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Eight Ways to Organize Information and Ideas

Strategies and goals

1. In my last article, I talked about the huge benefits we can get from funneling information into an outline. Outlining is helpful for a single person (or sometimes a group) to take a lot of information and make regular use out of it. In this follow-up, I’ll talk about other ways to organize a lot of information or ideas, with pros and cons for each.

Wikipedia Concept Map by Juhan Sonin

2. One option is to remember only whatever happens to stick and be reconciled to forgetting a lot of it. This is often our go-to method, for instance if we watch a documentary out of personal interest. It’s perfectly appropriate if we’re not going to need to put the information to direct use but just want to be exposed to it. For instance, I haven’t done anything specific with what I’ve learned from seeing God Grew Tired of Us, but it added to my perspective and my understanding of other people’s lives, and I’m glad I saw it.

3. We can go over it repeatedly until it’s memorized, which is the way, for example, we try to learn foreign languages, because we need that information be available in our heads. If I want to go to France and speak with other people there, it’s not going to help me to have a laptop with me so that I can look up verbs > subjunctive > irregular in my outline to help me say “Would it be a problem if I were to go along?”

4. We can leave it unorganized and just go through the whole thing when we need something from it, as most of us do or have done with notes from classes. This can go along with the memorizing approach, but it’s very inefficient if you want to be able to interact with your information and find things in it quickly.

5. We can use a tagging system in which we label each item with all the terms that apply to it, so that in addition to looking at the information in order, we can also filter down to just a particular kind. This is the way most blogs are organized. For instance, you can click the word “organization” in the tags for this post to see other posts of mine on the subject of organization.

6. We can index it, as we traditionally do with books, but this is a lot of work, and my experience is that indexes aren’t used very often unless a person knows exactly what they’re looking for.

7. If it’s information that we can somehow make into images, we can visualize it as a chart, graph, map, or diagram. Visualizing information usually means losing or hiding most of the detail and often comes with a limit as to how much information you can add, but it creates a big-picture perspective that can be difficult to come by otherwise. One approach to this is drawing or using  software to create a “concept map” (also called a “mind map” or “spray diagram”). There’s an introduction to concept maps at http://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newISS_01.htm . I must say that I don’t find concept maps especially useful, but they do seem to be fairly popular. If you get a lot of use out of them, your commenting to offer perspective on the issue would be much appreciated.

One popular (and free) concept mapping tool for Windows, Mac, and Linux is FreeMind.

8. Finally, we can link it, making connections between one chunk of information and other chunks of information. This is a lot of work, but it creates an environment in which we can flow freely from topic to another. Wikipedia (one of my favorite inventions of all time) and other wikis are organized this way, as is the Internet as a whole. It’s useful for information that keeps expanding, especially from different sources, but it’s nearly impossible to link together all the topics that might be related to each other, and it’s hard to find all of the pieces of any one particular area of knowledge; more often, we’re just led from one subject to another related one with no clear end in sight.

All of these approaches have their uses, but my sense is that outlining is the most underused and under-rated tool in the toolbox. If you’re comfortable with computers and have a mass of information or ideas to sort out, it may be just the thing to toss into your organizational mix.

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Links, People! We Need Links!

About the site

I know I’m asking for it by posting here, but I just weeded my blogroll of blogs that are no longer providing regular posts of interest to readers here, and the remainder is woeful and sparse. What blogs do you know out there that consistently provide useful, reliable information on habits, goals, motivation, and willpower? Feel free to recommend your own blog, but only if you post regularly on that topic and are providing informational rather than mainly personal or reflective posts.

I may have to throw a few other blogs of great interest in there, too. As a matter of fact, I think I will. If you haven’t been to Mayaland or XKCD, I really should recommend them to you. If you’re in the target audience for either one, you’ll thank me.

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Should Writers Have Blogs?

Writing

Writers of the Future winner and successful science fiction short story author (Analog, Intergalactic Medicine Show, etc.) Brad Torgersen recently brought up a useful question in a writers’ group: what use is a blog to a writer of fiction? Even if you manage to attract a lot of readers, are they people who are likely to be interested in your stories or novels? Is the payoff worth the effort? My response from my experience with the two blogs (ReidWrite and The Willpower Engine) that I merged together into LucReid.com some time back turned out to be fairly long and potentially of interest to some readers, so here, with a little cleanup, is that response.

An experiment in blog as marketing
Several years back I began two blogs, one for writers and the other on the psychology of habits. I started the writing blog because I often found I had things to say about writing that I was drawing from my experiences and from discussions with a large number of other new and successful writers. The psychology of habits blog was designed to build up a reputation and readership for me on the subject: in publishing-speak, to establish my platform. I was writing  a book on the subject of psychological finds about self-motivation and had concluded that I wouldn’t be able to sell it without a good platform, which is really the case for most nonfiction books these days. If you don’t have credentials or a lot of people who associate you with the topic–and preferably both–then you’re probably out of luck.

For quite some time I worked on the psychology of habits blog, posting first three times a week on a regular schedule, then every weekday. I worked up a brand, promoted it around the Web, commented on other people’s sites, and in general did everything I read I was supposed to in order to build my readership. Over the course of a year, my blog grew (slowly) to the level of readership I thought was minimal for helping me sell the book I’d been working on, so after that year was up, I started contacting agents about the book.

Nobody was interested.

The main reason I couldn’t sell the book seemed to be that I had no credentials–no advanced degree in psychology, especially–and that a blog with a thousand reads a week (this was about 18 months ago) wasn’t substantial enough for anyone in publishing to really care.

So despite a load of work, the blog-as-marketing approach ultimately failed for me. Still, I continued the blog. The topic has never failed to keep me interested.

Is your blog a pleasure or an obligation?
Posting regularly felt like a huge obligation and time drain, even when I cut back down to three posts a week. It was only when I decided to combine my two blogs, to rebrand the site to just use my name, and to post only when I had something I really wanted to share that things changed and it stopped feeling oppressive.

I now blog when I have something to say, although I do prod myself if it’s been a week and I haven’t posted anything. The blog does a lot of good in helping me structure research and integration of new ideas, and from the occasional communications I get it’s sometimes meaningfully helpful in other people’s lives. However, though it’s continued to grow in readership, it has never become a base for community: it’s more of an information outlet. It’s a good place to find out how to get motivated quickly, how to figure out if someone’s romantically interested in you, or how to stop feeling hungry, but I talk very little about my personal life or even about my adventures in writing, and try to stick to facts or extrapolate from facts, tending to qualify my statements (like this one), so I’m neither very personally engaging nor very inflammatory. It shows up in my comment counts: more often than not, I don’t get any, and yet a goodly number of people are reading what I’m putting out. I’m informative, but I’m not building community here.

By contrast, I’ve been extremely successful building a community of talented, improvement-oriented writers at Codexwriters.com, but rather than trying to do that based on the impact of my personality, I’ve done it by pulling together groups of writers who are dedicated to their craft and want to share ideas with and learn from other writers who are similarly dedicated. All you have to do to throw a good party is to get great people to come.

Who should have a blog?
My belief about blogs is that they should generally be expressions of things that the blogger really wants to share. Sure, there may be a cost-benefit calculation to determine whether or not to spend time on a particular post or on having a blog at all, but I’m not enthusiastic or optimistic about blogs that are put up primarily as marketing vehicles. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that ethically; it’s just it’s a lot of work to plow into something that’s unlikely to pay off proportionately.

I agree too with those who say that the golden age of blog-starting is over. With the literally millions of blogs out there, there’s too much noise to really stand out in the vast majority of cases. Like writing fiction in the first place, there’s not much point in doing it unless it’s something you love doing for its own sake.

On Facebook, Twitter, and the rest of the social computing world
For the record, I don’t think that social computing is an effective marketing strategy either. I see people rushing to socially compute with people who are already successful: they’ll seek out Twitter feeds and Facebook pages of authors they already like, while lesser-known writers who are scrambling for attention may get a lot of personal contacts, but won’t be building their readership. I admit, though, that I’m working from personal experience and impressions of other people’s experiences, not from any carefully-gathered body of information. It’s possible that using social networking as an author can be a great marketing strategy for some people: I’ve just never seen (or heard of) it working.

As for blogs, I think the bottom line is that they are more writing that will take time away from writing fiction, and so they are worth doing only if they’re something you really want to do or would be doing in some form anyway. It’s enthusiasm for the ideas I write about and interest in spreading those ideas that keeps me writing on this blog. What keeps you writing yours?

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Hurrah for the Comment King!

Resources

On Codex we’re having a discussion about what makes blogs work (and what that even means). Since there are some very good bloggers in the group (take Maya Lassiter and Kelly Barnhill, for example), it’s an eye-opening read. Two of the most useful pieces of wisdom for me that have come up so far are the twin reminders of letting yourself shine through (“letting your freak flag fly,” as my girlfriend/partner/inamorata Janine puts it) and offering humor and entertainment in your posts. People have been trying to tell me these things for a long time, but I keep protesting “No, I have to be serious because I’m writing this post on neurotransmitters.” (As if neurotransmitters weren’t fun. Try tossing back a cocktail of dopamine and oxytocin some time and just try to tell me you didn’t enjoy yourself!)

But the award for “most excellently useful new-to-me revelations” goes to Codexian Ferrett Steinmetz, whose post “The Compleat Guide To LiveJournal Stardom And Fame, Part II” covers all kinds of really, really handy insights about effective blogging and effectively engaging your readers–and does so in a profoundly entertaining, freak-flagerific way. It even starts with a jaunty little poem.

While Ferrett’s post is written about LiveJournal specifically, almost every point he makes applies to citizens of WordPress, Blogger.com, and every other blogging system.

Ironically, I’m using very few of his suggestions in this post, but I have a suspicion they’ll begin cropping up here and there any post now.

Photo by epSos.de

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Tweet and Facebook Like Buttons: Sometimes I’m a Little Slow

About the site

I only just realized that my site hasn’t had Tweet and Facebook Like buttons on it. I use such things on other people’s posts (like Tweets I put up recently about posts on Nathan Bransford‘s and Amanda Hocking‘s blogs re: Hocking’s huge eBook success) and was just assuming I had already gotten around to putting the tools up here. Oops.

If you have a blog and don’t mind if people spread the word, here’s a friendly reminder to not be like me and to put up those tools promptly. In case you use WordPress, the plugins I used were the WordPress Facebook Like Button and Tweet This.

On the subject of blogging, my friend Maya, who has a creative and interesting blog of her own (Mayaland), re-recommended the fun and cool Hyperbole and a Half blog today, and I wanted to pass on the favor.

UPDATE: Right around the time I posted this, the Jetpack plugin became available for WordPress.org users (people who, like me, host their own WordPress sites). If you install and activate Jetpack, you can then go into your Jetpack screen and turn on the free Sharedaddy feature, which provides much of the functionality I’m talking about here and more. As I like the way Sharedaddy works, I swapped that in and removed some other social networking tools from the site.

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