I often get asked for career advice from someone who (1) is young and (2) has a full-time commitment (school, job, etc) but isn’t 100% happy about it. My default advice for him/her is to start blogging.
The biggest benefit of blogging in this case is that it helps you find a mentor/advisor outside of your current organization. Your blog won’t automatically catch an eye of your future mentor per se, but if you ever run into someone who could be your mentor, you can introduce yourself along with your blog.
And that often makes a big difference. Ask yourself: let’s say that you’re going to mentor someone who’s more junior, and there are two candidates. One has written a solid blog that you enjoyed reading, and the other hasn’t. All else being equal, which one would you like to mentor?
Of course, having a great professional experience/portfolio would be better, but a solid blog can cover the lack of it.
The second biggest benefit is that writing generates ideas. When you’re stuck on your career, you need to take actions, but you also need ideas about which actions to take. And you’ll miss out on those ideas if you don’t write. As Paul Graham, a co-founder of Y Combinator, puts it:
I think it’s far more important to write well than most people realize. Writing doesn’t just communicate ideas; it generates them. If you’re bad at writing and don’t like to do it, you’ll miss out on most of the ideas writing would have generated. … Expect 80% of the ideas in an essay to happen after you start writing it, and 50% of those you start with to be wrong.
But I understand that starting a blog can be challenging. So here’s my three pieces of advice for the first time bloggers, all of which I believe are somewhat contrarian. Note that they probably won’t be as relevant for people who have written even one article in the past.
1. Pick an Ugly but Legible Blog Theme
Although I mentioned that your blog is supposed to reflect your values, you don’t need to make it look like a fancy suit, a gorgeous dress, or even a casual outfit from Everlane.
Instead, I recommend you to visually style your blog like pajamas. Here’s the rule of thumb: (1) stick with the default theme for the blog service you use, or (2) choose a theme that’s uglier than the default theme - but it should still be legible.
This one’s certainly not as pretty as the default theme, but it’s still legible - so it fits the criteria. Note that Tumblr applies a different, mobile-friendly theme when viewed on mobile, so no need to worry there. (Just a side note: this theme is the third oldest theme on Tumblr, designed by Tumblr’s founder, David Karp.)
Why choose an ugly theme? Several reasons. First, you’ll minimize the time to publishing your first article by following this strategy. Ever been late to an important occasion because you couldn’t decide on what to wear? Exactly. And even if you think you chose the right theme that fits your personality, it’ll feel obsolete after a while. Time for a redesign! But that’s a wasted time.
Second and more importantly, by picking a mediocre-looking theme, you won’t try to look good as much when writing. You’ll be less self conscious.
If your theme’s typography is set to maximize the attractiveness of your writing, you’d feel bad if your words can’t keep up. At least I feel that way every time I write on Medium, possibly the prettiest blogging service out there. World-class themes implicitly pressure you into becoming a world-class writer.
If you want people to learn and remember what you write, say it conversationally. This isn’t just for short informal blog entries and articles, either. We’re talking books. Assuming they’re meant for learning, and not reference, books written in a conversational style are more likely to be retained and recalled than a book on the same topics written in a more formal tone. Most of us know this intuitively, but there are some studies to prove it. ….
Unless the book is a reference book, where precision matters over understanding, and the writing is meant to be referred to not read and learned from, there are almost NO good reasons for a tech book to be written in a formal (i.e. non-conversational) style. Much of the time, it’s an indication that the author is thinking way too much about himself, and how he will be perceived.
Yes, you can write conversationally on a gorgeous theme, but trust me, it’s easier when your theme isn’t screaming: “Look how handsome I am!”
Some final notes: first, your theme still needs to be legible. Make sure that the line length of the body text is short, ideally not much longer than 75 characters per line. Second, if you’re an artist, designer, or in a profession where how you look online actually matters, ignore my advice and pick a good looking theme. Third, having a custom domain name for your blog is nice, but if you don’t know how to get that set up, don’t fret. Even in 2015, lots of amazing bloggers are still blogging on non-custom domains.
2. 90% of Your Content can be Someone Else’s
People often say that they have nothing to blog about. That’s bullshit. Just follow these three steps:
- Find an article you enjoyed reading. Or an article you don’t quite agree with the author.
- Quote the parts you liked, you disagreed, etc. 90% of your article can be the quoted sections.
- Add your comment to fill the remaining 10%.
“But… but… is that all I need to do?” The answer is yes. Take a look at this blog post from John Gruber, arguably the most famous Apple blogger. All he did was the above three steps.
“But John Gruber writes great long-form articles too!” Sure. But my point is that there’s nothing wrong publishing articles that consist of 90% quoted content and 10% original content.
You need to think in ratios. No article you read online is 100% original. Even the highest quality article you read contains some borrowed ideas. It’s just that the ratio is more like 80% original and 20% borrowed. In fact, the best articles often stand on the shoulders of other great articles.
Example: I recently read Amy Nguyen’s excellent article, “I need terrible female engineers.” Amy’s idea felt familiar yet unique. But again, her idea didn’t come to life from scratch - it was in reaction to the common misconception that “women in tech are good at everything.” It also wouldn’t be as powerful if she didn’t cite the she++ Documentary and Nicki Minaj’s quote. So again, even a great article like this isn’t 100% original.
So there’s nothing to be ashamed of if you start out writing 10% original, 90% borrowed/quoted content. You’ve got to start from somewhere - just work your way upwards so that one day, the ratio is reversed. Initially, merely picking an article, quoting it, and adding your opinion can be a valuable learning experience. gain, writing generates ideas; you won’t know what you are really thinking until you write it down. And your readers will learn a thing or two about you and about the world.
3. Write only on Friday Nights and Saturday Nights
This one might not be a good advice, but I’ll say it anyway. Some people argue that you should write every day, even for 30 minutes. This has never worked for me. I need to be in the “zone” when writing, and 30 minutes is too short to be fully focused.
And when I’m too immersed in the process, I end up staying up late, which hurts my productivity the next day. Since my day job is my priority, I unconsciously avoid myself from entering this “flow” state if I have to wake up early the next day. The same would be true if I try to write in early weekday mornings, before going to work.
So my solution is: write only on Friday nights and Saturday nights. That way, I can stay up writing if I want to and don’t need to feel guilty. It’s hard to start and publish an article in a day, but it’s manageable if I have two days. I’ll miss out on social life, but I try to make up by hanging out with friends during daytime on weekends.
Bonus: Email Me Your Blog
For most people, when they start a blog, literally nobody except the author reads it. You might get a like or two if you post it on Facebook, but your friends probably didn’t click on the link. You might get a click or two if you share on Twitter, but no favorites or retweets. That’s just how it goes.
At this stage, the best blog distribution strategy you can pursue is to personally ask someone to read your blog. Don’t optimize for pageviews and clicks; optimize for getting feedback and learning from the feedback. It’ll take a while before your baby blog can take care of itself, in terms of acquiring readers.
“But I don’t have anyone to send my blog to!” Well, good news: I’d be happy to read your stuff. Just email to firstname.lastname@example.org. But I’m certain that your friends will be happy to read your stuff too - even if your theme is ugly and your content is only 10% original.
That’s it! Happy blogging.
Bonus Quote: Cunningham’s Law
Cunningham’s Law states “the best way to get the right answer on the Internet is not to ask a question, it’s to post the wrong answer.”
The concept is named after Ward Cunningham, father of the wiki. According to Steven McGeady, the law’s author, Wikipedia may be the most well-known demonstration of this law.