on learning in public

From an email I received:

Hi there, hope you’re doing well.

I'm new here, but I love the topics you're writing about.

The part of the intro about the book and not talking about it to avoid bad luck piqued my interest. I've been told the same thing my whole childhood. Now I genuinely believe it and I'm confused between that and the whole "build in public" thing going on.

I'd love to have your take on that (maybe in a future issue).

I don’t want this to become an advice column, but it’s becoming one anyway. I remember a blogger (maybe Penelope Trunk?) writing years ago that there are certain defaults people lapse into. As in, “people who aren’t sure about what to eat for dinner tend to default to pasta.” As in, “people who aren’t sure about having kids default to having kids.” In this case, all Substacks default to advice columns. We’ll see if that’s the fate of this one—feel free to email me questions if you want.

Anyway: on learning in public. For longer-term projects like a novel, I think it’s bad to talk too much about it before you’re finished. Things that are in the process of being created tend to be fragile, and being quiet about them protects the work from too much input before it’s ready. It also protects you from overpromising and overdelivering. However, for something like a Twitter account or a Youtube channel or a blog, where you’re basically building up a body of work, you have no choice but learn in public. It’s scary, but the good thing about learning in public is that you get continuous feedback, which means you aren’t delusional about the quality of your work. Even in the case of the unfinished book, you probably want one or two people to read over the draft to make sure it’s not terrible.

I’m writing this from the perspective of someone who had no idea what I was doing when I started this Substack six months ago. I’m still very much learning. So I’m not claiming expertise, but here are a few things that have helped me as I’ve learned in public:

  1. Be competitive, but try to focus on effort and not output

    My friends are constantly working on cool projects, raising money, publishing writing, and accepting new jobs. This means that every time I glance at my Twitter newsfeed I’m presented with a dazzling array of possibilities for what I could potentially do and how I could be doing better. A little bit of comparison is inevitable since we’re human, but it’s also impractical because it doesn’t help me get my work done. So when I see someone doing really well, I think: they’re trying really hard, I should try really hard too, instead of they achieved x, I should achieve x as well. Then I continue to try hard at my own thing.

  2. Some posts will do better than others. You can’t control that

    I’m been aware of this since I was a 13-year-old posting terrible poetry on DeviantArt. The things that people respond to are often not what you think is your best work. Sometimes you’ll work really hard on something and no one will really care. Sometimes you’ll write something that feels banal and people will love it. That’s okay. I try to just let it go.

  3. If you care about happiness, having 20k readers isn’t better than 200 or 2000.

    I think it’s good to set practical goals to keep yourself focused, but don’t expect them to deliver a particular feeling. For example, if your Substack is your primary source of income, there’s an obvious reason to try to get more subscribers. But it’s helpful for me to know that I shouldn’t get too hung up on the numbers because they don’t actually make me feel better—I was pretty much as happy at 200 subscribers as I am now, and I was happy when I had a 20-person email list where I recommended books every month. If you think you’ll feel more worthy when you achieve your next goal… you won’t.

  4. Have a routine, but don’t be too strict about it.

    I posted 5 times in September, 1 in October, 4 in November, 7 in December, 9 in January, and 11 in February. There’s clearly a ramp-up in output there, but I’ve always aimed for one post a week. As long as I set a very basic and achievable goal and make it part of a daily routine, I find that I’ll often exceed it. Personally, I try to spend an hour five days a week workshopping posts.

    The most common failure scenario is not slightly deviating from your routine, but rather totally abandoning it. For instance, if I stopped writing this blog for a year, I’d probably lose a lot of momentum and find if hard to restart. But if I just want to chill for a couple weeks, that’s pretty much the writing equivalent of having a rest day from the gym. I think aiming for 80% adherence is good: being too fixated on perfection hurts your ability to stick to your routine.

    Yes, to answer your question: I am planning to tattoo consistency over perfection on my forehead.

  5. Experiment

    It’s definitely taken me at least 6 months to figure out my Substack voice. To be honest, I don’t actually know if I’ve found the final version yet. But I’m definitely closer! What’s helped is just writing a lot of different posts—some more lyrical, some more emotional, some more dry and analytical, and figuring out 1) what seemed to resonate with people and 2) what I felt most comfortable making, which leads me to:

  6. Choose something you actually like making

    I think I could write a newsletter that was solely focused on analyzing S-1s, but it wouldn’t be very good because I wouldn’t be passionate about it. Whatever you’re trying to learn in public, try to ensure that it’s something you can see yourself doing indefinitely. Maran sent me this beautiful Martha Graham quote:

    There is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist.. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.

    If you’re forcing yourself to make something that doesn’t feel good, you likely won’t be able to sustain it. It’ll always be a burden and never a reward.

  7. Inspiration vs imitation

    I enjoy reading Maybe Baby, Griefbacon, and Ask Polly. I think it’s really important to have touchstones for what kind of work you like and want to produce, but also really important to not try to replicate it. Find other people in your genre so you can learn its contours, but don’t try to do exactly what they’re doing. It’s important to honor your own channel.

  8. People don’t care as much as your paranoid mind thinks they do

    Some people are mean but 95% of people are incredibly nice and supportive. If something you make isn’t very good, it’ll probably just not get a lot of attention. It’s actually very egotistical to think everyone’s waiting to judge you for your failure. From Dolly Alderton’s Everything I Know About Love:

    I described a vivid fantasy to her in which a boardroom of people who I didn’t know talked about what a terrible, incapable writer I was. She stared at me while I talked, then her face contorted in disbelief.

    “I mean—” she breathed out and raised her eyebrows— “I think it’s insane that you think that.” I noticed that she got more broadly, brashly Australian the tougher she was being. I looked up from my tissue; not the reaction I was hoping for.

    “Whole boardrooms of people you’ve never met?” she said, shaking her head in disbelief. “That’s INCREDIBLY narcissistic.”

    “Well,” I said, managing to snort with laughter. “Yeah. When you put it like that. It’s ridiculous.”

    “No one is talking about you.”

    I find it helpful to remember that no one obsesses over my writing as much as I do 🤷🏻‍♀️. I still feel embarrassed and scared sometimes, and I think that’s perfectly normal, but I try to be more adventurous than afraid.

  9. Would you consume your own content?

    Whenever I’m giving advice I’m really giving advice to Past Ava. I’m motivated to make something that I would want to read. I think it would suck to have a personal blog that I didn’t like.

    Writing for your past self is nice because you know your own taste, and you can slowly try to close what Ira Glass calls the taste gap: the delta between what you judge to be good and what you’re actually producing.

    There’s also something interesting here regarding who has cultural authority and who we feel gets to shape the narrative. I think a lot of people feel like their opinion doesn’t matter because they don’t necessarily have a lot of seniority in their field, but I think you’d be surprised by how many people are interested in your view of the world as long as it’s personal and original. So make things for yourself, not for the person you think you should be.

  10. Take advice with a grain of salt

    When I first started Tweeting my Twitter was slightly “edgier” than it is now (though I maintain that it was literally never edgy at all). At one point one of my friends was like, I think you should stop Tweeting. I really trusted this friend and I knew it was well-meaning advice, but I didn’t listen because I believed that I knew myself better than he knew me. Tweeting was what eventually led to me writing this Substack, which brings me a lot of joy. I’m very happy I stayed on Twitter.

    So: consider advice carefully, but it’s important to be opinionated about what you want. Polarizing content tends to be more interesting, so it’s not a bad thing if 40% of people absolutely hate your writing but 60% of people adore it. OkCupid data showed that people who received the most messages tended to be more controversial (i.e. some people thought they were 10/10 attractive and other people thought they were 2/10). The woman on OkCupid who received the most messages had a ton of tattoos, which was interesting because people find tattoos very divisive. Which goes to show that the best way to please is not to please.

    Your responsibility is to yourself and nobody else. Never perform for someone else’s approval. I think the best attitude (I believe Elizabeth Gilbert said this) to have is hey, I’m on a journey, and I’d love it you came along, but it's my journey and not yours.

So there you have it: what I know so far about learning in public. I’m excited to write another one of these in a year or so, when I’ve hopefully learned more.

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Housekeeping: if you read this blog regularly, it’d be v v helpful if you commented/emailed to let me know how many posts per week you would like.

I’ve gotten some comments about you guys enjoying the increased frequency of posts lately and that makes me so happy! As mentioned above, I’ve always aimed for a lower bound of one post per week, but lately I’ve been posting closer to 3x a week.

I’m turning on paid subscriptions soon (yes, I know I said I’d do it back in January, but I ended up deciding to wait), and doing one free post per week and one paywalled one. But I could also do two free posts and one paywalled one—I probably could even do Monday to Friday posts, I just don’t want to overwhelm you. So let me know what you’d prefer!