The final step of the writing pipeline model that I’ve been describing is publishing. It seems like this should be relatively straightforward, right? It’s just a matter of formatting the thing and hitting publish. But actually I think there can be some significant barriers here that are worth thinking through.
The biggest barrier for me is my reticence to publish anything that might be controversial. I have some fears about what would happen if I said what I really thought on a number of topics. And while the legitimacy of those fears might be debatable, the fact that I have them is nonetheless a barrier to publishing some of the things that I might like to say.
I have gone some way to solving this problem on Twitter by having a pseudonymous alt that isn’t associated with my main account. It seems like the interesting, personal stuff that I talk about happens there now, and @czrobertson is just for the more professional version of me. I don’t have anything like that for the blog yet, but I feel like there are some things I might like to cover in more length than I can on Twitter. So setting up a second blog, perhaps specifically associated with my Twitter alt, might be the way to go. The Ribbonfarm article on alts did a lot to change my thinking on this topic. There’s a difference between a blog and Twitter here in that with Twitter your thoughts are stripped of nuance as an almost inevitable result of the medium, but it’s still the case that you might want to explore more controversial topics in a blog than you’d want a prospective employer to find with just a Google search, and just the uncertainty of not knowing how they will be interpreted can act as a brake on your desire to publish.
It’s not just questions about how the content will be received that are a barrier: I’m also concerned with the quality of writing. I’ve created the notebook specifically as a place for low-quality writing, so that makes me reasonably comfortable with writing that is somewhat off the cuff and lacking in polish. But then what do I do if I do high-quality writing? Do I want to publish it in the same place or do I want to give it a special home?
There’s also the question of originality. I should probably worry less about the originality of ideas. Other people who are reading what I write aren’t concerned that no one has ever had those thoughts before me, but rather that they are new (or even just a useful reminder) to them, the reader.
Beyond just the content, there are a few options for the medium as well, which might influence the writing itself. Everything that I’ve been thinking about so far has been assuming that the final destination is a blog or equivalent. But that’s not the only possibility. I’m certainly envious of Andy Matuschak’s notes system, and the fact that I enjoy working with a Zettelkästen shows me that there might be some value in that. Perhaps a public Roam instance would be valuable for that style of writing. And since Twitter has made threads easier and raised the character limit to 280, it’s not quite the shortform writing platform that it was early on. So there are actually a bunch of options with regard to format that I’m only scratching the surface of.
I’ve covered the process of editing, but even after that you might have a setup in which you have to do a bit of work to format the work for publishing. The less of that you have to do, the better. I make things a bit simpler for myself by doing all my writing in Markdown and having a blog that can just accept Markdown. This would be more of a barrier if I were using Wordpress, which, despite a few plugins, never seemed to really get on board with Markdown as an authoring format. The drag to get something from my writing inbox in which I do the work of editing and into my Jekyll blog is minimal: add a header, save it with a particular filename, then run the Jekyll rebuild command and rsync to the server. But it’s still a few steps, and I could probably streamline it a little bit more. Lately I’ve been automating lots of little bits of my workflow for various things, and I feel like it’s been beneficial in just making me more likely to do things.
Finally, just in terms of visual design, the notebook section of my site is not something that I’m particularly proud of and I don’t get much joy out of pointing people to it. I’m just using a default Jekyll template, and really it just isn’t very me. If it looked more like the sort of thing that I’d design then I might be more enthusiastic about publishing there. On the other hand, there’s something about the scrappiness of it that makes me feel less precious about it. It’s silly, but I suspect that little details like that are important, and getting the right balance is tricky.
All of this raises the question, why publish? Obviously, I could just write privately. And that’s what I do with my Zettelkästen and my morning pages. But I think that writing in public forces me to generate ideas that I wouldn’t have come up with just writing in the Zettelkästen. When I’m writing for an audience – even a fairly abstract audience, since I don’t know who’s going to end up reading it – I feel more of an obligation to explain and justify myself than I do when I’m just writing privately. If I make an argument in the Zettelkästen, I just have to capture the argument to my satisfaction. Whereas if I’m writing in public I then feel the need to think through and defend against the alternative hypotheses.
Another factor is my desire for connection with an audience. I’d like to have people read my writing, think about it, and talk to me about some of these ideas. I’ve said before that conversations are a way of generating ideas. Publishing is part of the conversation.
My ideal state that I’d like to reach, which this series is a fumbling attempt to understand, is to have a process that effortlessly pushes me to generate and publish writing. I have something like that already with music, in that I don’t tend to set myself any goals with regard to releasing music, but I just find that as a result of enjoying working on it, I frequently have music that I want to release. I don’t have any particular blocks along the way. Writing, though, is another story. I currently have a Beeminder commitment to produce drafts that I would be happy to send to a beta reader. Without that, I doubt that much would get written. But there’s always something a little bit stressful about a Beeminder commitment. And so that’s why I’m writing this series: to figure out which parts I’m struggling with and find ways to make them easier and more rewarding. If the process itself feels enjoyable, then I won’t need to pull writing out of myself.