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What I've Learned From A Year of Blogging

This will be my 52nd post to this blog, and since I've been writing a post per week, that means this post will complete one full year of blogging. Woohoo! Before I go any further, I'd like to thank you for following along on this journey. I really appreciate all of the thoughtful comments from those who have shared, and the knowledge that thousands of people have read at least something from this site. I hope that I've been engaging, and that you've learned something. I know I have.

That is, after all, part of the reason why I started this blog - to teach and to learn. I've learned a lot about software development over the past year by expanding into web development and sharing some of that experience here, hopefully in a way that will encourage you to also expand your horizons. Along the way I've learned a few things about writing as well. These are things that I would never have really understood, had I not pursued this blog.

First, I still hate writing, but I love it, too. I used to hate writing in school because I rarely got to write about things that I cared about. Writing about dead presidents or dead authors really did not interest me that much. I'm not saying those topics wouldn't be interesting to anyone, but they certainly didn't inspire me to want to write any more than I had to. Now I hate writing for a different reason. I hate it because it's a really hard thing to do well. Some nights I sit in front of my laptop staring at a half finished sentence for minutes on end, trying to figure out how exactly I want to say what I'm trying to say. Other times I'll spend half an hour or more deciding how to proceed to my next thought and exactly how to structure the next few paragraphs. It's terribly frustrating at those times.

However, it's incredibly satisfying to write about things I'm passionate about, and the act of writing motivates me to learn about the things I'm writing about at a deeper level because I want to sound reasonably competent. There are also those moments when everything starts to flow smoothly, and I look back in surprise at how well some of those thoughts were expressed. That's where writing really becomes enjoyable.

So it's a love-hate relationship, and like anything else worth doing, it takes work. But there's more, much more.

Writing helps me write better code. It makes me think more about how to structure code so that it is more easily understandable. In writing, to explain something clearly you should find the simplest way to express a thought without losing any of the original meaning or intent. That sounds easy when put like that, but it is an extremely hard thing to do in practice. It takes constant effort and years of practice. You never reach perfection, but you can spend a lifetime trying. A lot of that effort and mindset readily transfers between writing and coding, and I've seen my code improve consistently over the last year.

Of course, what I want is to reach a point where I can just write, but it is never thus. I'm always stopping to think about things, to look something up, to grab a link or a picture that I need to include. The whole process feels stilted and halting. Then I read people like Steve Yegge or Paul Krugman, and their writing seems so effortless and casual. It seems to me like their words flow from their fingertips like running water, and I wish I could write like that. For all I know, they can't actually write like the way I'm imagining, either. After all, I am reading their finished work, and that should flow. But I still want the words to come easier than they do. I suppose that is the purpose of those creative writing exercises where you purposefully write about a topic non-stop. I may have to try that soon.

Related to how hard it is to write smoothly and quickly is how hard it is to transfer the thoughts I have milling around in my head to those of you reading these posts. You see, I have all of these interconnected thoughts in my head about any particular topic, and they all exist at once up there as ephemeral ideas without concrete words or phrases attached to them. Some are stronger than others. Some fade in and out of consciousness. Some pop up from my sub-conscious mind with a fleeting glance and I have to capture them before they disappear.

The medium of the written word is entirely different. It's linear and sequential. Linking different thoughts in a written piece is hard when at any given point I have a half dozen different ways to continue, and connections to points I made earlier can be imprecise or awkward. I have to decide exactly how to line up all of these thoughts to make a coherent overall point, but that isn't even the hardest part. What I'm trying to actually do is pull an idea, with all of it's supporting material, out of my mind and present it to you full and intact. The written word is merely a means to that end. Finding the best way to represent that idea concisely so that it is understood as the same complete and compelling idea that I had is a tremendously hard problem.

That hard problem never seems to get any easier because my previous efforts never seem good enough, and I'm always trying to improve my writing and explanations. I would never have thought that after a year of writing it wouldn't get any easier, but making writing easier was never really the point of blogging for me. The point was to write better. If I hadn't gotten any better and writing had only gotten easier, I probably would have gotten bored with it fairly quickly. Easy things are boring. It's the challenging things that hold your attention.

Another thing I constantly struggle with is my writing perspective. I feel like ‘I’ is arrogant, ‘you’ is presumptuous, and ‘they’ is vague. If I always write in the first person, I run the risk of appearing pompous and selfish because everything is about me. If I write in the second person, I'm assuming that you are indeed like how I'm claiming you are or you do what I'm claiming you do. If I write in the third person, nothing has any force behind it because I'm always writing about some innocuous other person. On the other hand, first person is more personal and honest, second person is more direct and engaging, and third person can diffuse emotions about more tense subjects. So each style has its advantages and disadvantages, and I'm still trying to figure out the best times to use each one. I tend to bounce from one to the next as I see fit, but I'm still not sure what the best approach is.

To address some of these writing issues, I read a lot. I've always been an avid reader, but I've noticed that how I read has changed. I now see where other authors are struggling with the ideas they're trying to express because their writing will get awkward. I see when they are being vague because at times I struggle with being vague, and it becomes easy to notice the signs of vagueness when you have them in your own writing. See, I did it right there. It happens when you’ve mentally integrated the ideas and justifications behind the thing you’re writing about, but you’ve lost the context. Then you have to come up with an example that fits the reasoning now embedded in your memory, and that can get quite hard. There may also be an element of not wanting to single out any one person or event if what is being discussed has a negative perspective. There is a fear that readers will focus on the particular example you present, and agree or disagree with it while the larger point is missed or ignored.

Speaking of disagreeing, some readers will latch onto one minor mistake in an article and use that as justification to discount the entire article, or the author in general. My most hated criticism of anyone's writing is when someone comments, "He obviously doesn’t know what he’s talking about because of what he said about x." Maybe x isn't important to the main point of the post. Maybe it was added as a bit of filler that the author thought was interesting but should have left out. In any case, that type of criticism is maddening because the critic is not trying to engage in a debate about the merits of the author's arguments. The critic has already decided that he doesn't like the post, or even the author, for some reason, and he's finding any reason, however small, to discount the author entirely. It's lazy reasoning, and now I pretty much ignore that type of criticism instead of wasting energy responding to it.

I have found that reading any kind of criticism gives you the strong desire to cover absolutely everything about a given topic in a single post, but it simply cannot be done. Articles would quickly turn into book-length ramblings and never get finished. There is no end to the tangents and back stories that can be pursued in writing about anything. The hard part is picking what to focus on. I know that is something I need to work on. I tend to write long posts, and I'd like to tighten up my writing in the future. That will take some discipline on my part.

Finally, I've found that there is great tension between sounding confident and humble. I want to be confident about the things I write about without sounding arrogant, and there is a nagging temptation to fill posts with caveats and disclaimers. It helps to remember something my high school Research & Comp teacher told me. Your readers know it’s your opinion, so you don’t have to constantly remind them. Say what you believe and present it as strongly as you can. Say it like you have the authority to say it. Every author adds their subjective opinion to their writing by the simple fact that they are choosing what to write about - what facts to include and what not to. The reader is not going to be convinced through apologies, but through the strength of the writing, the reasoning, and the facts, so cut the crap.

Overall, this has been a successful first year of blogging, and I plan to keep it up. I've learned a lot so far, and I hope I've been entertaining and enlightening to read. I would definitely recommend starting a blog to anyone wanting to work on personal development. Pick something you love to do and write about it. You'll be amazed what you learn in the process.

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