And with that objective view, it’s easier to recognize the biases and blind spots that plague you today. With many of these self-imposed limitations, simply recognizing and accounting for them is the critical step to managing them.
6. You’ll push yourself toward new experiences. In order to write something interesting, you need to do something interesting. Blogging gives you the perfect excuse to explore different places and ideas that intrigue you. There are few better ways to make life more interesting than digging into your curiosities. In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott echoes this benefit, saying,
“One of the gifts of being a writer is that it gives you an excuse to do things, to go places and explore. Another is that writing motivates you to look closely at life, at life as it lurches by and tramps around.”
7. You’ll make better arguments. Clear writing comes from clear thinking. Most people struggle in this area. They can stammer their opinions and belligerently repeat some borrowed sound bites, but when the time comes to lay out concise arguments, they struggle.
Writing helps you learn to structure your arguments in ways that connect with people. It forces you to isolate your gaps and learn about them. It forces you to understand differing perspectives so you can both represent and counter them. In a world of shallow, derivative arguments, the ability to make a clear and concise argument is a superpower.
8. You’ll develop your own voice. People often say that you need to “find your own voice.” As though some stranger’s been speaking on your behalf up to this point. I think it’s more accurate to tell people “not to lose their voice.”
It’s easy to adopt an extra layer of formality when you’re writing. Don’t worry about trying to sound more intelligent that you are. Write as you talk. Keep it personal. Keep your own voice. I’d much rather read that than some fluffed up research paper.
9. You’ll become a part of the community. When you write as part of a community, you become part of that community. You meet people with similar interests who are going through similar struggles. You build connections, learn from their strengths, and offer your own support however you can.
I’m obviously partial to Medium. Without the generous support of others on the platform, I doubt that I’d still be doing this three years later. If you’re not ready to start writing your own articles, start by commenting. Offer congratulations and suggestions. Just find ways to contribute. And what you’ll get out will more than outweigh what you put in.
10. You’ll help people. It’s a great feeling when someone leaves a positive comment and let’s you know that your article helped them. Don’t think that your voice won’t matter. And don’t think that what you have to say won’t help someone. You never know what might make a difference to someone. In the wise words of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow,
“Give what you have. To someone, it may be better than you dare to think.”
11. You’ll be able to document your growth. It’s fun to look back on old articles and cringe. Well, kind of. Fun in that, wow what was I thinking, kind of way. But having a record of past successes and mistakes, lessons and viewpoints, provides a great way to reflect and evaluate your changing priorities and perspectives. Seeing how much you’ve changed in the past five years also reinforces the fact that you’ll continue to change in the next five as well.
12. You’ll get better. If you want to improve your writing, the typical advice is to take a class, read a book, pay for a seminar, blah, blah, blah. Or you could write. And keep writing.
We improve by doing. We improve by testing new things, figuring out what works well, and putting ourselves out there for real feedback. Maybe you can do that from the sidelines. But why would you want to? As Susan Sontag reflected in a 1972 journal entry, “A writer, like an athlete, must ‘train’ every day. What did I do today to keep in ‘form’?”
13. You get used to finishing. The only reason to start something is to finish it. Starting’s easy. It doesn’t take any courage to start. Anyone can do it. Finishing means that you’re standing behind the quality and submitting your work to the world for their judgment. It takes guts. It takes vulnerability.
When you finish, you improve. But you also increase the odds of having something connect with your audience and continue to build your own portfolio. Everyone else is still working on perfecting that first piece.
14. You’ll be in the 1%. I read somewhere that only 1% of internet users actively create new content, while the other 99% simply view it. It seems low given the quantity of cat videos out there, but there’s no doubt that creators are in the minority. Any time you can (positively!) separate yourself from the masses, it’s a worthwhile investment. And in today’s competitive world, it’s becoming a necessity.
15. You’ll have fun If you’re having fun, everything else will take care of itself. You’ll care enough to make sure that it does. So I’ll close with the wise words of one of my favorite authors, Neil Gaiman, as he offered in his 8 rules of writing,
“The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.”