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how to write on the internet (& keep doing it)
Reflections on three years of Codon.
I’ve been writing this blog for three years. What began as a weekly list of synthetic biology papers (here’s the first issue) has morphed into scattered essays, with many breaks along the way. This seems like a good time to reflect on what I’ve learned about writing words on the Internet (so far.)
My advice has little to do with the granular act of writing, like sentences or paragraphs. It is, rather, about all the external factors that influence how we write and what we choose to say. Every piece of advice is something I’ve struggled with personally. These are the things I wish I knew three years ago.
This essay isn’t about why you should write, either, because there are too many reasons to list: Writing is a way to manifest ideas. A well-written article will help you raise funds and build a team to make your ideas real. Writing will help you become a beacon. Conveying an idea simply will help you become a node through which opportunities flow. And writing is a way to think. It isn’t possible to craft a compelling essay without a relatively deep understanding of its ideas.
Now here’s my advice about how to write on the Internet.
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Be consistent, but don’t stress over timelines.
If you want to write well, you first have to write badly. To write badly, you first have to care enough to begin. To begin, you should start a blog. Do it now.
For every 100 people who say they want to write, perhaps ten will start a blog and publish something. If you do that, you’ve gone further than most. Start by writing short-form content on Twitter. Write about a paper you just read. Use writing as an excuse to explore an idea or business.
Publish regularly, but don’t stress over timelines. Writing is difficult enough without self-imposed deadlines. It’s better to post a great piece once a month than something bad every week. Devote part of your day to writing, and block off everything else during that time. Focused writing demands a maker’s schedule; not a manager’s schedule.
Be patient about growth. It took Scott Alexander eight years to become widely known. Ed Yong started a blog in 2006, published several articles each week for the next ten years, landed a job at The Atlantic in 2015, and won a Pulitzer in 2021. J.K. Rowling was rejected by twelve publishers for Harry Potter. J.R.R. Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings over a twelve year span and spent five more trying to get it published.
If you write what you love, success will follow. When Phil Sharp won a Nobel Prize in 1993, he said, “Never did I think I was going to necessarily see a Nobel Prize but I knew I was doing very good science and enjoyed that and that’s what life is about, it’s doing good science.” Ditto for writing.
Master story structures.
Learn how to tell a story. It is a formula, and the equations are written in books and on websites. Read advice on writing from other bloggers. Buy the book called On Writing Well, by William Zinsser. Read it at least once. Read Paul Graham’s essay about essays, and then read his other essay about it, too.
At the sentence level, use the active over the passive voice. “The castle was attacked” is passive. “Soldiers attacked the castle” is active, because a subject performs the verb.
Get rid of wasteful words and don’t repeat ideas, unless you’re really trying to emphasize a point. People don’t like to be told things twice. Support your ideas with examples. Specificity is the key to credibility.
Refine your story’s structure before fiddling with sentences. An apple pie tastes poor if sugar and apples are added to the butter too soon, and the order of events similarly matters in an essay. Map out your ideas before writing; a basic outline and story arc will help to de-vague-ify your idea and focus your words.
A topic is not a story. An essay about plastics in the ocean is impossible to write because there is no outcome; no way for the story to progress. Stories have angles and arguments. They have a punchline. And stories are not usually linear.
All essays should have a nut graph, a sentence or two that tells the reader what the piece is about, and why they should keep reading. It usually shows up in the second or third paragraph.
Consider Plenty of Room at the Bottom, the classic Feynman lecture. He begins by talking about great scientists who made a discovery that opened a new field. He then says, “I would like to describe a field in which little has been done, but in which an enormous amount can be done in principle.” And then comes the nut graph: “What I want to talk about is the problem of manipulating and controlling things on a small scale.” This simple sentence sets up the entire essay, and it appears near the top. Essays without a nut graph often feel rambly and unfocused.
It takes time to understand story structures. And beautiful writing comes with practice. It is easy to appreciate beauty when in front of us, but much harder to create it from a blank canvas.
Nobody cares, and that is good.
Most people learn to write in school. They write essays based on prompts given by teachers. Those teachers are then paid to read the essays and issue grades. But the real world does not work this way. Every piece of writing sinks or floats of its own accord. It floats if it has good ideas, limited jargon, and an interesting story. An article sinks if it’s boring or unclear.
If your writing sinks, there is no reason to be embarrassed. Nobody probably even saw it, and people have better things to think about anyway. Learn from it and move on. If your writing floats, great. Learn from that and move on, too.
Everybody has their own life, family, chores. Almost none of them are thinking about you. Embarrassment is self-inflicted. The same applies to “likes” on Twitter. Write what you want and tame the mammoth.
Write like you talk. Not just at the sentence level, but also at the idea level.
Don’t write ‘utilized’ in a sentence if you wouldn’t say it to a friend. Blogs are meant to be entertaining. The goal is to get people to read your words, and everybody most enjoys reading informal, humorous writing.
At the idea level, write in a way that friends would recognize. Share drama and spill gossip. Richard Feynman and Freeman Dyson were both respected physicists who wrote blogs in simple terms, with lots of personal anecdotes. I think this is why their writing became popular.
George Saunders is a witty writer. But as a student at Syracuse University, he was trying to write “serious things,” and so his essays suffered. One Monday, Saunders went to a professor’s house for a writing workshop and the professor told every student to stand up and “tell a story from our lives, off the cuff.” Here’s Saunders:
“None of us wants to be a flop and so each of us rises to the occasion by telling a story…in something like our real voice, using the same assets (humor, understatement, overstatement, funny accents, whatever) that we actually use in our everyday lives to, for example, get out of trouble, or seduce someone. For me, a light goes on: we are supposed to be—are required to be—interesting…What we’re doing in writing is not all that different from what we’ve been doing all our lives, i.e., using our personalities as a way of coping with life. Writing is about charm, about finding and accessing and honing ones’ particular charms.”
People read blogs that are interesting or useful. There is little time to read anything else.
A good way to improve the amount of interesting in an essay is to multiply thrust and reduce drag. “The thrust of a piece is what motivates readers to invest the energy necessary to extract its meaning. It is the reason they click. Drag is everything that makes the reader’s task harder, such as meandering intros, convoluted sentences, abstruse locution and even little things like a missing Oxford comma,” writes Nathan Baschez. Remove boring sentences and extraneous ideas. Support your arguments with stories.
I recently read an entirely-too-long article about Wendell Berry, a writer who has renounced modernity and lives on a farm in Kansas. I couldn't care less about Mr. Berry or his farm, but I finished the article because it was well-written.
Similarly, readers do not care if you go “off-topic,” as long as the detour is interesting. My most popular piece is “A Brief History of Parafilm,” which has nothing to do with anything that I normally write about.
Metrics are overrated.
Audiences start small and grow fast. It took me five months to reach 1,000 subscribers, and the same amount of time to go from 2,000 to 5,000.
Don’t set arbitrary subscriber goals. Once you achieve them, you’ll move the goalposts and remain unsatisfied. Set specific goals instead: “I want to use writing to explore ideas for a company,” or “I want to blog to meet people with shared interests.”
A “small” audience is not limiting. Ash Trotman-Grant, a friend in San Francisco, wrote a blog about science video games and grew it to 250 readers. In May, he launched Karyo Studios with backing from a16z SPEEDRUN. Partners at the VC read his blog and now he’s building a sandbox game for synthetic biology. The blog fulfilled its purpose.
Social media is a false idol. Twitter and Reddit are finicky audiences, only a small fraction of whom will actually read your words. A post on Reddit with >1M impressions typically converts less than 1% of people into readers and <0.1% into subscribers. When my Substack was shared by a famous investor with 50,000 subscribers, I gained 23 subscribers. There are no good shortcuts to growth, other than good writing.
Find your ilk.
Become friends with other writers. Send them your drafts, and edit their drafts. If you are kind, others will be kind to you. Send each essay that you write to at least three people.
Create a Junto. When Benjamin Franklin was 21 years old, he met with friends every Friday evening to debate “any point of Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy.” All members were expected to write an essay and read it to the group every three months. The goal was to provide “a structured form of mutual improvement.” Do this with your own friends. If you don’t know other writers, reach out to me and we’ll do it together.
Be explicit about your audience. “General audience” is not a real thing. You might as well light your words on fire and catapult them into a Black Hole. Hold one person in your mind, and write a letter to them. A defined audience makes it easier to tune the technical level of an essay and decide which jargon to keep or remove. Words to everyone will reach no one.
It often feels lonely to write online. Most readers will never contact you, even if you change their life. Sam Arbesman’s Overedge Catalog helped someone get a job, but he only heard about it much later.
When Sydney Brenner won the Nobel Prize in 2002, a Chinese researcher emailed him and asked, “Please tell me how to do it.” Brenner gave an answer during his acceptance speech in Sweden: “First you must choose the right place,” he said. And then, “choose excellent colleagues.” Ditto for writing.
Talk and read a lot.
The brain is a selective filter. It recalls interesting things and loses the rest. Ask good questions, and others will retrieve interesting details from their own life. It is quicker to find ideas by talking to others than to think up something on your own. A good idea is unique, easy to describe, and often shared in an excited voice. Cold email one new person every day. Follow up with them.
Compelling ideas hide in plain sight. If you start to write regularly, you will find ideas everywhere, because you will naturally start to ask questions to uncover them. The more you think about writing, the more you’ll search for things to write about. Take notes after every conversation.
Read something wonderful every day. Reflect – really reflect – on the things you read. What resonated, and what fell flat? What would you have done better? Learn from the mistakes of others and avoid making them yourself.
Grab qualities from different writers and emulate them in your own writing. I strive for the voice of Richard Feynman, the empathy of Ed Yong, and the clarity of Grant Sanderson.
Find a reason; stick to it.
Writing is manifestation. It’s a way to raise money, build a team, or rally a community. But it takes a lot of time, and it’d be easiest not to do it at all. A clear mission will help you to push through failures. Joan Didion wrote to see the world. David Foster Wallace wrote to have fun. Freeman Dyson wrote to explain his ideas and connect with readers.
Don’t try to please people. Just stick to your reason. Wallace, an American novelist, wrote: “At some point you find that 90% of the stuff you’re writing is motivated and informed by an overwhelming need to be liked.” Write what you want, and trust that readers will stick by you.
It is okay to feel like your writing is flawed, a perpetual work-in-progress. It is okay to feel dissatisfied with the things you’ve written. It is okay to be unhappy.
But once you’ve found a reason, write. Then, write some more. From Annie Dillard’s Write Till You Drop:
After Michelangelo died, someone found in his studio a piece of paper on which he had written a note to his apprentice, in the handwriting of his old age: ''Draw, Antonio, draw, Antonio, draw and do not waste time.''
Thanks to Tony Kulesa, Ash Trotman-Grant, and Claudia for reading drafts of this.
Thanks for reading. ❤️