Category Archives: writing

Squirrel brain

I’m dealing with squirrel brain at the moment. It’s different from fuzzy brain in that squirrel brain feels like I have lots of thoughts that don’t yield much depth or connection, while fuzzy brain is like finding it difficult to think or concentrate in the first place.

(This is cool! I’m developing the ability to distinguish among suboptimal states, like the ones I sketched in September last year. Squirrel brain is a little like “buzzy,” I guess, but it has a slightly different feel to it. More diffuse, but not diffuse-as-in-fog. More like scattered, maybe? A different scattered state would be if I knew there were interesting sets of thoughts to explore, but I was too jittery to follow one through. This one is more like… I’ve got the seeds of possibly-interesting ideas, but they haven’t grown enough yet.)

Anyway, since I’m probably not the only one who’s dealt with squirrel brain and I will most likely run into it again in the future, here are some notes. The self-compassionate approach of accepting it is what it is seems to work out better than trying to push myself to come up with something deep and insightful.

2015-04-13c Squirrel brain -- #squirrel-brain

2015-04-13c Squirrel brain – #squirrel-brain

Come to think of it, my favourite writing times are when I’ve been noodling my way around a topic for a while (through sketches and other blog posts), so when I write, I can see the connections, and I can share results from little experiments. So this here – this squirrel brain – might just be because I’m wrapping up some things that have occupied my brain for a while. (Maybe I should do more of the mental equivalent of succession planting…) Anyway, if I keep finding, collecting, and organizing the jigsaw pieces of my thoughts – or, to return to the previous metaphor, planting lots of seeds – it will probably come together later on.

2015-04-13f Drawing and the squirrel brain -- index card #squirrel-brain #zettelkasten #index-card

2015-04-13f Drawing and the squirrel brain – index card #squirrel-brain #zettelkasten #index-card

Index cards work well for those. They’re small chunks, so I don’t feel like I need to think big or deep thoughts. If I make myself draw five or more index cards, I tend to find myself revisiting some thoughts, which is good. The first shallow pass clears my mind and gets things out there. Then I can see what I’ve been thinking and develop it in a second or third or fourth pass. Working digitally is great. I don’t even have to worry about wasting paper or keeping things organized for scanning.

As for writing – I feel a slight urge to be helpful and say useful things in blog posts. I tell people not to be intimidated by that in their own blogs, so I should remember to treat my blog as a personal thinking and learning tool. (If other people find value in it, that’s icing on the cake.)

From time to time, I might post more thinking-out-loud things like this. Not quite stream of consciousness… I tried dictating to my computer earlier, while I was pinning up the bias binding for my gingham top, and I think dictation makes me feel even more fragmented. Anyway, this sort of semi-stream-of-consciousness writing – launching off some drawings, trying to quickly capture an idea – that might be a way for me to work around squirrel brain. The important thing is to plant those seeds, keep collecting those jigsaw pieces, keep writing and drawing. If I forget or I let things blur together, I won’t get to those moments when things click.

Getting better at writing other-directed posts

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related sketches:

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

to an outline like:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Envy and other people’s writing

Have you felt envy as a writer?

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

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

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

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

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

When the frustration fades, only delight is left.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!” =)