Respond, Don’t Create

Creating Content that Shares Your Perspective and Personality

Image: Joe Calomeni/Pexels

For many of us writing online, finding something worth saying is half the battle. And yet, this problem runs counter to one strategy to making ourselves heard: speak loudly and frequently. VaynerMedia CEO Gary Vaynerchuk, a successful user of such a strategy, has talked about how he was releasing 40+ pieces of content per day, but he wanted to figure out ways to release 1,000 pieces of content per day. It increases his chances of winning the social media lottery. His mantra, “Document, don’t create,” has gained a lot of momentum in the marketing world.

The idea of documenting is really about adding a more concrete prompt for us to create. And yet, while documenting our lives is one way to do things, there’s another — equally powerful — way to create more high-quality content each day: responding.

To borrow an analogy from How to Read a Book; the act of writing is like throwing, and the act of reading is like catching. Reading is not merely watching the ball go by; it takes work to receive it and understand it. Responding, in this case, involves catching the ball (catching), and then returning the ball back to the writer (writing). It does not catching the ball, dropping it, and losing our tempers.

Responding enables you to use the scale and communities of the internet to your advantage. It’s a very simple technique: 

  1. Select a few good sources (ones that you, and your peers and heroes, would like)
  2. Pay attention to what’s taking place
  3. Read or watch the things that pique your curiosity or provoke a feeling
  4. Feel, relax, think, remember, research, and collect facts
  5. Write a response to what you’re noticing

This is particularly useful on days that you’re short of ideas and inspiration; you can scan through the headlines of your favorite publications and see what’s trending. Use them as mirrors to see yourself, and for coming up with ideas. 

It helps to put some time and space between looking through the headlines, and seeing what you can actually remember maybe an hour (or 24 hours) later. Those have stood the test of time and stand out in your memory for a reason. Plus, any initial emotional reaction is likely to have cooled off. 

The simplest way of doing this is to spend time with an actual article, post, question, video, or book, and then respond to it. For example:

  • Draft founder Nathan Kontny’s response to a Reddit question about PPC campaigns. It’s worth noting this post, with four upvotes, didn’t exactly go viral at Reddit. It doesn’t matter. Spend your time at the places that you and your peers or heroes like to hang out, and let things catch your attention.
  • Author and Baohaus founder Eddie Huang’s response to a New York Times’ review of Peter Luger Steak House. Eddie deconstructs the essay and calls out flaws, and he does it all in his signature voice. 
  • Research Alex Guzey’s response to reading “Why We Sleep.” Alex uses his perspective and knowledge as a researcher to reveal that the science may not be as concrete as the original author would have us believe.

The key here is to use your perspective to do this. But of course, as you’re noticing and observing, you may notice some larger movements. That also provides you with a chance to put a name to a thing, which each of the following examples do:

  • Developmental psychologist Uta Frith’s Fast Lane to Slow Science is a response to the rise of fast science and the replication crisis. Not only does Uta tie together the observations to point out the trend, she also calls out specific ways for scientists and institutions to slow down fast science; namely, restricting output, emphasizing teamwork, and putting a greater focus on quality and societal impact.
  • Author Steven Gambardella’s response to the self-help stoicism movement (which he calls “pop stoicism”). Steven noticed the tons of trending self-help stoicism articles out there, and boils down his response to two points. I’ll bet he has more, but these two were the most relevant and developed of them.
  • Stratechery founder Ben Thompson’s response to Google Shopping serves as the hook to highlighting what he calls the “anti-Amazon alliance.” Ben’s clearly been observing and thinking about this for a long time, and he notices the Google Shopping move to be an important development in a larger thread. He uses the news to talk about his thread.

It would be fair for you to say, actually, that this piece itself is a response. I’m calling out a technique that I’ve noticed, that I haven’t seen as much of a spotlight on. 

Of course, the response adds a potential promotional benefit to spread your ideas; if your work is thoughtful, adds context, and reveals some sort of truth that the original piece didn’t, it could continue the conversation in social media or in some other publications. The original author might see it and respond. If you’re writing at Medium, readers will see it after they’ve read the original article. (From a marketing perspective, it “newsjacks” the original story and adds your perspective to it.)

For me, it helps to think of each response like a “Letter to the editor.” Here are some of my responses:

Social media requires a strange mixture of quantity and quality. While I started this particular article off with quantity, I want to highlight that each of the examples here are really thoughtful; they’re “high quality.” There’s no point in making something that you’re not proud of, or that you don’t find useful. 

If you’re ever in doubt, figure out what qualifies as acceptable work for you to put out. Don’t try to make everything perfect. It’s not only how you win at social media, but also how you practice and progress at your craft.