Ode.La: Making Writing Fun Again


A great thing about a place like Reverb is that it’s bursting with talent. Besides the terrific work done for the company, people show their chops through their passions outside of work, whether it’s music, photography, building bicycles, racing motorcycles, or writing books.

Ayush Gupta is a freelance developer who has been consulting with Wordnik and Reverb for almost three years. He’s a full stack engineer who works on everything from data and deployment to building user interfaces. In his spare time, he enjoys creating consumer-centric Internet apps.

Today we spoke with Ayush about one of his projects, ode.la, a site dedicated to writing and having fun with words, something right up Wordnik’s alley.

What is ode.la and who is it for?

ode.la is an online community for anyone who likes creative writing, the way SoundCloud is music lovers. Our focus is on keeping things playful, away from the stress of getting published. ode.la is like a playground or gym – a place to workout your creative writing muscle.

What inspired you to start ode.la?

In the writing world there exists a fixation on getting published which is unhealthy and a terrible killjoy to the love for creative writing. We wanted to create a stress-free environment where people can just enjoy the art of writing with others who respect and love it too.

At ode.la we won’t get you published, but we’ll sure help you have fun writing. Whether it’s about a train ride back home with your five-year old daughter, urban angst, mosquitoes, or a road trip. At ode.la there are a lot of fun things to do around writing. You can post challenges or writing prompts for others, or play writing games where you take turns adding to a story. There’s a writing app that helps you find your inner voices.

Did your work with Wordnik influence you?

Absolutely! I’ve always loved writing and words but it was at Wordnik that I got an opportunity to apply computing to language and words. Working with the awesome computational linguists at Wordnik and Reverb helped me learn so much about a field of work that I’d paid little attention to earlier. I started toying around with topic modeling and some other text algorithms. That eventually resulted the first version of ode.la.

How did you come up with the name?

I wanted something short which evokes writing and has a lyrical ring to it. After torturing myself contemplating some really terrible names (dottededge.com!), I bolted out of bed late one night, punched in ode.la, saw it was available, and bought it. The rest is history.

What are some challenges that you faced while creating your product?

We knew that online communities which focus on specific interests (SoundCloud, Flickr, Vimeo, Ravelry) do well. But we had no idea how such a community would look for writing. The biggest challenge was creating an experience around writing that was playful. While we’ve been successful with that, we’re organically funded at the moment, so the biggest challenge we’re facing right now is how to scale our community when we don’t have a lot of money to spend.

What have you learned?

The world of writing and writers was new to us and there have been some interesting lessons along the way. All artistic pursuit reveals something about its creator – this is perhaps truer of creative writing than other abstracts art forms. When pursuit of writing is treated seriously, it leads to a “stiff collar syndrome” and people are hesitant to share. Also, writing is often a solitary activity but once it’s done, people want to connect with others through that written piece.

We’ve applied those learnings at ode.la and through our online experience lowered the threshold to create, share, and engage with others around writing.

What’s the feedback been like? Anything surprising?

It has been amazing. We regularly hear things like, “Wow! Wordplays are great, they seem like a kind of literary chess.” People appreciate the little features like “the little scramble of words that shows up on your profile screen from the words you wrote.” In interviews we’ve heard repeatedly that writing is therapeutic and users feel drawn to ode.la when they feel like engaging with creative writing.

What advice would you give someone interested in creating their own product?

Find a need that people have and dig in deep. Explore the labyrinth of the need you’re addressing but don’t get lost. Keep a wider perspective but stay anchored to short term goals.

It helps to address a need you can relate to so you’re building a product you’d like to use yourself. Don’t risk burnout by doing too much; do less but do often. Don’t over-optimize or over-engineer.

Be ready to reinvent. Don’t get emotionally attached to specific things. If something stinks it’s probably rotting – don’t spray air freshener on it. Cut it out and throw it away.

Dream but don’t fool yourself. Never drink your own Kool-Aid. Focus on what’s interesting for your users, not what’s interesting for you to build.

Most of all have fun doing it. It takes a lot of effort to create something from scratch. If you’re not having fun, it won’t go anywhere.

[Photo: CC BY-ND 2.0 by Silvia Viñuales]