Adam Caudill

Security Engineer, Researcher, & Developer

Write Like You Are Running Out of Time

The cultural phenomenon that is Hamilton, brought back to the forefront due to its streaming release, is an artistic feat, but it also serves as an opportunity to refresh our memories on the history behind these characters, and look for opportunities to learn lessons that apply today. This is exactly what I’ve been doing.

For all of his flaws, one thing that I have to respect about Alexander Hamilton (as well as his wife, Eliza) is the understanding of the long-term impact of the written word. Many things fade as the years go on, though few things will last as long, or can be so easily preserved as what you write.

In the play, Hamilton is referred to as someone that is writing like he was running out of time – and history does support that he was a prolific writer. This is a good (though unpleasant) reminder that in reality, we are all running out of time. We each only have a certain (and certainly unknown) amount of time left, we should all apply a certain amount of wisdom to how we use that time.

Of Keystrokes and the ultimate deadline

There are a finite number of keystrokes left in your hands before you die. – Scott Hanselman

If you dedicate much of your time to writing, you may have hundreds of millions of words left that you could write, or tens of millions, or you could, as a couple of my friends have, discover very suddenly that it’s only tens of thousands. There is a finite number of keystrokes left for each of us, and each minute, hour, day, month, year that goes by, that number inexorably drops.

Given that most of us don’t spend 6-8 hours a day writing, the real number of words we will actually write is far lower, and thus those words that we do produce become so much more important.

This is a sad thought, but one that we should acknowledge for a variety of reasons:

  • No matter how much you try, there’s only so much knowledge you can communicate.
  • Every tweet, email, blog post, or document consumes some of those limited keystrokes. Is that the best use of those words, is it the best venue, the best way to make that knowledge useful to the future?
  • Is a reply worth it? Could that effort be better used?
  • When deciding what to write, is it the best, most useful thing to write about?
  • When these words are read in 1 year, 5 years, 10 years, 20 years, what will it say about you?

Few things have the potential to live as long as what you write; how you’re remembered may well be defined by the words you leave behind.

Vast Knowledge, Doomed To Nothingness

Many of us that work in technology write in huge quantities, though much is in the form of emails that will eventually be deleted or lost, in internal systems that will never be seen by the outside world, or will eventually be lost as companies close or systems are lost or retired. Too much of the knowledge that we document, and the insights that we share are seen but by a very few.

Most of the words that we write are doomed to be lost. In the vast quantity of knowledge that is committed to the written word every year, so much is lost, forgotten, deleted, and slips out of existence. No matter the value to the future, the insight it could provide, the aid it could provide, it’s locked away in systems that have a limited life and will eventually be gone. Every year, a vast quantity of documented knowledge slips away into nothingness.

Humanity generates an unimaginably vast amount of knowledge every year, yet every year the knowledge lost to humanity is also truly vast.

Finding relevance over the years

As technologists, many of our words have a half-life – as time goes on, their relevance diminishes. A lengthy and well thought out discussion over Slack likely has a half-life of minutes, maybe hours. A debate over technology via email with a coworker? Its half-life is hours to days. Looking at the traffic to this site, the most popular technology-specific article has a half-life of roughly 9 months – every 9 months or so, the number of hits that it gets drops by half. Every day, the carefully crafted words, the deeply thoughtful ideas become less and less valuable.

Some things, though, have a half-life of years; these are the things that continue to matter not just year after year, but one decade to the next.

Venue

One key to writing for long-term value is the choice of venue. Some venues work well, and others are doomed from the start – there’s no chance of it surviving or having much value in the years to come.

  • Twitter can be fun (when it’s not awful), but between the short format and the minuscule attention span, it’s a terrible place to write.
  • Slack & Discord are the same; no matter how much thought and care you put into something, it’ll disappear in the mass of other content and be lost.
  • Email, it depends – email within a company is doomed to a short half-life and doomed to be lost sooner or later.
  • Email mailing lists and the like are better, in at least there’s a chance that it’ll be preserved and could be found in the future. However, it’s so easy to be lost in the noise, and so likely that it’ll be so difficult to find that it won’t actually provide that much value.
  • Blogs can be good, but so many come and go that they aren’t seen as stable in general. Accounts get deleted, servers go down, backups are lost, domains expire, and their owners pass away. For example, this blog has been running (on this domain) for 15 years, but how long will it continue should something happen to me?
  • Academic and industry journals are useful for some content, but only a small portion of what we write during our lives fits this venue’s very specific requirements.
  • Books are certainly preserved the longest, but they also require a huge amount of work, generally quite focused, and also most technical books have a clear and limited half-life.

These are, of course, just a few examples, there are various others, each with their own pros & cons. There are a variety of services that host public & less public content, though those may close, suffer a data loss, and may or may not be preserved for the future.

When writing, ask yourself which venues are available (obviously things that are work-related have a different list of options), of those, which have the best long term value, and can you use a hybrid approach, writing the content with the most long-term value in one venue and reference that from a shorter-term venue. There have been times that I have written on this blog or a corporate blog, just to support an email – making as much of the valuable content public and useful to others.

Content

Writing about ideas, concepts, problems & their solutions have much more value as the years go on than writing about specific technologies, or even worse, specific versions of a product. While writing that has only short-term use (such as about a version of a product) can be very valuable, but the useful lifespan diminishes quickly; within a year or two, it may be entirely irrelevant. Much ink (or today, electrons) have been spilled on writing for relevance, so I’ll not belabor the point here – I’ll simply say that the words you write that offer the most value are those most focused on high-level issues and ideas, and least on technical options or solutions.

Tomorrow comes, ready or not

It’s so easy to put off to tomorrow what could be done today, and then again, and again. Each delay means that many keystrokes have been lost, words that could have been written, now the opportunity lost and will never be written. We each have a chance to write a legacy that can be remembered for years. It’s up to us to take it.

Adam Caudill