Saturday, January 24, 2015

Keys to Good Writing

There are thousands of books on writing and nobody has a preferred position on it. I have some favorites that suit my style (both my cognitive style and my writing style), but different books provide different things because different people need different things. In this piece, I thought I would provide some ideas off the top of my head, expand upon them in the next few posts, and then follow up with a revision. That is, after all, how I write and I thought that allowing you to see the underlying evolving thought processes might be useful. Here are the keys to good writing in no particular order:

1) Curiosity - You need something to write about, and something that interests you may very well interest others.

2) Reading - Hearing the voice of others will help you craft your own voice as well as giving you ideas on useful techniques.

3) Need for Expression - Once you have figured something out or created something, you must have a desire to share it with others.

4) Writing Practice - Just like learning to play a musical instrument takes a lot of practice, learning to write takes a lot of practice as well. Nobody ever just picked up a saxophone and played hot jazz without years of practice. And nobody every just picked up a pen and wrote the great American novel.

5) Writing for a Target - Different kinds of writing require different styles. You have to know who you are writing for and tailor your writing for that target.

6) Determination - You have to stick with it way longer than you would ever imagine. And if that is daunting, you might want to consider something else.

This is my working outline. Over the next several posts I will elaborate on these and we will see where this little writing exercise goes.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Self Publishing

Here is something I am thinking about a lot these days. We have seen both a dramatic rise and a change in kind with Self Publishing since Amazon got in the game. It used to be, not so many years ago, that self publishing options were call "Vanity Press". The idea was that if you had to pay to have your work published; if you couldn't find a publisher to publish it; then your work was not worth publishing. And, if you paid to have it published then you were doing so to satisfy your own vanity. Most people who did this landed up with boxes of their book in their garages which they gave away to friends and relatives.

That isn't to say that nobody made any money on self publishing. Some did extraordinarily well. But, there were very few. This was because publishing houses controlled the means of distribution. So most self publishers could not get their books to the public. And they sat in boxes in the garage.

I have been carrying on in my Patterns and Predictions  blog about Dying Hegemonies of Access . The premise is that industries who primary role was to provide access to a resource that technology can provide better access to do not have a bright future. Publishing is, in my opinion, on of those Dying Hegemonies.

Any body can publish a book these days on Amazon. There is a bit more to it than this as there are Kindle books and hard copies. Of course, one must have writing skills and something to write about. But, But of all the writers who are capable of cranking out something worth buying, only a tiny fraction of them saw their books in book stores. Now, with these new options for self publishing, the marketplace is wide open. And Amazon is not only vehicle for self publishing. It just happens to be more well known.

I also don't want to imply that everyone who publishes this way is going to be successful. But, historically, publishing houses controlled which books were published and which books got into book stores. This is still true for a majority of books published today. But, that is changing and it is changing very rapidly. Self publishing is beginning to challenge traditional publishing in the same way that bloggers and people using their smart phones to make videos challenged traditional journalism. More about this to come.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Things are Always Exactly the Way They are Supposed to Be

I was writing a post in my Patterns and Predictions blog about the Dying Hegemonies of Access. In this particular post, I was using journalism as an example. Access to news has changed dramatically from the old days of daily newspapers and evening news shows to our current access to blogs, forums, online videos and social media. As I was writing the post I found myself tempted, at several points, to evaluate the change. There were good and bad things about the old way and good and bad things about the new way. Ultimately, I avoided the issue by saying "it will all work itself out over time". As I wrote that, something that I used to say came back to me. And that is "Things are Always Exactly the Way They are Supposed to Be" I didn't want to get into that in the other post as the point was to provide an example of a Dying Hegemony of Access. But, I thought it might be fun to explain it here.

First, I need to make a distinction between the natural and the artificial. This distinction is not nearly as clear as I am going to make it. But, consider the following. A band of early humans go out for a hunt and bring back some prey for food. That is natural. They are following their instincts for survival. Then, say, they capture some animals, put them in a pen, breed them, and use that as a source of food. That is artificial. When we take the world as it is, that natural. When we modify the world to suit our needs, that is artificial.

When a natural disaster occurs, we may be very upset that it occurred, but we accept it because it is natural.  So, when a hurricane wipes out a coastal town we are upset. But, since it was an act of nature we are inclined to accept it as just the way things are.When an artificial disaster occurs, such as an airplane crash or an explosion at a chemical factory, we are much less likely to just accept it.

When artificial things are not to our liking we tend to stress about them and feel like something should be done. And it may be true that something should be done. But, it is not true that we should stress about it. Does anyone stress about the fact that water flows downhill? Of course not. That would be silly. Does anyone stress about the fact that a mountain range prevents rain in a valley? No. They may look for ways to get rain. But we don't have the added stress of feeling that things are somehow wrong.

The point of all this is to so that it is natural for people to create things that are artificial. Sometimes, when we do, it works out great. Sometimes it doesn't. But, it is part of our natural to tinker. Hence, even our artifacts are natural. And we shouldn't stress about the things we do. If they are not to our liking we can try to change them. But, if you step back a bit and see our attempts to modify our environment it is not different than a beaver building a dam or bees building a hive. Some times it works out and some times it doesn't. No need to stress about it. Everything is always exactly the way it should be. If it doesn't suit our needs we can try to change it. But, it is just our human values that make it wrong. The word wrong simply does not apply to nature.

Friday, January 2, 2015

One Last Thought - Avoid Riding the Wave

When waves of change come along, one can adopt one of three strategies: get bowled over by the wave, adjust to the waves, or ride the waves. Getting bowled over is not a good strategy but it is the implicit strategy of those who are in denial about the change. Riding he wave sounds like a good strategy and while that is seductive, it is fraught with problems. Of all the people that ride the wave a very, very small number become very, very successful. Most just get dumped off and crash. It takes special talent to ride the wave. And while we know about those notable few who do, we never hear about the tens of thousands who did not handle it all as well. Even if you do manage to ride the wave successfully, you will be defined by the wave. When the wave subsides, which it always does you will be left having to redefine yourself anyway.

Adjusting to the wave is the best idea. Acknowledge that change is coming. Accept it and incorporate it into your  life. Try to create a new vision of yourself adjusting over time to the changes that are occurring. Take small steps to respond to the changes. Over time as things begin to calm down again, you will be in a good position to take advantage of the new situation.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Change is in the Air – How to Cope

I should mention, as a matter of perspective, that change is always in the air. Life never remains static. The questions to ask about change are - how big is the change and how much will it affect you and the things you care about. For example, the introduction of web technology caused massive changes for some and relatively minor changes for others. If you were the owner of a local independent bookstore, a journalist, or in one of the many professions that were profoundly altered by the web, then the changes to your life were pretty massive. However, if you were someone who used to order products from a catalog and just started ordering them on the web instead, the changes were not that great. For any change, there are those who will see it as "everything changed" and others who will see it as "just a different way of doing what you always have done before".

Massive changes can affect your identity as well as your profession. For example, if you were a steel working when the steel industry evaporated, it was not only a professional dislocation but a loss of identity.  Even if you managed to land a new job, with good prospects, the way you viewed your self in the steel industry was probably very different from the way you see yourself trying to climb the corporate ladder. So even if you managed to recover financially, creating a new identity would still be a challenge.

Let us assume, for the sake of this post, that you are one of those whose life will change significantly. What can yo do to  ? It is, as they say, easier said than done. But, the first step is to avoid denial. If things around you are changing in significant ways, you have two choices: accept that things are changing, or deny the change and put your fate in the turbulent forces of the change. Most people would say that avoiding denial and accepting the change is the way to go. But, most people actually do the opposite. One of my favorite pundits, Gerald Weinberg, once said something to the effect that people will only change to keep something bigger from changing. I think there is a lot of wisdom in that. Since one's identify and profession are pretty big things, they are only likely to change them to keep something bigger from changing like their livelihood and their ability to survive.

Once you have accepted that change is occurring the next step is to adapt. This is a challenge because you are replacing the familiar with the unfamiliar, the predictable with the unpredictable, and security with risk. Still, you need to find a way to incorporate the change into your life. And here is a tip that might help. If you had to move to a new city for some reason you would experience many of the same things. But, you wouldn't stay locked up in your apartment. You would go out and find where the shops are. You would find what attractions the new city offered. You would find out how the transportation system worked, what local customs were and so on. Initially, it would all be strange. But eventually, it would become familiar. When change comes don't stay locked up in the past. Get out and find out what is going on. Initially, it will be strange. But eventually it will become familiar.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Refine, Test, Refine More. Test More

A pattern is a much less rigorous form of a scientific theory. That is to say that the pattern is extracted from experience in an attempt to explain it economically. And the pattern, like a theory, must be hardened through testing. So, if you find a useful pattern you must test it in two ways. First, you must make sure that it does, indeed, explain the phenomenon. Second, you must use the pattern to predict future events and see if it holds up under that requirement. Supposing that it does, you must keep looking for ways to refute your pattern. Over time, if you cannot refute the pattern then it is probably a pretty good pattern. And if you do manage to refute, you might try refining it. However, as you attempt to refute your theory, you must be aware of some troublesome cognitive biases. That is we are inclined to accept evidence that supports our theory or pattern while dismissing data which refutes it. We want our pattern to be correct. But, in order to make it correct, we have to view it critically, rejecting aspects of it that don't fit and continuing to challenge the parts that seem to fit. Over time, if you objectively challenge the pattern, you will strengthen it and increase its utility.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

How to Get a Clue or How Can You Get Better at Recognizing Patterns?

If you follow the stock market, you might notice that when stock prices go up too fast or go up for an extended period of time there is a good chance they will tumble back down at bit. The tumble may be minor or significant. But, we can see a pattern here which we will call "What goes up, must come down".

This pattern does not just apply to stocks. We can see a very similar pattern in the careers of celebrities and politicians - riding high one day and in free fall the next. It also happens with hit music, fashions and fads. It might even happen in your love life or your job. It is a useful pattern that we see in many very diverse situations.

The "What goes up, must come down" pattern is simplistic but it is a place to start. Once we recognize this pattern we can refine our understanding of the phenomenon which the pattern describes. We can ask questions like - do difference situations have a different pattern in their rise and fall. Do some things go up fast and fall just as quickly while others grind up slowly and go down like a beach ball filled with water? Are there elements of situations that give us a clue regarding which rise and fall pattern they might fit? Once we have one pattern, no matter how simple it may be, we can expand it into a whole family of other patterns.

Are there different patterns that describe the same situation? For example, we just used the "What goes up, must go down" pattern to describe your love life. Maybe other patterns will do just as well. Let's say we have a pattern of "Initial euphoria, disillusionment, accepting reality" which also applies to your love life. Perhaps this pattern could apply to corporate mergers, or peace treaties.

The point here is that the more patterns you can recognize the more situations you can apply them in and the more nuanced your understanding of phenomena can become. So, start looking for patterns and when you find one try applying it to other situations. And begin creating more nuanced patterns for specific situations. Over time you will develop a collection of patterns that you can apply to a variety of situations. But that, it only the beginning.