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Write about what you don’t know: 5 tips to help you do research for your blog

This entry is part 2 of 19 in the series A No-Excuses Guide to Blogging

Blogging should expand your brain. It’s a great tool for learning things, so why limit yourself to what you think you’re an expert on? I want to write about things I don’t know. Then I can help other people get started, and other  people can help me learn. (Hence the preponderence of “Thinking about…” and “Learning…” posts on my blog versus “How to…” posts.)

Research lets you jumpstart your learning by building on other people’s experiences. Fortunately, you have access to more information than you could ever read, thanks to the wonders of the Internet.

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I’ve been re-learning how to research and how to synthesize that information for blog posts. It’s much more useful when you’re no longer trying to pad a school report with three to five reliable sources. Did you come across an interesting post on a blog? A great message on a forum? Go ahead and link to them, no PhDs required.

1. Make an outline of the questions you want to answer or ideas you want to explore.

You’ll be reading a lot. It helps to have a framework that shows you what you’ve covered and what you need to look for next. Here are some outlining tips from Journalistics. Here’s an example: my outline for blogging skills.

2. Search for “good enough” resources.

Don’t worry about finding the absolute best resource. Look for good-enough resources, and prioritize as you find more. Don’t link just for the sake of linking. Every link should add more insights or details.

I usually go through the first five to ten pages of Google search results. If people quote an even better source, I follow that link. Sometimes I’ll try different search queries based on the titles of blog posts I like.

You can quickly get a sense of whether a blog post is better than other things you’ve read. Does it give specific, punchy, perhaps unexpected advice illustrated with personal experiences, or is it your run-of-the-mill link-building blahblahblah? Speed-reading can pay off a lot here.

Want to go into greater depth? Look for relevant books and read them, summarizing the key points for your readers. Google Book Search is great for searching inside books, and Amazon’s recommendations are handy too. I sometimes check out seven or more books on a single topic, read them all over a week, and pick out key points for a blog post. This is an excellent way to add value, because most people won’t have the time to read the same books.

You can also check out other channels: podcasts, Twitter conversations, online Q&A sites, magazines, research papers… Go beyond blog posts when looking for resources, and you’ll find plenty of relevant material.

Good news – you can’t lose. If you find excellent resources right away, then you don’t have to write a big blog post. Just learn from those resources, and maybe write a post with your question and links to the best resources you found. If you spend an hour searching and you can’t find anything you really like, that’s fine too. Chances are that other people are frustrated by it too. Take that as a cue to write the blog post you wish you’d read.

3. Add key points and links to your outline.

By adding to your outline along the way, you’ll see how ideas are related to each other and where the gaps are. If you’re copying an exact quote, add quotation marks so that you don’t accidentally plagiarize it when rereading your notes. Better yet, paraphrase it right away. To make citations easier, add attributions or links. That way, you don’t have to chase down references.

Here are Cal Newport’s tips on how to use an outline to write papers quickly: outline the topic, find solid sources, capture quotes, and then turn that outline into your paper. Works for blog posts too.

4. Reorganize your outline and notes.

Take another look at your outline and reorganize it until the flow makes sense. The order in which you find resources is rarely the order in which you want to share them. For example, you may want to categorize the tips you’ve picked up, combine similar items, and arrange them in a logical order. You can also compare different viewpoints and line up the arguments for each alternative, then conclude with recommendations. With a little paraphrasing, you might be able to fit the tips into a creative mnemonic. Play around with the structure before you start writing your post.

5. Add value through summaries, insights, and personal experiences.

While searching for resources, you might have noticed an intimidatingly large number of results. For example, searching for how to do research for your blog gets more than a billion search results. Why add one more?

You’ve probably also noticed that many results are missing something. Maybe you didn’t find a single post that answers the exact question you wanted to explore (or if it did, the answer was buried in an intimidatingly long post). Maybe most of the search results are fluffy self-promotional pieces. Maybe they’re badly formatted and hard to read.

There’s room for you to add something of value, even if it’s just a good summary. Other people could spend a few hours reading all those search results and books, and trying to map out the insights from various resources… but if you’ve already done the work, why not save them some time and share what you’ve learned so far?

Add your own tips. While researching, you’ll probably think of a few points that you can’t find in the pages that you’ve seen so far. Write them down. Maybe other people didn’t write about those tips because they’re more experienced than you and they took that for granted, but other beginners will find those tips useful. Maybe other people didn’t write about those tips because you’re more experienced than they are (or at least you’ve made different mistakes). Add your thoughts.

Tell personal stories. Instead of just sharing advice, share your experiences in applying that advice. What worked well for you? What could have gone better? This is a great way to learn more, too – you’re not just passing on advice, you’re trying things out and adding your own perspective. A.J. Jacobs and Gretchen Rubin do this really well in their books on life experiments, and are definitely worth reading.

I hope these five steps will help you learn new things while writing blog posts. You don’t have to limit yourself to what you know. You can use your blog to help you learn. Good luck and have fun!

How do you research ideas for your blog posts?

Image credits: Stack of books by discpicture (via Shutterstock) 

Author’s note: I feel like this post should have more links in it, given the subject. I’m not particularly impressed with most of the posts I came across in my research, though (see the last point in step 2). Do you have any favourite resources along these lines?

Series Navigation« A No Excuses Guide to Blogging (PDF, EPUB, MOBI – free!); also, notes on publishingThe learning machine: How I turn what I learn into blog posts »

Learning how to work with stock photos: Can you help me?

The advice these days is to include a large image in your blog post, somewhere “above the fold”, so that it can attract attention, visually break up the page, and make your blog post more interesting. That way, blog themes that use featured images can include that as the thumbnail, and magazine-style feed readers (I use Feedly) can make your posts look cool. The image should be relevant. If you’re using someone else’s image, observe copyright and attribution requirements.

There can never be too many cat pics on the Internet.I like cats, so I’m going to bend the rule about relevance and add a cat picture here.

If I want to learn more about visual language, stock photos and Creative Commons images might be good ways to do that. Less work than taking pictures of things myself, and more realistic than drawing.

One of the reasons I dislike stock photos is that they can feel fake. You know, the bunch of all-white (or, rarely, obviously diverse) business people who are way too excited about a meeting. See Corey Eridon’s post on 13 Hilarious Examples of Truly Awful Stock Photography. I don’t think the examples are awful, but you’ll recognize the clichés.

What does “good” look like? Of the blogs I read, which ones use images consistently, and what do I prefer?

Lifehacker uses images well, and it looks like they customize their photos or make original ones too. Dumb Little Man, Priceonomics, Wise Bread, Blueprint for Financial Prosperity, and Under30CEO include images with every post, although sometimes the images look a bit… stock-y. So I have role models.

What do I want to learn from using stock photos?

I want to be inspired by the way human emotions and situations can be translated into different contexts. I want to expand my collection of visual metaphors. I want to get the hang of matching ideas with comics (or making my own).

What’s getting in my way?

Thinking of the right keywords, and being happy with the search results. For example, let’s say that I want to express the concept, “being frustrated with search results.” Needle in a haystack? Frustrated person?

This is kinda what I mean. Sometimes it’s easier to draw than to search.

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It’s this odd combination of too many choices, and yet not quite what I’m looking for – but I think that has more to do with skills I need to develop, ways I need to learn how to see and think.

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How do you learn how to use images anyway? Most of the blog posts and web pages I’ve seen just harp on copyright, assuming you’ve got the sense to pick out images on your own. If I want to get better at this, I need to get better at brainstorming concrete images for abstract concepts, coming up with keywords for more efficient searching, piling up sheer exposure – stuffing lots of stock photos into my head until I build my “stock photo vocabulary,” or my visual vocabulary in general.

TIPS

I filtered through more than a hundred pages of Google search results related to how to choose stock photos. Here are the best resources I’ve come across so far:

WAYS I CAN LEARN

A. Write the post first, then look for images.

More topical and closer to my existing workflow, but can be frustrating because of my criteria. I don’t want fake-looking models or situations. I don’t want meaningless fluff or

On the plus side, if I spend half an hour searching for an image and still can’t find it, I probably have a better idea of what I want and how it’s different from what I’ve seen. Then I can draw it.

B. Browse for images first, then follow the inspiration to write posts (maybe with my outline).

Possibly fun, possibly a time-suck. Randomness is my friend. There’s always plenty to write about, so I’m not too worried about finding a topic – although I do want to make sure that each post is fleshed out enough so that it’s not just an excuse to share an image.

Have you taught yourself how to work with stock photos and blog posts? Can you help me figure out how to build my stock photo vocabulary?

Cat image based on this one by vita khorzhevska, Shutterstock
Stream of images based on this one by kangshutters, also Shutterstock

Update 2013-08-16: One of the ways I’m coming to terms with stock photos is to mix them up in some way – add speech bubbles, doodle, and so on. It’s fun. It turns it into a game. If you use stock photos on your blog, what do you do to stop making it look generic?

How to manage a large blog archive

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I’m celebrating my 30th birthday this August. Milestone birthdays are great excuses to look behind and look ahead. I don’t know how other people do it. I can barely remember what happened last week, much less ten years ago. Me, I cheat. I have blog archive, which 18-year-old me had the foresight to experiment with (although back then, I was just looking for a way to remember all those class notes and Emacs tidbits I was picking up). I’ve written more than six thousand blog posts in the last eleven years. (See Quantifying my blog posting history for a nifty visualization of my blog posting history.) My published posts probably include well over two million words. This is awesome.

Since not a lot of people have the same experience of blogging consistently over more than a decade, I thought I’d share what I’ve been learning along the way.

Have your own domain name. One of my first websites was on Geocities. Another was on Veranda.com.ph (hosted by I-Manila, which was our ISP then). Both services are long gone. I registered sachachua.com in 2006 and moved everything over to that. Since my name can be hard to spell, I registered LivingAnAwesomeLife.com in 2008. I‘ve started experimenting with my own URL shortening domains, sach.ac and liv.gd . While domain names are a recurring expense, they’ve been well worth it.

Move your data instead of starting from scratch. I changed blogging platforms (Emacs Planner Mode to WordPress) and moved web hosts, but I’d taken pains to move my data instead of starting fresh. Now I’m enjoying the benefits of having that archive handy.

Back up, back up, back up. I want this to be around in another sixty years. I like backing up the data in many different ways: database, files, HTML dumps, PDFs, even paper. I lost a bunch of photos and drawings when my Gallery2 setup got hacked, but I restored a number of them from files I found elsewhere. I look forward to being able to review decades and decades of notes.

Weekly, monthly, and yearly reviews go a long way towards making it easier to remember what happened. Day-to-day living makes it hard to see what’s important. A week seems to be the most natural chunk of time for my reviews. I wrote a little bit of code that auto-summarizes my task list and accomplishments. Every month, I

Search is your friend. If it takes a lot of digging to find something, make it more findable. I often use Google Search or my blog’s built-in search to find posts based on keywords that I remember. If it takes me a while to find something, I edit the post and add categories or tags to make it easier to find in the future. I sometimes write a new post that shares what I’ve learned since then, linking to the previous post for history.

Comments on older posts are awesome. Search engines are a wonderful, wonderful thing. I love it when people comment on old posts – it’s nice to know those posts are still helpful. Sometimes people comment on things I’ve completely forgotten writing, so it’s a great way to refresh my memory as well.

Check your analytics once in a while. I don’t really care about the number of visitors or the bounce rate, but I’m curious about what people are reading and where they’re coming from.

Indexes are good, too. Every month, I update this categorical index of my blog posts. I probably should go back and make sure that the WordPress categories match this as well, although in WordPress, I tend to use categories more like tags (I file a post in multiple categories).

Cultivate synchronicity and randomness. WordPress plugins help recommend similar posts, other posts that were written on the same day, and random posts. It might mean that my pages are overloaded with links… but it might also spark an aha! or an interesting conversation with someone browsing around, so I think it’s worth it. Besides, at this point, a computer will often be better than I could be at recommending other things that people should check out, so I use those features myself when I’m browsing my blog.

Write about the small stuff. I used to wonder whether the weekly reviews were worth posting on my blog, seeing as they’re mostly my task lists. Reviewing my blog years later, I was surprised to find that the weekly reviews were excellent at helping me remember what was going on. They were also great for filling in the blanks in my records – When did I fly out? What did I do? Whatever happened to that thing? Hooray for the small stuff.

Revise and summarize. It’s okay to write about something you’ve written before. In fact, it can be a great excuse to learn more and get closer to understanding the big picture.

If you’re starting out today, don’t worry. Stick with it, and in ten years, you’ll have something pretty darn awesome too.

Out of curiosity, do I know anyone else who’s got a big archive? How do you manage yours?

I still don’t know what to call this post

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.

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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.

Visual book review: The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything… Fast (Josh Kaufman)

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. 20130705 Visual Book Review - The First 20 Hours - How to Learn Anything... Fast - Josh Kaufman 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

training

    – 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
  • Add interactivity
  • 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
    • Brainstorming
    • Asking yourself questions
    • Topics that choose themselves — blogging what you’re learning or as you’re learning
  • Drafting the post
    • Structure
    • Avoiding editing while writing
    • Writing quickly
  • Editing the post
    • Textual tics
    • Restructuring
  • 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!

For another visual take on this (pretty colours!), check out Cynthia Morris’ summary. Enjoy!

Quick question: What would you prefer for shorter URLs?

UPDATE 2013-06-27: All right, we’re going with sach.ac as the URL shortener. Thanks for your input! =D

shortener

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!)

[poll id=”3″]

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)…

[poll id=”4″]

Here are some sample URLs for this post, to give you an idea of what the shortened URLs will look like:

sach.ac/shortener – liv.gd/shortener

Technical notes, if you’re interested:

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. =)

So, what do you think?