Category: Everything Else (page 1 of 39)

World Mental Health Day: my story

Note: This is a slightly modified version of a post I made to the Moodle HQ forum earlier today as part of our Wellbeing Week.


According to Heads Up, an Australian organisation focused on mental health at work, there are nine attributes of a healthy workplace:

  1. Prioritising mental health
  2. Trusting, fair & respectful culture
  3. Open & honest leadership
  4. Good job
  5. Workload management
  6. Employee development
  7. Inclusion & influence
  8. Work/Life balance
  9. Mental health support

Just over a decade ago, I burned myself out while teaching, spending a few weeks signed off work and on antidepressants. It was undoubtedly the lowest point of my life. The experience has made me realise how fragile mental health can be, as other members of staff were struggling too. Ultimately, it was our workplace environment that was to blame, not individual human failings.

These days, I’m pleased to say that, most of the time everything is fine. Just like anyone who identifies strongly with the work they’re doing, it can be difficult to put into practice wisdom such as “prioritising family” and “putting health first”. Good places to work, however, encourage you to do this, which is part of what Wellbeing Week at Moodle is all about.

Currently, I work remotely for Moodle four days per week. I travel regularly, but have been based from home in various roles for the past six years. While others might find it lonely, boring, or too quiet, I find that, overall, it suits my temperament.

When I worked in offices and classrooms, I had an idea of remote working that was completely different from the reality of it. Being based in somewhere other than your colleagues can be stressful, as an article on Hacker Noon makes very clear. I haven’t experienced all of the following issues listed in the article, but I know people who have.

  • Dehumanisation: “communication tends to stick to structured channels”
  • Interruptions and multitasking: “being responsive on the chat accomplishes the same as being on time at work in an office: it gives an image of reliability”
  • Overworking: “this all amounts for me to the question of trust: your employer trusted you a lot, allowing you to work on your own terms , and in exchange, I have always felt compelled to actually work a lot more than if I was in an office.”
  • Being a stay at home dad: “When you spend a good part of your time at home, your family sees you as more available than they should.”
  • Loneliness: “I do enjoy being alone quite a lot, but even for me, after two weeks of only seeing colleagues through my screen, and then my family at night, I end up feeling quite sad. I miss feeling integrated in a community of pairs.”
  • Deciding where to work every day: “not knowing where I will be working everyday, and having to think about which hardware I need to take with me”
  • You never leave ‘work’: “working at home does not leave you time to cool off while coming back home from work”
  • Career risk: “working remotely makes you less visible in your company”

Wherever you spend the majority of your time, the physical environment only goes so far. That’s why the work the Culture Champs are doing at Moodle HQ is so important. Feeling supported to do a manageable job in a trusting and respectful culture is something independent of where your chair happens to be located.

So, I’d like to encourage everyone reading this to open up about your mental health. Talk about it with your family and friends, of course, but also to your colleagues. How are you feeling?


Image by Johan Blomström used under a Creative Commons license

Where migraines end and I begin

I think I must have been about eighteen when I started getting migraines.

I’d applied and got through the first few stages for having the Royal Air Force sponsor me through university. In return, I would have to agree to ‘sign up’ for sixteen years after graduation. It’s a fact that I’m reminded of as it’s only now, as a 37 year-old, that I would be returning to civilian life.

After a successful interview with the Wing Commander at RAF Linton-on-Ouse, he asked if anything had changed with my application since filling it in some six months prior to our meeting. It was a routine question, but one I felt I had to answer honestly.

I disclosed that I’d just started suffering from migraines with visual disturbances (‘aura’). He raised an eyebrow, walked over to a cabinet and pulled out a large binder. Finding the relevant entry, he read it to me. I already knew that I couldn’t be an RAF pilot after needing corrective lenses from the age of seventeen. Now, he told me, because every type of migraine can be triggered by stress, a position in Fighter Control was now also out of reach.

Given my feelings about war and nationalism these days, I suppose that I ‘dodged a bullet’ there (so to speak). At the time, though, I was bitterly disappointed. So began my life as a migraineur.


In today’s Observer, Eva Wiseman writes about migraines after news that the American FDA has approved a  potential ‘cure‘ to migraines:

The newly-approved drugs follow a much more targeted approach [to previous efforts]. Back in the 1980s, researchers investigating migraines’ root causes zeroed in on the CGRP, a molecule that regulates nerve communication and helps control blood vessel dilation. Scientists found that those with migraines had markedly more CGRP molecules than those without. They also found that if they injected CGRP into people who were known to get migraines, that alone would trigger one. People without a history of migraines could get the same injection without experiencing a headache.

However, like Wiseman, I’m a little skeptical about all this; I’m not sure migraines can be fully separated out from the migraineur:

My personality is curled around the knowledge of a migraine, like the fruit of an avocado and its pit.

It’s difficult to explain what it’s like to have a migraine to someone who has never had one. They’re whole-body experiences and, although people often point to the crushing headaches, it’s actually impossible to separate them out as a distinct ‘event’. They come at you like waves, gentle at first, but increasing in ferocity.

It was quite by accident that I came across a book a few years ago that had a direct and lasting effect on my life. The late Oliver Sacks’ book Migraine made me realise that, for better or worse, migraines are just part of who I am. He draws on clues from history about migraines, as well as his own clinical experience:

 “You keep pressing me,” he said, “to say that the attacks start with this symptom or that symptom, this phenomenon or that phenomenon, but this is not the way I experience them. It doesn’t start with one symptom, it starts as a whole. You feel the whole thing, quite tiny at first, right from the start.… It’s like glimpsing a point, a familiar point, on the horizon, and gradually getting nearer, seeing it get larger and larger; or glimpsing your destination from far off, in a plane, having it get clearer and clearer as you descend through the clouds.” “The migraine looms,” he added, “but it’s just a change of scale—everything is already there from the start.”

Curiously, there are significant benefits to being a migraineur. These include mild synaesthesia, the ability to see more visually things like historical dates that others find more abstract, and being finely attuned to the weather. There’s also some evidence that migraineurs are less likely to have huge egos.

Sacks writes that:

Transient states of depersonalisation are appreciably commoner during migraine auras. Freud reminds us that “… the ego is first and foremost a body-ego … the mental projection of the surface of the body.” The sense of “self” appears to be based, fundamentally, on a continuous inference from the stability of body-image, the stability of outward perceptions, and the stability of time-perception. Feelings of ego-dissolution readily and promptly occur if there is serious disorder or instability of body-image, external perception, or time-perception, and all of these, as we have seen, may occur during the course of a migraine aura.

Yet these various upsides for the migraineur can’t be separated from the huge downsides: visual disturbances, the loss of muscle tone, crushing headaches, and an unshakeable feeling of anxiety and depression.

It took me years to pinpoint the triggers for my migraines. Can you imagine the process that I had to go through to discover that the natural food colouring Annatto is guaranteed to bring on an episode? No Coca-Cola, cheap custard, or Red Leicester cheese for me! One time, when I was working as a teacher, my wife had to pick me up and take me home after I confiscated a bag of sweets from a child, ate one, and within minutes started seeing huge jagged shapes in my peripheral vision.

Karma.

These days, I’m more clued-up on the small changes that happen to my mind and body in the 24-36 hours before my first visual disturbance: I notice my body losing muscle tone; I start biting my nails; I want to be alone. It’s no coincidence that I’m writing this blog post in a room by myself with chewed-off nails. I’m expecting the aura anytime soon.

Wiseman describes her visual disturbances as:

[A] flickering blind spot in the centre of my vision. It starts small, a spinning black penny in the middle of a page. I slump in my seat as it spreads darkly over my sight like jam, and I can’t see, or think, or entirely understand speech. It’s the film melting in my projector – it’s a bit like falling.

My migraines are nowhere near as frequent or intense as they used to be. I avoid triggers such as specific food and drink, stay away from fluorescent lighting, ensure I get enough sleep, and make sure I drink enough.

When I worked at a university, my migraines were bad enough to find myself on the disability register. These days, they’re much more manageable, for three reasons:

  1. Medication — after many failed experiments in my twenties with preventative medication, I’ve discovered Rizatriptan Benzoate. These wafers, so long as I take them within the first few minutes of aura, mean I can get on with my day.
  2. Working from home — this has had many other benefits, but from the point of view of my migraines, it means that they no longer force me to take a day off work. If I have a migraine in the morning I can, so long as I take my medication, get back to work in the afternoon.
  3. Exercise — while I have to ensure I don’t become dehydrated, running, swimming and going to the gym help me not only with migraines in particular, but mental health more generally.

However, as the RAF Wing Commander correctly noted, stress is always a trigger of migraines. So, in a sense, I’m quite glad that my body has a very obvious system to force me to rest. I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that intense, high-stress environments aren’t places where I can thrive.

I want to finish with a quotation from Eva Wiseman’s article:

Half of me knows my life would be simpler if I concentrated harder on looking inwards, and took on the part-time job of doctors’ appointments and pills. But the other half, the one that enjoys the sleepy curiosity of life with a migraine and those three long days of magical thinking, is less willing to try and define what is migraine, and what is me.

We’re often told to listen to our bodies, but in a very real sense, I don’t have much option. I’m not sure where my migraines end, and I begin.

Image by Lizzie at Unsplash

Some utopian thoughts

In all the excitement of turning my weekly Thought Shrapnel newsletter into a regular Patreon-supported blog, I’ve neglected this space. I’d like to rectify that.

While I still post my weeknotes here, they’re not ruminations on the state of the world as I see it. Using other people’s work as a provocation is great (and the basis of Thought Shrapnel) but, now that’s established, I’d like to return to thinking about the way things are and how they should be.

Last week, at a conference I attended, a woman from CUNY in Brooklyn stood up and introduced herself. In the process of doing so, she explained that her area was ‘utopian studies’, which got me thinking. I’ve been finding solace recently in describing things as they are, rather than how they ought to be. But, in order to live a life dedicated to the improvement of self and society, I’m not sure that’s enough.


So, what would utopia look like for me?

First, it’s important to note that there’s nothing like regular travel to different countries to disabuse you of the notion of there being simple solutions to human problems.

Second, for me at least, this question cannot be meaningfully answered at an abstract level until I’ve answered it at the local, specific level. In a nutshell, I’d like to live in a world that values human connections, respects the planet we inhabit, and uses technology to improve our mental and physical well-being.

Third, utopia is usually seen as unobtainable, with one definition being “an impractical, idealistic scheme for social and political reform“. Another definition, however, and one that I prefer, is “an ideally perfect place, especially in its social, political, and moral aspects“. Just as we should all have an answer to the question, “What do you want to do with your life?” so we should be clear on the world towards which we’re striving.

Fourth, words are cheap. It costs nothing to promise to do something or to write a manifesto. The important work is putting your own words, or those with which you agree, into action.

Fifth, structures are more important than promises. It’s great that we live in a world where companies, both for-profit and non-profit, have mission statements. However, it’s structural issues than enable or prevent change.

Sixth, follow the money. This works on an individual, local, national, and global level. People spend money on things they deem important — either in an attempt to change things, or to shore up an established position. Any thoughts of utopia, therefore, need to balance up competing claims.

Seventh, and finally, as the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle stated, “Culture is the process by which a person becomes all that they were created capable of being.” Our focus as a society, or as a collection of societies, should be on human flourishing.


These were just some idle thoughts on a lazy Sunday morning. I’d love to read your (slow, considered) replies. Perhaps in your own blog? Or we could have a chat on Mastodon?

I’m going to be reading Utopia for Realists soon. We should start a book club.

Tools and spaces to create a positive architecture of participation

Earlier this year, in a post entitled How to build an architecture of participation, I explained how, in my experience, systems designed for user contribution require the following elements:

  1. A clear mission
  2. An invitation to participate
  3. Easy onboarding
  4. A modular approach
  5. Strong leadership
  6. Ways of working openly and transparently
  7. Backchannels and watercoolers
  8. Celebration of milestones

To build on that post, I’d like to explain the kinds of tools and spaces that can create a positive architecture of participation. Please note that, in and of themselves, merely using a tool or creating a space does not guarantee participation. Rather, the tools and spaces help as part of a more holistic approach to encouraging contribution.


When I run projects, as I am doing for Moodle as of this week (more specific details on that in a future post), the following are the kinds of tools I tend to use and the spaces I look to create. It’s worth pointing out that my guiding principle is always the ‘scaffolding’ of people’s attention, and that my mental model for this is influenced by the ‘alternative’ version of the RACI matrix:

Responsible
Those responsible for the performance of the task. There should be exactly one person with this assignment for each task.

Assists
Those who assist completion of the task

Consulted
Those whose opinions are sought; and with whom there is two-way communication.

Informed
Those who are kept up-to-date on progress; and with whom there is one-way communication.

 


A) Index

I’ve written before about why you need a single place to point people towards when discussing your project. Not only does it mean a single place for potentially-interested parties to bookmark and remember, but it ensures that the project team only have to perform the administrative duties of updating and curating links once.

Ideally, the URL you give out is a domain that you or your organisation owns, and which points to a server that you, or someone at your organisation, has direct control over. The specific software you choose to run that almost doesn’t matter, as it’s an index — a jumping off point to access spaces where things are actually happening.

Having a canonical URL for the project is useful to everyone in the RACI matrix, from the person responsible for its success, right through to those just being kept informed.

N.B. This is one of the points in Working openly on the web: a manifesto.


B) Documentation

Every project needs a flexible, easy-to-update space where the roadmap can be shared, decisions can be recorded, and an overall sense of the project can be gained.

Wikis are perfect for this task, although increasingly there are tools with wiki-like functionality (e.g. revision history, on-the-fly rearrangement of categories) that do the job, too. Ideally, you’re looking for something that allows your project to look good enough to encourage contribution in someone new, while you don’t have to spend ages making everything look pretty.

Again, documentation is useful for everyone involved in the project, whether responsible, assisting, consulted, or informed.


C) Tracker

One of the biggest things that people want to know about a project is the current status of its constituent parts. There are lots of ways of doing this, from a straightforward kanban approach, to a much more powerful (but potentially more confusing) ticket/issue-based system. The latter are favoured by those doing software development, as it helps avoid unhelpful ambiguity.

My time at Mozilla convinced me that there’s huge value of having everyone at an organisation, or at least on a particular project, using the same tool for tracking updates. The value of this is that you can see what is in progress, who’s working on it, what’s been completed, any questions/problems that have been raised, and so on.

While the tracker might only be used rarely by those being kept informed of the project, it’s invaluable for those responsible, assisting, or being consulted.


D) Asynchronous reports

Producing regular updates ensures that there is a regular flow of information to all parties. In my experience, it’s ‘out of sight, out of mind’ when it comes to digital projects. You have to keep reminding people that work is ongoing and that progress is being made on the project.

One way to do this is to blog about the project. Another way is to send out a newsletter. There are plenty of ways of doing this, and it’s worth experimenting with differing timescales as to the frequency of updates. While a bit of (appropriate) colour and humour is always appreciated, so is getting to the point as quickly as possible in these updates.

Reports are primarily for the benefit of those being kept informed about the project. It’s worth remembering that these people may, depending on changes in project direction (or their interest/free time), be in a position to assist or be consulted.

A word about social media. Sending out updates via Twitter, Facebook, and the like is great, but I find following the POSSE (Publish Once, Self-Syndicate Everywhere) approach works best. Use social networks for what they’re best at: surfacing and linking to information in a just-in-time fashion. I wouldn’t use them for the actualy content itself.


E) Synchronous meetings

Depending on the size of the project team and the nature of the project, you may decide to run synchronous meetings more or less regularly. You should certainly run some, however, as they afford a different kind of dynamic to asynchronous, text-based approaches.

There are plenty of tools that allow you to have multiple people on a synchronous audio (and/or video) call, ‘dialling-in’ from wherever they are in the world. It goes without saying that you should be mindful of the timezones of potential contributors when scheduling this. You should also all be looking at an agenda that can be updated as the meeting progresses. The project’s documentation area can be used for this, or something like Etherpad (one of my favourite tools!)


What have I missed? I’ve still lots to learn from those more experienced than me, so I’d welcome encouragement, pushback, and any other comments in the section below!


Image by Daniel Funes Fuentes and used under a CC0 license

Deciding what to write about in your blog post

This is part of a series. In the following, I cover some of the things you should consider as you think about what to discuss in your blog post.


Usually, when people ask me about blogging, they ask me about one of two things. They either wonder where I find time to write, or how I find things to write about.

Where do ideas come from?

I’m a bit like the novelist Henry James in thinking that ideas for writing surround us. They’re in the air,  sparked by conversations, things we read, and thoughts we have. Almost always these writing ideas are prompted, which means that if you want to improve the rate of your outputs, the easiest way to do so is to increase the rate of your inputs. Read more. Have more conversations. Spend time walking and thinking.

Ideas come from other ideas, as Steven Johnson notes:

When it comes to the nitty-gritty of writing, however, I came across some fantastic advice shared in a wonderful book by Anne Lamott entitled Bird by bird: some instructions on writing and life. In it, the author, who runs writing classes as well as writing works of fiction and non-fiction, writes:

 “E. L. Doctorow once said that “writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice about writing, or life, I have ever heard.”

Just start writing. Many blog posts I’ve started writing have morphed into something completely different. I often start with a title and the subject I want to write about. By the time I’ve finished my first draft, I have to completely change the title because what I’ve written bears no resemblance to what I set out to write. And that’s OK.

There’s nothing new under the sun, so it’s probable that someone’s written a blog post similar to the one you’re planning to put out into the world. That doesn’t matter. The world’s interested in your perspective. What have you noticed? How did that thing turn out when you applied it to your situation? Why did this idea remind you of something else you’ve experienced?

Contributing to the wider conversation

You never know what effect you’re going to have on a reader until you put your thoughts out there. I can remember being encouraged at church when I was younger by hearing that people need to be evangelised to six or seven times before they’re ready to engage. The same is true of brands trying to make a sale. You don’t know where people are on their journey, and you’ll never know (unless they tell you) what effect your writing will have on their life.

Think of your writing as part of a the wider tapestry of the web. You’re providing a thread that other will weave together into a more complex whole. It’s worth noting, to quote Anne Lamott again, that, at least until you’ve got into your blogging groove, your first drafts are likely to be terrible. Lamott suggests recognising and celebrating the fact that no-one will ever see these ‘shitty first drafts’:

“All good writers write [shitty first drafts]. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts. . . I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts.”

The upside of this is that you’ll have an insight into the trials and tribulations that other writers, bloggers, and essayists go through in order to get just the right word or sentence formation to convey their meaning. You’ll be more likely to share and comment upon good writing. In turn, seeking out that quality writing will have an impact on your own.

Finally…

If you’re sitting there with the cursor blinking in front of you or a vast white expanse of emptiness to fill, then tighten the focus. I can’t find the exact quotation, but I think it’s in Bird by bird that Lamott talks about describing a particular scene in as much detail as possible.

While she’s talking about fiction-writing, Lamott’s advice is useful for any kind of writing. Focusing in on a particular aspect of the thing you want to talk about helps get you started, helps get you some of the way towards finishing that ‘shitty first draft’ that you can then build upon.

Again, just get started. If you feel like something’s on the tip of your tongue, literally write gibberish using your pen or keyboard until the words come. The brain is wonderful at self-correcting when it sees something that’s wrong. If what you see in front of you is different from what’s latent inside your mind, often the right words come tumbling out. Try it!


Photo by WOCinTech Chat used under a Creative Commons Attribution license.

Putting your blog post into the world

This is part of a series. In the following, I cover some of the things you should consider as you put your blog post out into the world for others to read. This includes discoverability, commenting, and following-up.


According to one source, over two million blog posts are published each day. Some of these are personal in nature and will be read, and are intended to be read, by a very small audience. Meanwhile, some of these blog posts are written by paid staff and are meant to be read by as wide an audience as possible. The latter is often known as content marketing.

Content marketing means attracting and transforming prospects into customers by creating and sharing valuable free content. The purpose of content marketing is to help the company to create sustainable brand loyalty and provide valuable information to consumers, as well as create willingness to purchase products from the company in the future. This relatively new form of marketing usually does not involve direct sales. Instead, it builds trust and rapport with the audience. (Wikipedia)

You might be reading this and thinking ‘content marketing doesn’t apply to me’. I want to persuade you otherwise. Like it or not, people will use your writing as a way to think about you as a person.

Discoverability

Your blog posts will turn up when people use a search engine to find out more about you. This means that you’re in the game of reputation management. While you’re not neccessarily “attracting and transforming prospects into customers” the whole point of you writing the post is to inform, engage and/or entertain and audience.

Although some people (including me!) still use RSS readers to get updates on news that interest me, most people these days come across things via social networks. Unless you are actually blogging on behalf of a brand, the chances are you won’t have the time, patience, or inclination to post to every possible place where you could promote your work.

Instead, focus in on what you’re trying to achieve, and select the places you’re going to prioritise. For example, I don’t have a Facebook or Instagram account, and have long since given up on Google+. As a result, every time I write a new post, it goes straight away to:

Then, at the end of the week, I include the posts I’ve written in my weeknotes, as well as in my newsletter.

Although I’ve experimented with auto-posting to social networks, I’ve gone back to doing so manually. Each one has a certain ‘grammar’ to it and, well, it just seems obvious and a bit tone-deaf when people auto-post. It’s best to do it in a more organic way, I’ve found.

Remember that many social networks will auto-preview your blog post with at least the title and image you’ve chosen to accompany it. Make sure these tell the story (and/or give the vibe) of what you’re trying to get across.

Commenting

Mainly as a result of the explosion of social networks over the last decade, I’ve found that it’s become less and less likely that people will leave a comment directly on my posts. Some people use plugins to allow Facebook to power their comments section. Some people do without a comments section altogether. It’s entirely up to you.

What I’d advise is that you should be intentional about the ‘call to action’ (as it’s known) that you provide. If you want people to leave a comment, then say so — and suggest what it might be about. For example: “I’d love your thoughts on whether comments sections are a good or a bad idea”.

Unless you decide to turn off comments, you’re going to want some kind of moderation system in place. Most these days allow you to hold comments by first-time commenters in a queue for you to review. Once they’ve proved they’re not a spam bot or a troll, you can let them post directly to the site.

I know others have had problems with commenting and, while as a straight white male in a developed country I’m speaking from a position of privilege, I’ve never had many problems with comments on the web. If people step out of line, tell them so. It doesn’t happen very often at all.

Most people who read your blog post won’t comment at all. Some who do comment won’t do so on the post itself, but give their thoughts, or frame it as they share it with their networks. Again, make sure the your title is both specific and generic enough to do the work you’re asking of it.

Follow-up

Once you’ve sent your blog post out into the world, don’t just expect it to fend for itself. Support it! Nurture it!

There are multiple ways of doing this. For example, given that most people pay attention to whatever’s in their social network feed at a given moment, you might consider re-posting it a few days later. Again, there a plugins that do this, you can schedule it, or just do it in a spontaneous fashion.

Another way of leveraging the work you’ve put into the post is by citing it in a follow-up post. Use it as a building block. As you’ll no doubt have already seen, this post that you’re reading is part of a series on the same topic. That’s a great way of pointing to an emergent body of work.

Finally, don’t be shy about making people aware of your work. You’ve written your blog post(s) for a reason, for an audience. If you think someone, or someone’s network, would benefit from reading it, then tell them! You can also drop in hashtags or post to particular groups.

Remember with the latter example, however, that an important part of blogging is reciprocity. That doesn’t just go for citing and linking to other people’s work within your post, it also goes for pointing to other people’s work on social networks. You scratch their back, and their more likely to scratch yours…

What have I missed? What would YOU add to this? Let me know in the comments section below, or on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Mastodon!


Photo by WOCinTech Chat used under a Creative Commons Attribution license.

Sitting down to write a blog post

This is part of a series. In the following, I cover some of the things you should consider as you sit down to write a blog post such a structure, style, and citing other people’s work.


1. Consider your reader

It’s a bit meta, but this is what my editing window in WordPress looks like as I type this:

WordPress editor window

The first thing to think about when writing a blog post is your reader. When you’re starting off, it can be difficult to know your audience so, instead, have a particular person in mind and write for them. If it’s a professional blog it might be a colleague. If it’s a personal blog it might be a friend. It’s up to you. But write for real people.

This means that your reality isn’t the editor window you see in the screenshot above, but the finished blog post. As such, check what you’ve written looks like several times before (and after!) you hit ‘Publish’. You can see the ‘Preview’ option at the top-right of the screenshot. Use it.

Note: if what you’re writing about is particularly important, or a sensitive topic, you might want to share what you’ve written with someone else first. In those situations, I’ve found writing in something like Google Docs is an easier way to elicit comments before copying-and-pasting into whatever blogging platform you use.

2. Write like a journalist

When I was 14 years old, I wanted to be a journalist. A couple of weeks on work experience at a local newspaper put paid to that idea, but there’s several things that have stuck with me as I explored that potential career.

There’s a particular style of writing that journalists are good at: getting to the point. The first paragraph of what you write should sum up for the reader what you’re going to cover. If that doesn’t come naturally, then internet culture has come up with a useful get out of jail free card: TL;DR.

TL;DR, short for “too long; didn’t read”, is Internet slang to say that some text being replied to has been ignored because of its length. It is also used as a signifier for a summary of an online post or news article. (Wikipedia)

You can see that I’ve used the TL;DR approach at the top of this post. It’s a useful way of initially scaffolding the reader’s attention.

Another way that journalists’ writing is distinctive is the length of their paragraphs. Keeping them short makes them easier to read. Like this one!

3. Use sub-headings

Even short blog posts benefit from sub-headings. The reason that list-based posts (known as listicles) are so widely shared is partly because you know they’re going to be easy to scan and parse as a reader. You feel you’re guaranteed to get something useful out of it.

Take the post you’re reading right now. Chances are, based on eye-tracking studies, you’ve already scrolled down the page to see how long this is, and the sub-headings have caught your eye. You’ve decided that this is something relevant to you, so have gone into further detail.

Sub-headings are another way of scaffolding your reader’s attention. Let’s not forget that attention is the currency of the web.

4. Link to everything

The fundamental difference between reading on paper and reading on the web is the hyperlink. We take this for granted these days, but it’s an immensely and transformative thing. Not only can you tell your readers about a thing, but you can show it to them!

Already in this post, I’ve linked elsewhere on the web. This can be for several reasons, including:

  • Defining the thing you’re talking about (in case your reader hasn’t come across a particular term before)
  • Backing up the point you’re making (so that your reader knows it’s not just you who thinks this way)
  • Providing further information about the topic (in case your reader is really interested in this area)

If in doubt, provide a link!

5. Credit everyone

If attention is the currency of the web, then recriprocity is the way it obtains its cash value. I cite your work, and you cite mine. The most obvious and easy way to do that is to quote a source and link to it. I’ve done this with the Wikipedia example above.

Another way to do this is when you use images. Every post should have at least one image as including something visual helps readers remember the post, and entices the reader in when sharing beyond your blog.

As you’ll see with the image accompanying this blog post, you can use Creative Commons-licensed content in your own work, so long as you stick to the terms by which it was shared.

So, for example, in this series I’m using images provided by WOCinTech Chat. They make all of their content available under the least restrictive license – CC BY. This means that as long as I say who the image was originally by, I’m free to use it in my work. Etiquette dictates that I also link to the source, as you’ll see if you scroll to the bottom of this post.


Finally…

I think it’s worth saying that blogging is different to any other kind of writing. It’s wonderful in that respect. Unless you want one, you have no editor other than yourself, and there’s almost an expectation that you’ll add your personality and experiences into the mix.

In this post, for example, you’ve learned that I wanted to be a journalist, that I sometimes write about sensitive topics, and that I’m a believer in (what used to be called) netiquette. As your audience read more of your work, your personality seeps through, meaning they’ll be more willing to comment on your work.

We’ll cover the read/write nature of the web in a future post of this series. Again, it’s something we take for granted these days. You might think that you just want to quickly share something for the benefit of a few people, or are writing because you have to, but I’ve found blogging to be one of the best ways of informing the world of things I care about. It’s a powerful tool.

If you’re reading this without having started a blog, then go and get started! It almost doesn’t matter at this point where you decide to start writing. Unless you’ve been asked to write in a particular place, or really want to delve into hosting your own blog, just head over to WordPress, Medium, or Blogger and get started!


Photo by WOCinTech Chat used under a Creative Commons Attribution license.

How to write a blog post

Last month, one of my clients got in touch to ask if I could send them some guidance around writing blog posts. They asked me to include the usual things such as:

  • Structuring a post
  • Making things clear for the reader
  • How to grammar/spell check

They asked me to put together something, which effectively is a couple of sides of A4 paper, for the start of the school term for a team they’ll be working with this academic year.

One of the reasons for my delay in getting started (other than the busiest summer, work-wise that I’ve ever had!) is that, rattling around at the back of my mind, is a series  on how to write blog posts. While it’s important to cover the bullet points above, I think there’s things to say about in situating blog posts within a wider discourse.

Here’s what I’ve written so far:

  1. Sitting down to write a blog post
  2. Putting your blog post into the world
  3. Deciding what to write about in your blog post
  4. Tools to help you with your blog post

I hope it will be of use.


Photo by WOCinTech Chat used under a Creative Commons Attribution license.

My information environment (July 2017)

A couple of years ago this month, I created a page on my wiki to keep track of my information environment. Not long before, I’d written Curate or Be Curated: Why Our Information Environment is Crucial to a Flourishing Democracy, Civil Society for DML Central, and I was concerned to ensure I was getting a rich and varied information diet.

Fast-forward to 2017 and the world is a very different place. So different, in fact, that I’m not so concerned that I’m choosing to read more ‘biased’ stuff. There’s a war of attention going on and, in any case, there’s no such thing as non-theory-laden consumption of information.

I’ve quit Facebook and Twitter, the former completely, and the latter I now only post links to. Consequently, I converse with my friends on Slack, and in a very nice left-wing bubble on the Mastodon-powered social.coop. I’m OK with being partisan at this stage of my life.

So below is my current information environment, give or take a couple of things I’ll inevitably have managed to omit. The wiki page can be found here.

Newspapers

Aggregators

Newsletters

I try out other ones, but these are my favourites:

Podcasts

As with the newsletters, I subscribe to other podcasts on a regular basis, but here are my go-to ones that I wouldn’t want to miss:

Routines

Internet culture

Music


Recommendations welcome! I’m always on the lookout for high-quality sources of information.

Image CC BY Alexander Svensson

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