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4 steps to a better blog by planning your goals and post types

This entry is part 14 of 19 in the series A No-Excuses Guide to Blogging

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!

blogging-and-goals

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:

  1. Learn more effectively by thinking through complexity or explaining what I’m learning
  2. Explore assumptions and possibilities; become more aware of them myself, and help other people see them
  3. Improve core skills through practice: making decisions, explaining ideas, organizing thoughts, etc.
  4. Save myself and other people time spent re-solving the same problems or learning the same things
  5. Build a long-term archive that I can use to remember what I’m learning and see differences over time
  6. 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 Total
T1: Draw original stuff 5 5 5 5 5 3 28
T2: Draw book reviews and events 5 2 5 5 5 5 27
T3: Think out loud 5 5 5 1 5 3 24
T4: Share tech tips, troubleshooting notes, or code 5 5 3 4 2 4 23
T5: Review longer spans of time (yearly, decisions) 5 4 5 1 5 3 23
T6: Write tips that few other people can cover 4 2 3 3 4 3 19
T7: Write tips that other people can also cover 3 1 2 2 2 2 12
T8: Review recent posts (weekly, monthly) 1 1 4 1 4 1 12

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.

Post type Number of pages Number of views Average page views per page Average minutes per page view Average bounce rate
T1: draw original 23 2875 125 3.4 67%
T4: share tech 149 12468 84 5.8 74%
T2: draw book / event 41 2346 57 2.3 64%
T3: think out loud 62 2452 40 3.4 72%
T5: review long / decision 14 504 36 2.7 73%
T6: write tip (few) 41 1392 34 3.1 72%
T8: review 9 283 31 1.0 61%
T7: write tip (many) 24 461 19 4.7 73%

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.

Wrapping up

“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!

Series Navigation« How to develop your ideas into blog postsSix steps to make sharing part of how you work »

Write about what you don’t know: 5 tips to help you do research for your blog

This entry is part 2 of 19 in the series A No-Excuses Guide to Blogging

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.

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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.

You’ll be reading a lot. It helps to have a framework that shows you what you’ve covered and what you need to look for next. Here are some outlining tips from Journalistics. Here’s an example: my outline for blogging skills.

2. Search for “good enough” resources.

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.

Here are Cal Newport’s tips on how to use an outline to write papers quickly: outline the topic, find solid sources, capture quotes, and then turn that outline into your paper. Works for blog posts too.

4. Reorganize your outline and notes.

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!

How do you research ideas for your blog posts?

Image credits: Stack of books by discpicture (via Shutterstock) 

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?

Series Navigation« A No Excuses Guide to Blogging (PDF, EPUB, MOBI – free!); also, notes on publishingThe learning machine: How I turn what I learn into blog posts »

Learning how to work with stock photos: Can you help me?

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.

There can never be too many cat pics on the Internet.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?

Lifehacker uses images well, and it looks like they customize their photos or make original ones too. Dumb Little Man, Priceonomics, Wise Bread, Blueprint for Financial Prosperity, and Under30CEO include images with every post, although sometimes the images look a bit… stock-y. So I have role models.

What do I want to learn from using stock photos?

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.

image

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.

image

 

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.

TIPS

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:

WAYS I CAN LEARN

A. Write the post first, then look for images.

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?

Cat image based on this one by vita khorzhevska, Shutterstock
Stream of images based on this one by kangshutters, also Shutterstock

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?

How to manage a large blog archive

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I’m celebrating my 30th birthday this August. Milestone birthdays are great excuses to look behind and look ahead. I don’t know how other people do it. I can barely remember what happened last week, much less ten years ago. Me, I cheat. I have blog archive, which 18-year-old me had the foresight to experiment with (although back then, I was just looking for a way to remember all those class notes and Emacs tidbits I was picking up). I’ve written more than six thousand blog posts in the last eleven years. (See Quantifying my blog posting history for a nifty visualization of my blog posting history.) My published posts probably include well over two million words. This is awesome.

Since not a lot of people have the same experience of blogging consistently over more than a decade, I thought I’d share what I’ve been learning along the way.

Have your own domain name. One of my first websites was on Geocities. Another was on Veranda.com.ph (hosted by I-Manila, which was our ISP then). Both services are long gone. I registered sachachua.com in 2006 and moved everything over to that. Since my name can be hard to spell, I registered LivingAnAwesomeLife.com in 2008. I‘ve started experimenting with my own URL shortening domains, sach.ac and liv.gd . While domain names are a recurring expense, they’ve been well worth it.

Move your data instead of starting from scratch. I changed blogging platforms (Emacs Planner Mode to WordPress) and moved web hosts, but I’d taken pains to move my data instead of starting fresh. Now I’m enjoying the benefits of having that archive handy.

Back up, back up, back up. I want this to be around in another sixty years. I like backing up the data in many different ways: database, files, HTML dumps, PDFs, even paper. I lost a bunch of photos and drawings when my Gallery2 setup got hacked, but I restored a number of them from files I found elsewhere. I look forward to being able to review decades and decades of notes.

Weekly, monthly, and yearly reviews go a long way towards making it easier to remember what happened. Day-to-day living makes it hard to see what’s important. A week seems to be the most natural chunk of time for my reviews. I wrote a little bit of code that auto-summarizes my task list and accomplishments. Every month, I

Search is your friend. If it takes a lot of digging to find something, make it more findable. I often use Google Search or my blog’s built-in search to find posts based on keywords that I remember. If it takes me a while to find something, I edit the post and add categories or tags to make it easier to find in the future. I sometimes write a new post that shares what I’ve learned since then, linking to the previous post for history.

Comments on older posts are awesome. Search engines are a wonderful, wonderful thing. I love it when people comment on old posts – it’s nice to know those posts are still helpful. Sometimes people comment on things I’ve completely forgotten writing, so it’s a great way to refresh my memory as well.

Check your analytics once in a while. I don’t really care about the number of visitors or the bounce rate, but I’m curious about what people are reading and where they’re coming from.

Indexes are good, too. Every month, I update this categorical index of my blog posts. I probably should go back and make sure that the WordPress categories match this as well, although in WordPress, I tend to use categories more like tags (I file a post in multiple categories).

Cultivate synchronicity and randomness. WordPress plugins help recommend similar posts, other posts that were written on the same day, and random posts. It might mean that my pages are overloaded with links… but it might also spark an aha! or an interesting conversation with someone browsing around, so I think it’s worth it. Besides, at this point, a computer will often be better than I could be at recommending other things that people should check out, so I use those features myself when I’m browsing my blog.

Write about the small stuff. I used to wonder whether the weekly reviews were worth posting on my blog, seeing as they’re mostly my task lists. Reviewing my blog years later, I was surprised to find that the weekly reviews were excellent at helping me remember what was going on. They were also great for filling in the blanks in my records – When did I fly out? What did I do? Whatever happened to that thing? Hooray for the small stuff.

Revise and summarize. It’s okay to write about something you’ve written before. In fact, it can be a great excuse to learn more and get closer to understanding the big picture.

If you’re starting out today, don’t worry. Stick with it, and in ten years, you’ll have something pretty darn awesome too.

Out of curiosity, do I know anyone else who’s got a big archive? How do you manage yours?

I still don’t know what to call this post

Objectives: Dig into how I write and see if I can dislodge something that can be improved; connect with other people who sometimes struggle with writing to show that hey, they’re not alone.

I’ve been experimenting with writing headlines first. That’s a popular blogging tip: come up with two or three headlines, and you might find that the rest of the blog post writes itself.

Except that most of the time, I don’t know what I want to write about until I start writing it. Maybe the blog post is about a technical problem that I’m still trying to solve. Maybe it’s about a personal question that I need to explore. Maybe it’s even a bit of both. I write and write and write. It takes shape. Then I cut out what doesn’t belong there any more, come up with a title or two, and stash the clippings for a future post.

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I still haven’t figured out how to write to an outline or a plan. I wander. My occasional attempts at having daily themes for my blog dissipate after a week or two, with the exception of my weekly review. Instead, I write whatever comes to mind, although sometimes I schedule the posts apart so that I’m not writing about the same topic four days in a row.

I write from the bottom up, one chunk at a time, gradually bringing ideas together with links and categories. Now that I think of it this way, it makes a lot of sense. A wiki lends itself to top-down writing, because you can link to pages that don’t exist. Blog posts tend to link to the past, instead of the future.

Part of it is because I like taking a closer look at topics, ignoring the big picture in favor of detail. I’m less interested in mapping out the entirety of a space, and more interested in answering one question at a time. My questions tend to be bite-size. I don’t dwell on the overall structure of an area. I ask: what’s the smallest thing I could learn in order to move forward? This is great for learning and for making progress, but it might be hard for other people to follow.

  • How can I experiment with this so that I can gradually get used to writing with a plan? Every so often, I make an outline of things I’d like to write about, but I tend to ignore this outline in favor of other ideas that come up. Persistence and experimentation, perhaps.
  • I can leave more notes for myself, reminding me why I was curious about something. I can write with a checklist – even if it means filling in objectives and calls to action after the post is drafted.
  • I can get better at stashing snippets so that I edit more ruthlessly, and maybe I might even file those in these words somewhere in my outline. Probably Org Mode, then, or maybe Evernote with tags.
  • I can tell people what my plans are, so that people can give me feedback on whether it works for them. In deliberate practice, it helps to call your shots.

It would be good to learn how to write methodically, to survey the land from a high point before whacking my way through the jungle, to define landmarks that can help me see my progress.

Other people have figured it out. I can learn how to do so too.

Visual book review: The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything… Fast (Josh Kaufman)

The idea of learning a new skill can be overwhelming. If you break the skill down into specific things you can learn, it becomes much more manageable. Tim Ferris used this to hack cooking (video) by dissociating it from shopping for groceries or cleaning up. Josh Kaufman’s new book The First 20 Hours fleshes out how to rapidly learn, illustrating it with stories, examples, and practical tips for a wide range of skills. A key insight? You don’t have to be amazing, just good enough to enjoy the skill, and 20 hours is enough to get you there if you learn effectively. (Even if it turns out to be more complex than that, stick with it anyway, and then see where you are at 20 hours.) Click on the one-page summary below to view or download a larger version. 20130705 Visual Book Review - The First 20 Hours - How to Learn Anything... Fast - Josh Kaufman Feel free to share this visual book review! (Creative Commons Attribution – I’d love it if you link back to this site and tell me about it. =) ) It should print out fine on letter-sized paper, too. The book is both practical and entertaining, especially if you’ve been curious about some of the areas he covers in his chapters. =) While the advice is common sense, the application of the advice makes it interesting – and the stories might nudge you into taking similar steps towards the skill you’d like to develop the most. Besides, the book has stick figures in the chapter on yoga and shell commands and a Ruby tutorial in the chapter on programming. Not that many books can pull that off, although if you’re the type who reads things like travel books for just one chapter, you might grumble about paying for all the other chapters you’re not interested in. 20 hours isn’t going to make you an expert in something, but it might get you farther than you think. Intrigued by the ideas? You can check your local library to see if they have a copy, or buy your own: The First 20 Hours (affiliate link). What I’m going to do with this book One of the benefits of this experiment with semi-retirement is that I have the time and space to explore what I’d like to learn. Not all of it at once, but I can certainly make decent headway on a few skills I want to improve. I rarely start from scratch, so it’s not that I’m really spending my first 20 hours on something – new interests are usually offshoots of something that I already do well or enjoy, because unfair advantages lead to other unfair advantages. I like programming, writing, going through flashcards… I even get along with accounting.

    The biggest new thing that I don’t yet intrinsically enjoy is strength training, which (as the name indicates) is probably more about

training

    – my body has to adapt to it, and that takes time.

So, let’s pick another skill. Something that I haven’t dived deeply into, but that I’m curious about. Some candidates:

  • Creating animated videos (and not cheesy fake-written ones, either)
  • Programming speech recognition macros (NatLink)
  • Visualizing data with D3.js or other visualization libraries

Of the three, I think visualizing data with D3.js will be the most fun for me. I can break that down this way:

  • Manipulate the data into a form that’s easy to work with in D3.js
  • Create typical graphs
  • Create custom graphs
  • Add interactivity
  • Use D3.js for non-graph applications
  • Integrate the visualizations into web apps or blog posts

In terms of barriers, it’s really just about sitting down with some data and the documentation. I’ve worked with D3 before. I just have to practise enough to grok it. The most important skill to master first, I think, is creating typical graphs. If I get that into my brain, I can imagine custom graphs and other applications from there. So learning this skill might involve doing “programming kata”: take an existing data set and visualize it in different ways using common chart types. It’s also useful to look at how other people are breaking down skills and learning them. Duncan Mortimer (who I think is the same as the Duncan Mortimer behind this WriteOrDie mode for Emacs?) wants to write blog posts better. He came up with this list of skills that he wants to work on in terms of blogging:

  • Choosing a topic
    • Brainstorming
    • Asking yourself questions
    • Topics that choose themselves — blogging what you’re learning or as you’re learning
  • Drafting the post
    • Structure
    • Avoiding editing while writing
    • Writing quickly
  • Editing the post
    • Textual tics
    • Restructuring
  • Publishing the post
    • Scheduling posts for future publication
    • Uploading to the hosting service
    • Adding categories and tags; making it ‘discoverable’

I’m also interested in writing more effectively. For me, the key things I’m working on are:

  • Outlining: Planning the structure before I start writing. Doesn’t work for all the posts, but I might be able to use it to speed things up. Practice: Flesh out my sharing outline (hah, you can even send patches or make suggestions through the issues queue) as a separate activity from writing. (See how I’m doing so far in terms of time.)
  • Illustration: Coming up with a hand-drawn image to illustrate my blog posts nudges me to think about the key point or idea in the post, and it’s good practice for sketchnoting too. Practice: It’s like adding an item to my blogging checklist to quickly sketch an image if I can.

Anyway, here’s the book again if you’re curious. Disclosure: I’ll get a small commission if you buy anything from Amazon using the links in this post, but you could also see if your local library has the book. (I got this one from the Toronto Public Library!) Check out first20hours.com for more info. Like this? Check out my other visual book reviews!

For another visual take on this (pretty colours!), check out Cynthia Morris’ summary. Enjoy!