Transcript of Habits — Writing (#26)

Please enjoy this transcript. Nono's daily writing process, tools, and techniques. Transcripts may contain typos. You can find the episode notes here.


0:36Nono Martínez Alonso: Today, I want to share with you my writing workflow. I've been writing for years now, both in the form of blog posts and journaling notes that end up being either for myself or for future potential inspiration. I'm going to share with you what software and workflow I use to write and review my writing. But the most important thing—regardless of the tools—has been creating the habit to write every single day without exceptions. This was my intention for a while, but it wasn't until I read Atomic Habits by James Clear that I found a method that worked for me. In his book, James Clear defines four pillars to create a habit. Make it obvious, make it attractive, make it easy, and make it satisfying.

1:20 I chose three habits that are important to me. And every day, at least, I'd like to meditate for 10 minutes, live sketch one thing, this means sketching something from real life when I'm seeing the thing, not from a picture, and writing 200 words. That would be my easy entry point. These are what I call my core habits. And I have other optional ones like reading for 10 minutes or running one kilometer.

1:50 The gist of James Clear's method is to have something super easy and achievable to start any activity. For instance, when wearing your running clothes and shoes and leaving the house is a lot easier to achieve than, say, running 5K.

2:08 For writing 200 words is a easy bar that I can reach every day. And it's up to me and my time availability to continue writing. What is really cool is that if I comply, I should get at least 3000 words written every month but it's usually a lot more. There will be days that I go over. Maybe, some days I end up writing 300 other days is 500 other days it might be 1500.

2:37 I'm recording this on December 13, 2019. At the moment of writing this episode, I was up to 220 days writing every day, those 200 words. At the moment of recording this, I'm up to 228 days. And if you want to know how many days have been writing my 200 words, as of right now, while you're listening to this episode, and assuming I haven't missed any days, since April 29, 2019. That's when I started this core habit. You can visit nono.ma/now N-O-W, or you can see a link on the show notes.

3:21 As I mentioned earlier, one of those four pillars of James Clear to create a habit was "Make it obvious." For me, the obvious part in the process of writing is what I call my Daily file. This is a simple file on my computer that happens to have the Markdown extension (.md). We'll talk a bit more about that later.

3:44 Ever since 2015. I've been writing all my journaling notes in the same Daily file, which I split in parts every once in a while. Right now I'm up to Part 42 and the total amount of words is up to 160,000 words. This includes thoughts, ideas, notes, maybe drafts of posts or other things that I had to write, and sometimes even correspondence like email or other messages that I want to highlight that want to keep or other citations. And for me, if I want to write something, unless there is a clear place that that text needs to go, and I can put it there directly, this is where I would start writing, in these file.

4:29 If I don't have a place like a blogging platform or email or some other place that I need to write directly, I would come to these file first just put a timestamp on the top and then start writing. I actually do the timestamps automatically with Typinator for Mac, but that's a topic that probably deserves its own full episode. Typinator, I'll put it onn the show notes, is just text expander tool that when you write maybe two letters or a combinatior of letters it expands them into whatever you have programmed it to. And you can program dynamic things to be expanded like time or dates or things like that.

4:46 With the CMD+F command, I can do a quick search in this Daily file, searching by terms or names or places or events, and find notes I wrote about them. And following Lee Gutkind's advice in his book You Can't Make This Stuff Up, one of the best ways to write about something—if you want to write nonfiction—is through immersion. And that's why I like to capture thoughts, data, little details that at the moment might seem insignificant of things that I'm immersed in on my daily life, to be able to come back to them later and use those esoteric notes, maybe days, months or even years later, and use them in my own writing.

5:53 On top of writing notes, with text, you can also use images, audio, video, for this purpose because when you are writing nonfiction, you want to be as truthful to the real facts that happened as possible. You don't want to be making them these things. Otherwise, you should omit them from the story. If you want to be truthful to nonfiction. I keep getting surprised of how many memories I had forgotten when I go back to my daily file and read my journaling notes. And I have to say, I actually get a lot of inspiration from those many times I would get a draft of something that I thought or I started writing maybe two years ago or three and make that into a post that I end up publishing online. This Daily file is to me the "commonplace" book to which Steven Johnson refers to in his book Where Good Ideas Come From.

6:49 It's, as he mentions, a tradition that peaked in Enlightenment-era Europe, particularly in England. This was a personal repository of notes and quotes and thoughts that minds like Darwin, Milton, Bacon, and John Locke will keep for themselves, each of them in sort of their own way. And Steven Johnson mentions how they believed in the "memory enhancing powers of the 'commonplace' book.". And these sort of books were a key element in letting thinkers connect ideas and hunches over decades of work. I discussed this highly in the episode of the podcast with Andrew Witt in which he mentioned how thinkers like Kant had been attributed coming up with this huge theories out of nowhere, but how people talk about the metaphor of having jars in which each of these jars has maybe a thought or something likely connected to a topic and then you put it on the jar that belongs to that topic or that class of thought, right? And then how years later, it's said that he assembled that as the Critique of [Pure] Reason.

8:11 Steven Johnson goes into even mentioning how it took Darwin decades to actually develop his Origin of Species theory, something usually attributed to a single hunch or magical idea in which he suddenly discovered natural selection. Here's a quote from Stephen Johnson. "Darwin was constantly rereading his notes, discovering new implications. His ideas emerged as a kind of duet between the present-tense-thinking brain and all those past observations recorded on paper." Today, Johnson himself uses a software called DEVONthink as his 21st century version of this commonplace book that he talks about on Where Good Ideas Come From. He stores on it notes, quotes, and snippets of his own writing. The software allows him to query the system with a new paragraph of text he's currently working on to find other similar passages related not only by input words but also by topic.

9:16 Moving on to something else of my writing workflow, there's a fairly recent experiment I'm trying, to keep a list of things I want to write simple ideas, drafts or written text I have to revise or edit or maybe simple ideas that I want to write. I queue them in a list so next time I'm going for my 200-word minimum, I can either choose from journaling or writing something from scratch or continue where I left off last time to make progress in something I intended to publish.

9:47 I said I was also going to talk about software, about tools, and here the biggest highlight is that I use Markdown to write. In words of Markdown's creator—John Gruber—Markdown was two things. First a plain-text formatting syntax. And second, a software tool, initially reading in perl, that converts the plain-text formatting into HTML.

10:13 Now there are dozens of software tools called parsers that convert Markdown to virtually anything like HTML, PDF, a Word document, an InDesign document, and other publishing platforms. And you might think of WordPress or Ghost. There are even convention and flavors that define different features and how they need to be render how they need to be displayed on screen or how they need to be interpreted. Even WhatsApp allows you to add asterisks or underscores around the word and make it bold or italic. And this actually comes from these sort of Markdown syntax languages. Another example is CommonMark, that is a project or initiative led by John McFarlane that establishes a specification for the language.

11:00 For me, Markdown is a way to focus on writing using plain text instead of using a rich-text editor such as Microsoft Word or Adobe InDesign, and it simplifies the act of writing by reducing the text formatting possibilities to essential markup such as bold, italic, quotes, lists, links, header, titles, and some other elements. But just the core things that you actually need, you cannot get to do really customize fonts or tables or colors or things like that. But in some way, you can cheat using HTML and CSS. But that's not Markdown. That's not the point. The good thing is that many editors support it and many platforms get it as an input to display text such as WordPress, or Dropbox Paper, which I love.

11:44 My editor if choices is iA Writer. That's where I write. I like how simple and beautiful its interface is and that it let's me synchronize my writing across devices. I use it on iOS, on my iPhone or iPad, macOS on my MacBook laptops, and hopefully in the future on any web browser tab, but this is not yet support.

12:05 Let's now see how I review my writing. In his book [When], Daniel Pink states that, "Writing is an act of discovering what you think and what you believe." Along these lines I've personally seen that reviewing past writing is the act of remembering or rediscovering what you once thought, and believed, or maybe just what you once knew, because you have forgotten. I can see there that reviewing drafts and all writing can be—or is—as important as writing new things, at least in my own process. I find myself logging lots of ideas and generating drafts and those aren't done and I move on to the next thing. And I think this is inevitable. Much of what I write or work-in-progress articles or posts or ideas, and many of those I hope to finish and probably sometime in the future, but I think that quantity over quality is really important to get nice writing down at first. Some of those ideas will be good, and this is what Seth Godin says all the time. And I use this strategy for sketching as well. I sketch a lot, and maybe one out of 10 I liked, and now, because I think I'm getting better, I get a higher percentage of things that I like out of each 10 that I do.

13:24 What this system does for me in writing is that I can create a repository of ideas and drafts that I can later visit and use to start new posts or for passages that you're writing. Reviewing brings back details and experiences of the past, maybe things you might have forgotten or specific data that's impossible that you would remember accurately.

13:47 So how do I review my writing?

13:49 The easiest way is to have a draft on iA Writer on my phone or computer, but there are also other ways that I used to review and this is just because I've seen that changing the medium in which you read compared to where you're writing gives you a perspective that is closer to that of a reader of something that you haven't seen before, that your mind hasn't yet processed visually and, at least in iA Writer, you can read and then you can also put a preview mode that changes the typeface and maybe some other properties of the view.

14:20 Here are ways in which I export my work-in-progress or finalized drafts for review and revision. The first one is PDFs. I can print my writing to a PDF. And I'll talk more in a second about how I export my Markdown writing to PDF. Second, on a website, so I can upload text to my website and preview it online on a web browser or in my phone. The Mercury extension for Google Chrome. This is an extension that removes all the user interface of a website or maybe an article you are reading online and only leaves you with a tab with the writing and its images. Kindle. I read on Kindle, often. I'm used to read long-form books on Kindle, so this is a familiar reading medium for me. And I can export a piece of writing using the same Mercury Chrome extension, and they have a super awesome bottom on the top right when your previewing a website with their viewer that says "Send to Kindle," and it works like a charm. You just need to configure your Amazon account to allow you to send documents from there, and you can also export your writing to known formats like DOCX, the Microsoft Word format, or PDF or HTML and send it to your Kindle via email. I'm pretty sure that DOCX works well. I'm not sure about HTML, but I know PDF also has some automatic conversion.

15:50 The last format I would use is the most obvious, is print. We're all familiar with reading books on paper and many of us are still so in love with this method that often reject mediums such as a laptop screen or phone screen, or even Kindle to read, because the experience of a paperback book is is hard to beat. As I mentioned before, Kindle feels natural to me now. And the fact that I can revisit my digital highlights online. And I am now using a service called Readwise, that I'll link to in the show notes as well, to revisit my digital highlights. And I'm using this tool called Readwise to get an email with a few quotes every day. And I'll link to it on the show notes. And this makes a lot more worth the digital experience to me that simple highlighting on paper. And it's funny that a few days back, they rolled out a new version of their beta iOS app, this is Readwise, in which you can take a picture of a physical page of a book and save that as a highlight online so I'm gonna have to rethink my workflow.

17:01 I've mentioned ways in which I would review my writing to show you that it's usually useful to change mediums. And I want to focus specially on the printed medium now, which involves printing as a PDF—a format in which others can read virtually or print by themselves at home and printing on paper.

17:21 How do I do it?

17:22 The first thing is exporting. My writing environment, as I said, is eyewriter because I'm writing using the Markdown syntax and I could write in any other plain-text editor really, but you need a tool to export from Markdown to PDF. And if you're going to export and print to PDF, and on paper, you can use tools like Microsoft Word, Adobe InDesign, or many others, not in Markdown just on the rich-text editors that they use. But I tend to export from Markdown directly from iA Writer. The same preview templates that are available on the app are exporting templates, which means that you export Markdown to PDF as properly formatted text.

18:04 Since one or two years back, I think iA Writer includes customizable templates as a feature. You can edit or craft your own templates to specify the styling and the typeface used when you export into PDF. And of course, I've created my own template. So when I export my writing, the output feels like a paperback book. My custom template uses the Syntax typeface for titles and headers and the Bembo typeface for body text. This way, I'm writing on iA Writer with a mono- or douspace typeface and then reviewing and revisiting as if I were reading a book.

18:40 There are open tools, such as pandoc—that's P-A-N-D-O-C—an open-source project, also initiated by John McFarlane, that lets you export a Markdown file—that's .MD—to PDF from the command-line interface. It's free, but this might be be technical to many of you.

19:02 When exporting PDF pandoc uses pdflatex, which also adds the possibility of creating your own custom latex templates and styling, as well as using the powerful latest syntax that allows you to do mathematical equations and other things to display. But that's more for academics.

19:21 In what format do I use for printing digitally and what format do I use for printing on paper?

19:27 I export using the letter or A4 size when I'm on the computer. I tend to archive or read a document in there. But if I'm thinking on printing on paper, I use the A5 size—that's half an A4. This allows me to use a pdflatex script in order to generate a booklet out of the A5 document which generates a new A4 PDF ready for double-side printing.

19:55 So you can visualize it, the result of printing this booklet is a set of A4 sheets that you can fold and staple directly and feel like a little magazine with your own writing. For printing. I use the simple and robust Brother printer. HL-L2375DW and the long-format Rapesco 790 stapler, which allows me to staple A4 sheets together. And I'll put links to those models in the show notes just in case you're curious.

20:29 The printer is a monochrome, laser, double-side, A4 printer, which costs around $100, and it's actually changed how review my writing. Lately, I'm in love with how printing in 80-gram recycled paper turns out. It resembles the most to paperback books. A few months back I published a short essay together with a watercolor sketch of my printer on my sketch.nono.ma blog, titled The Zine—that's T-H-E-Z-I-N-E—which for some reason I didn't know when viral on Hacker News for a few hours. And you can take a look at nono.ma/the-zine—I'll put a link on the show notes as well.

21:13 Around 800 people visited this link in the first three hours since I posted and I understood why by reading people's comments. There's a huge community of self-publishing zines around the internet. There were many comments linking to well-known self-publications that offer A4 booklet PDF versions of their writing and books for you to download and print at home for free using the exact same booklet format in A4 that I described earlier. This made me think that I need to offer downloadable versions of my writing as well, probably both in A4 and A5 booklet format, because that would allow people that maybe don't want to read on the screen to be able to print it and read as a booklet or read in paper.

21:58 Lastly, I'd like to talk about sharing your writing. Apart from self-reflection, I believe the ultimate goal of writing is to touch others in some way, to have other people read your writing and have it resonate with them. And there are many, many ways in which people like to read, watch, and listen to content.

22:15 Take this podcast for instance, I couldn't imagine at the very beginning that people would prefer listening to it on a web browser tab playing a YouTube video instead of using Apple Podcasts or Spotify. But this seems to be the most comfortable choice when you're at your desktop computer, or you don't have access to iTunes or Spotify. Others prefer downloading an MP3 file and play it on a USB stick while driving.

22:40 And the same thing happens with reading. Some readers might prefer reading on their email, on a website, with their preferred RSS reader, downloading a PDF, sending an article or book to their Kindle, printing on paper, and probably many other ways that we can't even imagine. This is why offering different mediums for others to read is best. It's on the reader to choose how they want to consume your content, and it's also good for shareability because people can just get your content in any format and then send it somebody else's way.

23:12 The easiest way to share your writing is sending a PDF or a web link, or sending the text via email. But I think that we're too busy replying to messages and email and working on our devices. So it can be challenging to focus on reading anything longer than one or two hundred words. That's why I often like to print my writing as a paper booklet, and gift it to other people who might be interested in reading it, or simply hand a printed draft to someone who's about to review my writing before it goes online instead of giving them a laptop or sending them an email.

23:45 I also enjoy keeping a physical copy of my favorite writing or my Daily file for review or for later reference. In days in which I need inspiration I browse through old files and find interesting facts and ideas that might kickstart a new piece of writing.

24:00 And this is it. I hope you enjoyed this new format in which I shared how I do things and why and hopefully unveiled workflows, techniques, habits, and tools that you can incorporate in your daily life right away.

24:14 Take a look at the show notes to see the tools and things I've mentioned on this episode.

24:18 If you're enjoying the show, would you please consider subscribing to Apple Podcasts and writing a short review? It takes less than 60 seconds and it makes it easier for other listeners to find out about the show.

24:30 Thanks for listening. We'll see you next time.

December 18, 2019


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