We write code. We write issues. We write documentation. We write notes to ourselves, messages to each other, and guidelines to unite teams across projects.
Day in and out our remote work and open source lives are driven by written communication. But blog posts are one kind of writing that eludes our regular practice. In our weekly show and tell we got real about "why can writing blog posts be so hard?" and collaboratively wrote up this blog post about what we learned from the discussion.
A quick note about language: At Quansight, we have many people who are multilingual and/or are not working in their first language. This is the norm here. Because of this, we know that there are language barriers to writing that were only mentioned implicitly in the discussion, but have to be overcome on a daily basis by the team.
What obstacles prevent us from publishing writing?
Writing is not a singular task. There's getting the idea, organizing it, editing what you have, getting feedback, publishing, and so on…
We found ourselves split into two camps: (1) those that struggle to start writing and (2) those that struggle to complete and publish their writing. Below are their stories.
The tyranny of the blank page
Oh, the beginning. Some find it to be a very good place to start, but the following people countered with these contrary statements:
- Writing alone is hard. How am I supposed to know what to do?
- I don't have the time to collaborate (and I must collaborate in order to publish).
- Hasn't everything worth saying already been said? It can be hard to get over that feeling when writing.
- I don't have time to reflect on my work and record it.
- It's difficult to translate non-linear thinking into a linear format (writing).
Avoiding diminishing returns
Now let's pretend we've navigated around the above obstacles and have something (however messy) on the page. In most cases, that is only the first step.
When you are maintaining projects, juggling your community commitments, and maybe even already writing documentation, how do you make good use of your time while writing? How do you get it from started to finished? This was another theme our team discussed, which can be distilled into the following:
- The hardest part of writing is finishing it (especially when writing something over a long period of time).
- I can't afford to spend 6 hours on one sentence (but can easily end up doing so).
- Being responsible for what you say on a company blog can be stressful.
- If I haven't looked at my drafts in a while, I don't usually find anything there that I feel is worth continuing on.
Maybe it's not so bad
Some of the authors' favorite parts of these lists is that many of the obstacles complement each other! Just like there isn't one single kind of author, there isn't one single set of needs people have in order to write. Do we need people or do we need alone time? Do we need the force of deadlines or the relaxation of an open-ended timeline? One of our team members even said
It's interesting to see how everyone is struggling in different ways.
Bring those thoughts with you while we discuss the next question…
How do people like to write?
Sometimes writings do successfully get published! 🎉 We asked our team about what goes right when writing does get completed as planned. People commented that writing works best for them when the following happens:
- Knowing who you are writing for is important. For practice, folks suggested writing for yourself or close allies.
- Writing about topics you like (or at least tying another topic into that).
- Writing as part of an organized meet up where you critique and share each other's work with the intent of publishing at the end. (Writer's workshop style)
- Having a good editor / someone to provide constructive critiques is so helpful.
- Co-authoring is the best!
- As a way to bring people into new projects.
- It's so helpful to be hyped and have that support system.
- To by hyped by others in the form of "I double-dog-dare you" or "I bet a dollar you can."
The "I published a blog post in the last few months" team also provided some writing lifestyle advice:
- Write in a cabin in the woods (warning: you may risk hiking instead of writing).
- Drink tea while writing.
- A legal pad and a computer go together. No computer writing alone.
- Relax while writing. You'll think better. (When there's no deadline!)
Most people agreed that to overcome the tyranny of the blank page, it's helpful to just write. Write anything. It can be nonsense, gibberish, garbage, or downright silly, but just write.
If that's not effective, here are some other ideas:
- Try to sneak up on the empty page by doing something you enjoy that is related to what you want to write. For example, if you love to draw, try drawing something related to your topic and let it pull you into that world.
- Try open-ended questions, like "What message do I want the reader to learn?" or "What's the coolest thing about this topic?".
- Pretend you're having a conversation with someone. How would you start describing the topic to them?
What are we to do?
Write! Write for yourself. Write for each other.
To do this sustainably, we need to experiment with techniques that shorten the gap between the obstacles and all the good feelings listed above.
One pattern we discovered in this discussion is that people agree writing (and publishing) takes a team. Whether people struggled at the beginning or at the end of the process, everyone mentioned needing support at one time or another. And of course, working with others is better when you find a way to have fun. Creating a system to engage in fun, consistent collaboration may be the first step to helping all our writers make it across the finish line.
In need of encouragement? Remember the wise words of another team member:
I can't wait to read what you write.