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Reorganizing WordPress categories with Term Management Tools and other tweaks

Over ten years, my WordPress blog had ballooned to more than 500 categories. Part of it was because Org2Blog makes creating new categories super-easy, so I just piled them on (occasionally mispelling a few). Part of it was because I don’t really know what I’ll write a lot about until I write, so I had categories with one or two posts and then I moved on. Part of it was because I hadn’t decided what I’m going to use categories for and what I’m going to use tags for–yes, even after all those years.

I wanted to revamp my categories so that the Life, Geek, and Visual categories and their corresponding feeds might be useful to people who find my daily posts awesome-but-overwhelming and who would prefer a slice of my blog tailored to their interests. (There are even more categories on my archive page.) This meant organizing the categories into a hierarchy, but first I wanted to cut the number down to something more manageable.

The WordPress interface for managing categories leaves much to be desired when it comes to bulk actions. Fortunately, the Term Management Tools plugin makes it easy to merge categories or convert them to tags using additional Bulk Actions on the standard Categories screen.

I merged a few of the common typos, then converted any category with fewer than 10 posts into a tag. The original version failed silently when converting a category if a tag with the same name already existed, so I patched my version to silently merge the terms.

The Screen Options menu let me change the number displayed on screen to 100 items, which made it much easier for me to weed out most of my categories. Term Management Tools also provides a bulk action for setting a category parent, which was great for quickly reorganizing my categories into a hierachy.

I still had almost 3,000 uncategorized posts. Since I haven’t quite found or written an automatic N-gram text classifier for WordPress posts (if you have one, please share!), I decided to see if I could make a dent in this manually. I started by prioritizing the posts with comments. I assigned categories using the Posts screen, but that took a while and too many mouseclicks. The Categorized plugin automatically unchecks the default category once you select a different one, which saved me one click per post, but it still wasn’t enough. I ended up extracting a list of posts from my database with the following SQL command:

SELECT p.id, p.post_title, p.post_date, p.comment_count FROM wp_posts p 
INNER JOIN wp_term_relationships r ON (p.id=r.object_id AND r.term_taxonomy_id=1) 
WHERE p.post_type='post' AND p.post_status='publish' into outfile '/tmp/published.txt';

and another list of terms and taxonomy IDs:

SELECT t.*, tt.term_taxonomy_id FROM wp_terms t INNER JOIN wp_term_taxonomy tt ON (t.term_id=tt.term_id AND tt.taxonomy='category')
INTO OUTFILE '/tmp/terms.txt';

After a little spreadsheet manipulation involving VLOOKUP-ing the category name that I manually entered for each one, I copied the term taxonomy ID and post IDs into an Emacs buffer and used a keyboard macro to change it into the form:

UPDATE wp_term_relationships SET term_taxonomy_id=? WHERE object_id=? AND term_taxonomy_id=1;

where 1 was the term_taxonomy_id corresponding to Uncategorized.

Since I was on a roll, I decided to categorize everything from 2007 onwards, which is farther back than my manual index goes. That got me through about a thousand items before I decided it was enough filing for one day. As of the time of writing, there were 6512 posts on my blog. 4,536 posts (70%) belong to various categories, while 1,976 are still uncategorized.

I hope this work pays off! =) I expect that it will make my blog a little easier to browse.

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!

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.

image

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?

My next delegation experiment: coaching and editing

Reinvesting for the winI’ve been thinking about how I can reinvest profits back into this blog. My default is to save, save, save. There’s time to learn through trial and effort However, investing in help and tools has paid off before, and maybe I can get even better at making those decisions. Besides, if I’m going to scale back consulting and focus on other ways to create value, then it makes sense to invest in creating more advantages.

So I’m planning to find an assistant for this blog – someone who can work part-time on an as-needed basis, probably through Odesk.com. This is definitely not about hiring someone to “spin” keyword-stuffed content for me in order to boost SEO, nor do I need someone to keep me accountable when it comes to writing. I want more than that.

I want someone who can help me deliberately improve my blogging skills. I’ve been working on doing this on my own, and that’s going well. I’m getting the hang of outlining. The next thing I want to get better at is synthesizing information (making lists, describing alternatives, etc.) in a smooth, coherent, and non-plagiaristic way, bringing everything together with recommendations or a conclusion. After that, I want to learn how to:

  1. Write better headlines
  2. End strong: conclusion, call to action, question
  3. Start strong: improve first paragraph, regularly set excerpts
  4. Pick better post topics (research, feedback, etc.)
  5. Send e-mail newsletters, perhaps gathering ideas and feedback for upcoming blog posts
  6. Update, organize, and package information resources regularly

I also want to learn how to take advantage of feedback and coaching. Although I have many mentors, I don’t have a lot of coaching experiences. The last time I had a coach was for school programming competitions. Our coaches taught us algorithms and strategies. They selected problem sets for exercises so that we could see the concepts in action, and they also simulated contests so that we could learn how to work as a team. I learned a lot more than I did on my own.

PLANNING THE WORK

Let's try it once without the parachuteThe ideal coach is someone who’s good at what I want to learn and good at teaching it. That way, they can model excellence—while explaining what they do and why they’re doing it. They can help me identify gaps in my understanding and give me feedback as I improve. They know when to push me beyond what I think I’m comfortable with.

This is what my ideal scenario for a blogging coach would look like:

  1. We pick a skill to focus on, such as synthesizing information.
  2. They recommend some of their favourite role models.
  3. We come up with exercises or challenges (for example, I’m currently working on making sure I have at least one list a week, and that most new posts have images).
  4. I outline the post, and they help me improve the logical organization.
  5. I draft the post, and they help me improve it further.

Even if I can’t find someone who is clearly more awesome at the skill I want to learn, a different perspective can also be useful. Someone can help me check whether something makes sense, perhaps suggesting alternatives. Eventually, I want to learn how to put my editing hat on.

In addition to the coach role, there’s also value in the assistant role. It would be interesting to see what help with research and editing would be like. People use different keywords, so we might be able to find different resources. Maybe they can help me sift through and prioritize lots of results. The main question is that of relative advantage. I read pretty quickly and I get some value from reading the sources myself, so either they need to do that better than I do, or I need to shift the time I spend reading into something of even higher value.

An ideal scenario for writing assistance could be: I send them an outline and some notes. They send back summaries of the best resources with citations and links. I add personal stories. (This step comes after the research because I may want to apply the advice we find, and besides, that stops me from just looking for confirmatory evidence.) We draft, edit, proofread, and publish.

Besides, it would be nice to have someone turn transcripts into blog-ready content. (Or maybe I need to look around for another transcriber who gets blogging…)

I’m curious about the tools and processes that more experienced writers use, but those can be difficult to transfer. Maybe I’ll get lucky and find someone who does a lot of reflective practice.

In addition to getting better and working more effectively, I also want to prepare for situations when I might be more frazzled. It’ll happen. That’s just part of life. I could do what other people do and not blog, but it’s more fun to take notes and learn from the conversation. It makes sense to build that capability now, before I need it. When I’m stressed or sleep-deprived, someone else can check that I’m making sense and that I’m still following a good balance between “useful” and “personal”.

JUSTIFYING THE VALUE

I always try to talk myself out of expenses to make sure that I’ve considered my options. What are some alternatives to paying a coach/assistant?

I can learn on my own based on people’s voluntary feedback. Yay comments! I’m doing all right, and I plan to learn for a long, long time. There are plenty of great tips out there. I’m nowhere near the limit of what I can learn for free or from experience. Books and role models can give me passive, general guidance.

I can find or start a blogging mastermind group. Peer-learning may be slower, but I’ll benefit from different perspectives, stronger relationships, and shared goals. A facilitated mastermind group with a coach can be more cost-effective, and I can learn from the advice that other people get. I have good informal relationships with a number of other bloggers, although they aren’t connected with each other yet.

The alternatives are pretty good, so what advantages can working with a coach/assistant offer to make it worthwhile? Paying someone to help me learn can mean getting targeted, skilled, and consistent feedback. In addition, I can learn more about delegation and coaching, which will be useful for growing my other capabilities.

So it’s worth at least an experiment. What could that experiment look like? It probably looks like 2-3 hours of work once a week for at least a month, focusing on applying the skills to one post a week. That way, we can go deep instead of wide. We’ll use Google Docs or Draft to share work in progress, maybe with e-mail notifications so that we don’t have to check it all the time. E-mail and Google Hangouts can help us clarify or discuss things as needed.

The main risk is that I might forget to assign work, so I should prepare for that by structuring the first month up front and committing to a regular schedule.

At the end of the experiment, I’d like to be more comfortable synthesizing key points from my research and stitching them together in a smooth, coherent, non-plagiaristic way that adds value. Assuming that’s the skill we decide to focus on; we could focus on headlines, intros, or conclusions instead. I’m okay with working with different coaches for different things. It makes sense to play to people’s strengths, after all.

I’d like to be in the position of wanting to continue the experiment, and being able to justify continuing. I did a similar delegation experiment in 2009 (nearly six years ago!), hiring a number of different editors to give me feedback. At the time, I didn’t think it was worth repeating that experiment. (I’ve grown as a writer, but in different ways – outlining and illustrating have really helped!)

What will be different this time around? I think we’ll be less focused on wordsmithing and more focused on developing specific skills. I’d feel better about continuing if I get deep feedback instead of superficial feedback combined with reflective explanations of what’s going on. For example, reorganizing a post and explaining why that could make more sense is much better than making tiny word changes. (Unless they’re truly awesome tiny word changes!)

I may need to try a few experiments before I learn how to properly set up the instructions and the process, and I may need to work with different people to take advantage of different strengths. I should also experiment with signing up for a for-fee facilitated mastermind group, although maybe I should check if I have the commitment to get through online courses first. (I’ve been very bad at this in the past.) Lots of different things to try.

In terms of justification, it would be great if I can continue to treat it as a business expense. To keep the Canada Revenue Agency happy, I need to be able to demonstrate that it’s directly related to a business with an expectation of income. If I can point to how it will help me sell information products or courses (maybe on a pay-what-you-want basis so that I also feel good about making information widely available), then that will probably be enough for the CRA. If not, I just have to make room for it in my after-tax budget. It’s a trade-off between investing in increasing capabilities versus increasing my safety margin for being properly retired, but I think it will be worth it.

What’s in it for the assistant/coach? In addition to paying the agreed-on fees, I’m happy to share before/after comparisons and link to people in posts. Naturally, there’ll be plenty of process reflections and updates along the way. Teaching someone else how to improve their skills is a great way to improve your own, so that’s always nice.

Next steps: I’ve got one promising candidate, so now that I’ve fleshed out what I have in mind, I might reach out to her and start the interview process. And hey, if you happen to be a writer-type who’s interested, you can check out the job post – working with someone who reads my blog already would be even better. I’m open to hiring more than one person on an as-needed basis (experiments!), so go ahead!

Do you work with a coach or an editor? Can you share any tips for making the most of the relationship?

Image credit: Piggy bank (Oliver Hoffman, Shutterstock); Comic (CartoonResource, Shutterstock)

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.

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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.

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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?

Writing, drawing, and coding while tired

This entry is part 16 of 19 in the series A No-Excuses Guide to Blogging

Thanks to a bad cold and a bit of a sore throat, I’ve been under the weather lately. Fortunately, I can adjust my schedule to rest as much as I want to. Besides, this is a good opportunity to figure out how to write and do things while tired, because I’m sure this isn’t going to be the last time I feel fuzzy.

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Image by Eric Fahrner, courtesy of Shutterstock

The easiest thing to do is to sleep. There are all sorts of other activities that don’t require creative thinking: tidying up around the house, watching movies, reading books, answering e-mail. But I’d really like to get better at writing, drawing, and coding even when I don’t feel alert and awesome. These are skills that get better with practice and rust with disuse. If I can get the hang of making things in suboptimal situations, then fewer and fewer excuses can get in my way.

WRITING

I want to keep up the rhythm of publishing a post a day. There’s so much to learn and share, and so much gets forgotten if I don’t write. I want each post to share at least one useful point, although the occasional rambly life snapshot works fine too.

Outlines seem to help a lot. The mental effort it takes to outline things seems to be different from the effort it takes to write a post. I can outline when I don’t feel like writing. When I’m writing, I can follow the signposts of my outline.

When I’m tired, my inner editor is even more tired. Since I’m okay with letting the occasional typo escape into the wild and I don’t expect to make sense with every post (that’s what revisits are for!), perfectionism isn’t a problem.

I’m not as bubbly in my blog posts as I might otherwise have been. This is okay. It means that I sound normal. This could even be better, because then people can relate with me more.

DRAWING

I haven’t been going to as many events. I even skipped sketchnoting a friend’s talk because I didn’t feel like wandering too far from my stash of handkerchiefs and water bottles. There are still plenty of things I can do to get better at drawing even when I feel sick.

It’s a good time to practise the basics: drawing simple shapes again and again until I can do them quickly and confidently. The kind of stuff that might be boring if I felt more alert, but which needs to be done anyway in order to build skill.

I can also organize and classify. Every so often, I go through other people’s sketchnotes, clipping elements for my visual vocabulary. It’s boring but useful work.

Book reviews are good, too. Reading books is a great way to learn while passing the time, and doing more visual book reviews means I stand a chance of remembering what I learned once the sniffles are gone.

CODING

This one’s the hardest. With limited brainspace, debugging can get pretty frustrating, and I can end up adding more bugs when I try to fix something. Still, here are some things I can do:

Write more tests. These will help catch future bugs and make it easier for me to develop things even when my brain is fuzzy.

Read more documentation and source code. It’s harder for me to absorb new information when my brain is fuzzy, but sometimes things are interesting enough to inspire me to tinker. Emacs and Org source code, CSS tutorials, D3 visualization examples… There’s plenty to learn from.

Work on bugs? I might not feel like writing new code, but if there are bugs that I can investigate, then at least I’ve got the social payoff of making someone’s day.

Work on my TODO list. I always keep a list of small development tasks to work on. Even though I feel dreadfully slow when working while sick, I can still get stuff done.

OTHER STUFF

When I’m sick, my desire for social interaction goes way down. I don’t want to go to events. I don’t want to talk to people on the phone. I’m not even particularly keen on e-mail. This is okay. I compensate by checking people’s social network updates and occasionally clicking on “Like.”

Fortunately, stuffing our freezer full of food means that we’re well-fed even during blah days.

Hanging out with cats means I don’t feel at all guilty about napping in the middle of the day. =)

How do you deal with not quite being at your best?