Category Archives: writing

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

Clear out your drafts by scheduling Minimum Viable Posts

Do you have dozens of drafts languishing on your blog or on your computer?

I sometimes hear from other bloggers who say they just don’t think their posts are good enough. Maybe they’ve written a few paragraphs before fizzling out. Maybe they’ve already written a full post, but it’s missing… something.

Are you holding off because you’re a perfectionist? Although research shows that perfectionists actually procrastinate less than other people do, since blogs don’t have deadlines, it’s easy to dilly-dally. You can always make something better.

Me, I am definitely not a perfectionist. I’m generally happy if I get 80% of the way to where I want to go. But I know what it’s like to hold a post back because I’m not sure if I’m expressing myself clearly enough. As I write this, there are nineteen drafts in my WordPress interface and countless more on my computer. The oldest draft I have in WordPress is from February 2014. Come to think of it, the time for that topic has passed. Eighteen drafts now.

Do you want to know something that works better than drafting posts?

Scheduling them.

In Lean Startup, there’s this idea of a “Minimum Viable Product” – the smallest thing you can build so that you can test your business assumptions and get feedback from real customers. You can use this in writing, too.

Instead of finely crafting and endlessly polishing each blog post, I write a blog post that I’m reasonably–not completely, just reasonably–happy with. I schedule it a few weeks out. You can do that from the WordPress edit screen – click on Edit near Publish immediately and change it to the date you want. It’s even easier with the Editorial Calendar plugin, which lets you spread posts over weeks.

So then I have this imperfect post that will be published even if I forget about it. My mind keeps working on it in the meantime. (Now that I’ve learned about the Zeigarnik effect, I see it everywhere.) Sometimes I come up with a thought I’d like to add. I might share a scheduled post using the Share a Draft plugin. Maybe I’ll re-read the post and find a typo to fix or a gap to fill.

And hey, even if it isn’t the height of perfection when it finally gets published, at least it’s out there. Then people can tell me what they found interesting or ask questions about what they didn’t understand.

2015-01-10 Writing into the future -- index card #writing #blogging

2015-01-10 The idea of the Minimum Viable Post -- index card #writing #blogging

You don’t get that feedback if your thoughts are stuck in your drafts.

But what if you make a mistake? Edit your post. Even if you’ve already published it, you can still edit it. (Many people add the date and a description of what they changed.)

What if you turned out to be completely wrong about something? At least you learned you were wrong.

What if you skipped over some things that you could have explained? Let someone ask questions and pull that information from you.

Write (and schedule!) minimum viable posts: the simplest, roughest cut of your ideas that will move you towards learning. You can treat the schedule as your new deadline for improving the post.

Resist the temptation to reschedule posts again and again. If the deadline is here and you still can’t quite settle on your post, publish it as is. Then listen to your dissatisfaction for clues to how you can improve the next post.

Get stuff out there. Good luck!

p.s. Right after I scheduled this post with the title “Clear out your drafts by writing Minimum Viable Posts,” I realized it made more sense to title it “Clear out your drafts by scheduling Minimum Viable Posts.” So I changed it. See? We can harness the power of that inner “Wait just a minute here!” =)

Meta-post: Revising my post on emptying one’s cup

I’d been thinking about my blog post on “Getting started with Emacs? Empty your cup. There was something that didn’t quite feel right about the original draft.
2015-01-16 Tempering advice to Emacs beginners -- index card #emacs #beginner #teaching

2015-01-16 Tempering advice to Emacs beginners – index card #emacs #beginner #teaching

Since I’m also getting used to asking for help, I asked folks on Twitter to help me figure this out. @wobher suggested splitting it up into two approaches: diving in at the deep end, and wading in gradually. In an e-mail, Mike Hall suggested simplifying the post, sketching out what the post was trying to do and how that might be spread over several chunks.

Reflecting on the post some more, I realized that not only was Mike right that the post trying to do too much, but I also felt weird about the tone of the post. It didn’t feel… sympathetic enough. I’d written it in response to someone’s frustrated e-mail. But if I imagined myself in the same situation – annoyed with Emacs, tempted to switch back to a tool that I was more used to – I didn’t feel like that post would help me either learn Emacs or feel better. In fact, it would probably feel worse. “You need to empty your cup” almost feels like “You’re learning this the wrong way,” and attacks put people on the defensive.

Part of this challenge, I think, is that I’m more used to encouraging people who respond like I do. When I’m faced with something I have a hard time figuring out, I tend to blame myself, and so I look for ways to get better. When I meet people who struggle with learning Emacs and who might be tempted to translate that into an “I’m just not good enough to learn this,” I share what works for me: breaking it down into small chunks and learning those, building both skill and confidence at the same time. My cup is not full at the beginning, but I sometimes worry about it being too small.

2015-01-18 Digging into my thoughts about emptying one's cup -- #emacs #writing

2015-01-18 Digging into my thoughts about emptying one’s cup – #emacs #writing

I haven’t quite figured out how to deal with people’s frustration. I think there are times when Emacs is just not a good fit for someone, and that if they understand that, they might still be open to revisiting Emacs instead of writing it off entirely.

2015-01-12 When is Emacs a good fit -- index card #emacs #beginner

2015-01-12 When is Emacs a good fit – index card #emacs #beginner

But I know a little bit of that frustration with one’s slowness, so maybe that’s how I can connect. After all, I have the same flaws.

So I revised the post, cutting out the distracting parts and adding a little identification. The current draft feels a little better now: less like a distracted hamster trying to cram ideas into its pouches, less like a white-bearded sensei handing down wisdom from a remote mountain. I have a slightly better grasp on the weird feeling when a post is trying to do too much, and that other weird feeling when a post creates too much distance.

If you have more suggestions for improving that post (or any of these other posts), please share them. Your perspective can point out something in my blind spot or help me clarify what I really mean. There’s so much I have yet to learn about writing and sharing, and I hope you’ll help me with your feedback!

(By the way, can anyone recommend a service for sharing drafts and revisions publicly so that people can see previous revisions and word-level differences with arbitrary commits? Sometimes I use Github’s diff or git diff --color-words, but the matching isn’t always correct. I can’t figure out how to get to do this nicely. Maybe I’ll just have to get used to writing one sentence per line, like I’ve seen some Org Mode users do. Or maybe it’s time to use the one-Org-file-for-post pattern that other people do, so that’s easier to preview and diff…)

Learning from artists: making studies of ideas

When people are starting out with sketchnoting, it’s helpful to remember that sketchnoting’s about “ideas, not art” (as Mike Rohde says in The Sketchnote Handbook). It’s easy to get intimidated by the visually-impressive sketchnotes people post, so the reminder is useful.

I’ve been using sketchnotes to explore my own thoughts instead of recording other people’s content. I like flipping things around, so that got me thinking: What can I learn from the way artists work, and how can I apply that to learning and drawing?

Here are a few ideas:

2015-01-05 What can I learn from artists about learning -- index card
2015.01.05 What can I learn from artists about learning – index card

  • Collect: Artists collect inspiration. They fill sketchbooks, make moodboards, clip reference photos, and so on.
  • Emulate: Artists develop their skills by emulating masters.
  • Observe: Artists draw what’s there, not what they think is there. They also analyze the techniques other artists use and the effect of these techniques on the piece.
  • Imagine: Artists aren’t limited to what they see. They can draw what isn’t there. They can draw the essence of a thing.
  • Transform: Great art transforms the way people see.
  • Experiment: Artists try different techniques and styles to figure out what works for them.
  • Craft: Artists refine their work and improve their tools.
  • Sketch: Artists do quick studies to try several views or focus on different aspects before making the commitment of paint on canvas.

I was particularly curious about this idea of making studies or sketching things in order to experiment with different views or to focus on small parts before composing the whole, so I dug into that further.

2015-01-05 Why studies for drawing or writing thoughts -- index card
2015.01.05 Why studies for drawing or writing thoughts – index card

The limits I want to address are:

  • When I start with a large sheet, I sometimes peter out halfway through because I’ve dug to the bottom of that idea (at least for now, with the tools and time I have).
  • If I work with large sheets, it’s not as easy to keep all the relevant ones in view at the same time. I need to summarize more frequently.
  • I often zig-zag between topics, leaving sheets unfinished. Half-sheets are awkward to post.

2015-01-05 Quick idea studies -- index card
2015.01.05 Quick idea studies – index card

Using index cards for “studies” of an idea might be a useful technique. Each card is a small chunk, quick to capture, complete in itself, and yet linkable with others. The cards are easier to rearrange. If each card represents one idea or summary, I can keep more ideas in view.

There are trade-offs, naturally. Sometimes the desire to fill a large sheet makes me to sit with a question longer, letting me discover more. Large sheets gives me the ability to draw and describe relationships between ideas. If I have many small chunks, I need to invest more time in summarizing and filing in order to make the most of them.

2015-01-05 Managing my idea pipeline -- index card
2015.01.05 Managing my idea pipeline – index card

Artists might make studies in preparation for a specific work, or they might make studies just because. If I have a specific question in mind, it’s easy to sketch my way around the topic and then organize those thoughts into a whole. I’m not as good at managing fragments over an extended period of time, although I’m getting better at linking to and building on previous blog posts.

What can I learn from the way artists keep working on something? Artists might work on a piece for weeks or more, keeping it visible on an easel, taking a step back from time to time, looking at it in different light. They might have several such pieces on the go. I still prefer publishing early instead of waiting until something is a masterpiece. Feedback is great, and even small chunks can be surprisingly useful.

If I improve the way I manage my studies, though, I might get better at refining ideas. I think it’s like the way an artists might clip photos or sketch things that have caught their eyes, and then return to that inspiration years later when they think of something that needs it.

Speaking of archives: I’ve written about index cards before as a way to develop thoughts (2014; much like this post), plan my life (2007), and prevent boredom by writing (2005!). I haven’t quite mastered this yet, but I’m getting somewhere. What can I add to this based on this reflection on artists?

I don’t do enough zoomed-in focus or variations on a theme yet, I think. Studies aren’t just about capturing the gist of a thing so that you can reproduce it later in your studio. They let you minutely observe a specific aspect, and they let you experiment with different ways to portray something.

What would that look like, if I could do it really well? For observation, I might have index cards that focus on sub-topics, like the way I’ve built up this post from the sub-questions in the illustrations. For variety, I might experiment with visual vocabulary and metaphors, improving my creative expression.

There’s also something to be said about sheer practice in exploring thoughts, like the way artists might sketch for sketching’s sake. James Altucher recommends coming up with ten ideas a day (also related: his post from 2012). I’ve been experimenting with setting myself a minimum of five index cards a day. I write the dates for all of them before I start on the first one so that the desire to fill in the blanks pushes me to complete all of them. This usually leads to even more cards as the first set of ideas sparks more questions.

Actually, the challenge isn’t generating ideas. Artists never run out of things to sketch – they can look around and find more! I have an archive of ideas I haven’t exhausted and a cornucopia that generates more every day.

2015-01-05 Thinking about my archive -- index card
2015.01.05 Thinking about my archive – index card

This leads me back to skills that I think might be good to borrow from the art world and adapt to what I want:

  • Observing what’s in front of me – really seeing it, capturing it better, evoking its essence
  • Looking at something from different angles, and developing opinions about the alternatives I can pick – like the way artists learn about composition and light
  • Retrieving subsets of my archive – like the way artists might pull out the relevant studies or reference photos when they’re working on a piece
  • Comprehending the whole – the way people can step back and talk about impressionism, Picasso’s Blue Period, and other things that require zooming out

What would masters of this be like, and how can I emulate them? I think of Leonardo da Vinci’s studies, asking and observing. I think of writers who name and describe things, and in so doing, they help me see better – the way the light behind an object separates it from the background. I may never draw or write a thousandth as well as they do, but I can grow through emulating the way they slow down and pay attention, the way they turn things over and over instead of rushing on.

Writing: Open loops, closed loops, and working with forgetfulness

I think I’ve written about something before, but I can’t find it. I have thirteen tabs open with Google search results from my blog. I’ve tried countless keywords and synonyms. I’ve skimmed through posts I only half-remember writing. (Was that blog post really that short? I thought I wrote more details.) I still haven’t found the post I want.

I wonder: Did I really publish it? Or did I just outline or sketch it? Am I confusing it with something similar that I wrote, or someone else’s post that I admired?

Ah, well, time to write it from scratch. It’s a little like writing code. Sometimes it would take so long to find an appropriate open source module that you’re better off just writing the code yourself. Sometimes it would take so long to find an existing post that it’s better to just write it from scratch.

I was looking for that particular post because of a conversation with Flavian de Lima where I mentioned the benefits of blogging while you’re learning something. He resonated with the idea of sharing your notes along the way so that other people can learn from them, even if you’ve moved on to different topics.

Despite having a clear memory of writing about this topic, when I went to the post that I thought was related to it (spiral learning), it didn’t mention blogging at all. “Share while you learn” didn’t quite address it, either. After trying lots of searches, I gave up and started writing a new post. After all, memories are fallible; you could have full confidence in an imagined event.

The reason this came up was because Flavian described how he often took advantage of open loops when working on writing. He would stop with an incomplete thought, put the draft away, and let his subconscious continue working on it. Sometimes it would be days or weeks before he got back to working on the article. He mentioned how other authors might take years to work on novels, dusting off their manuscripts and revising scenes here and there.

Keeping loops open by stopping mid-sentence or mid-task is a useful technique often recommended for writing or programming. Research describes this as the Zeigarnik effect: an interrupted task stays in your memory and motivates you to complete it.

But after reading David Allen’s Getting Things Done, I had become a convert of closed loops: getting tasks, ideas, notes out of your head and into a trusted system so that you don’t have to waste energy trying to remember them. I noticed that if I kept too many loops open, my mind felt buzzy and distracted. To work around this, I got very good at writing things down.

In fact, I took closing loops one step further. Publishing my notes on my blog helped me get rid of the guilt and frustration I used to feel whenever I found myself wanting to move on to a different project. Because my notes were freely available for anyone who was trying to figure out the same thing, I could go ahead and follow the butterflies of my interest to a different topic. My notes could also help me pick things up again if I wanted to.

I didn’t stop mid-sentence or mid-thought, but I published in the middle of learning instead of waiting until I finished. Even my review posts often included next steps and open questions. So I got a little satisfaction from posting each small chunk, but I still left dangling threads for me to follow up on. I closed the loops enough so that the topics didn’t demand my attention.

Writing helped me clear my mind of strong open loops–but it worked a little too well. I tried to close things off quickly, so that I could revisit them when I wanted to. The trick was remembering that they were there. Sometimes I forgot the dangling threads for a year or more. I never followed up on others. Even with my regular review processes, I often forgot what I had written, as in the search that prompted this post.

Writing and memory have an ancient trade-off. Even Socrates had something to say about it, quoting an ancient Egyptian king in Plato’s The Phaedrus:

“…for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.”

as quoted in On writing, memory, and forgetting: Socrates and Hemingway take on Zeigarnik

In 2011, Sparrow, Liu, and Wegner showed that people remember less if they think a computer will keep their notes for them, and they tend to remember how to get to the information rather than the information itself. Having written the words, published the posts, and indexed the titles, I’ve forgotten the words; and now I can’t find my way back.

Hence my immediate challenge: sometimes I forget how to get to the information I’ve stored, like a squirrel stashing nuts. (More research: tree squirrels can’t find 74% of the nuts they bury. So I’m doing slightly better than a squirrel, I think.)

Google helps if I can remember a few words from the post, but since it tends to search for exact words, I have to get those words right. Hah, maybe I need to use search engine optimization (SEO) techniques like writing with different keywords – not for marketing, but for my own memory. It reminds me of this SEO joke:

How many SEO copywriters does it take to change a lightbulb, light bulb, light, bulb, lamp, bulbs, flowers, flour…?

My blog index is helpful, but it isn’t enough. I need to write more descriptive titles. Perhaps I should summarize the key point as well. Maps can help, as can other deliberate ways of connecting ideas.

Let me take a step back and look at my goals here. Linking to posts helps me save time explaining ideas, build on previous understanding, and make it easy for people to dig into more detail if they want. But I can also accomplish these goals by linking to other people’s explanations. With so many people writing on the Web, chances are that I’ll find someone who has written about the topic using the words I’m looking for. I can also write a new post from scratch, which has the advantages of being tailored to a specific question and which possibly integrates the forgotten thoughts even without explicit links.

It’s an acceptable trade-off, I think. I’ll continue writing, even with the increased risk of forgetting. If I have to write from scratch even when I think I’ve probably written about the same topic before, I can accept that as practice in writing and thinking.

Other writers have better memories. Flavian told me how he can remember articles he wrote in the 1990s, and I’ve heard similar accounts from others. Me, I’ve been re-reading this year’s blog posts in preparation for my annual review, and I’ve come across ones that pleasantly surprised me. Posts two or three years back are even fuzzier in my memory. I can try to strengthen my memory through exercises and processes. The rest of the time, I can work with the brain that I have. In fact, I’m inclined to build more memory scaffolds around myself, moving more of my memory outside my mind.

[I do not] carry such information in my mind since it is readily available in books. …The value of a college education is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think.

  • Albert Einstein, as Wikiquotes cites from Einstein: His Life and Universe (2007)

And really, how much difference would perfect memory make? I might add more links, include more citations, cover more new ground. I can still learn and share without it.

Forgetful squirrels have their uses. Forgotten acorns grow into oaks for others to enjoy. From time to time, I hear from people who’ve come across old posts through search engines, or I come across old posts in a review. Loops re-open, dangling threads are taken up again, and we continue.