Tom Critchlow, freelance strategy consultant, blogger, and author of the Little Futures newsletter, joins Stew Fortier to discuss networked writing, the importance of crafting a distinctive writing style, and the internal rewards of thinking in public.
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In many ways, one of the worst things to happen to the internet is web analytics.
“We can measure clicks. We can measure website hits. But we can't measure influence. I think a lot of people, when they think about creating work publicly and thinking in public, they think about building a large audience. I'd love to reframe that for everyone. You don't need a large audience. What you need is a small network of trusted people.”
2. Embrace “blogpunk” by developing a distinctive writing style.
Tom encourages fellow writers to find their own distinctive writing style.
“There's no point in being visible if you're not memorable. There are lots of ways to be distinctive. Distinctive is both visual style, but also writing style, or even website style. A distinctive presence in the network will attract attention, not just clicks, and you will feel genuine while you’re doing it.”
3. Questions can be more valuable than answers.
As a freelance strategist, Tom understands that his work is as much about asking the right questions as it is about finding the answers.
“Executives want to find sparring partners, not solution vendors. Show executives that you obsess over the same problems they do.”
Tom believes thinking in public is the best way to do this. “You could happily reframe ‘thinking in public,’ purely as ‘being curious in public.’”
This may seem risky at first, but the rewards are well worth it. “This stance is actually incredibly powerful because it allows executives and clients to see themselves reflected in you. You aren’t somebody that has the answers, but somebody who is also wrestling with the same questions that they’re wrestling with.”
4. “Release, reference, rework.”
The process of thinking out loud doesn’t happen overnight. Tom acknowledges that the secret to producing good work involves:
1. Writing prolifically
2. Building upon your own writing over time
3. Having the humility to go back and revise your work as necessary
“Ben Thompson is really great at doing this. He obviously produces output all the time, and he references and reworks his own ideas a lot. Let’s look at his Aggregation Theory, which is one of his most popular theories out there. If you came across it fresh, you might think, ‘Wow, he really came out with this theory out of nowhere.’ Yet when you dig under the surface, he's actually been writing about Aggregation Theory in all of these different ways again and again, refining the idea, until eventually he stumbled upon both a great frame and label for what it was. So now it's what he's known for, but it didn't come out of nowhere. It came out of releasing work, often referencing those ideas together, and continuously reworking those ideas.”
5. Show, don’t tell.
Tom encourages writers to avoid generic “how-to” content and instead focus on contextual content from real-life experiences. “Preaching is bad. Telling people you’re an expert sucks. Instead, show them the sawdust - the byproduct of doing the work.”
Rather than publish an article with a generic title like How to Run Online Workshops, Tom would write with specificity around how he runs his workshops and share from experience rather than be overly-prescriptive.
“It’s a very small reframing, but it frees you up to include screenshots of your own work, Google Doc templates, and other contextual real-life content. It invites this kind of inquiry and open ended discourse, but at the same time, still positions you as somebody who actually knows how to run your own workshops. I do that a lot in my own work.”
6. The internal rewards can be even greater than the external ones.
Critchlow believes that the process of thinking in public can lead to three highly-valuable internal rewards, specifically:
1) Minimal viable expertise
2) Network building
3) Exploring new identities
Writing online fosters minimal viable expertise, Tom explains. “If you've actually rolled up your sleeves and sent an email using MailChimp or Substack or used Google Analytics on your own website, it actually gives you this kind of tacit knowledge that can set you apart from other people, maybe even the executive clients you're working with, who haven't actually done the work.”
While Tom admits that it seems obvious, blogging and thinking in public has the capacity to significantly strengthen your network. Multiple studies have shown that being in an open network instead of a closed one is the best predictor of career success. He continues, “So not only is building a network valuable to your job success, but it is also valuable for getting better jobs in the future and earning more money over the long run.”
Finally, writing is a fantastic way to explore your own personal and professional identity. “I think blogging and writing online is one of the lowest stakes ways to reinvent your identity. Through reinvestment, I think we invent the very foundations of who you are."