Category Archives: Writing

You should write more

This is an advocacy piece. I would like you to write more because I would selfishly like to read what you have to say – if you don’t have a blog, create one. If you do, update it more often.

Based on conversations with friends I’ve had, I know there are a lot of people with really interesting opinions and viewpoints who never flesh them out into the great long form piece that I know is  in there. I would like them to flesh them out because I want more interesting essays to read.

So, yeah, that’s my purely selfish motivation for writing this piece, but everything I’m saying in it is something I 100% believe, so please ignore my ulterior motives and instead listen to what I have to say: I think you should write more.

Why?

I firmly believe that this blog is the best thing I do.

In two senses really: Firstly, it arguably has the most positive impact on the world of anything I do, but also it’s the most self-improving thing I do.

The first one is debatable and hard to measure. There are a few charities I give money to (not enough. Fixing that is on my should-do-but-probably-won’t list, and will probably remain there until I get my act together) that could arguably count. Work sometimes counts, but it tends to be either a large chunk of a company that isn’t making a major positive difference (or possibly is but in a niche I don’t care that much about) or a tiny fraction of something making a modest positive difference. I’ve written a bit in the past about the positive impact I try to have with this blog, but honestly if this blog disappeared from the earth a few people would be sad but I doubt the world would become a drastically worse place.

But the second one? Hands down. Reading a lot probably comes second, but it’s not a close second (I think writing a lot would not be nearly so useful if I didn’t also read a lot, but I still think that if I had to choose between doing only one of writing and reading, writing is the more beneficial one).

It feels like I’ve got this magic make everything better tool which no one else has cottoned on to, and that’s a shame. So that’s the main reason you should write more: Not so that I (or anyone else) can hear what you have to say, but because it will make your life better.

Why will writing make your life better?

There are a lot of reasons, but here are what I think are the big ones (in order of least to most important):

Writing makes you better at writing

This is obvious, right? You practice something and you get better at it.

But why should you care? Getting better at writing is only important if you actually care about writing.

It’s because writing is not just something you do for yourself: It’s an incredibly valuable professional skill.

People make a big deal these days about how computer skills are important for every job, but it seems much less commonly observed that writing skills are important for every job. An extremely large proportion of business communication is written: Think how much time you spend in email.

Wouldn’t it be nice to be better at that?

And it’s not just nice: it’s super useful. Consider how many unclear or incoherent emails you’ve been on the receiving end of. Wouldn’t you like it if those were clearer, better thought out and generally held to a higher quality of writing. I don’t mean spelling and grammar here. I’m talking about conveying the point in a way that is easy to understand.

Your coworkers would like that too. By raising the quality of your writing you will make their lives better, and if making their lives better isn’t enough motivation for you, note that by making their lives better you are making them more likely to respond usefully to the email you’ve sent them (and making them like you more so more likely to respond usefully to you in general).

You can and probably do get better at writing email just by writing email, but anecdotally at least this seems not to happen all that much. I think it’s a mix of people not thinking of email in those terms and not getting the right feedback from it. Fortunately, by learning to write in other contexts you can just transplant those skills wholesale to when you’re writing email.

It’s also useful for the rare occasions where you need to really craft that perfect email. I’ve sent a couple work emails in my life where people who have read them have basically gone “This is an amazing piece. Can I forward this to several people I know who should read it?”. This is a good reaction to have (though I must admit these emails haven’t been super-effective, but that’s mostly because they’ve been “Here are these structural problems with the company” and the structural problems with the company have prevented the email from being acted upon. Writing is useful but not always enough).

So,  yeah. By writing more you will make your work life better.

Writing helps you learn things

One of the single best ways to learn something is to explain it to other people. Writing gives you an opportunity to do that: By writing about something you are forced to think of it in a way that you can explain to other people, which forces you to structure it in a way that you can understand.

I saw a great dialogue on twittter recently (I forget who between I’m afraid) which went something to the tune of “I don’t understand half the thing she writes about” to which the author in question responded “Confession: I don’t understand half the things I write about until I’ve written about them”. This also corresponds to my experience: Quite a lot of my blog posts are me writing about things so that I can understand them.

There is in fact an entire book on this subject (“Writing to Learn” by William Zinsser) which is still on my to read pile, so I won’t say too much more about this for now.

Writing teaches you to think

A piece of feedback I often get from people is that I think things through pretty thoroughly.

This is not a natural trait for me.

Oh, I naturally think about things a lot, but my native thought process is “Here’s a thing and here’s a thing and oh have you thought about that other thing and hey kittens are cute oh god why are things so terrible what were we thinking about again oh yeah stuff which is related to this other stuff is…” etc you get the idea. It’s not exactly thorough so much as scattershot.

The mechanism by which I turn this chaos into thinking things through thoroughly is that I write blog posts about it.

I don’t necessarily publish blog posts about it, but a lot of my blogging happens inside my head – I draft posts by teasing out a chain of thought and forcing structure onto it until something that starts to resemble a blog post emerges which I then later turn into a post. You can do this and then not actually sit down and write the blog post, and it’s still just as useful for structuring your thoughts, butit’s very hard to learn to do this without occasionally actually sitting down and writing the blog post.

This discipline of learning to structure my thoughts has been amazingly helpful. If this is something you have difficulty with or would like to improve, you should write more because it will literally make you better at thinking.

But I can’t write more because…

So that’s a bit about why to write more. But you can’t, because reasons. I think most of those reasons are excuses, and where they’re not excuses they are surmountable. Here are some common ones.

I don’t have the time

You probably do. I mean, some people genuinely don’t have the time, but for the most part people don’t find time they make time and “I don’t have the time” means “I’m not making this a priority”. Somehow every november hundreds of thousands of people find the time to write 50,000 words (note: I blog a lot and 50,000 words is more than my annual output).

Try setting aside a half hour block a week to write. See how it goes. You won’t write a lot in that time, but it’s a good point to start from. If it turns out to be easy to find that time, see if you can find some more time.

I think it’s also worth noting that you don’t actually have to be fully awake to write. Think about the thing you want to write over the course of your day, then either when you get home and want to veg out or in the morning before work or whenever you can just splurge out some words. A bunch of my blog posts are written in this state and so far no-one has called me on the difference (this may not reflect well on the rest of my blogging).

I don’t have anywhere to write

There are lots of free blogging platforms. Try tumblr, or medium, or wordpress.com.

If you really don’t want to write in public, fire up a text editor or MS word and write in there. Or fire up your email client and send yourself an email.

If you want to write with an audience but not in public, maybe try Facebook and see if it annoys your friends too much. Or I hear livejournal is still a thing, and it has good privacy controls for this.

No one would want to read what I write

I think you’re probably wrong, and what you have to say is likely to be more interesting than you think it is. I’ve found I’m a terrible judge of which of my posts people will actually interest people.

But if you’re not wrong, that’s OK. Almost none of the above relies on anyone reading it. The process of external feedback is helpful, but it’s in no way essential. You should start with the principle that you’re writing for yourself and other people are welcome to come along for the ride if they feel like it.

I’m terrible at writing

If only there were some sort of way to get better at that…

It’s dangerous for me to have a public presence due to race/gender/sexuality/etc.

This is a completely legit concern unfortunately. It’s also one I have no personal experience with dealing with, so I’m hesitant to offer too much advice on this one. If you’re comfortable doing so, try writing in public with a pseudonym. If not, I’d strongly encourage you to still try writing even if you feel you have to do it in private. Other people may have better advice than me here.

I don’t know what to write

So I’ve convinced you that you should write, and I’ve convinced you that you can write.

What do you do now? How do you decide what to write about?

Here are some suggested starting points. Pick one. If you can’t decide on one amongst several, pick the easiest one.

  • This is a thing that happened to me recently that was amusing.
  • This is a thing that happened to me recently that was annoying.
  • I disagreed with someone over a thing. Here is a persuasive piece for my side of the disagreement.
  • Here is a thing people often fail to understand.
  • Here is a thing people do that is annoying.
  • This is a thing people new to my job often get wrong.
  • This is a thing people who interact with people who do my job often get wrong.
  • This is a thing I am trying to learn
  • This is a review of a book I read recently
  • This is a review of a film I watched recently
  • Here is a cool thing about the place I live
  • Here is a thing that makes my life better when people do it
  • Here is a thing that makes my life worse when people do it
  • This is a thing I know that you might not have heard about
  • This is a thing I learned recently that I was surprised I had not heard about

If none of those grab you, allow me to offer my services as a muse: If you still can’t think of anything to write, email me. I’ll try to help you out.

Also, if you do write more as a result of this, I’m happy to offer my services as a publicist and tweet about it if you want people to read what you’ve written (things that are obviously spam need not apply, but I’ll otherwise do this even if I don’t agree with what you’ve written).

So, go and write something already.

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An audible experiment

So I’ve noticed, especially with the recent posts, that some people really struggle to understand my writing.

My working hypothesis is that this is is because people are idiots who can’t read. Some informal polling and discussion on twitter suggests that all my paid cronies followers seem to agree with me.

Admittedly this is a biased sample.

I do have a secondary hypothesis though: A lot of my writing is… not exactly humorous, but there’s definitely a thick overlay of sarcasm on some of it. I’ve noted in the past that my writing often reads as if I spoke it out loud and transcribed it, so it’s a lot easier to read if you know how I speak. Plenty of people seem to manage without, but it’s at least more understandable if you don’t.

So I thought I’d try transcribing some things. It’s a bit of an experiment, and I hate the sound of my recorded voice so I’m likely not going to do too much of it, but we’ll see how it goes.

First off, the lead in to this post. It isn’t perfect – I changed a few things on reading, but that will probably always be the case.

The other one I’ve recorded is my parable about problem solving (original text version).

Having now done that I’ve discovered that audio editing is bloody hard work. I can speak faster than I can type, but I can’t edit audio faster than I can edit text – despite already having written it this probably took me as long as it took to write the original post. So, yeah, I don’t think I’ll be doing too much of this.

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On hiring (developers)

First off, we’re hiring. You should apply. Even if you don’t apply, check out the spec. This post will make more sense if you do, and I’d love it if you were to forward it to anyone you know who would fit.

We’ve yet to see if it will produce the right results, but one interesting thing has emerged from writing this job spec is that we’ve not done it as a collective. It’s largely been my doing, with editorial feedback from the rest of the team.

There are a couple consequences of this. Some good, some bad, some still in a superposition of the two.

we’re looking to hire someone who can do this job better than me

The part of it I especially liked is that the way the job requirements (both in the spec and as we’re viewing it) is that we’re looking at the person who currently is doing / would do the job and saying “You need to do the job better than him”. We’ve done this a bit less formally previously when hiring our new sysadmin, and it just sortof emerged naturally this time as a result of the fact that I was the one pushing the hardest to get this job spec done and posted. Whatever happens, I would very much want to retain this aspect of the process: Pick a person in the company who would do the job if you don’t hire for this role, make them responsible for speccing out the job and make them the primary decision maker on whether the person gets hired – other people get to veto, but they’re the one doing the initial approval by saying “Yes, I would rather have this job done by this candidate than done by (a perfect clone of) me”. I think this is very much the right way to do it.

15 years of BBQML

The fact that I wrote it brings with it a certain authorial style. This is both good and bad. If you’re reading this blog you probably are familiar with that style by now – whimsical, fairly abrasive and decidedly non-traditional. All of that comes through in the job posting.

Personally, I think that’s ok. Everyone in the company seems to have liked the posting (Well, they laughed. That’s good, right?), so enjoying the style is probably a good sign of a compatible personality. On the other hand it may turn out to be a bad thing – it may scare off some people who would actually work well for the role (I have at least one friend who is giving me a hard time because he thinks the posting is unprofessional and makes me sound like a wanker), on the other hand it may attract too many people who self-describe as rockstar ninja cyborg artist programmers.

If it turns out not to work, I will modify my style for postings in future, but I am hopeful.

we don’t want yet another [REDACTED]

The biggest feature of this posting that may or may not work in our favour is its honesty. It’s very much “This is who we are, this is what we’re looking for”. There are some tensions you can see behind it as a result. Will they scare people off? I hope not. As a company, we’re very much not perfect. No one is, and if you expect the company you’re applying to to be perfect then you’re in for a bit of a shock whomever they are. I hope that being up front about this is a good thing, and a nice departure from the whitewashed corporate-speak you get in a lot of job postings.

and…?

All in all, it’s been an interesting experiment. I look forward to seeing the results.

Let me know what you think.

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Am I being boring?

I had an enlightening conversation with Mark Wotton on twitter recently. It started when I gave the following advice:

Writing advice: You should have a constant mental process going asking “Is this bit I’m writing boring?”. If it is, delete or rewrite it.

I’d meant it to apply to prose. I was reading an article which took an important and exciting piece of information and made it deathly dull. I don’t want to link to the article, but I’m sure you can think of examples yourself.

Mark replied:

I thought you were talking about code for a second there – it actually works pretty well there, too.

This wasn’t a context in which I’d thought about it before.

I won’t quote the entire conversation here (you can check it out at the source if you care), but the conclusions from it were interesting.

A lot of code is boring, and sometimes this is ok. Most code does boring things – display a web page, convert data from this format to that format, write out an error message, etc. Boring tasks are ubiquitous and necessary to get things done.

But, like writing, you can write about things which are boring and you can write about things in boring ways.

What does boring writing look like? Well, it could contain a lot of repetition, it could take forever to get to the point making it non-obvious what it’s about, it could include a lot of irrelevancies…

Hmm. None of those sound like very good things to do when coding, do they?

As people are fond of saying, code should really be first about telling other people what it should do and secondarily about getting the computer to execute it. Coding is a form of writing, and as such it needs to keep the reader interested or their boredom will get in the way of their understanding (side note: this is not the same as making the reader work hard to understand it – not being boring is not the same as being overly clever).

So, it’s ok to write code that is boring because what it is trying to do is inherently boring, but you shouldn’t add unnecessary boredom to the code.

Hmm. That sounds familiar.

So, to borrow the terminology from Fred Brooks: There are two types of boredom. Essential boredom, which is inherent to the problem being solved, and accidental boredom, which is introduced by the programmer. Seek to minimize the latter.

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