Category Archives: blogging

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!

Building a better time machine

I’ve written before about how a blog is like a time machine, reflecting on my growth as a speaker or looking back over the past decade. It’s wonderful having all these notes. I often find myself referring to things from years ago – many of the technical posts are still useful, surprisingly – and then I bump into other memories nearby.

What can I do now to build a better time machine for me to use in another ten years or more? How can I tweak what I’m sharing and how I’m sharing it so that I can make the most of it? Let me think about how this has worked in the past, so that I can build on what’s been working well.

People like the tech posts, the workflow posts, the reflection posts where they recognize something they’ve been thinking about themselves. So those are all good. I also like point-in-time descriptions to help me remember what it was like. Maybe I’ll take those process journal entries and copy them in periodically so that they’re available somewhere.

I wonder: what other people have learned about writing for their futures? Here’s a snippet from Louise DeSalvo’s The Art of Slow Writing (2014):

p98. In her essay “On Keeping a Notebook”, [Joan] Didion describes what her notebook isn’t. It isn’t “an accurate factual record” because our recollection of an event might be vastly different from someone else’.s It isn’t to “dutifully record a day’s events” because that task inevitably becomes boring, and such a record conveys little or no meaning. Nor should we necessarily expect that we might one day open our notebooks and find “a forgotten account” of an event we can pluck for our work.

Instead, Didion believes that the notebook’s value lies in its record of “How it felt to be me” at a particular time. This, she says, is the notebook’s truth. Although we might imagine using it to fix our impressions of others, instead, “Remember what it was to be me: that is always the point” of the notebook. Part of a writer’s education is “to keep on noding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.” Reading our notebooks helps us to keep in touch with those past selves, and a record of “How it felt to be me” can be extraordinarily useful in writing memoir, creating fictional characacters, or writing poetry.

p100. Didion remarks on the fact that we change over time but that we forget the people we were: “I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be,” she says. Without a notebook record, these selves are lost to us. For a writer, “keeping in touch” with our past selves is helpful. … As Didion reminds us, “We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget.”

So, maybe the occasional snapshot of “How it felt to be me,” a way to remember that there are selves to remember. Otherwise the time blurs.

From that essay of Joan Didion:

Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.

I think that might be part of it, a little bit of that worry (not a lot, but it’s there, lurking in the background) that I might forget (no, will!) large chunks of my life, because even last month is a little fuzzy without notes and last year gets condensed into a few highlights. But no, that isn’t quite it either, since I don’t really hang on to the memories tightly even with my notes and my archive; I don’t reread, I don’t memorize.

Ah. I think this is it: my blog lets my past selves connect with other people who are looking for this stuff here and now (or in the future, as the case may be). So even if I am a different self–focused on other projects, learning about other interests–those past selves are there to nod at other people and share a little of what we’ve learned along the way. Mostly I leave things as snippets and blog posts, but on occasion, I consolidate things into summaries and documents – a clearer guide, a past self updated with a little present knowledge.

Hmm…

Thinking about word counts and chunks

I was talking to Frank Chen about blogging, and he mentioned that he’s experimenting with word count goals. That made me realize that I don’t pay much attention to word count when I write, and that I tend to write shorter posts. I think in terms of chunks of ideas. I write each post so that it covers one idea, either something I want to share or something I want to learn. Sometimes I cover a little more ground, if I can chunk the sub-ideas enough to hold them in my brain at the same time. Sketches help me a lot when it comes to developing thoughts further.

I rarely write larger posts that bring lots of things together. I guess it’s because I tend to write about:

  • things I’ve just learned: publishing small chunks helps me get my notes out faster
  • things I’m figuring out: nibbling away at questions helps me make sense of them
  • answers to specific questions: small chunks and clear titles makes it easier for me to find things and share links later

What are some examples of longer posts and resources I’ve worked on?

  • There’s How to Read Lisp and Tweak Emacs, which I published as a four-part weekly series and also as a single file.
  • There’s the No Excuses Guide to Blogging, which I published as a PDF/EPUB/MOBI. I linked the source blog posts into a series so that people coming across the posts in the archives can still navigate between them.
  • I post presentations like The Shy Connector as slides and a full blog post. That said, I usually try to keep my presentations to about 10-15 minutes anyway, so the resulting posts are not enormous.
  • Interviews or videos with transcripts can get really long because I talk quickly. For example, this Emacs Chat with John Wiegley is pretty long. I’ve experimented with breaking transcripts up into logical segments, but keeping the entire transcript together seems to make more sense to me.

What would it be like to experiment with longer posts that cover more ground? Based on the blogs I like reading, I think it might mean writing more thorough guides like the ones on Mastering Emacs – things that people would bookmark and refer to a few times.

Organized guides help beginners a lot because they don’t get lost trying to figure out the next step. They can keep scrolling down. On the flip side, it might take a bit more work to make long guides friendlier for intermediate and advanced users: a table of contents, links to alternative paths or related content, closer and more coherent discussion…

Hmm. I feel a little odd about drafting a long resource (takes time to write and takes time to read), and deep-linking into part of a blog post can be a little difficult.

I think I like working with short chunks that I can link to or assemble into different pieces. Maybe I’ll spend a little more time planning outlines and series of related posts so that I can link posts together and fill in the gaps. For now, I’ll leave the ultimate-guide-writing to other people who are better at linear organization (or to future Sacha when she writes books).

Onward to better writing and sharing!

Publishing WordPress thumbnail images using Emacs and Org2Blog

I often include large images in my blog posts since I use sketches as another way to think out loud. I’d gotten used to using the WordPress web interface to drag and drop them into the relevant section of the page. I write most text in Emacs/Org Mode/Org2Blog because of the better outlining and writing tools, and then I used sacha/org-copy-region-as-html (which you can grab from my Emacs configuration) to copy the HTML markup and paste it into WordPress. Of course, I use Emacs for source-code heavy posts that make the most of its syntax formatting support.

Someone asked me recently about how to post and update blog posts with images through Org2blog, and if I had any recommendations for workflow. I’d dropped Windows Live Writer since it was flaking out on me and the WordPress web interface had improved a lot, but before recommending just using WordPress to add images, I was curious about whether I could improve my blogging workflow by digging into Org Mode and Org2Blog further.

It turns out (like it usually does in the Emacs world) that someone had already solved the problem, and I just didn’t have the updated version. Although the upstream version of Org2Blog didn’t yet have the thumbnail code, searching for “org2blog wordpress thumbnail” led me to cpbotha’s Github issue and pull request. Punchagan’s version had some changes that were a little bit ahead of cpbotha’s, so I dusted off my ancient org2blog repository, cloned it onto my computer, and issued the following commands:

git remote add upstream https://github.com/punchagan/org2blog
git pull upstream master
git remote add cpbotha https://github.com/cpbotha/org2blog.git
git pull cpbotha image-thumbnail

and tested it out on a blog post I’d already drafted in Org. It took me a little while to remember that the file URLs didn’t like ~, so I specified a relative path to the image instead. But then it all worked, yay! A quick git push later, and my Github repository was up to date again.

So now I’m back to running a Git version of org2blog instead of the one that I had installed using the built-in packaging system. The way I make it work is that I have this near the beginning of my Emacs configuration:

;; This sets up the load path so that we can override it
(package-initialize nil)
;; Override the packages with the git version of Org and other packages
(add-to-list 'load-path "~/elisp/org-mode/lisp")
(add-to-list 'load-path "~/elisp/org-mode/contrib/lisp")
(add-to-list 'load-path "~/code/org2blog")
(add-to-list 'load-path "~/Dropbox/2014/presentations/org-reveal")
;; Load the rest of the packages
(package-initialize t)
(setq package-enable-at-startup nil)

This allows me to mostly use the packages and to satisfy dependencies, but override some of the load paths as needed.

Hope that helps someone else!

Questionnaires from people

As part of blog series or e-book compilations, people sometimes ask me to answer questionnaires they’ve put together. Sometimes they mention the size of their audience. Sometimes, they focus on our shared interests.

On one hand, it’s good that other people are putting together resources, and sometimes these things lead to interesting new conversations. On the other hand, grist for another’s mill, and I generally don’t enjoy reading short, too-standard answers.

So if I’m going to do stuff like that, I want to focus on the things I like. I never promise to write answers, and I don’t commit to a specific date. I mull over the questions and cherrypick the ones I find interesting. Not very generous of me, I suppose, but it keeps me happy. <laugh>

People are usually curious about the past: how one got started, what was helpful, what would you change. I tend to focus more on present and near-future, since that helps me a lot, and I’m not quite ready to hold my life up as an example that other people should be inspired by or follow. It’s good to take notes along the way, though, since it’s hard to reconstruct from memories afterwards.

So I’m okay with describing things and I can see the value of having a gallery of different approaches… What’s the core of this, then? Maybe I’m not keen on the Q-and-short-A format. Might as well be a sketch so that I can practise that. Might as well try to wring out ideas for the future, notes to self – which don’t make as much sense outside the context of my blog, I guess.

Hmm. I think there might be something there. In the context of my blog, it’s clearer that life is a work in progress, and people can come across updates. I can link to things back and forth, and it’s easier for me to keep track of comments.

I like it when people link to or excerpt my blog posts, since most of the time, bloggers make it easy to get back to the context. They put more of themselves into the post, too, sharing what they liked or what they think. It’s different from having a short bio at the end.

Oh! Maybe that’s something else that’s playing into this… I tend to feel meh about most of the guest posts I read, the generic-ish articles with short bios written for link-building and audience-building purposes. We might be a small tribe, but it’s okay for us to grow slowly through remarkable ideas rather than from exposure.

So I’ll still take people’s questions under advisement, but I’ll reflect on those questions on my own schedule and to the extent that I want to, and I’ll share those reflections on my blog. If people want to excerpt/link back, they’re welcome to do so. Let’s try that out…

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?