Category Archives: blogging

What do I want instead of or in addition to advice roundups?

I occasionally get requests for advice to include in an “expert roundup.” It’s one of those quick content generation / search-engine optimization techniques, and often goes something like this:

  1. Cold-email a bunch of famous and not-so-famous people who likely have opinions on something.
  2. Ask them for a quick answer to a simple question. Famous people probably already have soundbites ready to go, so it’s easy for them to reply.
  3. Reach out to more people and name-drop the famous people who have already responded.
  4. Other people feel flattered to be included in that kind of company, and add their own perspectives.
  5. Paste and format the quotes, add pictures or relevant stock images, and use a list-type headline.

If you’re lucky, those people will drop by your blog, read other posts, and maybe even comment or subscribe. If you’re really lucky, they’ll link to your post (“Look! I’m featured over here!”), which is good for broadening your audience and improving your reputation with search engines. Besides, your other readers will be able to read a post that indirectly demonstrates your social capital (“I got Bigname Expert to reply to me”) while possibly offering something to think about. (Although I don’t think it’s really the lack of advice that holds people back…)

On the plus side, at least an e-mail-based soundbite survey requires a little bit more effort than making a grab-bag of quotes harvested from one of the categories of those popular quotation marks (often misattributed and almost never with source links). So there’s something to be said for that. I still prefer posts that have more of the self infused into them, though, whether they’re the products of personal research and interpretation or (better yet) personal experience and insight.

2015-05-13k Fleshing out advice -- index card #blogging #advice #sharing

2015-05-13k Fleshing out advice – index card #blogging #advice #sharing

But it’s much easier to write the first two types of posts rather than the third and fourth type of post. It takes less time. It seems less self-centred. It’s more generally applicable. You could even write books following that formula.

2015-05-14b How are short quotes or excerpts useful for me -- index card #blogging #sharing #perspective

2015-05-14b How are short quotes or excerpts useful for me – index card #blogging #sharing #perspective

And if I think about it from the reader’s perspective, I can actually work to extract a little bit of value from stuff like that. Sometimes, when reading lists or blog posts, I come across an interesting name for a concept I’ve been having a hard time defining or expressing. The keywords help me search more. Other times, a short paragraph is enough to get me considering a different perspective, or thinking about the difference between what it says and what I want to say. Pithy sayings get me thinking about what makes something a memorable maxim. Noticing a collection of intriguing thoughts from one person can lead me to dig up more details on that person. And then there’s always the satisfaction of finding unexpected resonance or an authority you can enlist on your side (the more ancient, the better)…

Still, I want to see people apply the ideas and share their experiences. I want people to share what they struggled with and how they adapted things to fit their situation. Sure, it’s interesting to hear what Aristotle’s purported to have said (although that collection certainly does not include “Excellennce, then, is not an act, but a habit” – that’s Will Durant ccommenting on Aristotle), but it’s also interesting–possibly even more so–to hear what thoughts people distill from their own lives.

Most advice (especially for generic audiences) sounds pretty straightforward. Things like: Spend less than you earn. Live mindfully. Get rid of unnecessary tasks and things. But the challenge of change is hardly ever about hearing these things, is it? I think, if we want to make it easier for people to grow, it’s better to help people flesh out who they want to be, feel they can become that, and see how they can set themselves up for success and appreciate their progress.

A reflection on reading advice: I notice that I’ve grown to like books that dig into personal experience (especially if they avoid the trap of generalization) and books that interpret results from large research studies, but I feel less enlightened by books that rely on anecdotes (cherry-picked, possibly even modified). Since it seems pretty difficult to nail down reliable effects in psychological studies and it’s tempting to cherry-pick research too, that probably indicates that I should dig deeper into finding people with similarly open, experimental approaches to life, which probably means focusing on blogs rather than books. Hmm…

So that’s what I’ve been thinking as a reader. On the other side of the page, as a writer and a learner, what do I think about sharing advice?

Writing from my own life, I realize that I can hardly generalize from my life to other people’s lives: no “You should do this”, but rather, “This seems to work pretty well for me. You might want to consider it, but maybe something else will work even better for you. If so, I’d love to hear about that!” So I don’t have much in the way of generic advice that I can contribute to these advice round-ups.

2015-05-14a What do I do that people often balk at -- index card #advice #yeahbut #different

2015-05-14a What do I do that people often balk at – index card #advice #yeahbut #different

In fact, thinking about some of the things I do that people have both expressed an interest in doing and have struggled with – even when I’m talking one-on-one with people who are half-open to the idea, it’s difficult to help them get over that first hump. Blogging, Emacs, tracking, mindsets… There’s some kind of an activation threshold. People tell me that sometimes hearing from people like me or others about what it’s like helps them resolve to go for it, but that’s not the majority of the push. Anyway, once people get past that, I like swapping notes: not really as a teacher, but as a peer.

Mm. Trade-off, but I think I can deal with it. I can write as a way to bring out the people who resonate. I can skip doling out advice until much later (if at all). Questions from other people are good ways to prompt further reflection, and ongoing blog relationships with people who post their thoughts are even better. It might take time to build that, but it’ll probably be interesting!

Shifts in my writing

Sometimes, when I sit down to draw my five index cards of the day, I have a hard time delineating five interesting thoughts – things I want to remember or share. They often seem so inward-turned.

I was thinking about the shape of my blog, too. I feel like I’ve shifted from a lot of technical posts to a lot of reflective posts. Possibly less interesting for other people, but useful to me. It’s hard to tell. These are the kinds of posts I’ve been starting to find useful in other people’s blogs, anyway, so who knows? Maybe these things are interesting for other people too.

It’s wonderful to be able to flip back through my archive and see the patterns over time. Of the 2,800+ posts in my index as of April 2015, I’d classify around 170 as mostly reflective. (Totally quick classification, just eyeballing the titles and categories in my index.) Here’s the breakdown:

Year Reflections
2008 4
2009 9
2010 20
2011 7
2012 25
2013 20
2014 59
2015 25
Grand Total 169

While writing a recent post, I searched my archives to trace the evolution of my understanding of uncertainty over several years. I can remember not having these snapshots of my inner world. When I reviewed ten years of blog posts in preparation for compiling Stories from My Twenties in 2013, I was surprised by how many technical and tip-related blog posts I skipped in favour of keeping the memories and the questions, and the sense of things missing from my memories. Maybe that’s why I wrote almost three times the number of reflective posts in 2014 as I did in the previous year. 2014 was also the year I switched the focus of my experiment from other-work to self-work, and that might have something to do with it too. I’m glad I have those thinking-out-loud, figuring-things-out posts now.

The end of April was around 33% of the way through the year, so I’m slightly ahead of last year’s reflective-post-density (expected: 20 posts, actual: 25). Comments are rare, but I’ve learned a lot from them.

I’m fascinated by the ten-year journals you can buy in bookstores. They give you ways of bumping into your old selves, noticing the differences. I like the way blogs give me a little bit more space to write, though. =) Here’s a slice of my life going through May 14:

I have shifted. I focus on different things. I like the direction I’m going in. I can imagine, years from now, getting very good at asking questions, describing and naming elusive concepts, and exploring the options. If it seems a little awkward now, that’s just the initial mediocrity I have to get through. Hmm…

Help your readers discover more posts by organizing your content with a reverse outline

You’ve written lots of blog posts, and maybe you’ve even organized them using categories and tags. But your readers are still getting lost. They like the posts they’ve found using search engines, but they don’t know where to go next. If they click on your categories or tags, they see your newest posts, but they might not find your most useful ones or figure out a good order to read posts in. Sure, if you wrote all your posts according to a well-planned editorial calendar, people can follow that sequence. (If only we could all be so organized!)

I know what that’s like. I’ve got thousands of posts in my archive, and even I find it hard to navigate through them. I’ve tried all sorts of plugins for suggesting related posts, but I didn’t find any that could suggest good relevant content quickly.

How can we help people find the posts they need? Adding a “Popular Posts” widget to the sidebar is one way to help people discover your posts, but it only shows a handful of entries. A better way to help lost readers is to put together a page with links to your recommended posts. You can call it Resources, Start Here, or a similar title, and add a prominent link to your menu or sidebar. Off the top of your mind, you can probably think of a few blog posts to include on a resources page. Add those to the page and start helping your readers.

When you have a little more time, gradually incorporate more links into that page. You’ll still want to highlight the key posts people should begin with, but after that (short) list, you can add more lists of recommended posts by topic. Choose your most important category and review the posts within it. Copy the titles and links from your blog posts and arrange them in a logical order, using either a list or an outline. For example, you might go from a list like:

  • Post 1
  • Post 2
  • Post 3
  • Post 4
  • Post 5

to an outline like:

  • Subtopic 1
    • Post 1
    • Post 3
  • Subtopic 2
    • Post 2
    • Post 4
    • Post 5

As you get an overview of your posting history, you might find opportunities to summarize several posts into a longer guide, update and improve previous posts, and fill in the gaps with additional posts. Add these ideas to your editorial calendar or idea notebook, and use those ideas the next time you sit down to write.

2015-01-12 Reverse outlining -- index card #writing #organization #outlining

2015.01.12 Reverse outlining – index card #writing #organization #outlining

For example, when I looked at what I’d written in my blogging category, I realized that I could organize these posts by the excuses they addressed. Then it was easy to turn those excuses into a short guide, which became something I could offer on my resources page. In fact, I’ve been working on organizing all of my recent posts into a massive reverse outline or blog index.

Building this kind of a “reverse outline” from your existing posts helps you reuse what you’ve already published instead of starting from scratch. Good luck!

Clear out your drafts by scheduling Minimum Viable Posts

Do you have dozens of drafts languishing on your blog or on your computer?

I sometimes hear from other bloggers who say they just don’t think their posts are good enough. Maybe they’ve written a few paragraphs before fizzling out. Maybe they’ve already written a full post, but it’s missing… something.

Are you holding off because you’re a perfectionist? Although research shows that perfectionists actually procrastinate less than other people do, since blogs don’t have deadlines, it’s easy to dilly-dally. You can always make something better.

Me, I am definitely not a perfectionist. I’m generally happy if I get 80% of the way to where I want to go. But I know what it’s like to hold a post back because I’m not sure if I’m expressing myself clearly enough. As I write this, there are nineteen drafts in my WordPress interface and countless more on my computer. The oldest draft I have in WordPress is from February 2014. Come to think of it, the time for that topic has passed. Eighteen drafts now.

Do you want to know something that works better than drafting posts?

Scheduling them.

In Lean Startup, there’s this idea of a “Minimum Viable Product” – the smallest thing you can build so that you can test your business assumptions and get feedback from real customers. You can use this in writing, too.

Instead of finely crafting and endlessly polishing each blog post, I write a blog post that I’m reasonably–not completely, just reasonably–happy with. I schedule it a few weeks out. You can do that from the WordPress edit screen – click on Edit near Publish immediately and change it to the date you want. It’s even easier with the Editorial Calendar plugin, which lets you spread posts over weeks.

So then I have this imperfect post that will be published even if I forget about it. My mind keeps working on it in the meantime. (Now that I’ve learned about the Zeigarnik effect, I see it everywhere.) Sometimes I come up with a thought I’d like to add. I might share a scheduled post using the Share a Draft plugin. Maybe I’ll re-read the post and find a typo to fix or a gap to fill.

And hey, even if it isn’t the height of perfection when it finally gets published, at least it’s out there. Then people can tell me what they found interesting or ask questions about what they didn’t understand.

2015-01-10 Writing into the future -- index card #writing #blogging

2015-01-10 The idea of the Minimum Viable Post -- index card #writing #blogging

You don’t get that feedback if your thoughts are stuck in your drafts.

But what if you make a mistake? Edit your post. Even if you’ve already published it, you can still edit it. (Many people add the date and a description of what they changed.)

What if you turned out to be completely wrong about something? At least you learned you were wrong.

What if you skipped over some things that you could have explained? Let someone ask questions and pull that information from you.

Write (and schedule!) minimum viable posts: the simplest, roughest cut of your ideas that will move you towards learning. You can treat the schedule as your new deadline for improving the post.

Resist the temptation to reschedule posts again and again. If the deadline is here and you still can’t quite settle on your post, publish it as is. Then listen to your dissatisfaction for clues to how you can improve the next post.

Get stuff out there. Good luck!

p.s. Right after I scheduled this post with the title “Clear out your drafts by writing Minimum Viable Posts,” I realized it made more sense to title it “Clear out your drafts by scheduling Minimum Viable Posts.” So I changed it. See? We can harness the power of that inner “Wait just a minute here!” =)

Writing: Open loops, closed loops, and working with forgetfulness

I think I’ve written about something before, but I can’t find it. I have thirteen tabs open with Google search results from my blog. I’ve tried countless keywords and synonyms. I’ve skimmed through posts I only half-remember writing. (Was that blog post really that short? I thought I wrote more details.) I still haven’t found the post I want.

I wonder: Did I really publish it? Or did I just outline or sketch it? Am I confusing it with something similar that I wrote, or someone else’s post that I admired?

Ah, well, time to write it from scratch. It’s a little like writing code. Sometimes it would take so long to find an appropriate open source module that you’re better off just writing the code yourself. Sometimes it would take so long to find an existing post that it’s better to just write it from scratch.

I was looking for that particular post because of a conversation with Flavian de Lima where I mentioned the benefits of blogging while you’re learning something. He resonated with the idea of sharing your notes along the way so that other people can learn from them, even if you’ve moved on to different topics.

Despite having a clear memory of writing about this topic, when I went to the post that I thought was related to it (spiral learning), it didn’t mention blogging at all. “Share while you learn” didn’t quite address it, either. After trying lots of searches, I gave up and started writing a new post. After all, memories are fallible; you could have full confidence in an imagined event.

The reason this came up was because Flavian described how he often took advantage of open loops when working on writing. He would stop with an incomplete thought, put the draft away, and let his subconscious continue working on it. Sometimes it would be days or weeks before he got back to working on the article. He mentioned how other authors might take years to work on novels, dusting off their manuscripts and revising scenes here and there.

Keeping loops open by stopping mid-sentence or mid-task is a useful technique often recommended for writing or programming. Research describes this as the Zeigarnik effect: an interrupted task stays in your memory and motivates you to complete it.

But after reading David Allen’s Getting Things Done, I had become a convert of closed loops: getting tasks, ideas, notes out of your head and into a trusted system so that you don’t have to waste energy trying to remember them. I noticed that if I kept too many loops open, my mind felt buzzy and distracted. To work around this, I got very good at writing things down.

In fact, I took closing loops one step further. Publishing my notes on my blog helped me get rid of the guilt and frustration I used to feel whenever I found myself wanting to move on to a different project. Because my notes were freely available for anyone who was trying to figure out the same thing, I could go ahead and follow the butterflies of my interest to a different topic. My notes could also help me pick things up again if I wanted to.

I didn’t stop mid-sentence or mid-thought, but I published in the middle of learning instead of waiting until I finished. Even my review posts often included next steps and open questions. So I got a little satisfaction from posting each small chunk, but I still left dangling threads for me to follow up on. I closed the loops enough so that the topics didn’t demand my attention.

Writing helped me clear my mind of strong open loops–but it worked a little too well. I tried to close things off quickly, so that I could revisit them when I wanted to. The trick was remembering that they were there. Sometimes I forgot the dangling threads for a year or more. I never followed up on others. Even with my regular review processes, I often forgot what I had written, as in the search that prompted this post.

Writing and memory have an ancient trade-off. Even Socrates had something to say about it, quoting an ancient Egyptian king in Plato’s The Phaedrus:

“…for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.”

as quoted in On writing, memory, and forgetting: Socrates and Hemingway take on Zeigarnik

In 2011, Sparrow, Liu, and Wegner showed that people remember less if they think a computer will keep their notes for them, and they tend to remember how to get to the information rather than the information itself. Having written the words, published the posts, and indexed the titles, I’ve forgotten the words; and now I can’t find my way back.

Hence my immediate challenge: sometimes I forget how to get to the information I’ve stored, like a squirrel stashing nuts. (More research: tree squirrels can’t find 74% of the nuts they bury. So I’m doing slightly better than a squirrel, I think.)

Google helps if I can remember a few words from the post, but since it tends to search for exact words, I have to get those words right. Hah, maybe I need to use search engine optimization (SEO) techniques like writing with different keywords – not for marketing, but for my own memory. It reminds me of this SEO joke:

How many SEO copywriters does it take to change a lightbulb, light bulb, light, bulb, lamp, bulbs, flowers, flour…?

My blog index is helpful, but it isn’t enough. I need to write more descriptive titles. Perhaps I should summarize the key point as well. Maps can help, as can other deliberate ways of connecting ideas.

Let me take a step back and look at my goals here. Linking to posts helps me save time explaining ideas, build on previous understanding, and make it easy for people to dig into more detail if they want. But I can also accomplish these goals by linking to other people’s explanations. With so many people writing on the Web, chances are that I’ll find someone who has written about the topic using the words I’m looking for. I can also write a new post from scratch, which has the advantages of being tailored to a specific question and which possibly integrates the forgotten thoughts even without explicit links.

It’s an acceptable trade-off, I think. I’ll continue writing, even with the increased risk of forgetting. If I have to write from scratch even when I think I’ve probably written about the same topic before, I can accept that as practice in writing and thinking.

Other writers have better memories. Flavian told me how he can remember articles he wrote in the 1990s, and I’ve heard similar accounts from others. Me, I’ve been re-reading this year’s blog posts in preparation for my annual review, and I’ve come across ones that pleasantly surprised me. Posts two or three years back are even fuzzier in my memory. I can try to strengthen my memory through exercises and processes. The rest of the time, I can work with the brain that I have. In fact, I’m inclined to build more memory scaffolds around myself, moving more of my memory outside my mind.

[I do not] carry such information in my mind since it is readily available in books. …The value of a college education is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think.

  • Albert Einstein, as Wikiquotes cites from Einstein: His Life and Universe (2007)

And really, how much difference would perfect memory make? I might add more links, include more citations, cover more new ground. I can still learn and share without it.

Forgetful squirrels have their uses. Forgotten acorns grow into oaks for others to enjoy. From time to time, I hear from people who’ve come across old posts through search engines, or I come across old posts in a review. Loops re-open, dangling threads are taken up again, and we continue.

Drawing thoughts on index cards

I’ve got quite a backlog of posts I want to publish, but I’ll squeeze this one in first. I want to think about how I can make the most of this new old (2011!) index card habit, and whether I should reconsider that voluntary bottleneck of publishing one post a day.

For the past two weeks, I’ve drawn at least five index cards each day. (You can find them on Flickr.) Each card explores a single thought. I like the way this lets me briefly capture what I’m curious about. I’ve included many of them in blog posts, grouping several thoughts into a larger chunk that’s easier to link to.

Still, at the present rate, my monthly review for January will link to well over 150 sketches. Perhaps I’ll change the monthly review section to list only the sketches that haven’t made it into blog posts yet. I’ve been keeping a digital equivalent of the roughly-sorted piles of index cards on my desk. It helps me see growing clusters of ideas and choose ones I want to develop with additional sketches or summarize into blog posts.

2015-01-14 Projecting my writing trajectory -- index card #writing

2015-01-14 Projecting my writing trajectory – index card #writing

Also, at the present rate of writing 1-3 blog posts a day (except for Thursdays, when I focus on consulting, and the weekends, when I focus on household life), I will keep accumulating scheduled posts. At some point, this will become unwieldy. It doesn’t make sense to schedule posts a year in advance. Even a backlog of three months seems too disconnected.

I can spend less time writing, but I’ve firmly wired it into the way I learn, so that’s hard. Alternatively, I could spend more time writing, developing thoughts over more time and packing denser experiences into a post. This approach might work.

2015-01-14 Projecting my trajectory -- index card #writing #sharing #pipeline

2015-01-14 Projecting my trajectory – index card #writing #sharing #pipeline

I can also get ideas out in other ways. My blog is the main archive I trust, but I can give myself permission to share one-off sketches on Twitter. For example, this sketch about keeping your drink safe from cats: it’s not quite a blog post and I don’t think I’ll develop the thought further, but it might be okay to share it on its own.

So, if I write blog posts for the thoughts that are already developed and tweets for the one-offs that won’t be developed further, that leaves the ideas that are waiting to be developed. They wait because I’m still figuring things out, or because they aren’t quite connected to other thoughts, or because my attention has moved on to other things. In Toyota Production System terms, they are muda – waste because of waiting or possible over-production.

I want to do better. What are some ways I can improve at this?

2015-01-16 Reflecting on reflecting with index cards -- index card #thinking #drawing

2015-01-16 Reflecting on reflecting with index cards – index card #thinking #drawing

 

2015-01-13 How can I do morning index cards more effectively -- index card #drawing

2015.01.13 How can I do morning index cards more effectively – index card #drawing

One way to reduce waste is to reduce quantity. Is five a good number for index cards, or should I reduce it to three? I think five works well for me. It forces me to dig deeper into a topic or to capture some of the other thoughts I have floating around.

Another way to reduce the waste in this process is to be more focused. If I think about and articulating 2-3 key questions for the week, that might guide most of my index cards. But then interesting ideas come up during the week, and I draw lots of cards for those as well. I turn many of my index cards into blog posts on the same day, so within each day, there’s focus. If I try to use any “extra” index cards to build on a previously-drawn thought, that helps me connect.

A third way is to reduce my attachment and let things go. Perhaps I might decide that after I make a monthly index of unblogged cards, I’ll clear that index and archive the physical cards. That way, each month starts fresh, but I still have the ability to go back and look for those roughly-categorized cards in case I have an idea that’s strongly connected to that. I don’t have to worry about visualizing this archive, tracking my statistics, using all the dangling threads, or getting to 100% use.

So that can help me deal with index cards, but what about blog posts? The benefits of limiting my blog to one post a day are:

  • I occasionally add to or revise a scheduled post, especially with feedback from sharing drafts
  • I can schedule different kinds of posts for a week, turning my sprint-type learning into a variety that helps readers
  • People don’t get as overwhelmed (although daily posts are already more frequent than most other blogs do, and I’m pleasantly boggled that this is the most frequent option chosen by people subscribing to the mailing list)

The downsides are:

  • If I write something useful, whoever searches for it while it’s in hidden draft mode won’t come across it, but I guess that’s almost the same as if I hadn’t written it at all
  • It delays the feedback cycle
  • Sometimes posts get out of date

One option is to go back to publishing two posts during the weekend: a weekly review, and maybe another thinking-out-loud/reflection post, since that’s the one that has the most surplus.

Another option is to post two times a day. I’m a little less keen on that, although it might be doable if I can keep my main archive but split off specific, lower-traffic, topic-focused views that people can subscribe to.

A third option is to write longer posts. I find my constraints on chunk size to be helpful, so maybe not.

Hmm. Maybe I’ll publish two posts during weekends, and then revisit this when I find myself scheduling three months out… =) Suggestions?