I have been writing on StackOverflow for quite a while now. I don’t know if these can be called writing since it’s purely technical. However, helping newbies with verbose answers has stoked some confidence in me; confidence that I am good at explaining things to people. Additionally, I recently gave an interactive presentation on a math-heavy topic that garnered good reviews; it took 2 months for me to prepare this slide deck viewable on a browser; more than half the time was spent not on technicalities but on the material. This also gave me a taste for good, clear explanations and I dare say, good writing in general.
Search for Intuition
I am a patron of Better Explained; a site that explains technical concepts, like Calculus, Physics, in a way that builds intuition. I share a belief with its creator, Kalid Azad: technical topics are tagged thus only because they are presented in a bad fashion to freshers. Oodles of symbol vomit and no fun would naturally steer a fresher away!
Every master was once a beginner.
Remembering this fact, building intuition should be the prime effort of teachers; for once the learner is hooked, delving into the details (rigour) would naturally follow. So I belong to the camp that says “sacrificing rigour for intuition is OK.”
My intention is to not just write. I believe mere words aren’t enough to get the idea through; figures and interactive content are essential. No wonder many books are dubbed boring in this day and age where content can be a lot richer, spanning beyond words and symbols. I believe well-written books still have their place when one wants to study a subject in depth; I’ve often recommended it; but they can be enthusiasm-killers for a newbie.
Writing – a powerful tool
An incredibly powerful technique for solving problems is by simply writing it down. It seems rather simple, but it can often allow you to solve problems you previously thought were impossible.
It left a strong impression on me. I’ve done this unconscionably many times but when he put it out there like that, it solidified in my mind. I realised how powerful a tool writing is. Another reason why writing things down is a good thing: it helps others and oneself become conscious of habits and traits ingrained within.
Learner ➰ Writer
I am a depth-oriented guy. I keep exploring various topics — programming, math, science — and I find it hard to build intuition. I take my time in understanding various pieces of a topic until they all fall in place in my head; the penny finally drops. Once internalised, I write code to concretise my comprehension of the concept; most of the math I intuitively understand is because of the code I wrote.
I embellish code generously with comments to make sure my future self recall’s what I grokked. As I kept writing these comments I realised something deeper: just the act of writing comments, with the intention of explaining it, not to just myself, but for any future reader in general, made my understanding lucid by filling the holes in my mental model.
However, I find it selfish to leave the bread crumbs in comments. How many people read code to understand something? How can the aforementioned interactive learning tools be put in comments? This is a place where I try to explain things that occurred to me in hopes that its readers share my joy of understanding something intuitively. I hope to give life to words with figures and interactive demos along the way. Instead of complaining about someone’s writing, griping I couldn’t build intuition, I want to add my ounce of effort to the mix. It might not solve the original problem, but doing might get one a lot closer to the solution than talking.
Open standards and good tools
A learner should be able to visualise and play with ideas in a tangible way to connect the dots; interesting enough to arouse interest in a subject. A very good example of this is Explorable Explanations. Content can leverage modern tools to paint a clearer picture and attract beginners too. These days we see programming books with embedded interpreters for readers to try out the exercise within the comfort of their browsers; physics explanations with playable demos where readers can change parameters to observe corresponding change in a phenomenon.
No such thing as a stupid question
There is a very high probability of errors creeping into the content; worse it might be downright wrong. If a reader is unable to understand something, I’m convinced that it’s my ineptitude as a explainer and not the reader’s. It simply establishes the fact that I’m primarily a learner and I’m experimenting with my authoring skills. In case you notice mistakes, I would really appreciate you pointing it out.
I am also motivated by many but that is for a different post.