Thursday, October 9, 2014

Tools for blogging & notes

This evening on Twitter, a question came up that I've struggled with a few times.

I haven't really worked on fiction or long-form writing (and handling putting a few pieces like different chapters together presents it's own challenge), but I have tried various versions of getting writing on a schedule under control.  Here's what I've worked on (blogging wise), with a slight bias towards iOS & Mac, but probably applicable to all operating systems.

(tl;dr is at the bottom.  The really short version is that at last for me, there were a lot of equally good/bad ways to organize things, picking a system & actually sticking with it is the solution I needed)

When I think about blogging, it generally comes in 4 parts:

  • Capturing the first inspiration.  (i.e. "I should really write about various tech solutions to blogging, because I'm not the only person who's struggled with this).
  • Getting that first inspiration into wherever I'm actually writing (be that Google Drive/Evernote/Text File/Blogging Platform)
  • Turning inspiration into a real draft
  • (Here I bet other people revise, maybe multiple times)
  • Putting on the final polishes and schedule/post.

I'm going to start with the "wherever I'm writing" section, then look at capture, write & revise, and finally post.  It's worth pointing out that I don't hold myself to a schedule, so I don't see these as "To-Do" items.  I'll allude to those in a few places though.

Writing a blog post can go in a few different places.  Usually the WSIWYG/HTML editors of a Wordpress or Blogger blog are the worst actual writing experience (I've definitely had a few "didn't save" snafu's, especially going between website & mobile app), but at least there's no need to copy from what you wrote somewhere into the blog engine, and then clean up formatting.  Something like Google Drive has the huge advantage of being accessible everywhere, probably the best collaborative tools of any option, and a folder structure.  Honestly, though, I can't really imagine using Google Drive if I weren't thinking about collaboration.

Mostly because Dropbox exists.  For text-heavy things like blog posts, it's pretty straightforward to install dropbox (again, everywhere, like Google Drive), use your text-editor of choice (MS Word on Windows? I'm sure there's better.  I like TextWrangler on the Mac) and one of the infinite dropbox-compatible writing apps on a mobile device.  Dropbox supports versioning if desired & moving between folders, so if you're not thinking about collaboration it's as good as Google Drive.  The "win" part is the "any compatible writing apps on a mobile device".  There are plenty of good text editors for phones.  The google drive apps aren't nearly as polished as dedicated text editors (at least on iOS), and when I was last looking there were plenty of good apps that would work with dropbox files but not Google Drive, hence the advantage.

Another approach entirely is to use Evernote.  Like Dropbox and Google Drive, it's ubiquitous.  Unlike the other two, which are oriented around "files", Evernote is oriented around "notes" (which can be text, pictures, audio, attached files, or any combination).  Notes can have "tags" and be in different "notebooks" (basically folders).  When it comes down to it, though, a note is essentially a text document just like you'd be working on with Dropbox or Google Drive.  (It does seem to be easier to integrate images if desired).  Evernote does have a powerful (if somewhat geeky) search tool, so that you could have saved searches for "blog posts in draft form" or "posts ready to put up", and with a simple tag change, you can move between them.  (Equivalent to moving among folders in drive/dropbox).  Evernote's advantage is the ability to associate reminders to notes.  Now if you want to get something written by Thursday, you can create the rough draft, put a reminder on it for Tuesday, and have a notification pop up & the note easy to find.

Really, though, the default WordPress/Blogger page, Dropbox, Google Drive, and Evernote are very similar ways to store the content of blog posts you're working on.  Google Drive is best for collaboration, Evernote may have an edge if you want reminders, Dropbox if there's an actual text editor you like using, and the WordPress/Blogger page/app if your biggest thing is not wanting to clean up the post after copy/pasting it in.  (I use Blogger's site & app because I've made a mess of Google Drive & Evernote and feel like I'd have to organize them (probably untrue), and if I started using Dropbox I'd dive down the rabbit hole of investigating text editing apps).

Having decided on where your content will live, an important question is how to get it in?  You can always just load up your app of choice, make a few quick notes, then close out, but sometimes (like when a tweet prompts the blog post), that's not ideal.  With Evernote, you have a special email address you can send to that will create a note.  Google Drive & probably Dropbox could approximate this with IFTTT (If This Then That), and both Wordpress & Blogger have "email into" options as well.  On iOS there's a phenomenal app called "Drafts" specifically for taking quick notes.  You launch directly into a place to enter text, and then at the bottom, you get to choose where to route the text (Twitter, Evernote, append to a file in dropbox ... the options are very diverse).  Once again, though, there's very little between the different options to make a clear "winner" in the "how do I jot a quick note using my phone" category.  (Or the "having jotted a quick note on paper like a barbarian, how do I get it to be the seed of a blog post?" category)

With each tool, I find I always need to do final polish on an actual computer, and I tend to just default to the Blogger/Wordpress page for adding tags/categories, scheduling posts, putting in links, and making sure the formatting is correct.  Copy/Pasting in from another tool usually adds some kind of formatting issue, but again nothing insurmountable.

Essentially, then, you have a bunch of tools with slightly different strengths/weaknesses, but all of them are ubiquitous, make it easy to add new content, make it easy to revise content (generally I find it harder to revise on the phone, but that's a limitation of the phone size), and then final posting is easiest sitting in front of the computer.  The times I've tried to get myself to do regular blogging, my problem is usually forgetting about a step, or being intimidated by it:  I'll remember to add lots of notes about possible blog topics, but then never check the "Draft" folder when I'm thinking of writing one.  Or I'll think that "blog posts take way to long for this chunk of time" and therefore never get around to writing.  Or I'll get something written on the phone, but forget to do the final updates on the computer.  Plus, I always wanted to tinker, trying out new apps or processes rather than just working on the habit of writing.

Somewhere in there, you also need to consider what's going to be "fun" for you.  I really like charts, and the notion of passively tracking progress (and then suddenly realizing "Oh wow, I wrote many words!").  Jamie Todd Rubin has made available a pretty cool set of scripts that pulls data out of the writing he does in google drive in order to build those charts & progress reports for him.  If that's your thing, Google Drive may be an especially good resource.

When I've been successful, I scripted my process.  I sat down and wrote out how I would capture inspiration that came to me, up to the point where I created it as a draft post.  Then I sketched out times that I would write posts (again, I don't really revise much as you can probably tell).  I had a goal for how many posts I would write, and tracked that.  I used a todo app (OmniFocus is good for Mac/iOS folks.  Remember the Milk seems to be most closely integrated with Gmail, Things is another popular one that seems to be just about everywhere.  Wunderlist may win on the "pretty" factor, which is not to be ignored).  Since all of the solutions about let you associate your post with a URL, it's pretty easy to have a todo item that's "revise this post" and link directly to the post.

It was actually a kind of a nice system for a while.  Then the child stopped taking naps ...


  • Write posts in:
    • Google Drive, Dropbox, Evernote, or the App/Website of your blogging engine
      • Google Drive - easiest collaboration tools
      • Dropbox - real files (can be comforting for those of us used to files), probably integrates with your favorite text editor if you have one
      • Evernote - can do geeky searches/tagging systems to organize things, has built in reminders
      • Blogger/Wordpress - no worry about formatting issues when you copy/paste in
  • Pick a way to add post ideas
    • Email short notes into Evernote/Blogger/Wordpress, or use the Google Drive/Text Edit app, or an IFTTT recipe to get notes into Drive/Dropbox
  • Script your process & notice where your hangups are
    • I like to change tools all the time, and always put off actually writing posts
      • I wrote out my process with existing tools so I wouldn't change
      • I scheduled time to write
  • If you want to use a reminder/todo system to help remember the steps, there's probably one built into your system.  Other options include
    • Wunderlist - very pretty, can flag/mark recurring, not the best at nested tasks
    • Remember the Milk - closely tied to gmail
    • Things - Better at projects with nested tasks, I think
    • Evernote - very light "todo" options with checkboxes/reminders, but can ALSO be your writing tool

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