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On Slow Writing

Someone recently forwarded me an essay from a blogger named Henrik Karlsson. It opens with an admission: “When I started writing online, the advice I got was to publish frequently and not overthink any single piece.”

Karlsson was not alone in receiving this suggestion. As social media erupted into cultural dominance over the past decade, it carried in its wake a force that thoroughly disrupted written media: virality. An article or post that hit the Twitter or Facebook zeitgeist just right could summon hundreds of times more readers than average. Because it was difficult to predict which pieces might ascend to this cyber-blessed state, the optimal strategy became, as Karlsson was told, to publish as much as possible, maximizing the odds that you stumble onto something sticky.

What makes Karlsson’s essay interesting, however, is that he decided to test this hypothesis on his own work. “I’ve now written 37 blog posts and I no long think this is true,” he writes. “Each time I’ve given in to my impulse to ‘optimize’ a piece it has performed massively better.”

Using new subscribers as a metric of success, Karlsson calculated more specifically that spending twice as long on an article yields, on average, more than four times the number of new subscribers.

A useful way to approximate these dynamics is to imagine plotting skill level versus the number of people producing work at that level. Roughly speaking, the more time you spend on a creative endeavor, the higher the skill level you achieve, and the higher skill level you achieve, the fewer people there are also producing at that level. Spending more time, in other words, makes your work more valuable.

They key is understanding how fast this curve falls. In my experience, in many creative endeavors, it falls fast (to be nerdy about it, at least quadratically). If you double your skill, for example, the number of people producing at your level probably falls by much more than a factor of two. This helps explain Karlsson’s results. As he spent more time optimizing his essays, the pool of competition diminished rapidly, greatly increasing the value to his potential readers. The best strategy for growing his newsletter therefore became to write the best things he was capable of crafting.

This slow publishing approach, of course, does decrease your chances of virality. But for a writer, virality is not so important anyway. The temporary attention it brings soon dissipates, while the subscribers left behind have only a tenuous connection to your efforts. Meanwhile, a more languid but regular pace of really good work is a consistent formula for steadily building an intensely loyal readership.

The good news is that recent changes to the operation and cultural positioning of social media have greatly diminished its promise of virality. More creators are awakening to something like Karlsson’s realization. Speeding up in pursuit of fleeting moments of hyper-visibility is not necessarily the path to impact. It’s in slowing down that the real magic happens.

10 thoughts on “On Slow Writing”

  1. As a writer (wannabe), this resonates with me, albeit partially.

    For instance, one motivation to publish often is not only to play the virality roulette, but to learn what works and what doesn’t. The more you publish, the more you learn about this.

    Another aspect is that being more skilful in writing doesn’t necessary equal being more impactful. I would argue that, as a writer, you still need to be impactful, because you need paid subscribers if you want to make a living independently.

    Finally, a note to myself: spending twice as much in an article doesn’t mean making it twice as long 😀

  2. THANK YOU for the permission to stop doing this… I’ve felt pushed to publish something on a blog every single day but never felt right about it. WRITING every day, yes – good. Publishing every day, not so much.

    An excellent article, as always, Cal. Looking forward to the new book – March can’t get here fast enough. (Irony?)

    – Nathan Coumbe (

  3. When a new ‘resource’ becomes available, the optimal strategy is to try to exploit it in a variety of ways, in hopes of happening upon a way of doing so that is more optimal than past efforts. For the last decades, exploiting the ‘virality of social media’ resource (or meta-resource, since virality governs growth in a resource (pageviews)), was the way forward. But we’re now getting better metrics on the magnitude of value produced, and taking a lot of lot-effort pot-shots and hoping to win by going viral looks increasingly suboptimal. Second piece is, of course, quality. Henrik Karlsson is clearly a better writer than most people on social media are capable of becoming (using a listicle as an exemplar for a social-media-attempted-virality text). But until relatively recently (patreon, paywalls) the default for monetizing content on the web was advertising. And now, following Apple’s switchover and the general revolt against cookies, the premise of increasingly precise micro-targetted of mini-demographics enabled by extremely detailed consumer personas has gone out the window. So things are pivotting back to a subscriber model, and the monetizing of that is very different. More like a Japanese boutique. Costs are low enough that it’s possible to have only a small number of superfans/patrons, and make writing pay, without needing to aggregate the huge audience necessary to be attractive to advertisers. With small audiences, content can be highly specialized (ie para-olympic judoka), while still producing enough revenue to make the writing worthwhile. The historic alternate to the subscriber model, of accumulating a huge audiences, and then using machine-learning driven algorithms to show people things they kind of like generates very generic content, and also a lot of ‘outrage porn’ (as both outrage and controversy drive engagement). Tangentially, churches can be thought to operate on a subscriber model–there are a few mega-churches, but the overwhelming majority are mom-and-pop shops with one provides matched to a local market. Difference with online is that there is no ‘local’ market (excepting those created by languages/firewalls), so the ‘range’ of people to draw from is very large, making it very possible for even very niche business to meet the threshold revenue necessary to survive.

  4. I’m glad we are moving beyond virality in publishing. Given that AI can now outproduce any writer, I think the old strategy of throwing quantities of junk out there and hoping a few choice comments or headlines will spark a debate on Twitter is dead.

    Personally I always try to stick by the mantra of write every day, but publish more rarely. Writing often helps me improve my skill and shapes my ideas, but I think most of what I write is not worth publishing. But by doing this I do find the good stuff, and that’s when I focus on optimising.

  5. I produce prose. I do not produce content. My newsletter has 182 readers. I would love 1000x that, but only if 182,000 find what I write meaningful.

    Many years ago, I had a blog. One Monday morning, my numbers skyrocketed, which made no sense, so I investigated. What had happened was a convergence. At some point I had written a post about the writer Janet Malcolm. At another point, I had written a post that included the word “breast.” Then, this: The day before my metrics soared, Justin Timberlake bared Janet Jackson’s breast during the Super Bowl halftime show. So that burgeoning readership? All from Google searches for “Janet Jackson’s breast.” I suspect they did not turn into readers. I suspect they glanced at the link to my blog and said, “Who the fuck is Janet Malcolm”

    I taught writing at Johns Hopkins University for about nine years. I always told my young undergraduates, “Write like you mean it.” If that secures an audience of less than 200, well, at the end of the day I don’t care because I meant what I wrote.

  6. I’ve been writing One Good Fiction Short Story a month for over two years.
    Sometimes it takes me a week, most times it takes the entire month.

    Sometimes I have to start over at least once, sometimes two or three times before I have a story I can finish.
    Most of my stories run at least a thousand words, sometimes as much as three to four thousand words. So they’re not a short quick read.

    I try to focus on putting out good and interesting fiction stories regularly.
    I don’t put out content just to put something out there to feed a machine or algorithm.

    Ideally, I try to write every day.
    But I don’t always make it.
    When I do put something out, it is my best work.

    Kenneth Lawson

  7. Which is why the h-index is such a useful tool for assessing academic performance.

    And the UK’s research assessment is based on each academic’s 5 chosen publications over the assessment period (usually 5 years). Nothing else is even reported.

  8. I learned (and mastered) a difficult craft of mixing (dance) music back in the late 80’s. (As in for clubs)
    It was a rare and valuable skill- taking two different records and beat for beat mixing them, at the proper time, with tracks that had similar cords and vibes to create one long “story”.
    Because it was difficult- and had a lot of resistance until success, I enjoyed it.
    It was called Dj’ing. I passed out curated casettes.

    Today the record is an mp3 and the digital equipment has a SYNC button to match beats.
    Now, everyone is a “DJ”.
    And there are literally millions of pulished mixes on hundreds of websites.
    When I get behind these modern decks, the modern DJ marvels…wow – you can beat match by ear? no SYNC button or assistance?

    As I (re) start my blog to book project, Im inspired by articles like this!
    Im far from an excellent writer. But my slow approach , post by slow post
    may just mimick my past DJ journey.
    Maybe in the future the hip and distracted social media “creator” will say wow – you wrote actual articles with out AI ? You got reads with no Social media accts?

  9. I like this. I’m slow in general. But there is something to be said about good writing. And good writing takes time. There is also sooooo much content out there. I’d rather spend my time reading content that is meaningful, productive and well written, then just something someone slapped up there for eyeballs.

  10. Depends on what kind of audience you get with this “virality”.
    When you dig deep into an issue with your writings, you may get less likes/shares but you reach a more qualified audience, the kind of which is more interested in your expertise.
    You fit in that category with your blog Cal.


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