Writing and Prestige-Building—A Reply to Will Larson

On “infrequent, high-quality content” as a tactic.

Assumed audience: Other public writers, especially those in engineering leadership roles.

Will Larson writes :

The most effective approach I’ve seen is doing a small amount of writing or public speaking, and then ensuring that work is discoverable.… Viewing myself through this lens, I’ve written hundreds of posts, but probably only about four have generated significant prestige:… I’d very likely be equally prestigious if I’d simply written those four without the surrounding six hundred.

While I substantially agree with large swaths of Will’s advice on how to write pieces that will help generate prestige” (seriously, read the whole thing; it’s worth your time, this caveat notwithstanding),1 I think his own admission here is telling. The problem: Will may indeed have been just as prestigious having written those four without the surrounding six hundred… but he probably could not have written just those four. That is not how writing works.

For one thing, you are not in control of whether something happens to land” — sometimes a fantastic piece goes out and finds an audience immediately, and sometimes it takes years to grow an audience. For another, you rarely become the kind of writer who can actually write those kinds of highly-influential pieces without writing a lot of other pieces. Writing is a skill like any other; it is honed by practice. That does not mean that all of those other words must be published publicly; but I think they had better at least be for an audience. The gap between the kind of note that is valuable for yourself alone and the kind that is useful to others is wide. The gap between a decent blog post and an influential (or prestige-building) essay is perhaps equally wide.

So: yes, as you think about building prestige,” recognize that it is indeed quite different from brand-building”; acknowledge that most of your public writing will not be prestige-building, though you can certainly improve the balance by choosing what kinds of writing you will do; and understand that there is no shortcut. You will just have to do a lot of writing for others to read.


  1. My major caveats to his advice: I think podcasting and book-writing can both be enormously useful and productive approaches to developing both one’s thinking and one’s audience, especially as complements to writing. Some of the best writing I have ever done came out of the back-and-forth between my long-running podcast Winning Slowly and my newsletter Across the Sundering Seas. ↩︎