Category Archives: sharing

How can I make better use of my index card drawing process?

I really like this practice of working with index cards, especially now that I’ve sorted out a sweet digital workflow for them.

2015-02-10 Evolution of my index card workflow -- index card #drawing #workflow

2015-02-10 Evolution of my index card workflow – index card #drawing #workflow

I started with a straightforward workflow:

  1. Think of a question.
  2. Draw it on a paper index card.
  3. After I complete 5+ index cards, scan the cards.
  4. Convert and process the cards (colouring, etc.).
  5. Rename the cards.
  6. Upload the cards.
  7. Add them to my Flickr set (and to blog posts and so on).

I replaced my Flickr uploading process with a script. Then I replaced the paper index cards with digital index cards. I wrote another script to make renaming files easier. Then I built an outline of questions and used that to create index card templates. So now my workflow looks like this:

  1. I use Org Mode in Emacs to collect and organize questions. I use TODO states to track ones that need further research, ones that are ready to be drawn, and ones that are ready to be blogged.
  2. When I switch to tablet mode, I can select questions to draw using a custom pen-friendly Emacs interface that sets up the template for me.
  3. I upload the images using another script and add the links to my outline.

After I draft the blog post, I use another bit of code to move the relevant images out of my “To blog” directory and into another directory so that I can easily upload them (since I still haven’t tweaked the all-Emacs way of doing things the way I want them).

An index card is a good size for a chunk. It’s smaller than a blog post, so I can accelerate my learn-do-share-review cycle. If I invest more time into creating, organizing, and sharing them, I think they’ll pay off well. Other people report that their Zettelkasten (index card organization systems) become almost like conversational partners and collaborators. I already feel that way about my blog archive, and it will probably be even more

Hmm… Should I add a unique identifier to sketches so that I can refer to them more concisely than giving the full link? This mostly matters for referring to sketches in the drawing itself, since I can use links in text or metadata. For example, I can assign codes to each chunk, possibly differentiating between sketches (letters?) and blog posts (numbers?). So, maybe “2015-01-01a” for the first sketch on January 1, and “2015-01-01-1″ for the first blog post? I could omit the dashes, but then searching requires that mental translation, so we’ll keep the dashes in there. The downside is that there’ll be a little additional clutter, but it might be interesting to experiment with – adding a reference line, and maybe even adding the info to the filename. It gives some linking capability that can survive the disparate systems I publish sketches to (my blog, Evernote, Flickr), even for sketches that don’t get turned into blog posts.

What about my 5-cards-a-day target?

2015-02-08 Reflection on 5 index cards a day target -- index card #drawing #reflection

2015-02-08 Reflection on 5 index cards a day target – index card #drawing #reflection

Sometimes making five cards feels like a stretch, since I have to Think Interesting Thoughts. Using templates can help – I could make four cards and a journal entry, for example. I expect the awkwardness will subside as I build up my question store and do more research/experimentation.

Colour slows me down if I think about it too much or worry about becoming too repetitive. It might be fine to just quickly highlight things most of the time and save the development of colour sense for sessions of deliberate practice.

2015-02-09 How can I make better use of my index card drawing process -- index card #drawing #index-cards #zettelkasten

2015-02-09 How can I make better use of my index card drawing process – index card #drawing #index-cards #zettelkasten

In terms of thinking, spending the extra few minutes to think about and capture the next questions or actions for a card can make a big difference in my focus. I can also relax my chunking guidelines so that a single sketch can be fleshed out into a quick blog post instead of waiting until I accumulate several sketches related to the topic – taking my own advice to schedule Minimum Viable Posts. If I phrase my outline in terms of questions instead of keywords, I’ll probably find that more motivating and easier to scope.

2015-02-09 How can I make better use of my laptop -- index card #tech

2015-02-09 How can I make better use of my laptop – index card #tech

That will probably also help me with some of the bottlenecks I identified while contemplating how I can make better use of my laptop. I’m doing okay at generating questions and drawing index cards, but I can do better at translating those ideas into research, experiments, and blog posts. So, I can clear out more of my backlog of index cards that I want to share (probably ending up with two months of scheduled blog posts, or maybe even more!). Then I can research and try out more ideas, so I’m not just drawing questions that I can answer with what’s currently in my head. =)

Onward!

Getting better at writing other-directed posts

Would you like to help me get better at helping you through blogging? I’d love to hear your feedback. =)

I’m working on writing more posts that people might find useful instead of filling every week with my ruminations. One of my challenges is that posts make sense to me (of course), but I’m sure there are many people for whom the posts don’t make sense. Sometimes there are unanswered questions, or extraneous material that I could move to a separate post. Maybe the flow doesn’t make sense to other people.

How can I learn how to step outside myself and read my writing with a stranger’s eyes? One way is to ask for help: if you can share your thoughts (both content and style) on my posts through comments or e-mail, that would be great. (Consider it an open invitation!) Another way is to pay for help, especially if I can be clear about the kind of feedback I want. (More logic than typos, please!) A third way is to develop a list of questions that I can use to evaluate my own work.

Since this list of questions is useful for both paying for assistance and editing things myself, I worked on drafting this list:

  • Title
    1. Does the post title start with a verb? Can you think of a more vivid verb to start it with?
      • Bad: Do stuff
    2. Does the post title help people decide whether this post is relevant to them?
      • Good: specific problem or tip
      • Bad: generic or mysterious post title; title not clearly related to content
  • Body
    1. Is the first paragraph focused on “you” (the reader)?
    2. Does the first paragraph or two help the reader quickly decide whether this post is relevant to them?
      • Good: Can tell right away whether this will be too introductory, too advanced, or covering something they already know
    3. Do I share my background (context, etc.) in a way that helps the reader understand what I’ve learned or how I can identify with them?
    4. Do I share a useful tip that I have researched or personally experienced?
    5. Is the next step clear for the reader?
  • How it’s said
    1. In your own words, what is the key point of this post?
    2. Does each paragraph have a key point? Do the paragraphs flow logically?
    3. Does each sentence flow logically to the one following it?
    4. Is the key point sufficiently supported by the post? What’s missing?
    5. Is there anything here that does not support the key point and that can be removed?
    6. After reading this, what questions will the reader likely have? What will they want to know next?
  • Bonus
    1. Do I include research or links to other sources (not my blog)?
    2. Are there related links, and do they look interesting or useful?
    3. What else would you suggest to improve this post?

This particular post does not count as an other-directed post. It’s me trying to figure things out. =) The other-directed version of this might be called something like “Use checklists to get better at writing posts that other people will find useful” or “Pay for perspective by hiring editors for your blog”. My other-directed posts start with a verb, and I usually schedule them for Thursdays. But if you’ve got some ideas on how I can write better, I’d love to hear your suggestions in the comments. Thanks!

Related sketches:

2015-01-13 Evaluating posts written for others -- index card #writing #questions #blogging

2015.01.13 Evaluating posts written for others – index card #writing #questions #blogging

2015-01-11 What makes a good other-focused post -- index card #writing

2015.01.11 What makes a good other-focused post – index card #writing

 

Shrinking my learn-do-share-review cycle

Sometimes I read too much without doing anything about what I learn. By the time I get around to applying ideas, my memory is fuzzy and I have to dig up my notes anyway. Sometimes I never get around to applying what I’ve learned.

Sometimes the tasks on my TODO list are too big to fit into a single session of thinking-about or doing, so I end up procrastinating them. Or sometimes I do them, but I feel like I’m wandering around.

Sometimes I let myself focus too much on learning and doing, moving onward. By the time I want to share what I’ve learned, I feel like there’s just so much background I need to cover before people can get to the point of being able to do things. Or I’ve forgotten what those first crucial steps were.

Sometimes I get so caught up in learning, doing, or sharing, that I forget to spend time thinking about how I’m doing things. I’ve been keeping a journal, but the entries are often very short – just keywords that describe what I did, without notes on how I might do it better.

Have you felt like that too? Tell me I’m not the only one who has to think about the balance. =)

I’ve been working on reducing waste by shortening this learn-do-share cycle. Instead of spending a week reading five books about a topic, I might spend a couple of hours reading one book, extracting the key points from it, and identifying one or two actions I can try. Instead of doing an exhaustive search to find the best tool for what I want to do, I’ll do a quick search, pick one, try it out, and then use that experience to help me learn. Instead of waiting until I feel confident about a topic (or even until I’ve worked out all the bugs), I’ll share while I learn. Instead of trying to fill in all the gaps between where a beginner might start and where my post ends up, I write just the part that’s fresh in my memory, and then I might fill in other gaps when people ask.

2015-02-04 Shrinking my Learn-Do-Share cycle -- index card #sharing #learning

2015-02-04 Shrinking my Learn-Do-Share cycle – index card #sharing #learning

In fact, I’ve been moving towards posting more of my rough notes using index cards. That way, I don’t even have to wait until I’ve summarized the cards into a more coherent blog post. They’re out there already, easy to link to or share in conversations. I still suspect it’s a bit of a firehose of incoherence, but I’m pleasantly surprised that some people actually find them interesting. =)

2015-02-03 Benefits of sharing my index cards -- index card #sharing #drawing

2015-02-03 Benefits of sharing my index cards – index card #sharing #drawing

A fast learn-do-share cycle results in a new challenge: What do you do with all these little pieces? This matters for both organizing your own notes and making it easier for other people to learn.

I’ve been refining my workflows for organizing my index cards, snippets, and posts into outlines. Picking descriptive titles definitely helps. Fortunately, other people have given this challenge of personal knowledge management much thought. Zettelkasten looks like an interesting keyword to research, and I’m looking forward to picking up ideas from other people’s techniques.

When it comes to organizing notes for other people, I’m still rather haphazard, but I’m planning to braindump a large outline of questions and use that to create maps for people.

As for the actual division of time, the pomodoro technique isn’t part of my habitual workflow yet, but I’ve heard good things about it. Maybe I’ll experiment with a pomodoro-based schedule: one for learning, one for doing, and one for sharing. But my learning cycle’s actually a lot more intertwined. At its best, I’m learning as I’m doing (flipping between windows as needed), and the notes that I take while I’m learning and doing (thanks to Org Mode and literate programming!) can easily be shared as a blog post. So maybe each chunk of time represents a topic instead, and I can track whether I’m successfully getting things all the way through to the sharing stage.

Sure, some topics require deeper reflection and integration. For instance, you can’t expect instant results from philosophy. But it might be interesting to shorten the distance from learning to action and from action to sharing.

I like the tips in Christian Tietze’s “Use a Short Knowledge Cycle to Keep Your Cool” on how to figure out a good “size” for your research tasks so that you don’t feel overwhelmed by them. It’s a good reminder to iterate: you don’t have to research everything before you start trying things out, you don’t have to know everything before you start writing, and you don’t have to have a perfect process – you can keep improving it.

So we’ll see how this works out. For example, this post took me half an hour to research/think about, and another half-hour to write. It could be more interesting if I researched some more (found similar techniques, contrasting opinions, etc.), and it could be richer with more experiments and experiences, but here it is. I can always add to it in the future, or write another post and link to the previous one.

Sketched Book: Write Faster, Write Better – David A. Fryxell

David A. Fryxell’s Write Faster, Write Better (2004) is a journalist’s collection of tips that might help you write faster. Fryxell focuses on eliminating waste: wasted research, wasted interviews, wasted notes, wasted words, wasted drafts. You can do this by organizing, planning ahead, keeping your focus in mind, and writing a good-enough draft the first time around (instead of revising loose drafts that run too long or circling around a never-finished perfectionist draft).

I’ve sketched the key points of the book to make them easier to remember and share. Click on the image to get a high resolution version that you can print if you want.

2014-12-14 Sketched Book - Write Faster Write Better - David A Fryxell

One of the things that I struggle with is that I often don’t have a clear idea of what I want to write when I start writing it. I don’t have a focused high-concept phrase that explains my angle and the surprise twist. I don’t have a clear outline that tells me what kind of research I need to do, who I should talk to, and how everything fits together. I don’t have an editor who’ll force me to come up with a clear concept.

Maybe I’ll get there with experience. It might be okay to do this kind of exploratory writing – a little like journaling in public – and then apply Fryxell’s techniques to extract and polish a chunk that would be useful to other people.

Curious about the book? You can get it from Amazon or other places if you like. (Affiliate link)

Like the sketch? Find more at sketchedbooks.com. They’re under the Creative Commons Attribution License (like the rest of my blog), so feel free to share it with people who might find this useful. Enjoy!

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

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

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

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

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

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

to an outline like:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Envy and other people’s writing

Have you felt envy as a writer?

I often come across blog posts or books that I wish I’d written. They explain, clearly and in depth, ideas that I’ve been noodling about writing.

I want to have written Aaron’s “What’s better than reading? Re-reading”. Jon Snader (Irreal)’s summaries of Emacs chats, like this one with Karl Voit. Kate Stull’s guide to taking notes at work.

And that’s just from three days of blog posts.

My inner critic goes, “What have I been doing with my life?” and “How do I get there from here?” Then I remember: I’m learning. It’s okay. It’s not a waste of time.

And I haven’t been scooped, haven’t lost an opportunity to explore that thought for myself and create something possibly useful for people. One look at the library shelves or my blog reader, and I remember that there is room in the world for many people writing about the same things.

When the frustration fades, only delight is left.

Reading other people’s words means I can benefit from other people’s perspectives, research, experiences, and styles. I get to write the next step, linking to what’s already been written instead of explaining it myself. I get to recognize what I like without the hard work of writing and revising it myself.

Here’s what I’ve learned from other people’s writing:

I like short paragraphs and short words. I can think of blogs that are more verbose, and those have a different flavour in my mind.

I like practical application. Kate Stull’s guide is packed with tips.

I like specifics and personal experiences. Aaron’s post draws from his life in a way that I’d like to do. When I try it, I feel like I use the word “I” too much, but rewriting sentences can feel awkward.

I like flows. Jon Snader’s summaries go to just the right level of detail to draw interest, I think; much better than my terse list of links and topics.

There will always be a gap between what I can do and what I want to do, and that’s a good thing. It gives me a way to see what I want to practise and learn.

Who makes you envious? Why? What are you doing about it?

Update 2015-02-11: I noticed that one of my recent sketches takes this topic one step further:

2015-02-03 Scooped -- index card #writing #sharing