The Year of the Looking Glass
Reflections on a year of writing
I had one resolution for 2013. Write. Write to learn how to write, and write to understand. Write to remember, to preserve the scrap of a voice in a particular age.
Now, 52 weeks later, there are 52 entries in my Medium archives. Some are about designing products and teams, some are personal life observations, and there’s also a sprinkling of poems and short stories. The result is an eclectic mix of writing that probably doesn’t appeal to any one person on the whole but are connected in the same way the various destinations of a road trip are connected.
Because I was there. Because that’s how I remembered it.
Recently, I heard a friend quote a Dwight D. Eisenhower line: “Plans are of little importance; planning is essential.” Writing has felt much the same for me. I’ll be honest, countless Saturday hours were lost in the aimless trough of What should I write about? After all, what could I say that hasn’t been said before, and likely better?
But it was through this pinpointing of the point, this grappling and wrestling of the narrative, that the crux of any idea was found and gleaned and polished. When I wrote, wispy thoughts were brought together and woven like rope into something stronger. When I wrote, superficial impressions were examined this way and that until they held weight.
The looking glass did more than just mirror back my life. Through it, I gained a deeper understanding of what and why and how I was thinking. Which meant I believed more deeply. Which meant I cared more deeply.
I can think of few better ways to start a year than with conviction and passion.
Of course, what would any end-of-the-year reflection be without some stats and observations?
- Most read/shared: by a wide margin, these were the practical articles that appealed to a broad audience. It seems many people want to know how to work with designers and how to think about management values. The third most read article was about the launch of Facebook Home in April, as a few tech blogs picked it up to report on the Facebook design team’s usage of QuartzComposer (which we eventually ended up releasing a toolkit for.)
- Read -to-view ratio: the highest read-through rate (92%) of any essay was, ironically, the satirical 10 Reasons Why People Love Numbered Lists. Unsurprisingly, the longer the article, or the more widely-shared, the lower the read-through rate. On average, this ratio hovered near 60-70%. The article with the dubious distinction of being most bailed-upon was What My Dog Taught Me about Social Media, at a 25% read-through rate, which I chalk up to high clicks for the cute photos.
- Personal versus practical topics: while the life stories were less popular than the advice-oriented one, I generally found them more satisfying to write. Like a big lawn, they gave me room to stretch the writing and experiment with structure, and like a good selfie, they felt clearer and more authentic. Most of the private messages I received, from friends and strangers alike, were about the essays in this category. I suppose more human stories lead to more human exchanges.
- Poetry and short stories: Verdict: completely unpopular and nobody likes them. Which is fine by me. I love poetry and fiction, but recognize I’m a pretty junior bard.
- Style: I started the year with zanier writing—absurd scenarios, super casual tone, tons of aside parens (as evidenced in examples like this) which got more conventional as the year progressed, partly because I was spending less time writing each article (yes, I will admit it) and partly because I wondered if zaniness took away from the impact of the content, especially if it was advice-oriented. I also have a tendency to be garrulous, providing ten words when two will do, which is a skill I’m still honing. Ultimately my preferred style is conversational with a splash of quirky, like in How to Say No. I’m also partial to writing in second person because it allows me to pretend like I’m writing to an alternate-reality version of myself.
- Process: I tend to write on weekends when I have more time. Usually I complete a first draft on Saturday or Sunday afternoon, and then edit it during the weeknights until it’s done. The dashing Mike Sego will generally give me a round of feedback before I publish it the next morning. At first, the entire process took me maybe six or seven hours per article, but now I spend about half that.
What are my personal favorite essays from this year? In no particular order, they are:
- Don’t be a Gatekeeper — I believe in this so strongly, yet find it so hard to do, that this topic is always on my mind.
- The Game of Life —The closest thing to describing my personal philosophy.
- How to Survive in Design (and in a Zombie Apocalypse) — My two design passions are increasing the understanding of design across the broader industry and championing the evolution of design tools. This article describes the latter.
- Growing Up—What working at Facebook has meant to me.
- The 5 Most Influential Things I Read This Year—Articles and books that have reshaped how I approach the world.
Last year, January slunk in like an uninvited guest. For me, the year felt looming and grey and uncertain.
This year, January feels brighter. Sanguine, even. Like the light at the edges of a shadow, made all the more striking by its contrast. The year itself is not more certain, but maybe I am just a little more certain.
This collection, The Year of the Looking Glass, will continue, though I’ll be publishing once every two weeks instead of one.
Thank you for reading. Thank you for the inspiration and the kindness. We humans write, as we do most things, to connect.
Happy New Year.