Category Archives: writing

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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!)

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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.

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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.

Update: Developing thoughts further

I’ve been drawing my thoughts for years, on and off. I found some sketchbooks with old mindmaps and explorations. Still, writing was the main way I thought through things, and I made good progress in learning how to outline so that I could think about progressively larger topics. In September, I re-started the habit of drawing through my thoughts – and posting them, thanks to a sheet-fed scanner that made sharing easy.

I tend to draw one thought per page and write about one thought per blog post. I also tend to draw way more than I publish each day. I wondered if I could combine the drawings and the words to “chunk” what I was thinking about into larger topics, so that a blog post could logically group together several sketches. With a mindmap to help me keep track of the sketches (acting basically like an outline, but with icons, easy folding, and quick navigation), I could keep an eye on topics that had accumulated several sketches. Once I’d fleshed out the topic a little, I could write it up as a blog post, include the images, and replace those notes with a link. Working well!

How to think in bigger chunks

2013-09-25 How to think in bigger chunks

I had tried collecting text snippets in the past, but I tended to lose them in my archive. Because the drawings were compact, easy to review, and easy to track in my map, I found it more fun to go over them compared to the text. Unlike the partial thoughts I’d saved in my text archives before, most of the drawings were enough on their own: an answer to a question, a reflection on an idea. It was easy to remember enough context to turn them into a blog post.

So that’s the bottom-up approach: think about several ideas, and then put them together. I was curious if this new approach would also help me with the top-down approach, which is to take an idea and then go into the details.

Developing thoughts further

2013-09-25 Developing thoughts further

I was reading a student-oriented book about writing that reminded me of the idea of developing thoughts. The author wrote that short essays usually meant that the thoughts weren’t developed enough – that the student could go into more detail or explore the implications of the topic. I made a list of some ways that I could develop a thought further. I had thought about this in a text-centric way, but now that I’ve been drawing a lot more, I can see how exploring the details in drawings has been helping me develop thoughts.

Fitting multiple thoughts on a page

2013-10-21 Fitting multiple thoughts on a page

Drawing one thought per page requires a lot of paper, and I have a steadily growing stack of sketchbook sheets piling up on my shelf. Although I’ve scanned the sketches using my ScanSnap, I keep the paper around for extra flipping-through fun. I briefly considered trying to fit more thoughts onto a page, but I think the one-thought-per-page system works well for me. It also makes the images easier to include in blog posts like this.

Wrap-up

I feel like I can think about topics that are 3-4 times as large as I could before, especially if I spread them out over time. I’m looking forward to getting even better at organizing these, sharing them, and planning the next steps. I like the way drawings help me quickly pick up the thread of my thoughts again, and how the map helps me plan where to go next. So far so good!

If you’ve been struggling with developing thoughts over a period of time, try drawing them. You might find that it’s easier to mentally chunk topics that way. Check out my one-page guide for getting started with visual notetaking, and go through these other resources for sketchnote beginners. Good luck!

How I organize and publish my sketches

In a recent blog post, Mel Chua wrote: “I’m still trying to figure out how to best store/catalogue my (growing) collection of sketches so it’s easy for people to access it.” So, here’s how I handle mine!

How I organize and publish my sketches

I have three types of sketches:

  • A1. Public: Sketches I can publish (and usually that I want to write about someday)
  • A2. Public, blogged: Sketches I have written about
  • B. Private sketches to help me think

My goals are to:

  • Support my writing: Blogging, naturally.
  • Search my sketches: Evernote’s fantastic for this, since I can have my public and private sketches in one place
  • Make my sketches publicly searchable: Evernote shared folders are great for that; Flickr and my blog are useful too. I often use Evernote to give someone a keyword search or tag search through my sketchnotes, sketchbook, or visual vocabulary. (Evernote users can join these notebooks and get updates automatically!)
  • Publish most of my sketches: Blogging can take me a while, so I try to get public sketches out there as soon as possible so that they don’t get lost. Flickr and Evernote help.
  • Flip through my sketches: Great for doing reviews and triggering memories. =) Can’t beat paging through local files manually or in a slideshow.
  • Organize my sketches by topic: Evernote, Flickr, and my blog let me tag things with keywords, while a mindmap lets me give my sketches more structure.
  • Share sketches widely: My blog and Twitter seem to be the best ways to do this, although Flickr is useful too.
  • Open sketches for discussion: My blog is the best place for that, although Flickr and Twitter are handy as well.
  • Update my sketches: Whether I’m colouring things in or checking off boxes, I want an easy way to get to a sketch and update it in Evernote and Flickr. If I’ve blogged about it, I’m okay with the blog post having the archived version of the image.
  • Archive my sketches: I want to back up digital copies in several places so that I can recreate my collection if needed. Blogging, Flickr, Dropbox/file backups, PDF collections…

Stuff I’ve tried that didn’t work out so well:

  • Referring to external services in my blog posts: Flickr? The Gallery2 instance I installed? Problematic if code changes, services go down, accounts are discontinued, or (in one annoying case) my self-hosted Gallery2 gets compromised. Disk space is cheap, so I just re-publish images using WordPress’ upload mechanisms (most blogging tools handle this automatically).
  • Picking just one way to publish stuff: Flickr is better for volume and some discussion, Evernote is better for search, my blog is better for sharing and long-term search. Since no tool has everything I need, I’ll just have to put up with the hassle of replicating information.
  • Just using automatic organization: For the last few years, I relied on Dropbox folders and Evernote items. Dropbox folders are fine for organizing by date and Evernote’s great for tags, but I want manual organization as well – organizing things by topics and subtopics, tracking things in progress, and so on. That’s why I’m experimenting with mindmaps now.

Stuff I’m working on next:

  • Monthly and quarterly PDF packages of my sketches, organized by date or topic: for ease of printing and review
  • Letting people know about available resources (my Flickr stream or Evernote notebooks) so that they can search/discuss/subscribe

See my drawing workflow for other notes about my process. Hope this helps!

Integrating visual outlining into my writing process

I’ve been working on a habit of drawing daily. It turns out to be a useful tool for exploring thoughts. I start with a question or an idea, and draw or write in the process of thinking about it. Since my blog posts usually deal with one thought at a time too, the drawings become good starting points for blog posts: I draw, and then I flesh it out with words. (Like this post!)

2013_10_09_17_05_50_001

Before I started drawing my thoughts, I worked with a huge text-based outline of things I wanted to write. The outline was really handy for sketching out an idea or jotting down my thoughts before I got distracted by research or other things. It was also great for tweaking the logical flow of a blog post or how it fit into a possible blog post series before I actually sat down to write paragraphs.

Both drawings and text outlines have their advantages. How can I better integrate drawing into the process of writing or blogging?

When: Drawing works well for me as a low-energy activity late at night, when I’ve already put my computer away or I don’t want to be tempted into staying up late staring at a screen. My hands get tired if I draw for a long time, though. Writing works well for me during the day, because I can write faster and I can reorganize things quickly. That suggests that I should draw as a way of preparing my thoughts in the evening, sleep on it, and then flesh ideas out by writing during the day.

Level of detail: Text-based outlines are good for my overall outline because I can work with lots of unrelated topics. Drawing is good for high-level maps of a single topic (like this one for learning) because I can keep the drawing in front of me as I explore. Drawing is also good at the level of a single thought or question, but I can’t draw to the same level of detail that I can capture in a text outline. If I’m planning a large topic, then, I might:

  • use text for the overall outline,
  • draw a map of topics to explore,
  • copy the map into my outline and drill down until I get to the level of individual questions or ideas,
  • draw the idea as a way to explore it,
  • then outline further details, especially if I’m planning a series of posts

I’m also curious about using more flexible mindmappers like Freeplane to do some of my mapping on the computer. I prefer Org Mode text outlines over straightforward mindmaps like Freemind because they have essentially the same structure but I’m more comfortable with text manipulation in Org, but Freeplane’s floating nodes might be interesting to play with.

I wonder who else out there uses sketchnotes, mindmaps, or drawings as part of their writing process. Do you use them, or have you come across other writers who do? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

I don’t write about everything; How do you manage your private notes?

I don’t write about everything. I think it might be interesting to write about more, to dig deeper into the things that people rarely write about—but since there’s so much to learn and share even in terms of topics you can talk about with complete strangers, I end up focusing on that instead. Less risky. If I’m writing about drawing, Emacs or other uncontroversially useful topics, I’m less likely to upset or offend (or bring out other odd tendencies in people). So I write more posts about that instead.

This is a bit of a pity because I’m learning so much about interesting things that I don’t yet know how to write publicly about. Decision-making in the face of uncertainty? Finances and semi-retirement? Making stuff happen? I’d love to write about what I’m figuring out. Maybe if I felt safer. (You never know what will bring down the wrath of the Internet – see Kathy Sierra and death threats.) Maybe if I cared less or worried less. People have done that before. Some writers are driven to write, even if the dynamics of relationships are a little bit odd. (A. J. Jacobs manages to pull this off well; I like how he did that in The Guinea Pig Diaries.)

I’m also learning a lot about interesting public things, so it’s not all that bad. =) Again, there’s tons to write about. But it also means that the things I’m learning about interesting, non-public things are more likely to be wasted.

I don’t think keeping an anonymous blog is enough. People get de-anonymized pretty often, and I don’t want to worry about slipping up.

Journals would probably be good, except that my track record of keeping paper notebooks is terrible and they are nowhere near as searchable as digital notes. Private notes in huge text files can get unwieldy and hard to review. Maybe I should use Evernote more often, and just work out some way to tag and organize the notes so that I can do the same kind of search and review that I use for my blog.

Hmm, maybe a private blog, since I already have the backup strategy for that one sorted out? Maybe a private part of the current blog?

Maybe that’s a good skill to figure out: how to keep good enough private notes so that I can build on them for future decisions or learning, or maybe even for time-delayed posting.

How do other people manage it? How do you manage it? How do you remember well enough to be able to build on that instead of wasting the time? How do you organize notes so that they don’t disappear after you’ve forgotten about them?