On Writing Well — William Zinsser

After reading The Elements of Style and a couple of other books on writing I didn’t necessarily plan on reading another one on this topic. But when I saw that Derek Sivers recommended On Writing Well on his site I thought it might be worth checking out.

I learned a lot about how to improve my writing in the first few chapters of the book. They were relevant, filled with examples and easy to understand. The main takeaways for me were:

  • The best writing comes from rewriting as much as necessary.
  • Strip down each sentence to its essence.
  • Avoid long sentences. Break them down into smaller pieces if it’s easier to understand.
  • Ask yourself What am I trying to say? and check in later Have I said it?.
  • Writing in the first person is the most genuine way to write.
  • Don’t forget to have fun, your readers will notice and enjoy it
  • Use people and places in your writing, they make your story come to life.
  • Write like a human being and avoid confusing your readers with fancy words that don’t mean much.

Now every time I write whether it’s for my blog, at work or anywhere else I try to put these learnings into practice. The book gave me new tools to improve my writing and made the process more enjoyable. It’s like I was given a clear path to follow on my journey to becoming a better writer.

All that’s left do is write. And rewrite some more.

★★★☆☆

Making money with your side projects

With every side project there comes a time when you might wonder if you could start making money with it. After all, it makes sense to be compensated for your work if other people find value in it.

This blog is one of my side projects and it allows me to pursue my hobby–writing. It’s fun to put my thoughts out there and contribute to the web instead of just consuming content. In the process I’m trying to improve as a writer, especially since English isn’t my first language.

Like most other hobbies blogging requires some investment in the form of time and money. Since I enjoy spending time on it to improve my writing skills that’s not an issue at all. It’s necessary. As for the money, I’ve splurged a bit on this site to buy font licenses and migrate to Blot. The site is super lightweight and I don’t use anything fancy to compress images or optimise the performance. The only recurring cost is hosting in order to keep it online and the domain name which comes to about $50 per year. Compared to some of my other hobbies this is really cheap.

I’ve seen many content creators try to cover their running costs or even earn a little on the side with platforms like Ko-fi or Patreon which seems like a great way to monetise your work. Even I used to have affiliate links in my book reviews at some point.

But I didn’t want money to play a role–no matter how small–in the things I do for my enjoyment. I believe that as soon as your hobbies start feeling like work they’re no longer hobbies. Usually they’re no longer fun either because money now dictates what you do and how you do it.

I don’t write articles in order to make money or to sell something to my readers down the line. I just write because it’s fun and maybe somewhere someone enjoys reading my blog.

I’ll happily pay 50 bucks a year for that.

Selective news

When I was a kid my family had a little ritual on Sunday mornings. My mum would bring home delicious bread and pastries from the bakery and we had breakfast together around the kitchen table. There wasn’t much talking however. Not because we didn’t like talking to each other–we did. But part of that little ritual was that we all brought our own things to read. Every now and then my dad would share news he found particularly interesting which we all then discussed at length.

He still reads the news everyday and occasionally sends me articles to read. I don’t follow the news however. While it’s important to be interested in the world around me, when I’m confronted with anything news-related I usually ask myself: Should I care about this?

If something is really important and worth knowing I’ll find out about it sooner or later. Last year was an exception as I visited RNZ pretty much every day to get a status update on the situation in New Zealand during the COVID-19 pandemic. Even then, however, I started to limit the amount of times I’d seek out information in order to protect my mental health. I noticed the less news I read, the better I felt. This is especially true since these days are usually filled with negativity and pessimism. Two things I don’t need in my life.

What I learnt from reading Factfulness is that things aren’t as bleak as the media make them out to be–quite the opposite actually. Even so I’ll still refrain from reading the news unless it’s beautiful news.

Project Hail Mary — Andy Weir

I rarely pre-order anything, let alone books but when I found out that one of my favourite authors–Andy Weir–was about to release a new book I couldn’t resist. His previous book Artemis was disappointing because I had somehow expected it to be similar to The Martian, which I loved. In fact, it’s my favourite book. Now here I was wondering Is Project Hail Mary going to scratch that itch for a cynical space adventure filled with danger and more importantly, humour?”

The short answer is: Yes, it does.” You follow the day-to-day life of an average high school science teacher–Ryland Grace–whose career could have been much more successful. He alienated his peers with controversial theories about minimal requirements for life forms to exist.

Turns out that these very theories will come in handy when an alien species threatens all of humanity. As an expert in his field he is recruited by special task force on a mission to save Earth from impending doom. From there it doesn’t take long for Ryland to end up on in space facing all kinds of difficulties that take quick thinking and a healthy dose of science to overcome.

Along the way I stopped trying to make sense of the the many scientific facts and references mentioned throughout. It’s obvious that a lot research has gone into the subjects to ensure they were realistic, even if sometimes far-fetched.

Without giving away too much of the story I’ll say that Project Hail Mary follows in the footsteps of the Martian and even takes it one step further: our hero isn’t the only one in space this time.

If you’re looking for an entertaining page-turner with a story full of surprises Andy Weir’s latest book might be for you.

★★★★☆

The best blogging platform

Over the years I’ve tried a few blogging platforms but there wasn’t one that fit my workflow. It’s simple: I keep a list of ideas in Things, write in iA Writer and publish to my blog when a post is ready. That’s it. I don’t want to spend any time deploying, testing or maintaining a platform because I could be writing instead.

When I returned from my hiatus I wanted to make sure it was as easy as possible to publish content online. This meant reevaluating current my blog platform–Ghost. Was it still the right fit or were there better alternatives out there?

These are the ones I considered:

Ghost

I was really excited about Ghost after their successful Kickstarter campaign years ago. It seemed to be the perfect alternative to Wordpress as it didn’t try to do everything but focused on simply being a blogging platform. Once Ghost became available to the public their hosted plans were expensive and I couldn’t justify the cost for my little blog.

But I didn’t let that stop me and I decided to host a Ghost instance myself on Digital Ocean. Even though it was the first time I had ever used a virtual private server (VPS) there was plenty of documentation available to get started. Using the command line didn’t feel that scary after a while either.

The main issue, however, was that I had to take care of maintaining the server myself. This meant updating the Ghost platform as well as any necessary dependencies. Not something I particularly enjoyed.

With each new version of Ghost there was a chance I needed to update my theme in order meet the new version requirements. The first few rounds were easy enough but as soon as a major version came out it often became too complicated for me. Especially after the big update to 4.0 there were simply too many things to change and I didn’t feel comfortable doing any of it without breaking stuff along the way. At that point I also considered moving hosting to Ghost but their cheapest plan didn’t allow for custom themes which was a dealbreaker.

In the end I had two options: double down and get my blog to work on 4.0 or look for a new platform.

Needless to say I couldn’t be bothered wrangling with any more code at this point. I just wanted to write and so I went looking for other options.

Wordpress

My first blog was on Wordpress and it did the job. That’s about it. It feels more like a bloated content management system that (CMS) than a blogging platform. I was never a fan of installing many plug-ins as that just created more dependencies and security risks to take manage.

The good thing about Wordpress, however, is the community since it’s being used for about 30% of the web. That means there’s a good chance that if anything goes wrong on your blog, someone else has already encountered, solved and documented the same issue.

Kirby

I briefly considered Kirby because of its flat file structure. After a bit of research you’ll quickly find that people just rave about Kirby.

It would allow me to write in my text editor of choice, save the file and upload it–presumably via file transfer protocol (FTP)–to my blog.

Kirby’s interface is very pared back and it doesn’t make any assumptions on how you design your blog. That’s great if you’re a developer but daunting if your knowledge of HTML, CSS and PHP is limited. Based on my previous experience with Ghost I didn’t feel like using a platform that required decent development knowledge to get the results you want.

In saying that, Kirby probably would have been my choice if I hadn’t come across Blot.

Blot

Blot is a platform without an interface. Okay that’s not entirely true as it does have a page to configure the global site settings but that’s about it.

The beauty of Blot lies in its simplicity. It turns a folder into a blog with each file published as a post. As soon as I saw a markdown file from my Dropbox appearing on my site I realised that’s all I needed.

Since I write all my posts in iA Writer there’s no need to copy and paste into yet another editor. I can just save it to my Dropbox folder instead and wait 30 seconds for it to be published.

Out of all the platforms I’ve tried Blot is definitely the easiest to use. It also solves problems that I had previously. There is no need to ever update the platform or pay for a new version. This also means there won’t be any breaking changes to the themes which can be annoying to deal with.

I have found it to be the only platform that truly gets out of the way and lets me work with my own tools. There’s no text editor at all. Some people may not like that but I’m a fan. You can use whatever app you want to write as long as your files are saved as a text files.

When I published my first post on Blot I couldn’t believe how easy and seamless it was. This is exactly how blogging should be.

The best blogging platform is the one that makes sense for you. For me that’s Blot.