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Thinking about how virtual assistants can help me with learning and writing

I’ve been challenging my assumptions about what I have to do myself and what could be better with help. It would be a waste of time and talent to limit virtual assistants to just data entry or transcription. People can do so much, and they can learn even more.

2014-02-26 Thinking about delegation and projects

2014-02-26 Thinking about delegation and projects

Writing is one of those tricky tasks. I can’t stand generic link-building, keyword-stuffing articles. You know, the ones bashed out by SEO robots or humans doing a reasonable simulation thereof. Hasty writers hodgepodge snippets from various places. They may change words just enough to avoid plagiarism, but how can they add anything to the conversation? They don’t have the experience you have. They can’t tell the stories you can. They have a surface understanding of your field.

Still, I’m curious. Can I outsource part of my writing without feeling like I’m breaking the promises of my blog? Can I use people’s strengths instead of bumping into the weaknesses of outsourcing?

I have a personal blog, not a corporate one. I have no problems filling every day with things I’m learning. People find my writing readable. I don’t need help… but maybe I can learn how to make the most of it anyway.

For example, I’ve started making myself delegate web research tasks. This is tough. I keep thinking, “It’ll take me five to fifteen minutes to do this research myself.” I read at a blistering speed, and the research process helps me reformulate questions. It’s faster. I don’t have to wait.

But it turns out that delegating research means I have to be clear about what I’m looking for and how important it is to me. I can learn from other people’s search keywords and summaries. And each little bit of knowledge leaves its traces on two people: the assistant and me. Before, I was the only one who learned from any research I didn’t capture as blog posts. With delegation, the two of us learn, and the summary becomes something I can share.

Example web research tasks:

So web research is one thing that might be worth delegating, even if I think I can do it faster myself.

What about drafting and writing? One of the challenges of writing is empathizing with people who are new. When I write while I’m learning, this is easy. I struggle with the same things people struggle with. But what about the things that people ask me about, the things that I already take for granted? This is where other people’s questions and words can help.

I’ve assigned people to write about a topic I’ve outlined or sketched. I like the way that my outline becomes something both recognizable and different. Here are a couple of examples:

I really like the way people go beyond what I might think of doing or asking on my own. For example, this Trello tutorial is funnier than I probably would have made, and I like it.

What’s beyond that? Maybe more conversation. Speaking can be faster than writing. I struggle with speaking because it feels so unstructured. I’m not used to dictation yet. Maybe I’ll grow into that, in time.

I’ve been practising through interviews and transcripts, but not a lot of people host shows. Maybe I can ask my assistants to interview me about topics. That way, we’ll get a recording out of it as well (for people who prefer to listen or watch). They may ask follow-up questions that I wouldn’t have come up with.

Writing through other people also helps me learn more about my individual style. When I edit their work and give them feedback, I get a better sense of how I say or organize things. Maybe the differences will inspire me to pick up tips from them, too.

$20-30 seems a lot for a blog post that I can write myself, especially if I also invest time to outline and revise it. Still, I’m intrigued by the possibilities of learning from other people’s perspectives. I like the way that I can assign topics of mutual interest, so that both my assistant and I grow through writing. It’s worth exploring.

What would wild success look like? During this delegation experiment, I think it would be great to get to the point where I can make a list of questions I’m curious about. Assistants dig into those questions further. They interview me and other people along the way. I review their drafts, experiment with the ideas, and enrich the drafts with stories and results. We all learn.

I think some of the promises of my blog are: I will post things that I care about. I hope some of them will be useful for you. I won’t clutter your feed reader or inbox with bland, impersonal articles that you could find everywhere else. I won’t resort to clickbait headlines. I’ll share what I’m learning.

Maybe delegation is compatible with those promises. We’ll see. Here are two posts I’ve written with some help:

What do you think? Can there be an authentic way of blogging with other people’s help?

More notes on managing a large blog archive: 17 things I do to handle 10+ years of blog posts

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to manage a large archive to encourage discovery and serendipity, and to make it easier to fish out articles so that I can send them to people. I started in 2001-ish and have more than 6,500 posts. There’s not a lot of information on how to manage a large archive. Most blogging-related advice focuses on helping people get started and get going. Few people have a large personal archive yet. I love coming across other bloggers who have been at this for more than ten years, because information architecture is fascinating. Here’s what I do, in case it gives you any ideas.

  1.  I set up Google Chrome quick searches for my blog, categories, and tags. This means I can quickly dig up blog posts if I remember roughly where they are. (Gear > Settings > Search > Manage Search Engines):
    • Blog (b): https://www.google.ca/search?q=site%3Asachachua.com+%s
    • Blog category (bc): http://sachachua.com/blog/category/%s
    • Blog tag (bt): http://sachachua.com/blog/tag/%s
  2. I create pages with additional notes and lists of content. I use either Display Posts Shortcode or WP Views, depending on what I need. See the Emacs page as an example.
  3. I’ve started using Organize Series to set up trails through my content. It’s more convenient than manually defining links, and it allows people to page through the posts in order too. Read my notes to find examples. I’m also working on maps, outlines, and overviews.
  4. I’ve also started packaging resources into PDFs and e-books. It makes sense to organize things in a more convenient form.
  5. I converted all the categories with fewer than ten entries to tags. Categories can get unwieldy when you create them organically, so I use categories for main topics and tags for other keywords that might graduate to become categories someday. I think I used Categories to Tags Converter or Taxonomy Converter for this. Hah! Similar Posts reminded me that I used Term Management Tools. Awesome.
  6. I manually maintain a more detailed categorical index at sach.ac/index. This makes it easier for me to see when many blog posts are piling up in a category, and to organize them more logically.
  7. I set up short URLs for frequently-mentioned posts. The Redirection plugin does a decent job at this. For example, people often ask me about the tools I use to draw, and it’s great to just be able to type in http://sach.ac/sketchtools as an answer.
  8. I post weekly and monthly reviews. The weekly review includes links to that week’s blog posts, and the monthly review includes a categorized list. I’ve also set up daily, weekly, and monthly subscriptions based on the RSS feeds. This is probably overkill (more choices = lower subscriptions), but I want to give people options for how frequently they want updates. The weekly and monthly reviews are also helpful for me in terms of quickly getting a sense of the passage of time.
  9. I use Similar Posts to recommend other things people might be interested in. There are a number of similar plugins, so try different ones to see which one you like the most. I tried nRelate and the one from Zemanta, but I wasn’t happy with the way those looked, so I’m back to plain text.
  10. I show recent comments. People often comment on really old posts, and this is a great way for other people to discover them.
  11. I use post titles in my next/previous navigation, and I labelled them “Older” and “Newer”. I think they’re more interesting than
  12. I customized my theme pages to make it easier to skim through posts or get them in bulk. For example, http://sachachua.com/blog/2014/02 lists all the posts for February. http://sachachua.com/blog/2014/?bulk=1 puts all the posts together so that I can copy and paste it into a Microsoft Word file. http://sachachua.com/blog/2014/?org=1 puts it in a special list form so that I can paste it into Org Mode in Emacs. You can also pass the number of posts to a category page: http://sachachua.com/blog/category/drawing/?posts_per_page=-1 displays all the posts instead of paginating them. These tweaks make it easier for me to copy information, too.
  13. I give people the option to browse oldest posts first. Sometimes people prefer starting from the beginning, so I’ve added a link that switches the current view around.
  14. I have an “On this day” widget. Sometimes I notice interesting things in it. I used to put it at the end of a post, but I moved it to the sidebar to make the main column cleaner.
  15. For fun, I have a link that goes to a random post. I used to display random post titles in the sidebar, which might be an interesting approach to return to.
  16. I back up to many different places. I mirror my site as a development environment. I back up the database and the files to another web server and to my computer, and I duplicate the disk image with Linode too. I should set up incremental backups so that it’s easier to go back in time, just in case.
  17. I rated my posts and archived my favourite ones as a PDF so that I’ll still have them even if I mess up my database. Besides, it was a good excuse to read ten years of posts again.

Hope that gives you some ideas for things to experiment with! I’m working on organizing more blog posts into trails and e-books. I’m also getting better at planning what I want to write about and learn. If you’re curious about any of the techniques I use or you want to bounce around ideas, feel free to e-mail me at sacha@sachachua.com or set up a chat.

Do you have a large blog? How do you manage it?

How to develop your ideas into blog posts

This entry is part 13 of 19 in the series A No-Excuses Guide to Blogging

Do you find it easy to come up with lots of ideas for blog posts, but then find it difficult to sit down and actually write them–or spend hours drafting, only to decide that it’s not quite ready for posting?

I know what that’s like. On the subway, I jot a few notes for a post I want to write. At home, I add more ideas to my outline. Sometimes when I look at those notes, I think, “What on earth is this about?” Other times, I write a paragraph or two, and then my attention wanders. Over the years, I’ve gotten a lot better at getting posts out there. I still have more ideas than I can write, but at least a few of them make it into my blog! Here’s what works for me, and I hope it works for you too.

Capture your ideas. Write them down somewhere: a text file, an Evernote notebook, a piece of paper, whatever fits the way you work. You don’t have to write everything down, but it helps to have a list of ideas when you sit down to write. I use Evernote to take quick notes on my phone, and I use Org Mode for Emacs for my outline.

“Oh no! Now I have this huge list of unfinished ideas!” Don’t be intimidated. Think of it like a buffet – you can choose what you want, but it doesn’t mean that you have to finish everything.

Pick one idea and turn it into a question. Pick the idea that you’re most curious about, perhaps, or something that you’re learning. Turn it into a question so that you have a focus for your writing and you know when you’ve answered it. Questions help you keep both your perspective and your reader’s perspective in mind. Remembering your question will help you bring your focus back to it if your attention wanders. Remembering your readers’ potential question will help you empathize with them and write for them.

Break that question down into smaller questions until you can actually answer it in one sitting. For example: “How can you blog more?” is too big a question. In this post, I want to focus on just “How do you get past having lots of ideas that you don’t turn into blog posts?” Make the question as small as you can. You can always write another blog post answering the next question, and the next, and the next.

When you find yourself getting stuck, wrap up there. That probably means that your question was too big to begin with. Break it down even further. Figure out the question that your blog post answers, and revise your post a little so that it makes sense. Post. You can follow up with a better answer later. You can build on your past posts. Don’t wait until it’s complete. Post along the way.

I often run into this problem while writing technical posts. I start with “How do you do ABC?”… and get stuck halfway because of a bug or something I don’t understand. Then I turn my post into “Trouble-shooting XYZ” with my rough notes of how I’m figuring things out. I’d rather have written a complete guide, of course, but mistakes and false starts and rough notes are also useful in themselves.

Don’t think that you have to know everything and write everything perfectly the first time around. In fact, blogging can be more interesting and more useful when you do it as part of your journey.

Perfectionist? Take a close look at that anxiety. See if you can figure out what the root of that is. Is it useful for you, or is it getting in your way? There’s an advantage to being outwardly polished, yes, but there’s also an advantage to learning quickly and building relationships. One of the tips I picked up from the book Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work (Heath and Heath, 2013) was the idea of testing the stakes. Make a few small, deliberate mistakes. Ooch your way to better confidence. (See page 138 if you want more details.)

Tell me if this helps, or if you’re still getting stuck. More blogging excuse-busters here!

Series Navigation« Dealing with feeling scattered as a writer4 steps to a better blog by planning your goals and post types »

A no-excuses guide to blogging

UPDATE 2014-02-05: Download the PDF/EPUB/MOBI: A No-Excuses Guide to Blogging (free, pay what you want)

What’s getting in your way when it comes to writing?

2014-01-31 Getting good ideas out of your head - a path to publishing

2014-01-31 Getting good ideas out of your head – a path to publishing

Here are even more excuses, and some tips for dealing with them. =)

Excuse: “I don’t know what to write about.”
Write about what you don’t know.
Pay attention to what you’re learning.
Figure out what you think.
Ask for feedback.
Deal with writer’s block
Find tons of topics
Excuse: “There’s so much I can’t write about.”
Focus on what you can’t help but sharing.
Excuse: “But I’m not an expert yet!”
Share while you learn
Excuse: “I don’t want to be wrong.”
Test what you know by sharing
Excuse: “I feel so scattered and distracted.”
Don’t worry about your strategy
It’s okay to write about different things
Plan, organize, write, improve
Excuse: “I have all these ideas, but I never finish posts…”
Turn your ideas into small questions, then answer those.
Excuse: “I don’t feel like I’m making progress towards my goals.”
Be clear about your goals and possible approaches.
Excuse: “It takes too much time to write.”
Make sharing part of the way you work.
Excuse: “I’m too tired to write.”
Figure out what you can write better when you’re tired.
Excuse: “No one’s going to read it anyway.”
Focus on selfish benefits.
Get other people to read your posts.

See also other tips for new bloggers, and other posts related to blogging and writing. (Plus this list of WordPress plugins I use, if you’re curious about tech!)

Feel free to comment or email with more excuses and tips!

Daily blogging and different interests

I’ve been thinking about different approaches to learning. Some people are specialists, going deep in one topic before moving on to the next. Some people are generalists, learning about many topics and gradually bringing them together. This reminded me of two computer science algorithms: depth-first search and breadth-first search. (See this animation, or the Wikipedia pages for DFS and BFS). I tend to do more of the latter than the former, and I want to get better at it.

Applying computer science to learning

I’m curious about a lot of things. Because I can only focus on a few ideas at a time, most of those ideas and projects go on the back burner. Still, I enjoy working on a number of different topics each week, and I try to cover a decent variety of topics on my blog. Here’s roughly what I want to work on and write about each week:

What topics do I want to make progress in daily or weekly

I schedule my posts in advance, so these daily themes usually aren’t about scrambling to write a post the night before. Instead, I often pick something to focus on for a week. One week, I focused on mapping as part of learning, so most of my sketches and research were related to that. Then I write blog posts and schedule them for the next few weeks. In terms of a breadth-first search, it’s like exploring the next level of subtopics below the topic, and then moving on to the next topic. I also think about other topics during the week when the opportunities come up, but I’m not as focused on them.

One of the nifty things about using the Editorial Calendar plugin for WordPress is that I can see how the different categories stack up in terms of scheduled posts, so I can use that to plan my next focus. (Probably tech stuff – I haven’t written much about that lately!)

image

Anyway, that’s how daily blogging supports the interests I have, nudging me to make progress in different areas. Do you have a number of interests too? How do you remember to work on different parts?

How I organize and publish my sketches

In a recent blog post, Mel Chua wrote: “I’m still trying to figure out how to best store/catalogue my (growing) collection of sketches so it’s easy for people to access it.” So, here’s how I handle mine!

How I organize and publish my sketches

I have three types of sketches:

  • A1. Public: Sketches I can publish (and usually that I want to write about someday)
  • A2. Public, blogged: Sketches I have written about
  • B. Private sketches to help me think

My goals are to:

  • Support my writing: Blogging, naturally.
  • Search my sketches: Evernote’s fantastic for this, since I can have my public and private sketches in one place
  • Make my sketches publicly searchable: Evernote shared folders are great for that; Flickr and my blog are useful too. I often use Evernote to give someone a keyword search or tag search through my sketchnotes, sketchbook, or visual vocabulary. (Evernote users can join these notebooks and get updates automatically!)
  • Publish most of my sketches: Blogging can take me a while, so I try to get public sketches out there as soon as possible so that they don’t get lost. Flickr and Evernote help.
  • Flip through my sketches: Great for doing reviews and triggering memories. =) Can’t beat paging through local files manually or in a slideshow.
  • Organize my sketches by topic: Evernote, Flickr, and my blog let me tag things with keywords, while a mindmap lets me give my sketches more structure.
  • Share sketches widely: My blog and Twitter seem to be the best ways to do this, although Flickr is useful too.
  • Open sketches for discussion: My blog is the best place for that, although Flickr and Twitter are handy as well.
  • Update my sketches: Whether I’m colouring things in or checking off boxes, I want an easy way to get to a sketch and update it in Evernote and Flickr. If I’ve blogged about it, I’m okay with the blog post having the archived version of the image.
  • Archive my sketches: I want to back up digital copies in several places so that I can recreate my collection if needed. Blogging, Flickr, Dropbox/file backups, PDF collections…

Stuff I’ve tried that didn’t work out so well:

  • Referring to external services in my blog posts: Flickr? The Gallery2 instance I installed? Problematic if code changes, services go down, accounts are discontinued, or (in one annoying case) my self-hosted Gallery2 gets compromised. Disk space is cheap, so I just re-publish images using WordPress’ upload mechanisms (most blogging tools handle this automatically).
  • Picking just one way to publish stuff: Flickr is better for volume and some discussion, Evernote is better for search, my blog is better for sharing and long-term search. Since no tool has everything I need, I’ll just have to put up with the hassle of replicating information.
  • Just using automatic organization: For the last few years, I relied on Dropbox folders and Evernote items. Dropbox folders are fine for organizing by date and Evernote’s great for tags, but I want manual organization as well – organizing things by topics and subtopics, tracking things in progress, and so on. That’s why I’m experimenting with mindmaps now.

Stuff I’m working on next:

  • Monthly and quarterly PDF packages of my sketches, organized by date or topic: for ease of printing and review
  • Letting people know about available resources (my Flickr stream or Evernote notebooks) so that they can search/discuss/subscribe

See my drawing workflow for other notes about my process. Hope this helps!