The ROI of Writing

man covered in screwed up pieces of paper, slumps over desk holding onto a lamp
Credit: Flickr / Drew Coffman

I’ve had a good run lately, when it comes to feeling like the hours I pour into writing this blog are worthwhile. Someone recognized me as the person who wrote this post (yay!). A graduate student based a seminar on my writing on external causes of imposter syndrome (wow!). And I got an email that ended with this:

So, thanks for what you’ve shared over the years via your blog that I’ve read but never let you know.

Cool, right? But the point is that this is not a normal week (or month)… this was unusual. In general, I write, and I put it out into the ether, and some things get some attention, and some things don’t. Most attention is temporary. It’s one blog post, at one time. There’s a half life of sharing – stuff gets shared most right after it’s published, and then decreases with time. Then, many people who retweet my content don’t follow me, and won’t return to my site – unless something else I write makes their way into their stream.

I have two habits that have lasted over a decade. One is exercise. The other is writing. Both of these habits are supported through intrinsic motivation – not external motivation. I don’t go to the gym because someone tells me I should, or congratulates me when I do. I go because I want to, because I like it, and on days when I’m not feeling either of those two things because I see myself as someone who exercises regularly and I know I feel and sleep better when that’s true.

Likewise, I don’t write because of the rare weeks when I feel myself basking in appreciation. I write because writing is like a workout for the mind. Because it clarifies my thinking. Because it’s a useful thing to be self documenting and able to refer back to things later. And on days when The Schedule looms but I have nothing to say, because I see myself as someone who writes and I know that sometimes the act of showing up is more important than what I show up to.

Today is one of those days, for the record.

This is really hard. Every long term project I’ve had, has had periods where I doubted it. A while ago I decided that taking a month of blogging a year would be good for me, but this year I took three off. The normal month, and then two more because of Life and Work and Circumstances. In that dark period I also wondered whether I still wanted to be doing Technically Speaking next year. I felt so conflicted about all of it, that it was weeks before I even told Chiu-Ki how I felt.

Where the Hell is Cate is my favourite project. And – perhaps this is related – the one I doubt least. But still there have been times. I write something more out there, and along with the beautiful responses I get, come the unsubscribe notifications. And I wonder – am I doing something wrong? Even though, WTHIC is an art project. It requires honesty. To make something that people love, you also have to make something people hate. There is no wrong.

When you work on blogging software, one thing you see and hear about a lot is people trying to find this ROI (return on investment) of blogging. And I feel like that little fluffy green sci-fi thing, because my answer is: you need to find that ROI yourself. Which is not a helpful answer. There are plenty of detailed answers about promoting and how to write click bait-ey titles. There are specific answers to specific questions. There are things that software can help with. But I don’t have a better answer to the question of “how do I find it worthwhile?” than “you have to make it so“.

There’s this discussion lately in the iOS community about “elitism”. Started, by the way, by a dude whose 10th blogpost was a whinepiece on the topic. Another dude weighed in. They made subtle digs with recognizable targets – women. Women I know, and respect. Women who work evenings and weekends putting together tutorials because that part of the platform is not part of their job. Insinuating that women haven’t shipped the architectures they discussed in “production code”, when, in fact, they have.

Other people have better addressed the criticisms – I really loved Chiu-Ki’s piece on the topic. But there’s an underlying resentment, which is this feeling that you’re not getting what you deserve. In work we measure this by job title, or by money. But in the community we measure this by attention. We measure it by twitter followers and speaking invitations. These are not good metrics.

Of all places, community work should be a place where we have an abundance mentality. There is an abundance of work to be done, after all.

But it is true that there is not an abundance of appreciation. It’s easy to think that other people are getting it that aren’t you, but the fact is that much of this stuff is largely thankless. Ask any open source maintainer about the ratio of thank you’s to users – and complaints. Ask the person who runs the popular newsletter how many people respond with something positive, and how many people delete it without reading it – and how many people get resentful that their content wasn’t included.

There are many people like that whose work I have benefitted from, and who I have not thanked. Open source projects that I have never contributed back to. Newsletters that got immediately archived. Blogposts that I did not finish reading, or did not start. Realising this inspired me to be more appreciative of other people’s work. And there are still times when I don’t bother. Days when I feel that I’m alone putting this appreciation out into the world. That that person is has enough already. But I tell myself that like exercise, and writing, the point is not what happens, but what I show up and do.

4 thoughts on “The ROI of Writing

  1. This might be a good time to mention that I really appreciate what you write (both posts and link – such as Publish vs. Pull Managers). You give me perspective, which is invaluable.

  2. Dear Cate,
    I have been a silent follower for a while now. Through your blog and Technically Speaking. The latter really helped me become a better speaker while your blog helped me enjoy more and more being a manager. Some articles I quickly glance through them, some I read in great details and every now and then, a little gem that resonates with what I am doing at the present time. You are right, we don’t take enough time to express our gratitude to those who share content over the web, probably because we tend to forget that for each post, there is a real human that wrote it. Thank you very much for sharing all of these!

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