RE: Writing as cause or effect?

Philip Morgan

A few folks wrote with great questions about the Writing as cause or effect? email. I'll allow myself more than the recently-embraced 200-word/email limit to respond.

Quick reminder: I'm arguing in support of the idea that combining publishing (writing in public) with a desire to improve the condition of a specific audience with some tolerance for doing shitty work for a while will lead you to having more and better ideas than waiting for those ideas to come from some other source (experience or client work alone, for example) would.

The first question:

"tolerance for doing shitty work" <--- could you elaborate?

You bet! First, in case I obtain brevity at the expense of clarity in the original email, "work" means the writing that you would be publishing to an email list, not your client work or other kinds of published output (books, etc.).

This suggests that you might segment your writing and publishing effort; you might partition off some of it as a "working in public lab" and the rest of it as "more polished, less experimental output".

This seems to be where I'm leaning. I publish daily-ish emails that explore the less mature parts of my thinking while the more mature parts get ~1,500-word article treatments that are linked to from this page on my website but also get emailed out weekly: /start-here/ (the Specialization topic hub is the most complete part of this article-writing project).

Those more mature pieces of writing contain ideas and clarity I would not have been able to achieve without hundreds of conversations. For me, those conversations are largely between me, my keyboard, and my email list in the form of daily emails, though of course a portion are with clients.

Most of those conversations were crap. My end was crap, to be clear. The responses are usually great.

I played Little League baseball when I was a kid, so I know the physical feeling of hitting a home run. When the bat connects with the ball in a certain way, you feel it. You don't strike the ball so much as you swing through it with this creamy effortlessness.

There are maybe a few dozen emails among ~1,240 total emails that are home run emails, where everything came together and the ideas that had been developing up until then snapped into perfect focus with good structure.

From where I stand now, all the emails that didn't reach this level of clarity and focus were 100% necessary, but they are the shitty work I'm talking about.

Some where purely phoned in to keep up the daily publishing streak. Some were half-assed efforts when attempting to whole-ass them would have resulted in no email that day. Some were merely avoiding deep thinking I could have done but just didn't feel like doing — laziness. And many, many of them were just sincere but unsuccessful attempts at clarity — near misses.

But all were part of a daily practice that got me to a dramatically improved level of clarity about the topic I'm exploring in service of my market. They had strong secondary value but weak primary value.

They were never intentionally bad work. And sometimes how bad they are wasn't apparent to me in the moment, while a year or two of hindsight made amply clear their lack of primary value (again, they had strong secondary value as sustainers of a productive practice).

I approached so many aspects of my early self-employment as an ingénue at first. There are real gifts that come with this lack of wisdom and worldliness. Blind optimism and a just-try-it-because-what's-the-worst-that-could-happen-faith are two of those gifts.

I notice myself writing a lot now from a more pragmatic, seasoned perspective and saying things like "marketing mostly doesn't work". Or… "you need a tolerance for doing shitty work". :)

I hope this less bubbly and optimistic perspective does not rob others of the gifts that come with being new at something, or starting something that's very difficult without knowing how difficult it actually is. Those are precious, powerful gifts that make so many good things happen in the world! I would be covered in shame if my primary impact was to speak of marketing as some kind of sad, impotent wizard behind a curtain if the alternative of not drawing the curtain back would do more good for the world. Seth Godin does a masterful job of balancing a focus on the power of marketing with a focus on the problems of marketing, and I find this inspirational.

I do write a lot about both the potential of working in public via daily publication and the difficult emotional labor this project entails, because I feel an obligation to be balanced and nuanced in my recommendations, even as I'm advocating for something.

Sometimes that involves the rather blunt statement that if you follow this approach, Future You will view much of Present You's publishing output as shitty work. Tolerating this tension is necessary because… well, that gets to the next question.

You write a lot about the act of writing in public. So far I have tried to write daily and had progress there but I do it privately. I find that I have tendency for procrastination about doing stuff in public. Do you have any advice on this issue you can share?

Right! Why not avoid all this future melancholy about shitty work by just not publishing the writing in the first place? Why not do it privately? Wouldn't that let you work out important ideas, avoid exposing the messy process to others, and just give them the good stuff at the end?

I haven't tried this, so I'm speaking from limited experience on what it would be like to write a lot of stuff you don't publish. [1]

The short answer as to why I urge you to publish what you write is: the publishing is a huge accelerant. Just knowing that others -- strangers, in fact! -- could see and be affected by what you've published puts pressure on you -- productive pressure -- to invest more in the thinking and writing. To try to make it more useful and impactful for your audience.

Good, strong thinking is related to but different than good, strong thinking that someone can easily apply to make a difference in their situation. Recently I was reflecting on how Alan Weiss is either preternaturally good with words, or he has invested real effort at intentionally making some of his core ideas catchy and memorable. Some Weissisms:

  • "The first sale is to yourself."
  • "If you don't toot your own horn, there won't be any music."

If a new idea is going to take years to integrate into your market, it certainly helps for it to be memorable as you move through that early struggle to integrate the idea.

Publishing your writing applies pressure to make it more useful to your intended audience. More valuable. In business we are never far from the imperative to always be creating some form of value, but daily publishing is both a daily reminder of this imperative (lest we stray from it due to inattention) and a daily challenge to find new ways to create value (writing is a very fluid palette and canvas with which to experiment with new ways of creating value for your audience).

Publishing daily teaches you to ignore or at least properly contextualize unsubscribes, which is a valuable skill in online marketing. If you closely monitor and care about unsubscribes, it's similar to looking at the list of people who have unsubscribed to each email you send and imagining a greeting line at a funeral, and each person who unsubscribed says "I'm sorry, but I don't find your emails worth reading. EVER! AGAIN! May your email list rest in peace. It's dead to me." as they somberly shake your hand, lower their gaze, and make that sad pinched-mouth face people make at funerals.

Who could withstand that kind of self-induced psychological abuse every time they send an email!?!?! Almost nobody could, including me and you, so we learn to ignore unsubscribes. That gives us small-scale practice with the essential larger-scale skill of being willing for our thoughts to not be relevant to everybody, which is the skill that underlies specialization and point of view.

Or, we learn that unsubscribes are simply part of the mechanics of publishing daily emails. Just like the human skin sloughs off dead skin cells as a matter of course — as a matter of constantly renewing itself, in fact — sending an email causes unsubscribes from people who had already decided to unsubscribe but just hadn't gotten around to clicking the unsubscribe link. Or people who hadn't gotten much from the last 10 emails you've sent. Or people who accidentally clicked the unsubscribe link! I try not to kill animals but I probably kill at least a few insects when I go on a hike because of the mechanics of size 11 feet walking in the woods. Sending emails causes unsubscribes in the same way.

Social media writ large seems to be one giant exception to the notion that publishing your thoughts causes you to invest more effort and care in exploring and packaging those thoughts. :) I am sure there are other exceptions.

There seems to be, however, something… a je ne sais quoi… to publishing to an email list that activates this productive pressure for most of us. This means that the output of a year of writing in private will be less improvement in your thinking and point of view than a year of writing in public. If I'm right. Which I might not be!

Questioners: thank you both for the excellent questions.

To all of you: please consider how working in public could be a productive part of your quest for more valuable expertise and greater impact in the world.



1: Well, I did throw away a ~60,000-word draft of a book and rewrote what I think is a much better, significantly shorter version almost completely from scratch, but that's an exception. I do publish most of what I write.