Years Passing By

In one of my first classes upon returning to university, one of my professors urged the class to “think ahead to the future. What do you see yourself doing at the age of 23?” I laughed at the time, as I didn’t remember what I had done just a few years previous. It was a reminder however, that returning to undergraduate studies as a part time student would bring an increasing age difference.

It hasn’t stopped me from making friends with my classmates, although they have this nasty habit of graduating and moving off for grad school. I hear conversations about parties, and bars, or just going out to see a movie last minute, and I just shake my head. I have to remember if I need to pick up another pack of Pull-Ups on my way home. Life has a tendency to catch up, when you’re not expecting it.

One of the coop students in the office once revealed that they are younger than the Simpsons TV show. While they didn’t watch it as a child, they have not lived in a world without Bart Simpson. That’s kind of a cultural touchstone for me, and its disconcerting to learn that it predates people I work with.

Fear of the Blank Page

One thing I’ve found while doing my daily blog posts, is that I’ve lost most of my fear of the blank page. While I may occasionally have difficulty in deciding what to write about, either as a book review, or current events, it’s usually a narrowing of possible topics, rather than coming up with something new.

Writing on a daily basis has become a habit. I set down, and my fingers type. Perhaps this is what they advocate during Nanowrimo. November tends to be the busiest time of year for me, so I’ve never blocked off time to participate. Maybe I’ll be able to do so this year.

I was afraid when starting my daily posts that I would quickly run out of things to say, or that I’d sit in front of the blank screen for hours. Some posts tend to take time to write, those are the ones that require a little research. When I’m talking about current events, for example, I like to ensure that I check a few semi-reliable sources first. Being connected to the internet doesn’t always help my productivity either.

My blog posts have been coming faster, as well. On average, it’s taking much less time to make my minimum word counts. I’m still not making much progress in writing them several days in advance, like I had originally hoped. I have a few drafts in progress, but they’re more for exploring ideas which may not really go anywhere. We’ll see what happens.

For now, I remain pleased with my blogging experience. I’m certainly making better progress than I at first feared.

Write For Your Audience

There are many ways in which communication fails. Very often, this is because the writer (or speaker) forgets to take the audience into account. This is becoming increasingly clear in English 408A, the course on Media Writing that I’m taking this term. The current chapter we’re discussing is Copywriting and Advertising.

Batty and Cain have a lot to say about this, but the most important part of writing effective copy is to “always put the reader first” (p 159). I’ve attended lectures and presentations where the speaker is often from business management, speaking to technical developers, where much of the message is lost because they’re using the specific jargon of the business environment. Those of us in the audience spend our time trying to figure out what euphemisms like business process excellence, and synergy really mean, rather than trying to follow the speaker’s line of thought.

While Batty and Cain are talking about writing copy that sells products, the same theories apply to speeches where you want to influence others. I read a great blog post by John Jantsch, founder of Duct Tape Marketing, which suggests that great leadership has a strong storytelling component.

This is also one of the key points of Garr Reynolds, author of Presentation Zen. With a great story narrative, a speaker can weave together the elements that would have been dropped into technical bullet points. They will be more memorable if related with a good story.

Essay Writing Strategies

When writing essays, I’ve tried several strategies. I’ll likely continue to try many more. I’ve yet to find one that works perfectly for me all the time.

The first roadblock is always what to write about. What is the thesis of the essay? Often, the assignment will provide a general topic, but it rarely gives enough direction to even suggest topics. Sometimes it will dictate what specific scene you should write about, but not indicate any kind of stance to take.

Often, I don’t completely narrow down the thesis right away. It rarely remains the same after several pages. It’s good to get a primary direction in place, and then revise the thesis statement after part of the essay has been written. As the different arguments are made, there are multiple ways to link them together, and it is often the possible links which provide direction for the essay as a whole.

When reading the primary text, I’ve started underlining key phrases, putting boxes around other words, and making margin notes in pencil. I haven’t yet decided on any concrete scheme for my markups. I’d really like to start a more comprehensive system of notes.

Often, I find it useful to write out single words relating to my arguments on post-it notes, and then arrange them on the wall beside my desk. I can then arrange my arguments in different ways, which improve the structure of my essay, and hopefully provide insight as to the direction of my final thesis argument.

I’m thinking about getting a small corkboard, so I can use strings and pushpins to weave a web of connections which I’m missing with post-its.

Formulas For Writing

I’m really enjoying my Media Writing course this term at the University of Waterloo. Every week, we have a different writing assignment, and so far, they’ve been quite varied.

Week one was an obituary. Morbid perhaps, but as the format is extremely well defined, it was a good introduction to writing for the media. We have since written newspaper feature articles, magazine feature articles, broadcast journalism, and the current assignment is writing some public relations material.

Part of the challenge in this course is applying writing skills to a particular format. Each week’s assignment tends to take a different approach. It’s a combination of changing audience, and purpose. The expectations of the different formats require a much more comprehensive approach to writing. It’s far different from creative or essay based writing which I’m familiar with. Its also really quite enjoyable. While I don’t see myself joining the dead beat (obituary writing), all of the other formats I’ve been writing in have opened new possibilities for writing, which I’ve never seriously considered before now.

While at the Ad Astra science fiction conference in past years, I’ve often attended the various sessions on writing groups, and breaking in to the fiction market. Many of the writers on these panels have advocated freelance writing of one sort or another. It’s something to keep the mind focused on writing, and keeps the skills finely honed.

Which is all well and good, if I wasn’t swimming in essays at the moment. The only non-coursework writing I’ve been able to manage the past few weeks has been my daily blog posts. I’m not quite ready to give up on them yet.

Writing with the iPad

The iPad can be one of the most frustrating devices to write with. It also has the potential to be one of the best, under certain circumstances. I’ve had the device for a few months, and in this time, it has been used primarily to consume media. It’s quite easy to load TV and movies from my MacBook, and there are a number of addictive games, such as Plants vs. Zombies, and Angry Birds available.

The web browsing experience is a little lacking. Pages take longer to load than expected, and the cache is small. Switching tabs in the mobile browser often results in a fresh request to the server, adding extra delays. I’ve found that on some websites, scrolling just doesn’t work.

As the iPad doesn’t support flash, many of the richer web experiences, as well as numerous flash games, don’t work. While I can certainly appreciate the processing requirements of flash — I often disable flash on the desktop — the fact remains that there is a great deal of content, including puzzle games, only available in flash.

The on-screen virtual keyboard is functional, though awkward to use. I believe that there is a special place in hell reserved for those brilliant engineers who inflicted the iPad with the horrendous auto-replace functionality. Without tactile feedback, one is forced to watch where your fingers are typing. Because I’m watching my fingers, I’m often not watching the little popup dialog elsewhere on the screen, warning me that the system is going to replace the awesome word I just typed with nonsense. Maybe it actually corrects far more than it wrecks, but the experience can be frustrating.

Still, the keyboard is functional, especially for short notes and emails. Where it is entirely unsuitable is for longer writing sessions, or for speed. Forget about using the virtual keyboard for in depth course notes. Try and type as little as possible in these situations. You’re lucky if you can get down meaningful point form notes.

Until the iOS 4.2 update, I had been able to connect a USB keyboard to the iPad using the camera connection kit. While the system claimed that the device was unsupported, it still performed admirably. With iOS 4.2 however, the hardware handling has changed, and the iPad no longer recognizes USB keyboards. I suspect Apple has adjusted the USB voltage, or something else of that sort.

As such, I purchased an Apple Wireless Keyboard, which uses bluetooth. Thankfully, this keyboard is much smaller than the older USB keyboard I had been using, and better still, the bluetooth functionality allows me to charge the iPad while typing. Pairing the keyboard with the iPad is simple, and the keyboard is only slightly wider than the iPad itself. With the keyboard, my typing speed should be about the same speed as on a desktop system. Also with the keyboard is the quick ability to cancel an autocorrect suggestion by using the escape key. As such, it becomes much easier to allow the autocorrect to fix words you misspell, while avoiding any undesired changes.

One clear advantage the iPad provides when writing, is the single-task nature of the iPad. As the iPad only presents a single window, it enforces a single-track mentality. There are no bouncing dock icons, no web browser or twitter to distract you. Just you and your text editor, unfiltered. Much better for concentrating on writing.

Blogging software on the iPad

I was actually very surprised by the lack of good blogging software for the iPad. The WordPress app isn’t all that friendly, especially if you’re trying to use it offline. Without a network connection, it pops up six or seven dialogs in a row complaining about the lack of connectivity. Really quite frustrating. The interface is clumsy, which is frustrating.

And of course, now that I’ve finished reading all of this, a new release of the WordPress app is available. It still shows the same XMLRPC error dialog I saw before. Perhaps it is more stable in other areas, but I’m not that impressed. It’s also awkward to select the scheduling for a given post. Every time I push a post to WordPress, either as an online draft, or a post scheduled in the future, I always get the impression that it is being posted immediately. Not a good feeling.

The other contender is BlogPress, which I have to admit, seems to be much more polished. It clearly separates local drafts, online drafts, and published posts. The interface for selecting tags for the post is a little awkward, but it’s there. Selecting the save button will provide you with a popup dialog showing how you want to save the post (ie, publish, save as online draft, etc). Now, unlike the WordPress app, BlogPress does not provide any ability to see or moderate comments on your blog. Not really a big deal, but something that would be nice. Another difference is that BlogPress doesn’t cache your online content. If you disconnect from the internet, you will be unable to read or edit anything that is stored online, even in draft form. I’ve also encountered several crashes while attempting to post entries as online drafts. Thankfully, there does not appear to be any data loss, as the posts do appear online, but it doesn’t reflect well on the app.

There is also MacJournal, from Mariner software. From the reviews I’ve read, it lacks considerable functionality from the desktop, and it eats whitespace.

I was quite surprised that there weren’t more blogging apps available for the iPad. In particular, I was hoping for MarsEdit, which is a really popular client on the Mac. The Red Sweater Software forum has posts indicating that other things keep coming up. I can appreciate the need to keep existing customers happy, by maintaining his existing software, but I am surprised that he hasn’t made a port to the iPad yet. I obviously don’t know what his codebase looks like, but I would hope that at least parts of it would be portable to the iPad. Opening up a whole new market would seem to be a worthwhile endeavor, especially while there is not much in the way of serious competition.

What I can say is that with the Apple Wireless Keyboard, or any other bluetooth keyboard, typing on the iPad is just as fast as using a laptop or desktop machine. The iPad is a serious contender for those who wish to write, although the web browser fails to impress when using the WordPress web interface. Scrolling… well, let’s just say that the Mobile Safari kind of fails to scroll on pages where I seem to think that it should. Also, something about the WordPress editing page leaves the browser with some fairly serious rendering issues, as in completely failing to render text in the editing area.

For now, BlogPress seems to be the way to go, despite the glitches.