In the past year, I published my first 13 articles for a total reading time of 2.5 hours. That allowed me to improve my writing process and think about how I could best integrate this blog into my learning workflow. In this article, I outline five mistakes that prevented me from using this blog as an effective learning tool, but more importantly, how I intend to address them.
§Not writing while studying
The Feynman learning technique consists in explaining what you are learning to identify knowledge gaps and improve your understanding. This blog was meant to be the written form of this technique, so I could share about the things I'm studying, and improve my understanding at the same time.
When I started blogging, writing in a second language was enough of a challenge, so I mostly picked subjects I was already familiar with and that were simple enough. That may be useful as a form of spaced repetition, but it's far less motivating for me to write about things I've done months ago.
I accumulated a backlog of subjects I learned previously, but taking the time to write about them would just delay further learning. This is the absolute opposite of my initial intent. While it fulfills the goal of tracking some of the things I've done in the past, it contradicts my main learning objective.
There is a simple solution: writing while I'm studying, to make it an essential part of my learning workflow. That would allow me to use this blog as a true learning companion, documenting key insights and what makes it click, something that is difficult to recall after the fact.
§Wasting time on writing tools
I invested a lot of time into the backend of this website. At the beginning, it was purely a learning project to write some backend code in Rust. But when I decided to start blogging a little bit more seriously, there was a tradeoff between coding and writing.
Most of the features are aimed directly at improving the content. Take for instance the reference system, or the support for ANSI text blocks, which aren't common on popular blogging platforms.
Because I spent more time coding instead of writing, these features became the subject of a few articles. I take it as a demonstration that it was a good learning experience overall.
But now that the key features are implemented, I will have to ponder whether adding new ones is really justified. I can only improve on the backend at the expanse of writing, learning, or working on other projects.
§Starting to write too soon
My main mistake was starting to write as soon as possible, without a detailed enough plan or scope. If you tried painting before, you know all too well the temptation to start with the finest details and the thinnest brushes. This is the most assured path to sloppy results.
Jumping right into the technical details of shaping sentences makes it hard to write anything relevant. Pointless rewrites dilutes any meaningful bits of ideas you managed to put in there until you lose the original purpose entirely. Even after all of this work, you have to start again.
Learning how to reword convoluted explanations is a necessary exercise, but no manual of style can inject meaning into hollow sentences. Writing is the fun part, but it’s only a tool to an end. Without something meaningful to say, without a scope, efforts to write in a clear and concise style are vain.
For these reasons, I now stick to a general writing process that I can summarize as follows: content first, writing last. In painting, you would start by blocking the main shapes using the biggest brushes. In writing, I try not to form a single sentence until I have a precise idea of what it needs to convey.
But even if you think you're done with the preparatory work, it may still be too early to start writing. Reviewing the outline a few days later can reveal issues that you missed initially. Fixing them before starting to write will drastically reduce the time it takes to get to a satisfying result.
§Writing lengthy articles
I tried to make articles that are too comprehensive. Doing that increases the time to publication, and as I get distracted from the main point, writing becomes less and less motivating. The content expands into an absurd number of directions until writing an entire book doesn't seem so unreasonable.
The key mistake is trying to write articles without a narrowly defined scope. Some of my posts are well beyond the 30-minute reading mark. That may discourage some readers, but above all, it makes finding information more difficult for everyone.
There are times when writing at length is necessary. Instead of publishing a long article about SQLite, I could have split it into a series of four or five articles focused on each subtopic. Because series have multiple entry points, each article can reach its target audience, and interested readers have a better chance at finding what they are looking for.
Splitting articles also makes the writing process more incremental. Instead of staying stuck for weeks at the same writing stage, you can iterate faster over all of them. You get a better sense of progression, rapid feedback on your work, and more opportunities for improvement.
My writing skills didn't improve as much as I wanted. While I perceive a positive difference in my writing ability, especially in the number of drafts required to attain at decent results, writing isn't a skill that mechanically improves through repeated practice.
Acquiring new vocabulary or enhancing in style is the fruit of serious efforts. I read mostly non-fiction books, which match the kind of articles I write, but they are rarely challenging from a language perspective. I could spend some time on more difficult books, but I don't think I should focus on improving my writing style just yet.
Instead, I should increase my rate of publication. As a beginner writer, I cannot do useful edits past a certain point. Without any time constraints, you can rewrite sentences indefinitely, which is not possible when you have a deadline. The quality may decrease at the beginning, but the purpose of this exercise is to focus on the absolute basics: writing in a simple, clear, and concise style, until it becomes less of an effort.
- Make writing an essential part of your workflow, so it doesn't feel like extra work.
- Invest no more time in writing tools than what the content requires.
- Define a narrow scope, stick to it, and do not attempt to be exhaustive.
- Make a detailed outline of the key points before you write the first complete sentence.
- Set a deadline to force yourself to write in a simple style without too much fluff.