Just because you write it, that doesn’t mean they’ll read it

A fountain pen writing with black ink on ruled notebook paper.

This post is part of a writing advice series. Writing clearly is one of the most important — and overlooked — skills.

The first seven posts in this series were all about how you can improve your written communication. After all, that’s a key part of working in an open source community — or any other distributed organization. But I have bad news: all of that effort might go unnoticed. We’ve known this since at least the 12th century: you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.

Why won’t they read it?

It’s probably not because they hate you. People have many reasons they don’t read what you write, even if they really, really should. Perhaps the biggest reason is that they don’t know it exists. The horse was never led to the water. Are you putting the writing in a place that people know to look? (Whether or not they should know to look there is a separate question.)

It could also just be that they’re busy. Keeping up with every single conversation in an open source project is nigh impossible even when that’s all you do. In chapter 3 of Program Management for Open Source Projects, I suggest having a low-volume announcement channel that all contributors are expected to subscribe to. This helps highlight the really important information. It’s also why the “put the important stuff at the top” advice in “Stop writing like an engineer” matters.

So why bother?

Just because some people won’t read some of what you wrote, that doesn’t mean everyone will never read what you wrote. Write for those who will read it, not for those who won’t.

Of course, depending on what it is that you’re writing, the reading doesn’t need to come right away. A decade ago, I wrote a post about how I fixed an issue with my inkjet printer. It got very few views at the time. But ten years on, it’s still getting a few views each month. More importantly, I’ve heard from plenty of strangers who found the post and said it helped them with their printer. The impact has a long tail.

Similarly, sometimes it helps to have something written down because you know you’re going to say it again later. It’s so much easier to share a link to something you’ve written when the topic comes up months later than to type your thoughts out a second time. Even though I struggle with self promotion, I’ve found lots of opportunities to say “this reminds me of something I wrote” in a comment on social media or an email thread.

Finally, it’s good practice. Even if no one reads it, the act of writing helps you focus your thoughts. The more you do it, the better you get. So lead that horse to water and see what happens!

This post’s featured photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash.

Ben formerly led open source messaging at Docker and was the Fedora Program Manager. He is the author of Program Management for Open Source Projects. Ben is an Open Organization Ambassador and frequent conference speaker. His personal website is Funnel Fiasco.


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