The effect of internet comments on my confidence

No practical advice this time, just a story about Hacker News comments and me

After one year and two months, I am back writing new content for the Writing for Developers newsletter. Although, not a tip on written communication this time. Today you will read a long, less practical, and more rambling text than usual, as I will address this hiatus and unconfidently write about the effect of confidence in my writing.

It all started with a rude, but correct comment about one of my texts. The comment was “I don't think I'll be taking writing advice from a site whose publisher thinks "certificated" is a word.“. That was the last straw that broke my confidence, and I decided to stop working on Writing for Developers.

Fourteen months later, I mentioned the above on a Hacker News thread (here) about the elucidative post “Writing is Thinking: Learning to Write with Confidence.” My comment got much more attention than I expected, with a lot of people being very nice and supportive. This gave me enough confidence to resume working on Writing for Developers.

This is a summary of what happened, why I left, and why I’m back, but there is a lot to talk about the word that I used in a deceptively casual way.

What I talk about when I talk about confidence

The confidence required to write a newsletter in English about writing encompasses several dimensions. The confidence that I am good enough at written communication myself. The confidence that I have something useful to say to others about it. The confidence that I can do that in English. The confidence that there are enough people interested in what I have to say in the form that I say it. As an amalgam of all that, the confidence that I can earn people’s trust in my writing advice.

I always had a healthy level of confidence in my writing in Portuguese. In the exam that got me into the Engineering school, my best grade was on the Portuguese Language discipline. When I got my first job as a software developer, I recurrently received very positive feedback on my communication skills, in particular, written communication. Keep in mind that I never had enough confidence to pursue a career as a writer or even call myself a writer. That is something that I do intend to try someday, experimenting in fiction probably, but what I am talking about here is writing as a communication tool in a professional environment.

I gradually transferred all that confidence, perhaps undeservedly, to my writings in English. Up to three months ago, for the first 39 years of my life, I had spent a total of 14 days in an English speaking country. My knowledge of the language comes from taking English courses in Brazil, watching TV shows with closed caption, reading books and blog posts, and writing in Hacker News.

That's all we have, finally, the words, and they had better be the right ones.
― Raymond Carver

Letting reality affect my confidence

By the time I decided to start Writing for Developers, I saw myself as very good at written communication and good enough at writing in English. What changed with time was my perception of how good is good enough to write a newsletter in English.
Worth noting that the mere existence of Substack was a decisive factor in starting this newsletter. It would give me both the blog hosting and the email sending services off-the-shelf, for free, as well as the infrastructure in place to eventually make it a business if there was enough interest. I had doubts about the success of this venture, for sure, but it was easy enough to get started.

From March to August 2018, I wrote 24 posts. After publishing, I would post them on Hacker News and Reddit. The typical result was no interest at all in those platforms, with some occasional lukewarm reception. At the same time, every time the posts got a little visibility, I would see some new subscribers trickling in. They would not upvote or comment on the posts but would subscribe to my newsletter. My conclusion for this is that the topic that I was talking about was important for some people, but my content still wasn’t good enough.

During this time, I got a couple of private messages with very nice, well-intended, and supportive negative feedback about errors in my writing. Always the same thing, a grammar or orthography error (not a typo) that would not detract from the main message. I always thought of my advice as being language-agnostic, but I think it is fair to take knowledge of the language as a proxy for the trustworthiness of writing advice.

Another characteristic that I’ve always known to be part of my texts is tough to avoid as a non-native English speaking: weird phrasing. Sentences that are not wrong, they are just weirdly constructed. This usually comes from the inescapable fact that I am mostly thinking in Portuguese. Not having ever lived in an English speaking country, I never developed an intuition of what sounds pleasant to the ear.

By then, my confidence was very low in two of the dimensions: that I could write a newsletter in English and that I could earn people’s trust. The comment about “certificated” certified this perception. I would still post a few texts that were already in the oven and then stopped.

My confidence that I am good at written communication and that I can help other people improve in this skill remains unshaken. That confidence comes from real-life events, but I was not getting enough feedback that I could translate it to the digital world. The decision to stop posting new texts was not yet definitive; it was an experiment. I would use it to adjust my level of confidence in another dimension, maybe the most important one: the confidence that people would be interested in what I have to say. I was curious if someone would notice that the posts stopped coming.

Never got a word about it from anyone. If someone noticed, they didn’t care enough to get in touch. I saw it as a validation that I wasn’t generating enough value. The experiment was over, and now I had a definitive decision — not that definitive, as we know now. With very low confidence that I could write a newsletter in English, that people would be interested in what I have to say, that I could earn people’s trust, I quit. I was very comfortable with that decision, to be honest. I never thought about it again until I saw a post on Hacker News about writing and confidence and decided to share my experience.

Not all that confident, but confident enough

My comment got more upvotes than the sum of all of my Writing for Developers posts on HN. I don’t know what that means, maybe nothing. The effect it had is clear, though. Most of the comments were very supportive, and it inspired me to revive this newsletter. I do think I have more to say about writing, but also I feel as I owe something for all those replies and new subscribers.

A lot of comments were saying that I was technically correct — “certificated” is a word, which I read as supportive but could just be interpreted more matter-of-factly. I do agree with it from a linguistics point of view. Still, I think the comment was right in its spirit, meaning that it is a word not commonly used, and I initially wrote it that way just because I was thinking of an English version of the word in Portuguese, not because I knew what I was doing. I immediately corrected my text to “certified” after the comment.

Another angle present in several comments was about how a single mistake should not affect the reader’s perception of the value of my message. I wholeheartedly agree with that. I said before that it is fair to consider grammar correctness as a proxy for the value of writing advice. I do think it is fair, but still, it is just a proxy. It is better to evaluate the usefulness of the advice by itself, with all the context. In my case, imperfect grammar is a consequence of not being a native speaker, nor a sign of a lack of care about the language. The written communication tips that I give, in most cases, are more related to culture and human behavior than specific language syntax. Still, if a lot of people, right or wrong, equal those two things, grammar mistakes, and bad writing advice, it will be hard to convince them to give me a chance.

What changed my mind and increased the level of confidence that I could write a newsletter in English was a very insightful comment that having expectations aligned matters a lot. If the reader knows that I am not a native speaker, nor claim to have the fluency of one — and I restrain myself from advising on the English language itself and keep it to communication as a broader topic, expectations are aligned. That’s why I changed my newsletter description to mention that I am not a native English speaker, as well as not a professional writer. So the readers know they should take that for what it’s worth.

Others recommended me getting an editor. I think it would be great, but I definitely would want to pay a fair price for their work, and that’s not possible in my current financial situation and the newsletter's current revenue (which is $0).

Finally, I got a lot of new subscribers from that comment. I don’t think that was just sympathy because someone was rude to me on the internet (that’s what upvotes are for). I do believe they took a look at some of my old posts and got some value from it — or at least expected to get some value in the future. I hope to be worthy of their trust.

So, with the upfront disclaimer that I am not a native English speaker, my level of confidence that I can write a newsletter in English is back to acceptable levels. The supportive comments on HN convinced me that I could earn people’s trust in my advice despite the occasional mistakes. The flow of new subscribers showed that some people are interested in what I have to say.

You, native English speakers, will continue to see mistakes in my use of the language and weird sentences that sound off. But I hope you can give me a pass on those and try to understand if what I have to say is valuable, even if I have some problems with how I say it. That is some writing challenge that I am trying to overcome myself: how to communicate well in a language that I do not master.