Tools for Possibilities

Writing Tools

Tools for Possibilities: issue no. 16

Once a week we’ll send out a page from Cool Tools: A Catalog of Possibilities. The tools might be outdated or obsolete, but the possibilities they inspire are new. Sign up here to get Tools for Possibilities a week early in your inbox.

The best writing tips

Writing Tools

This two-sided page contains the wisdom of an entire book on how to write better. Nay, it distills an entire shelf of the world’s greatest writing manuals (and I have them all). After 30 years as both a writer and editor I can’t think of much I would add to these 50 short tips. This PDF is now my favorite guide to writing well. You can print it out for free. If you want its pithy reminders fleshed out with more examples, see the book form, or the website. But the free tip sheet itself — one paper printed both sides — rewards a quick review anytime you get down to serious writing.. – KK

How to liveblog a conference

Tips for Conference Bloggers, Free PDF Bruno Giussani & Ethan Zuckerman, 2007, 6 p.

There’s an emerging new media I use more and more: an online summary of a conference. Known as liveblogging, it presents a synopsis of each presentation, talk-by-talk, in nearly real time. This saves you time and money traveling to distant cities, and suffering through introductions and equipment failures. At its best, reading the liveblog can be better than attending the talk. All the chaff has been winnowed, and almost every talk captured. (Most conference attendees don’t even get to every talk.) Video recordings of conferences are becoming more popular, but a good liveblog is much quicker to scan and digest. But at its worse, a liveblog will offer little more than snarky comments about the speaker.

At the creation end, you need some skills to separate the best from the worst. Ethan Zuckerman, of Geek Corp, is one of the best conference bloggers alive. He teamed up with Bruno Giussani, another star liveblogger, to produce this free short 6-page PDF booklet on how to blog a conference with effectiveness. When you blog a conference it forces you to pay attention. My first book Out of Control began as an online blog of every talk at the first Artificial Life Conference (although no one called it blogging in 1987). The requisite focus of summarizing each talk clarified many ideas for me, and the response to the “blog” of the conference encouraged me to write a book. Other livebloggers find the same. They listen harder, and remember more.

Get good at this and you have a free pass to many high-priced conferences. Organizers are increasingly looking for first-rate livebloggers to generate press and future attendees. Or, like Ethan you can generate your own audience who follow you because your liveblogging skills. – KK

  • It’s relatively easy to blog good and great speakers: They follow a narrative path through their talks and speak at a pace the audience can understand. It’s harder to blog inexperienced speakers(because they may be too technical, confusing, fast, etc.) and multispeaker panels (because the discussion can take many different unstructured turns). But you don’t need to transcribe the whole talk, you need to capture the gist of it. A 20-minutes talk can often be summarized in a 20-lines post.
  • Always remember that what you’re writing will be read by people who weren’t in the room, so they haven’t seen the slides, the video, or the gesture. Hence, you have to compensate for the lack of context. Don’t be afraid to create a narrative by saying “He shows a slide with data on …” or “She walks on stage carrying a big suitcase” or “He shows a YouTube video” etc. And if the speaker shows a YouTube video, or a picture, remember that you’re online: Open another browser window, go to YouTube, find that video, and link to it; or go to the speaker’s website, find that picture or another similar or related item, and link to it (or republish the picture within your post). Yes, this requires effective multitasking. It’s at the root of conference blogging.
  • Conferences usually give out a program ahead of time. Use it to prepare for blogging: Do a quick Google search for each speaker, and save (in the same text file) links to their sites, blogs, and the institutions they’re affiliated with; write a one-or-two-sentences “biography” for each; and for the speakers you’ve never heard of, try to get a general sense of who they are and what they do. To write the mini-biography, use also the speaker information distributed by the conference organizers (booklet, website, etc.). For the key speakers, save a picture on your laptop (from their websites) and pre-format it for Web use, in case you will need it. If you prepare sufficiently, you’ve got the first paragraph of each post almost written ahead of time.

The best thesaurus ever

The Synonym Finder

This is the best thesaurus there is. It supplies more synonyms, analogs, parallels, equivalents and comparable words in English than any other source, online or off. No other thesaurus comes near to it for completeness or breadth. Compiled in dictionary form, like the one in your word processors, there’s no index or cross-referencing. Just look up a word, any word, and it proceeds to overwhelm you with alternative choices (a total of 1.5 million synonyms are presented in 1,361 pages), including short phrases and only mildly related words. Rather than being a problem of imprecision, the Finder’s broad inclusiveness prods your imagination and prompts your recall.

Its single downside, however, is a major frustration: it is not available digitally, in a form compatible to the way most people write these days. It should live on your computer in a pull-down option, or plug-in for Word or the like. I’m totally baffled why it is not. As it is, it’s a huge fat book — a great book! — sitting within arm’s reach when I write, but not near enough for the power that it offers. – KK


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