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How I write

My work consists almost entirely of two activities:

  1. Thinking
  2. Writing

I do a few other things too, but it’s mostly those two things. And I spend the vast majority of my time doing #2.[1]

And given my penchant for efficiency in all things, I’ve been refining—and, on occasion, wholly reinventing—my writing workflow for some time now.

Which brings me to today.

Lots of folks—myself included, definitely—love seeing the guts of how other people work. So, in what may be my greatest act of self-indulgence ever, I figured I’d describe how, exactly, I write. Plus, sometimes people ask me about this.

The things I write fall into five basic categories:

  1. Shorter articles: blog posts, newsletter articles, and so forth
  2. Books or other long-form pieces
  3. Promotional materials like emails and sales copy
  4. Outlines and other planning-like stuff for all of the above
  5. Miscellany including social media updates, emails, and other odds and ends

Let’s chat about these in reverse order, just to mix things up.

Social media updates and other such jibber-jabber

Normally, I compose social media updates and whatnot in their respective “compose windows:” using the Facebook app or site, using Tweetbot, etc. If I’ve got a pretty good joke idea brewing, I’ll sometimes begin in my beloved Drafts so I can easily rework it and publish it whenever it’s ready.[2]

My email client of choice on OS X is MailMate. It supports native Markdown composing as well as external editing, so I can write emails using my favorite text editor (MacVim, which we’ll talk about in a minute). Incidentally, it also searches my chunky mail archive—roughy 82,000 messages as I type this—without breaking a sweat. It’s a great app; check it out if you haven’t already.

Outlines

Outlines normally begin their lives in Evernote. The typical outlining process looks like this:

  1. Dump my brain into a new Evernote note.
  2. Try to find a cohesive story or narrative that gives each item a sense of order.
  3. Rearrange things into a rough, crude topical outline that will almost certainly be revised, scrapped, rewritten, scrapped again, and ultimately found worthy of actual work or tossed in the round file.

(Relevant bit of history: here’s the original brain dump outline thingie for what would eventually become Evernote Essentials. I created this document on January 14, 2010; it was going to be a series of blog posts rather than a book and my original working title was “Evernote Black Belt.” Funny to go back and read it now, but it’s a good example of what I’m describing.)

By the end of the outlining process, I have a nicely-formatted list of everything I need to write. In the case of books with multiple chapters or promotions composed of several different written pieces, each discrete part has a checkbox next to it that—shocker—I mark when the indicated step is complete.

It’s also not uncommon for me to print out paper copies of my outlines so I can keep my text editor in full screen and not have to switch back and forth between it and my outline.

Marketing and promotional stuff

Ugh, I hate marketing and promotional stuff

I know, I know. But as a guy who runs his own little circus, it’s rather important that I try to convince people to buy what I’m selling because, as it happens, my kids like to eat.

Everything I write for the purposes of advertising or selling my wares starts out as Markdown text. In most cases, it spends most of its life that way until it’s time for publication.

Content that fits in to this category will always end up as HTML either in WordPress or Ontraport (the fancy pants sales/CRM/marketing software I use and, incidentally, love).

For writing in Markdown, I use three tools almost exclusively. Well, four actually:

  1. nvAlt on my Mac for document organization and search.
  2. MacVim for the actual writing (using the fancy Note > Edit with menu option in nvAlt), and Marked for previewing the end result.
  3. Editorial on my iPad and, to a far lesser extent, iPhone.
  4. Dropbox for storage, instantaneous sync, and versioned backup. nvAlt and Editorial both support using Dropbox for storage and it’s awesome.

(Spoiler: these are the same tools I use for writing just about everything, but we’ll get further into that in a minute).

nvAlt’s headline feature is that I can seach hundreds of Markdown text files as quickly as I can type. No joke, it’s lightning fast. I use a naming scheme inspired by something Merlin described during one of his many appearances on the venerable Mac Power Users podcast (blog posts have ‘bkx’ in the filename, documents related to products include my own shorthand for each product, and so on), so quickly whittling down my massive list of Markdown files to the handful I want takes a couple of seconds.

Quick aside regarding my choice of text editor

Why, when surrounded by a wealth of gorgeous, Markdown-aware text editors on the Mac, do you suffer with that dinosaur?

Short answer: I can type circles around anybody using Byword, Ulysses, or any of their ilk. I’ve been using Vim for over a decade (first as a programming tool, now as a composition tool) and I know it well. Vim won’t win any beauty contests, certainly, but I’m more than willing to sacrifice beauty in favor of unparalleled capability.

I won’t belabor this point further here, but if you want to know more about this, leave a comment below and I’ll write about it another time.

Books and other really long projects

As I type these words, I’ve got two books under my belt. You may have heard of one of them and I’m sure you’ve never heard of the other one.

The writing process for both books looked like this:

  • Brainstorming and outline in Evernote; in the case of the second book and as an experiment, the outline was eventually moved to OmniOutliner, which supports folding and a few other niceties.
  • Composition looked a lot like it does for shorter works: Markdown text files in Dropbox.
  • Editing, layout, sprucing up, and eventual publication all went down in my beloved Scrivener.

Scrivener lets me output my books in all of the different formats I need to sell them various places (like Amazon and the iBooks Store), as well as in PDF format. Even if you never use Scrivener to compose a single word of your book, the publishing features are worth ten times the price of admission, if you ask me.

And, of course, everything lived in Dropbox the whole way. Thanks to a Dropbox feature called Extended Version History—the salty veterans among you will recognize this as a descendent of now-retired “Packrat” feature—each time I save a document, a version is recorded. If I need to examine or revert to a version of a Scrivener file from months ago, Dropbox allows me to do that.[3]

Shorter articles, blog posts, etc.

By now, it shouldn’t surprise you to learn that I write all of my blog and newsletter content in Markdown using the Dropbox-backed text editors I described before. Hell, I’m using them to write these words.[4]

When I’m writing on my Mac, as I mentioned, Marked is running to show me a real-time preview of the resulting HTML.

(This might be a good time to tell you that I never, ever, ever compose anything longer than a couple of sentences in a web form. If you’re in the habit of writing your blog posts in the WordPress composition area, you’re asking for trouble. I don’t care how smart or capable a web app is — it’s still subject to browser weirdness and network failure and relying on it too much will bite you on the hindquarters sooner or later. I speak from experience. Moving on…)

Once I’m happy with the text, I open the Markdown file in Marked, and copy the HTML source code, then paste it wherever it needs to go (either in WordPress or Ontraport, both of which support authoring in raw HTML). If I need to add any images or other embedded media, I do so by hand.

Conclusion

Over the years, my processes and tools have gotten slimmer and fewer in number. I like simple systems with as few moving parts as possible. Writing this way satisfies my three main requirements:

  • Write anywhere on whichever device I happen to have with me.
  • Have my work synced off of said device instantly (either as I type or upon saving).
  • Format portability; no matter what format the finished product must be, I can get there starting with Markdown.

The main takeaway here is the limited number of simple tools. At the bare minimum, I need a plain text editor and Dropbox to sync everything. I realize there are alternatives out there and I’m sure they’re swell, but Dropbox just works. And since I’m primarily dealing in teensy text files, syncing my stuff between my devices takes mere seconds, even over LTE.

Hope this has been informative. Hit me in the comments if I missed something obvious or if you have any questions.


  1. I didn’t intend for that to be a semi-crude joke, honestly. But that’s how it came out, so I’m leaving it that way. These things have to be fun, folks.  ↩
  2. These rarely work, but trying to make the occasional Internet funny is something I enjoy.  ↩
  3. Yes, I know about Time Machine. I used it for years and I’m aware it offers somewhat similar features, but I prefer Dropbox’s implementation of this feature. Label me as a heretic all you like. I’ll own it.  ↩
  4. Check it out.  ↩

(Photo courtesy of Ak~i)

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JohnWilcox - December 29, 2015

I love the Stephen King book on writing. His mantra get rid of all the adjectives and adverbs (as far as is possible). Presume you use someone or more to edit your stuff (golden rule never your wife or someone who is not prepared to be critical, honest and totally objective).
I have a simple rule, if I don’t understand it, it’s probably the author who is at fault.
Having said all that, I love your material and as an 83 year old trying to keep pace with technology, I cope.

Margaret EMann - December 30, 2015

I’m not a Mac girl, and I don’t write much (I’ve always been more into equations rather than words) but I read a lot and I really like your writing style. More power to you – learning can be, and should be, fun and absorbing – you’ve proved that. Happy 2016 to you and your family from us Aussies!

GordonCurrie - January 1, 2016

I loved this article and enjoy seeing other peoples tools. What’s interesting is I moved over to Mac about 3 years ago when I wanted to integrate my iPhone and iPad into my workflow. At the same time I suffered a stroke and had to just my lifestyle.

I guess my point is how the processes work and how you can use them. When I started using Evernote, I found the tool itself + your book changed my life. Then I get to read blog posts (with a great into line) like this and get lots of tips that can really help me. It might seem like a simple thing but surviving a stroke using Evernote and valuable content is important .

Thanks
Gordon

Linda - January 2, 2016

Interesting, as always. I bought your ebook Evernote Essentials some years ago, and I still refer to it from time to time. It was a huge help in learning how harness EN’s power without becoming overwhelmed.

Maybe you could do something on Markdown. I write a blog on WordPress and I’ve just begun to use Scrivener. I mean i get Markdown, but I don’t totally get it.

Thanks!

S MarkPoler - January 4, 2016

My favored outliner is vimoutliner. I’ve been using it for a very long time. Just plain text. While I like vim (and MacVim), I’ve never become really facile with it, despite trying with some books and tutorials. Given your tutorial skills, maybe you could succeed where others have not: to produce a tutorial that captures the essential, most useful core of vim, without getting lost in the forest.

Doug - January 6, 2016

I’m also a big fan of your writing style and was very pleasantly surprised at how similar our writing processes are. That said, I like Notesy on iOS for managing my reference material in Markdown and am relatively happy with nvALT to read and edit as well as search on the Mac. For longer writing, I use Byword, and bring up AquaMacs when I need to do something fancy. I have the main Emacs control keys (which are burned into my brain like the vi keys are for you) mapped with Karabiner so they work everywhere. I held out with emacs for a long time, but Byword is just so much prettier and I like how it fades out the formatting so I can focus on the text.

Keep up the great work!!

AlesaLightbourne - January 6, 2016

Brett, thanks for writing this. I checked out Scrivener, thanks to your recommendation, and absolutely LOVE it. It is making an enormous difference in the organization of my novel. Thank you so much.

Richard Covert - January 26, 2016

I don’t print my outlines out. Instead, I use Scrivener split screen feature. The article is in one side by side screen and research notes in the other. Scrivener has displaced Evernote..

I use Evernote on tablets to capture ideas that I move to Scrivener research notes. It is the big box. It holds day to day info. For example I’ll clip this post into Evernote.

AlesaLightbourne - January 26, 2016

A million thanks for telling me about Scrivener. I got it immediately, and it has totally saved my life (and tons of time) while writing a novel. I tell every writer I know about it.

Also, I am your fan forever for teaching me how to use Evernote. I love that program!

B. Love - February 16, 2016

How do you organize your files in Dropbox ?

LeslieStoupas - February 17, 2016

You made me Google “Markdown”! I’m intrigued.

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