Writing publicly

Philip Morgan

Back in late April, a list member wrote with this 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 privatley. I find that I have tendecy for procrastination about doing stuff in public. Do you have any advice on this issue you can share?

There's a TEI member named Philip Poots who used TEI to boot himself out of the exact same writing-but-not-publishing situation. I asked Philip if he would respond to this question, and he graciously agreed. Everything below the break is Philip Poots' response (to enhance readability I haven't italicized or indented Philip's words).

I went through a period in January 2016 of writing around at least one thousand words every day. My intention was to publish these articles on my blog. I never did. Until 2021, that is.

In short I got over myself and realised all the fears that I had built up in my head were largely without foundation, or the little foundation they had were of minor significance.

The fear is real though.

But it is something to be overcome.

The most concise way I could sum it up is a quote that is often attributed to Aristotle, but can likely be better attributed to the modern writer Elbert Hubbard:

To avoid criticism, say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.

There is something about putting yourself out there on the world wide web that immediately triggers all sorts of flight responses. They range all the way from humility to pride.

The example of Socrates, the famous Greek philosopher, can best explain what I mean. Everything that we know about Socrates comes from other people. He never wrote anything down. He does not have one written artefact acting as a product of his distinguished life and thought.

He is reported to have said that the material on which his thoughts would be written was of more value than the thoughts themselves. This is a form of humility: my thoughts are not worth being written down and shared with the world.

There is also an element of pride which can be related to this. And this I believe is what my biggest problem was. Once you commit to paper and publish, there's no going back. What you have written you have written. The issue is that it exists in a form more imperfect than you would want the world to see. Why? Because in your head you are more perfect than you are. Your ideas are right, and obvious and self-evident. When they are written in black and white you realise that your confidence is misplaced.

This is uncomfortable. For by confronting others (with your writing) you are confronting yourself.
I believe the fear boils down to the fear of judgement.

For me this broke down into:

  • fear of being exposed as an imposter
  • fear of being wrong in some obvious way that I should have realised
  • fear of being rejected—my ideas are no good, worse, they alienate people, or they alienate me
  • fear of not being the person in my head
  • fear of not matching the 'heights' of others

I don't think there is an easy way out of this except to publish. There are steps you can take before publishing that help you. Show it to family. Show it to some friends. Show it to colleagues. Let them "judge" whether it is ready for the light of day. They are a far better barometer of your work because they know you in a way that you don't know yourself. They are outside your head.

You already exist in the world. You already make impressions on the world. Your writing is simply an extension of that. If you look at it that way then publishing is a small step. It is the start of a journey. It is not the definition, once for all, and never again.
I'm publishing publicly every day now: https://www.crossingtheruby.com

It has given me many benefits:

  • challenges to my thinking
  • affirmation of my thinking
  • collaboration in thinking (others taking my ideas further)
  • reducing the fear to almost zero
  • a visible line in the sand from which I have progressed and can measure progress
  • a body of work with which to compare my current thinking
  • being able to "move on" from certain patterns of thought, having put them down on paper

There is a switch. I try to be more rigorous with public posting and take care to question my assumptions. I think this is healthy as it makes me more honest toward myself.

I'd be interested in hearing if there are specific challenges or fears that you have that I haven't listed. I'd be more than happy to share my thoughts on those too.