Julia Evans

"advice" for aspiring tech bloggers

Someone wrote me an email today asking me for advice for tech bloggers. I don’t give advice, but then they went on to ask me a bunch of specific questions. So here are some answers to those questions! And a couple more that they didn’t ask.

What were you hoping to get out of your writing, and did it work?

I think different people have different motivations for blogging. These are mine!

When I started at the Recurse Center, I jokingly referred to blogging as my “media strategy” to help me find a cool job afterwards. This was a joke but also… not totally a joke! I really did want to find a more interesting job than the one I’d had before, and writing a blog seemed like a reasonable way to make progress on that. A lot of the people who interviewed me mentioned my blog as a reason they’d heard of me, so I guess this worked. I have a way better job now than I did before.

Now that I’m gainfully employed, I mostly blog to

  • learn new things! Firstly, writing things down helps me clarify the ideas for myself. But also sometimes I’ll write about java garbage collection and then people will reply to it with an avalanche of links and extra information
  • tell people things that I wish I knew a year ago!
  • very occasionally talk about my opinions and try to make the tech world slightly more like the place I would like it to be (like asking questions is a superpower)
  • meet interesting people

These are all more or less successful, and I learn enough things directly because I blog that it’s totally worth it. I also have gotten to meet a lot of great people because of writing this blog. WIN.

How did you start writing?

I started by writing every day at when at the Recurse Center. I spent maybe.. 2 hours writing per day? And I wrote a lot of things that are not super interesting to future-julia like this one and this one.

I think writing every day was a good discipline and the sheer volume helped me write some interesting things. Now I write less often: once every week or two.

I used to really wonder how Cathy O’Neil consistently wrote so many interesting posts but now I think it’s because she thinks about the stuff she’s interested in a lot and then regularly writes down whatever she’s thinking about right now.

How long does it take you to write a post?

1-3 hours probably. I sit down and write something and don’t stop until I’ve published it. I know other people who edit their work and write more Serious Long Form Things that they try to really polish and it’s awesome. I rarely do that.

I really like writing short blog posts because I have a short attention span and I find short blog posts easier to digest when other people write them. And they’re less of an investment! Half of my blog posts are less than 500 words, and, looking at them, I’ve gotten a ton of positive comments on a lot of those under-500-words posts. And sometimes I write a thing and nobody really seems to like it and that is also okay.

There’s a great talk called How I Won The Lottery by Darius Kazemi about creative work and how producing things that you think are good is like buying a lottery ticket. So I guess I try to make good things and buy many small lottery tickets.

Also some things take me more write, though. I spent extra time on Things you should know about stock options before negotiating an offer and How to trick a neural network into thinking a panda is a vulture took a bunch of extra research.

How do you decide what’s worth writing about?

  • “would this have helped me a year ago?”
  • “would this have helped me last week?”
  • “do i think this would be interesting to at least like 2 other people?”

Sometimes I’ll ask one friend and if they think the idea is interesting, then, I’m good to go!

I know lots of people who are AMAZING and have AMAZING THINGS TO SAY and I often need to harangue them for a while before they remember that not everybody already knows those amazing things (“oh, people are interested in that??? I never would have thought!”). Sometimes I’m even successful!

Basically I have a pretty low bar for interestingness and it mostly works out fine.

How do you find the balance between getting things done and writing about your work?

When I do side projects, I’m often a lot less motivated to do them if I don’t write about them – if I do the project on my own, then I learn from it, but if I do it and write about it then EVERYONE can learn from it!!!

Is it scary to admit things that you don’t know?

In practically every post I write, I say “I don’t know $thing!”. This is different from other blogs where the authors talk about things they know about or are experts on.

On one hand, saying that I don’t know things this means people are less likely to think I am a magical wizard who knows everything. On the other hand, nobody ever thought I was a magical wizard who knows everything in the first place.

I used to never want to write about machine learning because it was my JOB and I’m supposed to know EVERYTHING about my job and what if I write about machine learning and people discover that I don’t know everything about the field.

Mostly I found this fear got in the way of me learning things and getting better at my job. Telling people what I don’t know means that they can help me learn it sooner!

On the balance I think I’d happy be known for being curious and knowledgeable and a good source of information & questions and that I don’t need to be a magical wizard oracle. It’s still sorta scary sometimes, but it’s the bet I’ve made and so I’m sticking with it for now :)

Are people jerks on the internet?

Nobody asked me this but I will answer it anyway. I hear a lot from people that they’re worried about blogging because they think that the internet will just be mean to them.

I maintain a pretty aggressively positive tone in my blogging. This is partly because it’s genuinely how I view a lot of things, but it’s also partly a defensive tactic. Getting negative comments is stressful and if I’m super positive all the time (which is pretty easy!) then I think it attracts less internet jerks. Mostly people are not jerks to me.

BUT. This is mostly to say – please don’t be unnecessarily mean about people’s work on the internet! My friend wrote an awesome post the other day and then people made all these jerk comments and it sucked. I <3 criticism (“hey that thing you said is incorrect in an important way!“) and </3 people being jerks (“lol are u dumb that is not how the kernel works”).

❤ blogging

Writing this blog has been super helpful for me professionally and I really like it. It takes a lot of time (apparently I’ve written 200 blog posts now???), but the cool thing is that once I’ve written those 200 blog posts they’re there forever! People can just keep reading them and maybe learning interesting things!

I also think it’s extremely fun and interesting when regular people (not Programming Wizards) just write about their regular work and what they’re learning right now or what they wish they’d known in the past.

thanks to Kamal Marhubi for reading this!

Notes from my PyData Berlin keynote Three ways to solve hard programming problems