Why I Blog
Some people have asked me why I blog and why I value writing in general. These are my reasons, in roughly decreasing order of importance to me.
Clarify My Thinking
Writing is one of the best tools I have to clarify my own thinking. I'm a natural ruminator. I'm not good at thinking on the spot. I prefer to have time to think through details, connections, nuances, and consequences.
Writing lets me do that while also helping me avoid going around in circles. When thoughts are in my head, it's easy for them to get jumbled up. I miss things, and I keep coming back to the same thoughts, leading to the unproductive ruminating. But writing my thoughts down stops that process. I am forced to organize my thoughts in a coherent manner and to acknowledge when they don't make sense. Thoughts in my head are like a mixture of dirty water, while writing is like a filter. It removes the nonsense from my thinking.
If you had asked me when I was in school what the purpose of writing is, I would have said something like putting what you think into words. What I understand now is that the very act of writing can change your thinking. Writing is not mere transcription. It can be a way to think more clearly and to produce thoughts. For example, I had never thought of the analogy to filtering dirty water until I sat down to edit this section for maybe the fourth time.
This isn't an original thought of mine. See Paul Graham's essay on "Putting Ideas Into Words."
When I am done writing something, I can have a different or more nuanced perspective than when I started. And even when that doesn't happen, writing still gives me better words to express myself. Going from thoughts to words is messy. I get frustrated when I talk to someone and feel like they aren't understanding me only because I'm not using the right words. So I strive to hit upon precise wording that accurately captures what I am thinking or feeling. That's a lot easier for me to do when I am writing because I have the space to play around with different words and to think about how someone else would interpret them.
Share Knowledge and Ideas
Every medium for sharing information has its advantages and disadvantages, but I generally prefer blog posts. They allow for more details than tweets do, they take much less time to read than books, they are easy to consume at my own pace (unlike videos), and they are easy to link to and reference.
I love the feeling that I get from reading a great blog post, whether the post perfectly solves a problem that I have, teaches me something new, or encourages me to change my mind about something. One reason is that I want to avoid learning by making mistakes. While I value that process when it happens, it's still painful and inefficient. Instead, I want to learn from other people so that I avoid making the same mistakes that they do.
Blogging helps me try to return the favor for everything that I've learned from other people's blog posts. I don't want others to make my mistakes either, which is why I have no problem telling the world that I once published an AWS secret key to a public GitHub repo.
In general, blogging lets me share what I know and believe. I don't claim to actually know all that much, but everyone has something worth sharing. The idea that a post I write could be useful for even just one other person motivates me. And I know from comments that at least a few people have found some of my posts helpful, which is so gratifying.
I usually blog about things that I am already familiar with, but I've sometimes used blogging as a way to learn something new. For example, I wrote a post on AssemblyScript, which allowed me to learn about it without doing something more involved and time-consuming, like a side project.
Even when I write about things I feel like I know well, I tend to learn new
details in the process. Sometimes, it's knowledge that could be useful in the
future, such as the optional
I wrote my post.
Other times, I learn things that are interesting to me but maybe don't have much practical value, like what the jQuery homepage originally looked like.
Either way, almost every blog post I write teaches me something new, even if the detail doesn't end up making it into the published post.
It's pretty hard to get better at something without actually doing it, and blogging allows me to practice writing. Most importantly, it's a form of writing that is totally up to me. While I also write during my day job (e.g. Slack messages, emails, ticket specifications, code reviews, documentation, prosposals, etc.), those cases are usually driven by some external factor.
My personal blog, on the other hand, gives me the freedom to write about whatever I truly feel like writing about. That means I write more, and I have hopefully gotten at least a little better at writing as a result.
Blogging also means that I can get feedback from a global audience. Unlike an email that I know only one person is going to read, I know that anyone with access to the internet could read my blog post. That motivates me to try harder to write it well.
Learn How I'm Wrong
Publishing things to the internet has been a fantastic way to quickly learn what I am mistaken about or haven't considered. Here are a few examples.
I wrote a post about automating my air conditioner, and I learned that my air conditioner does in fact have a thermostat. While I would have done my project anyway, it was unnecessary in theory.
I also wrote a post encouraging serving videos instead of GIFs. But I hadn't thought of the differences in behavior when saving/sharing a video instead of a GIF.
For the same post on GIFs, I also got a comment that called me out for posting about a performance-related topic on a website that served a gigantic favicon.
And yet that webpage has a 170kb favicon - a 256x256 image with essentially 3 colors but stored in an uncompressed 24 bit format.
I appreciated the criticism! I added the favicon on a whim when I first set up my website, and the favicon definitely didn't need to be that big. I eventually fixed it.
Be Able to Provide a Link
When a topic or question comes up that I have written about, I love being able to just provide a link to my post instead of trying to recreate my past thoughts in a way that will inevitably be less coherent than my post. For example, a co-worker mentioned running low on hard drive space, and I shared my post on clearing Mac storage space. Another co-worker asked about apps for TOTP codes, and I linked to my post on migrating from Authy to Bitwarden.
This has happened more often than I would have expected, considering I don't have that many posts. And now if another person asks me why I blog, I have this post to link to!
I admit it feels good when one of my posts gets many hits (the analytics for my personal website are public), reaches the front page of Hacker News or Lobsters, gets tweeted about, or ends up on random newsletters.
Those posts tend to drive large but unsustainable spikes in traffic. For example, my post on What I Learned by Relearning HTML was on the front pages of HackerNoon and DZone. And my post on My Seatbelt Rule for Judgment was on Kottke and the front page of Hacker News. Each post got tens of thousands of hits over a few days.
But some of my "how to" posts are the ones that get sustained traffic through search engines, providing most of the hits in a typical month. Both categories of posts give me dopamine.
I've also had plenty of posts that aren't in either category and have not been read much at all. And that's fine! The vanity factor is real, but I try not to let it affect me too much. For now, I want to write simply about what I am interested in writing about, rather than trying to work backwards and write posts that I think will be popular.
My writing provided an unexpected opportunity. Someone from LogRocket read one of my posts and invited me to write paid posts for their technical blog. I've written some posts for them, and I used them as chances to get paid to write and learn new things.
I could monetize my website by adding lightweight, developer-focused ads to some of my posts using EthicalAds (which I do use for Make a README) or Carbon. Though Dan Luu has a good post on this topic, and I agree that it may not be worth the influence it could have on my writing behavior or on how readers perceive my posts. I'm also hesitant to clutter my own blog with ads. On the other hand, they are only single images and should be relevant to most visitors. I've never minded ads from these networks on other websites.
I do add Amazon affiliate links when I would have linked to a product anyway. For example, I linked to The Design of Everyday Things in this post, and I would have done so even without an affiliate option. I've made over $200 from that link, which was a nice, unexpected benefit. And according to Amazon, people have bought dozens of copies of the book through my link. That makes me happy, considering I think it's a fantastic book.
But I may remove affiliate links eventually. Gergely Orosz explained why he removed affiliate links (in addition to removing ads), and I find his reasons compelling.
How to Start a Blog
I hope this post encourages someone to blog or share what they know in whatever medium they prefer. When someone tells me about something interesting, I tend to say "you should blog about this!" Few people have taken me up on that (my friend Azeem is a great exception), and the world misses out.
My advice is to focus on thinking about what you'd be interested in writing about. Setting up a blog can be fun in itself, and I understand the appeal of treating it as a side project. Instead of using a blogging platform, I build my site with Astro and serve it with Netlify. But it's the content that really matters. I'd rather watch Breaking Bad on a tiny, 480p screen than watch an average show on a big, 4K TV.
One of my favorite blog posts is Rob Pike's post on his biggest surprise when rolling out Go. Sure, the page has what I regard as a dated design, and the font size is a little too small. But the content is so fascinating.
You don't want to get hung up on hosting details, which you can always change later. WordPress, Blogger, Medium, Dev, Svbtle, Bear, Mataroa, Hashnode, and Substack all do the job. I do think it's worth considering upfront if you want to have a custom domain so that you truly own your content. But otherwise, I recommend just picking a platform and writing about whatever you find interesting. Follow your genuine curiosity to avoid the trend of a blog that has a first post about setting up the blog but then little after that.
Blogging is hard! At least it is for me. For all the reasons I've detailed, blogging has been worthwhile for me, but it can take me a long time and considerable mental energy to research, write, and edit a post. Even then, I've published posts that I knew could be better with more effort.
I started the post you're reading now almost a full year ago, and I have a backlog of other drafts and ideas to finish up and actually publish. Or to just abandon them. Having that choice is a luxury that comes with doing this purely on my own terms.