Coming up with 'blog article ideas

Ever come up with a great topic about which to write an article? Do you have something on your mind that you want to get out of your system? Did you just learn something new and profound? Or is there some topic about which you don’t know but are trying to learn? Did you pick up some useful tidbit that you want to set aside for later use? Did you come across something you want to share?

I could keep going with this, but I’d rather not write a rambling paragraph that will eventually bore you; besides, I think you have the idea. I’d guess that one of the most common questions when trying to write a ‘blog is, “what do I write about?”

For me, personally, a lot of my ideas just pop into my head (including for this very article that you’re reading right now). If I think the idea is profound enough that it might help other people, I’ll start writing about it. Other times, I’ll come up with some idea, jot it down in a post, and save it for later. I have 100+ such draft articles; whether or not they ever see the light of day remains to be seen.

There are a number of things to consider when coming up with draft article ideas (and I dedicate several slides to this very topic in my ‘blogging presentation). If you’re trying to come up with things to write about, here are some thoughts that might help get you going.

  • What’s on my mind? It might sound obvious, but a lot of my ‘blog article ideas come from random thoughts that just happen to pop into my head. They’ll come from random sources — something I’m working on, something I’m watching, reading, or listening to, a question that someone asks, and so on. Every now and then, they’re thoughts that I think might help someone out. That can make great article fodder, so make sure you at least make a note of it. It happens more often that you might think; I’ve surprised myself at the number of ‘blog articles I’ve written that started as just random thoughts in my head.
  • I know something you don’t know — and I’m willing to share! Chris Bell, one of my friends on the SQL Saturday speakers circuit, once told me something profound, and it’s something I haven’t forgotten. He said, “an expert is someone who knows something that you don’t.”

    I’ve been a working professional for a long time now (I won’t say how long!), and I’ve learned a lot in my experience. I think I have some knowledge in at least a few subjects, and what I think can potentially help other people. Helping other people is one of my great passions, and if something that I know helps someone else, then I’ve accomplished something.
  • I just learned something new! Some people seem to have a misconception that you need to be an expert at something to write a ‘blog. Wrong! If you’re learning something new, keeping an online journal about what you learn is one of the best reasons to maintain a ‘blog! You’ll be able to see for yourself just how much you learn. Additionally, if you’re actively seeking new employment, it shows potential employers that you’re learning something, and that you have the ability to learn. Not only that, it shows off your expertise in terms of what you’ve learned. That’s something that hiring managers like to see!
  • I don’t want to forget this. Let me write it down. One of those people you could help is yourself. Matt Cushing tells a story in his networking presentation about the time he was trying to solve a problem, and he found the answer to it… in his own ‘blog! He had written an article about the very thing he was trying to solve, and found the answer in his article that he had forgotten about!

    As Matt says in his presentation, “a ‘blog can serve as your own personal Google.” A ‘blog can serve as scratch notes to yourself, and it might even help others in the process.
  • Bring people in. Don’t drive them away. You want people to read your ‘blog, don’t you? Like anyone else, I have thoughts and opinions about a lot of things, but I won’t ‘blog about a lot of them. I generally avoid any topic that’s divisive. You will almost never, if ever, see me discuss politics or religion on my ‘blog (I despise talking about politics, anyway). If I want to talk about religion, I’ll go to church. If I want to learn about politics, I’ll read The New York Times. Unless your ‘blog is specifically about those hot-button topics, they are more likely to drive people away than bring them in. I will not touch them on my ‘blog.
  • Avoid posting anything that is overly-sensitive or qualifies as “TMI,” unless it’s relevant to your topic. People generally don’t want to hear about your last trip to your gastroenterologist. Stuff like that isn’t typically what ‘bloggers write about. However, if some anecdote comes out of it — “my appointment taught me a lesson that applies to my professional life,” for example — maybe then, it’d be appropriate to write about it. However, be careful about it — make sure that what you write is appropriate for your audience. Nobody wants to read the details of your last trip to the bathroom while you had the bad case of diarrhea.
  • It’s okay to go off-topic once in a while. At the time of this article, Steve Jones of SSC is taking a sabbatical from his job (a nice little perk that he has available to him). During his time away from work, he has been ‘blogging about his daily exploits, which include skiing, learning to play guitar, and working around his ranch. I’ve been enjoying his posts, and I even told him that I was living vicariously through his posts.

    I’ll occasionally post an article that has nothing to do with my job, technical communication, or professional development. I’ll sometimes write about my extracurricular activities — my music endeavors (I play four different instruments), my workouts (I am an active Crossfitter), and so on. If you maintain a ‘blog about professional topics, it’s okay to post something off-topic now and then. It shows you have other interests, and it shows that you have a life outside of work. It shows that you’re human.

There are numerous other ways to generate ideas for ‘blog fodder. Feel free to comment below with your favorites. Hopefully, these thoughts are enough to help you get your own ‘blog going.

Blogging virtual presentation — Tuesday, January 21 @CASSUG_Albany @PASS_ProfDev

On Tuesday, January 21, at noon (US Eastern Standard Time), I will be doing my presentation titled “Blogging for Success: Advancing your career by blogging.”

If you’re interested in starting a ‘blog, I’ll talk about my own experience with ‘blogging and lessons I’ve learned along the way. Some topics I’ll discuss include how I got started, ‘blogging platforms, and subject matter.

For more information and to register for the event, use this link.

Hope to see you there (so to speak)!

Choosing which #SQLSaturday to submit

I saw an interesting (and amusing) tweet from Matt Cushing about applying to three SQL Saturdays in February and questioning his own sanity. Matt, I could’ve told you that you’re insane! 😉

All kidding aside, it did get me thinking: how do I select the SQL Saturdays to which I apply to speak? If you’re a new speaker, this might be a question that you’re considering.

For those of you who may be new to my ‘blog, I’m a regular SQL Saturday speaker. I’ve been speaking at SQL Saturday since 2015. I’ve written before about what to expect at a SQL Saturday, and I’ve even written about some of my experiences traveling to SQL Saturday. So I figured I’d write a primer as to what I consider when selecting where to submit my presentations.

Before I do, however, I should lay out a disclosure. I present at SQL Saturday completely on my own. And by this, I mean on my own time and on my own dime. I don’t do this for pay, and my employer does not dictate what events I attend or where I speak. I do this because I love doing it (and it doesn’t look bad on a resume, either). All schedules are my own schedules, and all expenses come out of my own pocket. My employer does not reimburse me for my trips (some speakers have their companies pay for their trips, but I do not have that luxury). This plays a huge factor into my planning, as you’ll read about below.

Will it break the bank?

Since I mention that I do this on my own dime, I’ll start there.

Cost is a huge factor whenever I consider where to submit. Traveling gets expensive (and traveling also incurs other issues, which I’ll talk about in a minute). The easier it is for me to get to an event, the cheaper it is for me to get there. I apply to nearly all SQL Saturday events that are within easy (about a few hours) driving (or, for NYC, commuting) distance from my home in Troy, NY. I have yet to apply to an event (other than PASS Summit) where I have to fly. There is good reason for that. Flying is neither cheap, nor convenient.

Of course, I apply to speak at Albany every year. It takes me all of twenty minutes to drive from my home to the UAlbany campus, where the event is held. It’s my hometown event, and it’s sponsored by my local user group, of which I’m a member. I am not paying for a hotel, and my trip expenses are no more than my normal commute to work. Other than nominal expenses, I pay nearly nothing to attend this event.

I attend New York City pretty much every year, regardless of whether I’m speaking or not. It’s an easy trip — doable in a day, in fact. Amtrak goes directly from Albany right into midtown Manhattan, making it a very easy trip. If I do need to stay overnight, my siblings live in the City, so I have a place to stay. Or, I might splurge a little for a hotel. New York isn’t the cheapest city to visit, but if you look hard enough, deals can be had.

Boston — straight shot down I-90 for me, roughly a three-hour drive. And while Boston area hotels aren’t necessarily cheap, I can find lodging that won’t break the bank.

I did apply to speak at Chicago this coming year. I created a theoretical itinerary and realized that I could make it work. If I’m accepted, it would represent my first SQL Saturday where it wasn’t feasible for me to drive there.

There are a number of other examples, but at this point, you can see where I’m going with it. Finances will often dictate whether or not I can attend an event. However, finances alone aren’t the only factor. There are other things I need to consider, such as…

How easy is it for me to get there?

One event that I’ve never attended — and would like to — is Cleveland. With its relative proximity to New York State, you’d think that Cleveland would be an easy one for me to attend.

It isn’t.

For starters, Cleveland, for me, is roughly an eight-hour drive… in good weather. Now consider: Cleveland holds their event in February. Imagine trying to make that drive in unpredictable, snowy, winter weather. Maybe I could get lucky and get good weather on a drive out that way, but it’s a crapshoot and not guaranteed.

Okay. Amtrak goes to Cleveland. How about hopping the train?

The Lake Shore Limited, which travels between Boston/NYC and Chicago, makes a stop in Cleveland. Is it a direct line from Albany? Yes. Is it convenient…?

That would be a big no. The train arrives in Cleveland at 3:30 AM. As for the return trip, it departs at 5:50 AM. Either way, it would make for a very inconvenient itinerary.

That pretty much leaves flying. In years past, this would also not have been an option. Flights from ALB to CLE have been expensive and inconvenient. Additionally, there are no direct flights between the two cities. I did look up a theoretical flight for SQL Saturday #930 and found a roundtrip flight as low as $218. I’d have to fly through Detroit to do it.

Maybe I could’ve applied to speak in Cleveland and flown out. But I didn’t want to deal with the hassle.

One of these years, I might be able to make Cleveland work. That day hasn’t yet arrived.

Is the travel convenience (or inconvenience, as the case may be) worth it for a short weekend trip? That’s up to you to decide, but it is another major factor that I consider when I think about submitting to an event.

Does it fit my schedule?

Another event that has interested me is Pittsburgh. I spoke at Pittsburgh in 2016, and it was an enjoyable event; in fact, I’ve been wanting to return ever since. It’s a long drive for me, about eight hours. At the time, it was the farthest that I’d ever traveled for a SQL Saturday (that has since been surpassed by Virginia Beach).

I decided that eight hours is a long time to spend in a car, so I’d prefer not to drive there. It turns out that I can get Amtrak to Pittsburgh, and the schedule works for me. On top of that, I have a friend who lives there, so I’d probably have a place to crash. Pittsburgh is a long trip for me, but it’s one that I can make work.

So why haven’t I been back? Mostly, it’s been because of scheduling issues. One year, I withdrew from Pittsburgh because it was separated by only a week from another SQL Saturday where I was accepted to speak, and I decided that traveling on back-to-back weekends was a bit much. This past year, I’d fully intended to apply… and New York scheduled theirs for the same day. Other years, I’ve had a number of things come up on my calendar that have interfered with the event.

I’ve withdrawn from or didn’t submit to other events because of schedule conflicts. As much as I’d like to submit to every event that’s within a couple of hours from me, it doesn’t always work out.

If I was able, I’d apply to as many SQL Saturday events as possible. However, there’s also something to be said about work/life balance… and maintaining your own sanity.

Summary

So if you’re a road warrior, you like to keep a busy schedule, have deep pockets, or have an employer who will fund your trips, a lot of these issues might not affect you. But for other SQL Saturday speakers (like me), we do this on our own time and our own dime. These are the things I consider whenever I decide whether or not to apply to speak at a SQL Saturday. Whether or not you can handle the issues that come with getting to an event is up to you.

Blogging virtual presentation — January 21

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that another virtual presentation was in the works. Well, it’s been scheduled!

I will be doing my ‘blogging presentation at noon, EST, on Tuesday, January 21!

Use this link for more information and to register! Feel free to join me!

Want to learn something new? Get off your butt, and go get it!

A few weeks ago, Monica Rathbun wrote a ‘blog article about pursuing education or learning opportunities. It had been shared and retweeted a number of times by a number of people. I had meant to do the same, but it came out right around the same time that my father-in-law passed away, so the timing was inconvenient for me. After a few weeks of dealing with family issues, not to mention a week away at PASS Summit, my life has settled back into a state of semi-normalcy, so now I can go back to boring all of you with ‘blog articles and posting things I find interesting.

Additionally, Steve Jones came out with an article this morning about the benefits of conferences. Conferences are a great source of learning and networking. Some, such as SQL Saturday, are even free. If you ever have an opportunity to attend a conference or a seminar, I recommend it highly.

People, all too often, make excuses as to why they don’t learn anything new. Monica’s article lists out many of those excuses, and goes on to say why they are all invalid. She goes on to list resources you can use to further your education. It isn’t just about getting a degree or a certificate credential; it’s also about attending conferences and user groups, reading ‘blogs and articles, talking to people and networking, going to your local library, and getting involved with activities. Go read Monica’s article; it’s a great read.

I’ll make another suggestion: consider starting your own ‘blog. One of the best ways to learn about a topic is writing about it, even (and especially) if it’s a topic you don’t know. Writing about something you don’t know is a challenge, and it can sometimes be uncomfortable. But you won’t get anywhere unless you step out of your comfort zone.

Education is important, and we are always learning. Don’t use lack of money or lack of time as an excuse not to learn. There are many learning resources out there that you can do on your own time and require little or no money. If you’re seriously interested in learning about some topic, take the initiative and go get it. Otherwise, you run the risk of remaining in the same routine rut for the rest of your life.

First drafts are ugly

“The secret to life is editing. Write that down. Okay, now cross it out.”

William Safire, 1990 Syracuse University commencement speech

“No thinking – that comes later. You must write your first draft with your heart. You rewrite with your head. The first key to writing is… to write, not to think!”

William Forrester (Sean Connery), Finding Forrester

“Just do it.”

Nike

I will confess that this article is a reminder to myself as much as anything else.

Raise your hand if you’re a writer, and whatever it is you’re writing has to be perfect the first time around. Yeah, me too.

How many times have you tried writing something, but in doing so, you hit a wall (a.k.a. writer’s block) because you don’t quite know how to put something in writing? Or how often have you written a first draft, only to take a second look at it a second time and say, “what a piece of s**t!”

(And speaking as someone with application development experience, this happens with writing code, too. Don’t think that this is limited to just documentation. This is yet another example of how technical writing and application development are related.)

Someone (I don’t know whom) once said, “one of the stupidest phrases ever coined is, ‘get it right the first time.’ It’s almost never done right the first time!” In all likelihood, you need to go through several iterations — review, editing, rewriting, etc. — before a draft is ready for public consumption. It’s called a “draft” for a reason.

The fact is, nobody has to see what you write the first time around. If you’re trying to get started on a document, just write what’s on your mind, and worry about making it look nice later.

Want to get started with speaking? Try your local user group!

Usually around this time of the month — a week before (my user group‘s) monthly meeting — I’d be posting an announcement about our upcoming meeting.

I still will do so — as soon as I find out who’s speaking.

As I write this, I’m guessing that our speaker will be Greg Moore, but I’m not completely sure. One way or another, I’ll post an announcement later today.

Which brings me to the subject of today’s article.

Have you ever wanted to speak publically or do presentations? Consider doing so at a local user group. It’s the perfect place to do so!

There are many advantages about speaking at a local user group. If you’re a first-time speaker, it’s an opportunity to practice your presentation skills. If you’ve been a part of a user group for some time, you can do so in front of a familiar audience. If it’s your first time at a particular user group, it can serve as an introduction to the group. Either way, it’s a wonderful experience that is generally less pressure than presenting for the first time at, say, a SQL Saturday.

I’ve told this story plenty of times. In 2015, I came up with a presentation idea that I first presented at my user group. I had been involved with this user group for a while, I was among friends, and I felt comfortable about presenting to this group. Ever since that initial experience, I’ve spoken at several SQL Saturdays, and this coming November, I will be doing that same presentation for PASS Summit! My experience with speaking has also passively helped my career in numerous ways, including (but not limited to) expanding my network and improving my own professional self-confidence. I’ve come a long way since that initial start!

And if you’re still not completely comfortable with speaking, but still have an interest in doing so, there are other resources available to get you started. Look into groups or courses such as Toastmasters or Dale Carnegie. (Disclosure: I have friends who are involved with Toastmasters, and I, myself, am a Dale Carnegie grad.)

If you’re interested in speaking, consider starting at your local user group. You never know where a small start could lead!

P.S. if you’d like to speak for our user group, feel free to drop us a line!