Thoughts on writing…

Over the past few years I’ve spent a great deal of my time writing. Not just writing at work, but on the internet as well.

The subject may change periodically, but the skill is the same. The more you do it, the more adept you become.

The backstory

For the past few years my efforts have been centred around Cardiff By Bike. I had re-discovered cycling having spent much of my adult life to that point believing that cars were normal and that all should make way for the mighty automobile. However, the mighty automobile was making me poor and ultimately, fat. So, I bought a bike and started riding it to work instead.

It was a life-changer. The weight dropped off, I felt younger than I had done for years. Like writing, moving about is something that gets easier and more rewarding with time and effort. I bought a cyclocross bike to replace my really heavy mountain bike and suddenly the world opened up for me.

Somehow I started getting involved in a local campaign group and quickly discovered that nobody was really talking about the fun you could have, instead focussing on how dangerous an activity cycling was perceived to be and how angry people were that elected officials were in no hurry to change that.

So, I started writing. I had made a friend at one of these meetings –Dave, who quickly reminded me of how unfit I was by taking me under his wing and dragging me around the South Wales valleys. If you are not from around here, the valleys sit just to the north of us in Cardiff and are steep sided valleys filled with coal. Extracting this coal spawned an industry that was promptly killed off by Margaret Thatcher. Anyway, I digress. These steep sided valleys have roads going up and down them and Dave and I would spend many a weekend attempting to scale them. Apparently it was all good training for my first Audax that would have me riding from Cardiff to Gloucester via Berkeley and back via Symonds Yat. All 220Km of it.

These experiences had to be written down. My enthusiasm needed to be tapped somehow, in the hopes that it would inspire others. The domain was acquired, WordPress was installed (on Nginx, should you be interested) and the writing began in earnest.

Three years later and the website is earning a reputation for the quality of the writing, which scares me a little. The imposter syndrome is strong with this one. Anyway, I thought it would be helpful to share what I do in the hope that it also helps or inspires someone.

Learning by doing

Looking back over three years of writing over 300 posts has taught me a couple of things.

  • It is often best to avoid setting a place and time for your articles or blog posts. If you say it is December and your no-doubt worthwhile advice is read by someone in July, it can be a little jarring. Think carefully about whether it matters when the post was written. If it doesn’t, trim it out. The message is important, the where or when probably isn’t.
  • Long articles take a tremendous amount of concentration and conviction to write from beginning to end in one go. These days I use Evernote to collect snippets, articles, paragraphs and photographs that may work in future posts because…
  • The article you start writing may not be the one you finish with. As you start to explore a subject you may find yourself stumbling down a rabbit hole that is far more interesting than the subject you started with. My Evernote is full of half-finished articles that have been salvaged for parts, re-used to make a point elsewhere.
  • Have a point. It is best to know where you are taking the reader, even if you don’t quite know how to get there yet. You can always edit out some of the wrong turns you may make later. It could be a statistic, an event or anything that is important to you.
  • Read. I have never been much of a bookworm, but I can be persuaded every so often when my slightly tunnel-visioned mind latches onto something. Other writers have ways of getting a point across that you may not have considered. A good writer can cut through your language of choice like a knife through butter. Learn from them.

It is very rare that words are wasted if you are organised. Build up a collection of paragraphs about a subject that you can call upon when the need arises. My go-to application is Evernote, mainly for its versatility. I put everything in one notebook and use tags to organise them. Evernote allows you to put tags in a hierarchy. For example, I have a top-level tag called “World” which has a tag for each continent underneath, followed by countries, then cities. It’s all part of the process of researching whatever it is you are writing about. In the cycling world it is often pieces of legislation, or good or bad practice in terms of infrastructure. It could also be data related to health matters.

The benefit of working with tags rather than notebooks is that some notes are relevant to more than one subject. Something about cycling in Cardiff is relevant to both cycling AND Cardiff. I started out the other way –with dozens of notebooks and the inevitable duplicate notes where they would cut across subjects.

With that said, the tool is less important than the process of researching and writing. Find a way to collect material, keep researching until you know everything there is to know and then just write, write, write.

If you do want to give Evernote a go, I’d appreciate you using this link for a free month of Premium or join me in the Evernote Community.

How urban agriculture is transforming Detroit…

I’m developing a bit of a soft spot for Detroit. The city has gone through such turmoil, from being an industrial giant to seeing much of its population dwindle and its grand buildings left to ruin.

Yet we are seeing from movements like the Slow Roll and these community allotments that there is a desire to create a new Detroit for the people who still call it home.

The importance of journaling

Whether you are a particularly busy person or not, our minds often wind up trying to juggle strings of unconnected, fragmented thoughts.

We will ruminate to the point of distraction, taking away energy better spent on the job in hand.

Sometimes those thoughts play heavy on your mind, unwelcome thoughts that serve only to depress or make you anxious.

If you have someone to bounce your ideas off it can certainly help, but sometimes we need to see things in black & white to start unpicking the fragments and arrange them into something that makes sense.

Apps

Whilst it is difficult to beat a good quality diary and a good pen, keeping a digital journal has numerous benefits.

I’ve been using DayOne for many years now. Aside from it benefiting from encryption and a passcode/touchID lock, it will pull your GPS data, or the data from any photo you choose to add. It’ll also pull in any music you are listening to, your step count and a whole host of other snippets of information that you may not think you need right now.

However, the app is less important than the process of getting the information out of your head.

Write, just blurt everything out –anything that comes to mind. It doesn’t matter what it is, or whether it directly follows the previous thought in the chronology. Just get it out and you can shuffle it around later. It may end up looking like a to-do list, but that’s just fine.

It helps to close those loops. To help you see the ridiculousness of thoughts endlessly repeating in your head, or the life-changing epiphany you’ve been wrestling with for some time.

Rise of the robots…

I’m reminded of a quote from the movie Jurassic Park. Jeff Goldblum’s character Ian Malcom, responding to the revelation that they had brought dinosaurs back from extinction.

Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.

Everything we humans do has a cost.

We invented weapons, antibiotics, cars and daytime TV without considering that people were going to kill eachother; harbour drug-resistent pathogens; become lazy, overweight and voluntarily rot our own brains. In and of themselves, with the exception of daytime TV, they are all fairly innocuous inventions. Weapons were originally intended to make hunting easier; antibiotics to stop us dying from bacterial infections; cars to travel further and faster than you could by horse or bicycle.

Unfortunately, as a species we lack the discipline to not misuse our inventions and discoveries. We live in a world of mass shootings; MRSA; obesity and “Loose Women”.

What the hell are we going to do when we invent robots that can out-think; out-manouver and out-perform us?

We know that corporations are going to see the savings in a robotic workforce and as Musk says, those in the transport industry will be first to go. Yet they won’t be the last.

We’re all going to have a lot of time on our hands within the next 10 years. Well, briefly anyway. It won’t be long before the machines identify us as a threat and wipe us all out…

Quote

Choices…

In a few hundred years, when the history of our time will be written from a long-term perspective, it is likely that the most important event historians will see is not technology, not the internet, not e-commerce. It is an unprecedented change in the human condition. For the first time – literally – substantial and rapidly growing numbers of people have choices. For the first time, they will have to manage themselves. And society is totally unprepared for it.

Peter Drucker, “Managing Knowledge Means Managing Oneself”