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My Why and How of Blogging

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My blog used to have blog posts; back then, in the days, when I was still writing posts more often then every three months (yes, my last post is from May). I will pretend it’s a summer break. To celebrate the slow decline of this once lively blog, I didn’t hesitate when Designfeast asked me to tell them why and how I created such a lively blog. They had questions. I had answers. Here is the original post on Designfeast, and here is a copy:


1 Why did you create a web site of regular entries?

A Curiosity. I want to think about things. Questions like: Why is that? Should it be like this? What happens when? Also, I want to think about many different things and don’t know how they’re all connected yet. That’s why I’m writing blog posts and not a book…yet…

B Clearer thoughts. Writing helps me to structure my own ideas and to think through arguments. Does my super genius opinion about how stuff should work actually make sense? Every time I need to translate my blurry thoughts into concrete words, they get their first reality test.

C Feedback. Almost every time I push something in the world, I get something back. People build on my ideas, coming from their own perspectives. Or they argue against my ideas out of reasons I haven’t thought about. Both is beautiful and makes me grateful: It makes me humble to look at comments to my articles. Writing my blog definitely made me held my beliefs less tightly and keeps reminding me of the complexity of this world.

D Giving back and pushing forward. The world gives me a lot of ideas, so I want to return the favor. I do believe in pushing a field (data vis/data journalism in my case) forward together; in figuring things out together; in constructive arguments and collaborations. It’s beautiful to see that happening over many years and across many countries; seeing people come and go and get excited and change the mindset of people in the field, baby step by baby step, with every blog post they write and every talk they give. I want to be one of these people.

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2 What web-based solution did you select and why?

Back in the days, I’ve used Tumblr and I enjoyed its convenience. But now I use Jekyll, because convenience is overrated…or at least not as important for me as the following three reasons:
A It’s simple. It doesn’t have tons of features I don’t need.
B I’m in full control of all the files that build the site, and can actually understand what’s going on.
C Jekyll forces me to write in Markdown and to use Github, and I wanted to get to know both technologies better.


3 What is your definition of a good blog and what are three good blogs that you frequently visit?

A good blog inspires me on a periodical basis. I don’t think that I can give a more detailed definition, since what happens within the limits of it can be quite different:

Tim Urban’s Wait buy why is definitely at the top of the list. This blog educates me deeply about things, it builds arguments beautifully, makes me change my mind and supports the concepts it explains visually. And boy, I loooove visual concept explanations.

Nathan Yau’s FlowingData and Andy Kirk’s Visualising Data need to be named as blogs that keep me and thousands of other data vis enthusiasts informed about what’s happening in the scene. I especially enjoy the posts that offer an opinion about the quality of a data vis work, instead of just stating that it exists.

Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York, because it opens my eyes for the situation outside of my privileged filter bubble and lets me understand how people got to where they are right now.


4 How do you create content for your blog?

The pipeline from “quick idea” to “tweet-able blog post” is long and wonderful and distressing. The perfect path would look like that:

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1 Ideas. Often, ideas come out of conversations that I keep thinking about, out of an own pain point or out of a question.

2 Research. Once I’m curious about things, I do research about it. The time for that ranges from a minute to a week of googling, reading books and scientific papers. Indeed, I discovered my love for reading papers! Once you want to answer a very specific question, searching for the most precise answer is tons of fun. Like my little brother, I just keep asking “But why? How?” until my curiosity is satisfied.

3 Structuring the post. When I’m happy with the information I gathered, I try to communicate it in the best possible structure. I use a tool called “Workflowy” for that. It lets me move around my thoughts until I find a flow that doesn’t make me want to cry anymore. To understand causes and effect better, I often visualise them with pen and paper in the process.

4 Writing. Once I have the structure and decided what I want to communicate, the task of actually writing the post becomes far less daunting. I write in markdown, using an editor like iA Writer, Sublime or Atom.

5 Add images to the post. I’m a visual thinker, and images will result out of the process of writing a post anyway. Often, I include these illustrations into my articles after refining them with Adobe Illustrator and a drawing tablet.

6 Publishing. After writing the article, I publish it to my blog. I read it again there, find tons of mistakes, fix it, republish it, formulate a tweet, proofread it, take a deep breath, send the tweet, read the article again, find more mistakes, fix it, republish it an x-th time, and then distract myself from looking at my Twitter notifications with food or so.

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5 How do you stay organized and motivated to contribute to your blog?

One answer is: I don’t. I aim for one article a month, but if that doesn’t happen, then that’s ok with me. Another answer is: I give talks at conferences! I like to submit talk proposals about things I’m curious — but have no idea about. Then I have a deadline to do the research. Posting a transcript of my talk is the easy part at the end.


6 For those aspiring to make a web site composed of regular thoughts and/or images, what is your advice?

Get a second blog.

“Whaaat,” I hear you gasping, “I can’t even fill one”.

I hear your gasps. But think about it: Why is it that you can’t fill your blog? Maybe because you think your thoughts are not worth to be published. Or maybe because you posted that one crazy good article two months ago and you can’t think of anything better. So get a second blog. A trash-blog. For the bad articles. Just start writing them. Several of my articles were born on my secret trash-blog. Works really well for me.


7 What is your quest in blogging?

To teach and to learn.