I was out for a walk. And as I often do on walks, I used the time to think about an article I was working on. Suddenly, though, I was struck with a deeper question:
Why do I write?
I realized there are two parts to the answer to this question. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized how important both were to keeping me motivated.
Writing in public keeps me writing.
Something about publishing changes my relationship with my writing. When I’m not committing to some semi-regular cadence of articles, I write a lot less, and sometimes not at all for long stretches of time. What I do write privately tends to be fragmented, stream-of-consciousness work.
Writing in public gives me a sense of extrinsic value that is more satisfying than the intrinsic value of writing for myself even though I rationally understand the intrinsic value. Writing is a friendcatcher and building a public profile has long term benefits. It also gives me something I can share with others to explain what I think about topics that come up elsewhere.
When I write in public, fear of embarrassment improves the quality and consistency of what I write. A long gap without writing “looks bad”. I want what I share to be well-written and stand the test of criticism. That pushes me to do a better job than when I’m just writing for myself.
Every now and then, someone will compliment or share what I’ve written, and that feels good, too. Beyond feeling good, it also provides some feedback on what ideas are valuable to anyone other than myself. I don’t really write for the vanity of recognition, but the possibility of it creates a variable-ratio reinforcement system.
Writing for myself organizing my thinking.
I’m someone who values rationality. I like to think that my opinions are based on slow thinking, are well-reasoned, and are free of cognitive biases and shortcuts.
Writing down my ideas forces me to confront the reality of my thoughts and whether there really is a rational, internally-consistent basis for them. If there’s a logic gap, I’m more likely to see it in writing. When I write, I’m able to put myself in the mind of an unfamiliar reader and see where I’ve made assumptions or glossed over a flaw or a counter-example. Sometimes, I find that what I thought when I started a piece isn’t what I think by the end.
Writing also helps get ideas out of my head. I’m very prone to open loops – ideas that keep tumbling around my brain distracting me. Writing makes me finish the thoughts rather than leave them swirling. It leaves behind something I can come back to whenever I want to review my conclusions or the details behind it.
I need both motivations to succeed.
Without my internal motivation to organize my thoughts, I wouldn’t be fired up over individual pieces. Without my external motivation, I’d write less often and with less quality. Together, they’re a self-reinforcing system that keeps me writing.