Never Lose an Idea — Avoid “Big Bucket” Apps

DSCN2469I’ve been writing professionally since 1980. Since then I’ve burned through multiple operating systems, hardware configurations, and software packages.

(Confession: I used Wordstar back in the days when dinosaurs still roamed the earth.)

Eventually my hard disk became a battle zone. Documents with incompatible structures and warring formats littered the charred landscape. Often I couldn’t even open the older files.

To writers and idea entrepreneurs, this is perilous. Buried in all that digital detritus are veins of pure gold: Unpublished drafts. Still-relevant research. Glittering anecdotes. Sparkling quotes. Material that could be recycled, re-used, and re-sold.

At some point we face the task of poking through our electronic trash to extract the gems. But the effort is doomed unless we move them into a trusted system where nothing ever gets lost again.

The perils of “big bucket” apps

In my search for solutions, I first turned to apps that are specifically designed to house huge collections of notes. I call them “big bucket” apps because in many cases you can throw just about anything in them — photos, PDFs, web pages, and anything else in digital form.

Among these apps are:

Apps like these are intoxicating. I’ve spent entire days playing with them — importing my data, tinkering with features, and marveling at gorgeous interfaces.

In the end, I abandoned them all.

Why? Because of their inherent shortcomings:

  • Uncertainty. At any time, developers can lose interest or companies can go out out of business. Result: your app gets abandoned.
  • Inflexibility. No matter what the developers claim, you eventually outgrow the features and file limits that the apps impose.
  •  Imprisonment. You get locked in to a proprietary data base. If you ever decide to export your notes to another app or different file format — well, good luck. You might face hours of mind-numbing copy-and-paste operations.

In short, using big bucket apps means that your life’s work is stuck in someone else’s app, subject to their preferences and schedule.

Seven goals of personal information management

When it comes to managing my ideas, what I want is a set of tools that is:

  1. Agnostic — usable on any platform and not tied to a specific app
  2. Future-proof — usable for the long-term with whatever platforms and operating systems emerge in the future
  3. Portable — allowing me to easily export and import notes
  4. Lightweight — storing notes in smaller, more efficient files
  5. Flexible — accepting files that range in size from a few words to a book-length manuscript
  6. Accessible — allowing me to open, edit, and save files with any computer or mobile device
  7. Free or inexpensive — based on apps that I already own, such as those that were shipped with my computer, or apps that don’t cost much

My solution is a system of plain-text files stored in the “cloud.” I’ll write more about this in my next post. For now, check out Organize Your Ideas With Plain Text Files.

Note: This post was inspired by a long, nerdy, and delicious article from Douglas Barone.

Rereading ‘Information Anxiety’ — Seven Ideas That Still Make a Difference

0553348566.01._SL130_SCLZZZZZZZ__Recently I pulled my copies of Information Anxiety by Richard Saul Wurman off the shelf. The first edition, published in 1989 — pre-Internet — blew me away. The 2001 edition was even better. (Alas, the book is no longer in print, but look for it at your library or search online.)

Following are some insights from the book that still nourish me.

1 Learning begins with admitting ignorance

This is more than a platitude. Admitting ignorance is often a descent into chaos, with all the attendant fear. I’ve felt this fear at the beginning of projects about complex topics that were new to me.

Admitting ignorance runs counter to the sound-bite mentality of our culture. We fear looking stupid. And we admire people who exude confidence and deliver quick answers.

What helps me is remembering Richard’s words:

When you can admit that you don’t know, you are more likely to ask the questions that will enable you to learn. When you don’t have to filter your inquisitiveness through a smoke screen of intellectual posturing, you can genuinely receive or listen to new information. If you are always trying to disguise your ignorance of a subject, you will be distracted from understanding it.

Richard admits that he is typically the first person in a room full of experts to ask the “stupid” questions. What empowers him is remembering the curse of knowledge: Once you understand something, you immediately forget what it’s like not to understand it. Asking the first questions that occur to you can nudge the experts past this curse.

2 Access is the antidote to anxiety

For every body of information that’s new to you, there is a point of access — a “personal table of contents.” Be patient, and be willing to look.

Begin by remembering the difference between raw data and information. For example, an acre equals 43,560 square feet. This is data, and it doesn’t mean much to me.

In contrast, I can remember that an acre is about as big as an American football field without the end zones. That is information. I gain access by connecting a new fact to something I already understand.

3 Information is infinite, but the ways of organizing it are not

Those ways of organizing information boil down to the “five ultimate hat racks”:

  • Location
  • Alphabet
  • Time
  • Category
  • Hierarchy

Richard gives this example:

If you were preparing a report on the automobile industry, you could organize cars by model (category), year (time), place of manufacture (location), or Consumer Reports rating (continuum). Within each, you might list them alphabetically.

Take the first letter of each item in the above list and you get the acronym LATCH. Easy to remember.

4 There is no such thing as “keeping up” — only following the trail of your own interests

“Learning can be defined as the process of remembering what you are interested in,” Richard notes. Due to the inherent connection between subjects, you can “follow any interest on a path through all knowledge.”

It’s perfectly fine to indulge ourselves by turning our personal interests into our primary information filter. The stuff that stimulates our curiosity is probably all that we’ll remember. Besides, there’s so much available information that we’ll never track it all anyway.

5 “News” usually increases information anxiety

News has been defined as “the same things happening over and over again to different people.” This is an exaggeration, of course. And it points us in a useful direction.

Too often, the news gets packaged as isolated facts, devoid of context. And let’s be honest: On any given day, there are only a handful of stories that really matter. The rest are optional.

In the first edition of Information Anxiety, Richard suggests that we ask these questions when consuming news:

  • What do the numbers mean?
  • To what other events does this incident relate?
  • What is it the announcer isn’t telling me?
  • Why is this story more important than another?
  • And, the most crucial question, how does this story apply to my life?

6 Most of our communication is about giving and receiving instructions

“Every successful communication is really an instruction in disguise — from love letters to company brochures,” Richard writes. This is particularly true when the desired outcome is an action for someone to take.

Good instructions include these elements:

  • Mission — the purpose or main benefit of following the instructions
  • Destination — the ideal outcome of following the instructions
  • Procedure — the essential tasks to perform
  • Duration — the amount of time that the procedure will take
  • Anticipation — the conditions that I can expect to encounter as I carry out the procedure
  • Failure — signs that I’m making errors and how to correct them

When we give instructions, Richard adds, “we test our ability to communicate information and gauge what we really know.”

7 Talk is deep

Conversation “is imbued with extraordinary complexities, nuances, and ephemeral magic.” When talking to others, we start, stop, digress, and make connections in non-linear ways.

Conversation leads to understanding as we allow ourselves to admit ignorance, explore options, and probe for context. Richard gives this example:

The industrial design critic Ralph Kaplan was talking to a woman who was trying to explain something to him. “I know what I want to say, but I just can’t put it into words,” she told him. Puzzled, Caplan asked her, “Can you tell me what form it is in now?”

The inherent richness of conversation makes it a worthy match for the sheer onslaught of data that confronts us daily. Ironically, the oldest medium of communication helps us make peace with the newest ones.

Remembering What You Read — Ways to Take Notes on Books

DSC_0339I don’t know whether Tim Ferriss’s interview with Maria Popova of Brain Pickings went viral, but surely it came close. Brain Pickings has over a million monthly readers, and Maria publishes two to three posts daily. What’s more, she mostly curates offline sources—that is, books.

Maria described her process at 39 minutes into the interview:

On the very last page of each book, which is blank, usually…I create an alternate index. So I basically list out, as I’m reading, the topics and ideas that seem to be important and recurring in that volume. And then next to each of them I start listing out the page numbers where they occur. And on those pages I’ve obviously highlighted the respective passage and have a little sticky tab so that I can find it. It’s basically an index based not on key words…but based on key ideas.

Contrast this with Shane Parrish of Farnam Street, who reads over 150 books each year and writes about many of them. Like Maria, he favors printed books. His note-taking process is this:

  • Read the front matter—preface, the table of contents, and inside jacket.
  • Glance over the index.
  • Decide whether to read the book.
  • Take notes while reading—circle words to look up, star key points, underline interesting passages, list questions, note connections, and write comments in the margins.
  • Summarize each chapter with a few bullet points.
  • Writing on a blank sheet of paper, explain the core ideas of the book to yourself.

Essentially, Shane says, he’s “trying to engage in a conversation with the author.” Shane then puts the book away and waits at least one week before returning to it. At that time, he reviews all his handwritten notes:

If something still strikes my interest, I write a note in the first few pages of the book, in my own words, on the topic. Often this is a summary but increasingly it’s ways to apply the knowledge. I index this to the page number in the book.

Finally, he takes selected quotations and copies them into his commonplace book.

These are all wonderful suggestions. At the same time, I wonder how many of us will actually implement such algorithms.

I’ll leave you with a simpler suggestion for note-taking from Peter Elbow, author of Writing With Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process (a delightful book that’s so seldom mentioned anymore):

If you want to digest and remember what you are reading, try writing about it instead of taking notes. Stop periodically—at the end of each chapter or whenb something important strikes you—and simply write about what you have read and your reactions to it. This procedure may make you nervous at first because you can’t ‘cover’ as many points or make something as neatly organized as when you take notes. But you will remember more. Perfectly organized notes that cover everything are beautiful, but they live on paper, not in your mind.

Writing for Behavior Change — Keep it Simple, Sweetheart

GmI0zVlESimplicity is critical when you write instructions for completing a process or gaining insight. This is especially true when your audience has low literacy levels, an impaired ability to concentrate, or both. The goal is to create “easy-to-read” materials without patronizing your audience.

Start from beginner’s mind

What makes writing instructions so hard is the curse of knowledge: “The minute we know something, we forget what it was like to not know it” (Richard Saul Wurman). Test your instructions by giving them to people who are new to your topic.

Make it flow

Readers experience flow as taking a journey that unfolds in a logical way. Each “turn” (new topic in your instructions) is clearly signaled and remembered.

Begin with an introduction that clearly states:

  • What your article or book is about
  • Who it is written for
  • What people will be able to do as a result of following your instructions

Then begin each chapter or section with an “advance organizer.” These are previews of what’s to come—a list of key topics and points that will be covered. Also include periodic reviews of key points and strong transitions between topics.

Flag the key points

Make the main points obvious. Don’t make people hunt for them or guess what they are. Flag those points with:

  • Boldface headings
  • Bulleted lists
  • Numbered lists
  • Charts, tables, or diagrams
  • White space between major sections
  • Photos and illustrations
  • Icons that signal exercises and other recurring elements

Break processes into steps

In each step of your process, describe one action for your reader to take. Start sentences with an active verb that tells readers exactly what to do or say.

Reduce cognitive burdens

Use a simple vocabulary—concrete, familiar words. Keep most sentences short with a minimum of internal punctuation. Avoid complex subjects, or ease into them gradually.

Keep it concrete

Effective instructions are practical, realistic, and relevant. They describe visible, physical actions that readers can actually take in daily life to solve problems that actually matter.

Give examples

Follow every major idea with a concrete example of how to apply it. Also provide lots of stories and structured experiences that let readers test ideas for themselves.

Keep it real

Be careful about quoting experts in support of your ideas. A certain amount of this supports your credibility. But too much can lead readers to distrust your instructions as too academic and removed from “real life.”

Cut the fluff

Many readers will dismiss “motivational writing.” Avoid self-help psychobabble, jargon, and “pep talks” that ramp up enthusiasm in a phony way.

Keep it lean

Good instructions are organized around a handful of ideas that are explained, illustrated, repeated, summarized, and applied.

As you write, keep the main point of each section in mind. Relentlessly purge material that is off-topic. Save it for another section, chapter, blog post, or book.

Note: This post is based on material from a company named Seward Learning Partners. I’ve tried to reach them for years. If anyone has contact information, please let me know.

Writing for Behavior Change — Helping Readers Gain Insight Through Stories and Structured Experiences

580488_623132987698607_278299478_nWe can take two different paths when writing books that help readers to change their behavior —process learning and insight learning. These exist on a continuum, and both kinds of learning are valuable. Good instructions for behavior change alternate between process (how to do something) and insight (why doing something will benefit me).

In the latter type of learning, insights are discovered by readers rather than taught through rules, examples, practice, and feedback. Effective stories work well for this purpose. In addition, you can include exercises, or structured experiences. Following are some options.

Making lists

One way for readers to make your key learning points more concrete is to list personal examples. If you’re writing about habit change, for instance, ask readers to describe times when they successfully changed a habit.

Readers could follow up with another list of times when their change attempts failed. Making both lists sets up people to reflect on which habit-change strategies worked well and which did not.

Telling my story

Sometimes people benefit by telling their story at length — with more scope and depth than possible in a brief list of examples.

This strategy is widely used in groups based on the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. For AA members, “telling your story” of hitting bottom with addiction and making the decision to get help is fundamental.

Exemplar cases

Create stories about how people succeed at applying a process in daily life. These stories can range from brief anecdotes to extended narratives. In any case, the purpose of these stories is to give examples of how your ideas actually work.

The trick is to make these stories vivid, credible, and authentic. Keep abstract theory and academic jargon to a minimum. Also remember that stories can be presented through audio and video as well as text.

Problem cases

Create open-ended stories (case studies). These leave the main character in the middle of the action with a problem to solve. Ask readers to suggest possible solutions and evaluate each one.

If you’re writing for recovering alcoholics about how to prevent relapse, for example, include a story about a person who ends up at a party where he feels strong urges to drink again. Then prompt readers to suggest relapse-prevention strategies.

Structured experiences

With these “outbound” activities, readers go beyond the page and take their learning into daily life. For example, they can:

  • Apply a process. Say that you’re explaining a process for decision-making. Ask readers to apply the steps in that process to a real decision in their lives and describe the results.
  • Practice a script. Write a model that readers can use to make an assertive request, say no to a compromising situation, or practice some other skill.
  • Carry out an experiment. Ask readers to pair with a partner or join a small group. They practice a new behavior, observe the outcomes, and share their insights with each other.

Prompts for reflection and further action

Stories and structured experiences gain power when they are modeled, debriefed and discussed. You can do this by providing:

  • Sample responses to exercises.
  • Questions that direct attention to key events in a story and points to remember.
  • Questions that guide readers to express their own insights and plan new behaviors based on their insights.
  • Reminders that readers share their insights and plans with a peer, group, mentor, sponsor, counselor, or coach.

You can also prompt readers to reflect by completing sentences. Therapist Nathaniel Branden offers many examples here. In the Master Student Series of books, we prompt students to follow up on stories and structured experiences with two simple sentence fragments:

  • I discovered that….
  • I intend to….

Note: This post is based on material from a company named Seward Learning Partners. I’ve tried to reach them for years. If anyone has contact information, please let me know.

Writing for Behavior Change — Helping Readers Gain Insight Through Stories

LP postTaking action is essential to learning. In fact, learning is often defined as a stable change in behavior.

At the same time, action is linked to insight. Readers can change their thinking in ways that support behavior change rather than undermine it.

While process learning concentrates on the how to dimension of learning, insight is concerned with why. Insight learning helps people define their values and build self-awareness. As a writer, you can use stories for both purposes.

Benefits of stories

Effective stories are dramatic examples that lead readers to conclude: This material is really about me. Stories lead people to this conclusion when they:

  • Make abstract ideas concrete by showing how a process actually plays out in “real life.”
  • Engage readers by adding entertainment and emotional force.
  • Provide readers with “experience, strength, and hope” (as they say in Alcoholics Anonymous) for overcoming daily difficulties.

Two kinds of stories

In instructional writing, stories exists on a continuum.

At one end of the continuum are gritty, concrete, realistic stories that “ring true” with readers. As in a good novel, the characters are people that we can identify with. They face the kind of problems that we actually face. They act like us. They talk like us. When these characters learn from experience, we learn along with them.

At the other end of the continuum are flat, generic, and sanitized stories. These lack authentic characters, details, and dialogue. Such stories are used transparently to illustrate a simplistic “right way” and “wrong way.” Actually, these are not stories so much as thinly veiled lectures. Some pompous ass is waving a finger at us and preaching about what we should do.

Writing effective stories

Writing stories is an art that calls for a lifetime of practice. We can learn a lot from good fiction writers. Some things you can do immediately, however, are to:

  • Write stories in first-person voice, where characters speak from the perspective of “I.”
  • Whenever possible, draw from real-life examples and verbatim dialogue.
  • Avoid academic terms, scientific terms, or jargon of any type that detracts from authenticity.

Note: This post is based on material from a company named Seward Learning Partners. I’ve tried to reach them for years. If anyone has contact information, please let me know.

Writing for Behavior Change — Helping Readers to Learn a Process

RAILTRACK 4A (1)Many nonfiction books—including those in the vast self-help and business genres—are about helping people to learn. And learning boils down to enduring change in behavior. When we’ve learned something, in short, we are able to do or say something that we could not do or say previously.

What people want to learn varies widely, of course—anything from how to get firmer abs to how to meditate. In any case, our job is to write instructions that work and make a lasting difference in readers’ lives.

I’ve been writing instructions for 25 years. The main thing I’ve learned is that they are tricky, tricky, tricky. Instructions can engage readers—or quickly turn them off.

In order to succeed, distinguish between two different kinds of instructions:

  • Using a process (usually a step-by-step procedure) to produce a specific outcome
  • Using stories and structured experiences to gain insight that supports behavior change

In this post, I’ll focus on process instruction.

Three elements of process instruction

Process learning is what usually comes to mind when we think about “teaching” someone to do something. Process learning helps people understand how to complete a task or take a series of actions.

Process learning draws on traditional elements of instruction:

  1. State a rule or principle.
  2. Give an example of how to apply the rule or principle (and sometimes a non-example as well).
  3. Ask the reader to apply the rule and get immediate feedback.

An example of process instruction

Recipes offer common examples of process instructions. However, process instructions can apply to any aspect of human behavior.

Here’s an example from the work of psychologist B. J. Fogg on habit change. He teaches a course about making small changes in behavior—“baby steps,” or tiny habits—that cascade into larger changes over time.

More specifically, a tiny habit is a behavior that:

  • You do at least once a day
  • Takes less than 30 seconds
  • Requires little effort
  • Is triggered by one of your current habits

The above bulleted list offers the first element of process instructions—the rule or principle.

B. J. also offers lots of examples of tiny habits, such as:

  • After I brush my teeth, I will floss one tooth.
  • After I pour my morning coffee, I will text my mom.
  • After I start the dishwasher, I will read one sentence from a book.

The final element of process instructions—giving readers immediate feedback on performance—is challenging: We’re not physically present with our readers, so we cannot observe what they do. With written instructions, however, we can describe things that might go wrong when people apply a rule and then suggest solutions.

Note: This post is based on material from a company named Seward Learning Partners. I’ve tried to reach them for years. If anyone has contact information, please let me know.

Lessons About the Writing Process From an Author of 400 Books (Part Two)

apple dictionaryIn a previous post, I highlighted Andrew Offutt, author of 400 novels. He wrote by creating small, independent units — anything from a single sentence to an entire scene — that he later combined into complete book manuscripts.

Most of Offutt’s work was pulp fiction, cranked out on a work-for-hire basis. Even so, we can distill useful insights from his creative process.

1. Look for the fundamental units of your published work

Fiction writers often structure their manuscripts as a series of individual scenes that are connected by transitions. Let’s apply this notion to nonfiction books and think of chapters as a series of “articles” that are connected by transitions.

By article I mean a single, coherent section within a chapter. In nonfiction books, these are often marked by a heading that appears in bold or italic type. Each article develops a single point about the topic of the chapter as a whole.

In addition to articles, your work might include interactive elements, such as exercises for readers to do. These are also fundamental units of your work.

2. Collect your existing units

Now review your published work—blog posts, white papers, books, and so on. Do you have final drafts of those in Microsoft Word or another text editor? If so, great. Do the following:

  • Duplicate those drafts.
  • Divide them into individual units.
  • Save each unit as a separate document with a descriptive title—key words that you’ll be sure to remember.
  • Throw all those documents into a single folder, searchable database, or commonplace book.

3. Create new units

After collecting your existing units, you’ll probably have ideas for new units. Start writing those now. Tackle them in any order that appeals to you. Then add add them to your collection.

4. Create new projects by combining units

Whenever you want to create a new project (presentation, blog post, article, or book), you never have to start from scratch. Instead, go to your collection of units and look for what you can use. Assemble the first draft of your new projects by copying units, pasting them in a logical sequence, and adding transitions.

I am not saying that this process will lead to a finished draft of your next project. However, it will lead to a rough draft that you can revise into something that really sings.

P.S. For examples of books that work well as collections of units, see the tables of contents for Rework and Remote by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson.

Lessons About the Writing Process From an Author of 400 Books (Part One)

IMG_0001I am fascinated by this article about Andrew Offutt, who wrote at least 400 books before he died in 2013. The majority of these were sexually-explicit pulp fiction, written under 17 pseudonyms.

I’m not advocating for this genre. But I do invite you to play along with me for a moment: Can we distill some lessons from Offutt’s prodigious output that will benefit our own work?

The Process

Offutt’s son, Chris, recalls his dad’s writing process:

Dad’s writing process was simple — he’d get an idea, brainstorm a few notes, then write the first chapter. Next he’d develop an outline from one to 10 pages. He followed the outline carefully, relying on it to dictate the narrative. He composed his first drafts longhand, wearing rubber thimbles on finger and thumb. Writing with a felt-tip pen, he produced 20 to 40 pages in a sitting. Upon completion of a full draft, he transcribed the material to his typewriter, revising as he went.

His goal was a minimum of a book a month. To achieve that, he refined his methods further, inventing a way that enabled him to maintain a supply of raw material with a minimum of effort. He created batches in advance — phrases, sentences, descriptions and entire scenes on hundreds of pages organized in three-ring binders. Tabbed index dividers separated the sections into topics.

Dad was like Henry Ford applying principles of assembly-line production with pre-made parts. The methodical technique proved highly efficient. Surrounded by his tabulated notebooks, he could quickly find the appropriate section and transcribe lines directly into his manuscript. Afterward, he blacked them out to prevent plagiarizing himself. Ford hired a team of workers to manufacture a Model-T in hours. Working alone, Dad could write a book in three days [italics added].

Applying Assembly Line Principles to a Creative Act

Do those paragraphs describe a literary hack — or a master of productivity? The answer is not so simple.

Consider the painter Chuck Close, who works by deconstructing his huge images into small grids that he completes one at a time. The parallels between this respected artist and Offutt are clear.

What we can take from them is the process of dividing large projects into smaller parts that can be created independently. Offutt actually created many of those parts prior to producing the first draft of a book.

We can take this idea and run with it. The goal is to save time and effort when creating a book manuscript.

In my next post, I’ll suggest ways to do this.

Are You a “Content Creator”? And Is That Enough?

Content vs SubstanceOne of the maladies of the twenty-first century is the ease with which we use the term content. We talk about content marketing and content management. We also describe ourselves as “content providers” and creators of “information products.” Yet our casual use of this term glosses over some key distinctions and might even undermine our work.

Maria Popova, creator and curator of the venerable Brain Pickingsdescribes content as:

… a term by which no self-respecting writer or artist would refer to what she makes, and yet one forcefully seared on to writing and art by the tyrannical vocabulary of commercial media, that hotbed of professionalized consumerism concerned not with the stewardship of culture but with the profitable commodification of it.

Maria is blunt. And she raises a fair question: What is content, anyway? Here we can easily go astray. There are so many questions to ask, such as:

  • If you write a book, are you creating content? Or is that something you do only when creating text, images, video, or audio to appear online?
  • What if you take text and images from your book and adapt them to appear on your website? Have you taken one thing and turned it into something else?
  • Is the New York Times a “content provider”? How about Shakespeare or other great authors, if you read their work online?

In an interview with James Altucher, Maria contrasts “substantive writing” with content. She riffs on the cliché that “content is king,” contrasting “substantive writing” with listicles and clickbait:

… content is not king. Content is currency. Substantive writing is king in the sense of that it really nourishes and inspires us and just makes us feel a little more alive.

In response, James points out that list-based articles on the Internet sometimes do convey useful ideas and information. Maria concedes this point, citing her wonderful post on Umberto Eco and lists as the “origin of culture.”

One path out of confusion is to remember the difference between what’s ephemeral and what lasts. Let’s distinguish text and images that are forgotten within minutes of publication from the human creations that turn into classics. If you’re creating a list that people will still be reading 100 years from today, then you’re probably creating literature—defined by Ezra Pound in the ABC of Reading as “news that stays news.”

When we raise our creativity to this level, then we can put aside the whole debate about content versus substance. Our ancestors will simply know that we created something remarkable.