On Writing Useful in the Beginning

Personally, my largest barrier to writing is self-doubt, that feeling that what you’re writing needs to be important or original. Around the time I last attempted to revamp this blogging thing, a relevant Paul Graham essay had hit the top of Hacker News: How to Write Useful.

Useful writing tells people something true and important that they didn’t already know, and tells them as unequivocally as possible.

He sets a high bar for his essays and goes to great lengths to test these criteria before publishing. But buried toward the end is an important caveat for new writers.

Which constraint do you relax initially? The answer is, the first component of importance: the number of people who care about what you write.

Granted I completely missed this in my first skim of his essay (a humble lesson in fully reading material before judging). Instead, I came away with the feeling that nothing I had was worth putting out there, or worth putting more effort into. I avoided any attempt to write for a while.

When you first start writing, unless you have a reputation that follows from elsewhere or you get lucky, the number of people who care about what you write isn’t going to be large and so that caveat buried toward the end of his essay is important. My goal is to practice and improve so there’s only one crucial person that cares about this writing: me.

After going back and forth, I’ve settled on the opinion that it’s more important, at an early stage, that I get this text down and out rather than refine it to a well-honed point, hence the goal of 100 posts. The definition of useful for me, a new writer looking to practice, is very different from a figure whose writing is very closely scrutinized like Paul Graham.