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A no-excuses guide to blogging

UPDATE 2014-02-05: Download the PDF/EPUB/MOBI: A No-Excuses Guide to Blogging (free, pay what you want)

What’s getting in your way when it comes to writing?

2014-01-31 Getting good ideas out of your head - a path to publishing

2014-01-31 Getting good ideas out of your head – a path to publishing

Here are even more excuses, and some tips for dealing with them. =)

Excuse: “I don’t know what to write about.”
Write about what you don’t know.
Pay attention to what you’re learning.
Figure out what you think.
Ask for feedback.
Deal with writer’s block
Find tons of topics
Excuse: “There’s so much I can’t write about.”
Focus on what you can’t help but sharing.
Excuse: “But I’m not an expert yet!”
Share while you learn
Excuse: “I don’t want to be wrong.”
Test what you know by sharing
Excuse: “I feel so scattered and distracted.”
Don’t worry about your strategy
It’s okay to write about different things
Plan, organize, write, improve
Excuse: “I have all these ideas, but I never finish posts…”
Turn your ideas into small questions, then answer those.
Excuse: “I don’t feel like I’m making progress towards my goals.”
Be clear about your goals and possible approaches.
Excuse: “It takes too much time to write.”
Make sharing part of the way you work.
Excuse: “I’m too tired to write.”
Figure out what you can write better when you’re tired.
Excuse: “No one’s going to read it anyway.”
Focus on selfish benefits.
Get other people to read your posts.

See also other tips for new bloggers, and other posts related to blogging and writing. (Plus this list of WordPress plugins I use, if you’re curious about tech!)

Feel free to comment or email with more excuses and tips!

Stepping up to publishing

Number of sketches in blog posts

Number of sketches in blog posts

A nifty thing about experiments is that you can often see their impact when you review, even if the changes are less visible day to day. For example, I’ve resolved to be my own client and spend less time consulting, more time writing–and to be more selfish about my writing (that is, to give myself even more permission to write about personal reflections while figuring things out). It’s been a little over a week since then, and I noticed something interesting. I’ve drawn roughly the same number of sketches, but the difference is that I’ve been digging deeper into my questions over a series of sketches instead of scattering my sketches over a wide range of topics. That makes it easier to write a blog post that ties together different questions. To be fair, there’s a large set from last week that I haven’t written up, but I like this workflow so far.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to move towards writing things that are useful for both me and others. Ramon Williamson and Paul Kripp nudged me to think more about packaging and publishing my notes – creating an interface for what I know. Since I have a large archive and perhaps an idiosyncratic way of describing things, searching for tips can be difficult. A good way to find things is to ask me: blog comments, e-mail, real-time conversations (free or paid). If I take the time to organize what I know–to draw those paths through the material, and to translate/update reflections into tips–people will find it easier to learn. It takes work and it seems like a distraction from going ever onward, but doing this allows me to help people learn faster, so then we can all get to the more interesting questions.

I was thinking about whom I get to talk to because of this writing and sharing. A lot of people come to this blog because they’re searching for something specific: Emacs tips, for example. A surprising number of people explore more and stick around, because it turns out we have a lot of common interests or they like what I share. I know what this feels like – I love coming across blogs I resonate with too. These people are my tribe. (Well, sans tribal leader; I think of us more as peers. =) ) A few people become part of my life as confederates: I know what they’re interested in and I’m comfortable reaching out to them if I’m trying to figure something out. Different kinds of sharing reach different kinds of people. I don’t expect casual readers to read through one of my long reflections. I can serve them best with tightly-focused tips.

2014-01-29 Translating what I learn

2014-01-29 Translating what I learn

How can I make it easier for people to come closer and take advantage of what I’m learning? For searchers, I think it’s important to make talking to me less intimidating. I like questions. Writing clear tips and arranging resources into maps or sequences can help, too.

For people who would like to be tribe members, making subscription easier might help. I’m switching over to using Mailchimp so that people can set up daily, weekly, monthly, or yearly subscriptions, and I’ve written about using feed readers. If you want to subscribe to a subset of my blog (for example, just learning tips), e-mail me and I’ll help you figure that out. =) More importantly, though, I can build relationships with people by offering and asking for help.

As for confederates, I find that a lot of these conversations evolve out of the questions I post and the feedback I share after applying people’s advice. I can ask more questions and get better at learning from people. I can also pay more attention and learn more about people’s interests: checking out their tweets or blog posts, following them for the serendipity of overheard conversations.

2014-01-29 Building people's capacities

2014-01-29 Building people’s capacities

One of the reasons to publish is to reach an audience that might not even know that this could be useful for them. I feel like this about a lot of books – I hadn’t thought of looking for the information, but I’m glad I came across it. There are a lot of hoops to jump through before you can get to that level of reach, though. I don’t think I’d ever be up for a book tour. I like being home. =) I suspect that a very wide reach might be more hassle than it’s worth, but that might just be anxiety talking, and Stoicism might help me get past that.

2014-01-29 Calibrating the right level of reach or obscurity

2014-01-29 Calibrating the right level of reach or obscurity

So really, what are my excuses for not having packaged and published more? When it comes down to it, I really don’t have a good excuse. Yes, it’s tempting to keep pushing on to new topics, new ideas, new experiments. But if I skip the sharing part – or do it in a superficial manner, sharing my reflections without integrating it further – then I shortchange myself. As SketchyMuslims indirectly reminded me by quoting me:

The time I take to share what I learn is the most valuable part of my learning process.

The learning machine: How I turn what I learn into blog posts (me – September 2013!)

It’s not enough for me to turn my reflections into blog posts. I need to work on them again and turn them into insights that I can share with people. Maybe I’ll use the “reflection” tag to indicate stuff I’m mostly writing for myself (although other people can chime in, of course) and the “tips” tag to indicate stuff I’m writing mostly for other people. That turns it into something trackable. For example, this is very much a me-thinking-out-loud sort of post.

2014-01-30 Publishing - what's in my way, and how do I get past it

2014-01-30 Publishing – what’s in my way, and how do I get past it

One way that I like dealing with my excuses is to convince myself of the selfish benefits of doing something. In this case: Yes, books are good for helping people learn. They are good for serendipitous learning. They’re better at surviving than blogs are. More than that, books let people physically interact with ideas – to highlight, add notes, dogear, pass on to others… I’d love to eventually learn how to build these resources to help people learn, so why not sooner rather than later?

2014-01-30 On packaging and publishing

2014-01-30 On packaging and publishing

Besides, I can get a lot of benefits out of putting together books. The immediate benefit is that I can save time explaining things, since I can set people on a path that guides them for the most part. The secondary benefit is that I learn more deeply by revisiting the topics and organizing them into paths. The tertiary benefit (and the most awesome one!) is that I can help people learn faster, catch up faster, so that we all get to the point of asking more interesting questions. If I can help people learn more, I can learn more from them. And there’s the totally awesome feeling that Paul Klipp shared with me: that of getting a physical copy of your ideas into your hands! (I should definitely check out CreateSpace.)

2014-01-30 Thinking about my path to packaging and publishing

2014-01-30 Thinking about my path to packaging and publishing

The path is straightforward, and there really aren’t any barriers in my way. It’s all about butt-in-chair time: devoting some time to reviewing, revising, organizing, packaging. Well, there are some things that can help.

  • Questions! Questions are awesome because they help me figure out what people might find useful, what sequence might be good, and what’s missing. Ask me questions. Comments, Twitter, Google+, e-mail, Helpouts… Don’t worry about asking questions about things I’ve already covered before – in fact, please ask, so that I can make those things more findable and understandable.
  • Confederates and tribe members! I learn a ton by talking to people who are actively trying to figure things out too. =)

That’s how you can help. As for me, there are lots of little things I can do every day to move things forward.

2014-01-30 Small steps towards publishing

2014-01-30 Small steps towards publishing

The goal: More coherent, logically ordered, clearly written, other-focused chunks (maybe 15-30 pages?) that people can read at their convenience.  Let’s make it happen!

A conversation about writing, and reflections on taskmasters

I’m fascinated by the idiosyncrasies of systems that we build for ourselves over decades. I’m particularly interested in what people find weird about themselves and their systems; what they do the most differently compared to other people. When John Allemang picked my brain about a piece on the Quantified Self, I jumped at the opportunity to pick his brain right back. Here are the notes I drew to summarize the thoughts from our conversation:

2014-01-24 A conversation about writing

2014-01-24 A conversation about writing

It was reassuring to know that one could build a life on a variety of interests, accumulating notes and interviews along the way. I don’t have to specialize in a narrow set of topics. I don’t have to build expertise in a specific field. There’s a lot to learn about how to organize your thoughts and structure your words, but that’s not the only thing that experience gives you — it also gives you the confidence that you can do things. Where inexperienced writers let their egos and insecurities get in the way of good interviews and good writing, experienced writers can let go, confident that it will all come together somehow. It reminds me a little of trapeze practice. If you hesitate, if you cling to the bar, you’ll never get the thrill of flight. I wonder if I can fool my brain into believing I have all that experience to draw on–to compartmentalize that belief and use it deliberately.

It was also good to know that I don’t have to worry about remembering everything. Discarding details is essential. I sometimes imagine that I’d go through life with virtual file cabinets stuffed with clippings and drafts, but then I might drown in irrelevant notes and unfinished possibilities. I asked John if he had a process for managing his archives. He told me that he doesn’t particularly worry about it. It’s okay to discard. It’s okay to let go.

While the historian may bemoan the loss of evidence from these temporary notes, discarding has always been a central feature of effective note-taking. Discarding enhances the utility of notes that are saved by removing materials that have been superseded.… Discarding and forgetting are crucial to effective information management.

Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information Before the Modern Age (Blair, 2010, p.65)

Talking to John gave me a clearer idea of what it might be like to be an experienced writer: to have the clarity of mind to focus on the story, and to have the confidence in yourself so that your self doesn’t get in the way of taking risks, learning, and sharing.

We talked a little about freedom and self-direction, which I’ve been curious about. John sounded skeptical; he values editors and deadlines. Reflecting on our conversation, I wondered what I’d be missing by writing outside the world of work. I’ve experimented with hiring editors. The editors I found on oDesk and other freelance sites gave me feedback on form, but they don’t fulfill the other crucial roles of an editor: choosing a vision for a piece, setting constraints, pushing back on fit, coaching improvement. Writing coaches may be able to do a little more of that, but I’m not sure if the client relationship throws off the dynamic.

2014-01-24 Being my own editor

2014-01-24 Being my own editor

I saw in this the same idea I had in becoming my own client - to see if I could enjoy some of the benefits of workplace structure by deliberately stepping into that role. Could I as editor challenge myself the writer to stretch with more difficult topics, more explicit constraints? How could I step outside my writing and coach myself to improve? (You can pay a writing coach, and I’ll experiment with that someday, but it also pays to coach yourself – no one could be more devoted and more consistent than you.)

Later that evening, thinking about deadlines and freedom and the liberal arts, I caught myself wondering if this path–easy and familiar as it is, falling back into the structures of the workplace–if this path is really the only way. After all, if I put on the hat of the client or editor or capitalist, and then remove that hat and put on the hat of the worker, am I setting myself up for internal conflict and waste? Wouldn’t it be better to be one self, doing the right thing at the right time?

Giving myself directions and deadlines might be useful for avoiding decision fatigue–the cost of making too many decisions–but it is also good to be able to adapt. I do this a little by thinking through scenarios beforehand, so I know what I can do with low-energy and high-energy opportunities. The specific actions I take are influenced by my TODO list, which helps because I don’t have to brainstorm good things to do each time. But I rarely commit to doing specific items, and I allow myself space to go off plan.

2014-01-24 Not about swapping one master for another

2014-01-24 Not about swapping one master for another

It would be easy to be my own taskmaster, to set up that rider and elephant dynamic (rational and irrational, logical and emotional). It’s understandable. It’s productive. Everyone has tasks. Everyone has deadlines. I can even use it to masquerade as normal in cocktail party conversations, griping about an unreasonable boss. (No need to tell them I’m imposing those conditions.)

It’s easy to adopt that structure, which is why I’m curious about alternatives. What does good self-direction look like? What would it mean to be good at that? Can I run fast without the whip?

2014-01-24 Why are we so attached to deadlines

2014-01-24 Why are we so attached to deadlines

I haven’t figured this out yet. It sounds promising, though. At the very least, it’s an experiment worth exploring.

So, three things:

  • I’m going to borrow the confidence I heard from John. I think that assuming more confidence will let me take greater risks in writing and learning.
  • I’ll consider using an editor or a writing coach to improve my skills. In order to make the most of that, I can clarify my goals and coach myself as much as possible. That way, I might be able to identify my questions and the parts where self-coaching breaks down. (Like when it comes to murdering your darlings!)
  • I’ll take a closer look at this instinct towards deadlines and taskmasters, rooted perhaps in a fear that I am not enough. Let’s try being plan-less, as paradoxical as that is. Here is where that confidence can help. I trust that it will all work out.

I think I’m coming close to the end of this research into other people’s writing systems, at least for now. I’ve seen a lot of common patterns. If I run across an interesting tip, I’m happy to pick it up. But I’m worried less about making a mistake now that I’ll regret in thirty years (such as not archiving every little note, or not having enough associative hooks for memory), and I’m not looking for the one tip that will make me an order of magnitude more effective. There’s still a lot to learn, but I can learn that through practice, observation, and small improvements.

Still, so much to learn, and (probably) decades ahead of me… Let’s see where this goes!

Dealing with feeling scattered as a writer

This entry is part 12 of 19 in the series A No-Excuses Guide to Blogging

Maybe there are writers who sit down at their keyboards and type out their thoughts in one straight sitting. Maybe there are people who can focus on one project and see it to the end. I’m not one of those people (yet?) – I move from interest to interest, and somehow it works out anyway. It turns out lots of people are like this, too.

I was talking to a writer who felt scattered because she wrote about lots of different topics in bits and pieces. Here are some tips on planning, organization, writing, and improvement. Hope they help!

Click on the image for a larger version.

2013-12-13 Dealing with feeling scattered as a writer

I’d love to learn from your tips too! Please share them in the comments. =)

Series Navigation« Writing about lots of different kinds of thingsHow to develop your ideas into blog posts »

Daily blogging and different interests

I’ve been thinking about different approaches to learning. Some people are specialists, going deep in one topic before moving on to the next. Some people are generalists, learning about many topics and gradually bringing them together. This reminded me of two computer science algorithms: depth-first search and breadth-first search. (See this animation, or the Wikipedia pages for DFS and BFS). I tend to do more of the latter than the former, and I want to get better at it.

Applying computer science to learning

I’m curious about a lot of things. Because I can only focus on a few ideas at a time, most of those ideas and projects go on the back burner. Still, I enjoy working on a number of different topics each week, and I try to cover a decent variety of topics on my blog. Here’s roughly what I want to work on and write about each week:

What topics do I want to make progress in daily or weekly

I schedule my posts in advance, so these daily themes usually aren’t about scrambling to write a post the night before. Instead, I often pick something to focus on for a week. One week, I focused on mapping as part of learning, so most of my sketches and research were related to that. Then I write blog posts and schedule them for the next few weeks. In terms of a breadth-first search, it’s like exploring the next level of subtopics below the topic, and then moving on to the next topic. I also think about other topics during the week when the opportunities come up, but I’m not as focused on them.

One of the nifty things about using the Editorial Calendar plugin for WordPress is that I can see how the different categories stack up in terms of scheduled posts, so I can use that to plan my next focus. (Probably tech stuff – I haven’t written much about that lately!)

image

Anyway, that’s how daily blogging supports the interests I have, nudging me to make progress in different areas. Do you have a number of interests too? How do you remember to work on different parts?

Pens are not the limiting factor for writing

We’ve been working on tidying up the house: getting rid of stuff we aren’t using, organizing the things we have.  This is why I’m conscious of having a small cabinet full of stationery and various containers full of pens. Knowing what you have makes it easier to not want more.

image

I did order a bunch of Hi-Tec-C4 refills (blue and black from eBay, since that was cheaper). They’re marginally cheaper and less wasteful than buying new pens each time. I also stocked up on sketchbooks during a sale.

I have some preferences when it comes to pens and paper. I like gel pens more than ballpoint pens because gel pens write more smoothly. I’m partial to fountain pens, but they can be picky about papers that won’t bleed through or feather. I prefer paper without rules, or with a very faint dot grid. Someday it would be nice to find a highlighter+pen combo that I can use without smudging.

But really, tools are nowhere near being my limiting factor for writing or drawing or anything else like that. Even time isn’t what’s keeping me from doing more. More likely suspects: Energy, attention, focus. Sometimes I don’t feel like writing or drawing. That’s okay. There are plenty of things to do during those times. If I do want to feel like writing or drawing, I can make sure I get plenty of sleep and good food, and then I can tease my brain with an interesting book or question or topic to explore. Once I get started, I’m off running. There’s a natural end to this writing or drawing time, too. This is also okay. The trick is to make the most of the time while it’s there.

You can buy good enough tools so that you don’t break out of writing or drawing just because you’re frustrated with the tools you have. Going beyond that – trying to find the best pen or notebook or other gadget, or something that will turn writing or drawing into even more of a pleasure – is entirely optional. You can spend time on it, but don’t fool yourself into thinking it’s a necessity or use it to procrastinate actually doing things. Done well, writing or drawing is its own reward.