Writing

Writing on the iPad

Federico Viticci's epic review of Editorial is now available as an awesome book on the iBookstore, and is packed with a ton of new content for your enjoyment. For a limited time, it's available for only $3, so be sure to pick it up today.

If you're like me and you do a lot of writing on your iPad, this is an invaluable resource.

Congrats to Federico on publishing his very first book!

UPDATE: Looks like the book is already a success.

Steven Pressfield's Trying Something New

Steven Pressfield, best known for writing The Legend of Bagger Vance and a few excellent books on doing professional knowledge work, is easily one of the best resources of creative inspiration around in my book (see what I did there?). Can't say enough great things about the guy.

Which is why I'm excited about his upcoming newsletter experiment.

“What makes something ready for the Big Leagues? How long do we have to languish in the minors before we break through? What does it take to get over the hump?

I suspect that no few of the readers of this blog find themselves in that exact same spot.

What’s missing?

What’s the final piece to the puzzle?”

Sounds familiar, doesn't it? If you click through to the newsletter signup page, he goes into more detail on what this project is about (emphasis mine):

“I have a new, long form project that’s about the writing of a first novel; what takes a project from being unpublishable to being publishable. It’s too long to be on the blog, so I’m going to give it with a bunch of other goodies.”

Such advice from Steven is sure to be invaluable, so it was an instant sign-up for me. How about you?

Editorial for iPad is Out

I've been anxiously awaiting the release of Editorial after Federico Viticci mentioned it a while back, and now it's finally here. Speaking of Viticci, you should go read his epic review of the thing.

If you'd like a more summarized description of Editorial, go check out my post about the app on Tools & Toys.

International Man of Mystery: An Interview with Matthew Alexander

International Man of Mystery: An Interview with Matthew Alexander

Introduction

Matthew Alexander is one of those individuals who can't easily be put into any single box, metaphorically speaking. Being a jack-of-all-trades, he excels in several areas, such as writing, podcasting, entrepreneurship, consulting — the list goes on.

On top of that, he is a genuinely nice person, with a beaming attitude that definitely shows in his work. He's one of my favorite people to joke around with on Twitter, and I was excited to interview him for this series. This turned out to be one of the longer interviews I've conducted so far (in a good way!) because we went into lots of different topics. I really think you guys will enjoy this one.

 

Making Something Great: An Interview with Chase Reeves

Making Something Great: An Interview with Chase Reeves

Introduction

Chase Reeves is a designer, writer, and marketer with a penchant for drinking cocktails and getting lost in his own head sometimes — in a good way! He made his name on the web with his blogs Ice to the Brim, a site about finding your creative habit so you can make great stuff, and Father Apprentice, an exploration into the meaning of young fatherhood.

Lately, Chase has been busy with a new project known as Fizzle, a site with video training courses intended to inspire and educate online entrepreneurs about growing their business. I've had a chance to check out the courses myself, and I can attest to their quality and personality.

Chase is a high-energy fellow, and I laughed out loud several times throughout our email exchange. I hope you guys enjoy it as much as I did.

Tooting Your Own Horn

A little while back, I heard about an email newsletter through Patrick Rhone called The Listserve, and it sounded pretty interesting so I signed up. I'm glad I did.

Essentially, what they do is pick a random person every day out of their ever-growing list of subscribers (currently numbered at 23,310) to write about almost anything they want, and it will be sent out to the rest of us a few days later.

The stories told within these emails – which are from people of all ages, all over the world – are often inspiring, thoughtful, and educational, and it is truly a joy to receive in my inbox every day. I can't recommend it enough.

About a month ago, one particular email – titled "Tooting Your Own Horn" – stood out to me in particular. It was written by a guy named Connor Tomas O'Brien, and something about it really struck me, because it addressed something that's been on my mind for a while now.

Here's a quote from the email:

“It’s a shame that, in some cases, those who are most comfortable with self-marketing are those without anything interesting to promote in the first place. Meanwhile, some of the greatest living artists and thinkers are right now almost certainly working in obscurity, lacking the confidence or the platform to show the world what they’re doing.

For those of us that aren’t prone to shouting about ourselves, we risk being drowned out by those that can and do. The presumption is that if you don’t say anything, you don’t have anything to say, but it doesn’t necessarily work that way. Those that are quiet are sometimes just waiting for a gap in the conversation. They’re waiting to be invited to speak.”

Man, it's like he's speaking directly to me. In a world full of people constantly shouting to be heard, my voice feels very small indeed.

Readers may or may not recall that back in December, I started up a membership subscription for this site. Since then, I've not talked about it much publicly at all, nor have I tried doing anything like a membership drive to encourage sign-ups. I merely placed a link in the top navigation bar and left it at that.

The result? Well, let's just say I'm not exactly close to quitting my day job yet.

It's a difficult thing, putting oneself out there and asking for people to support what you do. I've never been comfortable with sales or marketing, but I feel very strongly that writing this site is what I'm meant to be doing.

So, I'm setting my meekness aside for a moment to ask that you check out the membership subscription if you haven't done so yet, or make a one-time donation if that's more your speed.

Any support you can give goes a long way, and is very much appreciated :)

Rick Rubin on Creativity

I was just reading through the Daily Beast's recent interview with music producer Rick Rubin, enjoying the article but not really learning anything I hadn't already known about the guy.

Then I reached the penultimate paragraph, where they asked him the secret to having a good ear for music. This is what he came back with, and it really struck me:

“I never decide if an idea is good or bad until I try it. So much of what gets in the way of things being good is thinking that we know. And the more that we can remove any baggage we’re carrying with us, and just be in the moment, use our ears, and pay attention to what’s happening, and just listen to the inner voice that directs us, the better. But it’s not the voice in your head. It’s a different voice. It’s not intellect. It’s not a brain function. It’s a body function, like running from a tiger.”

It's a shame this is where the interview ended, because it was just getting good in my opinion.

I think what Rick is saying applies to more than just producing music, it's about all creativity. As creative people, how often do we avoid making great stuff because we try too hard to intellectualize everything or worry about all the ways something might succeed or fail, all before we've even started?

Maybe it doesn't apply to you, but I know I'm certainly guilty of falling into this trap now and then. Sometimes we have to remind ourselves that despite any failures, it's more important to go with our gut instincts and actually do the work instead of getting in the way of ourselves before we've managed to take the first step.

Just some food for thought.

On Stock and Flow

I recently came across a 2010 blog post written by Robin Sloan called Stock and Flow that really resonated with me. As it turns out, I'd apparently been living under a rock until now because this piece has influenced some of my favorite writers on the web.

The idea is simple:

“Flow is the feed. It’s the posts and the tweets. It’s the stream of daily and sub-daily updates that remind people that you exist.

Stock is the durable stuff. It’s the content you produce that’s as interesting in two months (or two years) as it is today. It’s what people discover via search. It’s what spreads slowly but surely, building fans over time.”

This, in a nutshell, is how I've tried to run Unretrofied: writing longer, column-like articles now and again, and keeping up the momentum with link-posts in between. Shawn Blanc explains this practice perfectly:

“[...] there’s just no way I could write the sort of original content I do often enough to keep the site updated on a near-daily basis. I spend a lot of time reading and researching, and I love to pass along links to the things I find of value.

If I were to shift the time I spend posting links to be time spent on original articles instead, it’s not like there would be a new article every day. Because I would still be spending time reading and researching and working behind the scenes. And I’d still be discovering the same stuff I am now — I just wouldn’t be linking to it.”

While the idea is simple on the surface, finding the balance between stock and flow can be difficult at times. Making both types of content great is even more so.

Most writers will be familiar with the difficulties of writing stock often and well. With any article of lasting value, there is always a certain amount of research to be done, data to be gathered, thoughts to be articulated, phrases to be turned. This is where the majority of our energy is devoted, and rightfully so.

Flow is another matter altogether. It can still be well-written of course, but it feels less like capital "W" Writing and more like a conversation with friends. It's only natural for us to share awesome stuff with like-minded people in our lives, and that's kind of how I view link-posts.

But here is where the difficulty lies: you wouldn't purposely share crappy stuff with the people you care about. You want to point them only to the good stuff, and there is a lot of it out there to sift through. You also don't want to overload them with this stuff, because if they're your friend, they're likely more interested in your story than all the cool stuff you happen to find.

And trust me, it's all too easy to get caught up in linking to cool stuff when you should be writing more stock.

So again, it's all about finding a balance. People read your blog because they want to see the things you write about, and maybe some occasional tidbits of things that are on your mind (but not too much). This is why the term flow is so perfect. It's about telling a story.

I realize that I'm about to link to Shawn's site for the third time in this piece, but one bit that came up during his interview with John Gruber several years ago is too fitting to pass up:

“As for what I link to and what I don’t, it’s very much like Justice Stewart’s definition of obscenity: “I know it when I see it.” There’s a certain pace and rhythm to what I’m going for, a mix of the technical, the artful, the thoughtful, and the absurd. In the same way that I strive to achieve a certain voice in my prose, as a writer, I strive for a certain voice with regard to what I link to. No single item I post to the Linked List is all that important. It’s the mix, the gestalt of an entire day’s worth taken together, that matters to me.”

So you see, there's definitely an art to all of this, one that I'm continually trying to improve on for myself. There is no formula, no perfect ratio, no right or wrong answer. But it is good to create some guidelines for yourself as a writer, in order to create a better balance.

Review: Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover

As my readers may or may not know, I recently took a week-long trip to Disney World. I just happened to be there the week before Stephen Hackett, who I work with over at Tools and Toys but haven’t yet had a chance to meet in person. We flew back maybe a day or two before he got there, which, talk about timing, right? I just hope he was able to locate all the “easter eggs” I’d strategically strewn about the various Disney parks for him.

Although I could have asked Shawn ahead of time to take off from my Tools and Toys duties, I figured I could just continue posting during downtime at the hotel each night. I mean, those posts aren’t required to be insanely long or anything, and I already had a few ideas lined up. Easy peasy right?

Wrong.


An Address to New Readers

Hello, everyone. Over the weekend, my Apple Store piece gained quite a lot of attention thanks to sites like Hacker News and Reddit. The count is still climbing as of this morning, albeit a bit more slowly, but so far it has attracted 70,400 views. This is a high enough number that it makes the previous years' worth of traffic almost look like a flatline:

2013-03-04_121548.jpg

Needless to say, I've been a bit beside myself watching all of this happen. I never anticipated such a strong response, which has naturally been both positive and negative. The positive feedback I've received has far outweighed the negative, but those few negative responses still bothered me.

After a while, I simply stopped reading the Hacker News and Reddit threads, but before doing so I saw that my story was being called into question. I'm not about to address every single complaint, but I would like to clarify a few things:

  • Yes, these events really happened.
  • Yes, certain parts of the story were a little embellished, a tiny bit of which was for storytelling purposes but mainly because the event took place 6 or 7 years ago and my memory is terrible. In all honesty, they may have all been purchasing iPod Touches rather than MacBooks and I could be misremembering. It's certainly a gigantic difference money-wise but that's also not really the point of the story.
  • No, I don't remember what the name of their school was or why they all knew sign language if they weren't deaf. They may have been training to become deaf translators, for all I know. I had a couple of friends back in high school who were doing exactly that, so I don't think it's outside the realm of possibility.
  • No, I didn't write it to pat myself on the back. It was an experience I had that I felt like sharing, that's all. Anyone who knows me in real life knows that I am definitely not someone who seeks out lots of attention. I wrote this as someone who doesn't expect more than maybe a few hundred page hits on a given day, and that's if I'm lucky! To be quite honest, being in the spotlight is an uncomfortable position for me, as I'll talk about in a minute.
  • When I said the students were going store-to-store, I didn't mean that they went on a huge shopping spree. They were in the mall mainly to visit the Apple Store, but they visited various stores (not every single one) and spent a few minutes simply trying to ask employees questions. One example I remember was a student trying to ask someone at one of the clothing stores where they could find a certain brand of jeans. The point of the assignment was to see how employees dealt with these types of situations, not to buy anything.

After the story blew up, I wondered if very many people were subscribing to the site's RSS feed. I have no way of telling, since Squarespace 6's RSS service doesn't track that sort of thing. I do know that I gained several followers on Twitter and nearly doubled my follower count on App.net.

For a short while, I hesitated to post anything on either service for fear of suddenly alienating all these new people. I've since decided that it wouldn't be fair to myself not to express my thoughts in the way I choose.

I'm going to continue doing exactly what I've always done, which is post stuff that interests me, make the occasional bad joke, and not worry whether or not people who found me through a lighthearted story get offended that I have certain strong political views (just to get this out of the way right now, I'm about as liberal as it gets). I may lose the new followers, and already have lost a few, but I figure they probably wouldn't have stuck around long anyway.

The same kind of thing goes for this site. Any new readers should know right now that I don't constantly post long, personal, feel-good stories. They do come up occasionally but aren't the focus of this site. Check the archives if you want a better idea of what I do here. Yes, I have link-posts like many other tech bloggers do. Sorry if that bugs anyone.

Again, I sincerely thank everyone for all the kind words I've received these last few days, and I hope many of you will stick around as regular readers :)

*Whew!* Now I've got all that off my chest, back to work.

The iPad Apps that Power my Tools and Toys Workflow

One of the topics I’ve been most enthusiastic about lately is the idea of using only an iPad to do all my work. I’m not talking about my day job here, but rather my writing workflow, and more specifically the writing I do for Tools and Toys.

(I would love to have a nice workflow setup for Unretrofied, but unfortunately the Squarespace iOS app is pretty terrible and there are no alternatives due to their lack of an API. So while I may do some writing for Unretrofied on the iPad using Byword, I almost always publish from the back-end CMS on a desktop or laptop.)

Since Tools and Toys runs on WordPress, there are a wider array of apps I can use for publishing, which makes an iPad-only workflow more feasible. I’d like to discuss the apps I use to get the job done, but first it helps to know the ground rules for every T&T post:

  • Each post must contain an image, 600px wide being okay but 1200px being better for Retina displays. Either way, the site will display the image in a 600px wide box.
  • Image file sizes should be reasonable so as not to delay page-load times. The 150kb–200kb range is fine.
  • These images must be hosted on the site’s Amazon S3 account.
  • There are three custom fields used within the CMS: the image link, the product link, and the name of the store/website where an item can be bought.
  • Stephen Hackett and I each have a particular posting schedule, so we need to be able to schedule final drafts to be automatically published at a later date/time.
  • When we link to something on iTunes or Amazon, we must use affiliate links.

Obviously there’s no one app that can do all these things, but I’ve managed to accumulate a variety of apps that have allowed me to do my work on-the-go. So far I’ve managed to get the entire workflow down to a handful of apps.

The first app, Instapaper, comes into play long before I ever write anything. I’ve got a special folder set aside where I like to save ideas for potential products to write about. If I come across something cool out on the web, I save it to this folder and reference it later when it’s time to write a new post.

The next two apps I use are Safari and Mail.app. I use Safari for finding links and images, as well as researching items to make sure I know what I’m talking about when I’m writing about them. When I can’t find a nice, hi-res image of a product anywhere, I use Mail.app to ask the makers of those products if they have any images I can use. Everyone I’ve ever talked to has been super nice and helpful.

Once I’ve got an image, or a set of images, I use an app called Reduce to batch-resize them. I even have a preset stored in the app: 1200px wide, 150kb file size. I run the photos through that preset, and the app saves a copy of each image to a “Reduce Export” album on the iPad for easy management.

The way I currently upload these images to Amazon S3 is with the iFiles app, which presents the most convoluted part of my current workflow. It’s an okay app for uploading, but it seems to have no way of renaming files or copying their public URLs, which is why I’m still on the lookout for something better.

Since I can’t rename from within iFiles, what I’ll typically do is remotely login to my office PC using LogMeIn Ignition1 and do it there. This step is technically unnecessary, but I prefer having a file name that uses the name of the product rather than something generic like “Photo02272013.jpg” or whatever.

Why is that, exactly? Well for one thing, it makes it easier to locate a particular image in our list of previous uploads if I need to. Secondly, even though I can’t copy the public link, I can simply take the url http://i.toolsandtoys.net.s3.amazonaws.com/img/file-name.jpg and substitute the file-name portion with the easy-to-remember file name I just made. A bit ghetto but it works.

Let’s just say that my life will be a lot easier if I can find a suitable replacement for iFiles.

Now that I’ve dealt with images, I’ve got to manage the text stuff. My absolute favorite app for writing and publishing to WordPress is Poster. It’s beautiful, easy to navigate around, and it features everything I need to publish a post, including those custom fields I mentioned earlier.

Next up comes the links. Regular links are easy to copy and paste, but when it comes to affiliate links I have a couple of tools at my disposal. The first one is Launch Center Pro, in which I’ve set up custom URL schemes for each link-type. They both operate based on whatever’s saved to my clipboard. Since this app was more intended for iPhone than iPad though, I tend to use TextExpander snippets to generate the links instead. Poster includes TextExpander support so these snippets are a breeze to use.

Lastly, we’ve got Dropbox. This is where I store any drafts or images I have yet to put together as final posts. I can access them from anywhere, and Poster can pull text files from Dropbox in order to create new posts. Doesn’t need much more explanation than that.

So there you have it. There are still some kinks to be worked out, and the overall process of putting things together could be a little smoother, but the sheer fact that I can do almost everything straight from my iPad is awesome to me.

Before I end this post (which is incidentally about 20x longer than most T&T things I’ve ever written), I’d like to thank Shawn for giving me the opportunity to write for the site. It’s been a blast so far and I look forward to where the site is headed.


  1. This app is incredibly expensive these days at $130, but I bought it years ago when it was on sale for $20 and I had an iTunes gift card.  ↩

My Path to the iPad

Time for another piece about my personal life! Apologies in advance if you're getting sick of these :)

As I stated recently, I've been wanting to overhaul the tech situation in my life for a while now. To recap: despite having been an Apple Store employee a while back (October '07 - December '08), and having access to decent discounts on Mac products at that time, I've never been able to comfortably afford an iMac or MacBook. Also, long-term budgeting for big tech purchases isn't something I have much experience with.

You see, I grew up in a humble mobile home (albeit a double-wide model) which was on a dirt road at the outskirts of a small town. Because of the location, the only internet connection available my whole life was 56K dial-up. It wasn't until after I moved out in my early 20s that my parents could even get a basic DSL line run to the house. (My dad now uses that connection to play World of Warcraft, which sure is...something.)

Needless to say, we weren't big computer purchasers. There wasn't much of a reason to be, honestly. I mean, we were using AOL as our ISP, with all the requisite dialup noises that were enough of a deterrent alone. Of course, this means that I missed out on a lot during Web 2.0's heyday, but overall I think it was probably a good thing because it forced me into a not-overly-consumerist mindset that is still a big part of who I am today.

My first Apple purchase only came about when I managed to scrape together enough money to pick up an iPhone 3G several months after it released. Rather than upgrading every year, I waited three years before picking up an iPhone 4S (which is still my current phone), and that's where my Apple product history ended until Friday.

When I think back on this stuff, it seems odd even to me that I would ever have thought to apply for a job at Apple, given that my only prior experiences with Macs were with the old machines at my elementary and junior high schools, and those were mostly used for playing Oregon Trail or Math Munchers. I had no real sense of what a Mac could do outside of playing games.

Let's just say I had a lot of learning to do.

To this day I've still never owned a Mac, but I certainly developed a strong interest in them while working at the Apple Store, and nearly all of the tech blogs I keep up with even now are pretty Apple-oriented.

After my cheapy Windows 7 laptop crapped out, I didn't bother replacing it with another cheap Windows machine because I was too busy salivating over the 15" MacBook Pro model of the time (not literally you guys, ew). And I still couldn't even afford that computer without cutting out a ton of other expenses and living on ramen noodles for a year or two. Didn't seem worth it at the time.

The iPad had become pretty popular by this point, but the thought of replacing a laptop with such a device seemed crazy to me. My thoughts at the time sounded something like this: "It looks nice and all, but how could it possibly do all the things I want?"

The answer wouldn't begin to hit me for several months. Many people were proclaiming the iPad as the device to lead us into a post-PC era, but deep down I never believed them. Surely they couldn't be serious.

But then, more and more people started making the switch, ditching their old MacBooks (or other laptops) and instead preferring instead to carry around an iPad exclusively, often with a physical keyboard setup. This happened to be around the time I started taking a serious interest in writing, so something in the back of my mind began to wonder if I'd been enturely wrong about the iPad.

Then, Shawn Blanc published a piece explaining how his iPad had all but replaced his MacBook Air as a mobile workstation, and Federico Viticci began writing a series of articles showcasing the ways iOS apps can work together to complete fairly complex tasks with minimal input from the user. Lots of other writers got in on the fun as well, but there are far too many to list here.

Eventually, I became convinced by these kinds of testimonials. The iPad started looking more and like a suitable and legitimate replacement for a laptop, although admittedly, it couldn't have gotten there without the help of the App Store.

The abundance of 3rd-party writing and productivity apps has created an environment where people can accomplish just about anything they want as long as they've got the right app(s) and they're willing to work within the inherent limitations of iOS. As it turns out, a large and ever-growing population of people are perfectly willing to do just that. It was quite a recurring theme throughout 2012 in fact.

Fast-forward to today. I've been at my full-time job for 4.5 years and I've got a few pay raises under my belt. My wife's Irish dance school has slowly been growing and she's got a decent number of students now. We're still not making a ton of money by any stretch, and I've grown of tired my dead-end day job, but we're at least living a little more comfortably now than our previous years of living paycheck-to-paycheck.

Several months ago, my wife and I decided that we would finally try to invest in the Apple ecosystem and we began budgeting ourselves pretty strictly. The goal was to set aside a little extra money each month after we'd paid the bills and put money into our emergency fund. We weren't always successful but over time we've managed to build up a decent-sized 'Apple Fund'. Eventually, the question became: which devices do we need, exactly?

With the iPad's newfound role as a legitimate computer replacement, it seemed feasible for each of us to get one of those for mobile use and then get an iMac for the house at some point. I considered this scenario in my previous piece:

"If we've got an always-on iMac powering things at home, we could feasibly do the iPad thing and have no problems at all. She doesn't care about getting into the nerdy stuff, and most of my usage will probably be reading and writing, so really it just comes down to how much I want to tinker with scripts and stuff on the go."

I've since decided that having the ability to tinker with scripts just isn't worth the additional expense to me. Like I said, my main uses for it will be reading and writing. An iPad is well-suited to (and more than capable of) accomplishing those tasks, and even with the additional purchase of a keyboard/case it's still cheaper than buying a MacBook Air. Plus, I can always do that sort of thing on the iMac whenever we decide to get one.

So, I took the day off work yesterday and went back to visit ye olde Apple Store. After playing around with the various iPads one last time, I went ahead and picked up a 16GB wifi-only iPad 4 w/ Retina display. I'm still a big fan of how light and portable the iPad mini is, but the bigger Retina display won out in the end.

Now that I've finally made a decision after months of consideration, what do I think about the end result? Well, I've been spending the better part of 72 hours toying with this thing and it already feels like I made the correct choice.

I still have yet to get a physical keyboard, but I've already done some writing on the device (in fact, I'm writing this piece on it right now) and it's been a sheer joy so far. I'll probably never reach 90-100WPM using the on-screen keyboard like I can on a physical keyboard (HUMBLEBRAG FULLY INTENDED), but it's noticeably easier to write with than the iPhone keyboard I've grown accustomed to these past few years.

I want to mention just how friggin' beautiful the Retina display is on this thing. I've found myself becoming lost in photo blogs, Vimeo videos and comic books. All apps just look nicer than their iPhone counterparts. Even the text I write is rendered gorgeously. Talk about encouragement to write more!

I'm also in love with a couple of the multitouch gestures:

1) "Pinch" the screen with 5 fingers to exit an app to the homescreen. I don't have to care where the home button is in relation to the iPad's orientation.

2) Swipe up with 4 fingers to bring up the app switcher tray. Much better than double-clicking the home button.

These are completely natural-feeling interactions and my workflow already feels 10x better just from using such simple gestures.

So that's where my tech situation is at right now. I will continue to gradually add new things into the mix, such as a keyboard and some sort of bag to carry this stuff around in. The iMac will be further down the line, hopefully before the end of 2013.

I'm only getting started but I'm already super excited about all this. Not to suddenly get all "consumerism is the bee's knees!" about it, but after going through life without a lot of nice things to my name, it feels nice to treat myself for a change.

CriticMarkup

Gabe Weatherhead of Macdrifter and Eric Hess of The Mindful Bit have teamed up to develop a new syntax called CriticMarkup, which is useful for denoting editorial changes in a document and is fully compatible with Markdown, LaTeX, and HTML.

As someone who doesn't do a whole lot of collaborative writing, I honestly don't have much use for this currently, but I think it's a fantastic idea and something I'll be keeping on my radar.

They've come up with lots of other goodies to go along with the syntax, so head over to Gabe's site to read more about the project or visit the CriticMarkup site itself.

Tips to Overcome Writer's Block

Writer's block is something we all face at some time or another. That frustrating feeling of having this desperate urge to write, but being unable to get the words out. Sometimes it's so bad we can't even think of a topic to write about! After banging our heads against the wall for a while and getting nowhere, we throw in the towel.

Inevitably, we'll wake up in the middle of the night, suddenly struck by an idea that we must get out of our head immediately or else risk losing it. The human mind sometimes works in mysterious and beautiful ways—but this phenomenon is rare. Most of the time writing does not feel magical at all, but rather like pulling teeth.

Sooner or later you're going to hit that wall, just like everyone else does.

So, how can we overcome this wall? After some trial and error, I've found some ideas that have worked for me, and I thought I'd share them with you guys. I don't claim to be an expert, but maybe this stuff will help you too.

Tip #1: Exercise

You might ask yourself, "What the heck is this guy on? Exercise? I'm trying to get some writing done, not break a sweat." But I'm completely serious here.

One reason I end up having writer's block sometimes is that my head is too full of information I've absorbed throughout the day. After skimming hundreds (if not thousands) of RSS posts and tweets, not to mention all the fantastic stuff people have been linking to, I find it difficult to focus on my own task at hand.

Our brains aren't really built to process such a river of information every day, and yet I and many others keep doing it. It's an information addiction I'm working to rid myself of.

When I need to clear my head of all that cruft, I simply step away from my laptop and go for a light jog around the neighborhood. Give it a try, it may work wonders for you. Preferably sans-iPhone, so that you're not tempted to put on music or a podcast or whatever. That would defeat the purpose of what we're trying to accomplish here.

During the jog, try not to think about all the stuff you need to get done, or the deadlines you're facing, or the work you failed to finish previously. None of that matters right now. Instead, focus on your breathing. Enjoy your surroundings. Wave at the neighbors. Smile.

By the time you're done, you might just feel more relaxed and have a clearer mind. And if you do, I bet that the words which seemed so far out of reach earlier will come to you more freely.

If exercise really isn't your thing, give meditation a try. You don't even have to leave the house or office. Shut off all distractions, find a comfortable place to sit up straight, close your eyes, breathe slowly and deeply, and try to empty your thoughts of all worries.

Even if it doesn't solve the writer's block, you'll feel tons better.

Tip #2: Photography

Writers are creative thinkers. Whether we know it or not, this tends to translate to having a natural eye for photography. Maybe not true in all cases, but in my experience, some of the best writers I know can produce some incredible photos. These skills seem intertwined as far as I can tell.

So, when the part of your mind that controls word production gets a little worn out, try getting out a camera and taking some photos for a while. Find something you've seen a million times and find a new way to capture it, perhaps using a different perspective.

Engaging a different portion of your artistic side this way can be the spark that ignites your creativity.

It doesn't have to be a DSLR or anything. If you've got a smartphone, chances are you've got something decent to work with. Or maybe you've got an old disposable camera laying around somewhere. As the saying goes, the best camera is the one that's with you.

Tip #3: Writing Assignments

Rather than doing all the work of coming up with a topic to write about, allow someone else to take care of that part for you. Writing assignments are wonderful exercises that can help jump-start your brain and get the creative juices flowing. They can also be done as a warm-up before you get started on your own topic.

A good resource I've found for writing assignments has been over at First Today, Then Tomorrow. There, playwright and author Randy Murray puts up a new practice writing assignment once a week, and they've never failed to get me thinking. Great stuff.

Tip #4: Look to Other Writers for Inspiration

Most of us have writers that we look up to and respect. Chances are, they've written about something that has interested you, or else you probably wouldn't have become a fan in the first place.

If you're struggling to find a topic, get out a book or browse through some of your favorite blogs until you see something you can add some insight to. There's nothing wrong with expanding on an idea you didn't originally come up with. Writers borrow from one another all the time. It's a natural part of what we do and I daresay that the world would be a dreary place without the sharing and building upon of such ideas.

Tip #5: Write Something. Anything.

Yes, you read that right. Another way to overcome writer's block is...write something. Anything at all. You can write about the coffee you had this morning. You can make up a backstory about that cat you see wandering around the neighborhood every day. Write a letter to your kid that they'll read when they're older. Write about the delicious meal you just had.

Seriously, just write something. It doesn't matter what. There's no need to share it with anyone else, so don't worry too much about content or style.

Sometimes the most difficult thing about writing is simply getting started. We could make every excuse in the book before we've even begun. Don't defeat yourself that way. Once you've started, you've already started winning the battle. You may even notice your hands struggling to keep up with all the words trying to escape your head. It feels completely manic, but in a good way.

Every person, whether they know it or not, is living a life worth writing about. They just have to find those stories, however small, and connect the dots until a story emerges. It's kinda like weaving a tapesty but WAY simpler. Anyone can do it.

* * *

There you have it. Those are the techniques I've used to help me overcome my writer's block. I really do hope you'll find some use for these tips, or be inspired to put together a list of your own.

If you have a great technique not mentioned here, let me know! It's nice to get a peek into the minds of other people struggling with the same things I am.

Renewed Focus

I've been at this writing thing for over two years now. Every so often, I get into a sort of funk and spend weeks relentlessly asking myself questions like this:

"Am I truly proud of the work I've done?"

"Have I published articles of lasting value, or have I simply been spinning my wheels?"

"What am I even trying to accomplish here?"

"Does this site help other people improve their life or even give them some food for thought?"

The list goes on and on and on and...you get the point.

I imagine that lots of writers go through phases like this from time to time, and I acknowledge that it's probably a good thing, although it doesn't feel that way at the time. It feels more like falling into a deep well of negavity that's hard to get out of.

Even so, there's something natural and healthy about doing a little soul-searching so that we can reassess our goals and redefine our purpose for writing in the first place. Doesn't everybody desire a fresh start sometimes?

After taking a good hard look at myself and my writing, I've decided that I want to shift the focus of this site a little. Or rather, I'd like to narrow it down to a smaller list of topics than I have in the past. I sat down and thought long and hard about which topics I care most about and get the most enjoyment out of writing. This is what I came up with:

  • Writing/Publishing
  • Minimalism/Simplicity
  • Inspiration/Motivation
  • Technology/Design/Photography
  • Tips/How-To's

Items that got cut were things like "Apple's sales" and "Rumors" and "Inter-company politics" and "News" and at least a dozen others. I'm not John Gruber or Jim Dalrymple — I just don't care as much about that stuff. I also feel that writing on a huge number of topics is a good way to "dilute" what I'm doing here.

From here on out, I will be making an effort to stick with the list of topics above. They're more of a guideline than a strict set of policies that I can never deviate from, but keeping my mind focused should help me produce more meaningful work. Narrowing down to this list alone has already felt like lifting a huge burden off my chest. It just feels right.

I want to look back on my articles at the end of 2013 and really, truly say that I'm proud of what I've done. We'll see how that goes, but it should be an exciting year either way.

Day One Review

When it comes to New Year's resolutions, some people will often say something to the effect of, "Why wait for the new year? Just start right creating a habit rightnow."

While I understand where they're coming from, one can't ignore the simple power in the changing of years. Of course, we all know that it simply marks another revolution of the earth around the sun, and yet, the psychological effect remains profound.

It evokes a sense of sweeping away the old and bringing in the new. It helps us compartmentalize our successes and failures, making them easier to track throughout our lives. For those of us procrastinators who have egregiously passed on earlier opportunities to better ourselves or form new habits, the start of a new year can be a wonderful catalyst.

'The Brief' Switching to a Membership Model

Richard Dunlop-Walters, editor of The Brief (as well as The Feature) is converting The Brief from an ad-supported model to one funded by membership subscriptions.

The Brief provides a fantastic service by summarizing each day's most important tech news stories in an easily-parsable manner, giving you the meat of every story and telling you why it matters. I've been a fan since it released and will be more than happy to become a member to support its continuation.

The cost of a subscription to The Brief is the same as my own membership model for Unretrofied: $3/month or $30/year. I happily recommend signing up and supporting Richard's endeavours.