I recently celebrated 5 years of publishing daily to this blog. I’m also closing in on 2,000 essays here. That’s a lot of writing. It’s a long journey. And I’ve learned a lot.
Here are 7 lessons I’ve learned through the blood, sweat, and tears of writing and shipping daily for 5 years.
(1) Don’t overthink what to write about
I don’t have a content plan. Even when I do make one, I don’t stick well to plans.
Every day I come up with dozens of topics and yet I often have moments where I “don’t know what to write about.” (What’s beneath this is a whole topic in itself, for another time).
When you don’t know what to write about, just write something. Anything.
Write what’s alive in you in this moment.
It doesn’t have to be on the topic you wrote about yesterday or what you’ll write about tomorrow.
Don’t overthink. Just write.
(2) Don’t worry if it’s good or if it will serve.
This might feel a little heretical. After all, you’re writing for an audience, and you want what you write to serve your readers.
That said, don’t get caught up in wondering if what you write will resonate, or be good, or if people will want to read it, or if it will serve.
First, you are not a good judge if your own work.
Second, the truth is you don’t know what will resonate with people.
You have no idea what people will want to read. You don’t know what will serve.
No amount of market research can accurately predict what your readers will want to read, or what will resonate with them.
They may think they have no interest in a topic until they read your take on it.
Some essays that I thought were my best, and that I thought would really serve a need, languish in obscurity among the almost 2000 essays I’ve written. Others that I wrote that I thought were self-indulgent drivel have landed with great impact.
Anyone who says they know is lying. Even if they have metrics to support their assertion.
(3) Don’t judge a piece by its immediate reception.
Speaking of metrics: ignore them. All of them.
One of the overlooked secrets of doing anything consistently is to focus on process over outcome.
This applies to everything: exercise, writing, sales calls, marketing.
If you’re too focused on results, you’ll quit before you get traction.
Yes, there’s a time to focus on whether your process is yielding the results you want. You want people to read your work, otherwise why bother writing?
That said, if you’re writing to go viral you’ll likely be disappointed more often than not. And if you’re disappointed by the reaction your writing gets, you won’t want to write.
Again, it bears repeating: You. Don’t. Know.
You don’t know what will land or when.
The vast majority of what I publish hardly makes a ripple when I first publish it.
Over time, though, a different story sometimes emerges. Out of nowhere, I’ll see a certain piece consistently in my top 10 and I’ll discover that it’s at the top of Google search results.
I have many examples of this. (If you’d be interested in seeing the case studies, please drop a note in the comments or via social media.)
It’s your job to put the work out there. Not to assess whether it will go viral. Not to get caught up in metrics.
And consider this: if your piece helps even one person, isn’t that reason enough to publish it?
Separate the process from the outcome.
Write and ship. Write and ship. Write and ship.
(4) Don’t worry about word count
Speaking of metrics that don’t matter, don’t worry about word count.
Many writers set word benchmarks, like writing at least 500 words a day. Or they boast about their 2500 word essays.
For a long time, I obsessed over how many words I wrote a day, and how long each piece was.
Many people gave me this advice, and I discovered they were right:
Say what you need to say, in however many or few words you need to say it.
I love to experiment with poetry. I’ve challenged myself to publish single stanza haiku or single sentences as a blog post, just to practice letting it be “enough.”
On the flip side, don’t fret if your piece feels “too long.” If you write something that engages a reader they will read it.
(5) Write as much as you need to get to what you need to say
Legendary writers who share their process often share that they might write pages to extract one amazing sentence.
Writing is a volume game. The more you write the better the chances you’ll write something truly memorable.
Don’t let some arbitrary word count limit your process of expression and your writing.
When writing, especially when you’re not sure what to write about or what you want to say, get it all out of you.
As writer Dan Pink memorably told the 2014 graduates of Northwestern,
Sometimes you need to write to figure it out.
You can always go back after and edit.
(6) No writing done from the heart is wasted writing
In my family, we love picking the meat off the turkey carcass once it’s carved. The meat left on the carcass is some of the best turkey meat.
Throwing out sections you’ve written is like discarding the turkey carcass after carving the turkey, with all the good juicy bits still on it.
The bits you cut out of one piece may not necessarily be the best bits for the current piece, but they are often seeds for future work.
When you cut down a piece by editing out whole sections, don’t delete what you cut. Just move it somewhere else.
You ~~may~~ will find these useful down the road.
No writing is wasted.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone through my notes in my Drafts app and found short snippets that have captured me. They were extracted from other pieces.
With the passage of time, and independent of the original context, those snippets landed differently. Some of them became independent essays.
(7) Ship even if you don’t feel finished.
What is ever finished, anyway?
There’s always more to say.
One reason I love shipping daily is the comfort that if I left something out I can always go back and write another piece about it tomorrow.
Even if you said everything you knew about a topic today, you will learn more. Your understanding will evolve over time.
Also: remember that you’re not carving in stone. You can go back and edit something even after you’ve published it.
Make it a game: Play around with leaving sentences unfinished. See if anyone notices.
You will find that most people don’t notice and it doesn’t really matter.
This topic is a perfect example. I’m nowhere near finished. I have plenty more lessons to share.
And eventually I’ll write another essay with more lessons.