Living on fire without putting yourself out — and cherishing the heat.
“May you live in interesting times.”
English translation of a purported traditional Chinese curse.
My good friends! I would like to say hello, once again. For the past three years, I have written a birthday post. A sort of thematic idea that is supposed to encapsulate the idea I would like to live out this year. Small self-experiments just for fun. My fourth one, however, it is very late. My twenty-third birthday was almost a year ago now, with my next birthday now creeping in.
Five Steps to Go From Brainstorming to Completed Work
Let’s get down to the bare bones to start with: Prepare yourself and focus. Brainstorm and allow yourself to have bad ideas. Outline a thesis. Draft and edit. Cut the non-essential. Now, let’s expand on these ideas…
Today is the third day of November. For some of the day, I’ve been trying to craft a new article to publish. For the large majority though, I’ve just been trying to find new and creative ways to procrastinate!
The first day I wrote about how I’m rebelling against NaNoWriMo this year. Yesterday, I wrote about why I write — a bit of the philosophical and bigger-picture sort of thinking.
Today, I thought I might as well keep on the same topic and talk about the how I write. To detail how exactly to go from a simple and disorderly idea to a completed and coherent article.
There are many steps to this process — from brainstorms to an outline, from drafting to revisions, until you have something publishable.
An Aside: GOOD WRITING?
“All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.”
— F. Scott Fitzgerald
Writing is a mysterious and elusive artform. Whether it’s technical, creative, or copy — good writing contains something that cannot be taught. A balance needs to be struck between the formless idea and the formulaic structure.
The idea — the actual content — needs to be exciting and novel. But if the presentation — the display and perception of that content — isn’t also good, then the idea will largely be lost. Yet, if the idea is lacking, then no amount of amazing presentation can salvage it.
1. PREPARATION: Focus
“A winning effort begins with preparation.”
— Joe Gibbs
Distraction is the worst offender for writing that’s never completed — and often times writing that isn’t even started. Identify and eliminate potential distractions before you begin. Ensure you don’t allow yourself to procrastinate by dealing with them when they arrive.
Be relaxed. Don’t plunge into writing if you’re stressed about a million other things. If you really want to churn out two-thousand words in a single sitting, it has to be your number one priority. Stress also negatively impacts your physical and mental health, which are vital as well. So stay hydrated — have a water bottle handy while you write.
Take a look at your surroundings — create a private workspace. Have music that you enjoy but won’t distract you. I personally love certain background noise, Noisli has a ton of different options. Nearby plants are also always a bonus, and studies have shown they increase happiness and productivity!
Communicate your availability to others before you get into the deep work of writing. Have a do-not-disturb sign, send out an e-mail or mark on your calendar that you’ll be unavailable.
Unplug and disconnect. The research phase of writing is the only time you should be using the Internet. Use an offline word processor, or write by hand. Keep things more traditional — for linguistics, have a dictionary and thesaurus on hand.
2. BRAINSTORM: Bad Ideas > No Ideas.
“The way to get good ideas is to get lots of ideas and throw the bad ones away.”
— Linus Pauling
Go on an idea sprint. If a good idea is key to good writing, how do you obtain good ideas? Perseverance. Set up a specific time each day and set a timer, force yourself to come up with a dozen unique ideas. Some are going to be bad. Most are going to be bad. But a bad idea is far better than no idea at all. You can still work with a bad idea. You can still write about a bad idea.
Find novel stimuli for yourself. Brainstorming is a mental muscle. No great writer waited for a mystic surge of inspiration before beginning. There needs to be an active search for it. Write in different places and environments. Write about topics you’ve never written about before.
Seek inspiration elsewhere. Look at what other people are blogging about. Don’t be afraid to use their work as inspiration — they’ll take it as a compliment. I came up with the idea of one of my favorite articles from reading someone else’s. Use prompts and 30-day challenges. The main point is to just get the ball rolling — a good idea is far more likely to appear if the canvas isn’t blank.
3. OUTLINE: Craft a Thesis
“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”
Outline first. Once you’re satisfied with the idea you’re going to be working with, it might be tempting to plunge right into writing by the seat of your pants. However, this will only create more work in the future. Having an outline written will save you time.You won’t be constantly second-guessing yourself — and more importantly, losing focus on the topic at-hand.
Craft the main thesis. Make it abundantly clear to the readers what that thesis is. Then, start carving out different sections, which can then be broken down further into paragraphs. Determine your supporting content — what will help you get your main point across.
Set goals. Take a moment to decide who your ideal audience is. What are they gaining by your writing? The key to goal-setting in writing is relevancy — how will what you create be relevant to others? Take note of what feelings you think your work should invoke.
4. DRAFTING & EDITING
“An architect’s most useful tools are an eraser at the drafting board, and a wrecking bar at the site.”
— Frank Lloyd Wright
Write inside-out. Don’t try to write the introduction first, it’s always the hardest part. Instead, go through your outline and pick the section you’d think would be easiest to write, and keep going from there.
Write in sprints — set a timer and don’t stop writing until it ends. Don’t sweat about grammar, spelling, or word-choice. Try to write about one concept per sprint.
Try out different headlines. Your work should drive the headlines you use, not the other way around. They shouldn’t hold up the rest of the writing, either. They don’t have to be perfect, and you might want to change them after publishing. Avoid trying to linger titles in mystery or fear-mongering — people have options, not time. Any headline you use should be able to stand on its own, though, in case it gets pulled to another website.
Make what you’re writing clear — clean up the mud and muck. Group ideas logically. Don’t use two words when one will do — there’s no reason to bloat your work for the word count. Use the active voice as much as possible, and subsequently avoid using the passive voice. Avoid clichés and any other boring or overused language.
The reader is not an algorithm. Don’t try to game the system with writing that exploits search-engine optimization or any other such nonsense.
Organize and edit first, then proofread. A good proofreading trick is to read the entire thing out-loud. A good spell-checking trick is to read the entire thing backwards.
Edit, edit, edit. When editing, don’t try to attempt to do an entire rewrite, instead, do a high-level editorial. Improve without restructuring.
Be mindful of the ending. The conclusion should invite an interaction with the reader. The internet empowers an open and free line of communication between the reader and the writer. Or, point them to other helpful resources.
Review a few more times, just in case. Asking peers for their feedback is always a great idea as well. Then, utilize grammar tools. I personally enjoy using the Hemingway application, but take its suggestions with a grain of salt. Applications and spell-checkers never catch 100% of errors made, anyways.
5. CHOPPING: Be Ruthless
“Less is more.”
— Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
The Internet is chock-full of information. It is also already full of people that want their voices to be heard, and their content to be seen. There has never been such a greater amount of salesmen as there are right now in front of your screen. Everybody is trying to sell something — we live in capitalistic society, after all.
Five-second rule. It takes roughly 2-to-6 seconds to convince a person to stay once they’ve started reading. That’s it. Have something incredible within that incredibly short window of time. Put the most important and interesting information first. Remove long introductions, word-heavy descriptions, and any other purple prose.
Craft the first paragraph carefully. Because people decide if they’re going to read something so quickly, the first paragraph is the most important one. The reader needs to be drawn in. Ask a question, and then answer somewhere else in the post. Be fearless of the controversial, and state something bold. Note an interesting fact or statistic (with proper reference, of course).
Make work scannable, too. Most people don’t begin reading until they’ve skimmed or scrolled. Use plenty of headings, and bullet-point lists.
Whitespace is your best friend. Too much text strains the eye. Watch out for wordy sentences, or lengthy paragraphs, or too many paragraphs without some sort of break.
Be clear and concise. Functional and pragmatic. Distill your message into the smallest amount of words possible. Short is memorable. If it’s easy to digest, it’s easy to share.
Be ruthless. After your first draft is complete, take a pause. Then, return and cut the word count in half.
How to unlock the full potential of a new era of education.
For the past few years, the world of MOOC (Massively Open Online Courses) has become a fiercely large phenomenon. Across Medium and Reddit you can find great, comprehensive lists of free classes you can take:
This, however, is not one of those lists. With this new paradigm of learning, there comes the need to figuring out new methods of understanding and synthesising what is being learned. There is no curriculum, no consequences, no deadlines. This requires an exercise in self-reliance to institute. The student, in a way, must also learn how to become the teacher.
Creating lesson plan — let alone a learning path for yourself — is no simple task. And following through with it is another thing entirely. I am no expert myself, so take this rhetoric with a grain of salt. The examples I am going to be showing are only my own, as I’m using myself as a case study.
Use It or Lose It
This guide is meant as a way for you to take what you are learning and apply it in a meaningful way. It is not learning for the mere sake of learning — anybody can do that. In fact, that’s what is required of us throughout our schooling years.
The reason we forget what we learn in school is because we don’t use it in our every day life. In fact, that’s one of the biggest complaints people have in school.
One of the most effective methods to understanding the materials that you’re studying is to be passionate about them. This is the beauty of MOOCs — the idea that you can pick and choose to learn exactly and only what you want to.
Don’t jump into a new study without having a plan for it. Whenever you feel discouraged or frustrated, you can take a step back and look at the bigger picture.
There’s plenty of meaningful applications for learning new skills: to further your career, to find a new skill to freelance or moonlight with, or to contribute to a hobby or non-profit cause for the sake of goodness.
When you have a mindset of passion — of having a reason to learn and a future goal to look forward too — it is far easier to focus and digest material on a deeper level of understanding, beyond simply learning from rote.
Schedule With so much choice and freedom, it can be easy to try to accomplish too many things at once, only to end up neglecting your studies altogether. This is why it’s so important to chart out a path for yourself once you figure out what you want to accomplish.
Ask yourself how much time you’re able to sacrifice and how much effort you’ll sincerely put into this. Once you have those answers, you’ll be able to plan your own curriculum of sorts.
The Elements of a Successful Course
I’m going to break down what I think are the most important aspects when you’re learning something new on your own.
1. The Lesson
The first step is the most important part, obviously. Whether you’re taking an online course, reading a book, or studying another way — you need the content to be able to learn it. However, it’s a mistake to think that this is enough. This is really just the beginning.
2. Note Taking
The second step is to go beyond the course. Note-taking is the most often used method of retention and synthesis of learning. There are many different styles of note-taking — from traditional, to Cornell, to mind-mapping.
The exacts of successful note-taking vary from person-to-person, but I find it’s very useful to begin to index your note-taking with what you expect the themes of your learning are going to be for that lesson, followed by reviewing what the most important things you learned at the end.
There is nothing wrong with a pack-rat mentality of keeping track of everything that you’re learning, so long as it doesn’t detract from you fully comprehending what is most important.
I also suggest that you take notes by hand first — for a few years I tried to take notes on my computer, and found that even though it made organisation and searching a breeze, I felt as though I retained less. Once you have the notes written out, though, I find that migrating them to the computer does help retention and organisation.
3. Flashcards / Quizzes
The third step to better your learning is to then take your notes a step further by converting them into materials that you can test yourself with. This is why it’s so important to make sure you have the most important material kept, so you can easily create Q+A’s for it.
Some courses already have quizzes, which is excellent, but by creating your own, you’re coming up with questions as well as answers.
For flash cards, I recommend the software Anki, and this guide for it.
4. Assignments / Projects
The fourth step is what I believe is the most important. Traditionally speaking, assignments are simply another part of the system. They are usually rather dry, and have no inherent value other than for the course itself.
But with MOOCs, you have the ability to push yourself to use the knowledge that you’ve gained to create your own projects that you can freely share and use. Apply your learn and thus gain something outside of the learning as the reward.
A good example of this is that I’m in the process of making a blog with Jekyll, which has the twofold benefits of learning web development, as well as having a place to document my other learning, which leads into #5.
5. Share Your Work
Once you have finished a course, you have not only have you improved your own learning by creating all of the above resources, but you now also have the opportunity to share them with others.
Create a blog or use other social media to share what you’ve learned and what you’ve made in the process. Find others that you can collaborate and study with. Build a community of learners and creators. There is no reason to go at this alone.
The best skills to learn first are ‘meta-skills’, such as learning how to learn, time management or other skills that you can use in your studying.
Figure out a system and stick to it. Once you have a schedule made, find a way to link it to your created materials, as well as any other important information. (My personal recommendations would be OneNote for Windows, or using Sublime Text w/ Markdown for Linux.)
When you’re writing about what you’ve learned, don’t be afraid to add your own personal story or information — conglomerate multiple sources of learning for a more thorough discourse.
It is time for me to grow another year older, and since I wrote last year’s birthday thesis late, I decided to write this one early. Sometimes you have thoughts going through your mind so strongly, you have no choice but to write them down at that very moment.
What is a birthday thesis? I figure I should explain, as this is my third one. I originally took the idea from Buster Benson — where he would write a yearly report with a central concept. I really enjoy the idea, but haven’t done it very well so far. I have a rather good central idea this time around, although it is candid and dark, but I believe there is no other option but to write it.
Why you should create — even though there’s already far too much in the world already.
Six years ago, when Medium was first starting out, it was invite-only and was created by one of the founder’s of Twitter to simply publish thoughts longer than the then-limit of 140 characters. Oh, how so much has changed — and so quickly.
Medium has now grown into momentous platform that allows anybody to share their story freely and easily. The growth in such a small amount of time is absurd — but Medium is just the tip of the social media revolution iceberg.
Twitter itself was founded eleven years ago. If we go back further, to thirteen years ago, YouTube was founded. A year before that, Facebook. This was coupled with the exponential development of hardware, which now allows anybody to utilize these platforms within seconds from the palm of their hand.