Making personal blogs useful for other people too

When people ask my advice on starting a blog, I encourage them to start a personal one. I don’t mean that they should focus on writing about what they had for lunch or ranting about something that frustrates them, although they can, if they want to. I mean that it’s okay to let their blog reflect them – the quirks of their interests and personality, the little things about them that make them different. I think it’s because I hate reading those generic articles of passed-on advice that could have been written by anyone (and indeed, are often churned out a dozen at a time by low-paid freelancers). Our biases show in our advice.

On this blog, I tend to lean very firmly on the side of personal reflections – things I haven’t quite figured out enough to clearly explain. When you know something, you can explain it in a way that makes sense, and people see that logic and immediately get that you get it. This is why a well-structured course or book is a thing of beauty. It straightens out the path of learning and helps you get to your goal faster.

When you’re still making sense of something, you go in stops and starts. You wander down cul-de-sacs and dawdle along trails. You circle around something, trying to see it from different angles. This is me when I write, following the butterfly of a question somewhere. Perhaps with more editing and more planning, I can hide all of it and present you with just the polished end. But that goes against what I want to encourage.

When someone writes a tutorial with the reader in mind – like drawing a map for someone else to follow – you need to do very little to adapt it to your situation. You can see yourself in it, and you can see how to apply what you want to learn. On the other hand, personal reflections require more translation. It’s like the difference between reading a guidebook that someone has written for tourists and a travel journal with observations that sometimes slip into shorthand. You take the guidebook when you go places; you read the journal if you want the feel of someone else’s feel of a place.

There’s a middle ground here between guidebook and travel journal: a travelogue, written for yourself but also with an eye to other people reading it. In a travelogue, you might take a little more time to explain why a place matters to you instead of simply jotting down a few cryptic references to things that only you know. You might try a little harder to capture the local flavour. You might point out things that perhaps you’re not personally interested in but that other people might find interesting.

I think that’s what I’d like this blog to grow into over the years and years ahead. I’d like to write a travelogue of life. Far away from the “Top 10 Things to See in __“-type lists, but more than just a photo album of snapshots or a scrapbook of tickets and brochures. Something in the middle.

And I think that feeling one gets when you read a good account–not “Oh, that sounds exotic,” or “I wish I could go,” but rather something that hovers between a new appreciation for unfamiliar things and the familiarity of recognizing home in a strange place–that might be something good to learn how to evoke in readers (you and my future, forgetful self).

Coming back from this extended metaphor – on this blog, the kinds of things that seem to have evoked that kind of a response are:

  • Sketchnotes and other visual summaries/thoughts – interesting and easy to share
  • Emacs tips and other technical tidbits – useful
  • Decisions, reasons, experiments, reflections – sometimes they lead to things like “I feel like that too!” “Mm, that’s interesting.” “Have you considered…?”

So here are some things I might try in order to help this personal blog be more useful to other people (not just me):

  • Harvest more from notes, and organize them better.
    • Make skimming easier by creating more structure with summaries, paragraphs, lists, and formatting. If people can skim faster, that saves them time and lets them focus on what’s more relevant to them.
    • Think of other people more when writing; translate “I” to “you” occasionally so that other people don’t have to
  • Do more research and summarize the results. Bringing in other people’s experiences and insights can help me learn faster and it also gives me more to share with others.
  • Try more experiments. This is like going more places. I don’t think I’ll ever be patient enough to hold off writing until the end of the journey; I’m more of a write-along-the-way sort of person. But here’s a structure that can make it better:
    • Initial post: Share the plans and invite people along
    • Middle post: Share preliminary observations and progress, link back to initial post, connect with any others who’ve joined
    • Conclusion: summarize findings, link back to previous posts and to co-adventurers

If you have a personal blog, would any of these ideas work for you as well? Tell me how it’s going!

  • Yi Tang

    Hi Sacha,

    I have been reading your blog since the last two years and it really inspired me to start my own blog.

    I want to promote quantified-self project and use of statistics and really want to reader have a good experience visiting my blog. I feel the best way to archive that is to write it as a story, which is suitable for a child, and make it is simple to follow. Since English is not my first language and writing itself is really hard, it will a long way for me.

    But there are few tips I feel is useful. I put Table of Content at the beginning and each paragraph is for one single argument. It would make reader easier to skim. Also I tried to make my blog looks really nice by choosing a good theme, use ggplot2 for plots etc just in case the content failed to draw reader’s attention.

    • Yi Tang: Good for you! Paragraphs and tables of content are a great way to structure your writing for easier reading, and illustrations are good too. I should remember to use more of them. Where can I find your blog? =)

      • Yi Tang

        Thanks for your affirmation. You can find my blog here yi-tang.github.io.

  • I have been working on my yearly review, and I learned that many of my posts that seemed to have the most comments and interaction were the ones where I was thinking out loud and trying to work through ideas.

    I like the idea of posting experiments in progress. I am wonderful at starting projects and horrible at finishing projects so having a group to interact with along the way would be a definite help in trying to finish a stated goal.

    • Susi: I’m delighted to hear that’s been your experience. =) I’m all for more people working out loud.

      Your comment about being horrible at finishing projects reminds me of how I occasionally move my goalposts to keep myself interested, so I wrote about it. Here’s a sneak peek, if you like: http://sachachua.com/blog/?p=27738&shareadraft=baba27738_549dfbb908f41

      I’m a big fan of sharing notes while you’re learning, since that often leads to conversations that are both encouraging and helpful. It also means that even if I wander off a project mid-way, other people can learn from my notes. =)

      • Thank you for the sneak peak! I like the idea of creating new goal/projects. I will have to try that for a few of my projects that I have been procrastinating on finishing.
        P.S. That cartoon made me laugh because it is too true!

        • Susi: Heh. The other part of that – extracting whatever value you can out of incomplete projects – is probably even more useful. Going back to that cartoon, it’s like saying, “Aha! A brick! Someone might find this brick handy. Let’s put it out there.” Sure, a brick that’s part of a house is a lot handier, but if that’s what we have, that’s what we’ve got.

          What are your favourite mind-hacks for dealing with plenty of interests? =)

          • I don’t know if it is a hack but I have found that keeping summaries of my projects both in Evernote and in a Moleskine that I carry around with me is helpful. I have accepted that I have a cyclical brain and I need incubation time on some of my long term projects when I am hitting a brick wall or am getting frustrated. I try to review my open projects every month and having a paragraph or a mind map on my thought process is helpful. Often when I review, I will get a new idea for how to solve a problem.

            My hack for the new year is to focus on adding my top goal for the year (improve my German) into my weekly system. Since I am a routine oriented person, I am hoping that taking my weekly review and adding a step where I translate it into German will help accomplish my goal without causing unnecessary frustration. :)

          • Yeah, having a map of open projects is great for finding ways around frustration and remembering cool stuff you’d temporarily shelved. =D

            By the way, if you’re focused on getting better at writing in a different language, http://lang-8.com might be a good site for that. =) You can get feedback from native speakers, and you can pay it forward by helping people who want to learn English. I’m more focused on reading and listening rather than writing, so I’m not using lang-8 at the moment, but I remember enjoying it when I checked it out.

  • Paresh Soni

    Hi Sacha
    I found your blog while I was searching for sketching and mind mapping.
    What a blog you have!
    One thing that I have heard from all blogging gurus is that personal blogs don’t get successful.But your idea is what I believe in.
    Documenting what you are interested in, Becoming useful and Interesting.
    I was not able to find the post in which you have mentioned you mind mapping and sketching gadgets. Can you plz share it here.
    Thanks.