Category Archives: writing

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Sorting Out How I Work With Plain Text

My cup runneth over with superb apps for writing, manipulating, and writing text on any Apple device; so much so that it’s hard to pick the one I want to work in right now. A nice problem to have, but still a problem. A post by @macdrifter published on New Year’s Day, Quick Notes with Sublime Text, prodded me think about this.

As a nerd plunked firmly in the “fiddly” class, at least I know one thing. After years of agonizing over which font I want to use and how big the margins should be, I committed a long time ago to working in plain text using Fletcher Penney’s MultiMarkdown (based on John Gruber’s Markdown). All of my files are synced using iCloud or Dropbox for ubiquitous access from my Mac, iPhone, and iPad mini.

On my Mac, most ideas start in Sublime Text 3. It is always open and one of the best text editors on the market (along with BBEdit, of course).1 A bonus to both text editors is the hot exit; all open files are saved and reopened the next time you launch the app. This alleviates my File Naming Anxiety Disorder (FNAD), an affliction that submitted for inclusion in DSM-6.

So from my Mac I may start quickly in Sublime Text, but at some point I freeze and wonder, “Is this really where I want to be working on this?” These are my top three options, all of which recognize variants of Markdown while curating their own unique strengths:

  • MultiMarkdown Composer — This application for writing in MultiMarkdown is designed by Fletcher Penney, the man who designed the markup language. What could be better?
  • Ulysses III — In my memory, Ulysses kicked off the plain text editing revolution on the Mac. The developers completely overhauled the design and it is beautiful (and dovetails perfectly into their iOS app Daedalus Touch).
  • Byword — Another popular app with many writers on the web, Byword’s designers built in capabilities to publish directly to WordPress and Tumblr.

All three are terrific. Though it’s a Mac application, Ulysses III works the most like an iOS app; open a new file, start typing, and it’s just saved somewhere in the app without irritating my FNAD. Byword and MultiMarkdown Composer (MMC) work with standard files that are saved in iCloud or Dropbox, respectively. MMC handles MultiMarkdown metadata better than the other two (as it should coming from the man who wrote the spec).

Another Can of Worms

This has so far focused on the Mac while ignoring two other platforms, the iPhone and iPad. I’m getting bored with this topic for now, so I’m just going to rip out a few points here.

  • Byword is available on all three platforms
  • Ulysses III, coupled with Daedulus Touch, is sort of available on the Mac, iPhone, and iPad.
  • MultiMarkdown Composer is Mac-only, but being plain text is available for easy editing on any device when synced with Dropbox.

Findings?

The whole purpose for writing this article is to sort through my options and determine a system that works best for me. I don’t think I am quite there yet. If you’re still reading and curious, I chose to write this article in MultiMarkdown Composer. When I nail down something that works for me, I’ll let you know.


  1. BBEdit is still my go to app for cleaning up and reformatting documents using Text Factories. My most common use case is copying the text of meeting agendas sent to me in MS Word, pasting into BBEdit, running a Text Factory that strips weird spaces and characters, converts to Markdown, which is exported into HTML to publish online. 

Necessary Distractions

Dr. Drang is fun to read for a lot of reasons and should especially appeal to my fellow nerds in the world. In a recent post titled A Free Distraction about writing and the onslaught of “distraction free writing” apps, this bit about his habits hit close to home.

I’ve tried to change my writing habits. I’ve tried to turn my brain’s internal editor off and just let the words come out, trusting myself to fix them later on. It would make writing much easier, regardless of the text editor I use. But I can’t do it.

Yep. That. I am a fiddly writer and have tried the distraction-free environments. The more designers and developers try to strip away, the harder they are for me to work in. Apps like Byword provide a happy medium, but I most often find myself doing all of my writing in a full-blown text editor (Sublime Text these days, dabbling in MultiMarkdown Composer, never a word processor a la Microsoft’s Word or Apple’s Pages).

Drop Dr. Drang’s news feed in your reader of choice for a few weeks and give it a shot. I think he’ll make the cut.

Life Work Joy

Life. Work. Joy. The three shouldn't be mutually exclusive and the third should be omnipresent. Some seek a sharp divide between life and work and hope joy plays at least a small part in both.

Love what you do, and you will never work a day in your life.

Perks and challenges of being an introvert

Being an introvert does not have to mean living a hermit's life, though that is my tendency. I don't like big groups of people. Crowds don't make me nervous or scared; the din and sea of motion overwhelms my brain. Football games, concerts, and bars are great examples of places where I struggle. What may come across as shyness is probably just my flight instinct kicking in. Because I can't stop trying to focus on everything at once, I struggle to focus on anything at all. I can't understand the person talking right next to me and either nod my head wearing a goofy affirmative look on my face or wave them off with a look that says I can't hear you, which is frustrating for me and the person doing the talking.1

My hearing is fine, too fine at times. In a fairly quiet place my brain picks up the tiny sounds: bumps of someone moving around in adjacent rooms, beeps of random electronics, voices in other parts of the house. Televisions, like crowds, produce a constant flicker of motion. Even if I try to ignore it, the peripheral flashes of noise and sound are like a hynotic narcotic reducing me from creative worker to mindless consumer.

Does that mean I'm cranky when it's loud and cranky when it's nearly quiet? Mostly, yes. Am I sometimes hard to live with? Family members vote "yes." I'm glad we all love each other.

So far this sounds like a bleak existence, but I don't write off my challenges as complete flaws. Given the right environment, I can focus intently on the task at hand and churn out some great work.

Down to brass tacks

My ideal work environment is quiet and flicker-free. Music helps me focus, especially when wearing headphones. I prefer something with a bit of a drone and few to no lyrics. Aphex Twin fits the bill, providing everything from atmospheric soundscapes to intricate digital beats.2 Both have their own place depending on the work I am doing. What I struggle with now is trying to figure out what work I want to do.

My life was challenging from the ages of 17 to 25, that period when people are becoming who they will be. My dad died suddenly when I was in high school. I chose to be a young dad married (the first time) at 22. A poor sense of direction in my first year of college made the remainder more challenging. I shifted from engineering to English and spent much of my time after year one digging myself out of an academic hole. I had no direction, no distinct future in mind, and was just attending college because that's where I was supposed to be. Right?

After years of part-time courses and bumming around a series of low-skill jobs (waiting tables, washing cars, warehouse work, etc.) I landed a job writing for a weekly newspaper. After about seven years of journalism, much of it focused on writing about education, a public school superintendent offered me a job. Growing as a communications specialist helped me shed aspects of newspaper work I didn't like. Covering police and courts is a depressing beat for someone with no stomach for it. In this new role, I get to focus on telling stories, writing to bring clarity and a touch of style to the world of education in spite of its jargon and acronyms. My work also opened doors to discover areas I never knew I would love. Now, happily married (third time's the charm) with four kids and equipped with the budding wisdom of middle age, I am beginning to look at my options again.

Do we ever really figure out what we want to be when we grow up?

Everything comes with a price

With a broad job description, I have been able to define my role as as communications specialist with a focus on designing for print and the web. Like a twist in a fairy tale, my curse was working with the media.3. I can be happily chugging away on the web, working to build relationships through our sites, helping schools, promoting students, and tending to social media, when a discipline issue captures the media's attention and everything else screeches to a halt.

Nota bene: Like medicine and law, much of our work in education is confidential and protected by law. FERPA4 leads the charge in reasons we cannot tell all even when we want to, which leads to much frustrations on both sides of the street.

What now?

With time to focus and a renewed appreciation for clear design, I fell in love with structured text, the code underneath the spit and polish of the web that binds everything together. Code is an endless puzzle I find satisfying because it keeps me engaged as I continue to learn. I get to play5 with CSS, HTML, and a little javascript. Along the way I've picked up some perl and shell scripting skills and look forward to learning python and ruby.

I'm running out of steam on this topic, but I think it boils down to this:

  • I want to continue working with Mac OS X and iOS.
  • I want to teach people how to get the most out of their computers and mobile devices (which are converging quickly).
  • I enjoy researching complex data sets, picking them apart and putting them back together in a way that makes sense to everyone who sees it.

  1. My beautiful wife (bless her heart) is the one who suffers the most from this aspect of my affliction.
  2. As I write, I'm listening to Polynomial-C via Rdio.
  3. Curse is a strong word, but I enjoy the metaphor. Most reporters I work with are good people; most of them.
  4. FERPA is the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.
  5. I chose the word "play," though I could just as easily have chosen "work." This is kind of the point I am trying to make.

Labor Day

Labor Day for us meant our daughter came home for her first break from Valdosta State University, which was great. We miss her when she’s gone, which already kicked in after she left earlier today to return to campus.

We watched The Shining together; her first time. During the first half she was rolling her eyes. Second half? Scared out of her wits. She’ll carry that one around for a while. Hey, they don’t call it a psychological thriller for nothing.

On nerdier notes, I sorted out my text files and narrowed my iOS app use to Notesy for quick reference (though I’m still digging into Editorial). I also began migrating to the new Apple Affiliate program. When you click links to apps and make a purchase, you’re supporting this site.

You can learn more about me, this site, and click updated affiliate links on the About page.