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Writing online is a serendipity engine

My life fell apart in 2020, but this blog—and the people it introduced me to—saved my life. This is the story of what happened to me, and how the internet could do the same for you.

"I read your blog post and immediately thought, "we need to hire this person."

This was a Twitter DM I got in December 2020. It completely changed my life.

In January of that same year, things had been going well. But by April, they were fucked. My relationship with my then girlfriend, my source of income (I used to photograph weddings), and my sense of purpose—it had all blown up.


My existence had, it turned out, depended on me "being in places to do things." (What a loser!) With lockdown, my world and my agency had shrunk to the limits of my apartment's four walls. I became depressed, and had a hard time getting out of bed most days. In short: it sucked, and I'm lucky I'm still around.

But with all that time on my hands, I still had the itch to do something. For some long-forgotten reason I decided to write, every day, at least 1000 words. At first, the whole point was to stop me from going totally insane. And it worked! Good. Achievement unlocked.

But after a while I wondered: shouldn't all this writing be going somewhere? If it all stayed on my laptop and never went any further, I had a few hunches about how things would play out:

  • I'd write less
  • I'd write worse
  • I'd write without purpose

So, using a modicum of web development knowledge (HTML and CSS  from Freecodecamp), a Webflow account, and all that abundant spare time, I took an old website I'd been using for personal photography projects and turned it into this blog.

After a short while of only friends and family reading, I eventually hit the jackpot with a blog post about my time at a flat earth conference. And then it happened again, this time with a blog about gift-giving.

Then things got really interesting.

Writing online means people you've never met will know you exist

Not long after the blog post about gift-giving took off, I got that message I mentioned at the top.

"I found and read some of your articles and loved them and your writing style. I wondered if you'd be interested in doing some work for us?"

Halie worked for a company in an industry that I'd never heard about and could barely understand. It turned out that the world of life science laboratory automation needed at least one writer, and they wanted to know if I could write for them. Knowing nothing about the subject matter, my automatic answer was, "yes, absolutely, I need the money."

(I didn't say the last bit out loud, though.)

Weeks later, and after a brief interview with CEO Dhash, I got to work. I began learning about an entirely new industry, started cobbling together a rudimentary understanding of "computational biology", and spent almost all of my time asking dumb questions like "what does this mean" and "how does this work."

It was fun! And it paid off: before long, I had named their products, planned out and wrote all the copy for their new website, briefed the (fantastic) graphic designer/web developer (my now very good friend Luca who made the current version of this site), and then wrote a good chunk of their sales material. Within a few months we had a brand new website up and running.

None of this would have happened if I hadn't been writing online.

At the human interaction level, the internet is a way to vector words into other people's brains. My words got into a bunch of brains with a couple of hit posts, and one of those brains went "ah, this is useful" to the point that they wanted to give me money. And thank fuck it did.

If I hadn't had that blog post, and all the others, available to read? No connection, no DM, no job. Consider this:

  • The job role was never posted anywhere, so I could never have applied
  • I'd never heard of the industry let alone the company, so I could never have searched for it
  • There was no need to "prove" my writing credentials, my blog already qualified me

I didn't even produce a resumé for the process. Which reminds me...

Writing online is a body of work others can understand you by

Not long after my first year working at Radix, I got another DM. This time on LinkedIn:

"Hi Will, I stumbled upon your profile while admiring copy on Radix's website."

It was a message from my soon-to-be boss and VP of Marketing, Edita, working at a startup in the same industry. It was similar to my previous role, but promised greater opportunity to learn and more resources to work with. At Radix I had been the only fish in a small pond. At Synthace I would be a smaller fish, but in a pond filled to the brim with scientists and other experienced marketers.

My decision to move companies was difficult, but correct. It offered a greater chance to learn and do more of what I enjoyed: trying to understand complicated things, then writing about them.

The trail of writing I had left online was by this point a kind of resumé sprawling across the internet. This blog, the Radix website, even my wedding photography website all pointed towards something I apparently had a knack for: writing stuff and putting it on the internet in a way that other people could connect with.

But here's the thing—writing isn't just for the readers. It changes the writer, too.

Writing online helps you think with greater clarity

I'm sure there are studies about this, but here's the anecdotal newsflash: the more I write about something, the better I understand it. The act of arranging words in an order that others are likely to read and understand has a way of sharpening my thoughts in a way that "just thinking about it" could never do.

I've long had a preference for writing about things I don't really understand, but want to understand anyway. Why would anyone want to go to a flat earth conference? What does it take to actually buy a gift that someone would really want? Why did the internet seem to fill up with weird, sales-y gurus over the last decade? What the hell is lab automation and why does it matter to the life sciences? The usual stuff.

It's easy to write thousands of words on a topic and meander, conversationally, from thought to thought. Nobody wants to read that, though. But when you're writing for an audience (or, at least, the idea of one), you're forced to write with clarity. You create structure. You pick headings. You put sentences in bold.

That's powerful.

Yes: it can be useful and interesting for other people

This is the obvious point that gets beaten to death. Yes, you probably know something that somebody else wants to know. Yes, your content could help them. Yes, they might like to read it. Usually, this argument is made by people convincing budding "content creators" to make money from the exercise. You know the formula: make content, grow audience, ????, profit!

But this has always felt kind of boring because it's such a direct approach. What about exploring your own curiosity and doing strange and creative things as well? Cool stuff can happen along the way.

Does a massive essay about online gurus offer some direct steps for someone to do something right now, today? Nope. But does it help them understand how one of their family members got sucked into an MLM, or spent thousands of dollars on a Tony Robbins seminar for no apparent reason? Maybe. I published that article to a dribbling squeak of zero fanfare... but it's slowly become my most shared article ever, driving a steady stream of traffic.

Not everything we do in the world has to have an obvious, direct connection to some kind of profit. That flavour of "hustle" is usually dull and, ironically, often less profitable in the long run anyway.

Welcome to the internet: a humming serendipity engine

I made my first website because I wanted to be a photographer. No website? Nowhere to see your portfolio. Nowhere to see your portfolio? No work. The same is true for every self-employed/business owner I've ever known. For them, having a website is table stakes.

None of my friends with "ordinary jobs" have one though. And I get it—it's a lot of work to build one and make stuff to go on it. But I often wish they did! I wonder whether their lives would be different, filled with unexpected opportunities, serendipitous encounters, cool shit that they might otherwise not have done.

And listen, for the avoidance of all doubt the hero of this story isn't me, it's the internet. I didn't do anything particularly noteworthy, I just yeeted stuff online and then got very, very lucky because the right series of tubes got connected. But even if the result isn't something as dramatic as life-changing DMs falling from the sky, there's nothing but upside:

  1. Be seen: let serendipity do its thing
  2. Build a body of work: something you can point at and say "I did that"
  3. Improve your thinking: thoughts, when written down, get a lot clearer
  4. Help others: it goes both ways, which is a great bonus

It doesn't have to be writing, either. It could be YouTube videos, it could be TikToks, it could be tweets, it could be short poems, drawings, photos, a newsletter. And yes, it could be direct and focused in a niche for profit. I don't really care.

What I care about is: do you have something that can be found? Can other people interact with it, even passively? Can you think about it, and can it make you think in different ways? Can you use it to help others?

It's not the end of the world if you don't. But damn... what if you did?

More of this, but in your inbox.

I write a newsletter about the internet. It's called Internet Connection. There's a few hundred of us that fall down the rabbit hole every other week. Want to come along for the ride? Drop your email below.

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