Category Archives: writing

On this page:

Thinking about word counts and chunks

I was talking to Frank Chen about blogging, and he mentioned that he’s experimenting with word count goals. That made me realize that I don’t pay much attention to word count when I write, and that I tend to write shorter posts. I think in terms of chunks of ideas. I write each post so that it covers one idea, either something I want to share or something I want to learn. Sometimes I cover a little more ground, if I can chunk the sub-ideas enough to hold them in my brain at the same time. Sketches help me a lot when it comes to developing thoughts further.

I rarely write larger posts that bring lots of things together. I guess it’s because I tend to write about:

  • things I’ve just learned: publishing small chunks helps me get my notes out faster
  • things I’m figuring out: nibbling away at questions helps me make sense of them
  • answers to specific questions: small chunks and clear titles makes it easier for me to find things and share links later

What are some examples of longer posts and resources I’ve worked on?

  • There’s How to Read Lisp and Tweak Emacs, which I published as a four-part weekly series and also as a single file.
  • There’s the No Excuses Guide to Blogging, which I published as a PDF/EPUB/MOBI. I linked the source blog posts into a series so that people coming across the posts in the archives can still navigate between them.
  • I post presentations like The Shy Connector as slides and a full blog post. That said, I usually try to keep my presentations to about 10-15 minutes anyway, so the resulting posts are not enormous.
  • Interviews or videos with transcripts can get really long because I talk quickly. For example, this Emacs Chat with John Wiegley is pretty long. I’ve experimented with breaking transcripts up into logical segments, but keeping the entire transcript together seems to make more sense to me.

What would it be like to experiment with longer posts that cover more ground? Based on the blogs I like reading, I think it might mean writing more thorough guides like the ones on Mastering Emacs – things that people would bookmark and refer to a few times.

Organized guides help beginners a lot because they don’t get lost trying to figure out the next step. They can keep scrolling down. On the flip side, it might take a bit more work to make long guides friendlier for intermediate and advanced users: a table of contents, links to alternative paths or related content, closer and more coherent discussion…

Hmm. I feel a little odd about drafting a long resource (takes time to write and takes time to read), and deep-linking into part of a blog post can be a little difficult.

I think I like working with short chunks that I can link to or assemble into different pieces. Maybe I’ll spend a little more time planning outlines and series of related posts so that I can link posts together and fill in the gaps. For now, I’ll leave the ultimate-guide-writing to other people who are better at linear organization (or to future Sacha when she writes books).

Onward to better writing and sharing!

Keeping a process journal

I post a lot of notes on my blog, and I keep more snippets in my personal files so that I can learn from them and turn them into blog posts later. There’s something still missing here, though, something I can tweak. Reading Louise DeSalvo’s The Art of Slow Writing (2014), I recognized part of what was missing in her description of process journals. Here’s a relevant excerpt:

p82. In Steinbeck’s April 9, 1951, entry, written as he composed East of Eden, he evaluates his desk’s new surface, determines how to keep his pencil drafts from smudging, figures when it’s best to do his laundry, plans his week’s work, determines to try to write somewhat more, assesses his energy level, discusses his fear of interruptions derailing his work, pledges maintaining his focus to complete the work by managing his work in his journal.

… Here we see Steinbeck deliberately managing his work before he begins the labor of writing. He evaluates his tools–his desk and pencils–shapes his day, sketches the new scene, deals with his emotions, summarizes and evaluates his progress, and figures how to move his work forward. And Steinbeck engaged in this process each day.

(Oh! I love writers Have Thought About Stuff. It’s like the way programmers also tend to apply tools and systems to more than just programming… Come to think of it, I wonder how geeks of other persuasions end up applying their geekdoms to the rest of life!)

Anyway: a place to clear your thoughts, a deliberate reflection on processes and practices, and perhaps a way to browse through those entries in chronological order or based on context… My blog is a little like that, but there’s so much more stuff than I publish on it and it will continue to be like that if I insist on keeping to my mostly-one-post-a-day limit and scheduling things in advance.

I’ve been keeping a small journal–just a few keywords per day, scribbled into a paper notebook shortly before going to bed–for the past three months. It’s amazing how that’s enough to help me get back to those days, remembering more details than I could without them.

Org Mode for Emacs has built-in support for quickly capturing notes and organizing them in an outline by date. I think I’ll use that for at least quick memories, since those make sense in a timeline, and then I’ll keep the larger notes in a topic-focused outline. Technically, I’m using a computer, so I should be able to organize things both ways: using tags and links to connect items by topic, and using Org’s log view to view things by date.

It would be good to start with this kind of deliberate, constant improvement in a few areas of my life:

  • Web development: I’d like to learn more about design, and also developing better code
  • Writing: I can pay more attention to the questions I formulate and how I explore them
  • Cooking: Hmm, more notes on how we make the recipes and what the cooking process is like?

If I make Fridays the days I focus on harvesting my notes from the previous week and plan some ideas for the next one, that would fit in nicely with reviewing this process journal and seeing what I can build on the next week. (I’m still going to post random snippets during the week, probably… =) )

Publishing WordPress thumbnail images using Emacs and Org2Blog

I often include large images in my blog posts since I use sketches as another way to think out loud. I’d gotten used to using the WordPress web interface to drag and drop them into the relevant section of the page. I write most text in Emacs/Org Mode/Org2Blog because of the better outlining and writing tools, and then I used sacha/org-copy-region-as-html (which you can grab from my Emacs configuration) to copy the HTML markup and paste it into WordPress. Of course, I use Emacs for source-code heavy posts that make the most of its syntax formatting support.

Someone asked me recently about how to post and update blog posts with images through Org2blog, and if I had any recommendations for workflow. I’d dropped Windows Live Writer since it was flaking out on me and the WordPress web interface had improved a lot, but before recommending just using WordPress to add images, I was curious about whether I could improve my blogging workflow by digging into Org Mode and Org2Blog further.

It turns out (like it usually does in the Emacs world) that someone had already solved the problem, and I just didn’t have the updated version. Although the upstream version of Org2Blog didn’t yet have the thumbnail code, searching for “org2blog wordpress thumbnail” led me to cpbotha’s Github issue and pull request. Punchagan’s version had some changes that were a little bit ahead of cpbotha’s, so I dusted off my ancient org2blog repository, cloned it onto my computer, and issued the following commands:

git remote add upstream https://github.com/punchagan/org2blog
git pull upstream master
git remote add cpbotha https://github.com/cpbotha/org2blog.git
git pull cpbotha image-thumbnail

and tested it out on a blog post I’d already drafted in Org. It took me a little while to remember that the file URLs didn’t like ~, so I specified a relative path to the image instead. But then it all worked, yay! A quick git push later, and my Github repository was up to date again.

So now I’m back to running a Git version of org2blog instead of the one that I had installed using the built-in packaging system. The way I make it work is that I have this near the beginning of my Emacs configuration:

;; This sets up the load path so that we can override it
(package-initialize nil)
;; Override the packages with the git version of Org and other packages
(add-to-list 'load-path "~/elisp/org-mode/lisp")
(add-to-list 'load-path "~/elisp/org-mode/contrib/lisp")
(add-to-list 'load-path "~/code/org2blog")
(add-to-list 'load-path "~/Dropbox/2014/presentations/org-reveal")
;; Load the rest of the packages
(package-initialize t)
(setq package-enable-at-startup nil)

This allows me to mostly use the packages and to satisfy dependencies, but override some of the load paths as needed.

Hope that helps someone else!

Questionnaires from people

As part of blog series or e-book compilations, people sometimes ask me to answer questionnaires they’ve put together. Sometimes they mention the size of their audience. Sometimes, they focus on our shared interests.

On one hand, it’s good that other people are putting together resources, and sometimes these things lead to interesting new conversations. On the other hand, grist for another’s mill, and I generally don’t enjoy reading short, too-standard answers.

So if I’m going to do stuff like that, I want to focus on the things I like. I never promise to write answers, and I don’t commit to a specific date. I mull over the questions and cherrypick the ones I find interesting. Not very generous of me, I suppose, but it keeps me happy. <laugh>

People are usually curious about the past: how one got started, what was helpful, what would you change. I tend to focus more on present and near-future, since that helps me a lot, and I’m not quite ready to hold my life up as an example that other people should be inspired by or follow. It’s good to take notes along the way, though, since it’s hard to reconstruct from memories afterwards.

So I’m okay with describing things and I can see the value of having a gallery of different approaches… What’s the core of this, then? Maybe I’m not keen on the Q-and-short-A format. Might as well be a sketch so that I can practise that. Might as well try to wring out ideas for the future, notes to self – which don’t make as much sense outside the context of my blog, I guess.

Hmm. I think there might be something there. In the context of my blog, it’s clearer that life is a work in progress, and people can come across updates. I can link to things back and forth, and it’s easier for me to keep track of comments.

I like it when people link to or excerpt my blog posts, since most of the time, bloggers make it easy to get back to the context. They put more of themselves into the post, too, sharing what they liked or what they think. It’s different from having a short bio at the end.

Oh! Maybe that’s something else that’s playing into this… I tend to feel meh about most of the guest posts I read, the generic-ish articles with short bios written for link-building and audience-building purposes. We might be a small tribe, but it’s okay for us to grow slowly through remarkable ideas rather than from exposure.

So I’ll still take people’s questions under advisement, but I’ll reflect on those questions on my own schedule and to the extent that I want to, and I’ll share those reflections on my blog. If people want to excerpt/link back, they’re welcome to do so. Let’s try that out…

Tweaking the way I write

Through writing, I want to:

  • Learn more effectively and efficiently by taking notes and chunking my thoughts
  • Understand and be able to articulate what I’m thinking
  • Keep notes for future reflection and time travel
  • Connect with people who have similar interests
  • Help other people save time

I’m pretty happy with how I’m doing this so far, although it would be even better if I could write more efficiently and effectively. What would that look like, and how could I move towards that?

I pick up a lot of information from reading and from trying things out. If I spend more time reviewing notes and experimenting with concepts, that will help me get more out of the time that I spend reading. Wouldn’t be neat if my personal stash of quotes (my digital commonplace books) linked each note with a blog post reflecting on what I found interesting about it, how I’ve applied it, and what it’s related to? I think that would be handy.

Sometimes I find myself particularly interested in an idea, and writing is easy. Other times, the spark isn’t quite there, or the kindling is scattered. I have a massive outline/list of things to write about. Sometimes it seems a little odd writing about stuff, though. Lackluster? But maybe giving myself different recipes for blog posts can help (a personal story, a book quote, etc.). I can also look at it as practice. I have years and years to write, and I can learn a lot when I practise deliberately and dispassionately.

For reflection and review, I can write regular snapshots of what’s going on in my life and what I’m trying to figure out. These usually give me enough anchors to remember more.

To make it easier to connect with other people, I can ask people if they blog, and I can post more of my personal stories on my blog.

I’ve been writing more selfishly rather than focusing on saving people time, but I’m sure that balance will shift at some point too. I tend to find it easy to blog helpful things when I’m immersed in projects or in answering people’s questions, so it’s probably just a matter of focusing on open source again.

As I write more, I’ll get faster, and I might even get clearer. :) I can build on what I’ve previously written. I’ll get a better sense of what I like and don’t like in writing, and I’ll experiment with the influences of other writers.

So let’s say that it takes me about an hour or two to follow a thought and write it down. I’m not really looking for speed here. I don’t need to be able to crank one out in fifteen minutes. It might be good to be able to work in small chunks (headline, outline, snippets) to take advantage of the moments that come up during a day. It would also be good to be able to work coherently – to build up to more complex thoughts, to untangle harder questions. That’s probably what better writing looks like for me. As for beauty form and flow, I can probably pick that up through analysis and practice, but it’s somewhat reassuring to know that people can think (and share) complex thoughts despite being inelegant writers. (Almost impenetrable, even!)

How do I want to change how I write? Well, I can use my phone more, writing instead of reading when I have a free moment on the go. If I feel a little blah when writing at my computer, I can open my book notes and expound on a passage. I can also pick something from my outline and sketch out the next level, tell a story, or look for ways to test it in life (and add a reminder to come back and write about the results). I can embrace the way that many of my blog posts are more like “here’s where I am, there’s where I’d like to go, here’s what I’m going to try” rather than fonts of wisdom. Hey, maybe it will be amusing (or even useful) looking back, forty years from now. We’ll see!

Writing incomplete thoughts

Writing helps me make myself. In a quiet, considered moment, I can think through things and figure out how I’d like to respond or act. Most of the time, I don’t end up referring to my old blog posts; writing is itself enough to help. Sometimes I do link back so that I can trace the development of a thought, build on what I’ve written, or share that moment in time with someone else who’s figuring out similar things.

Sometimes I have all these little thoughts that don’t quite gel into a single post. I’m still attached to the idea of having some kind of question, some kind of realization, or at least a little progress in a post. Sometimes I have two or more threads and I feel there’s some kind of connection between them, but I can’t quite articulate it coherently. I’m getting better at writing regardless, but I keep the notes until they make a little more sense. I’ve been saving those snippets in an ever-growing outline, but maybe I should just post things. After all, present-Sacha has found the time machine of a blog archive to be unexpectedly interesting reading, so maybe future-Sacha will be able to make sense of all this. As Steve Jobs said (in his 2005 commencement speech at Stanford), “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”

Today I thought about chronos and kairos, clock-time and personal-time. I thought about Aristotle’s golden means and the vices that my nature tends towards. I thought about our almost-daily habit of watching movies borrowed from the library, and what we did before this became our routine; and similarly, what were those long-ago weekends like? Maybe I should write more about everyday life so that future-Sacha can see the changes.

Here is what our lives are like at the moment. Mondays and Wednesdays are quiet days at home. I skim a stack of books, taking notes on a few. Because my consulting client needs a little extra help, I usually interrupt my reading and writing with an hour or two of work, responding to e-mail and dealing with quick, important requests. Tuesdays and Thursdays are more focused on consulting. On Tuesday evenings, I go to Hacklab to cook and hang out. Fridays I go out, meet friends, and experiment with a change of scene. On either Saturday or Sunday, we do laundry, groceries, cooking, and chores; the other weekend day is for outside errands or other forms of relaxation, although sometimes W- uses it to catch up on work.

I spend a lot more time reading and writing than I did when I worked full-time. (From about 5 hours a week to about 19 hours!) I enjoy it immensely. I’m beginning to feel more of a sense of the authors I encounter through their works, both ancient and modern; their voices, their ideas, the conversations that thread their way through the books I read.

There’s always that need to combine learning, doing, and sharing. Book-learning isn’t enough; I have to try things in real life. Doing something is good, but sharing what I’m learning from it is even better. My writing this year is a lot more self-focused than it was last year, but in the grand scheme of things, a little exploration should be all right. (Who knows, it might even be useful.)