On this page:
  • New note-taking workflow with Emacs Org-mode
  • Writing about lots of different kinds of things
  • Scanning my notebooks
  • The learning machine: How I turn what I learn into blog posts

New note-taking workflow with Emacs Org-mode

The new workflow looks like it works better for me. Or rather, it’s an old workflow with new tools. Now, instead of using Windows Live Writer or ScribeFire to post my notes directly to my blog, I’m back to using M-x remember and Emacs, keeping a superset of my notes in text files and publishing selected parts of it.

  • The new workflow
    • M-x remember saves quick notes into a large text file (~/personal/organizer.org), possibly with tags, with diagrams inserted later.
    • I regularly review and file items into the appropriate sections of ~/personal/outline.org.
    • I post selected items to my blog using C-u M-x org2blog-post-subtree, scheduling them by adding a timestamp or using the C-c C-s (org-schedule) command.

    I sometimes use Microsoft OneNote on my new tablet to take notes during meetings, but it’s easy enough to convert my handwriting to text and paste it into my Org-mode file. I still have to think of a better way to refer to images while keeping my file manageable, but a filename is probably okay.

  • A worked example

    This is being composed in a M-x remember window. (Well, remember is bound to C-c r on my system, so it’s easy to invoke).

    After I finish braindumping, I’ll use C-c C-c to save it somewhere.

    I may schedule the post immediately (C-c s (org-schedule) and then C-u M-x org2blog-post-subtree), or tag it for later review. (:toblog: – ready to go, but not scheduled? :rough: – needs more thinking?)

    When I review the items, I’ll copy this into the Geek – Emacs section of my outline.org.

    It feels nice having my notes in plain text, and being able to organize it in more than just chronological order…

  • The history

    From 2001 to about 2006, I kept an Emacs Planner wiki with all of my notes in it. Emacs Remember let me write notes that were automatically hyperlinked to whatever I was looking at, and I added code to Planner that made it easy for me to file the notes both chronologically and topically. Planner rocked. I loved being able to easily hyperlink between topics, and the wiki structure kept pages a mostly manageable size. (My public Planner files are still on the Net, but I need to regenerate the index or enable directory lists so that they’re usable.)

    When I moved to WordPress as a blogging platform in order to make it easier for people to leave comments, I hacked around with RSS to import my posts from Planner into WordPress (ex: http://sachachua.com/blog/2002/). Moving to WordPress meant a change in my workflow. I now had two places to store my notes: Planner and my blog.

    I tried Emacs Org because I liked the way it organized information. In Planner, we’d been struggling with elegant ways to manage tasks and notes that needed to be accessed in multiple contexts. The approach we had taken in Planner was to make copies of the information, but Org had a cleaner way to do it using different views. It was intriguing.

    When I started working at IBM, however, my information workflow diverged. I shifted to using a web-based to-do list and Lotus Notes, posting on an internal blog and an external one, and managing multiple sources and repositories of information.

    I wanted to go back to keeping my notes in plain text, encrypted if necessary, and to have a place where I could keep notes that might not be publishable. I still had to manage multiple computers, but synchronizing systems like Dropbox or SpiderOak got rid of some of the hassles I’d encountered with git. When I found out about org2blog thanks to a test link from punchagan, I modified the code to work with subtrees instead of new buffers, and that solved the blog publishing part of it.

Writing about lots of different kinds of things

This entry is part 11 of 19 in the series A No-Excuses Guide to Blogging

The first change off the bat is to just start writing more varied material and see what sticks, an approach that I used when I first started blogging back in 2005 but discarded when the broad patterns became more clear, and found myself niched into “personal development”. If I can find a way to write on broad topics but remain topically interesting to a broad audience, that would rock.

David Seah, A restatement of purpose

(See, even people who’ve been blogging since 2004 are working on figuring this out. =) )

How do you balance varied interests and focused niches?

Some people write tightly-focused blogs. They might have many blogs, one blog per niche, each almost a silo of content. This is good for advertising, but it’s harder to keep track of everything and make sure all the blogs are active.

This is my personal blog. I write about lots of different topics. I use categories to help people sift through the entries for what they want to learn more about, and I make it easy for people to view or subscribe to a few categories I tend to write about a lot. Blog aggregators like Planet Drupal and Planet Emacsen pick up categorized entries from my blog, so I don’t have to worry about being off-topic.

The diversity of topics might result in fewer subscribers than, say, a consistent focus on productivity (or code, or whatever) might, but it has also led to all sorts of wonderfully serendipitous conversations from the intersections of interests. I like this. I like being a real person with many facets, not just a focused and filtered personal brand.

So, what’s my workflow like? I write as much as I can in my personal notes – anything I want, even things I probably won’t post for decades. I might write about a topic several times, as there’s always more to understand. I publish one post a day – an experiment in limits that has been working well for me. When I want to organize a category more clearly, like all of my tips on connecting, I make linking posts, knowledge maps, presentations, or documents. (Maybe an e-book someday!)

That’s how I’m currently working. If you write, how do you balance variety and focus? And as a reader, what would make it easier for you to browse this blog and find things you want?

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Scanning my notebooks

You’ll often find me taking notes in a small paper notebook that I tuck into my beltbag for easy access. I like taking notes on paper more than I like taking notes on my smartphone because:

  • I don’t have to look down when taking notes.
  • I don’t have to worry about battery life. My phone runs out of battery frequently enough even without using it for notes or web browsing, because I use Bluetooth and GPS frequently.
  • I can add little sketches here and there.

My notebook habit started in 2006, when I was a graduate student at the University of Toronto. My mom reminded me that living like a student didn’t have to mean denying myself all sorts of things, so I splurged on my very first Moleskine and started writing in it.

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I’ve filled a few of these notebooks over time. I don’t write in them consistently. Sometimes there are gaps of weeks or months when I take notes on my smartphone or my laptop instead.

Many of the pages are lists: things I’d like to do in Toronto, reasons for starting a business, ideas to try. Many of the pages are notes from conversations. Few of the pages are straight-up journal entries like the one above, as I prefer to type in my reflections so that they’re saved in Org Mode.

Workflow:

Scanning the notebooks

We have a Samsung SCX-4828fn printer/scanner/copier/fax. The scanner supports both sheet-fed and flat-bed scanning. For batch scanning on Microsoft Windows, I used Picasa’s import function. (XSane on Linux is more configurable, though.) I set up my foot switch to click on a button in the scanner program so that I could scan the next page without touching the mouse. I put the notebook on the flat-bed scanner, hit the footswitch, waited for the scanning head to finish the page, and then flipped to the next page while the scanning head returned to the ready position.

Well, technically, there was also the set-up step of hooking up a second monitor and picking things that would run on that second monitor so that I could watch screencasts while scanning. =)

You can do the same setup without a foot pedal (keep your mouse within easy reach) or a second monitor, but those things made it a lot more fun for me.

Reviewing the notebooks

Picasa makes it easy to flip through images, and I’ve been using that to “star” pages and add tags. I’ve also imported quite a few of my notes into Evernote in order to take advantage of the handwriting recognition.

I saved the images in my Dropbox folder and uploaded them as private albums to Google Photos, so I can refer to them on my Android phone too. That’s pretty nifty. I may spring for the Evernote premium subscription so that I can sync and search the handwriting in my notebooks when I’m offline, too. (Still cheaper than a data plan.)

Updating my notes

Haven’t done this yet, but updating my scanned notebook pages with additional notes should be easy to do with Autodesk Sketchbook Pro or something like that. Hooray for tablet PCs! I might use git or something similar for version control, but it’s not important.

Partial notebooks

Partially-used notebooks are harder to scan because I have to remember to come back and scan the last section, and I can’t seem to change the import filenames in Picasa (one of the reasons why XSane is awesomer). Anyway, I’m going to focus on filling the pages of the partial notebooks, then I can scan them in one go. I tend to update previous pages in my current notebook (lists, recent conversations, etc), so I’d prefer to scan them only when the notebook is finished. I see scanning as a way to carry digital copies of my past notebooks with me, so that works out nicely.

Lessons learned

  • Cursive script is hard to quickly read. Winking smile I think I’ll stick to printing letters.
  • Conversation notes are ephemeral.
  • Lists are useful for a long time.

Thanks to Markus Zmija for the nudge to write about this!

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?
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