Developer Writer’s Deadlock
Have you ever thought about publishing an article and find yourself stuck? I’ve seen many a developer trap themselves in a loop like this:
- Wants to write an article that has an impact so…
- Write something big and broad that will appeal to a wide audience. That’ll make it to the top of Hackernews. But then…
- See all the content on the internet, and worry that you can’t write something that can compete with Paul Graham’s essays and 20k word Medium think pieces. So then you…
- Decide to write something small and niche. That’s more attainable, but there’s a new fear…
- What if no one reads it? Writing will be a waste of time. I want to write an article that has an impact so I’ll … go back to step 2.
Eventually, they run out of memory/time/energy without writing a thing. How can you break out of this loop? Let me explain with a story:
The Man With The Six Figure Email List
We open on a conversation between myself and a consultant friend, about his local emailing list:
🤨 Me: “Just local? How many subscribers do you have?”
😀Him: “About 100.”
🤨Me: “Is that worth it? Doesn’t seem like a big enough list to be profitable.”
😀Him: “One person from list became a $100,000 client, so you tell me.”
Here’s a secret about technical blogging: You don’t have to play the “get thousands of page views” game if you don’t want to.
In most situations, developers aren’t in a spot where they are primarily selling low priced products or subscriptions. Instead, they are selling their services or seeking employment. Instead of looking for 1,000 customers to pay $100 each, the model is typically closer to 5 people paying you $20,000, or one company paying you $100,000. Because of this, you only have to appeal to small audiences to have an impact. And I’m talking really narrow. Sometimes even one person.
Writing For Specific Audiences
I’ve written several pieces with a single person in mind. Sometimes I start my drafts with “dear NAME,” and pretend to write an email to that person. It helps me write more personably. Some examples are about serverless, or answering specific technical questions. If only one person found it useful, it’s worth it. But more often, I find that it’s useful to others as well. Another example, I had a conversation over lunch with a friend who was about to start a freelancing career. I took that conversation, turned it into 2,000 words, and now I have something I can share with everyone who asks me that question, along with the internet writ large.
Standing Out From The Crowd
Imagine a client or potential employer asking you a question, and instead of just answering, you respond with 1,000+ word essay you wrote on the topic. That’s one of the ways writing helps you act with confidence and authority. Time to dispel another myth, this time I’ll use a quote from Sean McCabe:
Publishing allows you to establish some authority and expertise in the eyes of others. Github may show what the code you write looks like, but it can’t show your problem-solving skills and reasoning abilities the way writing can.
Also, don’t overestimate how many developers out there are writing. If you publish useful content, you’re ahead of 90% of the field. If you publish quality work consistently, I’d wager you’re ahead of 98% of the competition.
Case Study: How Creating Content For A Local Meetup Landed Me A $12,000 Freelancing Contract
Back in 2014, I was neck-deep in it a pretty complex Angular app as part of a client project. Angular was the new hotness at the time, and a few colleagues had been asking about it. I decided to put together an Angular 101 talk for the local meetup group. I realized that I couldn’t fit everything I wanted to say into 30 minutes, so I took my notes and put a long-form tutorial I could send everyone to for further reading: AngularJS, an overview.
I ended up speaking with someone at the meetup who viewed me as an “expert in Angular” and wanted to hire me for another project on the spot.
Investing in Publishing Compounds Over Time
That article ended up making the rounds, led some other people to reach out, and indirectly led to a couple of Angular focused gigs. Just because you write for a small audience doesn’t mean that only a small audience will read it. Around town, people thought of me as “The Angular Guy”. And that comes from one article. The lifetime value of that piece has to be somewhere in the neighborhood for $6-7 per word.
I don’t say this to brag, I tell this story to illustrate how it doesn’t take a whole lot of content or a whole lot of readership to create positive change. If you can write something that helps one person, then its worth putting out into the world.
Don’t Just Build Expertise, Publicize It
To clarify the point on writing as a tool for building “expertise”, it can’t do so out of thin air. The above would not have worked if I decided I was going to become the “Angular guy”, and tried to write a piece after a few hours of noodling with the framework. The article was effective because it based on lessons learned from being months in the trenches. It also helped that Angular was fairly new at the time, which helped it gain traction. Writing does not create expertise, but it does move it from private to public.
If I didn’t give that talk, then everything I learned about Angular would have lived and died in that one project. I’d still have the knowledge, sure, but internal knowledge can’t land you opportunities. It’s that coupled with others perception of your expertise.
So, What Should You Be Writing?
I’d like to dispel one last myth: Good ideas don’t come from muses, genius, or inspiration. They come from research and other people. If you’re a consultant, look at some of the questions that come up talking to present and potential clients. If you are looking for a job, look for the needed skills that come up in job interviews and postings. These are the questions that the people with wallets out, looking for developers to pay, want to be answered.
So go answer them.