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Why Technical People Should Blog (But Don’t)

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Sometimes people talk to me about posts I’ve written on my blog, or posts they wish I would write. At some point during the discussion, I’ll almost always ask the person why they don’t start up their own blog or contribute to someone else’s. Very few people actually seem interested when I probe them about writing posts on technical topics.

My mother was always the one who told me (and her students) that everyone has a story. She said that writing could be therapeutic in ways you probably won’t consider until you’ve written something that someone else enjoys. Just as software developers exist to write software for their users, writers exist to write stories for their readers. There’s nothing that says technical people can’t become excellent writers who inspire others to learn and share their knowledge with others.

The goal of this post is to encourage technical people to enjoy writing, write efficiently and feel comfortable doing it. I’ll roll through some of the most common responses I’ve received about why technical people don’t blog about what they know.

I don’t think I’m really an expert on anything. I’m not an authority on any topic I can think of.

I’m leading off with this response because it’s the most critical to refute. If you don’t take away anything else from this post, let it be this: you don’t need to be an expert on a topic to write about it.

You can find examples of this by rolling through some of the posts on my blog. I’d consider myself to be an expert on one, maybe two topics, but I’ve written over 450 posts in the span of just over five years. I certainly didn’t write all of those about the one or two topics I know best.

Write about what you know and don’t be afraid to do a little research to become an authority on something. A great example of this was my post, entitled “Kerberos for haters.” I had almost no expertise in Kerberos. In fact, I couldn’t even configure it properly for my RHCA exam! However, I did a ton of research and began to understand how most of the pieces fit together. Many other people were just as confused and I decided to pack all of the knowledge I had about Kerberos into a blog post. Positive and negative feedback rolled in and it was obvious that my post taught some readers, inspired some others and angered a few.

What a great way to lead into the next response:

What if I say something that isn’t correct? I’ll look like an idiot in front of the whole internet!

Been there, done that. Every writer makes errors and comes up with bad assumptions at least once. Readers will call you out on your mistakes (some do it delicately while others don’t) and it’s your duty to correct your post or correct the reader. I’ve written posts with errors, and I’ve gotten a little lazy on my fact-checking from time to time. As my middle school journalism teacher always reminded me, the most important part of a mistake is what you do to clean it up and learn from it.

In short: you’ll make mistakes. As long as you’ve done your due diligence to minimize them and respond to them promptly, your readers should forgive you.

Speaking of errors:

I’m great at a command prompt but my spelling and grammar are awful. I write terribly.

This is easily fixed. If you’re one of those folks who live the do-it-yourself type of lifestyle, pick up a copy of The Elements of Style by Strunk & White. There are free PDF versions online or you can borrow one from your nearest journalist. No matter the situation you’re in, this book has details about where punctuation should and shouldn’t be, how to structure sentences and paragraphs, and how to properly cite your sources (really vital for research posts).

Hauling around a copy of an ultra-dry reference book may not be your thing. If that’s the case, find someone you know who has a knack for writing. You can usually find helpful folks in marketing or corporate communications in most big companies who will take your post and return it covered in red ink ready for corrections (thanks, Garrett!). I’ve even spotted some folks on Fiverr who will do this for as low as $5.

I’ll wrap up with the second most common response:

I don’t know who I’m writing for? What if I write about something simple and the really technical folks think I’m a noob? What if I write something crazy complex and it goes over most people’s heads?

I’ve done both of these. Most Linux system administrators worth their salt know how to add and remove iptables rules, and they’d consider it to be pretty trivial work. Would it surprise you to know that out of over 450 posts, my post about deleting a single iptables rule is in the top five most accessed posts per month? I receive just over 11 percent of my monthly hits to this post. People are either learning from it or they can’t remember how to delete the rule and they want to use the post as a quick reference. Either way, the post is valuable to many people even if I think it’s the simplest topic possible.

On the flip side, I went nuts and wrote up a complete how-to for a redundant cloud hosting configuration complete with LVS, glusterfs, MySQL on DRBD, memcached, haproxy and ldirectord. I thought it would be valuable knowledge to a few folks but that it might sail over the heads of most of my readers. Again, I was wrong. The post is constantly in the top 10 most visited posts on the blog and I’ve probably received more feedback via comments, email and IRC about that post than any other. Once again, a post I thought would be mostly useless turned into a real conversation starter.

Let’s conclude and wrap up. Keep these things in mind if you feel discouraged about writing:

•    Write about what interests you whether you’re an expert on it or not
•    Don’t be afraid to fail
•    Be responsive to your readers
•    Even if you think nobody will read your post, write it
•    Always ensure your voice shines through in your writing — this is what makes it special and appealing

About the Author

This is a post written and contributed by Major Hayden.

Major Hayden is Chief Security Architect and a Linux engineer who has experience working on large-scale OpenStack deployments and automation in Rackspace Cloud. He enjoys writing posts about Linux system administration and security on the Rackspace blog as well as his personal blog.

Follow Major on Twitter @majorhayden.


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  • http://adrianotto.com Adrian Otto

    I have had the privilege of working with a number of the ranks that make up the technical elite. A quality that most have in common is a form of perfectionism. Many are also introverts. I definitely fall into the perfectionist category. When I write for the Rackspace Blog, or my own I find that I really want to cover subject matter in depth, and writing a really good article takes a lot of time. In fact, not too long ago I published a post on an improved Luhn algorithm. I actually spent more time writing the blog post than I spent working on the algorithm itself. Highly capable and achieved technical people are busy working, and struggle to find the time to write about what they know.

    Taking the time to share what you know is a form generosity. It will help those introverts find a way to be a bit more extroverted. It’s a refreshing change. Major, I’ll take this opportunity to offer you a well deserved compliment that you are making a valuable contribution, and I hope we can inspire others to make that effort. Good job.

    Adrian

  • http://www.shipoverseas.com Francisco

    I think this is a great post. I write blog posts for my clients, but they are not about technical content. However, I did convince them to use the cloud for their server instead of using their in-house server. Maybe I should write a REAL story of how I got my clients to use cloud services vs. traditional web hosting.
    Even though I have a great college education, my writing skills became way better writing blog posts.

  • http://rackerhacker.com/ Major Hayden

    Francisco – Thanks! That sounds like a good topic for a post.

    Adrian – Thanks as well!

  • Sam

    Thanks for the great post, i’ve written a few articles for my own blog related mostly to games programming but find that these questions/fears always pop up as i’m writing and actually do hold me back, reading this post though has inspired me to press on and finish my latest article. Keep up the good work. Sam

  • http://jamesmcdonald.id.au James Mcdonald

    Thanks Major,

    I related strongly to your post. I’ve been regularly blogging since 2006 on mostly IT related topics, and now find that my blog has developed into a resource that I refer to. You don’t have to rely on memory if you blog it.

    Once you start blogging and checking out the analytics of the posts, it can be a surprise which technical posts draw the most traffic.

    Incidentally I also host my blog on a Rackspace self-managed cloud server and the only downtime has been a result of me rebooting. So a vote for you guys from me.

    James.

  • http://bitsum.com Jeremy Collake

    As the author of numerous little blogs on different subjects, and sole operator and developer of a small software company, I agree with you. I think you hit the nail on the head though – fear the number one blocker, and they have good reason to be afraid. The Internet is a harsh place, full of fake profiles, crazy people, people with agendas, and just plain trolls. When you put yourself ‘out there’, it takes some courage, as not *everyone* will love you. In fact, some may hate you, and they’ll tell you. Not everyone has a thick enough skin to be on the Internet, to be honest. Of course, if these people had to use their REAL NAMES, then things might change, as I’ve rarely met anyone criticizing me that is not hiding behind some alias. Even though 9/10 people may have something good to say, that 1 person will be the ahole who sticks in mind. So, I’d blame people like them – the critics. And believe me when I say it is the easiest thing in the world to be a critic.

  • http://tatu-search.posterous.com Thiago Serra

    Your post is a quite interesting summon on geek blog posting. I remember experiencing each of those doubts when I started my blog on Operations Research. When I look back to the sort of crap that I used to write at the beginning, I fell a little ashamed but at the same time glad to know how much I have improved.

  • Daniel M

    While reference guides and editing services may be the quickest methods to improving writing, you will not learn how to write. To do that, you must read more, “Writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of how to write.” – Annie Proulx

  • Michael McDermott

    Excellent post. Practicing writing is a great way to become better in general, learn how to be persuasive in prose, and find your voice. Having studied literature in college and done some graduate work, I would counsel against Elements of Style. Thinking on Paper by Howard and Barton is a good deal better. I also recommend A Writer’s Companion by Richard Marius (I read the third edition).

  • http://7php.com Khayrattee Wasseem

    It’s GREAT to see engineers (linux eng. in your case) writing and blogging. All your points make sense and your advice is great.

    I think another important issue is that programmers tend be more fluent in writing codes than writing words (English or whatever language). In some cases, it’s just because it’s a lack of reading and/or conversing with people around the (blogo)sphere.

    Cheers!
    //Khayrattee
    (@7php)

  • http://threadmore.tumblr.com AK

    Useful and informative post. I believe in your statement that writing is therapeutic. I have realized it and started writing or posting on stack* based sites (eg stackoverflow.com) and quora. Having a blog of ones own is a good idea and i am working on that. What helped me was that I have started a google doc with a bunch topics and short summaries of the blog posts. For me getting a topic and summary was more challenging than actually writing a blog post.

    Your post is inspirational and will sure fire me up to start writing. Thanks.

  • http://about.me/jhare Jason Hare

    Great commentary on making one’s voice heard. I have been writing about Open Data for a little over a year and not really all that often until recently. Things I have learned about myself and about Open Data:

    1. Open Data means different things to different people.
    2. There are technical and philosophical aspects to Open Data
    3. I do not have to be an expert on any particular piece of the Open Data puzzle. I can write as a practitioner of Open Data as well as an evangelist.
    4. Some of what I have learned in the past two months is counter to what is being said by others. I am OK with having a different opinion than others.

    In short I like writing about Open Data because it is fairly new in its current incarnation and most of the folks in this community are well meaning and collaborative. I enjoy spending my mornings over a cup of coffee reading what’s new and digesting what everyone thought about. Thank you!

  • http://opticstransport.com Faisal

    Very encouraging post. Kinda removing the barriers I have. I am a newbie and still in the exploration stage about blogs. Trying to put posts in my new blog. Coming from my technical background I would love to write only about technical things about telecom but when I see a lot of blogs out there, they are more informal and mainly talking about the latest trends and are an industry watch….something I am not good at….Am I following the right strategy ? any thoughts …

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