Questions from a Reader

Hi Everyone!

In this email, I’m answering some questions from a reader.

Rob,

I really like what you put on this site. I’ve tried to blog myself but could use your advice on the following topics:

  1. Why write about something when you know that there’s bound to be someone on the internet that has written the same thing – likely better than you? Wouldn’t it make more sense to just link to that?
  2. How do you decide what to write about?
  3. How can I do what you do? Whenever I sit down to write something, I find that I want to write a treatise and I never get finished with it.
  4. How do I subscribe to your blog?

Best,
Dave

I’ll answer these questions one at a time.

Why write about something when you know that there’s bound to be someone on the internet that has written the same thing – likely better than you? Wouldn’t it make more sense to just link to that?

That’s a good point Dave. Here are a few reasons why I write rather than link:

  1. It’s not worth comparing myself to others. There’s always someone in the world who’s doing something better than me. But if I’m writing about something personal that means something to me, hopefully, I can bring something new to the conversation.
  2. Some people (like you) seem to be interested in what I write.
  3. To paraphrase Maria Popova from Brain Pickings, “I’m writing for myself. If other people want to read this that’s great. But I’m writing for me and not them.”
  4. It’s fun to write.
  5. The best way to become a better writer is to write more. Jeff Atwood, co-founder of Stack Exchange, has some great advice on how to be a great blogger. He says “If you can demonstrate a willingness to write, and a desire to keep continually improving your writing, you will eventually be successful.”
  6. Having a blog becomes a personal record of your thoughts and ideas. It becomes a record of who you are – hopefully of your best self.
  7. Think about your readers. If you look at my first posts I had a lot of links and quoted a lot of sources. This makes it difficult for your readers who just don’t have a lot of time. Paradoxically, by writing a little more, you’re having your readers read a lot less.
  8. You need to be confident in yourself that you have something useful to say. But you need to have your own ideas – not just parrot the ideas of others.

How do you decide what to write about?

I don’t decide what to write about as much as it finds me. I know it sounds corny but it’s true. I have a post a few weeks ago about the process I’m using.

I keep a prioritized list of ideas. When I look at the top of that list, I find a few things that are really exciting and fun to write about. I generally say, “Wow, that’s a really fun idea I’ve put on my list.”

How can I do what you do? Whenever I sit down to write something, I find that I want to write a treatise and I never get finished with it.

Going back to my previous post about writing, I’ll pick a topic that seems pretty exciting and try to figure out how I can get it across in the shortest amount possible. That keeps the boring stuff a minimum and lets me get done with pieces faster. Then I only write about things while they are still interesting. That’s what keeps it fun.

Another way to think about this is the Feynman Method of understanding:

  1. Describe the topic on one sheet of paper
  2. Simplify it so that it can be read by a non-specialist reader
  3. Repeat until you have gotten it simple enough

By the way, there’s a pretty cool and short video about Feynman’s view on what it really means to understand something.

Can I get notifications of your latest posts?

Yes you can! Just go to the bottom of the right column (on a desktop) or the bottom of the page (on mobile).

Thanks for your questions!

A Better Way to Write OR Why You Don’t Need to Write About the iPhone 5

There’s an old saying that the best way to learn something is to teach it. That’s certainly true when working with Blake on a school project. Blake is writing a chapter book at school. At most, it’s going to be 20 pages long. In Blake’s mind this is huge. Like infinitely large.

Blake‘s topic is Apple — a topic that he’s passionate about. He wants to write everything in the world about Apple in his up to 20 pages. He wants to explain all the iPhones, iPods, iPads, Macs and everything else that’s ever existed within the Apple oeuvre. I thought it might be more useful to take a historical perspective and highlight the important parts of Apple history. He wanted to stick with his original plan of writing the encyclopedia of Apple.

So I tried to prune some of the low hanging fruit.  “What about the iPhone 5?”

“Of course we have to write about the iPhone 5,” Blake said.

“Why?” I said.

“Because it’s important. That’s where Apple started using Touch ID.”

“No,” I reminded him, “that didn’t happen until the iPhone 5s.”

So we got rid of one Apple product. But the real question here is how to make writing the most productive and fun, While Blake is working on his writing project, I was trying to think about how to optimize my own writing.

I thought about some of the principles we’re using in Agile software development at work and how they could help when writing:

  • Limiting the work in progress  (WIP). It’s much easier to start things than to finish them. I remember someone at Google once told me that “If you have 10 apples, don’t take one bite from each of them.” And it’s the same thing with writing. I only want to have 3 items in progress at any given point. That gives me some flexibility on what to work on but any more than that I start to feel overwhelmed with the work I need to finish.
  • Develop iteratively and refine. Jeff Patton gives a great example of this when thinking about the creation of the Mona Lisa. Da Vinci didn’t sit down and start drawing pieces of the Mona Lisa.
    Tbe Mona Lisa Wasn’t Put Together Piece by Piece…

    …It Was Refined in an Iterative Fashion
  • He drew the basics. Then he drew the outline. Then he made refinements.
  • Do the most important thing first. In order to develop iteratively, I need to prioritize. By prioritizing the work, it breaks things up into manageable chunks. I’ve also done the biggest things first so I can stop much earlier and still have something that holds together. Then I can edit and refine only the parts I really want to. 
  • Time Box. I give myself a certain amount of time upfront to finish something. If I say I’m going to finish this piece in 2 hours it really helps me prioritize and make sure I’m focused.
  • Split up the planning and the doing. Most people don’t like planning so they mix up their planning and their actual writing. It’s much easier to split up the work into multiple bite-sized chunks. This relieves a lot of the cognitive stress and makes the writing more fun.

Here are the steps I use to implement these principles:

  1. Topics. This is really just the very high level of topics that I want to write about. I keep a list in Evernote. It’s good to try to keep this list prioritized because the items on the top become the most exciting ones that I want to tackle. Possibly I might put in a very high-level outline at this point.
  2. Story Bits. This is when I start to flesh out the idea. This can be done on index cards, post it’s, or just a piece of paper. My favorite way of brainstorming is Mind Mapping. There’s a great book that taught me how.
  3. Organizing. Then it’s time to create a broad outline. Some good ways of building the outline are user story mapping and the pyramid principle (summary here). These days when I’m writing a blog post I just write out my the paragraph order and my topic sentences.
  4. Write. Once I’ve done he organizing, the writing is fairly easy. It’s just fleshing out the idea. Each paragraph really should only be one idea and I’ve already written that idea down in the last step.
  5. Refinement. This is where I go in and make sure that spelling is correct and that everything makes sense. This is best to do once I’ve had some time to rest and take a look at it. There’s normally some silly mistakes but in general I’m happily surprised with what I wrote.

By following these steps I’ve been able to write a lot more and have a lot more fun doing it. Give it a try!