Writing is like exercise. It’s just good on so many levels. 

  • Writing can be high impact
  • Writing can be inspiring
  • Writing can help you learn and grow
  • Writing can help your career
  • Writing can be meaningful and deeply satisfying 
  • Writing can get you into flow
  • And also, just like with exercise, almost nobody writes enough

Whenever I get back into the habit of writing, I always think I should write more. It’s one of my favorite things. 

Yet, much like exercise is for most people, I tend to have little flares of interest, where I get really into it for a week or two, then lose steam, and it just becomes a dormant blog again. You might have had a similar experience, and maybe even have a cobwebby blog or two out there. Perhaps you have some really cool half-finished google docs that you never quite got around to finishing and publishing. 

It’s a funny thing though, about writing being like exercise. Because do you remember what exercise used to be called when you were a child? 

Play.

And I remembered on a recent vacation I took, where I had the slack to remember, that writing is play. I fell back in love with writing then, typing away furiously on the beach. 

 

“I remembered that writing is play”

 

Not only was it intrinsically fun, but I also loved that it felt like I was making a difference, writing about important topics. That my recommendations were helping people, whether it be making them happier or making them higher impact, or sometimes, if I was lucky, both.

To help myself (and perhaps you) remember this and all the other reasons to write, I’ve decided to write about all the reasons I have to write. 

Reading the list will inspire me and hopefully others. Publishing it will publicly commit me to writing, which will make it more likely. Even better, it could potentially re-inspire some people, perhaps you, to start writing for the forums again. Or maybe even it’ll get you excited to try your hand at writing publicly, even though you’ve never done it before.

Epistemic status: motivational

Epistemic status: motivational. An explanation of my personal experience that doesn’t generalize to all peopleThis isn’t meant to be a nuanced look into the pros and cons of writing. 

It’s meant to inspire a subset of the population (and myself!) to write more. None of this applies to all writing or all people. It’s meant more as a manifesto rather than a research piece. 

Of course, this is LessWrong, so feel free to debate the merits and demerits of writing in the comments.

Now, with all that hedging out of the way, here’s a giant list of reasons why you, the community, and myself should write. 

Some reasons to write

The reasons to write fall broadly into three categories: enjoyment, capacity building, and impact. 

Enjoyment and other personal benefits

Writing can be personally gratifying in so many ways. 

  • Moments of inspiration. Sometimes you’re really excited about what you’re writing, and the words just pour out of you. It can be a really peak experience.
  • Art. If you have a part of you that craves the artist’s life, you can have some of that through writing, without having to quit your day job. It can sometimes feel like being a rationalist is antithetical to being artistic, but writing is a great way to combine a seeking of truth with a seeking of beauty.
  • The world is your material. It changes the way you interact with the world. You’re always on the lookout for little snippets of an idea really well put. You have great conversations and that’s grist for the mill. It’s like being on a lifelong treasure hunt, with little hits of dopamine splashed throughout the day. 
  • Sweet sweet internet points. In George Orwell’s “Why I Write” essay, the first reason he lists is egoism. And he wrote that before the internet! You can only imagine how much George would have loved Twitter and LessWrong. 
  • Romantic. There’s something romantic about writing, be it in a cafe or in a park, or in your favorite writing nook. To be a writer feels like being an explorer or a gentleman scholar - a role straight out of a novel.
  • Coming up with little flourishes is fun. There’s a pleasure in finding exactly the right turn of phrase that makes the idea both beautiful and make sense.
  • Feelings of pride. Sometimes you write an article you’re really satisfied with, which feels outstanding. 
  • Identity of a writer. Having the identity of a writer has a certain romantic appeal. You kind of feel like a writer in Paris. To be a writer for a cause is even better, like Tolstoy or the journalist in Blood Diamond. 
  • Short self-contained projects. So often what you’re working on takes ages till it’s done, or it’s never really done. Endless to-do lists are the norm. But with writing posts, there’s a very clear start and finish, and it can take as little as a morning to finish. There is something deeply rewarding about this, where the finish line is always so close. 
  • Writing in beautiful places. There's something meditative about taking your computer somewhere and working in a beautiful place, whether at a perfectly decorated cafe or out in nature.
  • Seeing people apply your ideas. It's so gratifying to see somebody actually implement one of your ideas. 
  • More people agree with you. This is high impact if you happen to be less wrong than the average person you’re changing the mind of, but I’m listing it under personal enjoyment as a separate point from the impact. It’s nice when people agree with your (obviously correct and superior) views. 
  • Getting thank you comments and DMs. I mean, this is LessWrong, so there’s always going to be criticism and debate, but there are also often some really motivating comments saying thank you or complimenting your work. 

Capacity building

  • Learning and other ways it helps you come to the truth:
    • Remembering, via two mechanisms:
      • Like taking notes. Writing things down helps you remember them, like taking notes in class. The act of writing them down helps solidify them in your brain.
      • Reference. You can use your old writing for reference.   
    • Understanding. One of the best ways to truly understand something is to teach it to somebody else, and that’s exactly what the best writing is: teaching. 
    • Uncovering blind spots. Trying to write about a topic is one of the best ways to reveal the areas you don’t actually understand.
    • Thinking more clearly. Putting your thoughts on paper forces you to make things explicit. I do some of my best thinking in a google document. 
    • New ideas. Often writing leads to you having new ideas. Steelman solitaire is also really good for that. 
    • Finding relevant information. A common response to posts will be for people to share relevant articles, which will help you have a better view of things. 
    • Getting feedback from the world. What’s the best way to get people to give you feedback? Post something wrong on the internet and wait for the comments. (Tip: see the comment section as the "debate section". This re-frame can turn you from feeling defensive to feeling interested.)
  • ↑Reputation. People will know about you and like some of your work. This leads to all sorts of things, like increasing your ability to:
    • Get a job. If you have an online presence, people are more likely to hire you. You get to showcase your talents and knowledge at scale. 
    • Fundraise. The key to fundraising is credibly signaling that you can be trusted to turn money into impact. Making good content can be a hard-to-fake indicator of competence and show that you have aligned values and epistemics.
    • Hire people. I don’t know about you, but I'm much more likely to want to work for someone whose work I've already read and enjoyed. 
    • Get people’s time to discuss an idea. If you’d like to discuss an idea with somebody in the community, they’re far more likely to say yes if they already “know” you a little from your writing. Public writing is like scaled-up, passive networking. 

Impact and other benefits to the world

  • Improve the conclusions of the community. This then improves their actions, leading to impact
  • Improve conclusions at scale. Most of the time if you have a good idea, you only maybe persuade a few of your friends. If you write, dozens or hundreds of people will read it.
  • Motivate action. Very often reading a well-reasoned blog post is what spurs people to action. Write about potentially high-impact activities and it might mobilize a lot of people. 
  • Improve your own conclusions→ impact (see Learning section)
  • Help others directly. A lot of writing helps the reader directly. For example, this post on self-love contributed to my overcoming impostor syndrome and increased my self-acceptance a ton

I could go on, but after reading all of these reasons, I’m excited to finish an essay I’ve had in a Google Doc draft for forever.

I hope this also inspires you to dust off an old blog or start a new one. To experience writing as dancing. Where it counts as exercise and is good for you, but you don’t even care about that, because it’s just so damn fun

 

Other things like this you might enjoy

 

Cross-posted from my personal blog.

Reminder that you can listen to this post on your podcast player using the Nonlinear Library if it reaches above 35 upvotes

New Comment
1 comment, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 5:00 PM

I agree with what you wrote. But then, why isn't everyone writing as much as possible? What are the obstacles, and how to overcome them?

I notice that I write too many comments and too few articles, although on reflection I would prefer to write more articles and fewer comments. (I mean, "fewer comments" is not a goal per se, it's just too many comments means I should have spent that time writing more articles instead.) Why is that?

First, comments are easier. I can stop whenever I want, like maybe even after the first sentence. That would be a lame article, but as a comment it is okay. Writing a comment is a lower-commitment thing.

Second, writing an article feels lonely. What if no one will read it? What if no one will care? When writing a comment, I am placing myself in the middle of a conversation. At the very least, there is someone I respond to.

The price I pay for this is that the comments are less impressive (you can give people a link to your blog, but you probably wouldn't give them a link to the list of your comments), and instead of writing about any topic of my choice, I have to write on a topic that someone else has started.

I have noticed that people have a problem with setting the quality bar too high for themselves, and then go like "this new idea is not good enough for my blog, I will write it on tumblr instead... uhm, this is too lame even for my tumblr, I will post a facebook comment instead... omg, I will rather just tweet this". Happens to me, too; the difference is that I do not have so many places to post, so it's just like "not appropriate for LW... not important enough to start my own blog... uhm, forget it".

I wonder if the proper approach (which would require corresponding technical infrastructure) would be the opposite: Everything you write should by default appear at the lowest-status place, but then you could move the best pieces to a more visible place (like on LW a personal post can be promoted to front page), ideally while preserving its URL to avoid breaking other people's links. Or sometimes I start writing a shortform on LW, and then I am like "oh, this is actually quite long", so I make it an article instead. Maybe I should never start with the idea of writing an article, and always try to write a shortform instead... and then move it if it naturally becomes too long.

Maybe I am overthinking it, and the ideal approach would be something like: make a blog, write whatever comes to your mind, random topic, random quality... and then maybe once in a year write a "Best of 20XY" article where you link the best pieces, and put a visible link to this article on your homepage.