#20 | Keep It Simple, Stupid

There are these two young fish swimming along

And they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way

Who nods at them and says

“Morning, boys. How’s the water?”

And the two young fish swim on for a bit

And then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes

“What the hell is water?”

This is Water by David Foster Wallace

At the core of every enduring SEO strategy is *great* writing.

But overtime, writing becomes such an obvious and immersive part of the content process, that it begins to hide in plain sight.

I think that’s why there is such asymmetry in the blogging advice we encounter.

We’ll optimize our images, page speed, site structure and a whole slew of other factors, long before we consider leveling up our writing.

One of the best ways to quickly evolve your writing style is to aggressively consume the work of those who do it best.

And few do it better than Paul Graham.

Graham is most known for co-founding Y Combinator, a startup accelerator that launched Stripe, Instacart, Airbnb and countless other successful companies.

But, as it turns out, Graham is also a prolific writer.

Recently, I’ve made a concerted effort to read (and often re-read) his work.

For over 20 years he has been publishing essays on his personal blog.

According to Graham:

“An essay doesn’t begin with a statement, but with a question. In a real essay, you don’t take a position and defend it. You notice a door that’s ajar, and you open it and walk in to see what’s inside.”

His content covers just about every facet of life. But I find myself feeling the topics of his essays are of little importance.

First, because the point of this exercise is to absorb his writing style, not his opinions (although he has some great ones).

Second, he’s such a gifted writer that he can hold your interest while covering even the most benign topic.

So don’t let any title of his essays deter you. There are lessons to be learned in all of them.

That said, a fair bit of his content covers the importance of writing and how to do it well.

Here are a few Paul Graham quotes I now try (and admittedly often fail) to keep front of mind whenever I write:

1. “You don’t need complex sentences to express complex ideas.”

2. “I try to write using ordinary words and simple sentences. That kind of writing is easier to read, and the easier something is to read, the more deeply readers will engage with it. The less energy they expend on your prose, the more they’ll have left for your ideas.”

3. “Putting ideas into words is a severe test. The first words you choose are usually wrong; you have to rewrite sentences over and over to get them exactly right.”

4. “Writing doesn’t just communicate ideas; it generates them.”

5. ”You can’t think well without writing well, and you can’t write well without reading well.”

Reader Note: These quotes have been updated since the original newsletter was sent on July 14, 2023. For additional background, check out our July 28, 2023 edition.

A common theme here is that in order to write well, you need to unlearn most of what you were taught about writing in school.

Graham points out that many of the titles and authors you read during college are deeply challenging to get through. As if bonus points are given when readers need to pick up the dictionary multiple times a page.

But *most* of us hate to read that kind of content. It’s dense…and it’s exhausting.

If you’re writing for the masses, write to be understood.

In my own personal experience, I’ve found this unraveling of past misguidance to be a fairly quick and painless process.

That’s not to say that I’m anywhere near where I want to be. But in a relatively short period of time, I’m a hell of a lot closer.

I’ve held roles in the biotech space that required highly technical writing. For five years my job was to write two, ten page technical reports a week.

It’s embarrassing to look back on now, but I would go out of my way to make my reports sound more sophisticated. Often that meant writing walls of text and using words I barely understood.

Another exceptional entrepreneur (and writer), Naval Ravikant, once said, “It is the mark of a charlatan to explain a simple concept in a complex way.”

As I begin to lay out the content for my new niche site, this resonates with me now more than ever.

I know, I know…that’s a lot of words to say “Keep it simple, stupid.”

Have a weekend! ✌️


Keith & Mike in 2014 (San Diego)
In honor of Mike and I turning 33 yesterday…here’s a pic of us from 2014 😅

mike keith always be publishing

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