Random Notes

The public notebook of writer and essayist Scott Nesbitt

I think about that goal quite a bit, and I always come to the same conclusion: the goal of technology is to free up our time. Time to do important work, or time we use to relax and escape work.

Far too often, though, technology becomes an end in itself, not a means to an end. Often, using technology becomes a perverse arms race. We try to find newest, shiniest technology because we've heard it will transform our workflow or mystically boost our productivity.

Productivity isn't about making technology the centre of your efforts, the centre of your life (working or otherwise).

Technology is a tool. Nothing more, nothing less. It is, to a degree, an extension of yourself. You use technology to help make your processes, your workflows more efficient. You use the technology to help do your work.

Technology isn't doing the work for you. You're the prime mover. You're the linchpin.

Think about this: you'd still be doing the work if the technology wasn't there. Technology is a convenience. Remember to treat it that way.

It's no secret that I'm a fan of the Andrei Tarkovsky movie Stalker. Like Tarkovsky’s other venture into the realm of SF, Solaris, Stalker is a very stark and spare film. There were no special effects to speak of and the use of special sets was minimal. The key was the story.

Thinking about that movie reminded me of a conversation that I had back in the late 1990s about form versus function in writing. The thrust of that conversation is still relevant today.

Admittedly, I'm not a stylist with my writing. I like to think what my fingers tap out is occasionally interesting,. But I'll never be accused of breaking new ground when it comes to literary forms.

But many people like flash. They like convoluted descriptions and funky layouts. And that was the starting point of the conversation I mentioned.

Back then, I was helping write articles for a newsletter put out by a small company. The newsletter itself wasn't anything spectacular to look at. The layout was functional, the articles fairly well written. Someone from the company's support team, who had an opinion on everything, constantly berated the folks doing the newsletter. It wasn't dynamic enough, it didn't have enough colour or images.

Of course, he wouldn't listen — or, at least, answer — when I asked him how all of that would make the newsletter better. Even without all of those extras, a majority of the people who received the newsletter actually read it.

One lesson that I learned was that there are people who care about how a published piece of writing looks. They might also care about the writing itself but for them the appearance of something helps determine its quality.

Does that mean you need to make everything look like a professionally-designed magazine? Do you have to write over-the-top prose that catches peoples' attention but which they either promptly forget or give up reading part way through?

I don’t think so. To paraphrase a former co-worker, you’re not going to hang anything you write on your wall. What you write doesn't have to be art to be effective. Worry about making what you write clear, complete, accurate, engaging, and readable.

Keep your writing simple. Complex systems tend to break down. They require a lot of maintenance. Simple systems, on the other hand, can last a long time.

How do you keep things simple when writing? Find a format or three and stick to them. It's OK to deviate from whatever format(s) you choose, but always keep the basics of good writing in mind. Deathless prose doesn't have to be flash. It just needs to be interesting.

Just as Tarkovsky eschewed big bang special effects in favour of telling a story, focus your efforts on keeping your writing accurate and useful. That’s the main reason people are reading what you're writing. If you use a bit of flair to draw the reader in further, then that’s a bonus. Just don't overdo it.

There are people out there obsessed with time. With saving time (if that's even possible).

You know this type of person: finding shortcuts or hacks that enable them to perform a task a few seconds faster. Mixing similar jobs into batches to tackle them in one fell swoop. Finding the best spot to stand on the train so when they arrive, they're right at the exit of the station. The list, as they say, is endless ...

Those folks are shaving bits of time off what they're doing. But what are they doing with those shavings?

They can't just sweep those shavings up and mold them into a timey-wimey ball that will give them an extra hour to sleep or to play tennis or to spend time with the important person in their lives.

That time just doesn't add up. And it's probably not worth all of the mental energy it took to save that time.

When I started this blog, my intention was to post in this space occasionally. What occasionally meant at that time ... well, that was up in the air.

For whatever reason, posting here became a weekly affair (more or less). There's nothing wrong with that, but sometimes that schedule seems (at least to me) a bit forced.

I'm going to try to go back to the original plan of this blog — publishing occasionally. That could mean every 11 days, twice a week, or at longer intervals. Doing this will give me a chance to practice what I preach when it comes to slower blogging.

Also, I'm hoping to keep the posts here shorter. Five hundred words or less. Why 500 words? It's the approximate word count of two typewritten pages (yes, I'm that old!). If I can't get my point across in that number of words, I'm not doing my job am I?

I'm looking at that 500 word limit as both a promise and a challenge. A promise to the fives of people who read what I post here to stay within those boundaries. A challenge to tightly encapsulate an idea or an opinion, to give you enough of a taste to intrigue you, with the hope that you'll think a bit more about that idea or opinion.

The internet has opened the whole world to us. Not only is there so much to see, there's so much to learn too.

Influenced, perhaps, by tales of uber-productive over achievers, many people try to cram as much learning as they can (in a variety of disparate areas) into the limited amount of time that they have.

Take, for example, a friend of mine. For years, he's wanted to learn both Spanish and Korean. In early 2019, he embarked on twin courses of study: trying to learn both languages simultaneously. The results, to say the least, haven't been spectacular. Or even marginally good.

In addition to sometimes mixing the two languages, he's not absorbing enough of either. He has a limited amount of time for listening, studying, practicing, and reading both Spanish and Korean. And his retention is passable (the assessment of his tutors, not me).

The problem is that my friend's energies are spread too thin. He's too mentally fatigued with life and work and everything else to learn those languages effectively and successfully.

When he originally decided to simultaneously study both languages, I advised him to focus on one. He brushed me off then. Now, after his semi-disastrous experience, he's taken my advice and his focusing on Spanish. The result? His gains are noticeable and his abilities with the language are rapidly increasing.

Trying to cram too much disparate information into your brain, quickly or slowly, results in a jumble. It results in a mess. You don't remember as much as you should. You don't learn as much as you should or need to.

Instead, focus on one thing. On one area. Do it well. Learn it to the best of your ability. Then, move on when you've reached the level that you need to reach.

Doing this maximizes your retention. It keeps your energy up. It keeps your enthusiasm and motivation strong. You won't get discouraged as easily. You won't burn out. You're more like to stay focused, to stay the course than if you try to follow several different threads at once.

What about the other things that you want to learn? They can wait. If you think they can't, then you either need to reassess your priorities or let some things go. In doing that, you might realize that some of what you thought you needed to learn isn't as important as you believed it was.

A little something from the Department of Promoting My Own Work: I’m happy to announce that the third edition of my book Learning Markdown has finally hit the virtual shelves.

Here is what's new in this edition:

  • A chapter that covers how to use pandoc to convert your files formatted with Markdown to HTML, word processor formats, and PDF files.
  • The list of tools for working with Markdown has been updated and expanded.
  • A number of general tweaks and minor changes and updates.

You can read a sample chapter if you’re curious. And if you’re ready to buy the book, you can find EPUB and PDF versions on Gumroad. It'll only set you back $3.99 (USD) (or whatever you choose to pay above that price).

I'm talking about blogs which aren't continually active or constantly updated. Ones to which a blogger posts maybe a couple of times a week, or less, instead of multiple times per day.

Blogs which aren't glorified life logs or aren't ones in which a blogger feels the need to fill dead space with nothing important because there's some dead space. Blogs that aren't hawking anything and are bereft of SEO-packed posts and annoying ads and popups and overlays.

I like to believe that the people behind the slower, quieter blogs aren't ignoring them. Instead, I like to believe that they're taking the time between posts to think more deeply about the ideas and thoughts that they eventually share.

And I like how many of them present those ideas — succinctly, in a spare yet lively and informative style. They eschew the so-called optimal length of blog posts that's been bandied about over the last few years. Instead, they use the number of words that they need to use. That could be a handful. It could be 50. It could be 300. It could be 1,000 or more.

Slow isn't such a bad thing after all, is it?

For some reason, people continually ask me that question. They're hoping I'll open the doors to writing productivity for them.

They're hoping that I'll share with them the one secret that's holding them back from achieving their goals as writers.

They're hoping that I'll turn them on to a computer or tablet or something else that will make writing a breeze.

Do you really want to know what the best device for writing is?

It's the one you're using now.

Writing isn't about hardware. It isn't about software. Whichever devices you use, whichever writing tools you use aren't what's doing the work. You are.

You're developing the ideas. You're combining words into sentences. You're crafting paragraphs from those sentences. You're arranging those paragraphs into a cohesive whole.

The device is just a convenience. It makes the mechanical portion of writing a bit easier. That's all.

The best device for writing is sitting in front of you. It's sitting on your lap. Use it, and use it well.

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