Category Archives: Writing

Writing vs. Thinking About Writing

In my review of The Practice, I said that I was posting every day to focus myself on writing something worth posting every day. Shipping makes me think about a reader more than journaling would.

But, I am definitely not worrying too much about quality because I believe that that will come with time.

This story from Art & Fear is often cited to illustrate the power of quantity. I heard it first from Coding Horror in 2008, but here’s the earliest reference I could find:

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality.

[…] Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

When I think back to how I learned programming, I remember that I did it nearly every day and produced a lot of code. Most of it was unshippable, but I learned from making it and eventually learned to ship it too.

I believe in combining identities to build a new skill from a developed one, so applying my code writing attitude to writing text will help me keep going. I have seen the power of quantity work before.

I have also seen the effect of “theorizing about writing”. I have been trying to write more for years. I started this blog in 2003, and right now, just two months into 2021, I have more posts than any other single year.

Thinking about writing produced very little. Please, don’t wait eighteen years to learn this lesson.

Randomness is the Great Creator

I am reading Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, a book that goes against so many of my instincts. It espouses a spiritual force, a Great Creator, that helps us create. I am trying so hard not to resist because I am getting a lot of reading it.

I want this creative force to inhabit me too. I am looking for a way to incorporate it into my belief structure. Cameron knows that many readers will resist this idea and she tells us to find our own name for it—something we believe in. It need not be spiritual or religious.

I believe that the universe is a random, unknowable thing that offers infinite variety. We have an opportunity to tap into it with contributions to the randomness.

Cameron says to put up a sign that says:

Great Creator, I will take care of the quantity. You take care of the quality.

I said in my review of The Practice that I am writing to get better at writing. The quantity is the point. The quantity is how I will add to and tap into the universe’s randomness.

Mine Your Tweets for Posts, Mine Your Posts for Tweets

I don’t tweet much, but I think I’ve found a way to integrate it into my daily practice of blogging.

Tweeting is a good way to get some feedback on ideas. I’ve been looking at my posts and topic list and seeing if I can boil them down to something tweet-sized.

I also have been looking back at my old tweets and seeing if there’s anything there worth expanding upon. A couple of days ago I wrote about having dinner with a 50’s era UNIVAC programmer. I was reminded about that from seeing my tweet about it.

I am not doing this to market this blog. So, I am letting these tweets stand alone right now—not linking here. I don’t want the tweets to seem promotional. Also, I am doing them way before the publish date of the blog post. I’m hoping that feedback will help shape the post while I am editing it. I’m testing the post with pre-tweets of the content.

But, if already have a lot of tweets, go get a download of them and see if you can populate a topic list—you might already have some idea of how useful the post would be based on your engagement.

And even though I’m not promoting my blog this way, I absolutely think that this would be a good thing to do if I could figure out the right way for me.

Edit in Sweeps

A few years ago I saw Joanna Wiebe talk about her 7 sweeps editing technique at the Business of Software conference.

The basic idea is that you edit a work in successive sweeps where each sweep only tries to improve one kind of thing. For example, her first sweep is to improve clarity. Her sweeps are designed for advertising and marketing copy, but the basic idea of editing for one thing at a time is working for me.

Since I bank posts, I have a lot of time to edit them before they get posted. Right after I write my first draft of the next post, I go to the upcoming posts and edit the ones that would publish next.

Here are my current sweeps

  1. Clarity as Joanna describes: Who is it for and what is the message? Is that clear?
  2. Grammar, spelling, punctuation
  3. Remove unnecessary parts – these may be the start of another post.

I don’t yet do these sweeps, but I should

  1. Make the post actionable. What can I challenge the reader to do right now?
  2. Edit for voice and tone. Joanna has a video about that too. I am struggling with finding my voice.
  3. Make the post valuable to the reader. (I’m sorry, but I am trying)

So, do this now:

  1. Watch Joanna’s Clarity Video.
  2. Pick a piece of recent or upcoming writing you have.
  3. Think about who your audience is (a key part of how you make things clear).
  4. Do a clarity sweep on that piece.
  5. Think about what sweeps would make your writing better and figure out what you will actually do in that sweep. As I develop mine further, I’ll share.

Writing While Reading

In a Cortex podcast episode about their favorite apps, CGP Grey singled out Obsidian. The recommendation was so over the top that I had to try it immediately. Obsidian is a note taking app. I wrote a little about how I use it to make reading a game.

When I say note-taking, I mean original writing, not copied notes/quotes. To fully understand this, I highly recommend How to Take Smart Notes, which is the most important book I have read in years in terms of impact on my reading/thinking/writing.

The goal of notes, according to the book, is to be pieces that can be readily assembled into publishable work. Given that, a note must be original writing somewhat ready to be published. They aren’t long, though. Most of my notes are a paragraph or two. I frequently refactor long ones into smaller ones. They are supposed to be free-standing building blocks, linked together.

What do you write? You could digest and re-explain what you have read. This kind of note will prove to you that you understand what you are reading. It is also a useful building block later if you reference the book.

A better note is driven by your own questions. I have many questions that I think about.

  1. What does it mean for game-design to drive non-game app design (but, not gamification)?
  2. What is the sound equivalent of visualizations?
  3. What are programming books trying to do and is there a better medium to deliver that (is it games?, does it have sound?)
  4. What is the right format for a programming tutorial? Is it something more vague?

I read books with these questions in mind, and sometimes I have ideas about them. If this happens, I stop reading and immediately write a couple of paragraphs in Obsidian.

After developing a note, I link it to as many relevant other notes as I can. Sometimes it’s clear that there are holes that need further thinking. I make and link to place-holder notes and tag them as needing development.

This continues like an infinite game: generate questions -> read -> write -> generate more questions -> read -> write.

When I am not reading, I sometimes just engage with the notes. I pick a starting point, follow links, remind myself of my past ideas. This will also generate notes, refactorings, questions. Most often it shows me that I have a topic that is ready for publication, so I add it to my schedule.

When it comes time to write for publication, it is much more like assembly and editing than writing, which was the goal of these notes.

Where do Post Topics Come From?

Yesterday, I said that I keep a topic list that goes at least a month out. In reality, not all of those will be written into posts, but I need a lot of choices each morning as I sit down to write. The list is under constant maintenance, but the most important thing to do is to keep adding to it.

Here are some of the places those topics come from:

  1. From a question I am using to drive my thinking. See: What are books for?
  2. From the notes I am taking while reading. See Playing Non-programming Books
  3. From writing posts. Yesterday I consciously listed the new topics I thought of while writing the post on topics.
  4. From editing my banked posts. When I delete a paragraph that is interesting, but not related, that paragraph can become the seed of a new post.
  5. From solitude. See Use Deprivation to Make Space
  6. From correspondence. If someone asks me an interesting question, my answer can often be generalized into a blog post.
  7. From my old work. I’ve been blogging and writing publicly for over 10 years. Old posts need updating: See Use GitHub Profile Pages to Mirror Your Personal Site
  8. From my tweets. I don’t tweet a lot there are enough to look back at and see if there’s a bigger idea there.
  9. From my other works. I write about my apps, like in Sprint-o-Mat 2021.1 is Available
  10. Current events, like WWDC. See: WWDC 2020 Wishlist – Xcode / Swift or WWDC 2017 for iOS Developers

I personally keep them organized into a schedule so that each day, when I am ready to write, I can just look at that day’s topic and give it stab. It doesn’t always work out, but not having to choose from the list helps me get started.

If I give up on a topic, I can take what I’ve written and link it to that topic in Obsidian. I move it down a little in the list and move onto the next one.

If it’s too big, that’s actually great, because I break it down into a few mini-topics to build up to a bigger idea later.

Make Writing Easier by Having a Long List of Topics

The last few posts have been about my practice of blogging every day, how I bank posts, how I start with a bad first draft, and how I ease into my writing day with morning pages.

In the past, when I set goals to write more frequently, I was always stopped by not having ideas for what to write about. Or when I got one, I didn’t have a systematic way of collecting them. I would sit down to write, but getting started on a new piece was too difficult.

My goal now is to make writing a first draft easy by keeping a long list of writing topics of varying degrees of difficulty.

When I add a topic to the list, I try to develop it a little with notes for why it’s on the list in the first place. If I have already have notes in Obsidian that are related, I link them. All of this will make it easier to get to a first draft later.

Having a long topic list gives me lots of choices for what to write in the moment based on how motivated I am. Not every topic will work out. If that happens, I grab another one.

The key is that I am not blocked at the time I sit down to write by not having any ideas.

Tomorrow, I’ll write about how I generate this list.

Doing Morning Pages Helps Me Make Shitty First Drafts

I am in the middle of reading Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, a classic about what it means to be a creative professional. The book is not meant to be just read, it’s a book you use, a book you play.

There are many tasks and exercises throughout, and you are meant to read one chapter at the beginning of the week and use the rest of the week doing the tasks in it.

But, before you even start, Cameron describes a task you will do each morning: your morning pages where you fill three pages with long-hand writing. What do you write? It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you start and do not stop until the pages are filled. She says to think of it as DOING morning pages, not WRITING morning pages. I think of it as PLAYING morning pages (like scales).

These pages are write-only. You can destroy them right after. Don’t read them and never show them to anyone. They are not writing—you never want to expose them to criticism because you never want any reason not to do them.

I started my morning pages journal on December 28th and have never missed a day. I can’t wait to do them, and once I start, I can’t wait to finish. Because, right after I do them, I am so ready to write “for real”.

It is 7:45am right now, I finished my pages at 6:56am. The first thing I did was edit the next two posts that are scheduled to publish, and then I opened my topic list and wrote a first draft of this post. I just noticed that I never wrote about my topic list, so now I am ready to write a post about that. Like blind drawing does for sketching, the morning pages prime my brain for continuous writing, which carries through the whole morning.

Shitty Blog Post First Drafts

In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott’s book on writing, she recommends writing “shitty first drafts”. I am using this advice as I bank blog posts. This morning I reviewed The Practice, and about 5 minutes ago I finished writing the post about banking posts. At the end of that post, I wrote that I had more tactics, and shitty first drafts is one of them.

Right now, I am typing this out as fast as I can, not editing. Just writing. This practice makes it so I have some raw material to work with. Since it’s now January 28th, and this post won’t be published until February 11th, I have 2 weeks to edit it.

Having gotten this far, I think I might leave this one the way this is so that you can see what a bad first draft looks like. In general, I would try to tighten it up—I can see that this one is a bit wordy already.

At this point, I’m just leaning into it. If this is going to be a shitty post, I might as well make it extra shitty so that you can see that there’s no need to have a polished post right away.

The only hard part is coming up with some kind of ending, but I usually find one in the edit.

Banking Blog Posts

Today is January 28th at 6:45pm. This blog post will be posted on February 10th at 10am.

This morning, I wrote a review of The Practice which published on February 9th. In that post, I mentioned that I published 30 posts in the last 30 days, but, I wrote those 30 posts in 19 days, and set them up to publish over 30 days.

Since I’ve been actively reading and writing notes, I have a big backlog of ideas and nascent writing. Blogging has been mostly about assembling these notes into posts, and banking them has taken all of the pressure off in trying to blog every day. With the pressure off, I sometimes write a couple of posts a day.

I have a few other tactics I use to make sure I publish every day, which I’ll post in the next few days (but I’ll write them right now).