On Writing and Authenticity

How I learned to stop worrying and write better

At 34 I finally started writing like I spoke. I know there are loads of books and articles that talk about writing simply and clearly. The guy who wrote Dilbert has a good article on that someone on the Internet so Google it. (Editors note: the day you become a better writer) Now I know i’m not good, but I defo think I’m getting better. Why was my writing so bad if I basically wrote for a living? Also why was my writing so bad when so much good advice was out there waiting for me? Good questions.

I remember at University a lot of feedback on my essays could be placed under the broad heading “flowery”. Apparently my language was too “flowery” which I love as feedback btw. For essays on the impact of Thatcherism on the Third Way “Movement” or the breakup of the former Yugoslavia this makes a ton of sense. So there I am getting some naughty 2:2s and I figure, best remove all verbs and adverbs and anything interesting from my writing. My essay of the causes of the Rwandan genocide was definately the better for it.

Next up I’m writing some basic policy briefs during an internship I did in Parliament. “The Minister has no time to read this bullshit” and “Why are you handing me your life story?” I fixed up and looked smart pretty quickly into my career. I can write a deadly précis if you held a gun to my head to this day. What happened? Why is it important? What do I need to do? You won’t find an adjective though. God help me if you find an adjective. At this point, I am summarizing evidence and information. I am certainly not giving an opinion. I would imagine that’s how most people of my age came up.

So my writing is super boring BUT very clever now. So I win right? Wrong. Next I have to make it even more boring so that I don’t say anything controversial. Back in the heady days of 2011, I was working at the research firm, Frost & Sullivan, and wrote a memo about the Microsoft acquisition of Nokia titled: “Two turkeys don’t make an eagle” which I believe was actually a tweet from a Google VP. But this tone of voice wasn’t brand consistent. Basically the memo said it was a shit acquisition probably because I was copying Ben Thompson’s analysis. I think we went with “Microsoft acquires Nokia, what next?” Which we probably could have pitched to Buzzfeed at the time. At Frost, I learned not to have an opinion. Actually false. My opinion was the least controversial one. I spoke in CAGRs and disruption.

Then when I joined Jamie and Aron at Outlier Ventures back in 2016, I began to inch back into the water of opinion. Come in the water’s warm Jamie said after “99% of blockchain startups are bullshit”. But it’s hard to unlearn stuff. I mean I know that my writing style is too academic and boring, but it’s hard to actually change that. There is a lot of muscle memory in how you write. Sure I tweaked a few headlines: “5 Things You Need To Know”, “Why Everything You Know About x is Wrong” but it felt wrong and dirty like listening to Taylor Swift. The thing if she continues to do songs with the National and Bon Iver, I’m gonna listen to it. How is that my fault? Take it up with Aaron and Justin. Anyway… I read all this stuff about how you need to have an authentic voice and write like you speak, but I just couldn’t do it well (using Grammarly and Hemingway makes the situation worse).

All artists and writers talk about “finding their voice” and I never really understood it. I have this idea of “professional” me over on Linkedin with my smart trainers on. Saying things like “second-order consequences” and “long-term implications” but I don’t talk like that. I’m from Essex. My dad 100% says things like “apples and pears” and “bees and honey”. When I did my first internship at Reform, a think-tank, I didn’t have any work shirts and so wore a black “going out” shirt. Also early in my career it was suggested I might need elocution lessons because of my Essex accent. So there is something deep rooted in me trying to extra professional. But you know what? Who cares now? I’m 34 with 2 kids. Maybe now I will just “do me”. This isn’t a lesson kids “born on the Internet” have to learn. They have to do the opposite. They have to learn how (and why) to write emails and other types of business comms. They are comfortable and confident being themselves online. They have never had to sacrifice their voice at the alter of the company brand.

So over the past few months I have started just writing and not publishing anything. It started as just journalling because I read that can make you happier. I now force myself to just sit down at the keyboard and write. No internet and no edits. The editing process so far needs to be really light so I don’t overthink things (Excuse the tymos, lol). Like Garth Marenghi says “All I do, is sit down at the typewriter, and start hittin’ the keys. Getting them in the right order, that’s the trick. That’s the trick.” (I googled the exact quote in the edit).

So far the writing has been much more enjoyable process. It’s not a hard slog like I have found some pieces in the past. I’ve got a privacy-enhancing technologies piece coming out soon, which as much as I love the subject of privacy, was really tough meat. But to be fair to me it’s hard to be irreverent when it comes to zero-knowledge proofs and multi-party computation. Although there are plently of gags for fully homomorphic encryption so that saves the paper imo.

Finally, and in conclusion, I really struggle to end blogs. I am used to summarising the key points of the argument. How does one end a stream of consciousness, I guess I’m supposed to stop writin…

Peace and love

P.S. I read this and it was cool: Some Thoughts on 2050 and Beyond