How to write stuff that gets on the front page of Hacker News

Hi. My name is Aline, leeny on Hacker News. My team at interviewing.io and I have written a lot of stuff, and most of it has been on the Hacker News front page — of the 30 blog posts I (and later we) have submitted, 27 have been on the front page, and over the last few years, our writing has been read by millions of people.

What makes content sticky?

The most effective strategy, in my experience, is to tap into a controversial point that your audience already holds and then back it up with data that you have to confirm their suspicions.

The second strategy is to share something uniquely helpful with your audience that makes them better at some meaningful aspect of their lives.

Confirmation bias, cocktail parties, and data

It’s the tendency to interpret new information in a way that reinforces existing beliefs… preferably controversial beliefs that your audience suspects are true (and are probably frustrated about** but can’t definitively back up.

In our case, it was a bunch of aspects of status-quo hiring, stuff like: resumes suck, LinkedIn endorsements are dumb, technical interviews are being done badly and the results aren’t deterministic, and so on and so forth.

So, you take that kernel of frustration, and then you put some data firepower behind it. Find the data that you have that no one else has, and use it to prove that those controversial beliefs do indeed hold water… lighting up the same parts of our brain that makes us fall prey to confirmation bias, in other words.

Another way to say it is that the best content marketing, in my mind, is the stuff that makes people smugly want to repeat it at cocktail parties.

So, if you have something controversial to say, why does having data matter? Because no one cares with Aline “Dipshit” Lerner thinks about hiring. You and your readers might hold all sorts of controversial opinions about the world, but until you’re really famous, your opinion doesn’t matter more than anyone else’s. But data (especially if it’s proprietary) can elevate an anecdote to gospel. Data provides you with the credibility that nothing else can at this stage — no matter who you are, if you have compelling data, engineers will listen.

The one thing you really have in your favor in these situations is that, because no one knows who you are, the more sophisticated your audience, the more likely they are to take your good content seriously. You don’t have a brand, you don’t have a comms team or a brand to protect, all you have is the unvarnished truth from the trenches.

With the attributes above in mind, think about what cool stuff you’ve discovered by virtue of working at your company.

Then, once you’ve identified the right sticky tidbit, it’s up to you to distill it into plain English and then back it up with data… which in practice means some very clear (and maybe pretty… though clear trumps pretty) graphs or visualizations.

It’s tempting to fall into the trap of creating content that tells rather than shows, and the myriad blog posts out there to the tune of “here’s how we run meetings” or “here’s our product process” are proof of that. Typically, posts like this don’t do very well because frankly, no one cares about how you run your processes until you’re a household name that others are trying to emulate.

One exception to this rule is if you want to highlight something polarizing you’re doing. In that case, feel free to shout that directly to the world so it’s loud and clear and makes its way most directly to the fringe community you’re targeting. In other words, if you’re really gung ho about TDD, you can write a blog post called “Why we ALWAYS use TDD with no exceptions”, and it’ll do great because of confirmation bias among TDD evangelists, probably the very people you want to target.

Being helpful

If you can’t be controversial, then be helpful.

Note that “helpful” means giving your readers specific, actionable advice about things that have a big impact on their lives (love, work, sex, health** rather than general worldviews on these topics.

Controversy is more effective than being helpful… here’s the data

In order of effectiveness:

  1. Controversial without graphs
  2. Helpful without graphs
  3. Helpful WITH graphs
  4. Controversial WITH graphs

If you don’t have data, then write helpful stuff. It’ll do OK. If you do have data, controversy reigns supreme.

Examples of good content marketing

Examples of controversial, data-driven content marketing

For me, the canonical, original, great data-driven posts all live in the OKCupid blog served as the lodestar of what good blogging could be.

Hiring is typically a much more tame subject than sex, but it’s possible to write controversial things about it. Here are a few favorites that exemplify our take on controversial, data-driven blogging:

Lessons from 3,000 technical interviews and Lessons from a year’s worth of hiring data where the controversial idea is that where you went to school doesn’t matter; where you work doesn’t matter that much; stuff like typos and grammatical errors in your resume, as well as your extracurricular MOOC activities, matter way more

Examples of helpful content marketing

Some successful posts just have really useful content that make you better at some meaningful part of your life.

How to actually make yourself write

Why does wine help me write (please see the footnote before you unleash your wrath)?3 Because, for a brief hour or so, it stills the inexorable pull of self-editing and silences the voices that tell you you’re a piece of shit who can’t write worth a damn. Now, you might still be a piece of shit who can’t write worth a damn, but you’ll never become a piece of shit who can write unless you actually write.

Once the voices are quiet, you can get out whatever is in your head. It doesn’t have to make sense, it doesn’t have to be ordered or flow, and it doesn’t have to be the most important takeaway you anticipate your post will ultimately have. Whatever it is will be raw and real… and then you (and your friends or coworkers if you’re lucky) will prune the drivel and mold it into something good.

So drink your wine (or don’t drink… just do whatever gets you in a good place) and put on whatever music fills your heart with rage (or inspiration if you’re not a broken human like me), and get to it. And do it again and again, until the ritual itself is what gives you comfort and lets you produce.