How to develop your ideas into blog posts

This entry is part 13 of 19 in the series A No-Excuses Guide to Blogging

Do you find it easy to come up with lots of ideas for blog posts, but then find it difficult to sit down and actually write them–or spend hours drafting, only to decide that it’s not quite ready for posting?

I know what that’s like. On the subway, I jot a few notes for a post I want to write. At home, I add more ideas to my outline. Sometimes when I look at those notes, I think, “What on earth is this about?” Other times, I write a paragraph or two, and then my attention wanders. Over the years, I’ve gotten a lot better at getting posts out there. I still have more ideas than I can write, but at least a few of them make it into my blog! Here’s what works for me, and I hope it works for you too.

Capture your ideas. Write them down somewhere: a text file, an Evernote notebook, a piece of paper, whatever fits the way you work. You don’t have to write everything down, but it helps to have a list of ideas when you sit down to write. I use Evernote to take quick notes on my phone, and I use Org Mode for Emacs for my outline.

“Oh no! Now I have this huge list of unfinished ideas!” Don’t be intimidated. Think of it like a buffet – you can choose what you want, but it doesn’t mean that you have to finish everything.

Pick one idea and turn it into a question. Pick the idea that you’re most curious about, perhaps, or something that you’re learning. Turn it into a question so that you have a focus for your writing and you know when you’ve answered it. Questions help you keep both your perspective and your reader’s perspective in mind. Remembering your question will help you bring your focus back to it if your attention wanders. Remembering your readers’ potential question will help you empathize with them and write for them.

Break that question down into smaller questions until you can actually answer it in one sitting. For example: “How can you blog more?” is too big a question. In this post, I want to focus on just “How do you get past having lots of ideas that you don’t turn into blog posts?” Make the question as small as you can. You can always write another blog post answering the next question, and the next, and the next.

When you find yourself getting stuck, wrap up there. That probably means that your question was too big to begin with. Break it down even further. Figure out the question that your blog post answers, and revise your post a little so that it makes sense. Post. You can follow up with a better answer later. You can build on your past posts. Don’t wait until it’s complete. Post along the way.

I often run into this problem while writing technical posts. I start with “How do you do ABC?”… and get stuck halfway because of a bug or something I don’t understand. Then I turn my post into “Trouble-shooting XYZ” with my rough notes of how I’m figuring things out. I’d rather have written a complete guide, of course, but mistakes and false starts and rough notes are also useful in themselves.

Don’t think that you have to know everything and write everything perfectly the first time around. In fact, blogging can be more interesting and more useful when you do it as part of your journey.

Perfectionist? Take a close look at that anxiety. See if you can figure out what the root of that is. Is it useful for you, or is it getting in your way? There’s an advantage to being outwardly polished, yes, but there’s also an advantage to learning quickly and building relationships. One of the tips I picked up from the book Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work (Heath and Heath, 2013) was the idea of testing the stakes. Make a few small, deliberate mistakes. Ooch your way to better confidence. (See page 138 if you want more details.)

Tell me if this helps, or if you’re still getting stuck. More blogging excuse-busters here!

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!

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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!

Six steps to make sharing part of how you work

This entry is part 15 of 19 in the series A No-Excuses Guide to Blogging

People often ask me how I find the time to write, blog, or give presentations, so I’ve put together these tips on how to turn sharing from something that takes up extra time to something that saves you time as you work.

Sharing is intimidating. You might think that you need to master blogs or wikis before you can make the most of Web 2.0 tools to help you share your knowledge and build your network. But even if you never post in public, you’ve got plenty of opportunities to make a bigger difference through sharing.

I’m not going to tell you to start a blog today. Here’s a six-step program to help you save time by making sharing part of the way you work, even if most of what you work with is confidential or lives in e-mail. Give it a try!

Step 1. Review your e-mail for information that you repeatedly send people. Do different people ask you the same questions? Are there links or files you find yourself always looking up and sending? Are there common problems you often solve? Save time by filing those messages in a “Reference” folder so that you can easily find them the next time someone asks that question or needs that file. Save even more time by rewriting your notes so that you can easily cut and paste them into new messages.

You can use your e-mail program to manage this information by saving the e-mails in a “Reference” folder that might be subdivided into more folders, or you can save the information in directories on your hard drive, encrypting it if necessary. The key change is to create a virtual filing cabinet and put useful information in it.

This virtual filing cabinet can save you a lot of time on your own work, too. I often find myself searching for my notes on how I solved a problem six months ago because I have to solve it again, and my notes save me a lot of time.

Step 2. When talking to people, listen for opportunities to take advantage of your reference information. Now that you’ve got an virtual filing cabinet of useful information, keep an ear open for ways you can use that information to help people more efficiently. When people ask you a question you’ve answered before, give them a quick answer and promise to e-mail them the rest of the details.

When you look for ways to reuse the information you already have, you’ll find plenty of opportunities to get a lot more benefit from the effort that you’ve already invested.

Step 3. Reach out. Now that you’ve saved time and helped more people by sharing the information in your virtual filing cabinet when they ask, you’ve got a better sense of which notes are very useful. Take a moment to review your files and think about who might benefit from learning from that information. Reach out to them, sending them a note about what you’ve learned and why it can save them time. It might lead to interesting conversations and good opportunities.

For example, let’s say you e-mailed one of your coworkers an answer to his problem. Think of other team members who might have run into the same problem, and send them a short note about it too. If you do this judiciously, people will feel grateful without feeling overwhelmed by e-mail.

Step 4. Prepare and take notes. Now you’re getting lots of return on the time you invested into organizing your existing information, and you’ve got an idea of what kinds of information help you and other people a lot. Proactively write down information that might be useful instead of waiting until someone asks you about it, because you might not remember all the relevant details by that time. In fact, take notes while you’re working instead of leaving it for the end. File those notes in your virtual filing cabinet as well, and share them with other people who might find this useful.

In addition to helping you save time in the future, writing about what you’re learning or doing can help you think more clearly, catch mistakes, and make better decisions.

Step 5. Look for ways to share your notes with more people. By now, you’ve probably developed a habit of looking for ways to take advantage of what you’re learning or doing: writing and filing your notes, retrieving your notes when people need them, and proactively reaching out. You can stop there and already save a lot of time–or you can learn about sharing your notes more widely, helping you build your network and increase your impact.

Proactively reaching out to people who might find your notes useful has probably helped you develop stronger working relationships with a small investment of time. However, this is limited by who you know, how much you know about what they’re working on, and the timing of the information. On the other hand, if you share some of your notes in public areas where people can search for or browse them, then you can help people you might not think of reaching out to, and they can find your information whenever they need it.

You don’t have to share all your information publicly. Review your virtual filing cabinet for information that can be shared with everyone or with a small group, and look for ways to share it with the appropriate access permissions. You can share different versions of documents, too.

For example, I share public information on my blog because blogs make it easy to publish quick notes, and search engines make it easy for people to find what they need even if I posted those notes several years ago. On the other hand, there are many notes that I post to internal access-controlled repositories. Sometimes, I’ll post a sanitized version publicly, and a more detailed version internally.

This is where you can get exponential return on your time investment. If people can find and benefit from your notes on their own, then you can reach many more people and create much more impact.

People may not find and use your information right away. Keep building that archive, though. You’ll be surprised by how useful people can find your work, and by the number of opportunities and relationships you build along the way.

Step 6. Review your organizational system and look for opportunities for relentless improvement.

You’ve collected useful information from your e-mails and conversations, organized that in your virtual filing cabinet, reached out to people, and shared some of your notes publicly. Congratulations! You’re probably getting your work done faster because you don’t waste time solving problems again. Your coworkers probably look to you for answers because you not only help them solve problems, you do so in a timely and detailed manner. And you might already have discovered how helpful your notes can be for others you wouldn’t have thought of contacting. What’s next?

Review your virtual filing cabinet. Can you organize it for faster access? Can you fill in missing topics? Can you identify and update obsolete information? Look for opportunities to improve your process, and you’ll save even more time and make a bigger impact.

Want to share your experiences? Need help? Please feel free to leave a comment!

 

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?

Getting started with blogging when no one’s reading

This entry is part 17 of 19 in the series A No-Excuses Guide to Blogging

“So I’m planning to start a blog… How do I do it? How do I build an audience?”

It’s okay. Don’t worry. Write anyway.

Write notes for yourself, because writing can help you think and remember. Write about what you’re learning. Write about your answers to other people’s questions. Write about your own questions, and write about the answers you find.

At some point—and earlier than you think you’re ready—make it easy for people to come across your blog. Add it to your e-mail signature. Add it to your social media profiles. Let people find you, read you, and learn more about you.

Look for more questions to explore. Share your notes on your blog. Answer them where you found the question, too, and share a link. Soon you’ll find yourself saying in conversations, “Oh yeah! I wrote about that recently and…”

Read blogs, news, books, whatever you enjoy. Blog your questions, your thoughts, your lessons learned. Name-drop liberally: link to the person who wrote the post you’re thinking about, and maybe they’ll follow that back to find you. (Lots of people regularly search for their names, and many bloggers look at their analytics to see incoming links.) Comment on other people’s blogs, too – share what you’re learning from them and what questions you may have.

You find your community, person by person. But you can start by building your blog for yourself, this ever-growing accumulation of things you’re learning and things you’re curious about, this time machine that’s going to be an amazing resource when it’s 2023 and you’re wondering what you were like ten years ago. The conversations are icing on the cake.

My early blog posts are almost unintelligible. That’s because they were my class notes and computer notes, back when I was trying to figure out how to get a text editing program to publish web pages and maybe this newfangled idea of a “web log.” Your first blog posts don’t have to be ready for the New York Times. Just start, and don’t worry if no one’s reading. You can get plenty of value out of writing even on your own. (But post in public anyway, because the conversations are a lot of fun and you’ll learn a lot from people’s questions and insights.) Enjoy!

You might also like this: Six Steps to Sharing

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!