I would love to be able to write all of my blog posts within Emacs. I like the outline tools and simple markup of Org Mode. Org Mode and org2blog are invaluable when I’m writing a post with lots of code or keyboard commands, because it’s easy to set up syntax highlighting or add teletype text. Here’s an interesting self-referential example of org2blog’s power that uses #INCLUDE to include the Org blog post source in the post itself.
If I expect that a post will have lots of images, I tend to use Windows Live Writer because it takes care of resizing and aligning images, linking to the original size. Because it uses my blog’s stylesheet, I can get a sense of how the text will flow around it. I can quickly draw an idea in Autodesk Sketchbook Pro, copy and paste it into Windows Live Writer, and then resize it until it feels balanced on the page. Sometimes I draft a post in Emacs and then open it in Windows Live Writer or ScribeFire so that I can add images.
Org Mode also supports images, but it’s not as easy to resize things there. If I wrote a function that used ImageMagick to save the clipboard image to a file, resize it to the appropriate dimensions, and link it to the full-size image, maybe that would do the trick. Still, that sounds like it would be a fair bit of work. Maybe someday. Hmm – any chance someone reading this blog happens to already have that snippet handy? =)
If I need to edit an existing post, I either use the WordPress web interface or I use ScribeFire. That way, I don’t have to fill in the post publishing date again.
It’s a bit of a patchwork system of different tools, but it does the job. What’s your workflow like?
From August 11: I’ve written myself into the next month already. Good thing the Share a Draft plugin lets me send people links to upcoming blog posts so that they don’t have to wait for answers. I leave Saturdays for weekly reviews and Sundays for other stories that come up, and all the rest have one blog post a day. I don’t know when I’m going to schedule this post. Maybe I’ll shuffle things around so that some posts are in September. Let’s see if I can fill September up.
There’s more to write. There always is. Ideas from my outline. Answers to comments and e-mailed questions. Things I’m learning.
The main trick is to remember which posts are time-related and which ones aren’t. Or, I suppose, to write things so that they aren’t time-sensitive: to refer to recent events as “recently” instead of “last Wednesday”.
I haven’t been coding as much. You can see it. Here’s my writing activity (yay Quantified Awesome):
Here’s my coding on Quantified Awesome:
At least I’ve been drawing (a little bit, not much):
Writing is just so much more squeezable into the spaces of my life. I can write anywhere. I just need a question, and off I go. Sometimes I write throughout the process of finding that question in the first place. And more people could possibly benefit from writing, while only a few people use my code. Although lots of people like my drawings (and I do too), so I should make more of those.
Writing is less frustrating than coding because I feel like I make immediate progress, and I don’t get error messages. Not that coding is frustrating. Coding is fun. But I’m picking writing more than I’m picking code, and that tells me that I should tweak the rewards so that I pick code more. Besides, there are a gazillion blogs out there, but not as many people working on Emacs, Org Mode, WordPress, Rails, or the other awesome tools that I use. I could make more of a difference with code.
Maybe I need to put a time limit on my writing so that I get forced to do something different. Except it doesn’t really take all that much time to write.
If I’m a month ahead, maybe I should hold off writing and focus on outlining instead. Except writing is fun and it clears my head… Maybe writing one blog post, maybe a maximum two blog posts every time I sit down to write, and checking off some other non-writing task (code, drawing, learning Latin) before I allow myself a writing session again? I’m allowed to write if I’m blogging in the process of learning something.
People think flow is awesome (as in Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s research). It is, but it’s dangerous. Too much flow could mean neglecting other parts of life. So, time to revisit other interests…
August 13: Hmm. Writing really has a strong pull. I’ve learned that it’s easier (and often much better!) if I don’t fight my interest, so maybe I should just give myself permission to write and outline (and draw, on occasion) whenever I feel like it.
Over ten years, my WordPress blog had ballooned to more than 500 categories. Part of it was because Org2Blog makes creating new categories super-easy, so I just piled them on (occasionally mispelling a few). Part of it was because I don’t really know what I’ll write a lot about until I write, so I had categories with one or two posts and then I moved on. Part of it was because I hadn’t decided what I’m going to use categories for and what I’m going to use tags for–yes, even after all those years.
I wanted to revamp my categories so that the Life, Geek, and Visual categories and their corresponding feeds might be useful to people who find my daily posts awesome-but-overwhelming and who would prefer a slice of my blog tailored to their interests. (There are even more categories on my archive page.) This meant organizing the categories into a hierarchy, but first I wanted to cut the number down to something more manageable.
The WordPress interface for managing categories leaves much to be desired when it comes to bulk actions. Fortunately, the Term Management Tools plugin makes it easy to merge categories or convert them to tags using additional Bulk Actions on the standard Categories screen.
I merged a few of the common typos, then converted any category with fewer than 10 posts into a tag. The original version failed silently when converting a category if a tag with the same name already existed, so I patched my version to silently merge the terms.
The Screen Options menu let me change the number displayed on screen to 100 items, which made it much easier for me to weed out most of my categories. Term Management Tools also provides a bulk action for setting a category parent, which was great for quickly reorganizing my categories into a hierachy.
I still had almost 3,000 uncategorized posts. Since I haven’t quite found or written an automatic N-gram text classifier for WordPress posts (if you have one, please share!), I decided to see if I could make a dent in this manually. I started by prioritizing the posts with comments. I assigned categories using the Posts screen, but that took a while and too many mouseclicks. The Categorized plugin automatically unchecks the default category once you select a different one, which saved me one click per post, but it still wasn’t enough. I ended up extracting a list of posts from my database with the following SQL command:
SELECT p.id, p.post_title, p.post_date, p.comment_count FROM wp_posts p
INNER JOIN wp_term_relationships r ON (p.id=r.object_id AND r.term_taxonomy_id=1)
WHERE p.post_type='post' AND p.post_status='publish' into outfile '/tmp/published.txt';
and another list of terms and taxonomy IDs:
SELECT t.*, tt.term_taxonomy_id FROM wp_terms t INNER JOIN wp_term_taxonomy tt ON (t.term_id=tt.term_id AND tt.taxonomy='category')
INTO OUTFILE '/tmp/terms.txt';
After a little spreadsheet manipulation involving VLOOKUP-ing the category name that I manually entered for each one, I copied the term taxonomy ID and post IDs into an Emacs buffer and used a keyboard macro to change it into the form:
UPDATE wp_term_relationships SET term_taxonomy_id=? WHERE object_id=? AND term_taxonomy_id=1;
where 1 was the term_taxonomy_id corresponding to Uncategorized.
Since I was on a roll, I decided to categorize everything from 2007 onwards, which is farther back than my manual index goes. That got me through about a thousand items before I decided it was enough filing for one day. As of the time of writing, there were 6512 posts on my blog. 4,536 posts (70%) belong to various categories, while 1,976 are still uncategorized.
I hope this work pays off! =) I expect that it will make my blog a little easier to browse.
Here’s what I’m learning about being clear about your goals and analyzing how your actions match up with them. I’ve been thinking about my goals for blogging because I want to get better. I have time to learn things, and I can learn more effectively if I learn deliberately. It might work for you too!
1. Clarify your goals
It’s good to know what your goals are and how the different approaches serve those goals so that you can choose the ones that are the most effective. You can also look at each approach to see how you can improve it.
After some reflection, I came up with this list of goals for my blog:
Learn more effectively by thinking through complexity or explaining what I’m learning
Explore assumptions and possibilities; become more aware of them myself, and help other people see them
Improve core skills through practice: making decisions, explaining ideas, organizing thoughts, etc.
Save myself and other people time spent re-solving the same problems or learning the same things
Build a long-term archive that I can use to remember what I’m learning and see differences over time
Learn from other people through questions, comments, and conversations
Your list of goals will probably look different. Many people have goals such as building a business by promoting their products or services, educating clients or readers, keeping family members up to date, working through difficult issues by writing anonymously, and so on. Take a moment to think about and prioritize your goals.
If you’re having problems expressing your goals, you can also take a look at your recent blog posts and ask yourself, “Why did I write this?” What results did you want to get? What purpose did it serve? One blog post might work towards several different goals.
2. Analyze the ways you approach those goals
Different actions support different goals to different extents. Think about the different types of blog posts you write. Score them against each of your goals on a scale of 1 to 5, where a score of 5 means that type of post helps a specific goal a lot, while 1 means it does very little or even nothing for that particular goal.
Here are some of the types of posts I share and how they line up with the goals I listed above:
Goal 1: Learn
Goal 2: Explore
Goal 3: Improve
Goal 4: Save time
Goal 5: Build
Goal 6: Learn from others
T1: Draw original stuff
T2: Draw book reviews and events
T3: Think out loud
T4: Share tech tips, troubleshooting notes, or code
T5: Review longer spans of time (yearly, decisions)
T6: Write tips that few other people can cover
T7: Write tips that other people can also cover
T8: Review recent posts (weekly, monthly)
Sorting the table by the total score makes it easy to see which approaches you value more. If some goals are much more important to you than others, you can also weight those goals in your calculations. For example, if building a long-term archive was twice as important to me, I could double that column when calculating the total score.
Anyway, this ranking makes it clearer why I feel good about original drawings and sketchnotes, and why I skew towards decision reviews and “thinking through things”-type posts even if they don’t feel focused enough on saving other people time. Most of the blogging advice tends to focus on writing tips, but they don’t motivate me as much.
How about you? Do your post types match up with your goals? Are there clear winners that you should focus on? You can write lower-value posts from time to time because they address different needs. For example, I post weekly reviews because they’re useful to me even if they’re less useful for others.
3. Adjust your priorities based on feedback
Of course, since these values are subjective, it helps to adjust them based on your website analytics or feedback from your readers. For example, if you think a type of post saves people a lot of time, you’ll probably see a lot of visits or comments on it. If you have Google Analytics, you can export the Content – Site Content – All Pages table to a spreadsheet, classify the top X links, and then see what types of posts people spend their time on. For example, I analyzed the top 500 pages visited in July 2013, classified each by type, calculated average views and time per page, and sorted it by average views to get a sense of which posts tend to be more popular.
Number of pages
Number of views
Average page views per page
Average minutes per page view
Average bounce rate
T1: draw original
T4: share tech
T2: draw book / event
T3: think out loud
T5: review long / decision
T6: write tip (few)
T7: write tip (many)
My sketchnotes are more popular by far. My technical notes are surprisingly durable over time, even though you’d expect them to be superseded by bugfixes, technical changes, better documentation, and so on. Posts as old as 2004 still turn up. Because people still get a lot of value from my old tech posts, I adjusted the “Save time” rating for tech tips from my original value of 3 to 4. (I had started with a lower value because I figured that not a lot of people would probably have run into the same issues I did, but it turns out that time makes up for audience size and the long tail works.) As I expected, tips that few other people have written about get more pageviews than tips that more people have written about, although I’m surprised that people tend to spend more time on the common tips. My “thinking out loud” posts are more popular than I expected. Also, people tend to click on my weekly reviews if I add a brief description to the title, so that’s something.
Limitations: This only looks at single-page views in a single month. Also, I picked July because I started drafting this post in August.
Anecdotally speaking, I get a lot of comments and links to my sketchnotes. I’m also delighted by the conversations that occasionally grow out of the “thinking out loud” posts, and how sometimes people will share even better solutions when I post my technical notes.
4. Identify ways to improve each approach
Now that you’ve looked at what makes each type of post different, you can focus on how to improve each type by building on its strengths or compensating for its weaknesses. Here’s what I’m planning for the kinds of posts I write:
Draw original stuff: It takes me 2-4 hours to make one of these. I like making technical notes (ex: Emacs), sketchnote tutorials (to help people draw more), and other drawings related to life and planning. I’m getting used to drawing them with less up-front planning. Even though I end up moving things around, I think it’s useful to just get started. Drawing involves a trade-off because images are not as searchable as text. I can fix that by including the text, but it’s a little awkward and it takes more time. Still, people like the drawings a lot, and I like them too.
Draw book reviews and events: I go to fewer events these days, but I’m reading a lot more books. It takes me two hours to read a typical business book in depth, drawing notes along the way. I tend to draw book reviews only when I’ve already gotten a sense that a book is worth reading in depth. One way to increase my frequency is to draw book notes based on the skimmed parts of books that I’m not reading deeply – perhaps breaking out just the chapter or idea that resonates with me, and using that to illustrate a blog post reflecting on it. I can also work on getting more high-quality books into my pipeline, or practise by drawing more books with fewer value judgments.
Think out loud: I can improve the “Save time” score by stashing the notes in my outline, adding observations, until I’ve fleshed it out enough for preliminary findings and advice. It means that the output will be more concise in its reasoning and I’ll have to do more learning on my own instead of opening up the conversation early, but then the posts will be useful for other people as well as for me. Mr. Money Mustache is a good example of a blog that mixes personal stories and useful observations. The main thing that was holding me back from doing this before was losing track of my drafts, but my outline is a good step.
For example, this post started as a rough outline, thinking out loud about what kinds of posts I wanted to write. Now I’m going back and filling it in with other information that might be useful for people. If it ends up too long, I might have to trim it. We’ll get there!
Share tech tips, troubleshooting notes, or code: The limiting factor here is that I’m not working on any professional projects that I can write about, so I’m forced to run into and resolve fewer issues. I can replace that with working on my own projects or on open source projects, or helping people with questions. I often tweak or work on things related to Emacs, WordPress, or data visualization, so there’s that. If I set aside time and find a good source of small bugs so that I can ease my way into a habit of contributing to open source again, then that will also help me with my life goal to keep my technical skills sharp.
Review longer spans of time: I can increase the frequency of decision reviews by scheduling them so that I don’t lose track of items. Because I manage my outline in Org Mode, that should be relatively easy to do. I can also bootstrap this by reviewing last year and last decade’s monthly reviews (if available), or the blog posts if not.
Write tips that few other people can cover: There are lots of information gaps to fill. Sometimes it’s because people don’t have the time, inclination, or confidence to write about something. Sometimes it’s because I have a useful combination of skills or I can bring a different perspective. If I can’t find information, that’s a good reason to write it.
Write tips that other people can also cover: The world doesn’t really need another “how to find the time to blog” tutorial. If I can filter through search results for a good one and make it more findable, that beats writing one from scratch–unless I can add something special or relate different types of advice to each other.
Review recent posts (weekly, monthly): These are low-value in the short term (mostly lists of links, plus the nudge to do my weekly planning process), but I’ve found them to be surprisingly useful over the years. They also help keep my large blog archive manageable. That’s why I keep posting them. I’ve started using the weekly and monthly reviews to give people less-frequent subscription options (daily can be a little overwhelming), so that’s helpful too.
One way I can increase the value of the weekly reviews is to add more quick notes to them. For example, in my most recent weekly review, I included an annotated list of links I clipped and books/movies I liked from this week’s haul. I think it will provide additional value, and it’s a good way for me to review them as well.
“Get better” is a vague goal. If you can identify the specific goals you would like to work toward, different ways to move towards those goals, and specific actions you can take to improve those approaches, you’ll have a lot of flexibility in terms of growing. You’ll find it easier to recognize or create opportunities to grow, and you can track your progress along the way. You might also be able to identify counter-productive approaches and replace them with ones that move towards more of your goals. Good luck and have fun!
Blogging should expand your brain. It’s a great tool for learning things, so why limit yourself to what you think you’re an expert on? I want to write about things I don’t know. Then I can help other people get started, and other people can help me learn. (Hence the preponderence of “Thinking about…” and “Learning…” posts on my blog versus “How to…” posts.)
Research lets you jumpstart your learning by building on other people’s experiences. Fortunately, you have access to more information than you could ever read, thanks to the wonders of the Internet.
I’ve been re-learning how to research and how to synthesize that information for blog posts. It’s much more useful when you’re no longer trying to pad a school report with three to five reliable sources. Did you come across an interesting post on a blog? A great message on a forum? Go ahead and link to them, no PhDs required.
1. Make an outline of the questions you want to answer or ideas you want to explore.
Don’t worry about finding the absolute best resource. Look for good-enough resources, and prioritize as you find more. Don’t link just for the sake of linking. Every link should add more insights or details.
I usually go through the first five to ten pages of Google search results. If people quote an even better source, I follow that link. Sometimes I’ll try different search queries based on the titles of blog posts I like.
You can quickly get a sense of whether a blog post is better than other things you’ve read. Does it give specific, punchy, perhaps unexpected advice illustrated with personal experiences, or is it your run-of-the-mill link-building blahblahblah? Speed-reading can pay off a lot here.
Want to go into greater depth? Look for relevant books and read them, summarizing the key points for your readers. Google Book Search is great for searching inside books, and Amazon’s recommendations are handy too. I sometimes check out seven or more books on a single topic, read them all over a week, and pick out key points for a blog post. This is an excellent way to add value, because most people won’t have the time to read the same books.
You can also check out other channels: podcasts, Twitter conversations, online Q&A sites, magazines, research papers… Go beyond blog posts when looking for resources, and you’ll find plenty of relevant material.
Good news – you can’t lose. If you find excellent resources right away, then you don’t have to write a big blog post. Just learn from those resources, and maybe write a post with your question and links to the best resources you found. If you spend an hour searching and you can’t find anything you really like, that’s fine too. Chances are that other people are frustrated by it too. Take that as a cue to write the blog post you wish you’d read.
3. Add key points and links to your outline.
By adding to your outline along the way, you’ll see how ideas are related to each other and where the gaps are. If you’re copying an exact quote, add quotation marks so that you don’t accidentally plagiarize it when rereading your notes. Better yet, paraphrase it right away. To make citations easier, add attributions or links. That way, you don’t have to chase down references.
Take another look at your outline and reorganize it until the flow makes sense. The order in which you find resources is rarely the order in which you want to share them. For example, you may want to categorize the tips you’ve picked up, combine similar items, and arrange them in a logical order. You can also compare different viewpoints and line up the arguments for each alternative, then conclude with recommendations. With a little paraphrasing, you might be able to fit the tips into a creative mnemonic. Play around with the structure before you start writing your post.
5. Add value through summaries, insights, and personal experiences.
While searching for resources, you might have noticed an intimidatingly large number of results. For example, searching for how to do research for your blog gets more than a billion search results. Why add one more?
You’ve probably also noticed that many results are missing something. Maybe you didn’t find a single post that answers the exact question you wanted to explore (or if it did, the answer was buried in an intimidatingly long post). Maybe most of the search results are fluffy self-promotional pieces. Maybe they’re badly formatted and hard to read.
There’s room for you to add something of value, even if it’s just a good summary. Other people could spend a few hours reading all those search results and books, and trying to map out the insights from various resources… but if you’ve already done the work, why not save them some time and share what you’ve learned so far?
Add your own tips. While researching, you’ll probably think of a few points that you can’t find in the pages that you’ve seen so far. Write them down. Maybe other people didn’t write about those tips because they’re more experienced than you and they took that for granted, but other beginners will find those tips useful. Maybe other people didn’t write about those tips because you’re more experienced than they are (or at least you’ve made different mistakes). Add your thoughts.
Tell personal stories. Instead of just sharing advice, share your experiences in applying that advice. What worked well for you? What could have gone better? This is a great way to learn more, too – you’re not just passing on advice, you’re trying things out and adding your own perspective. A.J. Jacobs and Gretchen Rubin do this really well in their books on life experiments, and are definitely worth reading.
I hope these five steps will help you learn new things while writing blog posts. You don’t have to limit yourself to what you know. You can use your blog to help you learn. Good luck and have fun!
Author’s note: I feel like this post should have more links in it, given the subject. I’m not particularly impressed with most of the posts I came across in my research, though (see the last point in step 2). Do you have any favourite resources along these lines?
The advice these days is to include a large image in your blog post, somewhere “above the fold”, so that it can attract attention, visually break up the page, and make your blog post more interesting. That way, blog themes that use featured images can include that as the thumbnail, and magazine-style feed readers (I use Feedly) can make your posts look cool. The image should be relevant. If you’re using someone else’s image, observe copyright and attribution requirements.
I like cats, so I’m going to bend the rule about relevance and add a cat picture here.
If I want to learn more about visual language, stock photos and Creative Commons images might be good ways to do that. Less work than taking pictures of things myself, and more realistic than drawing.
One of the reasons I dislike stock photos is that they can feel fake. You know, the bunch of all-white (or, rarely, obviously diverse) business people who are way too excited about a meeting. See Corey Eridon’s post on 13 Hilarious Examples of Truly Awful Stock Photography. I don’t think the examples are awful, but you’ll recognize the clichés.
What does “good” look like? Of the blogs I read, which ones use images consistently, and what do I prefer?
I want to be inspired by the way human emotions and situations can be translated into different contexts. I want to expand my collection of visual metaphors. I want to get the hang of matching ideas with comics (or making my own).
What’s getting in my way?
Thinking of the right keywords, and being happy with the search results. For example, let’s say that I want to express the concept, “being frustrated with search results.” Needle in a haystack? Frustrated person?
This is kinda what I mean. Sometimes it’s easier to draw than to search.
It’s this odd combination of too many choices, and yet not quite what I’m looking for – but I think that has more to do with skills I need to develop, ways I need to learn how to see and think.
How do you learn how to use images anyway? Most of the blog posts and web pages I’ve seen just harp on copyright, assuming you’ve got the sense to pick out images on your own. If I want to get better at this, I need to get better at brainstorming concrete images for abstract concepts, coming up with keywords for more efficient searching, piling up sheer exposure – stuffing lots of stock photos into my head until I build my “stock photo vocabulary,” or my visual vocabulary in general.
I filtered through more than a hundred pages of Google search results related to how to choose stock photos. Here are the best resources I’ve come across so far:
More topical and closer to my existing workflow, but can be frustrating because of my criteria. I don’t want fake-looking models or situations. I don’t want meaningless fluff or
On the plus side, if I spend half an hour searching for an image and still can’t find it, I probably have a better idea of what I want and how it’s different from what I’ve seen. Then I can draw it.
B. Browse for images first, then follow the inspiration to write posts (maybe with my outline).
Possibly fun, possibly a time-suck. Randomness is my friend. There’s always plenty to write about, so I’m not too worried about finding a topic – although I do want to make sure that each post is fleshed out enough so that it’s not just an excuse to share an image.
Have you taught yourself how to work with stock photos and blog posts? Can you help me figure out how to build my stock photo vocabulary?
Update 2013-08-16: One of the ways I’m coming to terms with stock photos is to mix them up in some way – add speech bubbles, doodle, and so on. It’s fun. It turns it into a game. If you use stock photos on your blog, what do you do to stop making it look generic?