Writing fast and slow

writing

I love writing and yoga, but for many years I just couldn’t seem to get it together to establish a daily practice for either, until I discovered yin yoga. Overnight, my yoga practice was transformed. Later, I watched long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad on Ted talk about achieving her lifetime goal aged 64 years, after she adopted her mantra: Find a way. It was then that I decided that I could find a way to a daily writing practice too.

Following the advice of Rachel Aaron’s 2K to 10K a day and Monica Loelle’s Write Better, Faster, I set up a spreadsheet and then, for six weeks, I tracked everything I wrote whilst noting down my location, my mood, what I was writing, how I was writing, and this is what I found worked for me:

Have an audience

The minute I started the spreadsheet, I had begun to watch myself, so I had created an audience. And with that came the need to add numbers to my spreadsheet. It was the same when I experimented with going to the library or a coffee shop. I had made such an effort to get my things together, get there, and then set it up, that I was that person working. Even if where I was got really loud and I was distracted, I would force myself to finish what I had set out to do.

Some writers on Twitter use the hashtag #amwriting. I haven’t tried it yet but it is quite nice to say out loud: I am writing, I want to finish this. NaNoWriMo, every November, encourages Twitter writing sprints, which can be both motivational and provide writing company, to encourage everyone to finish their 50,000 words.

Have a plan

If I was to keep another spreadsheet I would not allow myself to count the words I put in my journal. This is because I found that I would write away merrily, first thing on a morning, coffee to hand, and could rattle off 3k in under an hour, which was amazing, but then I would down tools once it had gone in the spreadsheet, as it felt like I had done my work for the day. I was producing words, but not finished writing.

When I kept a blog about my daughter being born with kidney failure, we had a lot to do each day with all the medical stuff. Often, people would ask me how I managed to be so prolific, but I found that writing it all down at the end of each day, didn’t take too long. It was cathartic and easy to do because I lived it and knew exactly what I was going to write. And, rather like the blogging I do now, it helped me make sense of things. That blog also had a specific audience of people who were expecting a new post, so that helped me get on, focus, and finish.

Knowing what to write when starting something new is a great way to avoid the blank page. Now, before I begin anything, especially a blog, I plan it out for at least 20 minutes. I then have something to type in and a structure to follow, and so I don’t waste time wondering where to start.

The other thing that helps me is having an external deadline. This ensures I have planned what I am going to say, how long I need to say it, and when I have to say it by.

Have a timer

I installed a timer on the bottom of my screen and set it to 20 minutes. This stopped a lot of the daydreaming and also ensured I was motivated to get writing as I had a break to look forward to at the end of each session. This approach gives me lots of words at the end of a day of sessions. A 20 minutes stint gives me around 1,000 words, which all make more sense than I thought possible and helps me get down a first blog draft quickly.

I can’t yet fit editing into the 20 minute-sprints. I have tried longer sessions but ended up noodling about. Editing and writing are very different skills. Perhaps, next time I will do an editing spreadsheet, as each time I edited work to make it better, I would fret about the lack of words in the spreadsheet, which is interesting, as I had nothing to proof to anyone except myself, but then taming your inner lizard is a life’s work.

Have a break

Writing this blog today has been very quick but that is because I have followed the three Haves above. I have had:

  1. An audience: Mainly myself because I found it fascinating to track myself and my inner lizard can take note and criticise me later with this new found knowledge.
  2. A plan: Partly because I took notes when I was tracking and journalled about it, so I didn’t need to research or think about it.
  3. A timer: I put the timer on because I wanted to make sure I finished this today. Sometimes, if I have been thinking about something for too long I have to fight the urge to feel that because I know what I think about it, I don’t need to write it up.

There have been days, however, even with the above three things, I have been unable to finish a blog or another piece of writing in the time I have set. And now thanks to the spreadsheet, I can see where I have banged my head against a piece of work to get it finished when I would have been better off just leaving it and giving myself a holiday, even a busman’s holiday, and writing something else.

Taking time to reflect on what I want to say seems to be part of my process, especially when writing a blog. My blogs on Sherry Turkle’s theory that social media is changing us and Maslow’s hierarchy of social media took a couple of weeks of thought. No timers, deadlines, or audiences could have changed that. First of all because I had a different opinion from anything else I had read anywhere else on these topics. And secondly, I didn’t even know what my opinion was until I gave myself permission to ruminate. So, I spent some time drinking coffee whilst thinking about these topics and reading around, and taking notes, before I was able to plan them out. And even then they didn’t go the way I had planned, because for me, writing is the surest way of getting clear about what I think.

Have a good time

Sometimes when I have spent a couple of weeks wondering what I am trying say, followed by saying it. I post it online and wonder why I put so much effort in. I blog because I like to and that is enough.

Today, I installed the Organize Series plugin for WordPress**. I have found that, once I begin a blog and post it, later I go back and want to add more, and so a series is quite a nice thing to do. Next on my list – after another blog on embodiment – are my old HCI lectures, which are a less old and more relevant today than I believed. Aside from what I believe though, they will be fun to write up.

And this is the most important rule I am now living by when writing fast and slow: Have a good time whether you are getting results or not, because having fun is what it is all about.

** I had to disactivate this plugin as it ate all my resources and gave me a 508 error! More investigation needed as having links to my series was very nice.

Ambivalent web design

websketch

Lately, it seems that I have come full-circle and am designing websites for small organisations which is, in part, how I began thinking about HCI, nearly 20 years ago. So, with all that experience, I am astonished to find that I have been making the same mistakes I used to make way back when. This leads to what I call ambivalent web design.

Ambivalent web design is when you are excited about creating a cool website to showcase your clients’ products and services as well as your skills as a designer. However, because you are unfocused, you keep changing your mind and then because it’s not looking as good as it could, you promise to deliver more to get it up to resemble the beautiful thing you now have in your mind. This can lead to you feeling annoyed at yourself and then resentful because the whole project is taking longer than it should for less money than the effort you are putting in.

In order to avoid ambivalent web design it is important to remember the following:

Don’t let casual interactions influence your work

You may have picked up the contract incidentally. Perhaps, it began with a conversation on the school playground, or you got a vague email from someone, but that doesn’t mean that you should behave in a casual, vague manner. Be professional. Organise yourself a plan of action and set clear milestones.

If you are not ready, say so. Explain to your potential client that right now is not a good time, and begin at a later date. Give the client a list of everything you might need, and get them to pick out sites they like so that you both have a clear idea of what you are aiming for during the design process.

Be realistic about your clients’ input

In general, clients who want you to design a website are not interested in website design. They don’t care about WordPress, nor have they desire to tinker with colour schemes, graphics, html and css. That is your job. If they wanted to spend time tinkering then they would go to WordPress.org download the software and do it themselves.

Consequently, it is important to be realistic about what they will do to maintain the solution that you give them, once you have been through the design process together.
Some questions that you need to discuss with the client:

  • Who will maintain the site?
  • Will they be able to do the necessary updates?
  • Will they be able to add to the website?

Alternatively,

  • Will the website be static until the next time it gets an overhaul?

Know your limits

With a content management system or blogging tool, such as WordPress, all things are possible. And that is great. However, things take time, especially if you need to go away and learn new stuff in order to fulfill your clients’ desires.

It is ok to say that you don’t know how to do something, and that it will just take more time and money to find the right solution. Bear in mind though, this is a tricky route, and potentially one way to resentment and ambivalence. So, you have a choice:

      Don’t attempt to do the extras.

Or

      Deliver a first solution (Stage One). Do some research and then calculate how much time and money it will take to do the extras. Then go ahead (Stage Two).

Have a price structure

You may have promised mates-rates, but you still need to calculate exactly how long it will take you to deliver what you have promised. One way of doing this is to have a price/time structure which you can show to clients so that together you have a focused way of discussing the work to be done.

You can structure your pricing according to time e.g, £X per day, or by output, e.g., six pages= 6 x £Z. And so on: personalised graphics will be £X, and some stock photos discounted down to £Y. A bit of social media will cost this, a little seo will cost that. In this way, the client can see exactly what they are spending their money on.

Have fun

Creating websites is a great way to spend your days, but, if you find yourself gritting your teeth during every project and feeling ambivalent, then perhaps it’s time to dust off your guitar and get back to busking.

Running two versions of wordpress

wordpress logoI set up a second wordpress installation in a directory named /jasmine so that Neil and I could blog about our daughter Jasmine who has chronic renal failure. However, because I fiddled with the .htaccess this technical blog kept serving up Error 404 pages instead of the blogs I have written.

There are ways of running two wordpress blogs with one installation, but if you decide to run two completely separate installations of wordpress like I have then you will need to make sure you have two .htaccess files. One in each directory. So, in the home directory my .htaccess (or the relevant lines) looks like this:

RewriteEngine On
RewriteBase /
RewriteCond %{REQUEST_FILENAME} !-f
RewriteCond %{REQUEST_FILENAME} !-d
RewriteRule . /index.php [L]

And, in the /jasmine directory the .htaccess file looks like this:

RewriteEngine On
RewriteBase /jasmine/
RewriteCond %{REQUEST_FILENAME} !-f
RewriteCond %{REQUEST_FILENAME} !-d
RewriteRule . /jasmine/index.php [L]

WordPress groupie: blogging, fiddling, loving it

My mate Wayne is the kind of programmer who loves to program. I am not. I think of programming as a means to an end. Something I have to do if I can’t find what I need – which, thanks to the old internet, is rare these days. Wayne writes his own version because he can, because – like Everest – the challenge is there.

I am convinced that the day he takes up blogging he will, of course, write his own blogging software before sharing his thoughts with the world. I am very excited by this prospect and will be on standby to dish out usability advice. Until this fateful day (and probably even after), I will be sticking with WordPress. I am a WordPress groupie.

Continue reading “WordPress groupie: blogging, fiddling, loving it”

WordPress

wordpress logo

I have kept an electronic diary for three years now. I upgraded my handwritten diary back in 2003 and have never missed pen on paper. Yes, searching your own diary is geeky but I like it. It is something I do much more often than I thought I would. It is much quicker to have a search engine go through your words rather than flicking through pages of handwritten stuff.

I was using the free to-download-and-try version of the Zoom search engine (http://www.wrensoft.com/zoom/) on basic xhtml/css pages with ssi and I was very happy with it. Zoom is easy to install and use. It lets you search up to 50 pages free before you need to upgrade (pay some cash to get more functionality). The only problem was that it wasn’t designed specifically with the blogging style approach I wanted where the search list of pages would be updated automatically. I needed something more cohesive so after looking at various blogging and CMS alternatives I swapped over to WordPress and then having got so excited about it for my own diary I used it to set up this technology blog too.

WordPress is a stylish piece of blogging software for people who want to produce nice web pages either for themselves – like me and my ‘dear diary’ just on my computer – or to publish online, but don’t want to have to learn too many technical details. It is an example of good open source software – free to download and simple to install – if your server is set up with everything WordPress needs to run.

There is a large community of programmers beavering away. If you do get stuck you can join in one of the news groups and get the answer to your problem. If you get really confident it is easy to put a new look on your website online or offline with templates you can download.

To do anything more sophisticated there is a bit of a learning curve, but it may be worth it if you want to host podcasts or to produce feeds to other sites. There is lots of documentation on the site and the WordPress book only costs a tenner which is cheaper than a new nice diary for penning your thoughts in.