Writing Unoriginal Content
If you look over my blog posts you’ll see they have giant multi-year gaps between them. The main reason is simply my changing interests, and/or cynicism, at a given moment, and how I get caught up with other activities. I’ve repeated one reason to explain this to myself for years, “someone has already said this, and has said it better.”
A hundred years ago one of the largest impairments to learning was access to information. Today, the problem is finding the signal in the noise, and I loathe the idea of contributing to the noise.
Yet, at the same time, I am constantly dumbfounded that people haven’t heard key principles about topics they profess interest in. For example, I recently had a conversation with someone who stated he had been studying how to cultivate flow state in group settings, for twenty-plus years of his life. I mentioned a book on the topic, and not only had he not heard of it, he hadn’t read a single book on the topic.
I’ll often give a passing remark to someone that they could learn more from reading a certain book or article, or even watching a YouTube video or listening to a podcast. With our waning attention span and reduction of books read per year, I find that most people may glance at a piece but rarely commit to an entire book. Even if they choose to read an article, they most likely will ask for the tl;dr.
Sometimes, enough inner angst builds up to the point that I feel like I am going to explode and so I write an article. Surprisingly, people were much more interested in reading what I had written than I had supposed they’d be. Even if I point to someone else who said it better, they were more interested in hearing it from me.
Why? A friend helped me with the answer:
- It was from someone they knew, giving it a closer sense of applicability to their life
- It was “modern” and therefore more relevant than what someone had written in the past
I very much understand the first. I constantly ask good friends and new friends what their favorite books are. That has expanded to finding idols, and then I try to figure out who my idols’ favorite authors and books are, and so creating an ever-larger circle of books that I read. It’s obvious that the more one sees themself relating to a topic, the more natural interest they have.
I believe the second, modernism as a rubric for applicability, is a fallacy that most people have. I clearly remember my arrogance in thinking much of our modern wit has grown with time. The more great works I read from the past, the more I am dispelled of the idea. The more I realize how, as a people, we’re destined to repeat our mistakes if we do not learn from them.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
I also have three personal reasons why one might write unoriginal content.
Fleshing out ideas
Paul Graham recently wrote about Putting Ideas Into Words and how writing can aid in fleshing out your ideas. Before writing this essay, I simply knew that I was uncomfortable with repeating many ideas and feeling a bit like a fraud. Writing it out has given me some clear delineation of what I do and don’t want to do, and how to cater to those desires.
Learning by teaching
A similar concept to fleshing out your ideas. I notice that I particularly want to write much more after I’ve been reading more information on a given topic. I want others to know what I have learned, but I want to say it in my own way.
I first ran into this concept while teaching swing dancing. I knew how to do the move, but someone else was doing it differently. Could I tell them how I did it? What exactly was I doing? This increased my ability as a dancer, and, hopefully, the level of instruction to future students.
“Do things, tell people”
Hacker News recently brought a 2012 essay, Do things, tell people., to the front page. It drove my curiosity. Most of my friends consider me to be fairly active, from entrepreneurial pursuits to physical feats to extended travel, but I almost never tell people. I’m curious to see if I can bring some of the value I’ve discovered to other people’s lives.
I discovered while writing this article that there is one aspect of writing unoriginal content which is… original. I consolidate, synthesize, and simplify.
While the heart of the subject may be written in other places, I believe that I sometimes describe a unique perspective. This perspective comes from a range of sources and connects other, relevant information. Taking this a step further and simplifying it brings me great joy.
“The only simplicity for which I would give a straw is that which is on the other side of the complex—not that which never has divined it.”
Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.
In a previous article on censorship, I related three current events across a span of articles back to a psychological principle written about in the 1980s. In my first article on the Zen of Y Combinator, I drew references from dozens of hours of research into something that could easily be read in two minutes. I discovered that behavior psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman were studying some of the same concepts as Robert Cialdini but had used different terminology.
I find these crossovers incredibly interesting, and I hope that you do too.