I’ve been thinking a lot about writing lately. I’ve read some advice that various writers, in particular Neil Gaiman, give to aspiring writers. As I thought about it I came to some realizations.
First, writing is difficult. If it were easy, everyone would do it. The difficult part is thinking. Everyone has random thoughts. They are interesting to them but not necessarily to anyone else. The trick is to think about things that other people find interesting.
Many writers advise to write about things that you feel passionate about. It seems that this is the best way to write things that interest other people.
Another common piece of advice is to write a lot. And then write some more. This is very good advice. The only way that you learn to do something is to practice doing it.
One thing that I read recently surprised me. The author said that he doesn’t recommend that his students “write what they know”. He goes on to explain that when they try to follow that advice novice writers tend to report their experiences as they happened instead of exploring the infinite possibilities of what might have been. A work of fiction is an exploration of an imaginary place inhabited by imaginary characters, not a recapitulation of reality.
So much for capturing some of the advise about writing that I have collected and thought about recently. It only took me three days to wrap this post up.
Dave Winer wrote a piece about a lesson that he learned from listening to his users. In it, he talked about how he saw his product, Fargo as an outliner and Mathew Ingram wrote an article calling it a blogging tool.
I think what we have here is a case of two different concepts of blogging. I think that blogging is more about the content than the medium. A blogger could write a blog with a text editor in raw html and post it to his site using ftp.
A different concept of blogging is that it is anything that is published in a blogging framework like WordPress or Blogger.com. I have seen more than a few WordPress sites that were anything but a blog. It turns out that the templating facilities of blog publishing tools make building a more conventional site easier too.
An outliner is not synonymous with a blogging tool. It is like a word processor. It can be used for a lot of things. The fact that it can be hooked up to a blogging API is incidental to it’s primary identity as an idea processor. As Dave points out in the “What is Fargo?” Document section What outliners are used for, it can be used for:
- 1. Notetaking.
- 2. Organizing projects.
- 3. Course outlines.
- 4. Bulleted lists.
- 5. Narrating your work.
- 6. Thinking.
- 7. Presentations.
- 8. Brainstorming.
- 9. Writing.
- 10. Design.
- 11. Programming.
- 12. Specifications.
I think that what often happens is that someone sees that Dave has come out with a product, associates Dave with blogging, and naturally assumes that the intent of the product is as a blogging tool. I think it is fair to say that is one of the uses of Fargo, just not the only one.
I must acknowledge that Dave learned one important thing from Mathew. You’ve got to listen to your users. They are the ultimate authorities on what your product is good for. We have heard a lot of interesting ideas that people are using Fargo for in the Fargo Community Forum.
I suspect he already knew it, as he has been advocating for users for the entire time I have been reading his blog — some fifteen or twenty years now.
We anthropomorphize our pets a lot but I’ve got to say that they have taken on a lot of our human characteristics by hanging out with us. I’m not saying that they haven’t retained their underlying animal nature. A dog is going to roll in stuff that smells bad. A cat is going to pounce on little scurrying things. But when my dog hears me talk about cooking steak and gets excited there is true understanding, not conditioned response. She may not be as good at abstract reasoning as I am but she has got common sense.
On the other side of that coin, there are things that we humans do that are outside of rational thought. We try to tell ourselves that we intend to do them but the entire field of stage illusion is based on the fact that our attention is very easy to misdirect. It is not something that we consciously control. It is part of our fundamental mental make up.
I think our domestic animals are capable of genuine affection for us. I sometimes wonder if there isn’t a kind of Stockholm effect going on but I have long since dismissed that notion. While intelligent and affectionate our furry friends are also naive. They are unaware of dangers, especially in our urban world. That’s why we have to take the responsibility to protect them. Although sometimes, they in turn protect us.
That’s all I can manage tonight. I’m making a list of ideas for posts. I’d love to hear from anyone that is reading this blog. If you have any ideas drop me a line at gmail. My account is jkelliemiller.
I haven’t kept my commitment to post to Occasional Comment every day. It is difficult to work all day, do any errands that need doing, come home, eat dinner and relax for a few minutes, exercise, and post a blog post every day. I am not making excuses though, just listing some of the challenges that I haven’t managed to conquer yet.
I’m not giving up though. I will find time to blog more regularly. Determination and stubbornness are qualities that will insure my success. It’s not enough to post just to be posting. Posts should be worth reading. My blog should eventually reflect my personality.
Another obstacle to writing every day is the pressure of finding an interesting topic. A way to overcome that pressure is to create a list of potential topics to draw from. My experience with this approach has shown that if you have such a list, the pressure to come up with a topic is alleviated and you often think of topics that aren’t even on the list.
Thinking is hard, especially when you don’t have a purpose in mind. You can’t think about generalities. At some level you have to ground the abstractions that you are thinking about in concrete realities. Before you can come up with profound abstractions, you first have to examine several specific examples that you extract the generalities from. Then, you need to test the validity of your abstraction by finding or creating another example or examples that adheres to the same pattern.
When I sit down to write a blog post, I have an idea of the type of piece that I want to write. I’ve written several examples that I am pleased with. I have written a number of posts that I am less pleased with. The larger the population of blog posts that I write, the better the chance that I can figure out what makes a good blog post and so, my writing will get better, at least from the point of view of my personal taste in blog posts.
This is a motivating factor for me to write more blog posts. I am attempting to write a blog post a day. What are my criteria for good blog posts? I don’t know exactly and I’m sure the criteria will be refined by experience.
One prime criteria is cohesion. A blog post should be about one topic, not just a hodge podge of thoughts that run through my head. I write 750 words every morning as part of an exercise inspired by Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. Such free form writing is great for an exercise but doesn’t produce my idea of a good blog post.
Another important criteria is engagement. If you don’t capture and hold the interest of an audience, you’re not blogging, you’re pontificating. I have a long way to go to meet this criteria.
I will occasionally revisit my criteria for a good blog in these pages. I hope to understand better what constitutes a good blog and improve this blog through that understanding.
I’ve done a bunch of maintenance on my system and my social software profile today. I also encountered the data loss issue that has been reported on the Fargo mailing list. Dave recommends reading the tips in the Fargo documentation. I will do that when I get a chance.
Update: I didn’t lose any data. I think it is just taking a long time to sync with Dropbox sometimes.
I discovered a library for serving backend data called deployd. I may use it to serve up my link database. It looks a lot lighter weight than MySql. I like the way that it helps you manage your application. I’m going to have to explore it in depth.
I also looked into Jekyll. It’s a blogging framework. I am happy with WordPress for the moment but I am still going to investigate Jekyll. It may be useful for other projects.
All in all, it wasn’t a very exciting Saturday. I am looking forward to the episode of Doctor Who that Neil Gaiman wrote. It premiers tonight on BBC America.
I wrote a blog post last summer about discovering a process for writing that worked for me. It was lengthy and a little bit rambling but the essence of it is reproduced here.
- “I think I have discovered an artistic process that works for me. I sketch my writing with an outliner. Then, I sit down and write what I’ve sketched. The amount of effort that I put into the sketch depends on the size of the work that I am sketching. At some point though, you’ve got to quit sketching and just do it.”
Fargo changes the game. Instead of writing from the outline, I expand the outline until it becomes the piece. This is a much more transparent way to proceed from ideas to end product. In fact, I can’t imagine writing any other way now.
Like Fargo itself, the new process is simpler and more effective. The self similarity is in itself pleasing to me. I think I’ll stop now while this post is still simple and to the point.
I tried to use Fargo on my first generation iPad today. I had mixed success. There were some extenuating circumstances but I intend to try again using my wife’s third generation iPad.
The first thing I noticed was that I could read existing outlines fairly easily. The iPad was a little bit finicky recognizing double taps to open a node but other than that, I have no complaints.
When I tried to write something was when I had some problems. There is no tab key on the on screen keyboard. I finally figured out that I could edit the depth of a node by dragging it but as I mentioned before, the iPad was not recognizing the taps and the drags as well as I’d like. I also remembered the Outliner menu and had some luck getting the desired effect using those commands.
I tried to use my Bluetooth keyboard but that wasn’t pairing with my iPad so that didn’t work out. That’s either a problem with the keyboard or perhaps Apple silently “upgraded” my Bluetooth driver so that it no longer pairs with my keyboard.
I love Fargo on my Mac but either I need to upgrade to a new iPad and/or buy a new Bluetooth keyboard to use with it or just use the iPad to read outlines instead of creating them. That last option would make me very sad.
I need to start an outline of ideas to blog about. Then I won’t be stuck trying to think of an appropriate topic when I sit down to blog. My experience has been, that when I have such a list of topics, I often don’t have to refer to it to find something to blog about. It must be the pressure of trying to come up with a topic that causes me to draw a blank.
Fargo has a new feature. It is call Community Feed and is the latest iteration of Dave’s Instant Outliner concept. I’m looking forward to participating in it. I had wondered if the lightning icon indicated any change to the outline or just your changes to the outline. It just came up without my posting anything so I suspect it indicates any new post.
I love this tool (Fargo). I wish I could use it more. I will certainly use it a lot at home. I may write some more later but I have other things that must be done right now.
I survived. I got quite a bit accomplished. I also found a bunch of times that I wanted to jot something down and I had to use some other tool besides Fargo. I guess that’s when you realize that you really have embraced a tool, when you miss it when you don’t have access to it.
I came home for lunch but I didn’t have time to do anything more than eat and visit with Pam for a minute before it was time to go back to work. I wanted to keep up my pattern of blogging every day. I am approaching this blog post the way that I approach writing my morning words. That is, I start writing about the first thing on my mind and I keep writing until some arbitrary criteria has been met. For my morning words, it is having written 750 words. For a blog post I don’t know yet.
I need to start thinking about things to blog about and spend some time organizing my thoughts on a given topic before I just dive in and start writing. At least that’s how I think it ought to be done. I seem to be doing fairly well writing a draft this way. Maybe I’m demanding too much of myself. Maybe I just need to write and see what happens. I’m not saying I shouldn’t revise what I’ve written and make sure that it is what I intended to say, just that there is nothing wrong with the way I’ve been doing things.