On learning, writing, and mostly failing.
This is from Codon, my weekly newsletter. Subscribe for free.
This month marks two years of writing this newsletter. And each year, I ask myself some variation of the Hamming Question: “What are the important problems in your field, and why aren’t you working on them?”
My honest answers for biotechnology:
- Scaling biology and preventing an engineered pandemic.
- I don’t know.
This newsletter certainly doesn’t bring us closer, as a community, to tackling these important problems. My emails are merely an aggregator; I gather up links and send them away. For that reason, I often feel like this newsletter is a waste of time, and I have accordingly contemplated destroying it at least a dozen times. But maybe it has helped a scientist or two, and that will make this whole circus worthwhile.
To celebrate my two-year milestone, I am sharing a few lessons that I’ve learned while writing Codon. This is a blog about writing a blog, and so I assume it will not be interesting to many of you. But, for others, perhaps it will encourage you to share more stories and persist in your writing goals. Thanks, as always, for reading.
Lessons from Codon
Beware false idols
Nobody has to read anything that you write. There is always a new episode of The Bachelor. There is always a Formula 1 race on television. Convincing people to read your words is difficult, and the most convincing thing you can do is to be consistent (write every day) and honest (don’t hype things for clicks). The former grows an audience; the latter retains it.
Quitting is easy. I think about it all the time. It will often seem logical that you should quit — just look at all the shitty newsletters with 100,000+ subscribers! Growth can be slow-going, but it’s only possible if you actually write and hit ‘send’.
As you begin writing, resist the urge to say: “It’s only 100 subscribers.” “It’s only 1,000 subscribers.” “It’s only 10,000 subscribers.” These numbers are persuasive but misleading. Each digit is a real person who took the time to sit down and read your finely-sculpted pixels. If you reach your target audience — no matter how small it is — you have succeeded.
Twitter, Reddit, and TikTok are false idols. They represent finicky audiences, only a small fraction of whom will actually read your words. This is especially true for blogs about science. I’ve posted two of my “better” essays to Reddit, and both reached >1M impressions. But conversion rates were low; usually between 1 and 2%.
Readers cannot be bought. They cannot be faked. “Many of the things you can count, don’t count,” said Einstein. “Many of the things you can’t count, do count.”
You’re a peanut
I am a peanut; a small fry compared to STAT or The New York Times. Although comparisons are a depressing endeavor, it helps to acknowledge that 99.9% of Substack blogs — including this one — are temporary blips in a sea of emails that will approach obsolescence in <10 years.
But I think that being a peanut is good — better, even, than writing for STAT — because the smaller you are, the more freedom and liberties you can take with your writing. You can be humorous and funny and adopt counterintuitive positions, without being subject to the whims of an editor or marketing executive.
Your little blip can also make a big impact. Back in April, I edited the ~33,000-word NIH Report for New Science. These two paragraphs kicked off the introduction:
In 2006, the National Institutes of Health Reform Act passed Congress. This droll, political document established a Scientific Management Review Board within the NIH. That board — comprised of Dr. Anthony Fauci, a former Lockheed Martin CEO and high-ranking NIH officials — was tasked with issuing recommendations for NIH reform; a noble and useful purpose.
The board has not held a meeting since July 2015 and has written just eight reports in total, all of them between 2010 and 2015. The committee, staffed by high-ranking officials and with the power to identify flaws and encourage reforms in the NIH, has quietly gone defunct.
Several weeks after we published the NIH Report (by writer Matt Faherty), STAT also published a story about the NIH committee and how it had gone quiet.
Weeks later, a few members of the House of Representatives’ Committee on Energy and Commerce sent a letter to the acting NIH director, Lawrence Tabak, and asked him to explain why the panel hasn’t met in 7 years. They cited our report.
People really do read your words, and those words can have real consequences in the world.
A couple of months ago, my boss opened up Codon, turned to me, and said: “Why do you write this newsletter? It’s so boring.”
Criticism can be hard to swallow, but he was right. I had spent 7 years as a scientist, and 2 years as a science journalist. Both of these careers are notorious for their rigid dogmas and emphasis on ‘serious-ness’. My mentors always emphasized professionalism — Beware of humor! Beware of anthropomorphized text!
This training is the reason, I guess, that I adopted such a droll writing style in the early months of writing this newsletter. I wanted to remain ‘serious’ and ‘dignified,’ and I feared that humor would alienate my audience. My fears were misguided.
Blogs are beautiful because they are free and uninhibited. It was only after I injected micro-humor and took liberties with my words that my subscribers began to take off. My open rates went up. More people reached out on Twitter.
Everyone that reads your words is a person (or sentient AI). And people always enjoy drama, humor, and gossip.
Timing = Impact
The amount of energy input to write a compelling essay seems to be negatively correlated to its readership. My most popular posts — Journalists Miss on AlphaFold News and AI-Designed Enzyme Eats Plastic — were written on a whim, in less than two hours.
These “quick-turnaround” articles are good for you (and readers) because:
- They respond to ‘breaking’ news or current events, which usually means more readers and more subscribers.
- Tight deadlines tend to de-inhibit style. In writing quickly, I adopt a more conversational tone because I’m forced to rely on text-to-speech.
- They force you to consider a broader discussion. If you write about a single field for too long (as I have), it’s easy to get bogged down in details that, really, nobody but a handful of people care about. Breaking news can widen your lens, and help you to refocus on the broader context of a topic.
Hitting “Publish” is hard. Your scientific idol might read your words and dismiss them as the ramblings of an idiot.
But nobody cares about your words as much as you. If your words are bad, people will not hate you or dismiss you; they just won’t read you. And once somebody decides not to read you, it is hard to win them back.
You should be your harshest critic. Self-edit your words with a brutal and unflinching pen. Follow Stephen King’s advice (who stole the advice from Arthur Quiller-Couch):
Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.
When you believe in your words, send them. The Internet is a vast place, and your ilk is searching for you. I’ve quit this newsletter twice. Both times, I did so because I felt like my audience was not growing rapidly enough. And both times, I regretted it because it removed me from a community. Without this newsletter, does anybody in synthetic biology actually give a shit about me?
Often, the push to keep going can come from a single email. In March, as I pondered quitting again, my scientific idol sent me a message:
…I’ve really been enjoying Cell Crunch for quite some time. You are bringing all of the diverse threads of synthetic biology together in one place, with a clear, engaging writing style that is actually a pleasure to read. Even in the current, seemingly infinite, content landscape, I am not aware of anything like it.
Embrace fear, but keep going. People appreciate it.
Until next time,