Reading Marc Andreessen’s recent article really brought me back. In 2013, when I interviewed eight entrepreneurs for a magazine I was making, this phrase came up almost every time:
“Learn to build stuff.”
My first thought was that writers, like me, build articles, essays, and blog posts. Sometimes we build entire blogs. At other times, we build books. We could build brochures, or technical manuals. I could go on with other formats, but I basically substituted “write,” with “build,” and was stuck thinking about tangible outputs.
Software developers build apps and infrastructure, designers build research and prototypes, marketers build ads, etc. “World building” is a thing, too; writers are capable of building imagined realities, either in an imaginary world or into the physical world.
But all of that is like saying a manager builds meetings; but, meetings have a bunch of important stuff that we don’t appreciate. Information gathering. Reminding people to do stuff (or forcing them to make progress before the meeting). Persuading. Unblocking.
Writers also can produce words in all these formats, but it’s important to consider: What do those actually do? What can writers build in this time, and after it, to help move the world forward?
*Note: When I say “writer,” I just mean somebody who writes. You don’t have to be a full-time writer; in fact, most of the people I talk about here are not full-time writers. Neither am I.*
One could, easily, spend the rest of their life pondering this. Here’s what I came up with so far:
Writers can identify, package, and spread high-quality information. For example, writers can connect new dots, like those entrepreneurs did for me. They can talk to experts for interviews to signal boost expert opinions. They can research, understand, and promote well-researched and validated facts, in a timely way. They can read analytically and syntopically, and actually develop a deep grasp of something and communicate it well.
They are free of the curse of knowledge; they understand what normal people don’t know, and can talk with them and keep their attention. They are good communicators. They can build a shared understanding. They can also reveal complexities that others haven’t considered. They can show everyday people how to do stuff, like reheating masks, to improve their lives. Writers can also build tools like this one, led by Erin Kissane and Alexis Madrigal.
Writers can build cultures. Noah Brier talks about this with Superorganizers, how his new team works heavily in Notion to document and maintain their processes. Writers can work with internal cultures, but external ones too. They can persuade and accelerate cultural, technical, and mental progression.
Writers can be powerful. Manifestos have changed peoples’ lives. Writers can inspire and promote people who are doing their part. At times, writing provokes or repulses, to spark thought and achieve a similar effect as inspiration. I’ll invoke Pac: “I’m not saying I’m gonna change the world, but I guarantee that I will spark the brain that will change the world.”
Writing is also unique because of how fast it can be done. Words can be strung together quickly, thoughtfully, and deliberately to respond to the ocean of emotions that we feel en masse. Words are also inexpensive; when Stripe’s CEO talks about Stripe Press: “But we see our core business as building tools and infrastructure that help grow the online economy. (“Increase the GDP of the internet.”) When we think about that problem, we see that one of the main limits on Stripe’s growth is the number of successful startups in the world. If we can cheaply help increase that number, it makes a lot of business sense for us to do so.”
Writers can cultivate calm in times of chaos. Similar to how farmers don’t “build” their fields, writers don’t build emotions. Writers can cultivate them, and calm them down. Right now, due to page view incentives, we see the opposite — information spreading fear, hate, division. Sometimes, even advertisements are promoted as articles.
But we can still entertain, we can express, and we can bring people together. Late night shows used to set themselves apart with set design; now, because even the biggest hosts are recording from home, we’re all conditioned to “lo-fi video,” where everybody’s background looks more or less like a vloggers. And the extra time has enabled people like John Krasinski to launch Some Good News from his home to great fanfare.
Like other forms of building, we’ve taken words for granted. Some of the reasons for this are the intangible nature of the results of words, the variation in quality, and the increased access. Thanks to modern education, words are by nature accessible for everyone to use and the most affordable ingredient to build with. All you need is a pen, and paper. Borrow a laptop or a phone to take a picture. (Drawing and sketching are the same way.) It has no longer become “literature” or “high art”; basically, words have a branding problem.
Words make up both the lowest forms and highest forms of communication — dances, buildings, and visual art all require using writing and words, even if only for titles and artist statements, or to get resources/infrastructure for the art like pitching, proposals, etc., or for meetings, etc. Words are the great unifier between different types of people.
There is a time and place for writers to buy 3D printers. To sew masks. To plant their own food.
But there is also a time and place for writers to inspire, inform, and soothe others to pick their tools up.
And a time to collect those results and show them, like the Slack Wall of Love did back in the day.
Building is an action. It’s also a mindset. Remember, even when Marc Andreessen urged us to build, he did not build a factory himself to prove his point. He built an essay.