The Best Writing Advice for the Digital Age

What tips Tim Urban should give to youngsters for unique writing? originally appeared on Quora - the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.

Answer by Tim Urban, writer for Wait But Why - join their email list here to get new posts in your inbox, on Quora.

If you asked me for great writing advice for young people twenty years ago, the answer would be much ickier. You'd have to decide on one of a few standard types of writing--novels, journalism, etc.--and there wouldn't be an easy way to get practice.

Today is such a cooler time to start being a writer. First, what used to be a few stark categories you had to choose between is now a wide open spectrum of possibility. Second, publishing your own writing online is a perfect way to practice.

I'm sure I'm biased by my own narrow experience in the writing world, but I'd say starting a blog is a pretty good first step for a young writer, no matter what kind of writing they want to do. "Blog" is an annoying word, but it's a great concept--a creative sandbox.

Open one up and start playing in it.

Don't worry about the quality of what you're doing, you're a newbie, you're supposed to be kind of a mess about it. If you handed Michael Jordan a basketball for the first time when he was twenty-fie, he'd be terrible at it until he spent some time on a court.

The goal is to play and have fun and try weird stuff until you start to find a style that clicks for you. The phrase "shoving a square peg into a round hole" is relevant here. If your only options are traditional magazine articles, newspaper articles, and books, you're looking at three holes and you have to figure out which one is the best fit for your "peg."

Today, writers have the luxury at treating themselves not like a peg at all, but a weirdly-shaped puzzle piece, because a blog allows you to invent your own medium--and there's nothing stopping you from carving out a hole that's the exact shape of your creative puzzle piece.

It turns out that I really like writing 10,000-word articles on heavy subjects with cursing and stick drawings. That is a weird puzzle piece. Imagine me trying to find a job opening in 1995 looking for a writer to do that. Not happening.

But today, I used the medium of the blog-sandbox to A) experiment, writing 300 posts on my old blog over a six-year span and now about 100 posts on WBW, which taught me, and continues to teach me, what my own creative puzzle piece looks like, B) build a publication in Wait But Why that is perfectly tailored to fit my puzzle piece, even as that piece morphs shape over time, and C) attract the exact weird audience whose taste matches the shape of my puzzle piece.

A blog is so convenient because it's a sandbox that doubles as a media platform, so you can get feedback on your work as you go, and if you end up stumbling upon a groove that really works, readers will find you and it can turn into a career.

This is really an even broader concept, where the concept of a "writer" is almost outdated today. Instead of writers and publications, directors and movie studios, singers and record labels, what you really have today are creative puzzle pieces using shapeless sandboxes like Wordpress, YouTube, and SoundCloud to carve a tailor-made hole for themselves.

There is a much longer post in me on this topic, but for now, I'd boil my advice down to two steps:

  1. Open up a blog or a YouTube account or a SoundCloud account or some combination of those and just start having fun with no pressure. Just make stuff and be silly and experimental and push your boundaries. Alone, with collaborators, whatever feels right. Don't worry about how good it is or whether anyone notices it--if your work catches on early, awesome, but that's not the point of step 1. As you make stuff, follow the fun. If making stuff isn't fun, make something different. Over time, you'll start to figure out what your puzzle piece looks like. And don't forget--there are no rules. By the time you're done, what you're creating probably won't be quite like anything else that's out there.
  2. Once you stumble upon a puzzle piece shape you really like being, build the exact medium that fits that shape. Then start doing your thing on that medium obsessively. You don't need any kind of social media expertise or any digital marketing knowledge, just make sure that when someone whose "taste puzzle piece" happens to match the shape of your creative puzzle piece finds your work, it's super easy for them to follow you on social media, subscribe to your email list, and share your work.

As for the natural next question, but how do I make any money creating stuff?, I believe that if you do the two steps above, and you work super hard at it, the financial part ends up coming together. If you carve out a medium for yourself that matches your talents and create on it obsessively, people will find you. And if people find you and value what you're doing and don't want you to stop doing it, there are plenty of ways to convert that into financial support for yourself. Patreons list of their most supported creators is a group of examples of people carving out their own medium and making a career out of it.

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