Lessons from Writing a Million Words

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In 2020, I posed a challenge to myself. To write a million words in a year. I completed that challenge this February. Why a million? It was arbitrary, but it was a large enough number for me that even if I failed, I would've gotten somewhere. It was audacious, so I kept it to myself. There were a few missed days, but I made up for it in the next few days as all I had to do was to write a few hundred words extra per day for the next couple of days. Some days I would write extra as "insurance" against future slips.

Writing by yourself is an extremely solitary activity and very different from other solitary activities. It suited me since my past involves running long ultra marathons, living as a Buddhist monk in a monastery, and taking 15-20 mile long "walks" (which I still do). I'm an extrovert who likes long bouts of solitude but writing challenges in ways different from any other endurance event I experienced. It's not a surprise many writers take to drinking to blunt those miseries. I chose to watch cheesy Nike inspirational videos to channel my inner athlete.

Being able to write has little to do with being good at writing, and writing more doesn't make you a good writer. You become a good writer by editing, which is a different (yet related) skill from writing. You can write or you can edit. You cannot do both. With enough editing experience, you can generate content that requires less editing effort (at least the trivial kind of editing), and your overall productivity as a writer able to produce publicly consumable text improves. For my challenge, I decoupled editing and writing and focused solely on writing. So it's actually a million words of unedited text. Which is a very good reason to keep it private.

There are other reasons too.

There are certain pressures and performative aspects in public writing that distorts your writing. It encourages you to use standard sentence structures, while free thinking comes from sentence structures that you like best, even if it is odd to many folks. My Indian heritage also bestowed upon me really long sentences and weird word orders that don't make sense to my typical American readers. In private writing, I choose whatever the fuck I want. I can even swear. I can choose words and ideas that will otherwise offend people. I can freely express ideas without worrying that my readers will inevitably conflate me and my expression as one, and pin that on me for the rest of my life.

Writing publicly changes one's writing in subtle ways. If you write and share something publicly (say on Twitter), and if you get a dose of dopamine hit from lots of retweets and likes, then you will consciously or subconsciously gravitate to produce more of that writing. In 2014-2016, I blogged a lot about new deep learning papers as they came out. Not many were doing that back then. I wrote incisively, sometimes even pissed off the authors by asking hard questions, and at all times doing that without taking myself seriously. People loved to read that, I got a bunch of engagement, and before I knew it, I was writing almost every day about some new paper. That had become my deal and my "brand" at that time (i.e., people associated that with my blog). While the dopamine highs were undeniable and even addictive, I was lucky to have moments of self-reflection and realized what was going on. I really didn't want to become any specific brand. All I wanted was me to me, which is ever-changing and nonconforming to any ideas of Yours Truly that I had or other people had. And all of a sudden I stopped paper-blogging cold turkey. I had to. Since then many others have taken to doing that, and I don't regret it even if their opinions are not what I want to read (but please try not being obsequious and pandering if you write or make videos about papers).

Writing for Page Street Labs in 2020 felt that way too. With PSL, I took long-form writing to dive deep into a topic with original thinking. Each PSL post was like writing a research paper, but with thought experiments and storytelling instead of empirical experiments and technical writing. From what I can tell using typical newsletter metrics, people seemed to love that too. It was way way more taxing than blogging about a single paper or idea, since each post typically involved reading multiple papers and books on the topic, and connecting dots that were never connected before. While it was fun, it was not the only kind of writing I wanted to do. Engagement comes at a price. The price is walking on some self-propped stage, changing who you are, perform what is asked of you, perform what sells, carving yourself in a niche, and getting engulfed by the niche. Many happily do that and get to a place where it's no performance at all, by accepting that performance as their identity. Kudos to them, but as I write more privately, I walk into so many corners of my identity that any act of performance immediately becomes visible in the mind's eye.

Most of these million words in the past year will end up in a proverbial trash can. But for the first time, by writing in private, I have felt honest to myself, to my various muses, and to what I am writing. I have let writing be writing and not anything more.

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Copyright © 2021. Delip Rao