Writing Involves Reading

A lot of people think that ideas simply come into my head from nowhere and then I write them down. At some point, usually after three or four hours with several coffee breaks thrown in, I go fishing or do something else with my life. Somehow, the books just magically appear on sites such as Amazon and in the bookstores.

Unfortunately, writing isn’t quite that simple. During any given week I probably spend a minimum of 14 hours reading, often times more. I don’t just read computer science books either. In fact, many of my best ideas come from non-computer sources. It’s hard to say what will make a good source for ideas for my particular kind and style of writing. I’ve actually had poems influence me and more than a few fiction books. I once created a section of a chapter based on an idea I got from a Tom Clancy novel. The point is that writers are engaged in two-way communication. We get input from all sorts of sources, use that input to create new ideas and concepts, and then write those new bits of information down for others to read.

Reading differs from research. When an author researches something, the focus is direct and narrow. The goal is to obtain specific information. Reading is far more general. There really isn’t a focus, just communication. In reading a book or magazine, I might find a new technique for presenting information or a perspective I hadn’t considered before. The goal is to obtain experiences; to explore the world of print in an unfettered manner. The result is often enhanced creativity.

Of course, just as no one is able to get up in the morning and say, “Today I will be brilliant!” with any level of serious intent, reading may not produce any lasting effect at all. The communication may be an ephemeral experience of pleasure, joy, or some other emotion. Even in this case, letting the subconscious mind work while keeping the conscious mind entertained is a good idea. Sometimes a reading session, followed by a walk or some other activity, yields a solution to a writing problem that has nothing to do with the reading or the walking, but simply the allocation of time to the needs of the subconscious mind.

The bottom line is that if you want to become a writer, then you really must engage in writing activities because writing is as much about practice as it is talent. However, you must engage in other forms of communication as well or your skills will top out at some level and you’ll never fully realize your potential. Reading is truly a fundamental part of writing. Let me know your thoughts on reading as part of building skills in writing at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Facing the Blank Page

Most writers face writer’s block at some point. You have a blank page that’s waiting for you to fill it and you have a vague notion of what you want to say, but the text simply doesn’t come out right. So, you write, and write some more, and write still more, and hours later you still have a blank page. Yes, you’ve written many words during that time—all of them good words—just not the right words.

Every piece of writing I do starts with an outline. Even my articles start with an outline. Creating outlines help you focus your thoughts. More importantly, they help you to see how your thoughts will flow from one idea to the next. Sometimes, if you’re honest with yourself, you’ll discover that you really don’t have anything more than a vague idea that will never become an article, white paper, book, or some other piece of writing. Of course, that’s really the reason for this exercise—to see if you have enough information to even begin writing. If you don’t have enough information, then you need to research your topic more. Research can take all sorts of forms that include everyone from reading other texts on the topic, to doing interviews, to playing. That’s right, even playing is an essential part of the writer’s toolbox, but this is a kind of practical play that has specific goals.

Once you do have an outline and you’re certain that the outline will work, you need to mark it up. My outlines often contain links to resources that I want to emphasize while I write (or at least use as sources of inspiration). A lot of writers take this approach because again, it helps focus your thoughts. However, an outline should also contain other kinds of information. For example, if a particular section is supposed to elicit a particular emotion, then make sure you document it. You should also include information from your proposal (book goals) and your reader profile (who will read a particular section) in the outline. Your marked up outline will help you understand just what it is that you really want to write. In reading your outline, you can start to see holes in the coverage, logic errors, and ideas that simply don’t fit.

Moving your outline entries to the blank page will help you start the writing process. Convert the entries to headings and subheadings. Ensure that the presentation of the headings and subheadings is consistent with the piece as a whole. Unfortunately, you can still end up with writer’s block. Yes, now you have some good words on the page, but no real content. An outline is simply a synopsis of your ideas in a formalized presentation after all.

Write the introduction and the summary to the piece next. The introduction is an advertisement designed to entice the reader into moving forward. However, it also acts as a starting point. The summary doesn’t just summarize the material in the piece—it provides the reader with direction on what to do next. People should view a good summary as a call to action. By creating the introduction and the summary, you create the starting and ending points for your piece—the content starts to become a matter of drawing a line between the two from a writing perspective.

At this point, you have enough material that you could possibly ask for help. Try reading your piece to someone else. Reading material aloud uses a different part of the brain than reading the same material silently. Discussing the material with someone else places a different emphasis on the material. The other party can sometimes provide good suggestions. You may not use the suggestions directly, but listening carefully can often present you with creative ideas that you wouldn’t have considered otherwise.

It’s important not to overwork the piece. Sometimes you need to do something else for a while. Yes, you always want to spend time in research and thinking your piece through, some writing is often done in the subconscious. Fill your head up with as many creative ideas, fascinating thoughts, and facts that you can, and then do something that actually will take your conscious mind off the topic. You might watch a television show or movie, go for a while. have coffee with a friend, take a nap, or do any of a number of other things. The important thing is to forget about the book for a while. Often, you’ll find that the now semi-blank page doesn’t present a problem when you return. Let me hear about your ideas for dealing with the blank page at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

A Future of Fast Connectivity

When I was growing up, our home had a party line (at least, when I was younger). Of course, most people have no idea of what a party line is because most people have never experienced one. A party line is a telephone connection that you share with several of your neighbors. That’s right, you don’t have your own personal telephone connection or even a dedicated connection to your home. When you receive a call, a unique ring tells you that the call is for you and not for one of your neighbors. I’m really not kidding—this isn’t April Fools or some type of other fiendish joke foisted by someone who is older on an unsuspecting public.

The new world order of cellphones where every individual not only has an individual phone, but a separate telephone number is a huge advance over the days of my early youth. Of course, some of us still have landlines because cell access is a tad spotty, but eventually the cell providers or some other concern will address the problem. The idea that you can connect through your cellphone to the Internet and create a wireless connection is amazing. It’s not a fast connection in many areas of the country today, but at least it works much of the time.

Some people haven’t really stopped to consider the huge changes that have taken place during this transition. At one time, getting away from it all really did mean being out of touch and people survived just fine. Today it’s hard to get disconnected. Most people are tethered together 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. There is no private time and the thing we called privacy is a long forgotten dream. With the loss of privacy has also come a certain loss of freedom. Just how free are you when someone can track your movements and check up on you at any time.

Unfortunately, like it or not, the trend will just continue. I read an article entitled, Ultrafast Internet opens up new possibilities: experts, not too long ago that paints a picture of the future that some will find exciting. However, I have to wonder just how exciting it will actually be once it arrives. The mere act of walking around your home will possibly take on new meaning because virtual people could simply pop in at any time. Just think about it. You won’t be able to simply ignore the cell call you don’t want to receive anymore—the person will simply appear in your house unbidden. Of course, there won’t be anything illegal about the act because no one has bothered to create laws regarding it.

Lest you think that this is some future technology that you’ll never see, companies such as Google are making it happen as I write this post. Even though the connectivity isn’t yet what most would consider high speed, there are vendors who will sell you Internet connectivity literally everywhere—connectivity that brings this whole virtual reality one step closer. The fact of the matter is that it won’t be long and there will be no getting away from it all and there will be no privacy of any sort for anyone. We’ll be monitored, checked, validated, categorized, and controlled 24 hours a day unless laws are put in place now to keep this rampant technology in check.

The question, of course, is whether people really are ready for virtual holidays where everyone attends the family dinner from their own home (a technology called telepresence). Yes, you can see the other people, but will you truly be able to interact with them? What are your thoughts about the whole issue of connectivity so fast that our real world will be subsumed by a virtual world? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Central Clearing House for Book Contacts

A reader wrote to me the other day with an idea for creating a central place where any reader could contact any author with book-related questions. It would be a social media type idea along the lines of Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn, but with a book focus. The way this idea works is that a reader could leave a question on the central site and then the author would receive a notification through e-mail about the question. The question and its answer would remain public. That way, other readers with the same question would see the answer and not have to ask the author about it again.

This blog fulfills the idea that the reader has to a certain extent. When I receive e-mails from readers, I determine whether the question has enough interest to affect a large number of readers. When the question is better answered publicly, I put an answer up here, rather than answer it privately. Of course, there are times when a reader question needs and deserves a private answer. Using the blog approach does make it easier for me to handle some questions discretely, but nothing would keep me from including an e-mail address for that purpose in the book. The problem with this blog is that reader need to know to look here for answers. Even though I publish the URL for this blog in all of my books, readers still managed to miss it somehow and I get queries in e-mail about the availability of such a central knowledge store.

Wrox provides a centralized location for readers to exchange information of the sort that the reader mentioned, but it’s not as well known as the social media sites and I didn’t think to include the URL for it in my book (the publisher does include it as part of the Introduction). My experiences with Professional IronPython, Professional Windows 7 Development Guide, and C# Design and Development tell me that the concept is good, but reader participating is often poor. I actually get a lot more input on my blog.

I like the idea this reader has because it provides a social media type approach to a pressing need authors have to service reader requests for information. The problems are figuring out how to present the idea publicly, implement the idea in software, and then to make the site popular enough that it actually does what it’s supposed to do.

Of course, I’m always looking for input from you on making things work in a way that’s easy for you. What do you think about this concept? Is it possible to create such a site and have it become a success? Would you even frequent such a site? Let me know your thoughts on the matter at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Review of Telestrations

It can be hard to come up with a game that isn’t boring, that everyone in the family can play, and that doesn’t take forever to play. Telestrations is a game that fulfills all of these requirements and far more. My sister has said that Telestrations has turned into one of her favorite games and I must admit that I like it quite a lot too.

The basis behind Telestrations is simple communication. You get a word that you must draw on a pad that is issued to you. It actually helps if you aren’t very artistic. I don’t think the game would be quite as much fun with a group of artists as it is for those of us who are a little lacking in drawing skills. After you draw your word (not letting anyone else know what it is), you pass your pad to the next person. That person looks at what you have drawn and tries to guess the word. He/she writes the word down and passes the pad on.

The third person draws the word that the second person guessed. After creating this new drawing, the third person passes it onto the fourth. The cycle continues until you get your pad back. Because each person has come up with a different interpretation of your word, the results are hysterical. You go back through the drawings and guesses to see what sort of journey your original word has taken.

There is supposedly some means of keeping score and determining a winner, but we haven’t actually ever done that. The fun is in seeing what other people come up with. The results really are quite humorous at times. However, as far as I’m concerned, the best part is that everyone is talking to everyone else and everyone is having a great time.

Unlike a lot of games on the market, this one is completely reusable. Except for having to replace the drawing pens at some point, once you buy the game you have everything needed to have a great time. The pads are plastic coated and work like white boards. The kit even comes with some special swatches of cloth for wiping off previous drawings. If you’re looking for a good time at a family event where the event is held in the house, you really do need to check out Telestrations.

 

Talking Technical with Non-technical Audiences

Communication has always been key to any sort of technical activity, but the need to communicate efficiently is greater today than ever before. The fact that early developers were successful despite having limited communication skills is more due to the fact that early users were also technical (so they shared the same frame of reference), rather than the superiority of the application environment at the time. In fact, applications are a form of communication specific to computers, but until recently, most developers didn’t view them in that light.

The days of the solo developer working in a darkened room and subsisting on a diet of pizza and soda are gone. Applications today have to appeal to a broad range of people—most of whom have no technical skills and have no desire whatsoever to develop such skills. The complex application environment means that developers must possess the means to articulate abstract coding issues in a concrete and understandable manner to people who view their computers as appliances. In addition, developers now commonly work as part of a team that includes non-developer members such as graphics designers. In short, if you don’t know how to tell others about your ideas and the means you plan to use to implement them, your ideas are likely going to end up on the junk heap. That’s why I wrote, “10 Reasons Development Teams Don’t Communicate” for SmartBear Blog.

The problems that developers experience today have more to do with limited communication skills, than technical ability. It’s quite possible to write amazing applications without developing the skills to communicate the concepts and techniques demonstrated in the applications to others. In fact, the stereotype of the geek is funny, in part, because it has a basis in fact. Schools don’t spend much time teaching those with technical skills how to communicate effectively and the graduates often struggle to understand the basis for miscommunication, even amongst peers. Schools will eventually catch up and begin teaching developers (and other technical disciplines) strong communication skills, but in the meantime, developers and other members of the technical professions will need to rely on articles such as mine to obtain the information needed to communicate clearly.

A successful developer now needs to listen to others actively—to be able to repeat the goals others have for an application in terms that the listener understands. In addition, the developer needs to know how to communicate well in both written and oral forms. The transition between the abstract world of code and the concrete world of the typical user is something that a developer needs to practice because there are no books that adequately address the topic today. To keep costs to a minimum, developers must accomplish communication tasks within a limited time frame and without error. In short, there is a significant burden on the developer today to create an environment in which users, administrators, management, devops, and other interested parties can communicate both needs (required application features) and wants (nice-to-have application features) in a way that the developer can interpret and turn into a functioning application.

What sorts of communication issues have you faced as a developer or other technical specialist? Do you often find that people look at you quizzically and then proceed as if they understand (but you can tell they don’t)? Let me know your thoughts about communication issues at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

The Subtle Art of Communication

Communication is part science, part social experiment, and part art. The science comes from psychologists who have come up with ways to quantify and qualify various kinds of communication. The social experiment is the process we all go through learning to communicate because communication is not a skill any of us is born with. The art comes into play with the human mind that can master the intricacies of communication in its many forms. When taken together these views of communication create a picture of a complex issue that many people only partially grasp. It’s not any wonder that developers, like any other person, encounters problems communicating at times. Yet, developers must have superior communication skills in order to translate the real world requirements defined by users who don’t know how to write code, into the abstract environment that comprises an application.

The issue of communication becomes even more complex with each person involved with the communication. We’re talking a geometric progression here. When you have a two people, there are only two lines of communication to consider. Add another person and now you’re dealing with six lines. Add another and you’re dealing with 24 lines. Now imagine that you’re trying to get every element of a huge organization to communicate and you begin to appreciate the difficulty of the Application Performance Manager’s job. Application Performance Monitoring (APM) has become a critical technology for enterprises today because people can’t communicate well enough to define the precise nature of application performance issues and errors. APM seeks to aid communication by providing tools that help locate the sources of an application issue before the user even notices it.

It was with this whole issue of communication in mind that I wrote, “Breaking Down the Walls of the Siloed Application.” This article answers two important questions about enterprise communication. First, what happens when a group of perfectly reasonable people become entangled in a enterprise level conversation about a problem application? Second, how does anyone resolve the issues that such communication creates. You’ll have to read the article to get the details.

This article could apply equally well to developers, manager, and users. In fact, it’s actually a view of what happens in any social setting where large numbers of humans are trying to communicate without much success. The artistic mind of the Application Performance Manager provides the creative solutions to the problem in this case. Of course, there are many other situations that this article doesn’t address (even though the advice I provide may very well work in these situations too). What sorts of communication issues have you encountered recently? Have you found a successful solution? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Developing the Reader Profile

A lot of people have written to ask me about writing books—about the techniques I use to develop a useful book. So far, all of my books are technical in nature. Not all of them are computer-related, but the majority are. The sorts of books that I write is changing and you’ll likely see me write books in other areas in the future. Whether I ever write fiction remains to be seen, but I do plan to branch out into other areas. No matter what I end up writing, I expect that I’ll use many of the same techniques when writing future books as I use to write my current books. Mainly, I need to find a way to communicate the ideas that I understand in a form that the reader can understand. It doesn’t matter what those ideas are—they exist in my head and I need to get them out of my head and into the reader’s head.

When I’m putting an outline together, I try to put myself in my reader’s shoes. Sometimes that means actually doing a little play acting and trying out things to see how I’d feel if I were the reader. Yes, conveying technology, or any other topic for that matter, means understanding the reader and how the reader feels. It means respecting the reader as a person and understanding that the reader has specific needs, as well as specific skills. Sometimes I’ll talk to the beta readers who are reading my books about issues or bounce ideas off the technical editor for my book. I’ll review materials online and see what people are discussing online. In short, I develop a profile of my reader and roll it around in my head until I can start to see a technology from the viewpoint of my reader. It’s not an easy thing to do, but it’s a necessary skill to develop.

In a way, I’m creating a relationship with what I think my reader will be. Beta readers do offer the opportunity to interact with actual readers, but my reading audience is relatively large, so it really does come down to creating a rapport with an idealized reader—one who encompasses everything I expect that my reader will be. The relationship takes form in a profile that I write down and review relatively often as I write the book. As I come across additional insights during the writing process, I develop the profile of my reader more fully. I keep constantly asking myself how I would talk about the subject at hand if I were sitting in a coffee shop (or some other relaxing environment) with the reader.

To a certain extent, I need to consider the reader’s need for self help. I can’t provide any reader with a specific answer for most problems the reader will encounter. To do so, I’d need to write immense books that no one would want to read because they’d be too bulky. I can provide the reader with knowledge and insights, but I can’t provide the reader with a precise response to any given problem because at the time I write my book, the problem is undefined. So the communication takes the form of ideas, rather than a specific procedure, in most cases.

Authors are hindered by a number of factors. The most important of these issues is the inability to communicate with the reader in real time. It’s the reason that I try to make myself so accessible through e-mail and by writing this blog. Even with these additional levels of communication, however, there are still barriers to communication. For example, I can’t easily read your body language to determine whether my response is actually helpful—I must make my best guess. When writing a book, I have to anticipate your needs and hope that my guesses are good ones because they are, in fact, guesses.

The reader profile doesn’t have to take a specific form, but it does need to provide you with a complete picture of the reader. Even if you define a few reader aspects incorrectly, having a reader profile will help you remain focused throughout the writing process on a particular reader. Here are the sorts of questions I ask myself when creating a reader profile:

 

  • What is the reader’s education level?
  • Will this reader understand these specific concepts?
  • When will the reader be reading my book?
  • How will the reader react to certain types of information?
  • Are there social biases I need to consider when communicating with this reader?
  • How does the reader view the subject at hand?
  • Is the reader likely to have language issues or special needs?
  • Will the reader be alone or part of a team?
  • How does the reader view me?


Most of my books require that I ask other questions, but this a good sampling of the sorts of questions that I ask myself. You’d think that with all of this effort spent considering my reader that I’d communicate quite well. However, there have been books where I ended up missing the reader completely with my profile. I directed the book at one audience, but another audience actually found the book more helpful and purchased more copies of it. When that happens, I get a lot of e-mail from a lot of disgruntled readers (and the online reviews are also less favorable). These failures require that I go back and review the premises on which I based my book and make corrections. I maintain statistics for the book, and if I get the chance to write an update, I tweak the reader profile accordingly to better meet the needs of the audience that purchased my book.

Anyone writing anything can benefit by creating a reader profile. If you currently write documentation, but don’t create a reader profile, I encourage you to do so because you’ll end up with a far better document as a result. As the years have passed, my profiles have gotten better, but I’m under no delusions that I’ll ever write the perfect profile. Even so, I’d never consider writing a book now without creating a reader profile first. Let me know your thoughts about using reader profiles at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.