On writing systems

My previous post touched upon how systematizing the process of writing enabled more consistent blogging. In this post, I’d like to expand on this topic.

I didn’t have a writing problem. I had a habit problem.

It was an article on Riskology about the system of writing that provided a breakthrough, and the right vocabulary to understand the problem. I realized that I had a hard time getting into the groove of writing because I was writing, editing, uploading photos, and tweaking HTML at the same time. In actuality, publishing a post has several distinct steps, and doing them one by one streamlines the whole process. Most importantly, it distributes creative energy to where it’s most needed.

My process is a simplified version of what Riskology proposes but there are still three steps: 1. Plan 2. Draft and 3. Publish. The tip is that each should be done on a different day.

So on the days that I’ve made time to blog, I will work on two posts – one that’s in a Planning phase and another that can be Drafted or Published.

Plan
Planning is the burst of inspiration, and takes the shortest amount of time. I’ll map out the post and do some Googling so that the research is more or less done.

I keep a list of ideas and assign one day in which I’ll do the planning for the next post:

  • what is the topic?
  • why do i want to write it?
  • what is the outline?
  • research
  • links

For example, here’s the Plan for this post:

It helps to keep the planning out of the actual CMS. I’ve been using GatherContent, which I’ve hacked to use as a workflow tool.”.
Draft

Drafting is the actual act of writing. Because there’s already an outline, it’s really easy to start putting down words. And there’s no pressure to finish it – I just want to get to the end of the post.

This step takes the most time and involves the following:

  • create the page in WordPress
  • upload photos
  • upload cover image
  • write the first draft – get to the end!

The first draft happens in WordPress because I like stylin the body as it expands. In the future, I hope to graduate to a markdown editor so that I decrease the amount of time spent checking the preview.

Publish

Publishing includes making the final draft with a fresh pair of eyes, and hitting Publish. Initially I had four steps, but three days are long enough to spend on an article… better to just get it out.

  • finalize the draft in WordPress
  • publish it
  • schedule a tweet

So that’s what I’ve been experimenting with in the past few weeks. There will be refinements for sure but it’s a good enough foundation! 

​Reflecting on the 30 day blogging challenge

Bottom line: the beauty of getting through the challenge is that the “I don’t know what to write” problem disappears, along with the “I don’t know where to start” problem. Boom!

A few thoughts on some of the accomplishments:

Actually wrote and published 30 posts 

Okay, duh. It’s the premise of the challenge but it’s such a big, personal accomplishment. Learning how to write better posts, how to promote them etc. can come later – learning to just sit down and write is the very first step.

Made me want to write more 

The desire to be more intentional about capturing what’s going on was what motivated me to start the challenge in the first place. In a way, that this desire has intensified is to be expected and it’s lovely to be committed and excited,  thirty posts later.

Organized my blog platform 

A few days into the challenge, I sunk a few lonely, long nights and weekends into moving from Squarespace and Tumblr to WordPress. It had to be done – gotta have the right tools for the right job – and I did it very begrudgingly. The upside was realizing the benefits of working on the publishing platform. And since I’m a system tinkerer by nature, it wasn’t long before I began adding new types of posts, one of which has become one of my favorite sections of the site.

Systematized the process of writing 

Related to the above, and it may be the biggest meta-discovery about the challenge. If I do something thirty times… well, I’m going to experiment with dozens of tools, I’m going to research how other people do it, I’m going to build a workflow, and I’m going to kaizen the shit out of the system.

In closing – 

I’ll certainly celebrate the milestone but the truth is that I stopped counting around the halfway mark. The number just didn’t matter anymore and that detachment allowed me to be okay with changing the parameters from “30 days” to “30 posts”. In calendar time, the challenge took about two months. I don’t think it detracted from the value of going through the challenge. Leniency, if it contributes to the goal, can be a good thing. Let’s not lose sight of the big picture 😉

Benefits of capturing “what I’m working on this month”

I’ve archived the September page for “What I’m working on this month” and started the October edition. Now that there’s more than one, we can officially call it a series 🙂

It’s been more fun than expected to edit this page throughout the month. What started as a low-hanging fruit to update this site has brought other benefits, and I’ll capture some of those today:

More satisfaction 

Each day brings its own challenges but that tends to bleed together when we don’t take time to reflect. If it’s not one thing, it’s another and before you know it, it’s been another year…. Seeing everything laid out is satisfying in a way that brings a sense of calm. Maybe it’s the simple format? Lists have the magical power of making you feel on top of things.

Start thinking about how to talk about these activities 

Capturing a few sentences about the what and why of each project, especially in relation to my own role, helps put it in context of all of the individual and organizational activities. Related to the above.

Balancing time and energy spent on internal management activities vs client projects vs research

At a client services company, resource priority and recognition goes to the client projects. Everything else can feel under-valued, which can be hugely discouraging, and that’s just plain dangerous to the long-term success and happiness of the team.

The unbalance also tends to be my #1 source of work stress, which is a relatively recent revelation. It’s even more recent that I realized that I can and should be the one controlling the ratio. Well, now that the problem is clear, there can be a solution.

Communicating with other collaborators about the “other stuff” 

I’m fortunate to work with a loose network of a few dozen amazing people, and I’m always intensely curious about what they’re doing when we’re not working together…! Perhaps some of them reciprocate that curiosity. At the moment, I’m focused on quietly plugging away at the act of writing but look forward to sharing more openly soon.

A brief blogging pause for Iceland

This may be the most foreign place I’ve ever visited – if one could measure foreign-ness. This week, I’m in Iceland for the Enterprise Design Retreat, exchanging ideas with enterprise architects and designers to explore the field of enterprise design.

The past few weeks have been absolutely jam-packed. I’ve prioritized catching just enough z’s over blogging but will come back to my Blogging Challenge next week!

Tending my garden of live pages

Continuing yesterday’s topic about tinkering with publishing platforms, I want to dig a deeper into one of those experiments, which I’m calling Live Pages.

This blog has three Pages that don’t fit the content type of either a post or a page, in WordPress terms. These are the What I’m working on this month page and Upcoming travel page that I added to the sidebar/menu in addition to the Reading List.

Traditionally, a Page has static content. “About” content would go on a Page, whereas a project update would be a dated Post. This is pretty clear cut in the world of WordPress and hasn’t changed for years.

This month will be maintained throughout the month and archived at the end. It’s a semi real-time status report that gets overwritten until it’s archived, at which point, everything should be in the past tense1.

Upcoming travel will be updated in the same way as the Reading List. After a trip has passed, that section will be deleted.

They all actually started as posts (or drafts of posts) but I found it boring to write roundups or announcements that would go stale very quickly or already be old by the time it’s published.

These Live Pages morph throughout their lifetime and there are timestamps to indicate when there’s been an update. So far, I really like this feeling of tending to these pages. It gives perspective on how I spend my time, without the pressure of saying something clever after the fact & when I’ve already mentally moved on.

I suppose that it’s also a type of risk hedge for when the frequency of my blogging slows down. These pages are very low-barrier to update, and updating even a little something gets the creative juices flowing. No staring at blank slates.

  1. I’ll create a new page at the beginning of the month and swap the sidebar link. All of this may or may not be too much work. For the time being, it’s fun to lay everything out on one page. It would be great to have these pages for reflection so I’m quite hopeful…!

Tinker with your publishing platform

The first rule of content management systems is that you’re using the wrong one.

This line from a recent ALA article cracked me up since I’d taken on yet another CMS change as part of reviving my blog.

In the past few weeks, I’ve made tweaks to the WordPress theme and played with plugins as I worked out what my posts should look like and how I wanted to publish them1.

It’s like tinkering with a vintage car in the garage, one that you take for a ride once in a while. I’ve come to accept that it’s a really valuable activity for a UX designer. 

Let me explain.

When I first created my personal website about a decade ago (eek!), I spent a lot of time fiddling with WordPress themes and plugins. On one hand, it was gleeful to spend weekends knee deep in PHP files and support forums. On the other hand, publishing was sporadic, and a sense of disappointment accompanied any thoughts of my site.

In hindsight, these were valuable, self-taught lessons in information architecture, content governance, publication workflows, community support, product feature priority etc. Topics which I wouldn’t be able to name for years.

Future projects with Drupal, Squarespace, Tumblr, XOOPS, Expression Engine and even a full scratch CMS system would bring opportunities to build different perspectives. And now, many of the services we design for center around the interaction of the user capturing something and expressing that via media, which then gets presented for someone else to interact with.

It’s only now, while tinkering with WordPress again like in the good old days, that I can see how formative it was to sweet talk and strong arm a CMS to work with your own content. And I feel thankful for those weekends… even if I didn’t become a star blogger! 

  1.  For example, the Twenty Fifteen theme has a great cover photo layout but I never have a relevant, good-looking image. On a whim, I scooped up an old favorite from my Flickr account and added a footnote at the end of the post. After repeating this pattern for a dozen posts, I decided it’s one worth keeping, and set up a Custom Field plugin and a child theme to accomplish two things: break out the footnote in the Edit page as its own field to create a separation from the Body (screenshot), and to centralize the styling

Halfway through the 30 day blogging challenge

For the first time ever, this blog has seen a dutiful rhythm of more-or-less daily posts, thanks to the 30 day blogging challenge.

I’m quite satisfied with that, and equally so with the improvements to the blog itself, in terms of how it looks and what the publishing process is like. It’s a lot of increased hours in front of the computer but sustainability is a topic to be chewed on after the time-boxed challenge.

For now, I’m just enjoying the ritual of sitting down and posting something on a platform that’s mine.