Putting Yourself Out There
When Marco Arment released The Magazine in early October, the announcement attracted the attention of many prominent internet writers, all of which spoke very enthusiastically about Marco’s magazine initiative. A biweekly publication released through iOS’s Newsstand, The Magazine featured articles from Guy English, Jason Snell, Alex Payne, and Michael Lopp in just the first issue. The second issue attracted work from John Siracusa, Lex Friedman, and Gina Trapani, setting a precedent I believe Marco will be able to meet with each edition as many other excellent writers contribute their time and efforts to this publication.
In consideration of The Magazine’s impressive list of contributors, I began contemplating the manner through which the articles I have written will reach an audience. Although as I wrote this article I have spent roughly a year designing a website and building a content management system, they never will. This realization coupled with the extensive publicity surrounding The Magazine’s release combined to form the audacious thought that I could use The Magazine as a publishing medium rather than starting my own blog, allowing me to skip over the extensive time and effort required to attract any meaningful attention to a newly-established website in addition to many of the other difficult tasks facing fledgling internet writers. Along with the possible benefits of this strategy came a sobering realization that, while I now know to be incorrect, I still believe to be relevant: the gap between the attention afforded a newly published blog such as the one this article would eventually end up on and the fame required for consideration in a publication such as The Magazine is a yawning, massive chasm with but one rickety bridge stretching across. This bridge, to carry the metaphor too far, is one built on hard work and held together with determination and resolve and — yes, Merlin — grit. And just as there is no shortcut to building a sturdy bridge, there is no shortcut to the sort of success the likes of John Gruber and Jim Dalrymple enjoy. Rather, the only solution is to write often and to write well about interesting topics in an interesting way in the hopes that a meaningful number of people will carve time and attention out of their lives for you to occupy, for that is the one finite resource we are all competing for.
Again, the premise — that Marco only considers articles from established writers for publication in The Magazine — is incorrect. When I began writing this article following The Magazine’s release, Marco had published little information regarding The Magazine. Given the fame of the first four authors though, I came to the premature conclusion that Marco only published articles written by established authors. Marco disproved this theory in his post The Magazine Launch Day FAQ and again on episode #99 of his podcast Build & Analyze though, explicitly stating that he welcomes submissions and article pitches from anyone. Rather than abandon this article though, I chose to rework it to reflect this newfound knowledge without discarding any of the thoughts I had already formulated on the topic.
Although I am not an established writer, I believe my literally unique — Josh — situation gives me an interesting point of view to approach writing from: as an admittedly inexperienced writer trying to make his way in an industry crowded by giants of the space, I am presented with an interesting set of challenges: I must not only show that I am a competent writer, but I must also establish that my opinions are worth reading. Furthermore — and this is arguably the most important task I must accomplish — in order to attain any substantial level of success in this space, I must also demonstrate that my writing is worth reading over the work of writers who have already proved their works as worthy of the time and attention required to appreciate them. For each and every writer is vying for a single, finite resource: the time and attention of our readers. These challenges are not unique to my situation, but common to each and every writer attempting to make it on the internet. This hopefully interesting point of view is my “way in” to this topic, the lens through which I will examine the causality of success in this space.
The concept of writing with a “way in” fascinated me as the strikingly obvious solution to the difficult problem of setting myself apart from other writers when John Siracusa introduced it on the twenty-third episode of Hypercritical, No Sentence Left Behind. The idea being that one must approach each topic in a unique way with a unique opinion in order to produce something worth reading, I immediately adopted this practice. In exchange for introducing another source of procrastination as I put off writing for another day in search of that interesting opinion to write about, this approach allowed my writing to reflect one of the most important facets of a successful literary career: a unique point of view, the way in which I can separate myself from the hundreds of thousands of other writers trying to make their way on the internet even as I write this sentence.
To illustrate the importance of this concept, simply consider the reason John Gruber is so successful in this space: John writes about interesting opinions in a unique way, and as a result he has become one of the most prominent internet writers since the advent of this medium. By the same token Jim Dalrymple has sustained an upward trend in popularity partially due to the growing success of his podcast Amplified, but also due to the interesting opinions he conveys quite colorfully on his website The Loop. In each case the defining traits setting these very successful writers apart is the originality of their opinions and the interesting way in which those opinions are conveyed. The ability to write about interesting topics in an interesting way is not exclusive to these two writers, but a trait each and every established writer has in common. In order to compete against these writers, then, this is a very important skill to possess; however, it is by no means the only necessary talent. Rather, the ability to formulate and convey unique opinions in a unique way is simply a portion of the pie representing the skill set of successful writers. Adjacent to this piece is the ability to convey those opinions well, a talent precious few writers possess.
The road to becoming a good writer is a long and difficult one. Narrow at times and wide at others; occasionally a downhill coast, but more often than not a seemingly never-ending trudge up a mountain. As many aspiring writers quickly learn, there is no shortcut to learning to write well. Just as it would be impossible to build an elevator out of a thousand “How-To” books on writing in the real world, these books will not magically form one in this increasingly stretched metaphor. The only way to reach the top of this mountain is to climb it one step at a time. In the terms of this metaphor, the only way to become a better writer is not by consuming a hundred or even a thousand articles and books attempting to teach writing, but simply by sitting down and beginning to write. As counter-intuitive as that may seem, having spent nearly half a decade writing in various capacities, this is the realization I have come to know.
Formulating interesting opinions about interesting topics and writing about those unique opinions well — that is what it means to be a good writer. Only after attaining those skills does it become possible to compete with the giants of this space, for that is writing on the internet: a competition against established writers for the limited time and attention of each and every potential reader. No matter how good I become at writing, I will always feel a slight tug of apprehension each time I publish an article as I once again put myself out there in competition with the writers who have already “made it” on the internet, against the writers who affirm mastery over the writer’s craft and lay claim to the time and attention of an established readership cultivated through years of hard work and effort; the ones who, with few notable exceptions, have both watched and worked to evolve this space over the years; these are the ones aspiring writers must ultimately compete with, and the ones I am up against.