Category Archives: writing

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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!)

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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?

Jetpack subscribers: Terribly sorry about the test posts! Disabling, please use Feedburner to subscribe instead

As it turns out, Jetpack Comments does not pay close attention to what domain the updates are coming from or to the jetpack_is_post_mailable filter that it’s supposed to be paying attention to.

Sorry for the flood of test posts. I guess this is my embarrassing blog mistake for the year. Gotta have one.

Anyway, we’re going to go back to using Feedburner for e-mail notifications of new blog posts. Since the Jetpack subscriptions list includes a bucketload of spam followers and a handful of e-mail addresses that look like they belong to real people, I probably shouldn’t just resubscribe everyone. You will need to manually subscribe to http://feeds.sachachua.com/sachac . Here is the e-mail subscription form for your convenience:

Enter your email address: Delivered by FeedBurner

That is, if you can find it in your heart (and mailbox) to forgive me.

Thanks to Raymond Zeitler for tactfully pointing out the problem, although I still feel terrible about it.

Also, if you prefer weekly or monthly updates, we can do that too. So at least that’s something.

Growing this blog

imageSometimes I wonder if I should do more of the “Right Things” when it comes to building a blog. You know the drill:

  • Focus on one or two topics so that people will subscribe because you’re consistent and reliable.
  • Research keywords so that you can optimize for search engine queries and write content that will bring people in.
  • Reach out to new audiences with guest posts, working your way up to A-list blogs.
  • Send e-mail newsletters so that you can build relationships and sell to people later on.

Why? Because it’s a way to scale up. Maybe I can save more people time. Maybe I can learn from more people. Maybe I can create more value for each hour that I spend.

It’s easy to see what success could look like, down that path. Sometimes I’m envious of blogs with tens of thousands of subscribers and hundreds of comments per post.

But then reading and responding to comments takes time, and other people glaze over when they see pages and pages. It’s okay. I like where we are – maybe half a dozen comments or so on a good post, and I feel good about writing many paragraphs in reply. I’m not entirely sure if I’m just sour-graping, but it makes sense. This is manageable. Slightly more is okay too, but we can grow slowly so that I can learn the skills I need along the way.

Sometimes I wonder if this should be more like other blogs. But then that’s a well-travelled path, with lots of other people exploring it and plenty of people willing to sell you courses along the way. I have this amazing opportunity to try something different. I should.

Actually, I already know what I should do: what works for me, what I should do more. The enduring posts on my blog are tech notes (Emacs, Drupal, etc.) and sketches. People also tell me they find this sort of reflective practice—this learning-out-loud—helpful. I can continue like this, growing slowly through links and search results.  Instead of spending hours on blog marketing, I can spend hours on learning and writing.

It’s good to reflect on what works or doesn’t work for you. A clear no saves you time and anxiety. I’ve figured out ways to hack around my introversion, and maybe the same will be true for blogging.

So here, I think, is how I’ll grow this blog compared to the “typical” advice:

    • Typical: Focus on one or two topics so that people will subscribe because you’re consistent and reliable. I’ll write about whatever I’m learning about, covering a variety of interests. People who want a focused view can use search results and category links. From time to time, I’ll work on organizing things to make it easier for people to browse around.
    • Research keywords so that you can optimize for search engine queries and write content that will bring people in. I’ll look at other people’s questions, and the search queries that are already bringing people to my blog. That will nudge me to write about certain topics if I’m curious about the ideas too. I don’t have to compete when it comes to topics outside my interests or experiences. I can start by making it better for people who care about things I care about.
    • Reach out to new audiences with guest posts, working your way up to A-list blogs. I’ll read other blogs and write about what inspires me, linking to those posts. Since many people don’t have their own blogs, I’ll invite people to share their tips and lessons learned on mine.
    • Send e-mail newsletters so that you can build relationships and sell to people later on. Since I find it difficult to send e-mail, I’d rather build relationships through comments (and the occasional e-mail for people who want to have slightly more private discussions). Instead of building a list so that I can sell exclusive premium content, I’ll give away as much as I can of what I know under an occasional pay-what-you-want model. There are all sorts of other non-monetary ways to show appreciation, so that’s cool too.

    So this blog will grow, slowly, sustainably, in a way that feels comfortable for me.

     

    That said, are there small things I can do to make it easier for you or other people to take advantage of what I know? Is there something I can do to lower the barrier to commenting or help people explore? I’d love to hear from you!

    Test what you know by sharing

    This entry is part 9 of 19 in the series A No-Excuses Guide to Blogging

    In grade school, I discovered the power of testing what I knew, even at the risk of embarrassment. I was that kid who always had her hand raised in class—and I’d raise the other one when my hand got tired. Think Hermione without the restraint. (And often without the encyclopedic knowledge, but who’s counting?)

    Later, after I caught on to the fact that the teacher wasn’t going to call me every time (even when mine was the only hand raised), I still kept doing it. I figured I might as well. After all, if other students didn’t want to take advantage of this part of the education that their tuition had already paid for, that was their loss. I wanted to see if I understood something well enough to explain it. (As a teacher, I winced slightly at recognizing my younger self in the eager hand-wavers who probably intimidated their classmates like all heck – but I sympathized, although I still prodded the quieter ones.)

    There are no more teachers and no more exams, but I still share as much as I can. There’s a saying that goes, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.” Me, I’d rather know when I’m being a fool. How can you find bugs in your code unless you look for them? How can you find flaws in your understanding unless you test what you think you know?

    Duncan Mortimer saw the following similarities between sharing and test-driven development:

    • Both provide you with tight feedback loops — the first person you’re sharing with when you write something up is yourself. I guess that’s a bit like getting a test to pass in TDD.
    • Both help you to avoid ‘regressions’ — if you’ve got a permanent record of what you’ve done, what’s worked, what hasn’t, then perhaps it’s easier to get a sense for when an action you’re considering will cause problems.
    • Both offer a form of ‘documentation’. Sharing, for your life: for your actions; for your situation. It shows what you were thinking at the time.

    I like that. It’s why I blog. I get to find out whether I understand something enough to explain it, and if that explanation makes sense, and if I can answer the questions that other people might ask. I get a record that I can refer to and reminders of my fallability. Sharing helps me learn.

    One of the tips that Timothy Kenny shares in Accelerated Learning for Entrepreneurs (e-book, $16.77) is assigning yourself a final project when you want to learn something well. Map the ideas, blog what you learn, create a checklist, write a report or a book, teach a class… create some kind of tangible proof  that you’ve learned something. With that final project in mind, you’ll find—as Duncan also points out—that you study more deeply and more effectively.

    Duncan wraps up with this thought:

    Perhaps deliberately sharing your life and reflecting on that experience ultimately helps you to live a life that’s worth sharing?

    image… and I think there’s something to that. I’m learning a lot about life, and one of my ongoing projects is to have an amazing blog by the time I’m 60 or 90. That nudges me to learn things and do things that are worth sharing. It challenges me to share what I’m learning while I’m learning it, because later on the fuzziness of memory and the curse of expertise will make the details disappear.

    How about you? What can you share, and how can sharing help you learn and live?

    Series Navigation« Share while you learnPersonal blog? Don’t worry about your strategy »

    Blogging tip: Test your ideas and get more feedback in order to make your posts better

    This entry is part 18 of 19 in the series A No-Excuses Guide to Blogging

    It turns out that you don’t have to write alone, and that you don’t have to have all the answers (or all the ideas!) at the beginning.

    Feedback

    I’ve been using Twitter to share ideas related to upcoming blog posts. For example, I asked people what kept them from taking notes, and I added their thoughts to a blog post that I was writing. I shared something I realized about dealing with uncertainty by making potential outcomes arbitrarily better, and that led to a back-and-forth conversations that helped me clarify what I meant.

    Condensing an idea into 140 characters is a great exercise. Bonus points if there’s a question in there too.

    Sometimes I share post ideas before I’ve drafted the posts so that I can see if an idea resonates enough to make me want to write it. Sometimes I share the idea after I’ve outlined or drafted the first version so I know what I think. I don’t ditch post ideas if they don’t get a response, but I mix in people’s feedback whenever I can.

    I also use Twitter to share links to some blog posts after they go live, but the conversation seems more interesting if I don’t start it with a monologue. Besides, editing an upcoming post to incorporate people’s thoughts is much easier and more useful than updating something that people have already seen in their feed readers. The Share a Draft plugin is great for giving people links to unpublished posts. ScribeFire is great for editing existing posts.

    Another benefit of writing posts in advance is that by the time you get around to folding people’s insights into your post, you probably have enough distance to edit your first version ruthlessly. If you do this at least a few days in advance, you can even go back to the people who shared their thoughts with you and see if you’ve quoted them properly.

    imageIf you blog, try giving people a sneak peek at upcoming thoughts and asking them for feedback. You can do this through e-mail or through social networks. I like social networks like Twitter and Facebook more than e-mail because other people can see and build on responses, but feel free to use whatever works for you. Enjoy!

    Series Navigation« Getting started with blogging when no one’s readingHow to get people to read your blog post »