This is my tenth post for this blog, so I thought some reflection would be all right. Originally, I started blogging to write about things I had been thinking about for some time. I wanted to provide value to the readers, because otherwise these readers would not come back after their first or second visit. Moreover, though, I was writing for myself - to better explore my thoughts, convictions, and beliefs. To sharpen my reasoning, and compare my standpoint to that of others.
A work-out for your mind
Writing as a mental exercise can take many forms, as I have already hinted at in my previous article. Published articles are one of them, and certainly one that I can recommend. It is amazing to see how you sit down and start writing about a rough theme that’s itching somewhere in the back of your head, expecting to come up with no more than a page or so, because it all feels rather thin. Then, you start exploring the subject, and you begin to see that there is more to it than you first thought. Your thoughts go deeper, like roots that reach into the ground, but are invisible on the surface. You apply more and more structure to the problem domain, you can distinguish different cases and find telling examples. Suddenly, you end up with not one, but five pages, and start thinking about splitting the article in two, in order to keep it reasonably bite-sized.
This has in fact happened when I wrote about hitting the right level of abstraction when reporting status to somebody else. At first, I had this vague idea of “the right level of abstraction” in mind. The idea that you should provide enough detail to help somebody else reach a decision or get a clear picture in her mind, but that you must not overwhelm her by telling her everything down to the version and patch numbers of the last library you have introduced.
Then, when constructing a series of examples, I realized that even when you confine yourself to the right level of abstraction, you can still include a lot of unnecessary information in your reports. So I added a second rule, focus on the relevant facts only. And this was still not enough, because I realized that a status report has not deserved this name without telling what the next steps are. In the end, I split the article into one dealing only with the right level of abstraction, and a second one on the additional rules for good spoken reports.
Make up stuff as you go
Why am I going through all this again? Because it illustrates how writing sharpens and develops your thoughts. Think about your favourite bloggers out there. They probably wrote some great articles that you like. Now, when they sat down to write one of these articles, do you think they already knew every word they were going to write? I doubt it. I strongly assume that they knew some of the words, but that the majority occurred to them while they were doing the actual work of writing.
I say “work” very consciously here, because writing is work, and can be hard work sometimes. Stephen King famously said: “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.” And he is right: It is of no use to sit around, waiting for that great enlightenment that gives you the idea for the perfect sentence, or the perfect paragraph. That is waterfall-writing, which, like waterfall software development, does not work. The better way is going through iterations. Paul Graham has described this briefly, but sufficiently, so I won’t go over it again. Just one interesting quote from his article, which confirms my belief:
“Expect 80% of the ideas in an essay to happen after you start writing it, and 50% of those you start with to be wrong.”
Some very immediate proof that the majority of ideas comes after you start writing: I have never before today used or thought about the term “waterfall-writing”. I do not think that I saw it elsewhere, either. It simply occurred to me while I was writing about the Stephen King quote. Conversely, I think it would not have occurred to me if I had not started to write this article. Granted, it is not a great breakthrough or will go down in history, but it was certainly a creative act that was spurred by the mere activity of writing.
Such is the power of verbalizing things. If you find your own words for things that you believe you know, you truly make them your own. Reading the book Actionable Agile Metrics For Predictability, I got a good idea of cumulative flow diagrams and just-in-time commitment. However, only by giving presentations on the topic and writing a blog post did I gain a deep understanding of the concepts presented in the book. You have probably made the same experience: The things you explain to others are the things you understand best.
The neat thing, however, is: The effect is in the verbalizing, not necessarily in the teaching. You can create a presentation or write a tutorial entirely for yourself, without the intention of ever showing it to somebody else, and the learning effect would still be there - at least the greatest part of it. Thorough verbalizing yields deep learning.
John Sonmez writes the following about this effect in Soft Skills: “The act of thinking about the best way to explain something and put it on paper, or into words or slides, causes you to put together the disconnected bits of information in your brain and reorganize them in a way that makes sense. You essentially have to reteach yourself before you can teach someone else. This is why teaching is so effective for learning.”
Moreover, John states - and I fully agree - that verbalizing is also a great way to identify gaps in your knowledge. Maybe it has happened to you, too: You start explaining, say, ES2015 generators to a friend, and you thought you knew what they were about, but suddenly you explanation slows down and you look for the right words. In that moment, you realize that you do not feel fully confident on the subject, and this realization was brought about by trying to verbalize your knowledge. Now is the perfect time to seize the opportunity: Identify exactly which aspects are not 100% clear to you yet, and try teaching somebody (or your imaginary friend) about generators until you do not start every sentence over 15 times any more.
Above, I wrote that the greatest part of the learning effect comes from verbalizing, not from teaching. However, I also believe that actually interacting with other human beings can have an additional, strongly positive learning effect. More specifically, they challenge your explanations, expose weaknesses, ask for alternative points of view, maybe offer their own explanation, and ask you to be clearer in your words - all of that can strengthen your understanding even more.
There is try
Before closing, let me get back to the idea of starting an article even though you do not really know where the journey goes yet: Ultimately, this means that you have to try to produce an article, without a guarantee of success. And I am pretty certain that trying has a great tradition among writers, considering the evidence:
- The word essay comes from the French essayer, which means - you guessed it - “to try”.
- What are the Internet standards called? Right, RFCs, or “Request for Comments”. That is basically the author’s way of saying: “Check this out, I have tried to come up with something that makes sense, but I cannot possibly have thought of everything, so please lend a scrutinizing eye and help me see where I am wrong.”
Doesn’t all of blogging follow the RFC principle? I assume that very few bloggers put their work out there and expect universal agreement. I certainly don’t. Some controversy is good, it spurs discussion and new ideas. It encourages us to become better. So the biggest step to take is really the first one.
By the way, after writing the first one or two paragraphs of this article, I thought: “God, this is utterly useless and irrelevant.” After the first hour into writing, I did not think that any more, because the amorphous mass in my head began to take shape, and more meaningful thoughts started to pop up. Verbalizing my thoughts helped me structure them, and ultimately arrange the words in such a way that I had the feeling of actually saying something. That does not mean that starting the article was not a bit scary. But, more importantly: Finishing it now feels rewarding.
P.S.: For the record, writing this took me about 2h 20min. A bit over 1h was on train rides during my commute, which I usually find an excellent environment to focus.