The tyranny of the writing quality bar

Hi readers,

It’s almost the end of my trip here in Austin soon - the weather is back up to being super nice, maybe even a little too warm (85 today!) after a few crazy weeks of a snowstorm, rain, etc. I’m loving the south congress neighborhood, but it’s time to go! I’m headed to LA near the end of the month next as a pitstop, then SF after that. Hope all of you are well and staying safe.

So here’s what I want to write about today:

When I first started writing online — about 2007, at least seriously so — I would write a few times a week. It’s crazy to think about — how did I have the time!??! I was writing about what I learned upon moving to the Bay Area, and it was super fun. But today, I just write maybe a few times per year. They are long, detailed pieces, versus in the early days I’d write what were basically short/fun emails.

Why the precipitous drop?

There’s a clue in the writing that I’m now doing for fun on Substack. I just have an audience of a few thousand email subscribers, and as a result, it’s not nearly the same level of pressure as writing on my main blog which has crossed into a few hundred thousand. For those posts, I usually end up planning them diligently, having other people review it, and as a result, they end up being super long and high quality — but too much so, I think. Yet I find it super hard to change my underlying behavior.

If you’ve read about creative work online, you’ll undoubtably run into Ira Glass’s videos on the creative process. Here’s a two minute summary — I encourage you to quickly watch.

The tldr; is that there’s a mismatch between your taste, and your skill level in being able to hit your own taste threshold is mismatched, particularly early on. A beginner will usually have a higher taste bar than what they are able to produce. Thus they hate their own work for years and years, until they are able to make something they think is good.

I think the same thing goes for the blogging I’ve done over the years. My most popular and best written post might get 100,000x more traffic than something that I dash off. As a result, I’ve come to develop a taste for what’s high quality versus not. Each time I put a lot of work into something and it resonates, my bar goes up. After more than a decade, my bar is now altogether too high. Over the years, I now tend to hold back writing the little short pieces that helped me learn and hone my own thinking. It starts to reduce my volume dramatically.

It reminds me a little bit of the central innovation in Snapchat’s ephemeral content — making photos last just a few seconds means that you can take pics of all the dumb stuff, mostly selfies, in addition to the carefully composed content. Whereas a true Instagram post ends up reflecting just the very best.

Twitter eventually has become kind of a dumping ground for ideas in that it’s mostly ephemeral. I test ideas there, and if they work, I end up writing more. But somehow, it’s not the same as just writing whenever I want.

Sometimes, I entertain the idea of using a forced constraint to increase my volume of writing. Maybe using bullet lists for everything, and structuring what might be complex ideas into something that doesn’t take long to compose. Or maybe forcing myself to a few hundred words, so that I never go overboard. Within Substack, I’ve mostly decided to write for a smaller audience, and to try not to go back and edit what I’ve written. Mostly I have one idea/topic, I write all the way through, and don’t go back to tighten it up. It reduces the quality of what I’m writing, but so far it’s made me write a little bit more!

Anyway, I might experiment with a few constraints on my writing in the coming weeks — whether that’s bullets, a length constraint, or something else. But in the meantime, I’m enjoying this as an alternative to Twitter and Wordpress. Hope y’all are enjoying the week, and let’s chat again soon!

-Andrew from Austin, TX (for now)