Some personal hopes for 2015

2014-12-12

I don’t want to call them resolutions – doing so means failure if they don’t come off. However, there are a few things that I hope will happen in the next twelve months.

1. Focus more on writing (or, creating and communicating)

When it comes down to it, the thing I most love doing is writing. Not proposals, or reports, or meeting notes – but creative stuff, on this blog and my newsletter.

Actually, maybe it’s a bit more than just writing – it’s communicating ideas generally. Attention seeker that I am, I do love speaking at events, and I see that as being a similar activity.

You could also roll in stuff like my podcast, which I really enjoy doing and need to put back onto a more regular footing. It ought to be possible to get at least one a month done.

On the blog I have managed to have a good run over the holiday period, having the time to think about what to post and to actually write it up has been super valuable. I’d love to be able to carry on publishing a reasonably substantial piece every day, or perhaps at least three times a week.

I’d also like to figure out a why of publishing shorter bits, maybe quick posts that point to an interesting website or app, or a news story perhaps. Also, the bookmarking I do of interesting stuff elsewhere on the web could be made more of I think, but am not sure right now what that might look like.

Finally, the newsletter needs rebooting. I managed to get quite a few issues out last year but would really like to be able to stick to a weekly publishing schedule in 2015. Of all the things I write, the newsletter is probably the most rewarding, especially in terms of the feedback I have been getting.

2. Get a proper job

Yup, I think it’s time. It’s four years since I left my last permanent post, at Learning Pool, and the last proper public sector role I had was at the information authority back in 2008.

Freelancing is fantastic in many ways, and it does suit me to a certain extent. However, it’s also exhausting. Even when you have what feels like a long term contract, you can’t let the networking or business development side of thing drop for a moment, because in six month’s time, you’ll be needing something new to do and need to be on people’s radar.

I also want to be able to actually deliver something that has my name all over it. As a consultant, you’re only ever supporting others to achieve things. Having a real single focus is something that appeals to me right now – particularly if it is going to be something that has a real positive impact on people’s lives.

Finally, I think the time is right for my family for me to have something more stable and a little more consistent in terms of working hours and levels of stress. I’d like to be able to experience something approaching a normal life, even for just a short while, and I owe it to Catherine, Ben and Ruth to try my hardest to make that happen.

So what does this mythical job look like? Well, something fairly strategic, where I can bring my experience of working across a number of organisations to bear. It’s no coincidence that I have recently been blogging about the ‘shared CDO‘ idea and that sort of role is definitely one I would love to have a crack at.

3. Do some real L&D

Just before Christmas, I started doing a course on CodeAcademy – the basic one on Python programming. It was really helpful in terms of doing some learning for learning’s sake – after all, I’m not going to be getting any work as a developer any time soon.

I’d really like to be able to do some proper learning this year if I can. I’ve been looking through the Open University course catalogue – but to be honest I’m not sure if the more formal courses are really for me, and of course there’s the cost.

So maybe the thing to do is to stick with the informal stuff, do some courses on the various MOOC platforms that are out there and other training sites like Lynda, and basically build my own curriculum.

4. Make something happen around digital capability – particularly in local government

In the context of work, I’m passionate about two things mainly – the internet and learning and development. My work in 2014 at the Department of Health helped me to combine these things, and if I took a regret away from my time at Learning Pool it was that I didn’t do anything significant to boost digital skills in the workplace via their amazing community.

So, during 2015 I’d like to be able to work on something that can contribute to the digital capability agenda, particularly in local government where it’s probably most needed right now.

I have some ideas on where to start, and no doubt I will be sharing them in all their half baked glory here on the blog soon.

Why writing helps

One of the things that I love about being a blogger is the encouragement it gives me to write.

Writing helps.

It’s fair to say, I think, that if you want to get good at something, then writing about it is a key part of the learning process.

You don’t even have to do it online, or even on a computer. Having a notebook you can put thoughts and reflections down in on a regular basis will do wonders for you in terms of thinking through problems and assessing what you are doing.

If you have an idea for something, making yourself write it down, think about the words you use and how you articulate it, will help you spot what’s good and what’s not so good about it.

As I said, you don’t have to do this on a blog. But there’s an advantage to sharing your writing online.

It adds another level of thinking critically about your writing. Knowing that other people could well be reading makes you think a bit more about each phrase and each sentence. It sanity checks your ideas – if you’re embarrassed to be blogging about it, maybe it’s not such a great solution to your problem.

This obviously works for individuals, but it works for teams too, and organisations. Share with people what you are thinking and what you are doing. Force yourself to articulate it in terms that will be clear to those that are reading them.

It will help improve your work and your understanding – even if nobody else ever reads it.

Writing apps – the software I use to get words on a page

writingI probably think about this sort of thing far more than I should – after all, doesn’t everyone just use Word? – but I like playing with different tools for writing.

After all, for me, typing words into a computer makes up probably 75% of my job. That’s a lot of typing and so it’s worth making it as little of a painful experience as I can.

So here is a list of the different tools I use to write text with.

Byword

Byword is a ‘distraction free’ writing application which works on my Mac and iPad, syncing through Apple’s iCloud service. It’s a very simple editor, that pretty much just lets you type in text in plain text format. You can do some formatting with Markdown, which you can then export, but I tend to use it when I just want to bash some words down, without thinking too much about how it looks.

Find out more about Byword

MarsEdit

MarsEdit is the app I use to write my blog posts. It’s a bit of desktop software that lets me bash in the content for my posts offline, using a very simple plain text editor. I’m able to add tags and categories to my posts, which I then send up to my blog in draft, ready for a final check, adding images and hitting publish.

I don’t know why, but I just find writing posts in MarsEdit more comfortable than using the WordPress editor – hence why I class WordPress as a publishing tool rather than a writing one. A big part of it is probably down to the keyboard shortcuts I use to quickly enter and mark up content in MarsEdit, rather than having to constantly switch to the mouse to select icons.

Find out more about MarsEdit

Apple Mail

An awful lot of the words I write are emails, and so my email client has to feature in this list. I use Apple Mail mostly by default nowadays – previously I have used Gmail’s web based interface, but I do find using a desktop client helps me pace myself a bit and be a little more thoughtful. It’s basically ok – I have no complaints but then I’m not exactly a huge fan either. It works.

Find out more about Apple Mail

OmniOutliner

This is a seriously good outlining tool, which I mostly use for drafting pieces of writing or presentations. Outliners let you build up bullet style lists of content, indented at various levels of a hierarchy, which you can then drag around and reorder. It allow you to structure a document really well in the planning stage – to figure out your ideas and how they slot together.

Find out more about OmniOutliner

Google Docs

When I need to collaborate in the early stages of preparing a document, I usually turn to Google Docs. Due to the fact that it is online, it does tend to stress me out a bit – I prefer desktop apps with local copies of files when possible – but Docs is the best solution to working on something with others, particularly at the same time.

Find out more about Google Docs

Scrivener

I occasionally work on longer pieces of writing, although they almost never get published anywhere. Scrivener lets you write chunks of content for a larger work, which you can then reorder, drag around and so on. It also lets you save research notes in the same place as your draft document, which can be helpful. At the end, Scrivener spits out a rich text file that sticks all your chunks together, for a final edit, or formatting exercise in a word processor.

Find out more about Scrivener

Evernote

The writing I do in Evernote differs wildly, from meeting notes to pasting in web addressees to check out later, to

Find out more about Evernote

Pages

Pages is Apple’s own word processor, which I use occasionally for more graphical documents. It just has a more creative, desktop publishing type feel to me, which makes it ideal for that kind of work. It’s really easy to use, and I find it the best tool to work with when a document has a lot of graphical elements.

Find out more about Pages

Vesper

A super iPhone text editor. It does one thing very well, and that is writing short notes on my phone. It has a beautiful design and is incredibly easy to use and for when I just need to quickly write something without worrying about it syncing up anywhere else, Vesper is perfect.

Find out more about Vesper

Simplenote

Yet another cloud-syncing text editor. I use this to quickly get text onto my phone from another device. It’s fairly niche, but stuff like when I look up an address for a meeting on my laptop and want to get it to my phone – I’ll usually use Simplenote rather than creating something in Evernote.

Find out more about Simplenote

Word

OK, so I do use Word. Quite a lot, actually, in its various incarnations – Mac, Windows, online (via Office 365) and now, of course, on the iPad. When it comes to needing to share a document with others in a format they are likely to be able to edit, its still the best option.

Find out more about Word (really?)

What are your favourite writing tools? Do you use as many, or even more, than I do?

Link roundup

I find this stuff so you don’t have to:

Link roundup

I find this stuff so you don’t have to:

Recent writing elsewhere

I’ve been publishing a few bits of writing in places other than this blog lately.

Here’s an article I wrote for our local newspaper – the first of what will hopefully be a regular series:

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

I’ve also written a couple of articles for the Business Lincolnshire website, which is run by the County Council. One is on avoiding social media pratfalls and the other is on some of the benefits of software as a service. You can read them both via this link.

The cloud article is one of a series I’m writing to promote the conference we are running in Boston on 12 July – more details here.

Tools for writing

I use a ridiculous number of apps for writing stuff down digitally. It all depends on the context!

Rough notes, ideas and that sort of thing tend to be stored in Evernote. It’s easy, and ubiquitous and everything gets kept in one place.

Blog posts are written in MarsEdit, an offline editor. My local drafts folder is full of half-written, half-baked posts which occasionally get resurrected later on.

Any coding I have to do usually happens in BBEdit, or occasionally something like Nano in a terminal window.

Proposals and other documents which I’m the only person likely to ever edit are done in Pages, and then exported to PDF for distribution. I just like the way Pages works in terms of laying things out and so on.

Documents and reports that I need to share in an editable format with colleagues or customers have to be written in Word. Since upgrading to the 2011 version on the Mac I have found myself getting angry much less!

Longer documents, such as various guides and handbooks I am working on tend to be planned using an outliner tool. My favourite at the moment is OmniOutliner.

I sometimes use a mind mapping tool to plan a document though, which is a bit more visual. My favourite mind mapping app is MindNode.

(As well as for documents, an outliner or mind mapper is really useful for planning presentations.)

For the actual writing of bigger documents, I use Scrivener. This lets you break down the document into smaller bits, which can then be dragged around and re-ordered. Scrivener then sticks it all together into one document for you when you’re ready to publish. It’s great!

Whether using OmniOutliner or MindNode, I can import my outlines into Scrivener by exporting them to an OPML file, which then loads into Scrivener, giving me all the headings under which I need to bash text.

One type of editor that I don’t find myself using are the stripped down, distraction free apps like Writeroom or Byword.

What apps do you use for writing?

The book

So, the contracts are signed and returned, and it’s all official. I’m writing a book.

Sorry to all of my fans out there who were hoping this would be my first volume of poetry – you’ll all just have to wait a bit longer for that.

No, my book is going to be on my specialist subject: the use of social technology in public services.

The story behind this was that I was approached by Gower Publishing a couple of months ago to see if I would be interested in a writing project. Having met up with them and talked about what would be in the book, it seemed like a wonderful opportunity.

So, by August, I need to get 60,000 words written up and in some semblance of order. To help me in this task, I’ll be using the excellent Scrivener app on the Mac. I’ll also be sharing bits of the book as I draft them here on the blog, to get some feedback and make sure I’m not going off in totally the wrong direction. Everyone who comments will be acknowledged, I promise!

Here’s a brief outline of what the book will include (aside from the usual boring introductions and things):

  1. The social media revolution – the changes taking place in the ways people communicate, socialise, work and play.
  2. Digital engagement – explaining the specific context for public services – why this stuff matters to them
  3. The toolkit – high level discussion of the activities and behaviours online, and some the tools used to express them
  4. Designing and implementing your strategy – what the things are you need to consider and include, and some templates and examples
  5. Governance and risk – pretending there’s no risk using new technology is as bad as deciding it’s too risky to bother with! Governance systems, risk logs, policies and training all will be covered here
  6. Building engagement – how to get people to actually look at and interact with your stuff
  7. Measuring success – what to measure, how to do it and what success might look like

I’m also going to be wanting as many real life stories and examples as possible for inclusion, so if you would like to see your name and work in print please do get in touch!

If you’d like to be kept informed about progress and when the book is likely to be published, please do ping me an email – dave@learningpool.com – and I will put you on a list!

Right, I’d better start typing…

How I write

I thought it might be useful to offer a sneaky-peak into my processes for writing this blog. After all, given that I am trying to encourage others to do the same, it’s probably only fair that I let people know how I do it.

Obviously, it’s worth pointing out here that this works for me, and it might not for you. Also, there are probably better ways of going about it. But since I started blogging back in 2004, I’ve got into the habit of working this way, and it seems to produce a fairly steady flow of content for me.

Standing on the shoulders…

For inspiration, I spend a bit of time in Google Reader, checking out what other people are saying, Likewise with Twitter, and Delicious. I’m not necessarily hunting for things to write about, but generally imbibing information and ideas and squaring them with whatever I’m thinking about at the time. Be catholic with your reading habits – don’t just limit yourself to reading blogs in and around your own sector, but find out what people are saying elsewhere. Consider how what they write about can be applied to your interests.

Type first, think later

I spend quite a bit of time writing posts that will never see the light of day. There’s no editing at the ideas stage. Sometimes I only have a sentence, or a whiff of a concept for a post, but I make sure it’s recorded somewhere. My preference is for these to be draft posts within WordPress, but sometimes that isn’t possible, so I’ll use another tool like Evernote, or even just a text editor. I’ll usually aim to get those posts into WordPress ASAP though.

The point is that I very, very rarely sit down and write a post from beginning to end, without having a good think about it first.

So, I usually have up to ten draft posts in WordPress at any one time. I spend quite a bit of time just staring at them, then I read other things, see related content online and how I can work that into the post. Sometimes this changes what the post is about, and the original theme is lost entirely, or reduced to a footnote. What often happens is that I’ll combine two or three of the posts I have in draft to try and produce something a bit more meaty.

Go ugly early

I’ll often hit publish on posts when I’m not entirely happy with them, when the thinking is half-baked or I have a sneaking suspicion I’ve got something totally wrong. I usually get corrected in the comments, or people add stuff to help me make what I’m saying make sense. I must admit, though, that it takes a bit more nerve that usual to do this as it risks exposing me as the fraud I really am.

Your tips

So that’s a quick run through of my writing process. What tips do you have for any budding bloggers?

Andrew O’Hagan

The Atlantic OceanI’m reading the marvellous The Atlantic Ocean by Andrew O’Hagan at the moment. It’s a collection of essays, mostly taken from The London Review of Books and is a wonderful eclectic collection of writing. Take this little gem, for example, from the opening lines of a piece about celebrity memoirs:

If you want to be a somebody nowadays, you’d better start by getting in touch with your inner nobody, because nobody likes a somebody who can’t prove they’ve been nobody all along.

Thoroughly recommended.

It’s stuff like this that proves, I think, that print has a future. Longer essays like these, don’t really work on the web. It’s hard to concentrate on the screen for too long, and often these pieces need mulling over, book or paper in hand, curled up on the sofa.