I originally wrote this post for the Rackspace Blog but I decided to post it here in case some of my readers might have missed it. Please feel free to leave your comments at the end of the post.
Sometimes people talk to me about posts I’ve written on my blog, or posts they wish I would write. At some point during the discussion, I’ll almost always ask the person why they don’t start up their own blog or contribute to someone else’s. Very few people actually seem interested when I probe them about writing posts on technical topics.
My mother was always the one who told me (and her students) that everyone has a story. She said that writing could be therapeutic in ways you probably won’t consider until you’ve written something that someone else enjoys. Just as software developers exist to write software for their users, writers exist to write stories for their readers. There’s nothing that says technical people can’t become excellent writers who inspire others to learn and share their knowledge with others.
The goal of this post is to encourage technical people to enjoy writing, write efficiently and feel comfortable doing it. I’ll roll through some of the most common responses I’ve received about why technical people don’t blog about what they know.
I don’t think I’m really an expert on anything. I’m not an authority on any topic I can think of.
I’m leading off with this response because it’s the most critical to refute. If you don’t take away anything else from this post, let it be this: you don’t need to be an expert on a topic to write about it.
You can find examples of this by rolling through some of the posts on my blog. I’d consider myself to be an expert on one, maybe two topics, but I’ve written over 450 posts in the span of just over five years. I certainly didn’t write all of those about the one or two topics I know best.
Write about what you know and don’t be afraid to do a little research to become an authority on something. A great example of this was my post, entitled “Kerberos for haters.” I had almost no expertise in Kerberos. In fact, I couldn’t even configure it properly for my RHCA exam! However, I did a ton of research and began to understand how most of the pieces fit together. Many other people were just as confused and I decided to pack all of the knowledge I had about Kerberos into a blog post. Positive and negative feedback rolled in and it was obvious that my post taught some readers, inspired some others and angered a few.
What a great way to lead into the next response:
What if I say something that isn’t correct? I’ll look like an idiot in front of the whole internet!
Been there, done that. Every writer makes errors and comes up with bad assumptions at least once. Readers will call you out on your mistakes (some do it delicately while others don’t) and it’s your duty to correct your post or correct the reader. I’ve written posts with errors, and I’ve gotten a little lazy on my fact-checking from time to time. As my middle school journalism teacher always reminded me, the most important part of a mistake is what you do to clean it up and learn from it.
In short: you’ll make mistakes. As long as you’ve done your due diligence to minimize them and respond to them promptly, your readers should forgive you.
Speaking of errors:
I’m great at a command prompt but my spelling and grammar are awful. I write terribly.
This is easily fixed. If you’re one of those folks who live the do-it-yourself type of lifestyle, pick up a copy of The Elements of Style by Strunk & White. There are free PDF versions online or you can borrow one from your nearest journalist. No matter the situation you’re in, this book has details about where punctuation should and shouldn’t be, how to structure sentences and paragraphs, and how to properly cite your sources (really vital for research posts).
Hauling around a copy of an ultra-dry reference book may not be your thing. If that’s the case, find someone you know who has a knack for writing. You can usually find helpful folks in marketing or corporate communications in most big companies who will take your post and return it covered in red ink ready for corrections (thanks, Garrett!). I’ve even spotted some folks on Fiverr who will do this for as low as $5.
I’ll wrap up with the second most common response:
I don’t know who I’m writing for? What if I write about something simple and the really technical folks think I’m a noob? What if I write something crazy complex and it goes over most people’s heads?
I’ve done both of these. Most Linux system administrators worth their salt know how to add and remove iptables rules, and they’d consider it to be pretty trivial work. Would it surprise you to know that out of over 450 posts, my post about deleting a single iptables rule is in the top five most accessed posts per month? I receive just over 11 percent of my monthly hits to this post. People are either learning from it or they can’t remember how to delete the rule and they want to use the post as a quick reference. Either way, the post is valuable to many people even if I think it’s the simplest topic possible.
On the flip side, I went nuts and wrote up a complete how-to for a redundant cloud hosting configuration complete with LVS, glusterfs, MySQL on DRBD, memcached, haproxy and ldirectord. I thought it would be valuable knowledge to a few folks but that it might sail over the heads of most of my readers. Again, I was wrong. The post is constantly in the top 10 most visited posts on the blog and I’ve probably received more feedback via comments, email and IRC about that post than any other. Once again, a post I thought would be mostly useless turned into a real conversation starter.
Let’s conclude and wrap up. Keep these things in mind if you feel discouraged about writing:
- Write about what interests you whether you’re an expert on it or not
- Don’t be afraid to fail
- Be responsive to your readers
- Even if you think nobody will read your post, write it
- Always ensure your voice shines through in your writing — this is what makes it special and appealing