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Publish What You Learn

I don’t think anyone can deny that the Web has changed the way people teach, learn, and do research. Of course, this doesn’t mean that everything we read online is true and accurate—far from it. But I believe that through honest discussion and objective collaboration, accurate and useful information is much more likely to be the end result of any educational endeavor.

In the final week of November 2011, a smart group of developers1 launched a project called Move The Web Forward2, which you can read more about in Addy Osmani’s Smashing Magazine article3.

For this post, I want to focus on one piece of advice given by those developers in that project, under the heading “Write4”.

The advice is: Publish what you learn.

As soon as I read that exhortation (which originated with this tweet), I knew this was a project made by a group of people who cared about the Web and that they understand what it takes to move forward as developers, and as an industry.

Let’s explore those four simple words, because I believe that concept is at the heart of how much progress has been made in the front-end development niche. And it’s something that could help almost any industry, in any field.

Just Do It Link

Very few blogs start out with much traffic at all. Unless the blog is based on an already existing brand that has a lot of exposure, most blogs will begin with very few readers. Even Smashing Magazine, who now has millions of readers, subscribers, and followers, started out with nothing.

CSS-Tricks5 is another good example of a blog that started out as nothing, and has grown into a thriving, collaborative community. Its founder and curator, Chris Coyier, certainly couldn’t have predicted how much that website would grow. And I’m sure we could come up with additional examples of websites that went from zero to hero in a relatively short time.

Why did they become successful? Because they published what they learned. At one time I somewhat favored the view that too many blogs were being launched. But I think the benefits of so much being published in so many different places outweigh any drawbacks.

Of course, this is not to suggest that the reason you want to publish your thoughts is to “make it big”—that should be secondary, if considered at all. In fact, what you publish doesn’t necessarily have to be on a run-of-the-mill monetized WordPress blog. It could be a GitHub account, a Wiki-style website, a Tumblr feed, or even a bunch of quick tips on a simple Twitter account.

Which brings us to another important supplement to this theme. Immediately after the folks at Move The Web Forward told us to publish what we learn, they made an equally important statement.

Don’t Be Afraid To Make Mistakes Link

You might be thinking: “Wait. What? Me? Publish a blog? I’ve been coding websites for a measly six months (or some other ostensibly short period of time). Even if people visit my website and read it, my articles will probably get torn to shreds!”

That doesn’t matter. What’s important is that you recognize the value in researching, teaching, collaborating, and correcting mistakes. That’s why the Move The Web Forward folks went on to encourage writers to “keep your posts updated.”

And that’s why Rebecca Murphey, when discussing how to get better at writing JavaScript6, said:

“The number one thing that will make you better at writing JavaScript is writing JavaScript. It’s OK if you cringe at it six months from now. It’s OK if you know it could be better if you only understood X, Y, or Z a little bit better. Cultivate dissatisfaction, and fear the day when you aren’t disappointed with the code you wrote last month.”

In this case, Rebecca was talking about actually writing code, not writing about code. But the same principle applies: you will get better when you make mistakes and correct them.

And if you think you’ve made some progress and you have something unique and educational to share, don’t be afraid to offer it to one of the many design and development blogs that will gladly pay you for content.

Comments Are Part Of The Content Link

There are too many websites that view the readers’ comments as secondary content that is not nearly as valuable as what the author has to say in the main article. Every website should continually make changes or updates to content that is clearly shown to be incorrect. This shows that the publisher wants to provide accurate information, and that they respect the views of their readers.

In fact, you could make the argument that without reader comments, the quality of content on many design and development blogs would not be as strong as it is today. On my own website7, I’ve written so many things that were just downright wrong. In some cases, things can be a matter of opinion and personal preference. But in other cases, they’re just factually incorrect. In indisputable cases, I’ve always tried to post updates to articles and credit the commenters who pointed them out.

Teachers Learn By Teaching Link

Randy Rhoads8, a popular rock guitarist (who died in a plane crash in 1982), was well-known for being a guitar teacher. He once said9:

“I’ve been playing about 18 years and I started to get a style when I started teaching.”

In other words, he believed that his success as a guitarist was largely impacted by the fact that he spent time teaching his skill to others. The same can be true for any one of us.

I’ve learned so much from readers’ comments and from doing research on stuff that I plan to publish. I’ve even learned from content I never actually did publish. The Move The Web Forward project, once again, summarizes this point quite nicely:

“Teaching is a great learning tool as well. So, even if you are getting started in an area, you’re helping yourself by writing about it as well.”

GitHub Gets It Right Link

The collaboration level on many projects from the “social coding” website GitHub10 is truly amazing, and is something that shows how revolutionary the Web really is.

GitHub's method of social coding is revolutionary11

Think about a large project like HTML5 Boilerplate12. When that project was first released, many front-end devs were amazed at how much front-end knowledge had been packed into a single starting template. Many were even intimidated by it. But what it was when it first launched is nothing compared to what it is today.

Why? Because from the get-go the contributors to the project had the same attitude that Paul Irish expressed in the launch post13 of his blog:

“I’m very interested in your contributions… what else deserves to be in this base template?”

With those words, Paul began what might be the most important front-end development project in the Web’s short history. And the collaboration continues today. In fact, there have been over 1000 issues 14 opened and closed on that repo. All because Paul Irish—who has every right to never solicit feedback, because he’s so dang smart—encouraged collaboration.

Blog Posts Should Be Like GitHub Repos Link

The collaboration on apps like GitHub should be exactly what happens on blog posts. The readers posting comments should read the entire article15, and should offer constructive, polite criticism and suggestions, without any unnecessary negativity.

An end to negativity

If the author feels the advice is not accurate or best practice, than he should explain why. If it’s established that the point needs clarification and/or correction, then he should humbly accept this and post an update, crediting the person or persons that brought it up. Personally, I’ve seen too many posts where the author doesn’t make corrections, even when clear technical or factual errors are pointed out.

This doesn’t mean that “majority rules”—that would be ridiculous, and would probably cause more problems than it solves (particularly in matters of opinion, where often there are no hard-and-fast rules).

But if it’s a technical matter, then the author has the responsibility to make updates and keep the information fresh, practical, and relevant. This is especially important if readers are finding the article via search. The “copy-and-paste-but-don’t-read” mentality is common among developers looking for quick solutions. We all face tight budgets and even tighter deadlines, so the last thing we want to do is verify a piece of code’s quality by reading a 900-word accompanying article along with 50+ comments.

If you notice a lot of search traffic coming in for older articles on your website, that might very well be incentive to update those older posts, and ensure you’re not promoting something that you no longer believe is accurate or best practice. And this has a twofold benefit: It will get you even more traffic, and your readers will have accurate information that they can trust.

So let’s do our best to imitate collaborative communities like those found on GitHub and StackOverflow16, and continue making progress by correcting our errors. This will help all of us overcome the fears inherent in publishing what we learn.

The “TL;DR” Conclusion Link

If you don’t read this entire post, or if you take nothing else away from it, then just remember these points:

  • When you learn something, write about it, and don’t do it just to make money off it.
  • Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.
  • Teaching others will help you learn.
  • Encourage collaboration by allowing a free flow of constructive comments.
  • If you make a mistake, fix it.

I think this is a winning strategy for all those who are involved in design or development blogging, as well as tutorial writing.

When we’re willing to put ourselves out there, listen to what our peers have to say, and improve as needed, we will become better developers, and will help each other solve design and development problems in a more effective manner.

As this article suggests, your voice is just as important in this discussion. What do you think? Are you motivated to publish what you learn? Do you think collaboration and constructive feedback is an important part of moving the Web forward? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

Image used on frontpage: opensourceway17.

(il) (jvb)

Footnotes Link

  1. 1 https://github.com/h5bp/movethewebforward/contributors
  2. 2 http://movethewebforward.org/
  3. 3 https://www.smashingmagazine.com/2011/11/30/the-smashing-guide-to-moving-the-web-forward-community/
  4. 4 http://movethewebforward.org/#write
  5. 5 http://css-tricks.com
  6. 6 http://rmurphey.com/blog/2011/05/20/getting-better-at-javascript/
  7. 7 http://www.impressivewebs.com
  8. 8 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Randy_Rhoads
  9. 9 http://brittanyrivere.tripod.com/id6.html
  10. 10
  11. 11 http://github.com
  12. 12
  13. 13 https://github.com/h5bp/html5-boilerplate
  14. 14
  15. 15 http://www.impressivewebs.com/guide-commenting/
  16. 16 http://stackoverflow.com/
  17. 17 http://www.flickr.com/photos/opensourceway/5538035618/
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Louis Lazaris is a freelance web developer and author based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs about front-end code on Impressive Webs and curates Web Tools Weekly, a weekly newsletter for front-end developers.

  1. 1

    Jonathan Snook

    March 30, 2012 3:32 pm

    To expand further on your point about teaching, writing/speaking about something forces you to test your assumptions and explore things deeper than the initial problem you may have solved. It is this exploration where you really teach yourself even more of a given topic, while at the same time helping others learn.

    25
    • 2

      I agree on 100%. It’s been only recently that I started blogging, but now – every time I sit in front of the white blank screen and see the black blinking cursor my mind goes wild. In order to write about anything, you should first concentrate and logically order all the bits and pieces in your brain so that you can write out the ideas in a simple and clear way. Which ultimately gives you better understanding on the topic you are writing about. It’s marvelous.

      It was exactly because of that reason that I built. It’s a community website where people can share what they have learned about JavaScript with all its little tricks and gotchas, and ultimately people can learn from each other.

      Hey, sharing is caring after all.

      2
    • 3

      As a side point here, there was something a bit eerie about this article, in relation to the section on “Teaching”.

      I wrote this article, from beginning to end, on March 19 (although it had some revisions later). That was exactly 30 years to the day that Randy Rhoads (who I quote in the “Teaching” section) died. I’ve always remembered that quote from many years ago, so I had to track it down online somewhere, to verify it. But I had no idea that I was writing this article on the day he died. I only realized it the following day, when I was doing some edits.

      Very coincidental, to say the least.

      2
  2. 4

    There are plenty of people who do this and yet get nowhere with it because people don’t find their stuff which leads to no comments or feedback and ultimately they give up “publishing what they learn” as it appears to be helping no-one.

    Sadly these days people’s blogs and thoughts often need to be “found” and promoted by sources such as Smashing Magazine in order to be noticed and to provide the kind of worthwhile feedback that you’re talking about.

    6
    • 5

      Brett Jankord

      March 30, 2012 4:50 pm

      @Ian – This is exactly how I feel. About a month ago, I wrote on article on my blog about a technique I believe solves a lot of issues people have been running into with responsive web design. I tweeted the article with those I thought might find it interesting and help get it out to the rest of the web development community, though I’ve still yet to receive one comment on the post.

      Everyone values feedback.I t’s hard for the creator to see the cracks in their work. This is why feedback is so crucial. It helps us improve. Maybe my idea is completely crazy, though without any feedback from the community, it’s hard to tell.

      I don’t want to come of as complaining that my work goes unnoticed, though when you invest a lot of time trying to solve problems and don’t receive any feedback, it is discouraging. So I can completely agree with your idea, ” they give up “publishing what they learn” as it appears to be helping no-one.”

      @Jonathan – I like to write my ideas down too. It helps me put into words exactly what I’m thinking and review it in a concrete fashion rather than just having it float around in my mind.

      7
      • 6

        @Ian and @Brett:

        What you’ve both said is true, and probably will be true for many writers/bloggers. To increase your chances of getting noticed, I look at it as a two-fold process, both of which I discuss in the article:

        1) You should publish what you learn because teaching will make you a better student yourself.

        2) Because it’s so hard to get noticed and be “found”, you should try submitting your article to sites that are looking for writers. Smashing Magazine has a pretty tough review process nowadays, so it’s harder to get published with them. But there are lots of sites looking for authors, so try those lesser sites first. Many are in the SM Network. The traffic from those sites will naturally draw visitors and SEO value to your own blog in your bio, and eventually you’ll start to get more traffic.

        After getting some traffic that way, you’ll start to see some feedback. It takes a while, and some may feel it’s not worth the effort, but over time, with carefully researched articles your site will get noticed — even if it only gets a few hundred visitors a month.

        But besides blogging, there are other ways to get noticed. Commenting on other blogs, commenting on GitHub issues, contributing to GitHub issues, getting involved in IRC chats, posting on forums, etc. All of this can eventually lead to more exposure. But it has to be sincere, and with the intent of helping others and learning more yourself. If you do it all just to make money and get noticed (and I’m not saying you guys do it for that reason), then it will likely fail.

        5
    • 7

      Agree. I think having users engage your content is an important factor in the motivation to create more. Unfortunately there are many established sites “lifting” chunks and aggregating content. And although references are made the conversation remains on their site as they already have engaged community . And practices such as stripping backlinks and use of no-follow in an effort to prevent spam impacts any value that could be passed back to the source

      0
  3. 8

    I been having a debate with some friends for a while, about minifying CSS / JS and not minifying it.
    Obviously minifying it has its advantages, but by not minifying it you will give people the chance to look at your work and learn from it.
    So now I have taken to minifying the CSS / JS but also leaving a comment with a link to an un-minifyied version for people to learn from and look at.

    2
    • 9

      This is a nice idea. I’ve worried the same about css and js myself as we all learn a lot from “view source”!

      Also, I have found tools such as this css unminifierand JS Beautifier are pretty good for unminifying code, I’ve used these when wanting to get some code from elsewhere a bit more readable :)

      0
    • 10

      Martin that’s exactly what I think people should do.

      I’ve not put anything into practice but it’s a simple thing to do, and as you say, people can then learn from your code.

      1
  4. 11

    I too have just started to blog after being a web designer now for about 6 years or more – I have only managed to upload 3 posts to date (a bit rushed if I am honest) but find it difficult time wise to do the “real work” as you might say and then blog about it later. I think a few late nights a month are in order as I love writing about what I do and I love reading others work too :-)

    0
  5. 12

    Niklaus Gerber

    March 30, 2012 4:20 pm

    Thank you for the great article. I decided two month ago that the best way to learn new things is also to share them. So I started blogging again and my aim is to publish one article a month with stuff I learned. Thanks for the inspiration!

    8
  6. 13

    Actually, blog posts _can_ be Git repos, just use stuff like Middleman or Jekyll and publish your blog’s sources on Github for others to fork and help.

    0
    • 14

      I believe Divya Manian does that on her blog, which is based on Octopress:

      0
  7. 15

    You should write about your findings,learning, interests. This is your forte. You should exploit it. I fully agree with author on this.

    5
  8. 16

    This is a fantastic post and couldn’t agree more. The shared value to both reader and writer is phenomenal. This is becoming one of the biggest pushes in education and learning for both teachers and students.

    0
  9. 17

    Stev Newbury

    March 30, 2012 7:10 pm

    Very interesting article Louis. I fall into the “new blog” category; I launched 6 short months ago. I’ve been coding for 5 years now, yet still I learn each and every day! My aim has always been to pass my knowledge on, and this just cements the fact that I’m doing the right thing! Teaching others definitely improves your own knowledge!

    0
  10. 18

    Gaëtan Renaudeau

    March 30, 2012 7:44 pm

    “Teachers Learn By Teaching”

    This is totally true!
    Sharing your knownledge learns you how to explain ideas, and helps you to understand things you didn’t expect you can re-use to improve your initial share!
    But you also need to get feedback to ensure you are doing it right ;)

    0
  11. 19

    I’ve read a few comments about how its easy to get discouraged if you publish what you learn and don’t see traffic from the posts. My simple advice is: do it for the learning, not for the pageviews.

    I started a website (abetteruserexperience.com) with a buddy of mine last summer. We wanted to learn more about UX. We agreed to each write one post a week and to do a podcast.

    What that did was force us to talk through what we wanted to learn, to research it and to come back and talk about it.

    For what it’s worth, it took about six months for traffic to pick up. We got lucky and have written a few articles that have been well received and that helped our traffic. Yes, I enjoy looking at Google Analytics daily, but our motivations for the website are pure: we want to learn and we want to communicate that learning.

    The rest of it — getting known, getting work because of our site, and selling sponsorship all grew (to the extent that any of those things have happened) naturally our of our efforts to learn more about UX.

    But it’s the learning that motivates us and gets us to keep up with our posting schedule.

    3
  12. 20

    The “community” often makes people afraid to make mistakes, especially when they have a minority orientation / gender identity / species identity / other basis for being Acceptable Targets.

    4
  13. 21

    Saurabh Kumar

    March 30, 2012 10:27 pm

    I still remember that status update by Paul Irish – “Publish what you learn”. That was the day i realized it’s meaning and power. Now my have a purpose for my blog.. i mean i used to be always confused what to write. I’ll just add few more advantages that i realized when i started writing…

    1. “when you ‘publish’ something it motivates you to write as complete and correct as possible” — this helps me learn the topic well and it’s fun!!

    2. When I have an article I can easily tell my friend or someone to see my post, from where he learn with his own pace. You won’t realize but that helps me save my a lot of time.. :)

    I more tip i would like to share here, I usually find it’s to hectic to find time specially for writing, so most of the time. I write while I am learning. Let’s say if i’m learning to use “Git”, i would draft my article while i explore and learn git. simple right. then in the end the last thing left is — “Publish” button.. :)

    0
  14. 22

    Brent Leavitt

    March 30, 2012 11:04 pm

    I like this. I’ve been borrowing from others knowledge and experience for over five years. I would be nothing as a front-end web developer without the experiences shared by other on the web. It is the one industry that is self-educating like none other.

    I’ve always felt because I didn’t receive a formal education in anything related to the web, that my experiences and knowledge were sub par. Slowly, I’m shaking that off as I’ve started to contribute more on StackOverflow and elsewhere.

    Thanks for the invitation, Louis! Best foot forward!

    2
  15. 23

    Matt Vaughan

    March 31, 2012 3:27 am

    This brings to mind the classic adage about how doctors learn their trade:

    Watch one
    Do one
    Teach one

    1
    • 24

      This is how the school systems should be changed to. Less in class, more hands on in the field learning from a mentor(s), peer(s).

      0
  16. 25

    You have really encouraged me to start a small blog. I’ve been a developer for 3 years and i thought that just reading articles/e-books will help me learn more. But now, I start to believe that interaction with peers is far more important.

    I’m reading this blog for some time now (this is my first comment) and I’ll definitely keep on coming back here :)

    1
  17. 26

    Thanks for this post. I recently started blogging, and although I feel very satisifed and accomplished when I finish a post, when I tweet it etc and get no comments I get a little disheartened.. however I try and remember, writing it is beneficial for me to track what I have learned, and also to help me write better.

    Funnily enough on the other end of the scale, I’ve always been a little worried about getting comments because although I welcome criticism as a chance to learn, some commenters online can be kind of nasty especially if you don’t know as much as them.

    Your article is encouraging, and makes me realise I should keep blogging for myself and with what I’ve learnt. We are ALL learning and shouldn’t be worried about where we are in that massive learning process. I think we all have something useful to share and teach somebody else. :)

    0
  18. 27

    The problem i have about it, is when i found something interestring and want to post, i think it maybe very common to others!

    0
    • 28

      Victor Samuel Mosquera

      March 31, 2012 7:23 pm

      It doesn’t matter, just practice the habit of writting.

      3
  19. 29

    Great article. I am not a coder but this advice is relevant for anyone who wants to start blogging on a topic but doesn’t feel what they have to offer is polished or advanced enough. I am bookmarking this for those days I have to remind myself to just do it!!

    1
  20. 30

    Renato Alves

    March 31, 2012 3:38 pm

    First I would like to thank for the great tutorial, it came in a time where I was in doubt about creating or not creating a front-end development blog. There are so many related blogs online that I confess I was not that motivaded in creating one.

    But your post gave me the courage and confidence to definitely start this project (blog).

    I believe that teaching , or at least trying, to teach people what I learn in a great way to improve myself and help the community.

    Thanks alot! =)

    0

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