I don’t care that much if no-one ever reads what I write.
I have written two books and am writing a third, but I never set out wanting to be an author. Of course I appreciate a nice comment, a glowing review or somebody stopping me to let me know that something I wrote impacted them in some way ~ but my initial motivation wasn’t to write for them. It was to write for me.
I made the mistake of writing for others a few years ago after a blog post I published had over a million views. I felt an obligation to write for my new found audience, but in a quest to keep them happy, I stopped writing about what made me happy.
It sounds pretty selfish, and of course it was, but over my last twelve years of writing, I have discovered that (as far as I’m concerned anyway) ~ writing for myself instead of writing for others is far more productive (and enjoyable). The reason for this is pretty simple, because there is only really one reason why I write ~ to make sense of what I am thinking, what I have read, or a particular issue I am struggling to come to terms with.
I think we’d all be a bit better off if we wrote for ourselves more often.
It doesn’t matter if that means writing a short blog, scribbling regularly in a Moleskine, keeping a daily journal or using apps like Evernote or Pocket to keep a collection of thoughts and ideas, you’d be surprised at how rewarding it is to create something new every day.
I would be lying if I said I didn’t also enjoy the thrill of having a good idea in the middle of the night, and then writing something new that no one has seen yet, because the joy of even just one person finding some value in your words is a marvelous thing.
Most of my favourite people are writers; Seth Godin, John Maxwell, Zig Ziglar, Dale Carnegie, Mark Twain, Randall Stross, Kara Swisher, Aarson Sorkin, Michael Lewis…
It is claimed that Einstein once told one of his students at the California Institute of Technology,
“If you can’t explain your physics to a barmaid, then it’s bad physics”.
In order to explain physics to a barmaid in a language that she might be able to understand (all stereotypes aside), that requires any complexity needs to be simplified as much as possible, without losing sight of the original idea. Simplifying complexity is incredibly hard, but for me this is where writing really helps me to make complicated things simple: whether I need to talk to a seasoned CEO about the value of data science, or am about to teach a classroom of school kids about the economics of supply and demand, I seem much better at being able to get my message across after I have written my thoughts down properly, rather than just jotting down bullet points and in order to learn the presentation.
Being able to simplify complexity is important. Not just because our attention spans are now so short, but because our lives are complicated enough already. This could explain why there is an unwritten rule at the BBC that nothing will ever appear on TV if it can not be understood by an intelligent 13 year old.
I spent some time with a tabloid journalist from News of the World a few years ago and he told me a similar thing, explaining that it was much harder to write a political comment for the man-on-the-street, than it was to write an intelligent political opinion for a quality broadsheet newspaper.
“Sorry I wrote you such a long letter. I had more time I would have written a shorter one”. Abraham Lincoln & Mark Twain paraphrasing Blaise Pascal.
Luckily I’m not a journalist and I don’t need to worry about eyeballs or readership numbers, so I am just planning to use this blog to write about whatever takes my fancy. Generally I expect those thoughts to be around writing, speaking and presenting in the technology space, but I’m hoping that it will help me to sense-check myself and make sure that my thoughts are heading in (generally) the right direction. I haven’t blogged for a while and I have felt the worse for it.
The artist Jackson Pollack was once challenged why he didn’t paint commercial work that might “sell better” and he said,
I don’t give a fuck, this is what I do, this is how I’m going to do it, this is what it is. You can love it or hate it. This is not about you“.
I sometimes wonder if the people who need to write to get the eyeballs (to justify their jobs or their advertising rates), find that the quality of their content is regularly compromised because they need to keep a certain audience happy. Many of the best pieces of writing I have enjoyed have been written without an audience in mind, because the writer (like Pollack) felt like they had something to share that they just couldn’t keep inside any longer.
It’s an interesting dichotomy in today’s world because almost everything that we do is judged by the levels of engagement that it attracts. The larger the audience, the more successful the piece. Until the next piece comes across a few minutes (or seconds) later and you are forgotten. Think back to the last article that you read which really impacted you. The ones where you can remember the quotes and the stories. Articles that really helped you form your own opinions on something important. Over the last 6 months I’ll bet you could number them on one hand.
In a world that seeks acceptance (in likes, RT’s, views or follows) where writers generate daily content to “engage” a certain audience, I can’t help thinking that the people who I admire most are always the odd ones who stand out.
In many cases, I think this is one of the biggest problems with social media. Wisdom of the masses. Writing for the lowest common denominator in order to get the maximum number of clicks. I have nothing against the celebrity and tabloid writers who help us to waste our time, but their motivation for writing is different. I worked with a famous teenage YouTube a few years ago who wanted £50,000 for a brand partnership that would have worked well for him. He could command that because he had a big audience. He published content for others and rode the coattails of commercial success for a few years. I saw him recently and he is now asking for a tenth of that as a fee. He isn’t as cool anymore and his audience has moved on to newer and shiner YouTubers. He wishes he was more authentic and wrote more content for himself – rather than writing under the pressure of getting more views than his previous piece. As a result, the relentless amount of content he needed to produce got tired quite quickly. His audience got bored. They moved on. Now he’s moving to an advertising agency, writing ads that help them them sell more stuff to people who don’t need it.
These are all anecdotal stories of course, that whilst they are important to me, they probably mean nothing to you.
But that’s ok – because I wasn’t writing for you anyway. But since you’re still here, firstly “THANK YOU” and secondly, if you’re still reading because you want to write more yourself, then I have two HUGE pieces of advice that might help:
* Find whatever works for you. My favourite comedian Jerry Seinfeld speaks in this clip here about how and why he writes, and has only ever used a cheap Bic biro and a yellow legal pad. I prefer a nice notebook and a Montblanc pen (because it feels like I am always writing something important), but whatever floats your boat…