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A No Excuses Guide to Blogging (PDF, EPUB, MOBI – free!); also, notes on publishing

This entry is part 1 of 19 in the series A No-Excuses Guide to Blogging

First, a quick announcement: A No-Excuses Guide to Blogging is now available as a free/pay-what-you-want e-book so that you can work your way through your excuses without having to click through lots of blog posts. =)

Mock-up by Ramon Williamson


Mock-up by Ramon Williamson

The cover I made for Amazon

The cover I made for Amazon

The PDF looks prettiest if you’re reading it on your computer or tablet, and the EPUB/MOBI version is handy for other e-readers. You get all three (and any future updates) if you grab it from http://sachachua.com/no-excuses-blogging, or you can get the MOBI version from the Kindle store (currently $0.99, but eventually they’ll price-match it to $0). The book is under Creative Commons Attribution, so feel free to share it with other people. =)

UPDATE 2014-02-13: Here’s a one-page summary!

2014-02-13 A No-Excuses Guide to Blogging - Summary of 10 blogging excuses and how to work around them

2014-02-13 A No-Excuses Guide to Blogging – Summary of 10 blogging excuses and how to work around them

 

- Behind the scenes stuff! - 

So this was about 8 hours of packaging after I’d identified the topics and asked an assistant to compile all the blog posts in a Word document. I edited the text to make it fit better in a collection, fiddled with the graphics, added more sketches, tweaked the layout some more, fought with section headers, and eventually created a PDF that I was reasonably happy with. I contacted a bunch of people on Fiverr about converting the DOCX into EPUB and MOBI. While waiting for a response, I decided to try doing it myself. It took me some time to clean up the messy HTML, but I’m reasonably happy with how the EPUB worked out. I had to tweak the EPUB table of contents in order to get it to pass the validator used by Lulu, but eventually I got it worked out with Calibre and Sigil. The MOBI was a straight conversion from the EPUB, although I wonder if I can get the background colour to be white…

2014-02-05 Notes on publishing

2014-02-05 Notes on publishing

So that was interesting and useful, and it would be good to do more. Here are some ideas for other “No Excuses”-type guides I might put together. Maybe self-directed learning and delegation, actually, since other people are covering the sketchnoting bit quite well.

2014-02-06 What other excuses can I collect and work around

2014-02-06 What other excuses can I collect and work around

There’s also this list of other book ideas, Thinking with Emacs, Tracking Your Time, Accelerating Your Learning with Sketchnotes, and this big outline. Lots to do. Looking forward to figuring out how I can get more of these out the door. =)

In the meantime… tada! http://sach.ac/no-excuses-blogging

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

How to develop your ideas into blog posts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A no-excuses guide to blogging

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stepping up to publishing

Number of sketches in blog posts

Number of sketches in blog posts

A nifty thing about experiments is that you can often see their impact when you review, even if the changes are less visible day to day. For example, I’ve resolved to be my own client and spend less time consulting, more time writing–and to be more selfish about my writing (that is, to give myself even more permission to write about personal reflections while figuring things out). It’s been a little over a week since then, and I noticed something interesting. I’ve drawn roughly the same number of sketches, but the difference is that I’ve been digging deeper into my questions over a series of sketches instead of scattering my sketches over a wide range of topics. That makes it easier to write a blog post that ties together different questions. To be fair, there’s a large set from last week that I haven’t written up, but I like this workflow so far.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to move towards writing things that are useful for both me and others. Ramon Williamson and Paul Kripp nudged me to think more about packaging and publishing my notes – creating an interface for what I know. Since I have a large archive and perhaps an idiosyncratic way of describing things, searching for tips can be difficult. A good way to find things is to ask me: blog comments, e-mail, real-time conversations (free or paid). If I take the time to organize what I know–to draw those paths through the material, and to translate/update reflections into tips–people will find it easier to learn. It takes work and it seems like a distraction from going ever onward, but doing this allows me to help people learn faster, so then we can all get to the more interesting questions.

I was thinking about whom I get to talk to because of this writing and sharing. A lot of people come to this blog because they’re searching for something specific: Emacs tips, for example. A surprising number of people explore more and stick around, because it turns out we have a lot of common interests or they like what I share. I know what this feels like – I love coming across blogs I resonate with too. These people are my tribe. (Well, sans tribal leader; I think of us more as peers. =) ) A few people become part of my life as confederates: I know what they’re interested in and I’m comfortable reaching out to them if I’m trying to figure something out. Different kinds of sharing reach different kinds of people. I don’t expect casual readers to read through one of my long reflections. I can serve them best with tightly-focused tips.

2014-01-29 Translating what I learn

2014-01-29 Translating what I learn

How can I make it easier for people to come closer and take advantage of what I’m learning? For searchers, I think it’s important to make talking to me less intimidating. I like questions. Writing clear tips and arranging resources into maps or sequences can help, too.

For people who would like to be tribe members, making subscription easier might help. I’m switching over to using Mailchimp so that people can set up daily, weekly, monthly, or yearly subscriptions, and I’ve written about using feed readers. If you want to subscribe to a subset of my blog (for example, just learning tips), e-mail me and I’ll help you figure that out. =) More importantly, though, I can build relationships with people by offering and asking for help.

As for confederates, I find that a lot of these conversations evolve out of the questions I post and the feedback I share after applying people’s advice. I can ask more questions and get better at learning from people. I can also pay more attention and learn more about people’s interests: checking out their tweets or blog posts, following them for the serendipity of overheard conversations.

2014-01-29 Building people's capacities

2014-01-29 Building people’s capacities

One of the reasons to publish is to reach an audience that might not even know that this could be useful for them. I feel like this about a lot of books – I hadn’t thought of looking for the information, but I’m glad I came across it. There are a lot of hoops to jump through before you can get to that level of reach, though. I don’t think I’d ever be up for a book tour. I like being home. =) I suspect that a very wide reach might be more hassle than it’s worth, but that might just be anxiety talking, and Stoicism might help me get past that.

2014-01-29 Calibrating the right level of reach or obscurity

2014-01-29 Calibrating the right level of reach or obscurity

So really, what are my excuses for not having packaged and published more? When it comes down to it, I really don’t have a good excuse. Yes, it’s tempting to keep pushing on to new topics, new ideas, new experiments. But if I skip the sharing part – or do it in a superficial manner, sharing my reflections without integrating it further – then I shortchange myself. As SketchyMuslims indirectly reminded me by quoting me:

The time I take to share what I learn is the most valuable part of my learning process.

The learning machine: How I turn what I learn into blog posts (me – September 2013!)

It’s not enough for me to turn my reflections into blog posts. I need to work on them again and turn them into insights that I can share with people. Maybe I’ll use the “reflection” tag to indicate stuff I’m mostly writing for myself (although other people can chime in, of course) and the “tips” tag to indicate stuff I’m writing mostly for other people. That turns it into something trackable. For example, this is very much a me-thinking-out-loud sort of post.

2014-01-30 Publishing - what's in my way, and how do I get past it

2014-01-30 Publishing – what’s in my way, and how do I get past it

One way that I like dealing with my excuses is to convince myself of the selfish benefits of doing something. In this case: Yes, books are good for helping people learn. They are good for serendipitous learning. They’re better at surviving than blogs are. More than that, books let people physically interact with ideas – to highlight, add notes, dogear, pass on to others… I’d love to eventually learn how to build these resources to help people learn, so why not sooner rather than later?

2014-01-30 On packaging and publishing

2014-01-30 On packaging and publishing

Besides, I can get a lot of benefits out of putting together books. The immediate benefit is that I can save time explaining things, since I can set people on a path that guides them for the most part. The secondary benefit is that I learn more deeply by revisiting the topics and organizing them into paths. The tertiary benefit (and the most awesome one!) is that I can help people learn faster, catch up faster, so that we all get to the point of asking more interesting questions. If I can help people learn more, I can learn more from them. And there’s the totally awesome feeling that Paul Klipp shared with me: that of getting a physical copy of your ideas into your hands! (I should definitely check out CreateSpace.)

2014-01-30 Thinking about my path to packaging and publishing

2014-01-30 Thinking about my path to packaging and publishing

The path is straightforward, and there really aren’t any barriers in my way. It’s all about butt-in-chair time: devoting some time to reviewing, revising, organizing, packaging. Well, there are some things that can help.

  • Questions! Questions are awesome because they help me figure out what people might find useful, what sequence might be good, and what’s missing. Ask me questions. Comments, Twitter, Google+, e-mail, Helpouts… Don’t worry about asking questions about things I’ve already covered before – in fact, please ask, so that I can make those things more findable and understandable.
  • Confederates and tribe members! I learn a ton by talking to people who are actively trying to figure things out too. =)

That’s how you can help. As for me, there are lots of little things I can do every day to move things forward.

2014-01-30 Small steps towards publishing

2014-01-30 Small steps towards publishing

The goal: More coherent, logically ordered, clearly written, other-focused chunks (maybe 15-30 pages?) that people can read at their convenience.  Let’s make it happen!

A conversation about writing, and reflections on taskmasters

I’m fascinated by the idiosyncrasies of systems that we build for ourselves over decades. I’m particularly interested in what people find weird about themselves and their systems; what they do the most differently compared to other people. When John Allemang picked my brain about a piece on the Quantified Self, I jumped at the opportunity to pick his brain right back. Here are the notes I drew to summarize the thoughts from our conversation:

2014-01-24 A conversation about writing

2014-01-24 A conversation about writing

It was reassuring to know that one could build a life on a variety of interests, accumulating notes and interviews along the way. I don’t have to specialize in a narrow set of topics. I don’t have to build expertise in a specific field. There’s a lot to learn about how to organize your thoughts and structure your words, but that’s not the only thing that experience gives you — it also gives you the confidence that you can do things. Where inexperienced writers let their egos and insecurities get in the way of good interviews and good writing, experienced writers can let go, confident that it will all come together somehow. It reminds me a little of trapeze practice. If you hesitate, if you cling to the bar, you’ll never get the thrill of flight. I wonder if I can fool my brain into believing I have all that experience to draw on–to compartmentalize that belief and use it deliberately.

It was also good to know that I don’t have to worry about remembering everything. Discarding details is essential. I sometimes imagine that I’d go through life with virtual file cabinets stuffed with clippings and drafts, but then I might drown in irrelevant notes and unfinished possibilities. I asked John if he had a process for managing his archives. He told me that he doesn’t particularly worry about it. It’s okay to discard. It’s okay to let go.

While the historian may bemoan the loss of evidence from these temporary notes, discarding has always been a central feature of effective note-taking. Discarding enhances the utility of notes that are saved by removing materials that have been superseded.… Discarding and forgetting are crucial to effective information management.

Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information Before the Modern Age (Blair, 2010, p.65)

Talking to John gave me a clearer idea of what it might be like to be an experienced writer: to have the clarity of mind to focus on the story, and to have the confidence in yourself so that your self doesn’t get in the way of taking risks, learning, and sharing.

We talked a little about freedom and self-direction, which I’ve been curious about. John sounded skeptical; he values editors and deadlines. Reflecting on our conversation, I wondered what I’d be missing by writing outside the world of work. I’ve experimented with hiring editors. The editors I found on oDesk and other freelance sites gave me feedback on form, but they don’t fulfill the other crucial roles of an editor: choosing a vision for a piece, setting constraints, pushing back on fit, coaching improvement. Writing coaches may be able to do a little more of that, but I’m not sure if the client relationship throws off the dynamic.

2014-01-24 Being my own editor

2014-01-24 Being my own editor

I saw in this the same idea I had in becoming my own client - to see if I could enjoy some of the benefits of workplace structure by deliberately stepping into that role. Could I as editor challenge myself the writer to stretch with more difficult topics, more explicit constraints? How could I step outside my writing and coach myself to improve? (You can pay a writing coach, and I’ll experiment with that someday, but it also pays to coach yourself – no one could be more devoted and more consistent than you.)

Later that evening, thinking about deadlines and freedom and the liberal arts, I caught myself wondering if this path–easy and familiar as it is, falling back into the structures of the workplace–if this path is really the only way. After all, if I put on the hat of the client or editor or capitalist, and then remove that hat and put on the hat of the worker, am I setting myself up for internal conflict and waste? Wouldn’t it be better to be one self, doing the right thing at the right time?

Giving myself directions and deadlines might be useful for avoiding decision fatigue–the cost of making too many decisions–but it is also good to be able to adapt. I do this a little by thinking through scenarios beforehand, so I know what I can do with low-energy and high-energy opportunities. The specific actions I take are influenced by my TODO list, which helps because I don’t have to brainstorm good things to do each time. But I rarely commit to doing specific items, and I allow myself space to go off plan.

2014-01-24 Not about swapping one master for another

2014-01-24 Not about swapping one master for another

It would be easy to be my own taskmaster, to set up that rider and elephant dynamic (rational and irrational, logical and emotional). It’s understandable. It’s productive. Everyone has tasks. Everyone has deadlines. I can even use it to masquerade as normal in cocktail party conversations, griping about an unreasonable boss. (No need to tell them I’m imposing those conditions.)

It’s easy to adopt that structure, which is why I’m curious about alternatives. What does good self-direction look like? What would it mean to be good at that? Can I run fast without the whip?

2014-01-24 Why are we so attached to deadlines

2014-01-24 Why are we so attached to deadlines

I haven’t figured this out yet. It sounds promising, though. At the very least, it’s an experiment worth exploring.

So, three things:

  • I’m going to borrow the confidence I heard from John. I think that assuming more confidence will let me take greater risks in writing and learning.
  • I’ll consider using an editor or a writing coach to improve my skills. In order to make the most of that, I can clarify my goals and coach myself as much as possible. That way, I might be able to identify my questions and the parts where self-coaching breaks down. (Like when it comes to murdering your darlings!)
  • I’ll take a closer look at this instinct towards deadlines and taskmasters, rooted perhaps in a fear that I am not enough. Let’s try being plan-less, as paradoxical as that is. Here is where that confidence can help. I trust that it will all work out.

I think I’m coming close to the end of this research into other people’s writing systems, at least for now. I’ve seen a lot of common patterns. If I run across an interesting tip, I’m happy to pick it up. But I’m worried less about making a mistake now that I’ll regret in thirty years (such as not archiving every little note, or not having enough associative hooks for memory), and I’m not looking for the one tip that will make me an order of magnitude more effective. There’s still a lot to learn, but I can learn that through practice, observation, and small improvements.

Still, so much to learn, and (probably) decades ahead of me… Let’s see where this goes!

Other-work and self-work

Since I decided to become my own client, I’ve been thinking about the things I think of as work and the things I do out of my own volition. Work is shaped by other people’s goals, priorities, and directions. When it comes to the things I do for myself, I am responsible for figuring all of that out. I haven’t truly delved into entrepreneurship yet, small publishing experiments notwithstanding. I haven’t said, “This is something I believe is worth making and selling,” and I haven’t matched that to people who need it. I’ll learn how to do that someday. First, I want to learn how to direct myself.

2014-01-22 Work and its place in my life

Work and its place in my life

In drawing these notes, I thought that this self-directed work – focused on my own needs and curiosity – might be more limited in effect, but also that it might benefit me more through compounding. When I choose my own work, I can build things up instead of getting pulled in different directions. (Or at least, if it seems like I’m scattering my attention over different topics of my own choosing, the logic might emerge later.) Everything I work on benefits both other people and me, but sometimes other people more than me, and sometimes me more than other people.

Or is that really what I’m balancing? In the margins, I poked at that assumption. Was it really a spectrum between other-focused work and self-focused work? What if other-focus and self-focus were actually orthogonal? What if you could do things that were very useful for yourself, but also pretty useful for other people? That sounded like a more interesting possibility. I’m probably not quite there yet, but if I get better at doing things that I find useful, I might also get better at making those things useful for other people.

I thought about whether I wanted to postpone that kind of self-exploration until after I wrap up my consulting engagement, but I decided that doing it in parallel was better. It is always tempting to postpone vague, self-directed work in favour of clearly-defined, other-directed paying work, but is it ever truly profitable to do so? I should use my uncommitted core hours for growing, even if it feels slow.

Something useful to myself AND to others… Blogging would probably be a good way to practise. I noticed that although the daily themes helped me make sure I didn’t overlook different topics, I sometimes found myself writing blog posts that were helpful for other people but didn’t make me learn as much. I hadn’t been challenging myself to learn something new either about the topic or about the way I could share. If I focus more on stretching my understanding, would my blog become less useful to others? What kinds of things could I write that might be useful for me now and later, and which might also be helpful for other people? Reflections, perhaps, if other people resonate with them and use them to think through their own lives. My notes on things I’m figuring out; solutions to technical problems; tips and other resources. Reviews, perhaps, as a summary of things I’ve shared and an update on things I’ve learned. I don’t know how helpful these things will be, although I’m encouraged by comments that seem to indicate they’re interesting to read.

Then what is blogging's place in my life?

Then what is blogging’s place in my life?

I think other- versus self-focus might be the reason why I find myself much more interested in new questions than in the connective work of filling in the gaps of a book outline for a potential audience. I get different pay-offs from different types of sharing. When I answer other people’s questions (things I know implicitly but haven’t explained yet), I get the satisfaction of thanks and interaction. When I answer my own questions a small step at a time, I get a kick out of learning something. When I make a map of unknown territory and start learning about it, I enjoy the thrill of learning. When I’m writing tutorials and I’m not sure if they’re going to be useful or if other people are already fine with perfectly good resources out there, it’s a bit more of a struggle. I’d rather not duplicate information or write for the sake of leaving my fingerprints on it. Might as well write about something unknown that I’m figuring out, or at least help a specific person who has already tried other resources and can tell me what’s missing.

2014-01-20 How could I get more out of my sharing v2

How could I get more out of my sharing?

So what does that mean? I’ll probably focus on the right side of the quadrant above – the things that I don’t know. Possibly my blog may become more boring; on the other hand, it might become more interesting. But even if it does get a little more boring, I have to get through the boringness in order to figure out how to be more useful. =)

How can I do work that's more useful to myself and others?

What can I do? I can share the questions that I’m asking, and maybe people will find themselves surprised by the insights they can share. I can show my work, and maybe people will consider reasons or approaches that wouldn’t have otherwise come to mind. I can connect the dots through links, because those will be handy later on.

I hope I learn to write with more depth of understanding, less fear of embarrassment; more clarity of thought, less attachment to fads and fancies; more initiative, less intellectual laziness. And then, eventually, to come full circle: to write with a focus on other people’s needs, but to be better at observing and celebrating the hidden fascinations of even familiar topics.