Michael He

April 20, 2022

One Year

A day drags on forever, but a year zips past in a hurry. March 2021 to March 2022 sped through like a rollercoaster.

A year ago I started this blog. It started as a bet with my friend to see if I could write something for seven days. It turned into four weeks. Now it's been more than a year. I have learned so much about writing by doing it, but today I don't want to espouse new things I've learned (which are more likely old lessons for experienced writers). I want reread some of my previous posts and see what have changed or not changed.

The title "One Year" is a reference to Robert Caro's The Power Broker, which is a life-changing book. I'm reading it for the third time very slowly. Just like Robert Moses accomplished the seemingly impossible (to outsiders) in a year during the Great Depression, the results of writing for a full year seemed impossible to Michael He in March 2021.

Similar to my essay on Suga of BTS, I will write this essay without a strict adherence to an outline like I usually do. This reflection will be circular instead of a linear narrative.

Acknowledgements

There is a push behind every shove. There are two in this case.

HEY world is the first reason. I never liked blogging services like Blogger and Medium because they are already too tedious. I was insecure about my writing, so hassles became strong deterrents. I didn't (and still don't) want to think about formatting, themes, SEO, and all that blogger stuff. I also needed a very basic writing-based interface. It had to work offline and would not crash all the time. HEY took care of my concerns. The blog is just an email service with a simple writing interface. I can write a long email with very little formatting, click send, and now it's a blog post. And it doesn't live on any social media, so I feel comfortable with writing authentically.

Paul Graham is the second reason. I started reading his essays in high school. I admire his attitude on thinking, writing, and voicing your ideas. Just do it. The upside of becoming better in writing, thinking, and meeting new people is much bigger than the potential downside like criticism. Reading pg over the years feels like taking a never-ending writing seminar with him. You see his writing process more clearly than many great writers. He generates ideas from tweets and previous essays, refines them relentless behind the scene, and one day just puts a new essay online without an airhorn blasting in everyone's face. His desktop website still maintains early 2000s vibe, but it's classic and beautiful. It lets me focus on the substance of the writing, instead of "cool" features that distract the readers.

While pg's essays on technology and startup are the most recognizable, I find his essays on writing to be personally more illuminating, because they apply to more than writing. They reflect his perspective on the art of creating, of turning the intangible sparks in one's mind and heart into something more tangible, be it in words, music, or code. In a roundabout way, his essays on building products and startups are also valid to the writing endeavor. Words and ideas are products of the human mind after all. And writing is the foundation to many ventures (think about the amount of documents an insurance company generates), whether it is upfront or not.

In addition to Paul Graham, I've learned a tremendous amount from people writing on the Internet. Some of them are kind enough to answer my emails, which makes me happy. Jason Fried taught me the beauty of focusing on something granular such as a single sentence. Tyler Cowen taught me the power of consistent writing and the interplay between quality and quantity. Lenny Rachitsky showed me the possibility of writing a newsletter and staying the course, which I've started doing. Derek Thompson told me about summarizing other people's ideas since that often leads to new ideas of your own. DHH is a living proof of writing for yourself and not giving a flying f**k about people that don't pay attention to the substance of his writing. Shreyas Doshi, Julie Zhuo, and Deb Liu shifted my attention from writing in a "rational" voice to a more intimate and human one. Dan Wang exemplified the power of learning via beautiful and clear writing, especially on topics that may feel too grand to tackle. Lenika Cruz wrote deeply personal essays on a national stage, which encouraged me to pursue intimacy and a sense of personal style in my writing. The list goes on, but I am grateful to these people for directly inspiring my writing journey.

To the team at Basecamp/HEY, my informal writing teachers and mentors, and people who have written me warm and thoughtful notes, thank you for making my first year of writing a blast. I hope this can keep going for a long, long time.

The Quantitative Overview

There are around 80 posts on this blog as of April 2022 (directory here). On average I write one-and-a-half posts each week. This is not bad! Considering I started with zero perseverance in writing and zero clue and the pressure to finish ten math courses in three semesters (due to last minute switching for my major), this is actually really good.

My word count has racked up as well. My 2021 master document containing totals 38k words and 120 pages. But here is a kicker. My 2022 master document as of April is at 36k words and 95 pages. This does not include around 35k words I have written for my k-pop newsletter and my 97 page senior dissertation.

So I have written more in three months than all of 2021. There is an acceleration of total output and writing speed. I'm not writing more words per minute, but I'm writing way more words per week. At the same time, more words do not mean I am vomiting words on the page. Quite the contrary, I am finding it harder to write words the more I write due to higher expectations. 

Similar to my dissertation on mathematical growth, qualitative factors drive new quantitative changes.

Now I know writing is doable and enjoyable because I'm writing for myself. I also know the challenges a lot more intimately.

I have changed my routine and schedule around writing. My friends sometimes ask me how I write so much. I would say "I play a lot less League of Legends and watch a lot less TikTok", both of which are still fun but not intrinsically rewarding. I suppose my mindset has changed a little how I want to relax. If it's not deliberate entertainment, I don't want it. When I'm truly tired I can listen to music, go for a walk, and just rest.

I'm sure there are more downstream effects from this change in perspective, but these two are obvious.

There is a little caveat with "consistent" writing. It only seems that way in a longer timeframe (e.g. month), but in the more granular time span (e.g. day and week), variability is really big. It's similar to stock market index. In the long run the return is relatively stable, but any single year sees a huge difference in performance. Very few years actually fall into the range of the long-term return. 

There are days and sometimes weeks when I don't write much if at all. Then there are days when I spend many hours mulling over words like there's no tomorrow, for example The Trust Battery or The Prince of Duality. The former took twelve hours to write and edit and the latter took more than twenty hours. The good news is I am happy with the time spent on those pieces. The alternative is probably binging regrettable shows on Netflix or mindlessly playing games on my iPad.

The Qualitative Overview

Most improvements in my writing are qualitative. Some are easier to quantify than others, such as the observations above. I can only interpret my improvements subjectively since I have a sample size of one and many people have already written about writing at large. I don't think any lessons are brand new, but having first-hand experience reinforces them.

My observations are below.

I am able to write with a better command of language. I can now write sentences that would have easily stumped me a year ago with voices, flow, and complexity. It's hard to explain the details, but like Justice Potter Stewart says, you know it when you see it. Writing for myself is like turning on the water faucet instead of squeezing toothpaste for work and academics. This change brings some significant downstream effects, some of which interact with one another.

I am able to understand the intricacies of word choice, word order, and style. It seems like a unique writing style emerges from writing a lot with deliberation (though I don't know if that's the only way). I can capture what I feel and how I want to express myself more clearly. Being able to convey such nuance (and myself in extension) feels wonderful, similar to the internal click when you return a tennis serve with a clean swoosh. It never gets old.

I am able to edit more like a jerk and a friend at the same time. School teaches editing in a very robotic and cold manner: grammatical errors, passive voice, punctuations, word choice, and very occasionally the substance of paragraphs and ideas. It's the Strunk and White approach except a lot less engaging and a lot more bloated, designed for educators' convenience. I hated doing that to myself because it's demoralizing (so I let my friends brutalize my works).

But over time, I see an alternative to son-of-a-bitch approach in Jerry Seinfeld's words. I can also edit like a curious friend: ask for clarification; being empathetic and genuinely curious with writing in the margins; trying to align the emotions and contexts of the author (a.k.a. me) and the reader (also me). This lets me feel okay with being straightforward on the usual technical fixes, because my editor-self is also trying to emotionally and intellectually connect with the creative self. I still rely on my friends, but I'm glad I can be in touch with my inner critic and cheerleader.

I am able to turn more ideas and emotions into words by changing how I take notes. I used to write my ideas in pocket notebooks and sticky notes, but they get stashed in the drawer. Note-taking apps never worked well. The best alternative was to dump my thoughts in my email draft box with key phrases and sentences, but the obvious downside is it's email. When I finally came across flomo, I knew I can work on phrasing my initial ideas better. I'm still very early in this process, but Paul Graham recently wrote an excellent essay on this topic.

I am able to cover more topics. Because I feel more confident not just in my writing but my thought process in extension, therefore I feel comfortable using writing as a way to learn. My initial posts are things I've thought about for years, but over time I began to my hunches into something more substantial. When I reread Warren Buffett's letters, I decided to write about the business of See's Candy, my favorite chocolate brand. The original draft of The Truth About Gardens is 60% of what I want to actually convey, but the current draft under revision is close to 90% with a broader scope, more details, and finer style. I have done the same with K-Pop, short stories, and even biographies.

I am able to be okay with the uncomfortable aspect of writing. It's easy to dissuade yourself. You are often your worst critic and biggest enemy. As Ira Glass once remarked, it's easy to see the taste gap between what you know is good and what you are capable of doing at the moment. To get up again and again, to refine your words, dance movements, and music performance, and to not hate yourself is what matters in the creative process. Maybe the gap will close a bit. Maybe it will stay the same. Maybe it will even get larger as I stay unsatisfied (like the song in the musical Hamilton). But that is all relative - I will become better in the absolute sense at the end of the day. I'm in this journey of a lifetime. Being okay with this frustration and this overwhelming ideas-to-execution ratio is the price to pay. And I will pay it.

I am able to unlearn and relearn writing. I already know something is off with the way school teaches writing at the start, but with real experiences comes much more understanding of the why behind. Everything above is unlearning or relearning in some form.

When I read my essays from high school, early college, and over the last year, I see some interesting patterns. The default was the academic style: long, wordy, passive, excessively fancy, and to be honest, obnoxious. It was like a small boy acting tough. Then I started writing shorter and simpler sentences following Paul Graham's example for most of 2021. I learned to use periods more often, cut back on dependent clauses, use active voice more often, and align word order to how I speak. And my paragraphs were no more than ten lines, the norm in academia and "formal" writing but atrocious in Internet and by extension mainstream writing.

Something changed in the last few months, as I took some time off and picked up fiction again. I read a lot of C.S. Lewis, Marilynne Robinson, and Ted Chiang. They write in very different styles but they all are not afraid to be more lyrical, contemplative, or even emotionally destructive (with their words) when needed. I tried to do that with College Math Courses Have Failed Us and it felt good. I wrote with more sophisticated words, but they were accurate in meaning. I thought it read like rambling, but my friends said it was lucid and coherent. I went all-in on AGUST 29 (an essay on Suga of BTS) and Choi Beomgyu: The Prince of Duality (an essay on Beomgyu of TXT) and the reception couldn't have been warmer. People messaged me saying how the essays made them happy and relive heartfelt moments, which I never thought was possible.

I think I'm slowly developing my style. It won't be entirely like any writer I love, but it will certainly have aspects of what made me fall in love with their writing in the first place.