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from Seth's Blog: Talker's block

Michael Schechter (@mschechter) pointed out another great article about writing shared by the always-great Seth Godin titled Talker’s Block. Here’s an excerpt to round out my hat trick of sharing writing about writing.
Seth’s Blog: Talker’s block:

Writer’s block isn’t hard to cure.
Just write poorly. Continue to write poorly, in public, until you can write better.

The first two posts:

  1. Writing in the Margins

OK. I’m done for now.
(Via Michael Schechter)

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Writing In The Margins

Another great meta-post about writing in the same vein as my recent find from Andy Ihnatko. This excerpt is by Michael Schechter:
Writing In The Margins:

So often we think of writing as this pristine thing. Something precious, something that requires a special place and a special time. This is crap. Writing is getting words out of your head and on to some media. No matter what, no matter how, no matter where. Don’t get me wrong, some writing is better than others, but the gist of how it’s done is fairly universal.

(Via Eddie of Practically Efficient)

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You are what you read

Some blogs are comprised of audio, photos, or videos, but most of them are still brewed the old-fashioned way, by stringing together a bunch of (hopefully) related words and publishing them to the Internet for everyone to read and discuss.
Rinse. Repeat. Rinse again. Seriously, go wash up. People are beginning to talk.
My first thought as I began to think about which direction to steer my blog was, “What do I want to read?” I reviewed some of my favorite writers and major influences and found a few common threads:

These folks are the cream of the crop. It’s ridiculous to set my goals so high, but that’s what I’ve done. I’m not here to compete with them and surely don’t claim to join them. I do understand the craftsmanship that goes into what they do and I’m a huge fan of their work.
¡Mios Dio, man! This could get embarrassing!
By the way, most of my reading happens in Instapaper, which Marco Arment (@marcoarment) updated to 4.0 this week. You really should go and buy it now.

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Ithnatko is so good. Writers, read this article. Here’s a piece of it for you.
THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS WRITERS’ BLOCK. – Andy Ihnatko’s Celestial Waste of Bandwidth (BETA):

As a writer, you are never “blocked.”
Here, let me say it again, with more markup tags:
***As a writer, you are never “blocked.”***
The fact that you’re not actually writing doesn’t mean that you’re not actually working. You’re also working when you’re thinking. Figure out what the problems are and _solve_ them. Solve them in a half-assed way if you have to; slap enough duct tape over the problem that you can proceed to the next step. Go back later and improve it in the editing process.
Or! Just put the whole thing aside. Just for now. Even in the worst, most frustrating situation, you’re not “blocked.” You just can’t make any progress on this one thing.
So write something else.

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So, BBEdit happened

BBEdit is a Mac text editor. It’s the Mac text editor. If you aren’t a nerd, this probably means nothing to you. For those of you with a firm footing in the nerd camp this is terrific news, but it brings some challenges.
I learned about the BBEdit 10 release from John Siracusa on Twitter:
@siracusa on Twitter
OK. It isn’t such huge news that [Bare Bones Software] updated the longtime editor. It feels like the program practically launched alongside the Macintosh and has been regularly updated (It’s only been around for about 20 years). Version 10 launched alongside Mac OS X Lion with a shiny new price tag. The cost of a license dropped from its high of $199 to $39. That’s the introductory price good through October 2011. Even after the deal ends, it looks like the app is still going to be an awesome value at $49.
I used BBEdit Lite back in the day and was excited when Bare Bones brought revived their free version of the text editor with the new name Text Wrangler. Then I found TextMate at about the same time that I found Markdown and fell in love with monospace all over again. Cranking out stylized text from a simplified markup language and exporting to PDF or into LaTeX for further editing made me feel like a wizard. It was magical.
TextMate dramatically simplifies some editing tasks, such as working with Markdown. If you’re a writer, Markdown will change your game.
But times change. Like Merlin Mann said in Back to Work (My Food Court of Functionality: S1E25), at some point you have to take a step back and analyze why you are using a product. Are you using it because you’ve talked about it so much or because it’s the right tool to use? He compared it to his experience during the fabled Quicksilver to Launchbar Migration of 2009 (citation needed).
The challenge is migrating from TextMate to BBEdit. I love TextMate–it’s been my default writing application for a long time–but it feels like it’s been abandoned and there is no dispute that its update cycle has dropped off the chart.
I’m going to miss TextMate, but I look forward to moving back into BBEdit.

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iPad: My review one year late

Using an iPad (first generation) for a few weeks now improved the way I work.
Taking notes
Taking notes helps me stay focused and engaged during a meeting or conversation. If you saw me in a meeting, it was a safe bet a notebook or legal pad (yellow paper please) wasn’t far from my side. The physical act of writing with a pen or pencil is one of my simple pleasures, yet as a prolific notetaker, the problem I found with collecting mounds of handwritten yellow pages is the lack of an easy way to search them. Proper filing makes pages easier to find (sometimes), but without a meticulous and impractical concordance I know of no way to search those files beyond simple topics. Using the iPad, I can tag my digital notes and search them with ease.
Not only can I take notes at work and church, but the combination of my iPad and iPhone constitue a digital filing cabinet I always have with me. I have used notebook computers exclusively for nearly a decade and an iPhone for about three years now, but the iPad has taken mobile computing to a whole new level for me.

Creating new content

Lots of people–naysayers and devoted iPad users alike–say the iPad is only for consumption and unsuitable for creation.
I disagree.
I’m no artist, but the tools on the market appear to be amazing. Adobe Ideas, Sketchbook Pro, and Brushes are three that come to mind and the number of high-quality photo editing apps is virtually overwhelming.
Words are my craft, and there is no shortage of tools to help writers. I’m juggling several apps right now until I find a home. IA Writer is my favorite so far for creating narrative content (this article for example). I haven’t settled on a favorite app for taking notes, but I’ve narrowed the field. Nebulous Notes is great and I’ve used PlainText and Elements. The new player on the field is OmniOutliner for iPad from the software ninjas at The Omni Group, and it looks perfect for taking notes.
Like any writer/geek these days, I use Scrivener on my Mac and and look forward to paying for final release of the beta version running on my Windows netbook. Sharing files between Mac OS X and Windows is seamless, but there are no plans to bring Scrivener to the iPad. A wise developer decision, but I’m still flailing about until I can find a pleasing way (for me) to edit writing contained in Scrivener projects while I’m on the go.

About that consumption

I disagreed with those who believe the iPad is only good for consumption, but I don’t disagree that the device is a terrific tool for digesting everything the Internet has to offer (unless it runs in Adobe Flash, which is fine with me). This is another area where my workflow has transformed.
The iPad is as close to perfect as anything I’ve seen for plowing through RSS feeds and other news sources online. I’ve been using Reeder on the iPhone for a long time, but more for triage than actual reading. I have to admit that I’m getting older, my eyesight isn’t what it used to be, and the larger screen makes reading easier and following up on the Web a pleasure when necessary. Videos on YouTube, Vimeo, and Netflix run like a technicolor dream (unless you’re into black & white recordings, and those work fine too).

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Taking a deep breath

My family and some friends recently spent our week of spring break in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Julie and I led a group six kids to a cabin in the mountains. Jordan, Meg, and Kat each invited a friend with parents crazy enough to let us bring one of their kids. All told, there were eight of us sharing a three-story cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Pool. Hot tub. The whole deal.

We left a knot of anxiety and work tension behind and were able to relax. After my GPS announced we arrived at our destination I sighed a deep breath. Then I took another. And another. Huge lungfuls of simple, relaxing breathing made me realize that I had been suffocating and it felt good.
This week off with nothing to do gave all of us time to breath. I relaxed on the veranda. I relaxed while we cooked S’Mores over a campfire. I relaxed in the hot tub. I relaxed while we grilled hamburgers and hot dogs. I listened to lots of music. We hit the tourist traps and drove around the countryside watching to properties blur from trailer to horse farm to shanty to mansion and round and round she goes. We had a blast.
Two promised amenities were missing: WiFi access and the heated pool. Julie and I were more upset than the kids. This limited our access to our respective office networks to a weak 3G signal. This blessing in disguise meant less work and more time on our hands than we expected.
Here’s the secret sauce though. The most therapeutic and cathartic aspect of this vacation for me was carving out a large amount of time to write.

Breathing again

I can’t remember a more concentrated writing session than this week of reflection. With a day remaining I had written more than 10,000 words. It wasn’t Shakespeare, but a found a few pearls in the sand alongside a few themes:

  • Work – yeah, the wheels kept turning the first day or two and I cranked out some writing for work
  • Vacation diary – a journal of what we did during vacation
  • Fiction – just the tiniest little smidgen
  • Blog – revisioning my blog

This blog is dead, long live this blog

That last bullet, the one about my blog, that’s the one that should have your attention because it absorbed most of mine. Carrying Stones has been festering online in one form or another for eons, all the way back when modems cranked out a noisy 28.8k. My blog has been a dumping ground for whatever was most immediately on my mind. That isn’t always a bad thing, but most of the time it’s not a great idea. There is a reason writers talk about first drafts, and editing, and (ugh!) revisions.
This is a revision of my blog, and my goal is to share something valuable with you. Everything you read here is provided gratis. I hope to provide content of the same high-quality craftsmanship that discerning readers such as yourself would expect from the books and magazines you buy.
I’ve invested my time designing a useful site for you and welcome your suggestions or requests to help me improve it for you.

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So, I got a netbook

Coming soon… Posts that aren’t so nerdy!
Julie gave me a netbook last week. My last PC was a 386 with an 80mb hard drive and 8mb of RAM. I replaced it with an Apple Performa 6116CD, which science can carbon date to the early 1990s. I have been a dedicated Mac user ever since and have long-since forgotten how to parse the specs for a Windows machine. The netbook is new to me although this model was released about a year ago.
The keyboard isn’t too shabby compared to other netbooks I’ve used. While it isn’t full size, the keys are large and responsive enough to make it a decent and very portable writing tool (until I can afford a MacBook Air). The additional couple of pounds compressed into my white plastic MacBook seems unbearable now compared to the netbook.
One big step forward for me was securing a Windows license for 1Password, the premiere password management solution for iOS, Mac OS X, and Windows produced by Agile Web Solutions.
Having used Macs exclusively for nearly 20 years now (20 years?!) it seemed like a no-brainer to pick up another Mac license for 1Password with the MacUpdate Spring Bundle I bought three weeks ago. It didn’t take me long after cracking this netbook open last week to realize my mistake. I needed a Windows license for 1Password!
I already own a license for Mac so I crossed my fingers and emailed customer support at 9:22 EST on a Wednesday night asking them to revoke and replace my latest Mac license. “Happiness Engineer” Nik L. responded 13 minutes later at 9:35 with a Windows license. 13 minutes! “Computer Whisperer” Marty S. (love the titles) even followed up at 1:11 a.m. EST to ensure the new license worked for me.
So many people limit their opinions to the bad times. I spent enough time in the service industry to understand the value of positive comments. The company had no obligation to grant my request, but they did.
The folks at Agile Web Solutions displayed unparalleled customer service for what I already knew to be a superior product. My experience was like staying at a hotel and realizing a day or two later you want a different room. You don’t have a good reason, but their staff happily moves all of your things to an identical room across the hall.
There are other password managers for Mac OS X and other platforms, but I have never heard anyone rave about them. Users treasure 1Password. Merlin Mann and others on Dan Benjamin’s 5by5 podcasts mention it regularly. Agile Web Solutions sponsors the MacPowerUsers podcast, but I think hosts Dave Sparks and Katie Floyd would flaunt the cross-platform value of 1Password whether they were paid to or not.
1Password is superior software and Agile Web Solutions’ customer support is prompt and impeccable.
Text editors get regular use on all of my devices all tied together with the indispensable twine Dropbox provides. I rely on nvALT (a variant of the open source Notational Velocity) on my Macs. I never can settle on which horse to ride from my stable full of iOS text editors. My top three picks are:

  • Elements – for search capabilities and general use
  • Nebulous Notes – for macros and superior Markdown integration
  • Notesy – for user interface and choice of using a monospace or proportional typeface per file

My search was quick; ResophNotes fills the void on Windows. Because the interface is nearly identical to nvALT on my Mac, ResophNotes dovetails perfectly into my workflow.
Scrivener is my choice for composing longform articles, research-based writing, and incubating book ideas. I committed to using Scrivener several years ago after finding Literature & Latte. Software developer Keith Blount knew exactly how to make writers happy because he happens to be an author himself. He wrote the program to serve his own writing needs and selflessly shared his work with us.
The Windows version is a relatively new venture–still in beta as I write this–but should be available for release soon. I look forward to adding a license soon after Scrivener’s imminent non-beta release.
It seems like everyone has something good to say about Dropbox. The company’s version of cloud storage is a must-have tool that should be installed by default on every single new computing device on every platform. If you don’t have it, get it.
The netbook came with a relatively impressive collection of fonts, but I had to add two more free ones–Inconsolata and Bitstream Vera Sans Mono–to keep my wits about me in a text editor. I’m still debating whether I need something as powerful as TextMate for the netbook and I’m open to suggestions for a Windows replacement.

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Why Quickcursor?

I recently wrote about how I use QuickCursor to switch between Scrivener and TextMate, which left at least one reader wondering, “Why?”

“I’d like to know why you sometimes feel it’s necessary to jump from Scrivener to TextMate…via QuickCursor.” –@drdrang

Scrivener is perfect for organizing writing projects and providing a focused writing environment, yet it lacks the formatting mojo I have come to adore in TextMate. In short, I use Scrivener to write and TextMate to format, particularly for posting to the web.
QuickCursor is the glue that binds the two apps together. I almost forgot to mention it because I often don’t realize its there, which is a tremendous compliment.
Most of my words are prepared in some sort of markup these days, usually Markdown in MultiMarkdown. This blog is hosted by, which doesn’t doesn’t directly accept Markdown, so I have to convert it to HTML for posting using MarsEdit. My fellow TextMate users out there already know how well that app handles Markdown-to-HTML conversion. Ctl-Shift-H. Done!
Yes, I know I can post directly from TextMate and I used to use it that way. Now, I prefer to use MarsEdit for its near perfect integration of Flickr, which is where I host my photos.

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Writing Anywhere and Everywhere

Writing applications are growing as plentiful and affordable as the number of platforms on the market to help me record my thoughts. I am using this blog to review and define my system of capturing ideas.
I no longer have to wait until I have my favorite notebook and pen or return to my computer desk. Smart phones like the Apple iPhone and other devices running Android are great for capturing ideas or even making progress on longer work.
For the record, I prefer the iPhone and will focus on iOS apps and work on a Mac so you can stop reading now if that’s not how you roll. I didn’t write this to tell you what you should do, but if it works for you then that’s terrific. This article is selfishly focused on helping me work better.
I’ve narrowed the types of words I capture to three types, and use different applications on different platforms depending on my environment.

1. Notes

My iPhone is always at hand, making it a nearly perfect “ubiquitous capture tool” (to use the lingua franca of GTD) for basic notes. If I overhear something interesting or funny, I jot it down. Think of something I don’t want to forget? This is the perfect tool to help me remember it.
One offs. Lists. Scribbled thoughts. Nothing formal here, just random thoughts. A few bits of reference I want to have with me all the time. I periodically review and process these notes to create or supplement projects or delete them.
How I get notes into my iPhone depends on the situation. I use JotAgent to fire off a quick note. The app creates a new file stamped with the date and time down to the seconds. This ensures I won’t have two files of the same name and I can add a description later when I process my notes.
Applications I Use: JotAgent and Elements on the iPhone. [Notational Velocity][41] on the Mac (I prefer Brett Terpstra’s variant [nvALT][42]).
Honorable mention: MarkdownMail, Nebulous Notes, Plaintext, Simplenote, and Writeroom (for iPhone and Mac).

2. Research

Some notes are more refined than others, and I am going to call these research notes. These are notes that may drive my writing to some end, or maybe notes from meetings I attend.
This is an area where I struggle. I still take notes the old-fashioned way, with pen and paper, and I haven’t figured out how to digitize those notes. I know the LiveScribe pen is one option, but it just doesn’t sound right to me. I don’t think I would like it.
I tried pairing an Apple bluetooth keyboard with my iPhone. It works, but it’s still a clunky kludge and not much better than using a laptop.
The iPad 2 is appealing—the MacBook Air, too—but I don’t have the spare capital to swing either purchase right now.
Applications I Use: Elements on the iPhone. Scrivener and TextMate on the Mac, which I keep coupled together using QuickCursor.
Honorable mention: DEVONthink Pro and Yojimbo for data storage and retrieval.

3. Work

Snippets grow into notes, and ideas develop into a novel, a blog post, or a research paper. A note captured while walking to the mailbox could grow into a masterpiece to export later into LaTeX or some other formatted output for publication.
Applications I Use: Scrivener and TextMate, MarsEdit for blog posts, Pages for print.
Honorable mention: Mellel, Microsoft Word, Pagehand.

Text Editors

BBEdit, TextMate, Text Wrangler, Ulysses
All of my writing that ends up being worth anything spends a good deal of life in a text editor before publication in print or online. TextMate is my weapon of choice, and my bullets are written using Fletcher Penney’s MultiMarkdown, which extends the formatting capabilities of John Gruber’s original Markdown.
MultiMarkdown is a markup language that allows for semantic text editing. As a plain text file it is infinitely portable and flexible. The file can be exported to Rich Text Format, LaTeX, HTML, and other formats for further processing before publication.
Ulysses is another kind of semantic text editor worth a closer look.

Word Processors

Mellel, Microsoft Word, Pagehand, Pages
Word processors do more than edit text. They allow you to pick different fonts, adjust margins, and all kinds of other fiddly activities you should really avoid unless you are actually finished writing. Until then, I’ll stick to a text editor and recommend you do the same.
You would be amazed how liberating a simple monospaced font can be for your writing. Try it.
Microsoft Word is my least favorite word processor, but it’s a necessary evil because it is so deeply ingrained in office culture. If you need to share a file and preserve formatting, you’re probably going to need Word.
Having said that, I only use it when I must share my files with someone else. If someone sends me a file, I open it in TextEdit or Path Finder’s text editor.

Outliers and additions

Evernote is a terrific application. I keep trying to work it into my workflow, but it just doesn’t fit. David Sparks summed up my feelings during the podcast he records with fellow attorney Katie Floyd. About 19 minutes into their episode titled Taking Notes on Mac OS X and iOS he said, “Evernote is, in my case, an elegant solution where I don’t have a problem.”
That’s exactly what I’ve been thinking but lacked the eloquence to package my thoughts.
OmniOutliner Pro can’t be beat for making outlines, but for some reason it slips off my radar when I’m at a point where it makes sense. I crank out most of my outlines in a Markdown text file, but OmniOutliner is the ultimate outlining tool on the Mac.
TextExpander (and it’s iPhone counterpart TextExpander Touch) is the glue that holds my writing life together. Apps that have a hook for TextExpander to grab onto don’t get a lot of use from me.

Thoughts on file names

I’ve tried some naming schemes that got awfully convoluted, but they got to the point that I couldn’t remember what was what. I’ll probably make it difficult for myself again, but for now I stick with dating each file and providing a brief descriptive name. Like this:

2011-03-06 brief descriptive name

See? Easy!
Just remember to lay down some context for your notes or you may find yourself a bit lost in the days, weeks, or months to come.


Like I said in the beginning, this article is an exercise to help me define how I work. I hope it helps you in some way, but recommend that you try several options to see what works best for you.