How to write posts that do well on Hacker News

For the past 10 years, dang was the main moderator of Hacker News. Recently he has shared his notes on how to write articles that the HN community will find interesting. This is the organized and distilled summary of the key ideas.

Address readers as peers, not as customers

The biggest mistake you can make is writing a polished but shallow post that sounds like an ad or a corporate-sounding piece of content marketing.

Don't write for some abstract customer that you hope exists out there, write the way you would talk to a peer, a fellow startup founder and an engineer.

Imagine a friend that you're meeting up with for drinks, who has no idea what you've been working on, but is smart, curious, and asks good questions.

Write things that gratify intellectual curiosity

Readers come to HN because they want to learn surprising details about hard problems.

Write about an interesting technical or business problem you've solved. Pursue your genuine intellectual curiosity, try to figure an answer to an interesting question, and share what you discovered along the way.

Clearly explain the problem you're solving

Introduce yourself and the problem:

  • Explain who you are, and your personal experience that makes you qualified to talk about the problem.
  • Convey why it matters, what makes it interesting and hard to solve.
  • What will your readers learn about the world, and about solving problems?
  • Illustrate your problem using concrete real-life examples, rather than abstract descriptions (which are vague and boring).

Make the problem easy to understand, but not so easy that your readers can guess the end from the beginning - make them curious to know the solution.

Frame it as a story about you solving an interesting problem

Write a story, not a tutorial. Unlike tutorials, which focus on specific steps explaining how to perform a task, good HN stories focus on what, why, and who, they take the reader along as you solve the problem.

I needed to do X so I tried Y. But I had trouble because of Z, and therefore I had to solve it with W. So I learned some surprising details A, B, and C.

Talk about the complex path you followed as you were trying to solve the problem, put us in the room with you at the time. It should be like a murder mystery, where the big reveal is unpredictable and surprising.

Explain how bad things were and talk about failed attempts to fix them, let your readers participate in the puzzle along the way. Everything that makes a problem harder than it seemed adds to an interesting story - false starts, unexpected disasters, obstacles, twists, surprising details.

Go into technical depth

HN readers want to know the under-the-hood complexities of how things work. Show readers that you respect them intellectually by giving them a hard problem, and sharing some unexpected aspects of the solution - take them behind the curtain, show them the messy reality, give them details to chew on, and leave them with the feeling of having learned something.

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