Once in a while I'll get an email from a reader wanting to know how I go about writing articles for the blog. With the year at a close and most people preparing for New Year's celebrations, I figured now might be a good time to discuss how Packetlife works behind the scenes. If Packet Life had any scenery, that is.
One of the keys to holding readers' interest in a blog interesting is to always maintain a buffer of content. The idea is that you can write on and off, but still post articles at a regular interval. At times I'll have as much as a week's worth of content written in advance, but on average I stay just a post or two ahead of myself.
Another trick which takes some discipline is to maintain a list of potential article topics. Often I'll encounter some technical issue in a lab that I'd like to cover but don't have the time to write about it at the moment, so I'll add it to my "to do" list. If you've ever written in with a suggestion for the blog, I've likely responded that I've added it to this list. I've found that it's crucial that I add a topic to the list the moment I think of it; otherwise the idea tends to quickly evaporate. At the moment my to do list contains well over a hundred article ideas, so rest assured there will be no shortage of content in 2009.
Once I've decided what to write about, I start putting words down in a simple text document saved to my workstation. If the article is technical in nature, I write in parallel to performing a lab with Dynamips/GNS3 or real hardware in an effort to ensure the accuracy of the article. I usually save the labs for some time after writing the post as well, in case a comment or question posed by a reader leads me to further investigate some aspect of the lab after the article has been published.
A surprising number of readers have inquired as to how I create the numerous topology diagrams which often accompany articles. It's just Visio, guys. =) Most of the drawings are created using publicly available icons (my favorite sets are hosted locally for download). When a drawing has been completed in Visio (running inside a Windows XP virtual machine on my Linux workstation), it's exported in PNG format. I use Gimp (a graphics editor) for any touch-up editing like cropping or splicing a collection of topologies into individual images. The end product(s) are then posted to the blog along with the written content.
Once an article has been published, I watch for comments and publish those as well, as soon as I can. Unfortunately comments have to be moderated in such a manner to thwart spambots.
The whole process might seem like a lot of work, and, well, it is. You get used to it though, and at least it makes me feel productive. Now it's time to start writing for '09. See you then!