Writing Tip: Portfolio of Questions

One of the beauties of most forms of written text is their linearity; that everything has a place between the beginning and the end provides a great aid for our mind to comprehend complex information. Our mind loves shortcuts, and taking messy, multidimensional reality into this compact single-dimensional form has therefore a tempting appeal.

We are often led to think of the process of writing as guided by the linear form of its end result. While there might be some enviable writers, who will start with character one on page one, to then proceed character by character to the last page; these are certainly the exception. After all, the process of writing almost always starts within the mess of reality; which staunchly resists to be packed into the linear shape we envision.

Bringing things into logical order from A to Z is an ability mostly associated with our slow, conscious logical mind. This mind, unfortunately, is not up to the infinitely complex task of creating beautiful and inspiring prose. This makes it so unpleasantly hard to write a text in that ultimate logical order.

This tip provides one strategy to break away from the linear output of the text while retaining some necessary structure and direction for the process of writing. The strategy is as follows:

  1. Start to build a portfolio of questions, you would like to be answered by your final text.
  2. Pick whichever question has the most appeal to you and write an answer.
  3. Constantly revise and extend the portfolio of questions to keep up with the sophistication of your understanding of the text.
  4. When all questions are answered to your satisfaction, compose a neat linear article from your answers to the questions.

If you find in step 4 that you cannot assemble a neat linear article from the answers you have composed. Then, go back to step 3 and create new questions or revise the existing ones, or go back to step 1, since you might have chosen a topic, which does not lend itself to logical linear discussion at this point in history.

Please note that the questions should not only be intended to form the body of your text but the combined answers should be able to form the entirety of the text to be written; including introduction and conclusion etc. Of course, coming up with such a set of questions is a skill in itself.

As for all writing tips, the observation of yourself is the key ingredient to success. What kind of questions particularly tempt you to write beautiful prose? With what scope of questions do you work best; with those requiring answers of half a page, or one page, or two pages?

All good writing is like a conversations. Putting questions into the center of organizing your text puts the reader in this center, too; since, in a good piece of writing, the questions your text answers should be the questions a reader asks.

Xtend Error: Cannot find class Consumer

Problem

When deploying you Xtend application to a different environment than your development environment you might encounter an error such as:

[ERROR] symbol: class Consumer
[…]
[ERROR] cannot find symbol

Solution

This error is caused by Xtend trying to use Java 8 features. It does so when your development machine runs Java 8.

For eclipse, you can fix this by using a Java 7 JDK under Window / Preferences / Java / Installed JREs. Then ‘Clean’ your project and all references to the Consumer class should be obliterated.

For Maven, you can find more information on this page.

Windows Explorer New: Add File Types and Templates

Right clicking within a folder of the Windows Explorer allows access to a convenient way to create new files through the context menu:

This post discusses a number of ways how this context menu can be changed.

Edit Menu With Handy Tool

ShellNewHandler is a useful tool to ‘clean up’ the ‘New’ context menu. Just download and run the application and deselect the options you do not need:

Edit Menu Through Windows Registry

Search for ‘regedit’ in the windows search and open the Registration Editor. The relevant entries for the ‘New’ context menu can be found under ‘HKEY_CLASSES_ROOT’.

Specifically, the relevant information should be under the key ‘.[filetype]/ShellNew’.

Set various values within this key to control the behaviour of the New context menu.

  • Adding a value with the name ‘NullFile‘ (and no value) will create a new empty file for the extension if it’s selected from the new context menu.
  • Adding a value ‘FileName‘ with a value of a path to a file will use the pointed to file as a template for creating new files.

References

Add file types and templates (Windows XP)

Reference for Registry Entries (Windows 95)

ShellNewHandler: Useful open source tool to remove entries from the ‘New’ context menu

SSL Certificate Comparison

With recent developments brining Internet security into the spotlight (such as heartbeat), SSL certificates are easily one of the cornerstones of any Internet-enabled application.

Unfortunately, a simple Google search does not easily reveal the best options for obtaining SSL certificates. Thus, I have compiled a small list of popular SSL certificate providers.

Free

StartSSL seems to be the way to go to get a free SSL certificate. Their desktop browser support seems reasonable but there might be problems with some mobile browsers and applications.

Low Price < US$10

Low price SSL certificates (for domain validation) can be obtained from resellers. GOGETSSL and namecheap seem to be good options. In my understanding, these issue essentially identical certificates to those obtained directly through RapidSSL or Comodo.

Medium Price < US$100

Further popular providers for SSL certificates are GoDaddy, RapidSSL and Comodo. All of these offer solid certificates trusted by most browsers and platforms (though, at present, GoDaddy certificates are not supported in the latest JDKs).

This list is specifically about the most basic form of SSL certificates, which only validate your domain and not your business name. However, I think for most applications these are more than enough. While for domain-only verification I would recommend the low-price options listed above, for business name verification I would recommend going directly to a more established provider.

 

The Secret of Uncommonness

When writing only paraphrases words, phrases, ideas and concepts familiar to us, we often perceive it as boring and dull. If, on the other hand, writing consists mostly of words, phrases, ideas and concepts that are unfamiliar to us, we often perceive it as complex, difficult or even incomprehensible.

The secret of uncommonness therefore must be found in right balance between what is familiar and what is not. The following rules of thumb can guide in finding such a balance:

Begin with the Common and End with the Uncommon

A text is often easier to understand when it begins with familiar, easy and common concepts and introduces more complex and unfamiliar concepts afterward (Booth, Williams, and Colomb, 2003).

Use the Uncommon Sparsely

Think of the uncommon as some precious extra-glitter for your writing – but extra glitter which comes at a price. Since, usually, an uncommon word or concept needs to be couched in careful explanation. The more uncommon the more explanation might be required, which increases the length of your text.

Use the Uncommon to Emphasize Concepts of Particular Importance

The uncommon will stand out from your writing, and it is what the reader is most likely to remember. This makes using uncommon words and ideas to accompany ideas of particular importance an interesting choice. However, note that the key idea here should be to accompany rather than to express these ideas; since very important ideas should always be explained in the simplest way possible.

Using uncommon words, phrases and ideas is one of the most powerful tool a writer can wield in giving writing its final polish. However, like all powerful tools, it should be applied with caution. Understandability should, in my opinion, always be the key objective of most forms of writing and the uncommon easily gets in the way of this goal.

Read What You Write

Unquestionably there is value in the process of writing in itself; previously muddy ideas are clarified and new ideas emerge by bringing them on paper.

However, writing is arguably more valuable if what is written is also read (and then, hopefully, refined). Unfortunately, finding readers in our busy and information-saturated world is nothing but easy. Many writers, for instance, spend a considerable time building and connecting with an audience; for instance through book tours, presentations and social media.

Although we owe it to our efforts to publicize our creations, this might not be what everybody enjoys. I, for once, am not very comfortable with the concept of self-promotion.

Luckily, there is one reader whose attention we always can be assured of: ourselves. If you write and your writing is not read by an audience of millions, little fault falls upon you. But if you write and even you yourself do not read your writing, then why did you bother writing it in the first place?

Unfortunately, at least for me, it is often difficult to remind myself of reading what I have written myself.

One strategy to assure to overcome these difficulties is to create and/or assign a ‘reading contexts’ for any piece of writing created. Possible reading contexts could be the following:

  • A specific time; for instance, next Sunday at 3 pm.
  • An activity; for instance, before continuing my research on the Huns.
  • A resource; for instance, next time I access the document about architecture in the middle ages.

These contexts motivate us and ensure that what we have written gets read at the very least by ourselves. If this works, you could then venture to extend your readership to 2.