On Slow Writing – Cal Newport

Someone recently forwarded me an essay from a blogger named Henrik Karlsson. It opens with an admission: “When I started writing online, the advice I got was to publish frequently and not overthink any single piece.”

Karlsson was not alone in receiving this suggestion. As social media erupted into cultural dominance over the past decade, it carried in its wake a force that thoroughly disrupted written media: virality. An article or post that hit the Twitter or Facebook zeitgeist just right could summon hundreds of times more readers than average. Because it was difficult to predict which pieces might ascend to this cyber-blessed state, the optimal strategy became, as Karlsson was told, to publish as much as possible, maximizing the odds that you stumble onto something sticky.

What makes Karlsson’s essay interesting, however, is that he decided to test this hypothesis on his own work. “I’ve now written 37 blog posts and I no long think this is true,” he writes. “Each time I’ve given in to my impulse to ‘optimize’ a piece it has performed massively better.”

Using new subscribers as a metric of success, Karlsson calculated more specifically that spending twice as long on an article yields, on average, more than four times the number of new subscribers.

 

A useful way to approximate these dynamics is to imagine plotting skill level versus the number of people producing work at that level. Roughly speaking, the more time you spend on a creative endeavor, the higher the skill level you achieve, and the higher skill level you achieve, the fewer people there are also producing at that level. Spending more time, in other words, makes your work more valuable.

They key is understanding how fast this curve falls. In my experience, in many creative endeavors, it falls fast (to be nerdy about it, at least quadratically). If you double your skill, for example, the number of people producing at your level probably falls by much more than a factor of two. This helps explain Karlsson’s results. As he spent more time optimizing his essays, the pool of competition diminished rapidly, greatly increasing the value to his potential readers. The best strategy for growing his newsletter therefore became to write the best things he was capable of crafting.

This slow publishing approach, of course, does decrease your chances of virality. But for a writer, virality is not so important anyway. The temporary attention it brings soon dissipates, while the subscribers left behind have only a tenuous connection to your efforts. Meanwhile, a more languid but regular pace of really good work is a consistent formula for steadily building an intensely loyal readership.

The good news is that recent changes to the operation and cultural positioning of social media have greatly diminished its promise of virality. More creators are awakening to something like Karlsson’s realization. Speeding up in pursuit of fleeting moments of hyper-visibility is not necessarily the path to impact. It’s in slowing down that the real magic happens.

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