Productivity in Academia – An Interview with Dezene Huber ›

The Weekly Review has an interesting interview with a guy called Dezene Huber. I was particularly struck with the paragraph quoted below in regard to Dezene’s and his family’s approach to life.

Satisfaction means that we don’t try to make material possessions the source of our joy. Rather, the things that we already have and that mainly cannot be priced – God, family, friends, nature, and experiences – represent the true foundation of our lives. Beyond that, we live in thankfulness for food, shelter, and clothing and our good fortune to live in a free country of opportunity. If every gizmo and gadget that we own would suddenly be taken away, our lives would be a bit more challenging and a bit quieter – but, would that be such a bad thing?

Something I believe we should all take on board and consider next time we want that new iPhone.

Interview With Shawn Blanc

At the beginning of the year I promised to myself that I would strive to bring content to Electric Weekend that contained a little more pith. I began to brainstorm a few things and although a lot of those things haven’t come to fruition, one has.

I’d like to present to you, the first interview to appear on Electric Weekend. Very kindly Shawn Blanc agreed to be my first victim interviewee. I’m sure many of you know Shawn, but for those that don’t I’ll introduce him.

Shawn is a Christian and has two blogs, his first was The Fight Spot which evolved into a Christian focused part of the internet, and Shawn has written many challenging posts. His second blog can be found at shawnblanc.net and was launched as a birthday present to himself. Both are cracking reads.

PB: I thought a good place to begin would be with The Fight Spot and why you began blogging, but also how you began to focus TFS into the Christian blog it has become?

SB: My first weblog was on blogger. Some friends of mine had blogs and I really liked the idea of me writing something and others reading it. Also, it felt like a great outlet for me. I’ve always considered myself a writer but never found an outlet that worked for me in the long run. Posting to a weblog seemed like it could be ideal.

After a few months on blogger I got my own domain and then ended up installing WordPress. For the first year or more my weblog was a “personal” blog. I told stories and shared thoughts, etc. The change of focus on The Fight Spot to a Christian weblog may have seemed random to some but totally normal to me. I am a habitual tweaker, and publishing a weblog has *tons* of room for tweakage.

I realized that what I really wanted to write about wasn’t stories of what happened in my day but rather issues and principles and things that were important or relevant to me. Part of that decision came when I realized that I am a bad story teller – I’ve always been a bad story teller, but I thought I could pass it off in writing, but I was wrong.

PB: Well you certainly write about those issues well, The Fight Spot is a great read. I found it through your Apostolic Blogging series and subsequently subscribed. I know a lot of people were challenged by those posts and they generated a lot of discussion. With the content being so focused on yours and other peoples Christian faiths, how do you begin writing posts for TFS? Are they triggered by anything or do you feel some kind of prompting to write on a particular theme?

SB: I don’t think I could nail down just one method or prompting of how I write for TFS. I used to just write about whatever, then I began to write thematic series of posts and now I seem to write once I have some inspiration for something.

I think the biggest change to writing on TFS came when I launched shawnblanc.net. I was getting to the point on TFS where I wanted to keep it much more focused on Christian topics but that didn’t mean it was the only thing I wanted to write about. Having a second weblog gave me an avenue to write something else which I love as well: design and technology. (I’ve been a computer nerd since as long as I can remember.)

I know that guys like you and Ben Gray do a good job of melding the two together, and I did that too for a while, but I wanted to try an experiment and see how things would fare if I split the two topics off and gave them each their own home. I think it’s been a great success. Readership for both sites has grown quite a bit since last summer.

Now when writing for TFS I usually post once I have the inspiration or prompting. I went almost the whole month of January without being able to put anything to words that I wanted to publish on there, but then just yesterday I wrote two great and un-related articles in one sitting.

PB: Thank you for the compliment!

I know how you feel with the whole aspect of not really being able to put anything into words, it’s something I struggle with a lot. What I think is great, and very important, is that you don’t try and force it, you let it come and when it does it’s always a very worthwhile read.

How do you deal with a “barron” patch? I know when I’m struggling to write something, I’m very conscious of the lack of any longer posts, are you aware of it in a similar way or does it not really bother you? Can you patiently wait it out till something sparks you into action?

SB: I deal with dry spells in two ways: (a) I ignore them and just wait until I have something to write about. I love to write so much that inevitably it will get to the point that I’ll find something to write about. Otherwise, (b) do something that will help me find a groove or topic.

Kicking off the reviews on Mac Software was a great way to give myself a topic and some momentum to write.

However, I think a big reason for dry spells can be “false pressure”. Say someone wants to write something but after thinking about it, or even beginning the post they decide it will be lame and their readers won’t like it. So they end up not writing it, and then say “I don’t have anything to write about.” Well, that’s not true. They do have something to write, they’re just afraid to write it.

PB: That’s a really interesting point. I’ll be the first one to admit that I’m guilty of that kind of thinking, but I would guess most bloggers are at some point in their blogging life. Is it something that’s ever troubled you?

SB: Sure it is. It’s hard not to write something, knowing it will be read by the public and not wonder about how others will respond or what they will think.

PB: I also like your approach to finding a groove for blogging with your topic based themes. How do they come about? Take your Mac Software reviews, were they triggered by anything in particular or was it just something you wanted to do?

SB: Well, it was sort-of a “one thing leads to another” scenario. I did an interview with Brent Simmons and promised him a review of NNW in return for his time. I loved writing the review so much that I thought it would be fun to do a whole series… and that’s how it started.

PB: Everything seems to follow on from one thing you’ve enjoyed, which I guess is logical and to be expected. It’s become really obvious to me through this interview that you enjoy pretty much every aspect of blogging. How long did it take you to “get” what blogging should be like? And do you have any advice for someone who is struggling to find their feet?

SB: I do enjoy publishing a weblog. The challenge of maintaining it and developing it is fun, not to mention I enjoy writing and interacting with readers. I assume what you meant by “get” what blogging is, is how long did it take me to find my rhythm as a weblog publisher. It took me about a year or so before I found a voice that I liked, the topics I wanted to write on, the areas I wanted to develop and the areas I wasn’t concerned about.

Though, outlining those into more clear concepts would not be too easy. It’s mostly internal, and honestly is subject to change at any moment. How do I feel about the current state of my weblogs? Good? O.k. then I’ll leave them alone and keep on doing what I’m doing. If not good, then I’ll change something. Perhaps the focus, the design, etc… Since writing my weblogs is not my job it’s easy to enjoy them for what they are: a hobby and a side-passion. Now that I say it, I suppose defining those boundaries has helped me quite a bit to “get” it.

PB: I’m pleased you mentioned ShawnBlanc.net. You’ve already filled us in on why you decided to setup the second blog, and you certainly seem to be enjoying it. I’m intrigued as to how the two are working side by side. Do you feel more pressure from the readers of sbnet to write more great reviews, or do you feel more pressure from TFS readers to come up with more great though provoking posts? Is there any conflict between the two blogs?

SB: I get occasional comments or emails on The Fight Spot from long-time readers who miss the times when I was publishing a full-on post every single day, but honestly the only pressure or conflict I feel is from myself. I am constantly analyzing and critiquing my work, and I am super hard on myself.

There’s not much conflict between the two sites; there are quite a few readers who read both and I think that’s great. Something else I like about having both sites is the design of each. One is dark serif on white, the other is light sans-serif on dark. I very much like the look of The Fight Spot, and though I’m still not 100% settled with the design of shawnblanc.net at the moment, it is getting there.

PB: We come to anther point I wanted to talk to you about. Design. I very much like the look of both of your sites. The contrast of the colours between the two works very well and they both are a pleasure to read on.

You mentioned you aren’t totally happy with SBnet yet, I’m enjoying watching the slight evolution of the site, do you have a particular process you go through when it comes to designing your blogs? Or even when you are doing design work for clients or OneThing?

SB: I have found that i design best when I have a problem to solve; i.e. a specific project that needs to be created. Unlike my sister who is *incredbly* artistic, I am not usually thinking about creative things. I’m usually problem solving something or another. I realized I had a different approach to design when at my first meeting working for our marketing department I was the only guy not doodling on my run-sheet.

So to answer your question. I don’t really have a process. When I sit down to start a project I look at the problems that need to be solved by it. What needs to be communicated? What needs to be said? Can it be said visually or do I need text? Etc… Then I usually sketch out some ideas until I feel like something “clicks” in my mind. Then I put my hand to the mouse and start work.

As far as the evolution of shawnblanc.net there certainly hasn’t been any rhyme or reason whatsoever. It’s actually rather funny how the design has evolved. Last summer I began mulling over the idea of starting shawnblanc.net, but didn’t have too much motivation to get the ball rolling. On the side, I have always been a fan of Kyle Neath’s Hemingway theme1, but never had an outlet to use it. Then when I came across Nalin’s Hemingway EX2 version of Neath’s original theme I knew it was the look I wanted to go with. I bought my domain, highly tweaked the theme to customize it into a one-colum, sidebar-on-the-right layout and launched the weblog.

When I tweak something it’s usually because I’ll see something on my site and decide, “that could be better.” So I’ll think about it for a day or two or more and when I decide how I want it to be I’ll make the change. Sometimes it sticks sometimes it doesn’t.

I think that visual familiarity plays a pretty big role for visitors and regular readers, so I try to keep the overall *feel* of the site the same, while making minor adjustments here and there. Plus I think it gives regular readers something to do when their bored: notice something different. Eventually I suspect that I’ll finally land on all the elements in a way that I’m happy with.

PB: I next wanted to talk to you about your recent reviews on Mac shareware. You’ve garnered a lot of attention from them, which is well deserved, and I’ve found them to be very interesting reads. I like how they are from the perspective of someone who has lived with the apps for a period of time. Often reviews are from people who only use the app or product for a week and I find they feel oddly disconnected. I like that yours are relatable and born from a genuine appreciation of the product. How do you go about writing such comprehensive reviews and have you been surprised by how well they have been taken?

SB: I really enjoy it, but those reviews are a lot of work to put together. I start out by searching up information about the application and reading all about it. Mostly blog posts and other reviews by the developer, other fans, other tech sites, etc…

Then I think about what are the things *I* like about the app. Why am I a fan of it? Why did I buy it? I jot out some notes and highlights of what I want to talk about. Then I decide what I actually want to communicate with the article. More than just sharing information or highlghting features, I want the post to have a personality and a feel to it that communicates something as a whole. It’s as if the whole article were a canvas and I’m trying to paint a picture, there is a lot of fine detail and unique attributes to the painting, but they all come together to form a specific image that you might not see unless you were on the other side of the room taking in the whole thing at once.

Have I been surprised at the attention their getting? Yes and no. I expect a lot of people visit and link to them simply because the post is long, so geeze…it *must* be good, right? On the other hand, I do know that a lot of people really are enjoying the articles – hopefully as much as I am enjoying writing them – and that is a great thing.

PB: Well I for one am enjoying them, please keep writing them.

You’ve recently written a couple of interviews with Cameron Hunt and John Gruber, which have been fascinating reads. How do you go about approaching interviews? Do you have any tips for someone like me who is participating in his first email interview?

SB: I learned a ton about how to conduct a proper email interview through my experience with Gruber. I asked a similar question to him as well, and I like how he mentioned knowing the list of topics and questions you want to cover up-front but molding the interview and allowing it to take on its own personality.

For the few interviews I’ve done I sent an email to the potential interviewee asking them if they would be interested in an interview and willing to take the time to exchange several emails. None of interviews were time sensitive for publishing so I mentioned that – letting them know they didn’t need to feel any pressure about replying as fast as they could.

Another thing I’ve learned is that changing topics in an email interview is different than changing topics in a vocal conversation. Although it’s great to have the feel of a conversation in a published email interview you don’t have to literally talk to the interviewee as if it were a face to face conversation. If I ask a question and they reply with all the information I wanted to know and I have nothing to add then I don’t, I simply move on. Trying to make sure the replies I give are an addition to the conversation, not just commentary, if that makes sense.

PB: And there’s that name again. John Gruber. Your site is the only place on the internet (or at least the first) which contains the reason why Daring Fireball is comment free. Since coming to John’s attention you seem to have collected a few links on DF. I’m intrigued to know how much this affects visitor numbers and subscriber numbers?

SB: The links from John have been extremely helpful in establishing a solid readership and subscriber base. I am extremely grateful to all of those who have stuck around my site after the DF links. It’s a lot better than the random, un-involved subscribers you would get from a site like Digg – the subscribers from DF like design, they like to geek out on their Macs and they pay quite a bit of attention to detail.

PB: Well as I’m a subscriber to both you and Daring Fireball I can quite safely say I understand how you have built up a solid reader base.

I’d like to say a final thank you to Shawn for participating in this interview. I’ve enjoyed it and learnt a lot, and I hope you have as well.

  1. Kyle Neath’s Hemmingway WordPress theme.↩
  2. Nalin’s Hemmingway mod which is the basis of Shawn’s site.↩