Weblogs, Outlines, and Writing

Dave Winer has posted aboout a new tool he’s working on, his Weblog Outliner.

I want this.

I think the ability to outline and post has enormous potential for not only blogging and writing, but for teaching writing. I don’t require students to turn in or use an outline, but I do require them to use any of a variety of pre-writing tools and techniques before they start. List-making and outlines are two that students seem particularly drawn to.

The virtue of doing the outline/listing publicly over the net are:

  • Public writing, shared writing, is taken seriously. Students are eager to revise.
  • If the writing is by its nature public within the defined community, then the temptation to plagiarize is less, since the source will be known to others of the community.
  •  I can help and interact with students “on the fly.” They can help and learn from each other.
  •  Structure, of piece of writing, and of individual paragraphs and sentences, is one of the hardest things to explain to students. Outlines and lists help make the structures of an essay and of individual paragraphs much easier to understand and manipulate.
  •  The web and good technology are intriguing, and fun, and their use in writing can help seduce students to write, and to find that they enjoy writing and communicating in and of itself.
  •   Having students post the final version in a non outline form, publishing their essays on the web, of course shares many of these virtues. Web log tools can make that much easier.

The problem is that Radio as it stands is too unfinished, too arcane and poorly designed in terms of UI to use widely in education. It’s too hard for consumers to set up and use, the documentation is awful, the Mac UI violates several basic Mac standards, and is needlessly arcane. OPML has potential, but it needs to be freed from Radio Userland’s bowels and set free so professional developers can employ it as a standard. Left to Userland’s developers, it will languish and choke.

It’s About Writing

Dave Winer, in an old Wired interview he doesn’t much like, is quoted as saying:

To me, the Web is not about getting rich. It’s about users, designers, stories, and pictures. It’s a writing environment..

I think he’s exactly right. Blogging, for all the ability to add or link to images, is one of the ways the primacy of text is still apparent on the net. Text is an efficient low-bandwidth form of data, and writing is an artform (well, other people’s writing is).

The next time I teach, whether it’s a freshman composition class or a literature class, I’ll definitely be blogging, and I’ll do my best to incorporate blogging into the syllabus. People take their writing far more seriously when they know they have readers, and when writing is made public, it suddenly is taken far more seriously.

Commenting Code

There’s an interesting thread on SlashDot about when and how to comment code.

Lots of programmers seem to think that comments are a waste of time, but when I interview a programmer I always ask about how and when the programmer comments. I’ve been known to ask a programmer to walk through commented code, explaining what it does. If you really know what you’re doing, and your code, you should be able to explain it to someone who knows the basic concepts of programming and understands the task at hand.

I think comments are important, not only for future maintainers, but as a help to the coder who writes them. You will forget what you meant a particularly brilliant bit of code to do when you come back to it six months later, or even the next morning after an all nighter. Comments will help you remember. Make them descriptive, and specific, and you’ll find that thinking about what the code does will often help you stream line as you discover flaws in your “narrative strategy.”

Yeah, I know, code doesn’t have a narrative strategy, but are you sure? Think about it. There’s an order in which steps must happen, a process, with a defined beginning, middle and end. Use comments to gloss the process. User short descriptive variable names, not, please, Polish variable names, as one programmer I worked with did, unless of course, you’re coding in Poland. I’m not a programmer, but I’ve looked at a lot of code, and worked in a few scripting languages. I usually write some comments first, outlining the basic parts of the routine, to help me organize my thoughts. I learned that from the person who taught me to use my first scripting language, and it does help.

The Virtues of Blogging

Andrew Sullivan, has, I think, hit upon one of the key virtues of the blog as a tool for journalism; he writes in his “Blogger Manifesto” that “Peer-to-peer journalism, I realized, had a huge advantage over old-style journalism. It could marshall the knowledge and resources of thousands, rather than the certitudes of the few.”

Blogging-as-journalism then shares the advantages of open source software—you have hundreds, perhaps thousands, of bug finders, fixers, and coders working because they want to. And I think this “open source” effect is one of the potential side effects of using blogs for instruction. You are helping students find a voice, a personal commitment to their words and thoughts, and you are teaching them to think about audience, one of the central requirements of good writing. These are all Good Things.

Since I started really thinking about blogs—and deliberately reading and researching them—I’ve slowly realized that one could argue that my central Celtic Studies Resources site is a blog, a blog with categories, and stories.