Category Archives: Writing

A Tale of Two Restarts

I injured my hamstring right before I was set to run a marathon this past June. I went to a few physical therapy sessions to see if I could do anything to salvage my training, but ultimately I decided to not do the marathon and greatly reduced my running volume so that I could heal.

And then I just stopped altogether.

I was traveling and my hamstring wasn’t getting better, and I just wanted to not think about it for a few weeks.

At the same time, I also stopped writing and podcasting.

By the time I got back, my hamstring felt great. I had lost a bit of fitness, and July in Florida is no time to train or run marathons, but I did settle back into my normal summer training regimen. I had restarted immediately without really trying that hard.

I did not restart writing. What was the difference?

For one, I’ve been running for a very long time, and I have gotten a lot out of it. I generally believe my health depends on me doing it. And, in the past three years, I have been doing it very consistently. Every run I do now seems to pay off immediately in self-esteem, weight maintenance, and feelings of fitness.

Although I’ve been writing over the same period, I have only gotten very consistent six months ago. And, although I have had successes, the benefits of continuing are not as clear. I have data that shows I am slimmer, faster, and more efficient. I don’t have anything like that for writing.

And, I legitimately hurt myself running in a way that rest would help. It was not an excuse. The work I needed to do was to rest. Perhaps that was the same with writing—maybe I needed a rest. That does feel like more of an excuse to me though.

I also have an app that I care about that can only be used if I run. My programmer identity forces me to run in order to program.

But, probably more importantly, I belong to a running group with a coach. It’s harder not to run than to run. There is some accountability there, but that’s not what helped me restart—it was my coach making a specific plan to restart that helped. She had been in my position many times and could help me through it.

So, what could I do to make sure I keep writing? I think two things are clear

  1. Get a coach.
  2. Have some kind of feedback mechanism.

My main issue is that I don’t really have a goal beyond just doing it to do it. I thought that would be enough, but I think I could use a little more.

I choose not to quit

THOSE WHO WOULD MAKE ART might well begin by reflecting on the fate of those who preceded them: most who began, quit.

Bayles, David; Orland, Ted. Art & Fear

I began this year with the intention of writing here everyday and for 6 months or so, I found it easy.

And then, life got in the way.

In my case, it’s not bad news. I took some time off to travel in the COVID dip in June/July and got to see family and friends that I hadn’t seen in a year or more. And, I started getting interesting projects with deadlines and expectations. I don’t think it should have totally derailed me, but it did.

But, I’ve come back to some kind of equilibrium now. Or maybe it’s just the normal ebbs and flows of energy. I pride myself on having discipline and not needing motivation, but that only works most of the time. Not all of the time.

In any case, I choose not to quit.

Aim a Little Higher in your Whitepapers

I recently handed over my email to get a “whitepaper” that looked interesting from a company that had been recommended more than once as having an interesting product. I was kind of shocked at how shallow it was.

It was not just a crummy commercial — I think I would have preferred that though. I don’t mind being sold to if it’s done well.

I remember writing these kinds of things for Atalasoft, and it’s tough. I found one of my old ones that tried to teach imaging to prospective customers.

There are things in there that are simple, but my intent was to make the reader into a somewhat advanced user of imaging products with a deeper understanding. It’s kind of implied that our product could help them do these things, but they were free to try to do it themselves or use our competitors. I was betting that they’d give us a shot and we’d win on the merits.

I knew from talking to customers that these things were not obvious and not knowing them was making their use of our product limited. We could help them more, but they didn’t know what to ask for. The whitepaper was written to get leads, but I sent it to customers too when it was obvious it would help them.

As a test, put the first few pages up for free and see if you still get emails for the rest.

Recommendation: Digital Zettelkasten by David Kadavy

I just bought and finished reading Digital Zettelkasten by David Kadavy. It’s a quick read and a good companion to How to Take Smart Notes, which I talked about in Write While True Episode 2: Small Bits of Writing and Write While True Episode 3: First Drafts.

Like David, I think of note-taking as primarily about writing and is the starting point of my original writing. His book covers his workflow, which is a lot like mine. I got a few new tips, but it was mostly a reinforcement of how I think of note-taking.

As I covered in my podcast, I “read” by writing. At the end of reading a book, I have generated bits of writing in Obsidian and flash cards for Anki (covered in Write While True Episode 14: Spaced Repetition). This has helped me retain the information I have read, have new ideas, and develop them into new writing.

If you write, but don’t currently have a note-taking practice and would like to see how one writer does it (in detail), this book is worth your time.

Building a Serendipity Machine

In yesterday’s podcast, I talked about spaced-repetition and how I use Anki to help with my memory. Anki is a flash card system that uses algorithms to show you cards just as you might be forgetting them.

If you are just using this casually, like I am, you only need to “study” for a few minutes a day (and skipping days or even weeks will be fine—Anki will catch you up). If you are a student who is using Anki to cram for exams, you would probably do it differently.

I built up my deck over time. I make new cards while reading or watching videos. I made a bunch last week while watching WWDC.

In the podcast, I said to use a single deck with all of your cards mixed together. So, if in a few months, you read books in different subjects, you wouldn’t make separate decks for each book or subject. This makes it a lot easier to just make cards whenever you want without thinking about it too much. It also makes studying a kind of serendipity machine.

A couple of episodes ago, I had spoken about how to generate ideas by combining disparate knowledge. Going through an Anki session of uncategorized cards helps me do that regularly.

So, in my deck today, I was asked about:

  • The kinds of gates you find in QUIL quantum computing (I read Quantum Country this year which is a book with embedded spaced-repetition)
  • The goals of visual design
  • A specific Typescript operator
  • Covey’s 7 Habits
  • The parts of C4

As I think it over, there is perhaps something interesting about the communication principles in C4, the communication goals of visual design generally, and Covey’s 7 Habits—specifically “Seek First to Understand”, which is the core communication habit.

I should write a note about that.

Design by Comparing Opposites

In my podcast episode, Write While True Episode 7: Find Your Voice, I tried to express an idea that I find is useful in a lot of contexts. There are some choices where you are trying to make something specific or differentiating—in those cases, one way to know that you’ve done it is to see if the opposite choice is also reasonable.

In this case, I was talking about trying to find my “voice” in the podcast—what makes it mine and not generic. I recommended Joanna Wiebe’s video on voice and tone.

But, I cautioned against a voice that was “smart”. I said:

I actually don’t think smart is a good choice because the opposite of smart is very rarely appropriate. Everyone would choose to sound smart.

When you have a generically positive aspect that you want (like smart), a useful technique is to consider opposing ways to achieve it.

I recommended considering the choices of “expert” or “fellow learner” instead of smart. Both voices might be smart, but they are specific, opposite, and both are reasonable.

This is also a good technique in job seeking. It’s easier to find what you want if it’s not something that everyone would claim to have.

Sending a clear signal that “this is not for you” is the only way the people that it is for will recognize it.

Observing Experts

I started running in 2005 and did a marathon in 2009, but I ran sporadically for a few years after that. I had always done it pretty much on my own, and that limited my progress and sometimes led to injuries.

I started running seriously again in November 2018. The big change I made was getting a coach. I had just read Peak by Anders Ericsson, and learned that one way to become an expert was by watching experts. It wasn’t so much what the expert taught—Ericsson thinks that experts don’t always know why or how they do things. What seemed to be useful was just observing experts. (Incidentally, Ericsson is also the source of the 10,000 hours idea popularized by Malcolm Gladwell. Peak corrects a lot of the misconceptions about that).

My running coach, Holly, has run her whole life. She’s done 25+ marathons and several triathlons and also uses coaches herself. She often expresses her lessons as her observations of the elites she was run with (so I am observing an observer). Two years into it, I have gotten everything I wanted out of it and more.

So, I am trying to apply the success I have had by running with an expert to other aspects of my life.

I want to write a lot more, so I joined the Blogging for Devs pro community where I am surrounded by devs of all success levels that I can observe. Last year, I did the Akimbo Podcast Workshop which similarly exposes you to a cohort of podcasters—a mix of experts and other learners. I am learning a lot just by watching and emulating their behaviors.

The recurring behavior I observed from the successful bloggers and podcasters in these communities is to just publish. Almost everything else there is to learn only makes sense in the context published work.

So, my advice is to seek out experts doing the thing you want to be an expert in. And when you find one, I’d ask just to watch them work and then emulate their behaviors without necessarily understanding why at first. The book, Peak, has a lot to say about this, and if you are skeptical, watch this video about learning tennis by observing.

March 2021 Blog Review

This month I released a podcast. I believe that a podcast can be a companion to another activity. I had thought that I could come up with something related to coding, but that was too hard to do without visuals.

So, I decided to try a writing program for programmers. Write While True is a podcast that helps programmers establish a writing habit. Each episode is around 10 minutes, and you are meant to do the writing exercise it describes as soon as the podcast is done.

If you are finding this post way after March 2021, and you are interested, I recommend listening to the first few episodes. They are foundational and meant to be evergreen. If you are a programer that writes publicly and has some tips, get in touch, because I’m going to have guests at some point.

I’m proud that my process makes my podcast accessible.

I’m thinking a lot about Excel. I have seen a lot of non-programmers make incredible things with it. I wrote Excel is Programming and Excel as a Programming Language with my nascent thoughts on that. I plan to write more about this.

I had a lot of random pieces related to software development:

Yesterday, I wrote about sonifications, which are the sound equivalent of visualizations. I’ll have a lot more to say about that in April.

Call for Write While True Podcast Guests

A couple of weeks ago, I launched Write While True, which is a writing program for programmers (in the sense of a training program). The core episodes will be short descriptions of writing exercises that will get you writing.

But, I do think it would be good to have guests.

In a guest segment, I do want to eventually get to some actionable advice, and I think it would help if the guest wrote regularly somewhere, since the core thesis is that the podcast will help you write more.

If you are a programmer, then it’s fine if that writing is on a blog, but if you are not a programmer, then I would prefer that you are a professional writer of some sort.

If this sounds like you, get in touch.

Trying to Tell Stories

My instinct in writing is to just say what I believe to be a true or interesting thing in a direct way. Maybe give an argument or two why and call it day.

So, most of what I write is kind of like this: “Hey everybody, I think blah blah blah and one time I blah blah blah’ed and yada yada yada, it was great. You should blah blah blah too.”

And even as I’m doing this and re-reading my writing, I am thinking: “this is kind of boring”, but I didn’t know how to make it better. So I’ve plugged along because up to this point, I’ve decided that writing imperfectly is better than not writing.

But, today, (March 5th, the day I am writing this), is my first day as an independent software developer, writer, or whatever I end up doing. I don’t have the safety net of gainful employment to give my work meaning. It somehow has to come from me and my own projects.

And this blog is one of those projects, so it’s not enough to just write any more. Eventually, this blog has to be good, which I define as valuable to readers (as opposed to just valuable to me as a place to practice writing).

Over the years, I have seen/read/heard a lot of advice about writing, but one really stands out to me right now, and I am trying to really understand it.

It was a podcast episode of Scriptnotes (transcript), where Craig Mazin, the writer of the Chernobyl mini-series, explained what a story is. I recommend reading the whole thing, but the essential generator of story was an argument. This interests me because most of what I am writing is my side of an argument.

According to Mazin, to generate a story, you start with an argument with a true side and a false side. Then, you create a character that believes the false side and lives a stable, but imperfect life with this belief.

The story will make that stable life impossible and eventually change the character’s worldview such that they act in accordance with the true side of the argument. The details are fascinating, and I recommend you read the transcript (the back episodes are available on a paid subscription if you want to listen to it).

One way to sum it up is:

What is more interesting: “you know, if you lie to people, they might not believe you when you are telling the truth” or The Boy who Cried Wolf?

The first example is just advice (which is actually good advice, but it’s boring) and the second is a story. It has humor, it has twists, and it has an argument exemplified by a character living the opposite of the advice. It’s not exactly the same structure as Mazin’s, but it works.

Craig Mazin writes fiction, and a lot of what he’s describing is story invention. But, it applies to non-fiction as well (see his José Fernandez example). And, of course, if I think back to interesting non-fiction books I have read, they are full of stories.

But, I also know that long-winded stories (when you want actionable advice) are somewhat off-putting to me. I personally need to find the right balance.

In my own journey of “Stating advice directly, but in a somewhat boring way” to “Telling an interesting story that incidentally makes my argument”, I am really just getting started, but I will try to tell more stories of characters living the false and true sides of arguments I am making rather than just plain descriptions of the argument.