Not long ago, I posted a bid for my extended network to reach out and share their workflows for writing online. I was both lucky and unprepared for the outpour that followed. It was great that so many of the writers I admire, like Kevin Simler, Sonya Mann, Sarah Perry, Tom Critchlow, and Toby Shorin, responded. But I was left with a large pile of data to comb through, as well as the pressure to have made it worth their while.
Today I am finally sharing with you the insights I’ve mined from their responses. But before I dive into those, it’s important to address what internet writing is and why care for its workflow.
What is internet writing?
When I put out my bid, I didn’t exactly specify what writing I was talking about (other than it having something to do with the internet.) The writing I am interested in is analogous to published work you’d commonly find in a book, magazine, newspaper, or journal. But instead, you’re finding a similar quality of writing on the internet. Typically this writing is closer to self-published than not.
Unlike typical blogging, internet writers are not necessarily chronicling their everyday stories and experiences. They’re interested in a different type of writing, sometimes called “insight porn” or even longform blogging.
“Being ‘a part of the network’ is important to me - plus I’ve seen first hand the value in writing on the internet for: meeting interesting people, getting clients and jobs.”
The bottom line is that these writers are leveraging the open nature of the internet to write and post quality content on their terms, catered to their own goals and interests, and often for their audiences. The freedom to write for oneself seems to unlock the creative possibilities and risk-taking that centralizing platform-writing prohibits.
The Motivation for a Workflow
If the so-called internet writing question is so free, why care for workflows? Won’t workflows impose a restrictive or canned nature to a process which otherwise promises to give birth to eye-opening perspectives which often push the envelope of the conventional?
First, it’s important to recognize that Internet Writing isn’t always fun. Like other activities, it comes with its host of Occupational Hazards. See my thread on the topic.
So I began to wonder if there were cohesive secrets behind the success of my favorite writers. How did they navigate these struggles; did they read the comment sections under their posts? What did they do in the time between posts, when they had no ideas? And how did they so reliably some of the most interesting web content?
To my surprise, the data I pooled together didn’t present the clear picture I sought. Some are interested in building a portfolio and web presence; others profess to being hooked on the validation of others. And others yet regard it as a creative expression, even if their writing is closer to nonfiction than poetry. People write online for a plethora of different reasons. One writer said that any text-editor is as good as the other; another swore by a refined workflow using products like Notion or Trello.
The things that were uniform among writers were smaller and subtler things. Almost all my writers described the feeling of having an idea for a post in the same way: an “A-ha!” moment ripe with excitement. For some, this even manifested as anxiety or even anger.
Most surprising was that nearly no one took part in anything resembling active research.
A Supportive Lifestyle
Internet writers by-and-large do not conduct active research. Their ideas come from some marriage of reading, watching, learning, talking, and experiencing.
“[I get my ideas from u]sually not just one thing -- it will typically be the connection between a few things. Books, runs, walks, showers, doing things, sitting on the balcony, connecting something somebody said in a youtube lecture to a line from a novel I read ten years ago, stuff like that.”
“I get some of my best ideas after I’ve read/talked/had some external stimuli or an experience and then I do something repetitive and mundane after like showering/washing my hair, brushing my teeth. Cleaning the house never worked because it’s just a bit too physical and attention-taxing.”
“The whole process is subconscious.”
To this end, it is integral for internet writers to feed and nourish these aspects of their life. Internet writing isn’t a byproduct of a strict research process the same way, e.g., most college writing is. It is a byproduct of curiosity, observation, and play. There is something unexpected about receiving the gift of an idea. But you have to put yourself out there, hands open, to even possibly receive such gifts. Optimize for a lifestyle of intellectual curiosity and wandering, and be available when the gift arrives.
“There is (…) a window to publish a thought after you have it, and it’s important to not wait too long”
My writers mostly conducted research only when finding references to make a point, double-check their ideas against existing research, or plug a conceptual gap. The ideas and motivation for posts rarely stemmed from an explicit search, but from a cross-hybridization of experience and information-consumption.
“I rarely engage in ‘active research’”
“I don’t do anything that I would describe as “research.” More like high-volume exploration. Basically I read a lot and I google whatever I’m curious about”
““All of my research happens ad hoc, while I’m writing a post”
Similarly, in stretches between posts, writers largely felt some mix of guilt or unease. One writer describes these plateaus as indications that they are not being adequately stimulated and that it’s time to look for different books. However, there was a large consensus to not beat oneself up and to do anything other than forcibly write, whether that is skateboarding or meditation, which again cements the idea that writing is not necessarily about the act of writing itself. Perhaps it is about finding those “A-ha!” moments.
The process of writing is a form of time travel between past and future selves. Longform internet writers, more often than not, are writing on behalf of their past selves.
“I generally strive to write something that myself-from-2-years-ago would want to read”
In my conversations with Sarah Perry, we have shared that our best writing felt merely like solutions to little puzzles encountered in the wild, with seemingly obvious yet recurrently-neglected explanations.
The subjects in my case-study echoed this sentiment. The audience they wrote for was more often some version of themselves. Several writers confessed to sometimes taking months and even years to write posts. Most writers did not discard their ideas, questions, or notes when their drafts could not be completed. They left them in drawers or folders, awaiting their future selves to collect more data and observations to finish the thought. Writing felt like a way to connect with both past and future selves: the past as the audience and the future as a provider. You have to be in it for the long-haul.
Full Stack Twitter
Talk on twitter, harvest ideas from twitter, share on twitter, and listen only to comments on twitter. Maybe I should have expected these responses given where I posted my bid. Yet of all the tools people use, twitter was the most frequently cited one.
“I will never run out of ideas. I will never log off.”
The role of twitter in nurturing niche networks is not neglected; writers like David Perell have already observed and leveraged this (see below). Why is twitter so effective though?
Twitter, with its many use-cases ranging from advertising to friendship-seeking, has recurrently been described as a microblogging site. Since people can use twitter for getting compressible thoughts out, an idea has to be truly monolithic or integrative for it to demand longer-form writing. Twitter effectively serves as both a writer’s scrapbook and filter. The tweet thread rivals longer-form content platforms like WordPress or Substack itself, which has even incorporated its thread publishing feature. But as of today, longform writers can still thrive alongside twitter.
It is possible to harvest a community on twitter for both pre- and post-publishing needs, for sourcing ideas and retweets alike. By using Twitter to authentically connect with others, engage in group memes and collaboration, you can essentially subcontract portions of the full stack writing process to your network in a seamless manner.
Paul Graham once wrote, “keep your identity small.” One of the most salient occupational hazards of writing online is making oneself public. The internet is abundant in its trolls, simps, and shitlords. When someone comments on your writing online, to what extent do you take it seriously? How do you manage both broadcasting your writing and controlling its reception?
“I’d rather underpromote than over-promote –– I feel sorta confident that if the piece is good, people will read it.”
Sometimes a writer will promote their work on Reddit or Hacker News but posts are mostly shared on twitter, in private DMs (direct messages), or backchannels like Slack and Discord. Very few of my writers read the comments on their posts and almost none care to respond to online criticism. Exceptions are only made for friends, whose feedback is usually taken very seriously.
“I usually check [the stats] but I am more validated by interesting conversations than numbers”
There was a general awareness that timing can be optimized yet few make an effort to constrain their posts to only Monday mornings or Tuesday evenings. Some cop to sometimes wishing for a post to go viral. Many only measure the success of their outcomes through the conversations and connections generated.
The Finish Line
When people are deciding to embark on writing a post, it isn’t necessarily clear if their efforts will pay off. How do you decide whether your idea should be a post or discarded, shared with someone else, or not meant for you to write it (e.g. outside your expertise)?
“It seems to depend only on if I can finish it”
“I’ve learned to write for the void. I pretend no one will read it because the prospect of readers might psych me out of it or cause me to modify ‘my writing’ to suit them”
Unfortunately, the data from my study were almost entirely useless regarding many of my questions, like which specific tools to use or if it is better to constrain ones writing to a brand. People really do write for a variety of reasons. But they do mostly write, to some extent, on direct experience, whether of real-life situations or genuinely motivated curiosity.
Workflows are usually very specific procedures that guarantee business results. In the world of internet writing, it seems that there are no guaranteed posts. It can even be unclear if an idea is meant for a tweet, blog post, or book. There is no scientific process for promising the world an insightful post. Luckily, by continuing to mindfully, and times strategically, interact with the world, we can improve our chances.
While there was no consensus on the exact tools and processes among writers, writers often used tools in repurposed or unconventional ways:
“For my final pass, I use a screen reader to read the post out loud to me and [proof-”read”] with my ears.”
“[I use airdrop] and Safari to share interesting articles across devices. I use my iPad as a reading queue/repo for saving things to read for later from my phone and laptop.”
More than one writer mentioned collaging, echoing the multimedia nature of sourcing ideas for posts from conversations, experiences, readings, etc. These inventive applications of existing tools highlight a real need to support internet writing. One writer even described refactoring their network and leveraging specific parts of it for specific feedback.
“One thing about getting feedback from friends that people don’t tell you about is that you should learn how to use different friends for different feedback.”
I hope these insights can impart ideas on how to structure one’s life around writing online. If you’re interested in working together on the next iteration of workflow futures, drop me a line. I am happy to share the data and take this a step further. Until then, happy writing!
A Note of Thanks
Many thanks to the several people who responded to my bid for this “poorly conducted case study.” Without your feedback, I could not have written this post in good faith. Only by examining data from others can I offer anything valuable by way of insight.
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