Category Archives: writing

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 »

    The learning machine: How I turn what I learn into blog posts

    This entry is part 3 of 19 in the series A No-Excuses Guide to Blogging

    image

    @gozes was curious about my workflow for transforming my notes and lessons learned into blog posts. Here’s what I’ve learned!

    Why it’s worth taking the time to share

    Many people struggle with sharing what they know. "I don’t have time to blog." "No one will read it anyway, so why bother." "I’m not an expert." "Knowledge is power, so I should keep it to myself – job security!"

    Let me tell you this: The time I take to share what I learn is the most valuable part of my learning process.

    I can spend three hours solving a technical problem or learning more about a skill, but the thing that makes it really worth it is the 30 minutes I spend writing about what I learned. The biggest benefit is being able to refer back to my notes. If I don’t write it down, I forget, and I’ve wasted the time spent learning. If I don’t publish my notes, I’m probably going to lose them. It makes sense to invest a little time now so that I can save time later. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve searched for something and ended up at a blog post I’d completely forgotten I’d written.

    There’s a more subtle benefit, too: Explaining things to other people exposes holes in my understanding. It’s easy to think that I know something. When I start writing about it, though, I stumble across things I don’t quite know how to explain. Filling in those gaps helps me learn even more. Even if I think no one’s going to find my explanation useful because I’m working on something so quirky or obscure, the process of explanation helps. (And the Internet being the Internet, I’m often surprised by people who turn out to be working on similar things.)

    Sharing lets me help other people, even if I’m not an expert. In fact, the best time to write is when you’re a beginner, because you run into all the things that other people take for granted. More selfishly, sharing helps me learn from other people. People ask questions that help me learn more. They point out where I’ve made mistakes. They share better ways to do things. And because we’re building these connections, they also pass along professional and personal opportunities. Sharing is an excellent way to learn and grow.

    When and what to write

    Write early, write often. Don’t wait until you’ve figured everything out. I try to write a blog post as soon as possible instead of waiting until I can write a more comprehensive one. I try to keep my blog post focused on answering a single question or sharing one thought. This makes the post easier to link to, keeps it (relatively) short, and gets rid of any excuse that would let me procrastinate putting it out there.

    Write enough to help you remember. When I write posts, I want to include enough details so that I can re-solve the problem if I run into it again, place myself back into the situation if I’m reflecting on how things worked out, or share what I’ve learned so that other people can figure things out (or at least ask follow-up questions). I don’t need to answer everything. Sometimes I’ll skip explaining things because people can always ask me to go deeper if they’re interested. You don’t have to write a complete guidebook to everything, you just have to add more guideposts to the trail.

    How

    I love it when other people have already done the hard work of writing something up. Then I can just link to what they’ve said, adding some thoughts of my own. If I can’t find a great explanation within the first few pages of a web search–or if I want to dig into something myself so that I understand it better–then I write my own post.

    Sometimes I can start with just a question and I go from there. I write paragraph after paragraph as if I was e-mailing someone the answer or talking to them in person. I jump around here and there to edit the text or add links. I write quickly, and then I post.

    Most times, I start with a rough outline or my technical notes. When I explore something I want to learn, I jump around an outline, gradually filling it in with what I come across. When I research, troubleshoot, or try to figure something out, I copy links and ideas into my notes. I’ve learned that it can be difficult to backtrack your steps to remember the things you tried, or remember the resources that were particularly helpful. It’s better to take notes and update them along the way, even if you find yourself sometimes going down dead ends.

    In terms of tools, I really like Org mode for Emacs because of its great outlining support. My notes are in plain text, so I can search or work with my notes easily. I can collapse or expand parts of my outline, and I can easily reorganize items. I can organize my post ideas into a larger outline. I can export to HTML and share it with others, like I did with the outline for this post. My outline also supports TODOs and integrates with my other tasks, so I can set deadlines, track TODO states, or even clock in/out to see how long something takes.

    When I’m happy with the outline, I start turning it into text. I write detailed outlines that include sections and the key points I want to make in paragraphs. (If you’re curious, the outline for this post can be found at http://sach.ac/outline#transform-notes .) When I’m happy with how the outline flows, I copy the outline and start transforming it into my blog post. It’s much less intimidating than working with a blank page, and I don’t have to flip back and forth between my outline and my blog post editor. Working with an outline gives me an overview of where I want to go with the post, and it can also hold my thoughts when I go on tangents.

    The outline doesn’t always completely translate into the blog post, of course. Sometimes I cut out snippets and stash them in a different place in my larger outline, for use in a future blog post. Sometimes I move things around, or add more explanations to glue paragraphs together. I sometimes have a temporary title, but I usually don’t know what the title could be until I’ve written the post.

    When I’m ready to post the entry, I add categories and sometimes tags to make posts easier to discover. See When I blog with Emacs and when I blog with something else for a more detailed discussion of the tools I use for publishing. I often add images because that’s good practice for developing my visual vocabulary, either drawing stick figures or picking stock photos. Besides, the images break up otherwise-intimidating text.

    I’m learning a lot, but I don’t want to overwhelm people, so I try to keep it to at most one post a day. (Although sometimes I get excited and post anyway.) I schedule blog posts using the Editorial Calendar plugin for WordPress, and I use the Share A Draft plugin to give people a sneak preview. This lets me answer people’s questions with links to future blog posts. That way, they get the info they want, and everyone else will get it eventually.

    Writing about what I learned and reading people’s feedback often gives me plenty of follow-up ideas. I put those ideas back into my outline or TODO list, and the cycle continues.

    How I’m working on getting better (continuous improvement for the win!)

    I really like the way sharing helps me learn more effectively, and I want to get even better at it. Here are some things that I think will help:

    I’m working on getting better at tweaking the structure of my posts before writing them. As in programming, it makes sense to fix logical errors or flow issues earlier rather than later. Working with outlines can help me get better at thinking in terms of questions and the flow from one point to another, and it’s much easier to see and reorganize things there than when everything’s written up.

    I’m working on making posts more "scannable" with illustrations, headings, and emphasis. One of the tips I picked up from Beyond Bullet Points is that when designing presentations, your slide titles should make sense in sequence. I remember reading similar advice applied to writing. Paragraphs should also make sense when you’re quickly scanning the starting sentences, and people who want more detail can read the rest of the paragraph or section. I’ve still got a long way to go here, but I think I’m getting better.

    I’m working on organizing higher-level outlines. I’m getting more used to with outlining individual blog posts. The next step is to be able to explore and organize larger topics so that I can guide people through a series of chunks, perhaps with blog posts series or e-books. This will also help me plan my learning and build resources that guide people step by step.

    I’m curious about delegation or outsourcing, but I haven’t really made the jump yet. Would it be worth learning how to work with other people to flesh out these blog posts? For example, working with an editor might help me find ways to make these posts clearer, more concise, or more approachable. Can article writers or blog researchers add other perspectives or resources to these posts so that we’re learning from more people’s experiences, not just mine? I have to work through a couple of my concerns before I can make the most of this, but I think it might be worth exploring.

    Share your thoughts: What’s getting in your way when it comes to sharing what you learn? What could help?
    Series Navigation« Write about what you don’t know: 5 tips to help you do research for your blogBlog to find out how you think »

    Poll: Planning a weekly topic-focused blog – what would you like to read more about?

    Your blog is so eclectic,” said someone recently. In one week, I can write about deep geekery, business, blogging, drawing, decision making, and cooking. I deliberately shuffle my posts around so that you get a variety of topics each week. (When I didn’t do this kind of planning, you sometimes got long stretches of geeky posts that went over everyone else’s heads…)

    My blog has a lot of different topics because I have a lot of different interests. The only challenge with posting daily is making myself stick to it instead of publishing two or three posts because I get carried away. There’s always so much to learn and share, and if I don’t write about it, I tend to forget it.

    I think it’s time to experiment with different ways to write. The variety is fine for other people with wide-ranging interests. The frequency is a little overwhelming, so I’ve started directing people to weekly and monthly updates. I’ve tried category feeds, but they’re still a little difficult to focus on if people just care about one or two topics.

    Please help me plan a new blog that’s more focused on a set of topics. =) One that’s updated weekly, so it’s more manageable in terms of reading. One that’s written for readers first, instead of being mostly personal notes that might be useful for other people. I’m still going to update my personal blog (sachachua.com) with all these notes, but once a week, I want to post a focused, well-written, illustrated, “I spent 4-10 hours making something useful for you” post that saves you time or money.

    I’m going to focus on general-interest topics so that I can write posts that might be useful for years and years to come. Tech-related posts can be difficult to keep current – people come across Emacs blog posts from 2008, and it can be hard to figure out what needs to be changed. General topics tend to be longer-lasting.

    Here is where I need your help and feedback: What do you want to read about the most? There’s a poll in this blog post. If you don’t see it, please check it out at http://sachachua.com/blog/p/26117. If you give me your e-mail address (optional), I can invite you to check out the blog when it starts out. I’m going to brainstorm some headlines, fill in outlines, write posts, draw sketches, and get things going maybe a month or two in advance before I tell most people about it. Vote and tell me how to contact you, and you can help shape the way the blog evolves. =) Please fill in the poll by October 4, 2013 (next Friday) - I’d love to get things going quickly!

    2013-10-07 09_25_14-All Polls ‹ sacha chua __ living an awesome life — WordPress

    I know there are a lot of blogs like those out there. Here’s how I want to make a difference:

    • You can benefit from summarized insights from books and blog posts. I speed-read and have access to an amazing library, so I can grab ideas from books you don’t have the time to read, summarize them in neat one-page graphical notes, and help you learn faster.
    • Instead of generic advice, you can learn from stories and experiences. There are lots of platitudes out there: “Follow your passion.” “Spend less than you earn.” “Make something useful.” I don’t want to write generic run-of-the-mill link-building articles. I’ll tell you what it’s like to apply the advice to real life and what I learned along the way. I’ve got a lot of practice in thinking about what I’m thinking (including identifying and questioning assumptions), so I’d be happy to take you behind the scenes.
    • You can explore interesting perspectives with me as we combine different experiences. There’s plenty of advice on how to make better decisions, but that’s even more fun when you can bring Quantified Self-type tracking and metrics to measure the results. Writing is a useful tool for learning, and it gets even better when you can tweak the software you use. Learning complex topics can be difficult, but sketchnoting can make the ideas more approachable. I’m a geek, and that spills over into everything I do.

    So that’s why I’m thinking of adding a topic-focused blog to the abundance of content already on the Internet. I’ll probably branch it out under the “LivingAnAwesomeLife.com” domain name – maybe in a subdirectory for ease of expansion later on.

    Also, since it’s good to question one’s assumptions: Is there a better way to improve navigation and reduce overwhelming volume than a topic-focused blog? Have you come across other wide-ranging blogs that make it easy for you to focus on just the topics you want, while discovering “neighbouring” topics if you’re interested? What do those blogs do differently?

    Got any additional thoughts? Feel free to share them in the comments!

    When I blog with Emacs and when I blog with other tools

    English: org-mode logo: http://orgmode.org/wor...

    English: org-mode logo: http://orgmode.org/worg/org-faq.php#unicorn (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

    Updated 2014-10-29: I no longer use Windows Live Writer. I now use Org2blog (thanks to this thumbnail code!) or the WordPress web interface to write and update my posts.

    I would love to be able to write all of my blog posts within Emacs. I like the outline tools and simple markup of Org Mode. Org Mode and org2blog are invaluable when I’m writing a post with lots of code or keyboard commands, because it’s easy to set up syntax highlighting or add teletype text. Here’s an interesting self-referential example of org2blog’s power that uses #INCLUDE to include the Org blog post source in the post itself.

    If I expect that a post will have lots of images, I tend to use Windows Live Writer because it takes care of resizing and aligning images, linking to the original size. Because it uses my blog’s stylesheet, I can get a sense of how the text will flow around it. I can quickly draw an idea in Autodesk Sketchbook Pro, copy and paste it into Windows Live Writer, and then resize it until it feels balanced on the page. Sometimes I draft a post in Emacs and then open it in Windows Live Writer or ScribeFire so that I can add images.

    Org Mode also supports images, but it’s not as easy to resize things there. If I wrote a function that used ImageMagick to save the clipboard image to a file, resize it to the appropriate dimensions, and link it to the full-size image, maybe that would do the trick. Still, that sounds like it would be a fair bit of work. Maybe someday. Hmm – any chance someone reading this blog happens to already have that snippet handy? =)

    If I need to edit an existing post, I either use the WordPress web interface or I use ScribeFire. That way, I don’t have to fill in the post publishing date again.

    It’s a bit of a patchwork system of different tools, but it does the job. What’s your workflow like?