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Wolfville, Nova Scotia
Canada

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From Complex to Simple: Lessons from 13 Years of Blogging

Chris Campbell

It started with text, it's always text. Words are important, words are the building blocks of my blog and the closer I am to them, the better.

Memory is fallible and by writing it helps to paint a more comprehensive picture of what is going on at a certain time. In preparing for my session at BlogJam 2015 I realized this as I used my own blog posts to piece together my history of blogging over two decades with this blog running for a lucky 13 years. Anything that you do for a long time starts to become routine and with my blog it's gone from a more hand-crafted, close-to-the-metal how-do-you-set-up-mySQL blog to the site now that lets the fine folks at Squarespace handle everything in the background. I have my own set of quirky routines for writing, but my writing toolkit is more complicated than it needs to be. Now I just have to drop the text into the system and I'll have a blog post.

Context is all. – Margaret Atwood, > The Handmaid's Tale

Being geeky and putting the elements together to share writing was the way you had to be back in the 90s when I started using the web and blogging. The first blog that I had (now lost) was on an Antarctic research web site around 1994. They had extra space on their server and if you emailed them they'd let you set up a web page. You would edit the HTML save it. The first blog post I wrote was a rant about the film "Disclosure". This blog started in 2002 after I registered the domain, paid for some server space, and started thinking about how to have my own site.

bitdepth.org in 2002

bitdepth.org in 2002

In the beginning I did a lot of coding. The first version of my blog used a system from Rael Dornfest called Blosxom (pronounced "blog-some") that used a Perl script to transform text files and folders into a web site. Within the text files you'd use HTML for links or any other formatting, so it was a bit geeky. But it worked great and was fast and easy to use.

What you say should be separate from how you present it. That's why I use text editors for writing and worry about how it will look later. With a text file you don't have to worry about it being out of date. It's easy to take it and transform it and rework it and edit it. Text is powerful.

 

Tell me the story of us.

Again?

Yes.

Frances Ha, written by Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach

A lot of times I rehearse what I want to write. I roll it around and hone it in my mind. I keep repeating and rearranging things. It's like doing multiple takes. It's like performance. After you do it a lot you stop thinking about it. This is what I've rolled around in my heard and rehearsed as the lessons learned after 13 years of blogging here.

Write every day

"The only space I need to write is enough room for my laptop, and the perfect time to write is always now, especially if it’s only five minutes. Inspiration is not somewhere else. It’s right here." – Emily Drevets – Sit Down, Shut Up, Write, Don't Stop

Write whether you want to or not. Get your fingers moving and assemble those words. They don't have to be good, you just need to write. Practice, practice, practice. Filling the page or the screen is the important thing. Writing is work and it's probably not fun, but the only way to get better at anything is to do it a lot. Waiting for inspiration is just fancy procrastination.

I am a happy user of 750 Words which gives me a morning prompt to write every day with a challenge to write every day. Sometimes it's just journaling, but it can be a review of a film to post on Letterboxd, the beginning of a blog post, or the outline of a presentation. After getting things written at 750 Words I'll copy and paste it to Byword for editing (using Marked 2 to check the spelling, grammar, reading level, and links) and then add it to my blog.

Take notes

"The first thing you do when you take a piece of paper is always put the date on it, the month, the day, and where it is. Because every idea that you put on paper is useful to you. By putting the date on it as a habit, when you look for what you wrote down in your notes, you will be desperate to know that it happened in April in 1972 and it was in Paris and already it begins to be useful. One of the most important tools that a filmmaker has are his/her notes." – Francis Ford Coppola

It's hard to remember everything. Keeping track of what you've seen and heard is important. A notebook can record things in an old-timey way. For work I have a Moleskine notebook and for non-work stuff I've got another one. I've been using keyboards and screens to record things so much over the past few decades that my handwriting isn't as good as it used to be (I won an award for best writing in grade 3, but now I probably wouldn't be in the top 10).

The things I love to capture are great sentences, so when I am watching a film (which happens a lot during a film festival) I will write down a great line to remember later (which is a challenge in the dark). On my iPhone I use an app called Drafts which lets me quickly capture anything. Then usually send it to an app called 1Writer that synchronizes all my notes so I can look at them anywhere. On my MacBook Pro I use an app called nvALT that allows me to quickly write and find notes. That's where I usually create little snippets of text that I am thinking of. Ideally I'd transcribe my notebooks into digital text, but that doesn't always happen.

I use Pinboard for bookmarking things that I'm reading and it's tied in with Instapaper, so everything I save to read later is also saved as a bookmark. Pinboard also archives my tweets and every link posted in a tweet and saves a copy of every bookmarked web page, so if a site disappears there is a version saved that I can look at. This leaves a trail of what I've read, so I can go back and find out something that was interesting to me.

Another thing that can help a lot is to use quantified self devices and apps. I am currently tracking my music and films and food so I can look that up. I also use an app called Reporter that randomly asks me for updates during the day and I record where I am, what I'm doing, what I've eaten, and who I'm with. The other place where I keep track of things is with the Day One diary app. I add pictures and run a script that creates an entry that assembles information I've recorded about a day into an entry.

Take pictures

Pictures are great to help you remember things, and they're also great to go with blog posts. Nobody else has the pictures you take, so it's great to be able to have a library of them to choose from. With a phone you also record the date and time and location so that can help you remember other details. I've been using Flickr for years with my photos and now everything goes there automatically, so it's a great backup (and iCloud Photos has been working great for me too). As I write this I have over 17,000 photos which is a great library of images to choose from when I create a blog post.

Have a place of your own

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"—a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction" Virginia Woolf, October 1928

Get your own domain. It's cheap and unique and you can take it wherever you go and change systems without things disappearing from the web. Most blogging systems allow you to use your own domain and being able to move as your needs change is important. Companies change and services end, sometimes without warning.

bitdepth.org in 2011

bitdepth.org in 2011

You need to hold on to your stuff. Having a backup of what you've written is important as services go away. Hopefully things won't change quickly or fail dramatically, but if you don't have a copy of your stuff, you are taking a big chance. I wrote a lot on the 43 Things web site and one day the site shut down. Luckily I was able to export everything out of the site (hundreds of entries) but a sister site, All Consuming, had gone down earlier and I couldn't recover a lot of that. I cross-posted a lot of my film reviews to Blogger, so with that and Archive.org's Wayback Machine I was able to recover what I've written. But with other sites like Vox) I lost many posts that I made.

For five years I used Blosxom on a server that I configured myself. For the next five years I used a self-hosted WordPress installation that I also configured and tweaked. Importing everything worked with some images not working and I manually went through and added categories and tags to the posts (it took several months of casual updating). Then I decided to stop configuring the server and plugins and moved over to Squarespace. The import was easy and now I focus more on the writing and rarely on the configuration.

Tools ≠ Talent – The Audio Anarchist Manifesto

With Wordpress and Medium and Squarespace you can export your blog. That is a good thing to do as it gives you a backup in case something goes away. This is important if you have things written on a server that you don't own (or even if you do since hard drives all fail eventually). As I write this I have about 750 blog posts here and knowing that I have them backed up and can move somewhere else is a good feeling (but I'm content with Squarespace).

Share your excitement and wonder

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The most important lesson is to share what you love. If you are enthusiastic about something and share that excitement it translates to your blog posts. Finding out about new adventures or food or places or films or tools is why I love reading blogs. If it is interesting to you, it is probably interesting to someone else. Hopefully that's what you get from this and what you give to others when you write and share.