The poet Richard Hugo has a wonderful chapter on the nuts and bolts of writing in his classic book on writing called The Triggering Town. In it, he shares the minutia of his writing practice. It starts with what should you write with (#2 Pencil), moves on to what should you write on (National 43-581), and then gets to his preferences for handwriting and typing (it was the 70s, after all ). There is a luscious specificity to what Hugo shares in this chapter, but all of his axioms are framed by the understanding that these are his rules and they are what he does to get his work done. He makes no claims for universality, but he says “if they work for you, good.”
I have gotten off in the weeds regarding the tools of the trade before. It’s a great form of procrastination and resistance to doing the work. Once, a few years back, when I learned that Cormac McCarthy writes his drafts on an Underwood Olivetti Lettera 32, I lurked on eBay until I found one and scored it for $75.00. Of course I didn’t believe using that machine would transform my prose. I just like having it around with my other typewriters: my mother’s Olivetti Studio 66 and the Underwood #5 20’s Standard Antique my great-grandfather used when he worked for the Great Northern Line. The Lettera 32 and the other machines are just talismans. They’re no good for my workflow, which is now primarily digital.
With this in mind, I thought I’d take my next few posts on Thinking Through Our Fingers to talk about my writing workflow, focusing on the nuts and bolts of it but also on why I decided to go the direction I’ve gone.
The Year I Broke Up with Word Processors
About five years ago, I walked away from word processors. I’d struggled with applications like WordPerfect, Word, and Pages for almost twenty years. These are great for short documents you’re going to print on 8.5” x 11” paper, but they are terrible for longer projects such as a thesis, dissertation, or book manuscript. For a long time, it seemed like there was no alternative. When you were going to process words, you needed a word processor. Except the thing is, writing isn’t processing words. I didn’t need the everything Word packed into its application. In fact, I usually need about five percent of all that. I needed something light, something fast, and something that would let me move around in a document quickly. Word was not that. Even great applications such as Nisus Writer, never hit the mark, and the big issue for me was the fact that word processors tied me to a single machine, even once I started carrying files around on thumb drives (which always get lost, right?)
My break up with word processors was hastened by the appearance of Scrivener in 2007. It was, and still is, a revelation. It was the right tool for fiction writers. I know a lot of people who love it, but that wasn’t me. Scrivener could do everything, but it was too much, too fiddly, and didn’t feel right. I wrote a draft of a collection of stories in Scrivener, and I felt like I was fighting it. It also bound me to a single machine. The big revelation for me came when I learned that the solution was right under my nose, and it had always been there: text files.
I Write Everything in Text (.txt) Files
Breaking up with word processors didn’t solve the problem of what kind of application I should use. I needed something that wasn’t bloated with features, that gave me small files, that didn’t add in all kinds of proprietary formatting, that didn’t tie me to a single machine, and that was likely to be compatible with new applications that may come along in the future.
A blogger named Merlin Mann had the answer: text files. Here’s one of Merlin’s early posts about his system, how he sets it up, and how he uses it.
The idea is to write everything in these infinitesimally small text files, then using a combination of smart file names and the OS’s file search functions, you can find what you need. It’s brilliant in its simplicity, and it worked great. Once cloud storage came online, this got even better. I adapted his methods for myself right away, and I haven’t looked back.
I now have a folder on Dropbox called Text Files and that folder synchronizes with every device I own. Because .txt files don’t have rich formatting or proprietary code in them, the files are application agnostic, which means I’m not restricted in the applications I use to write. This has allowed me to experiment. Right now, I’m using Byword and NValt to write short things, and Ulysses for fiction and blog posts. These applications all have beautiful onscreen typography, that really reduces eyestrain. Byword and Ulysses also allow me to create special style sheets, so I can import these documents for screen, PDF, .docx, with special parameters that I’ve decided ahead of time.
Another virtue is that everything is synchronized, so everything is also backed up. I used to worry all the time about hardware failure, fire, flood, or other data catastrophes. I don’t fret about that stuff now, because the system is simple and adaptable. I’ve ported these files across three computers now with out a hitch.
To Make Text Work Better I Use Markdown
A text file is pretty spartan, and some formatting is useful, so a couple years ago, I started using a simple formatting markup language called Markdown, which was devised by the blogger John Gruber to help writers work across a variety of platforms and formats, but mostly for web writing. The ins and outs of Markdown and its variants are well documented, and we’ll get past nuts and bolts and down into the weeds pretty quickly if I go down that road. A simple Google search will get you on your way.
Text Files are my baseline, and here’s how my workflow is structured
Text files are the foundation of my workflow, which lets me store things easily in the cloud, quickly use system-wide searches to find files, and makes it easy to move writing from one format to another. Markdown is a visual way for me to see what formatting I’m using and to make sure my formatting is unambiguous, like the publishing tradition of PLACING TITLES in ALL CAPS.
This part of my workflow comes from David Allen’s great productivity book Getting Things Done, which talks about having a system of “ubiquitous capture.” Wherever you are you need to be able to catch an idea and put it someplace where you know you’ll find it again. I used to have a paper system for capture, but I’ve moved this process to my phone and smart watch using, using an application called Drafts.
Drafting is the most chaotic and messy part of my workflow. I draft on my phone, tablet, and laptop. One of my primary goals in designing this stage of my workflow was to remove as many barriers as I could. Writing has to be easy, so I can jump in and start. I’ve also got it all set up so there I don’t have to manually save or back up things. This all happens automagically because of the text-files-in-the-cloud system I described above. Good drafting also requires a way of keeping track of versions, and my system provides a lot of ways to create snapshots of work at a given point in time.
The revision stage of my workflow still involves paper. I print drafts on legal paper without changing the document dimensions, which gives me all kinds of extra room to write. I even use red pens (The Pilot G2 is my jam), not because I’m an English Professor, but because red and black are so Bauhaus. Once I’ve revised on paper, then I make changes in the text files, and upload them as Google Docs. This gives me another backup and snapshot of the project and is the platform I use for my alpha reader team. I have to readers, one in Japan and the other in Louisville, and Google Drive’s editing basically allows us to “redline” drafts in a way that is an order of magnitude better than Word’s Track Changes. In a future post, I’ll go pretty deeply into how this works for us.
The formatting stage of my workflow could be really cool, if all the folks who receive my documents were also hip to Markdown. Most of the time they aren’t, and that’s okay. My tools allow me to create formatted versions in HTML, PDF, Word, and RTF. It all works with style sheets that allow me a really high level of control, which I love. Unfortunately Word is still a publishing industry standard, so I keep it around to pre-flight all important Word documents that go out to agents and editors. Any workflow needs to be empathetic to the needs of people downstream. It doesn’t matter how amazing your workflow is if the people paying you can’t fit your files into their systems.
I’m sure there are many reasonable people who will look at this workflow and say, “How is this complicated mess better than just using Word?” I can only say that this system has never frozen, stalled, or crashed on me. It auto-saves and auto-backs up. It’s device and platform agnostic. I can port it to new machines in minutes and everything is in the cloud. Best of all, the money I spend on these apps goes to independent developers and not corporations, which I love. It’s the digital equivalent of buying books at your local bookstore or eating at a local restaurant instead of a chain. It’s a system that feels genuine and personal, like an old typewriter or fountain pen for the 21st Century and beyond.
Next Post: Capture
Todd Robert Petersen is the author of LONG AFTER DARK and RIFT. Originally a YMCA camp counselor from Portland, Oregon, Todd now directs Southern Utah University’s project-based learning program. You can find him online at toddpetersen.org and @toddpetersen for tweets and Instagrams.