Blogging Advice For People Exactly Like Me

Did you know that it’s harder to become an MIT admissions blogger as an MIT student than it is to get into MIT as an applicant? It was true my year, in which 18,306 students applied and 1,467 were admitted (8.0%),1 whereas 69 students applied for 5 blogging spots (7.2%).2 Anecdotally it might also be true for future years.

I was among the 92.8% who got rejected in the latter process. Although I obviously would have preferred things go the other way, I can’t say I was surprised, firstly because, objectively, the odds were against me (as they were for every other individual applicant); secondly because, to the extent I can make educated guesses about the criteria the folks at MIT Admissions would have chosen bloggers by, I would have been close to the worst possible candidate;3 thirdly because my application probably wasn’t very good.4

I didn’t dwell on it; I just thought to myself some vague consoling thoughts and moved on. No matter what I missed out on, at least I retained complete freedom: to choose what to write about, when to post it, and how to format and typeset it, down to the very last box-shadow. Right? But, although I mostly successfully avoided thinking about it, there really was a lot to like about being an admissions blogger! I liked writing — or perhaps, I liked being a person who has written a lot more, and having a commitment to blog regularly would be a way to force myself to become that person. I liked the idea of getting to share things with thousands of readers, or less euphemistically I liked the thought of being, if ever so slightly, famous.5 I liked the idea of having a sketched portrait and being part of official events with “Blogger” in the title and all that jazz. Collectively these things just felt cool.

The thing is, though, that there were things I could do to try to get those things for myself, and I didn’t do them. I know how to force myself to blog regularly, which is just by announcing publicly to nobody in particular that I’ll blog regularly (it’s worked effectively at least twice). I know many places I could promote my blog and try to get more readers. I can buy a sketched portrait.6 It’s not that hard.

But I didn’t. Now obviously the simplest explanation for this is that I am just very bad at doing things in accordance with my better judgment, like a lot of people, and this is surely part of the real reason. But I think there’s also a less embarrassing reason: that I misled myself about what’s really nice about being an MIT Admissions blogger. The nice thing that you have a mandate (to “communicate what being a student at MIT is like”7) that, by following, you can help thousands of readers by answering a question they actually have. What’s more, you become part of the canonical source for answering that question — you can expect that there’s a pretty good chance that readers who have that question will find your writing, so you know you’re concretely helping these people by writing. That’s pretty awesome. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the mandate is so expansive that you have a ton of freedom to choose what to write about. And a mandate like that is not something one can just find lying on the street. It’s easy to find questions that people actually have and answer them (like, go anywhere on StackOverflow), but if the question is something that thousands of people have, it’s hard to become a canonical source for answers to it, because somebody else has probably gotten there first.

So it’s not so easy to create or stumble into a blogging setup that’s so ideal on your own. But maybe, even if your topic choice, your canonicity as a source, and the size of the audience you can help all fall way short of the above bar, blogging can still be rewarding in the same way.

I think so now, but it took me five years to get here. And — stretch goal — if you’ve ever thought about blogging, but hesitated for reasons that are at all similar to mine, maybe you’ll get something from my journey as well.

There are many paths to “originality”

My biggest struggle has always been the feeling that it’s only worth blogging about something either if nobody has ever written about it before, or if I can write about it better than anybody else. If I want to write about something, but there’s already a good blog post on the same topic that I don’t think I can surpass, what’s the point of me writing my post anyway? Every hypothetical reader of my post would be better off if they had just read the existing post, and I would save effort by not writing. So why bother?8

One essay I link to quite a bit is Alexey Guzey’s Why You Should Start a Blog Right Now, which dedicates several sections to the benefits of unoriginal writing.9 I like the essay basically because I agree with the thesis and because it at least takes a swing at the problem I’ve outlined above, unlike many other posts telling you to blog that simply wave the problem away as something brainstorming something,10 but truthfully I am not sure if I found the arguments terribly compelling. Just focusing on the first one:

Consider a university professor teaching a course. Does she say anything original? Do you think she should cancel her course because somebody else discovered the things she wants to teach? Or does she have to cancel her course simply because there is a similar course at some other university?

I would say that the professor is (as long as she’s reasonably competent) clearly being original, and that she is providing value beyond a mere list of the ideas she’s teaching about or a similar course at another university, in a couple ways: by organizing those ideas in a more pedagogically sound way, by presenting them so as to make them easier to learn, and by providing her students with personalized feedback or guidance. A blog post that accomplishes any one of these goals would pass my personal standards for originality with flying colors, but the point is that I might not know how to do even that.

Here’s a different analogy I think I find more convincing: Consider the task of writing an online review for a purchase. Say you bought a new phone and are considering writing a review, but somebody has already published a really detailed review. They took pictures from every angle and screenshots of every built-in app, meticulously recorded the phone’s battery performance through weeks of usage, even took a screwdriver to the thing to examine its internals. Does that mean there’s no point in you writing a review? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe you use the phone in a specific niche way: say you play a lot of mobile rhythm games, so you care a lot about your phone’s audio latency and app compatibility. If you wrote a short review about that, most people might not find it as useful as the more detailed review, but any other rhythm game aficionados looking for a phone to buy might gain tremendously from it. Not to mention, the marketplace of online reviews is not exactly known for its authenticity, so people who know you might consider a one-sentence review from you saying “the phone is fine” more valuable, just because they trust you more.

Similarly, I think it’s not that hard to write a post that provides original value to some readers, because different readers prefer different presentations of ideas. Some people like long, discursive posts full of emotional stories and rich metaphors; other people like short, punchy posts with all the extra fluff cut out. Some people like posts with a lot of jokes and whimsical asides; other people like posts with a more serious tone. Some people like to have lots of concrete examples to build intuition off; other people might be okay with just one or two before drawing conclusions and generalizations. Some people like authors who write confidently and authoritatively, and don’t mind if they veer into arrogance at times; other people can’t stand an iota of that and prefer authors that are deliberative and humble through and through. Some people like pothole links that are amusing but barely, if at all, relevant; some people… don’t.

Even a single person might like different styles in different contexts. I myself often prefer to be introduced to a concept through a long, meticulous, discursive post, but later, I find myself hoping there’s a much more concise post I can skim to quickly refresh my memory. And of course, different stories, examples, and jokes will resonate differently with different people. Have you ever read a post that was excellent right up until it referenced a celebrity you’ve never heard of or a movie you’ve never watched? Maybe because the celebrity was active or the movie was released before you were born? You can break the cycle.

Perhaps one of the simplest ways to write a post that’s better than everything else for some readers is to write the post you wish you had read to learn about something you wish you had known. (For reasons I’ll get to in a bit, I don’t think this is exactly the target I’d recommend aiming for, but it’s pretty close.) Even if there are already hundreds of different posts explaining the same concept or making the same argument, do it again your way. Use the examples that make sense to you. Strike the balance between levity and gravity, detail and conciseness, concreteness and generality, that you prefer. You shouldn’t overdo this, of course, and it’s best if you can write your post so that people who don’t get a reference won’t be totally lost. But if you really believe that, say, an extended analysis based on a framework from an obscure early form of Italian theatre is the best way to convey your ideas to your past self, don’t hold yourself back, because the payoff for the readers who do get your references will be that much higher.11

If you feel self-conscious that your style or approach is too weird, or that your post’s improvement above other posts is too small even for “readers just like you”, there are a few things you can do. You can add a disclaimer early on that outlines any particularly unusual aspects of your approach, accompanied by links to other posts for readers who don’t jibe with yours. If you think an existing post is already so good that you can only improve on a section of it, it’s also totally valid to publish only your version of that section, and tell readers to read the other parts of the existing post.

Here’s just a very short list of writers approaching well-trodden subjects in original ways from my bookmarks, all of which also resonated with me more than other things I’ve read on the same subject:

  • qntm’s Learn Perl in about 2 hours 30 minutes is aimed at people like the author who dislike the documentation for overemphasizing edge cases, among other things; it prioritizes getting things done over being completely technically accurate.
  • eevee’s (ongoing) Gamedev from scratch series, which is “not a tutorial”, is written to fill the void in other tutorials between “playable prototype” and “complete game”. To do this, it consciously limits how deeply it covers programming details, expecting the reader to either already be familiar with them or look them up.
  • Evan Chen’s Napkin is aimed at bright high school students, or more generally people who just want to see some interesting math instead of learn to solve exercises or do research in the field. It heavily emphasizes intuition and concrete examples over proofs.
  • Ben Kuhn’s College advice for people who are exactly like me is self-explanatory and is where I cribbed the second half of the title of this post from.

You don’t have to actively seek out readers

Okay, you (me from the past) might say, but even if I can write a post that might be more valuable to some potential readers than anything else, they’re still potential readers. There’s not much point if nobody will actually read my blog. Some people might tell you to ignore this feeling and just blog anyway, but I think that’s not as easily said as done. It’s okay! It’s okay to want people to read what you wrote, and to feel like putting effort into writing that nobody will read is pointless. Most people crave attention. You could somehow learn to ignore or let go of the urge, or you could learn to work with it and harness it to do good things. I have immense respect for those who can achieve the former, but in the meantime I think settling for the latter is still pretty good.

My suggestion would be, instead of trying to write something that’s good enough to convince the whole world to read it, focus on writing something you’d be proud to share at the right opportunity: when talking to your friends or slightly larger chat rooms when the topic comes up in conversation. Write the post you’d share with people who would already be reading what you write. Use your best guess about such readers’ interests to decide how you want to present things or what obscure allusions you might be able to pull off, the kinds of decisions I discussed in the last section to improve your post for some readers — hopefully, you’ll be able to do this just because the people you talk to will be more similar to you than random people in the world. You know l’esprit de l’escalier, that feeling when you think of a perfect response too late? Pretend that you’ve gotten the opposite blessing: at some point in the rest of your life, somebody will bring up a topic that you have Opinions on, and you’re getting a few months or years in advance to think of the perfect response. It’s not guaranteed that anything like this will ever happen, of course, but your chances get higher for every post you write. (If that means making it short and snappy, because the folks you’re chatting with don’t want to read a 5,000-word response in the middle of a conversation, then make it short and snappy! I should take this advice myself.)

Notice who I’m not naming: Don’t blog for people who subscribe to your blog. Not unless you’ve found a mandate and made it big. At least, don’t treat them as your central audience, because a post primarily written for somebody completely new to your blog is more likely to make sense to a longtime subscriber than vice versa. I used to ramble a lot towards my “imaginary audience” (in those words) on this blog, mostly in now-deleted posts. The moment that forced me to confront my mistakes was when I was hanging out in an MIT Discord server where prefrosh were trying to choose their username and I realized that I had thought through many of the exact scenarios they were encountering in How to Choose an MIT Username. Hesitantly, I linked to the post, feeling both pride that I had anticipated many of their exact issues and embarrassment that I had written it up the way I did: with a long, rambling introduction about personal stuff and blog continuity that wouldn’t make sense to any of those readers. Let my loss be your gain.

Your blog doesn’t need an overarching topic

I just sort of implied this point, but let me spell it out a little more explicitly. Your blog doesn’t need an overarching theme that ties together all or even most of its posts. It doesn’t have to be about anything. You can just write whatever you want, whenever you want, even if it’s about a topic you’ve never remotely mentioned on your blog before. (This is actually a concrete advantage of having my own blog — I doubt a really technical CTF writeup would fly on MIT Admissions, even if there’s a sense in which it answers the “mandate”.) Once again, it’s okay! I mean this not just in the “it’s a free country and no Internet Police will arrest you for doing it” sense, but in the much stronger sense that a lot of successful, high-quality blogs do it too. I should never have felt any sense of compulsion to stay “on-brand” or any twinge of guilt for finding yet another brand-new topic to blog about. This might be a concern if I were, say, offering a paid newsletter or seeking support on Patreon — I’d want to be sure I’m not deceiving anybody, even by omission, about what kind of blog posts they’d be paying for or sponsoring — but I’m not doing that.

Put even more starkly, you may wish to treat each blog post as a standalone endeavor, targeting an audience completely disjoint from that of every other post. This is both realistic — people usually share specific blog posts with their friends or on social media, rather than entire blogs — and easier — if you care as much about being original in your writing as I do, being additionally constrained by a broad topic won’t help. It’s a lot easier to find individual blog-post-sized topics that you think are not covered well enough than to find a general area of study worthy of a full blog you think is under-covered. If you get subscribers, that’s just a bonus.

Look for post ideas, don’t force them

A lot of posts similar to this one will tell you to write regularly, to block out time in your schedule every week or so just for writing. Having tried this a few times, I think this is only good advice if you have some baseline stockpile of good blog post ideas within “brainstorming distance”, so to speak. Of course, this is tricky because there might be a lot of those those ideas that you’re not aware of until you sit down and try to think of them. But my experience with forcing myself to blog on a schedule was that, while I was happy I had written those blog posts rather than not written them, none of them were anywhere close to my best work.

Here’s some alternative advice: If you don’t have any good ideas for what to blog about, try harder to see “missing blog posts” in the world around you, and to cultivate the ability and confidence to do so. When you read something that you found useful or persuasive, ask yourself, “Is this the best they could have done, if they knew I were the reader?” In particular, try to think beyond essays and tutorials written “the way it’s usually done”. There might be a good reason it’s usually done that way, but there might not be, or the reason might not apply to you because you’re unusual.

If you have the bandwidth for it, another thing you can do is to try something or learn something that’s completely new to you. Investigate the hobby you’ve been putting off, or ask your friends for recommendations, with the goal of finding something so awesome that you wish somebody had told you about it earlier. Then tell other people about it earlier.

In the most successful case, you discover an idea for a blog post that is so good, it’s burning to get out of your head and onto the screen. You feel like society has wronged you by the fact that it doesn’t exist, or by the fact that all the posts you can find are so much worse. If you can pull that off, you might find yourself adequately motivated to write about it, without any need to explicitly schedule writing time. If you don’t quite reach that ideal, but you have some ideas you’re on the fence about, then maybe it’s time to try a writing schedule. But the best way to build a habit is to make it not require any willpower.

You don’t have to “start a blog”

Compared to the other things I’ve covered above, this might seem like a trivial semantic quibble, but I think it ties together a bunch of my arguments. A lot of advice out there tries to persuade you to “start a blog” in those words. If you start a WordPress blog, you get this post created for you:

Be yourself; Everyone else is already taken.
— Oscar Wilde.

This is the first post on my new blog. I’m just getting this new blog going, so stay tuned for more. Subscribe below to get notified when I post new updates.

It’s subtle, but I think this framing — “starting a blog”, “getting it going” — is bad because it suggests that a blog must be some kind of continuous process: some coherent whole with a start, which presumably also has a middle and maybe an end; some ongoing project that you have to sustain and persevere with, and if you don’t, then the blog is a failure. Reject this framing. Your blog doesn’t need to be a coherent whole. You don’t need to have a thread or topic that unites all the posts on it. It’s perfectly fine if your blog passively exists with only one or two posts indefinitely.

There is a case to be made that the very idea of a blog is, if not a mistake, at least taking up too much mindspace relative to other ways of publishing to the web, and that the Internet might be better with more content structured in other ways. See, for example, Amy Hoy’s How the Blog Broke the Web, or Tom Critchlow’s explanation of his digital garden. Instead of a chronological stream of posts with “publish” dates, you can have a small number of pages that you gradually add things to, or a constellation of pages that link to each other and that you individually iterate on. Publish your ideas in whatever way works best for you; most “blogging platforms” can be made to accommodate different patterns of writing to some extent. But getting individual pieces of writing to exist should come first, and in this post I’m really using “blogging” as a shorthand for that.

The part with the logistical suggestions

Just to make sure nobody gets inspired to try blogging, but encounters any friction in the technical execution of getting a blog post onto the Internet, I’ll conclude with a few suggestions about that.

  • If you’re struggling to name your blog, especially if I’ve persuaded you to not think of it as having an overarching topic: The easiest thing to do is to just use your own name (in any sense). If you find that unsatisfactory, try coming up with something punny or quirky or vague but deep and philosophical-sounding but noncommittal. Better to post a few times — seriously, once or twice is fine — and let your posts define your blog ostensively.
  • For where to actually host the blog: If you just want a place to put words, use WordPress.12 If you’re a little more technically savvy and want complete control over your blog’s HTML/CSS/JavaScript, or you expect to include a lot of code snippets in your blog (which I wasn’t really happy with WordPress’s support), use GitHub Pages with a static site generator. Jekyll works “for free”; if you need something with a bit more flexibility and maybe scalability, this blog uses (a slightly custom fork of) Hugo, which I do generally recommend. There are many more hosting platforms and site generators that you can find online, but I’m not going to link to them to try to help you evade the “static gen basin”. I will say that the things I’m most concerned about with my choices are (1) long-term stability and (2) letting yourself keep as much ownership and control as possible; other platforms may be better if you want to trade some of those away for convenience, price, or higher ambitions related to, say, SEO and monetization.
  • If you do have an idea and a platform and are stuck on getting words out, I must recommend, as I always do, The Most Dangerous Writing App for generating a first draft. (In case the domain is confusing, I did not make this; I just rehosted it because the original website redirects to a writing service that both (1) added a privacy policy I’m not a fan of and (2) removed the defining feature, the punishment of deleting your work if you stop typing. Fortunately, the original is open source and open source is cool like that.)

That’s it! If you’re me from somewhere between one and 14½ years ago… well, you should probably keep writing the awkward posts you’ve been writing so as not to cause a time paradox; but if you’re merely similar to that person, I hope you will consider blogging.

  1. Sources: blog post, Common Data Set PDF

  2. Source: personal email. It took me forever to find this email, because the keywords I was searching for kept missing, but (note to self) I eventually found it under “be a blogger” quoted. Also, nice.

  3. My guess is that the biggest goal is something like to humanize the concept of “being an MIT student” and make it more relatable. Particularly, it would be good to try to dispel misconceptions people might have about what you need to be or to have done to get accepted and succeed at MIT: say, that you need to be from a fairly advantaged background with well-educated parents, or you need to have discovered your interest in STEM when you’re five years old and consistently nurtured it afterwards, or you need to get perfect grades in school and on every standardized test, or, well, you need to have won a gold medal at some kind of international science olympiad. (For the record, these are all in fact not necessary.)

    Oh yeah, they’d probably also want bloggers who write well too.

  4. In the process of finding the statistics at the start of this post, I found another email with a link that still allowed me to view my application. I tried to read it, but stopped after about five words because I was cringing so hard. Maybe I’ll feel distant enough from that version of me if I wait five more years. Or maybe the website where they store the blogger applications will go bankrupt or get acquired or something, and I’ll be able to stop wondering.

  5. Probably not famous famous though.

  6. Although, it probably wouldn’t be a portrait of me, in the traditional sense, if you catch my drift… (if you don’t, don’t worry about it)

  7. Source: 2020, 2019, 2018, the wording got tweaked after 2017, somebody messed up a URL slug in 2016, I think this is enough footnote

  8. In my case, this may be exacerbated in that there are things I can apparently do better than anybody else in the world, which makes me feel like I should write exclusively about those things instead; but I don’t actually enjoy those things more than anything else in the world. They’re maybe fifth place in my list of hobbies.

  9. One of its suggestions is to “take some blog post that you love and try to figure out what would you change in it / how would you write it”. To some extent, this post is an exercise in doing exactly that to it. Very meta.

  10. Any web search will find dozens of articles telling you why you should blog. Several more of those inspired this post, but in a negative way. Let me list a few of their arguments and explain why I find even less compelling.

    • Any variation on how writing will help you organize your ideas or think more clearly: I agree with the sentiment, but those are reasons to write, not to blog. You can write down your thoughts just for yourself, and I recommend doing so, but blogging is more — it’s writing publicly, for other people. You can get the benefits of clearer thinking by writing privately, perhaps in a diary of some sort. More realistically, in my case, you can get all the benefits by starting hundreds of blog post drafts and getting all of them to like 50% done, putting all your ideas down into a giant mess that has helped you think through everything but would be unreadable to anybody else. And frankly, if you’ve never write anything that you wouldn’t feel comfortable publishing, I think you’re missing out. (Please practice good security.) I’m not (only) talking about controversial opinions that you might not want to publicy might have consequences, I’m talking about things like personal stories you don’t want everybody to know about or stories mentioning people whose privacy you might not want to intrude on.

      One common strengthening of the above argument, which Alexey Guzey and many others mention, is that consciously writing for other people makes your thinking clearer and more rigorous. It forces you to anticipate and rebut objections and to follow every train of thought to a satisfying end. Personally, I don’t think I feel this benefit much: I already second-guess myself and tear up my own arguments constantly. If I do benefit, it’s more than outweighed by the overhead of filtering myself down to things I’m happy to say publicly, not to mention all the little tactical decisions involved in trying to write compelling (and properly formatted) English prose. But it’s possible that I’m just unusual in this regard. Anyway, this could be a whole other post, so I’ll leave it at that.

    • Anything about becoming a better writer: I’m no expert at improving my own writing, and I suppose writing for your blog could help in the sense that doing anything helps you get better at doing the thing, but it seems to me that the key ingredient you’d really want to improve your writing skills is feedback. And whether you get feedback for that seems to me to be mostly orthogonal to whether your writing is a public blog. It’s not the norm for people to critique writing on random blogs that way; if you do get feedback, most of it will probably be about your substance and arguments rather than your raw writing skill. Go join a writing workshop or something.

    • Anything about having a living résumé or whatever: This might be a nice small bonus, but if it’s your only reason for starting a blog, well, I just think life is too short to grasp at this level of straws to present yourself as hireable.

  11. Sorry not sorry.

  12. That’s the hosted version on their website. You probably don’t need to self-host the software — if you know the basics of setting up websites, getting a WordPress blog up and running is easy, but maintaining it to apply upgrades in a timely fashion and steering clear of all the vulnerabilities is not.

(note: the commenting setup here is experimental and I may not check my comments often; if you want to tell me something instead of the world, email me!)