Category Archives: writing

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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.)

Learning from things I like: Books about applying advice to your life

I’m fascinated by books about applying advice to your life. “Stunt memoir” seems to be the phrase for it – or gimmick book, or schtick lit. (This post lists lots of examples.) Part self-help book and part memoir, these are usually broken up into one chapter per principle, applying research or time-tested ideas to everyday life. Book titles are often long multi-parters where the second part refers to the adventure or lists an incongruous combination of techniques. The authors illustrate principles with struggles, successes, and epiphanies, and then eventually make their peace with the advice. Oddly enough, chapters tend to fit rather neatly into the usual three-act story structure – the storyteller’s craft at work.

A year seems to be a common size for these experiments, often divided into one principle per month: long enough to test ideas and write a decent-sized book for print. I think that one principle a month looks manageable for readers, too: not so short that you won’t see changes, and not so long that you’d get bored or discouraged.

Here are some examples:

I imagine that writing such a book is good for self-improvement even if no one else ever buys or reads it, so any sales are a bonus. I wonder what the process of writing that kind of a book is like: how to organize notes into a narrative, how to push yourself beyond what’s easy.

There are lots of experiments I could run along those lines:

  • Self-tracking: focusing on quantifying different things per month, bringing in research as well. Time, finance, productivity, mood, habits, fitness, food, learning, thinking, relationships, others
  • Practical philosophy: paying close attention to ancient wisdom and applying that to daily life
  • Behavioural economics and psychology in daily life: rationality, decision-making, etc.

Still, I want to be careful about the kinds of things that have rubbed me and other people the wrong way A month is not that long, and sometimes these books feel a little… shallow? Like someone’s going through the Cliff Notes for a deep idea, trying out a few things, and then calling it a day. As if someone’s just going through a checklist, crossing off different techniques. There’s also that consciousness of privilege, and the self-absorption of memoirs. That said, I write about my reflections a lot on this blog, so… maybe? I tend to think of it more as “Ack, there’s so much I still have to figure out; if I post my notes, maybe someone will take pity on me and share their insights (or possibly recognize something that they might find useful in theirs)” rather than “Here, learn from my life.”

So… I don’t know. On one hand, I like the “I’m figuring this out too” approach compared to the didactic awesomer-than-thou feel of many self-help books. On the other hand, I’m not keen on the “My life is incomplete and unhappy; I must search outside for ways to make it better.”

What’s at the core of the things I like about these kinds of books?

  • Translates research or principles into everyday actions: There’s a lot of good stuff buried in scientific language, abstract concepts, or even self-help books. Sometimes it’s hard to imagine applying those ideas to real life, and seeing someone go through the process (recovering from mistakes and all!) can help.
  • Pays attention to things we often take for granted: We do many things repeatedly and with little attention. If we look closely at them, we can get better. For example, if we think about a principle and relate it to how we want to communicate, make decisions, or use our time, we’ll often find things that we can tweak and turn into new habits.
  • Shares the struggles and the little celebrations: Self-help books can feel a little too pat with all their success stories. I relate a little better to stories along the lines of “Yeah, this was hard to learn, but here’s how I picked myself up and tried again. Here are some things that made it a little easier for me until I got the hang of it. This is what encouraged me to keep going, and now here I am. Maybe this can help you too.”
  • Connects with people who are even more dedicated to the topic: Some books sprinkle in quotes from researchers and authors. Some books include conversations with specialists. Some books delve into subcultures of people who are even more passionate about the principles and have lots of insights to share. I like the last type most of all; it’s like having an excuse to meet and learn from geeks of other persuasions.

Maybe less stunt-ish, then? I’m not thinking of these as radical changes to my life (“Oh, I only have to do this a month at a time, for a year”), but more like gradual improvement. I can always try things informally, and then stitch the essays together into a book. It might not be as impressive as spending one contiguous year focused on something, packaging this up for other people’s entertainment and perhaps inspiration, but we’ll see where it goes. =)

Thinking about how virtual assistants can help me with learning and writing

I’ve been challenging my assumptions about what I have to do myself and what could be better with help. It would be a waste of time and talent to limit virtual assistants to just data entry or transcription. People can do so much, and they can learn even more.

2014-02-26 Thinking about delegation and projects

2014-02-26 Thinking about delegation and projects

Writing is one of those tricky tasks. I can’t stand generic link-building, keyword-stuffing articles. You know, the ones bashed out by SEO robots or humans doing a reasonable simulation thereof. Hasty writers hodgepodge snippets from various places. They may change words just enough to avoid plagiarism, but how can they add anything to the conversation? They don’t have the experience you have. They can’t tell the stories you can. They have a surface understanding of your field.

Still, I’m curious. Can I outsource part of my writing without feeling like I’m breaking the promises of my blog? Can I use people’s strengths instead of bumping into the weaknesses of outsourcing?

I have a personal blog, not a corporate one. I have no problems filling every day with things I’m learning. People find my writing readable. I don’t need help… but maybe I can learn how to make the most of it anyway.

For example, I’ve started making myself delegate web research tasks. This is tough. I keep thinking, “It’ll take me five to fifteen minutes to do this research myself.” I read at a blistering speed, and the research process helps me reformulate questions. It’s faster. I don’t have to wait.

But it turns out that delegating research means I have to be clear about what I’m looking for and how important it is to me. I can learn from other people’s search keywords and summaries. And each little bit of knowledge leaves its traces on two people: the assistant and me. Before, I was the only one who learned from any research I didn’t capture as blog posts. With delegation, the two of us learn, and the summary becomes something I can share.

Example web research tasks:

So web research is one thing that might be worth delegating, even if I think I can do it faster myself.

What about drafting and writing? One of the challenges of writing is empathizing with people who are new. When I write while I’m learning, this is easy. I struggle with the same things people struggle with. But what about the things that people ask me about, the things that I already take for granted? This is where other people’s questions and words can help.

I’ve assigned people to write about a topic I’ve outlined or sketched. I like the way that my outline becomes something both recognizable and different. Here are a couple of examples:

I really like the way people go beyond what I might think of doing or asking on my own. For example, this Trello tutorial is funnier than I probably would have made, and I like it.

What’s beyond that? Maybe more conversation. Speaking can be faster than writing. I struggle with speaking because it feels so unstructured. I’m not used to dictation yet. Maybe I’ll grow into that, in time.

I’ve been practising through interviews and transcripts, but not a lot of people host shows. Maybe I can ask my assistants to interview me about topics. That way, we’ll get a recording out of it as well (for people who prefer to listen or watch). They may ask follow-up questions that I wouldn’t have come up with.

Writing through other people also helps me learn more about my individual style. When I edit their work and give them feedback, I get a better sense of how I say or organize things. Maybe the differences will inspire me to pick up tips from them, too.

$20-30 seems a lot for a blog post that I can write myself, especially if I also invest time to outline and revise it. Still, I’m intrigued by the possibilities of learning from other people’s perspectives. I like the way that I can assign topics of mutual interest, so that both my assistant and I grow through writing. It’s worth exploring.

What would wild success look like? During this delegation experiment, I think it would be great to get to the point where I can make a list of questions I’m curious about. Assistants dig into those questions further. They interview me and other people along the way. I review their drafts, experiment with the ideas, and enrich the drafts with stories and results. We all learn.

I think some of the promises of my blog are: I will post things that I care about. I hope some of them will be useful for you. I won’t clutter your feed reader or inbox with bland, impersonal articles that you could find everywhere else. I won’t resort to clickbait headlines. I’ll share what I’m learning.

Maybe delegation is compatible with those promises. We’ll see. Here are two posts I’ve written with some help:

What do you think? Can there be an authentic way of blogging with other people’s help?

Sketchnotes 2013 in print, yay!

Summary: You can now grab a print copy of Sketchnotes 2013 for $30 + shipping from CreateSpace.

2014-03-24 Sketchnotes 2013 in print, yay #publishing #packaging #createspace

2014-03-24 Sketchnotes 2013 in print, yay #publishing #packaging #createspace

I like organizing my sketches into collections so that people can flip through them easily. It’s a good archive too, just in case I lose files. I put together a PDF of my sketchnotes from 2012, and I recently put together one for my sketchnotes from 2013. For added flexibility, I started with a ZIP and shared Dropbox folder for Sketchnotes 2013.

Paul Klipp suggested that I look into CreateSpace as a way of making a paper version. CreateSpace is a print-on-demand publisher, so we can order copies one by one instead of stashing inventory. Paper is easier to flip through during casual moments, and it might be a good alternative. Besides, it’s handy as a personal backup, too. A lot of the sketchnotes are me thinking through stuff, so I’m not sure how useful they’ll be to other people, but you can check it out online for free to see anything is useful. =)

2014-03-24 17.15.56 2014-03-24 17.16.12

It turns out that CreateSpace’s pricing–even considering the cost of shipping–is cheaper than what it would take for me to get color prints at the local print shops, and the results are neatly bound and professional. My proof arrived today, and it looks decent. I had reduced my landscape sketches to a little less than half their size so that I could fit them two to a page. That makes reading easier because you don’t have to turn the page sideways. I was worried that the letters wouldn’t be readable, but they turned out fine. =D

End result: I can “back up” my sketches in a much more compact space, and you can get your own copy if you want. For comparison, here’s the stack of sketchbook pages I drew on and scanned.

2014-03-24 18.22.06

Sketchnotes 2013 ($30 + shipping)

Geekier details: LaTeX

I wanted to make a PDF collection, but I didn’t want to work with a gigantic Microsoft Word or Powerpoint file. I’d done that before with Stories From My Twenties and Sketchnotes 2012, and that was not fun. Anyway, I had folders of images to combine. At first, I tried using ImageMagick to tile the images into pairs and pad them with margins. That was pretty cool. Adobe Acrobat Standard allowed me to import the images and add page numbers. I created my own table of contents using Microsoft Excel, pasted that into Microsoft Word, and tweaked the numbers until they were correct. It was a tedious and error-prone process.

Marcin Borkowski suggested using LaTeX instead. It’s been years since I used LaTeX. I remember doing some of my papers in it, and they always looked so much better than anything I put together in Microsoft Word or OpenOffice. I didn’t want to deal with the potential hassle of setting up LaTeX under Windows or Cygwin. I’d gotten more used to using Vagrant and VirtualBox to run Linux-based virtual machines that shared folders with my Windows installation, and upgrading to a 1 TB drive meant that I had plenty of space.

One of the advantages of working with LaTeX is that it’s text-based and therefore easy to work with in Emacs. I wanted to break up the different sections into their own files. I started with a small category. That way, I could easily recompile a section of the PDF in order to figure out the right approach.

Because I was using Windows to look at the PDF, I often got annoyed by the preview pane file-locking that prevented me from deleting the file. I turned the preview pane off in Explorer and opened the PDF whenever I wanted to check it.

After looking up how to include images in LaTeX, I listed all the image files, redirected the output into a file, and used a keyboard macro to set up \includegraphics commands.

It’s a good thing I did that, because some of the files were facing the wrong way, and many of them were the wrong size. So I learned how to resize and rotate images like this:

\includegraphics[height=\textwidth,angle=90]{Business/2013-02-26 Creating value with social collaboration platforms}

A couple of notes:

  • \includegraphics displays filenames with spaces, which wasn’t what I wanted. Adding \usepackage{grffile} fixed it.
  • \includegraphics can’t deal with special characters like #. To be safe, I used M-x dired‘s editable mode (C-x C-q) to get rid of all the keywords I added to each filename for classification.

Since I had a lot of these commands, I figured it would be worth learning how to define my own command for them. LaTeX is like Emacs. You can define your own commands or override existing ones. This is great for making your code more manageable. For example, if I include the following definitions in my document preamble:

\newcommand{\sketch}[3][height=4.5in,width=\textwidth,keepaspectratio]{
  \addcontentsline{toc}{section}{#3}
  \includegraphics[#1]{#2/#3}\\
}
\newcommand{\sketchcw}[2]{
  \sketch[height=\textwidth,angle=270]{#1}{#2}
}
\newcommand{\sketchccw}[2]{
  \sketch[height=\textwidth,angle=90]{#1}{#2}
}

… that gave me new commands that I can use like this:

\sketchcw{Business}{2013-02-26 Creating value with social collaboration platforms}
\sketchccw{Business}{2013-03-04 New opportunities}
\sketch{Business}{2013-03-04 Sketchnotes of events}

I also wanted to include a table of contents that listed all the images, but I didn’t want to display captions since they would duplicate the title that’s already in the sketchnotes. At first, I tried to use captions and labels, but I found out that you can use \addcontentsline to adds lines to the table of contents without displaying anything in the text.

After I set up and successfully compiled a few files, I worked on creating a main document that combined everything. The subfiles package was straightforward to use.

The trickiest part was getting the chapter table of contents sorted out. In addition to having a main table of contents, I like having chapter-based tables of contents because that way, the list is closer to what you’re looking up. I eventually figured out how to use minitoc after much confusion with left-over minitoc data and chapters that were out of order. I ended up creating a Makefile to clean out all the auxiliary files and run pdflatex three or four times.

Here’s one of my early sketches trying to figure this out, back when I was using ImageMagick and Adobe Acrobat…

2014-02-27 How can I make it easy to print collections of my sketches #packaging #sharing

2014-02-27 How can I make it easy to print collections of my sketches #packaging #sharing

It’s great to be a geek!

More notes on managing a large blog archive: 17 things I do to handle 10+ years of blog posts

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to manage a large archive to encourage discovery and serendipity, and to make it easier to fish out articles so that I can send them to people. I started in 2001-ish and have more than 6,500 posts. There’s not a lot of information on how to manage a large archive. Most blogging-related advice focuses on helping people get started and get going. Few people have a large personal archive yet. I love coming across other bloggers who have been at this for more than ten years, because information architecture is fascinating. Here’s what I do, in case it gives you any ideas.

  1.  I set up Google Chrome quick searches for my blog, categories, and tags. This means I can quickly dig up blog posts if I remember roughly where they are. (Gear > Settings > Search > Manage Search Engines):
    • Blog (b): https://www.google.ca/search?q=site%3Asachachua.com+%s
    • Blog category (bc): http://sachachua.com/blog/category/%s
    • Blog tag (bt): http://sachachua.com/blog/tag/%s
  2. I create pages with additional notes and lists of content. I use either Display Posts Shortcode or WP Views, depending on what I need. See the Emacs page as an example.
  3. I’ve started using Organize Series to set up trails through my content. It’s more convenient than manually defining links, and it allows people to page through the posts in order too. Read my notes to find examples. I’m also working on maps, outlines, and overviews.
  4. I’ve also started packaging resources into PDFs and e-books. It makes sense to organize things in a more convenient form.
  5. I converted all the categories with fewer than ten entries to tags. Categories can get unwieldy when you create them organically, so I use categories for main topics and tags for other keywords that might graduate to become categories someday. I think I used Categories to Tags Converter or Taxonomy Converter for this. Hah! Similar Posts reminded me that I used Term Management Tools. Awesome.
  6. I manually maintain a more detailed categorical index at sach.ac/index. This makes it easier for me to see when many blog posts are piling up in a category, and to organize them more logically.
  7. I set up short URLs for frequently-mentioned posts. The Redirection plugin does a decent job at this. For example, people often ask me about the tools I use to draw, and it’s great to just be able to type in http://sach.ac/sketchtools as an answer.
  8. I post weekly and monthly reviews. The weekly review includes links to that week’s blog posts, and the monthly review includes a categorized list. I’ve also set up daily, weekly, and monthly subscriptions based on the RSS feeds. This is probably overkill (more choices = lower subscriptions), but I want to give people options for how frequently they want updates. The weekly and monthly reviews are also helpful for me in terms of quickly getting a sense of the passage of time.
  9. I use Similar Posts to recommend other things people might be interested in. There are a number of similar plugins, so try different ones to see which one you like the most. I tried nRelate and the one from Zemanta, but I wasn’t happy with the way those looked, so I’m back to plain text.
  10. I show recent comments. People often comment on really old posts, and this is a great way for other people to discover them.
  11. I use post titles in my next/previous navigation, and I labelled them “Older” and “Newer”. I think they’re more interesting than
  12. I customized my theme pages to make it easier to skim through posts or get them in bulk. For example, http://sachachua.com/blog/2014/02 lists all the posts for February. http://sachachua.com/blog/2014/?bulk=1 puts all the posts together so that I can copy and paste it into a Microsoft Word file. http://sachachua.com/blog/2014/?org=1 puts it in a special list form so that I can paste it into Org Mode in Emacs. You can also pass the number of posts to a category page: http://sachachua.com/blog/category/drawing/?posts_per_page=-1 displays all the posts instead of paginating them. These tweaks make it easier for me to copy information, too.
  13. I give people the option to browse oldest posts first. Sometimes people prefer starting from the beginning, so I’ve added a link that switches the current view around.
  14. I have an “On this day” widget. Sometimes I notice interesting things in it. I used to put it at the end of a post, but I moved it to the sidebar to make the main column cleaner.
  15. For fun, I have a link that goes to a random post. I used to display random post titles in the sidebar, which might be an interesting approach to return to.
  16. I back up to many different places. I mirror my site as a development environment. I back up the database and the files to another web server and to my computer, and I duplicate the disk image with Linode too. I should set up incremental backups so that it’s easier to go back in time, just in case.
  17. I rated my posts and archived my favourite ones as a PDF so that I’ll still have them even if I mess up my database. Besides, it was a good excuse to read ten years of posts again.

Hope that gives you some ideas for things to experiment with! I’m working on organizing more blog posts into trails and e-books. I’m also getting better at planning what I want to write about and learn. If you’re curious about any of the techniques I use or you want to bounce around ideas, feel free to e-mail me at [email protected] or set up a chat.

Do you have a large blog? How do you manage it?