Objectives: Dig into how I write and see if I can dislodge something that can be improved; connect with other people who sometimes struggle with writing to show that hey, they’re not alone.
I’ve been experimenting with writing headlines first. That’s a popular blogging tip: come up with two or three headlines, and you might find that the rest of the blog post writes itself.
Except that most of the time, I don’t know what I want to write about until I start writing it. Maybe the blog post is about a technical problem that I’m still trying to solve. Maybe it’s about a personal question that I need to explore. Maybe it’s even a bit of both. I write and write and write. It takes shape. Then I cut out what doesn’t belong there any more, come up with a title or two, and stash the clippings for a future post.
I still haven’t figured out how to write to an outline or a plan. I wander. My occasional attempts at having daily themes for my blog dissipate after a week or two, with the exception of my weekly review. Instead, I write whatever comes to mind, although sometimes I schedule the posts apart so that I’m not writing about the same topic four days in a row.
I write from the bottom up, one chunk at a time, gradually bringing ideas together with links and categories. Now that I think of it this way, it makes a lot of sense. A wiki lends itself to top-down writing, because you can link to pages that don’t exist. Blog posts tend to link to the past, instead of the future.
Part of it is because I like taking a closer look at topics, ignoring the big picture in favor of detail. I’m less interested in mapping out the entirety of a space, and more interested in answering one question at a time. My questions tend to be bite-size. I don’t dwell on the overall structure of an area. I ask: what’s the smallest thing I could learn in order to move forward? This is great for learning and for making progress, but it might be hard for other people to follow.
How can I experiment with this so that I can gradually get used to writing with a plan? Every so often, I make an outline of things I’d like to write about, but I tend to ignore this outline in favor of other ideas that come up. Persistence and experimentation, perhaps.
I can leave more notes for myself, reminding me why I was curious about something. I can write with a checklist – even if it means filling in objectives and calls to action after the post is drafted.
I can get better at stashing snippets so that I edit more ruthlessly, and maybe I might even file those in these words somewhere in my outline. Probably Org Mode, then, or maybe Evernote with tags.
I can tell people what my plans are, so that people can give me feedback on whether it works for them. In deliberate practice, it helps to call your shots.
It would be good to learn how to write methodically, to survey the land from a high point before whacking my way through the jungle, to define landmarks that can help me see my progress.
Other people have figured it out. I can learn how to do so too.
The idea of learning a new skill can be overwhelming. If you break the skill down into specific things you can learn, it becomes much more manageable. Tim Ferris used this to hack cooking (video) by dissociating it from shopping for groceries or cleaning up. Josh Kaufman’s new book The First 20 Hours fleshes out how to rapidly learn, illustrating it with stories, examples, and practical tips for a wide range of skills. A key insight? You don’t have to be amazing, just good enough to enjoy the skill, and 20 hours is enough to get you there if you learn effectively. (Even if it turns out to be more complex than that, stick with it anyway, and then see where you are at 20 hours.) Click on the one-page summary below to view or download a larger version. Feel free to share this visual book review! (Creative Commons Attribution – I’d love it if you link back to this site and tell me about it. =) ) It should print out fine on letter-sized paper, too. The book is both practical and entertaining, especially if you’ve been curious about some of the areas he covers in his chapters. =) While the advice is common sense, the application of the advice makes it interesting – and the stories might nudge you into taking similar steps towards the skill you’d like to develop the most. Besides, the book has stick figures in the chapter on yoga and shell commands and a Ruby tutorial in the chapter on programming. Not that many books can pull that off, although if you’re the type who reads things like travel books for just one chapter, you might grumble about paying for all the other chapters you’re not interested in. 20 hours isn’t going to make you an expert in something, but it might get you farther than you think. Intrigued by the ideas? You can check your local library to see if they have a copy, or buy your own: The First 20 Hours (affiliate link). What I’m going to do with this book One of the benefits of this experiment with semi-retirement is that I have the time and space to explore what I’d like to learn. Not all of it at once, but I can certainly make decent headway on a few skills I want to improve. I rarely start from scratch, so it’s not that I’m really spending my first 20 hours on something – new interests are usually offshoots of something that I already do well or enjoy, because unfair advantages lead to other unfair advantages. I like programming, writing, going through flashcards… I even get along with accounting.
The biggest new thing that I don’t yet intrinsically enjoy is strength training, which (as the name indicates) is probably more about
– my body has to adapt to it, and that takes time.
So, let’s pick another skill. Something that I haven’t dived deeply into, but that I’m curious about. Some candidates:
Creating animated videos (and not cheesy fake-written ones, either)
Programming speech recognition macros (NatLink)
Visualizing data with D3.js or other visualization libraries
Of the three, I think visualizing data with D3.js will be the most fun for me. I can break that down this way:
Manipulate the data into a form that’s easy to work with in D3.js
Create typical graphs
Create custom graphs
Use D3.js for non-graph applications
Integrate the visualizations into web apps or blog posts
In terms of barriers, it’s really just about sitting down with some data and the documentation. I’ve worked with D3 before. I just have to practise enough to grok it. The most important skill to master first, I think, is creating typical graphs. If I get that into my brain, I can imagine custom graphs and other applications from there. So learning this skill might involve doing “programming kata”: take an existing data set and visualize it in different ways using common chart types. It’s also useful to look at how other people are breaking down skills and learning them. Duncan Mortimer (who I think is the same as the Duncan Mortimer behind this WriteOrDie mode for Emacs?) wants to write blog posts better. He came up with this list of skills that he wants to work on in terms of blogging:
Choosing a topic
Asking yourself questions
Topics that choose themselves — blogging what you’re learning or as you’re learning
Drafting the post
Avoiding editing while writing
Editing the post
Publishing the post
Scheduling posts for future publication
Uploading to the hosting service
Adding categories and tags; making it ‘discoverable’
I’m also interested in writing more effectively. For me, the key things I’m working on are:
Outlining: Planning the structure before I start writing. Doesn’t work for all the posts, but I might be able to use it to speed things up. Practice: Flesh out my sharing outline (hah, you can even send patches or make suggestions through the issues queue) as a separate activity from writing. (See how I’m doing so far in terms of time.)
Illustration: Coming up with a hand-drawn image to illustrate my blog posts nudges me to think about the key point or idea in the post, and it’s good practice for sketchnoting too. Practice: It’s like adding an item to my blogging checklist to quickly sketch an image if I can.
Anyway, here’s the book again if you’re curious. Disclosure: I’ll get a small commission if you buy anything from Amazon using the links in this post, but you could also see if your local library has the book. (I got this one from the Toronto Public Library!) Check out first20hours.com for more info. Like this? Check out my other visual book reviews!
UPDATE 2013-06-27: All right, we’re going with sach.ac as the URL shortener. Thanks for your input! =D
I draw a lot of notes, and I want to give people an easy way to find out more. URLs can get really long to type in, and sometimes the sketches are displayed for only a short period of time. I’ve been using the j.mp URL shortener (bonus: statistics!), but I don’t want to rely on a third-party service which could disappear and break links down the road. Besides, j.mp/bit.ly/etc. are sometimes blocked from corporate networks.
So I decided to register my own short domain. This adds to my yearly blog-related expenses, but I think it will make it much easier for people to learn more. After searching for lots of alternatives, it turns out that sach.ac and liv.gd were still available as domains. I like sach.ac because it’s based on my nickname, although people are going to mentally punctuate my name oddly (it’s actually Sacha C.).People frequently misspell “Sacha” as “Sasha”, so I also registered Liv.gd as a shortcut for LivingAnAwesomeLife.com, which is an alternate domain name for this site. (I use that when I don’t have the opportunity to spell my name out for people, or if I want people to smile and remember.) Liv.gd = “Live Good”… which is ungrammatical but fun.
So… Any thoughts on which to choose? (If you don’t see the poll, please check out this post on my website!)
I might even shift to using one of those short URLs as my “main” domain (the one that gets shown in links and in the address bar)…
Here are some sample URLs for this post, to give you an idea of what the shortened URLs will look like:
I registered liv.gd with names.gd for 25 USD a year, and sach.ac with nic.ac for 60 GBP a year. If you’re registering an .ac domain, check resellers to see if you can get it cheaper – I should’ve gotten the domain from hexonet.net instead (27 GBP). Pricey experiment, but that’s what the opportunity fund is for!
After I registered the domains, I configured them to use Linode’s nameservers and added them to my Nginx web server configuration. I’m using WordPress’ Redirection plugin to handle custom redirects, so that all of my blog post URLs are automatically available as sach.ac/… and I can define custom ones as needed. =)
*squee!* It turns out that virtually hanging out with people–no pre-planned presentation, not even a fully-tested understanding of the platform, and only the roughest idea of an agenda–can be totally awesome. Not at all as scary as I’d imagined, and more fun than I thought it could be!
It felt amazing, like having a bunch of friends over for tea, except without the temptation to keep cooking. People were freely chatting with each other, and I didn’t have to worry about filling in the silences. In fact, the combination of a voice/video/text chat worked out wonderfully – I could listen to people share their insights, and I could chime in without interrupting. I picked up lots of ideas for things I want to learn more about or share, and I learned all sorts of interesting things about people who participated.
It was a great shared learning experience, too. People talked me through dealing with the platform’s technical limitations – changing the Hangout to a Hangout on Air, remembering to start the broadcast… We played around with some of the features of Google Hangout. Hangout Toolbox’s “Lower Third” addsa newscast-like attribution to your video, which makes it easier to see who’s speaking. Google Drive’s shared documents and sketchpad real-time editing sparked ideas about collaboration.
NEXT STEPS IN TERMS OF HANGING OUT
So this was fun, and we should definitely do an experiment #2. =) I’m so glad people joined me in this experiment, and I’m looking forward to the next one! Which will be… hmm… I’ve promised to organize ones in other timezones as well, so July 3 9 PM PHT / 1 PM GMT / 9 AM EDT, and another one on July 17 at 8:30 PM EDT. =) I think a fun way to make this work is to sort out the scheduling details with at least one other person who can be there. That way, even if no one else shows up and it’s a short conversation, I won’t feel like I’m talking to myself.
For the next virtual hangout, I want to try using AnyMeetingso that people don’t get turned away at the (virtual) door. Google Hangouts are limited to ten people, although more people can watch the video stream. (They don’t have access to the text chat, though!) I can imagine that audio/video gets chaotic past a certain number of people, but if people can toggle their audio/video on as needed and we use the text chat to let any number of people ask and answer… I think that would be a great possibility to explore.
In the meantime, people can discuss topics or connect with each other through Google+ or other channels. Once the recording is up there, it’ll be easier for people to remember what we talked about. Since it’s difficult to take notes and listen and talk and type all at the same time, my memory’s all fuzzy until I get a chance to review the recording, too! I look forward to digging into some of the ideas (see “Next steps in terms of blogging” below for the ones I remember), and maybe people can connect with other people to follow up on things that sparked their interest.
Maybe I’ll inch my way up towards regularly doing this every month, every two weeks (or even every week!) in various timezones. I like the idea of hanging out, getting to know people, hearing what’s on people’s minds and what’s going on in people’s lives, and watching people connect with others. I’ve learned so much from people through blog comments and e-mail through the years. Maybe it’s like an open house, like the way I structure my get-togethers so that people can come any time they want and leave any time they need to. I can just sit down with a cup of tea and hear from whoever wants to share what’s going on in their life – maybe anchored with one conversation that I know I’m going to have, but opened up to anyone who wants to drop by. I don’t know whether public recording or unknown participation will get in the way of sharing, but maybe it’s worth a try.
Another way to look at it—probably an even better way—maybe this is about creating more opportunities to learn from people, and by learning from people, I can help those people learn even more. Most people don’t blog, or they feel self-conscious about writing when they don’t know who’s reading. One of my favourite ads is this IBM Linux one from 2003, where lots of people teach this young boy about life. I often feel that my life is like that, except maybe with more facial expressions and sound effects. ;) If you help me (or the other people who come to these hangouts), you help lots of other people, and maybe those tips get turned into blog posts or visual notes too. So maybe we pick things we want to learn about together, and people volunteer to share what they’ve learned, and we all move forward while also telling stories and swapping tips… =)
NEXT IN TERMS OF BLOGGING
More collaboration: It might be interesting to put my to-blog list out there in a form that other people can add to—maybe a Google Doc? And maybe if I develop closer connections with people reading this blog, then people will feel comfortable pushing back when I don’t explain something clearly or I take something for granted so that I can learn how to write better. =) Maybe I can collaborate with people on outlines and questions for things that I should write or make: that Emacs book that I ended up passing to someone else (who also procrastinated it)? a guide to sketchnoting? tips on how to live an awesome life?
I’d love to learn more about speech recognition. I’ve been thinking about it as a way to make my posts sound more conversational. (I read much more than I talk, so I tend to sound bookish.) Because I need to train the speech recognition model, I’ll probably be slower in the beginning. If I can get it to be reasonably accurate, it might be a good way to get thoughts out quickly someday.
Helping people get better at blogging: While I don’t have the One Right Answer, I can share what’s working for me, and I might be able to help people—especially if they can figure out what kind of help they need, like a little bit of social accountability or a friendly person they can ask when they have questions. =)
Onward and upward! I’ve created a new page at sachachua.com/hangout that will include details for upcoming hangouts. Looking forward to more experiments!
This Wednesday, I’m experimenting with two virtual ways to connect, and I hope you’ll join me in figuring things out!
From 3 PM EDT to 4 PM EDT on June 19 (Wed), I’m joining Augustin Soler and Chuck Frey to give a visual thinking webinar organized by Matt Tanguay. We’re each giving a 15-minute presentation with Q&A. Augustin will talk about Lean UX Process at Mural.ly, Chuck will talk about 5 Brainstorming Tasks You Can Manage with Mindmapping Software, and I’ll talk about How to Use Evernote to Improve Your Visual Thinking. There’s a nominal fee of $5, but you can register for free with the promotional code “sachachua”.
I’ll do a quick demo of my Evernote setup and processes, and I hope people will pick up lots of timesavers and interesting ideas from the short talk. It builds on my previous blog post about how I use Evernote to support my sketchnoting. Since a lot of people don’t know that you can use Evernote to search image notes or publish notebooks of your sketches, it’s good to share these tips.
15 minutes each is not much time for demo/Q&A, but if people ask lots of questions in the webinar chat, I’d love to answer those questions in follow-up blog posts and conversations. I’ll be recording it on my side, and Matt will probably record it on his side as well. Looking forward to sharing the notes afterwards too!
In addition to the webinar, I’m also experimenting with an open Google Hangout about blogging from 8PM to 9PM EDT on Wednesday, June 19. I’ve been thinking about where we can take this blog and what I can do to make it better, and I’d love to hear from people. Google Hangout seems like an interesting way to connect. =) If I can get to know people through that – what are you here for? what would you like to learn more about? – and get lots of questions either over video or in the text chat, I think that would totally rock. Shall we give it a try?
To give you a sense of what it’ll be like, here’s a rough sketch that I’ll use at the start of the hangout:
I’m really interested in virtual meetups and communities because I don’t want good ideas to be limited to geographic locations. I want to help figure out ways that people can connect and share—visual thinking, sketchnoting, Quantified Self, Emacs, blogging… Although Toronto has a very active in-person meet-up scene, there are all sorts of interesting people around the world, and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able to bump into each other online. Can you help me experiment with these ways and figure out how to do even better?
If you’re interested, you can register for the visual thinking webinar(again, free with the promotional code sachachua, but paying for admission helps the organizer defray the cost of the online meeting service) or sign up for the Google Hangout (when it’s time for the event, just click on the “Hangouts” link to join the call!). I’d love to hear your questions and suggestions about the topics, and your meta-feedback about these ways to connect online!
“So I’m planning to start a blog… How do I do it? How do I build an audience?”
It’s okay. Don’t worry. Write anyway.
Write notes for yourself, because writing can help you think and remember. Write about what you’re learning. Write about your answers to other people’s questions. Write about your own questions, and write about the answers you find.
At some point—and earlier than you think you’re ready—make it easy for people to come across your blog. Add it to your e-mail signature. Add it to your social media profiles. Let people find you, read you, and learn more about you.
Look for more questions to explore. Share your notes on your blog. Answer them where you found the question, too, and share a link. Soon you’ll find yourself saying in conversations, “Oh yeah! I wrote about that recently and…”
Read blogs, news, books, whatever you enjoy. Blog your questions, your thoughts, your lessons learned. Name-drop liberally: link to the person who wrote the post you’re thinking about, and maybe they’ll follow that back to find you. (Lots of people regularly search for their names, and many bloggers look at their analytics to see incoming links.) Comment on other people’s blogs, too – share what you’re learning from them and what questions you may have.
You find your community, person by person. But you can start by building your blog for yourself, this ever-growing accumulation of things you’re learning and things you’re curious about, this time machine that’s going to be an amazing resource when it’s 2023 and you’re wondering what you were like ten years ago. The conversations are icing on the cake.
My early blog posts are almost unintelligible. That’s because they were my class notes and computer notes, back when I was trying to figure out how to get a text editing program to publish web pages and maybe this newfangled idea of a “web log.” Your first blog posts don’t have to be ready for the New York Times. Just start, and don’t worry if no one’s reading. You can get plenty of value out of writing even on your own. (But post in public anyway, because the conversations are a lot of fun and you’ll learn a lot from people’s questions and insights.) Enjoy!