Working Tools 34. Breaking stuff

Limeconsulting.com is the website for my company Lime Training and Consultancy Ltd. It’s website was awful. Unloved, unmaintained and creaking under the weight of updates not completed. It had been designed, by someone else, using a plugin, that I don’t understand. Changing a phone number on the site was a fraught process, that took hours and generated volleys of ungentlemanly language.

Eventually, I bit the bullet and built a new site. Now – by build, I don’t mean code. I have a Hosted WordPress package with 5 sites included in the price. I chose a theme and drafted new text into the existing boxes. I followed the instructions, and ported my domain to the new site. The SSL certificate even moved on its own.

Done. Satisfying.

I opened my email, and deleted the usual notes from the host confirming every keystroke of the last hour. I may even have displayed a certain jaunty aspect. Then, one email caught my eye. “stuartlennon.com is down.”

“But…but…I didn’t touch that one.” Perhaps not a wail, nor were any toys ejected from a perambulator, but it was a close-run thing.

I spent an hour in the host’s dashboard. This confirmed to me that the dashboard is designed to provoke frustration, bordering on the murderous. The bloody thing may as well be in Serbo-Croat. I dialled the number of shame. (Or Support, as they call it.)

On the plus side, I was able to cook supper, water the plants, feed the dog and lock the house down for the night, while waiting to get through to the relentlessly chipper Jennifer. We spent a few minutes agreeing that my work on limeconsulting.com inevitably angered the SSL Certificate on stuartlennon.com. I mean, Duh!

Jennifer promised to have her team rekey the SSL within 24 hours and wished me a wonderful rest of the day. In fairness, the site was up and running within the hour.

The next day, refreshed, I resolved to “streamline my workflow”. Going IOS only, does require some adaptation to be efficient. Truth be told, much of what I do could do with streamlining. I’m forever making notes about how I must learn to do x or y. I then ignore the note, and get the task done with whatever Heath-Robinson process that I discovered back when God was a child.

I write in Ulysses. Because it’s awesome. Also, because the WordPress interface is, well, not very nice. The opposite of awesome, if you will. In Ulysses, I upload the finished post, complete with Markdown formatting and images, to the site’s WordPress admin. I could simply publish directly to the web – but I like to have a final check before unleashing anything onto the reader.

Cleverly, WordPress understands Markdown. Where I use “##”, it knows that I mean “Heading 2”. Inexplicably, it does not convert the syntax in the editor screen – only in the published post. Why? I have no idea. If the people at WordPress know, they’re not telling. I asked.

What this means, is that a very swish plugin called Yoast, doesn’t work. Yoast reads posts, scores them and then makes suggestions. It looks at SEO (yeah, whatever) and more importantly, at readability. The SEO reports says things like “you have only used the keyword 3 times, rather than the 4 times recommended for a post this length.” Sure. OK. The readability test though, is useful. It makes suggestions about sentence length, passive verbs, and conjunctions. Unfortunately, it does this from a reading of the editor screen. This means that it sees “##” as two hashes. It understands links as weird combinations of brackets.

Having got the digital version of a shrug from Automattic, the people behind WordPress, I asked Yoast. They suggested that I might want to write directly into WordPress.

Harumph.

End result? I binned Yoast.

Just this morning, I have spent an hour in mortal combat with my wi-fi network, but that’s another post.

Sometimes, I just break stuff.

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Thinking Cap

In itself, writing is a straightforward activity. Pick up a writing instrument and put words onto a page. Alternatively, open an app and start typing. That’s it.
Not exactly rocket surgery, as TJ might say. By definition, the process is creative. It’s rare to have a novel, a chapter, or even a blog post fully-formed in the mind. The act of writing is forming the words to communicate that meaning one wishes to convey.

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Working Tools – 6. Writing Setup

Writing Setup

The photo is not staged. I got up from my chair, picked up my iPhone and took a picture. It’s 09:27 on a Friday morning. Mrs L has gone out to do the weekly grocery shop. Spice is in her crate, just to the right of this picture. Once this draft is written, I’ll wake and take her out into the garden for some play and some training.

I would like to be in my office – but I’m not for a couple of reasons.

  1. The office is a converted car port. As such, it has no heating and it’s cold today.
  2. Spice needs attention. We are crate-training her, which requires some supervision and some energy. She is not at the stage where she can be left alone for long periods. It’s easier to bring some work kit to the the kitchen than it would be to take her and the crate to the office.

I could equally have brought my laptop upstairs and used that. I chose, in fact always choose, to bring the ipad instead.

Why the ipad?

I’m not asking you, I’m asking myself.

  • Footprint. I like just having the magic keyboard in front of me and the screen separate. It means I can put the screen off-centre, which I enjoy. Why? Search me.
  • Footprint II. As my workflow changes, this writing setup works with me. I push the keyboard to one side and pick up my notebook. Everything is much easier to move around.
  • The keyboard. I enjoy the magic keyboard, and it is seldom taken down by a speck of dust or a crumb. The MacBook Pro? Well…
  • Focus. I know there is a split-screen mode on the iPad Pro. Periodically, I learn it, then forget it again. The singular focus of one task / one app, is a huge plus for me. I have no notifications on the ipad, and I will remain on the Ulysses edit screen until I’m finished with the post.

Environmental

I listen to a lot of podcasts, but not when I’m writing. Writing, I need some music. Spice and I have settled on some chilled jazz. I asked Siri to play some mellow jazz on the homepod, and, brace yourself, she did. As you can see, it has had the desired effect on Spice, and I’m enjoying it too.

Dog in my writing setup
Spice enjoying the jazz

Conclusion

The iPad Pro is great. So is my laptop. Both run my favourite software for writing (Ulysses). Not surprisingly, I have a top quality range of notebooks to choose from.

For the first time in a long time, none of my Apple kit is the latest and greatest. There is a new generation of ipad pros out. A new Apple Watch. An improved MBP. iPhone X with letters appended. There is a reasonable chance that I will soon be in an Apple Store, unsupervised. Of all the goodies there, I will sneak a look at the new iPads, but I imagine will leave, empty-handed.

The writing setup doesn’t do the work. I use a mix of the analogue and the digital, and I am absolutely certain that my workflows will continue to evolve, but when push comes to shove, there is no substitute for sitting down and getting on with it.

Working Tools – 5. Ulysses

Ulysses

I wrote here about the software that I use most, and in this post, I explore writing options in more detail.

History

In the corporate world, all writing was in e-mail clients or Microsoft Word. I’m old enough to remember when Wordperfect was THE word processor. (To my great surprise, it’s still going strong, apparently.)

Scrivener

Once I declared myself “a writer”, I, like many, bought Scrivener. I suspect that buying Scrivener is a rite of passage, a declaration that one is serious about writing.

Scrivener is a powerful piece of software, developed by a writer for his own use. Over time, more and more options were added, and the result is an entire infrastructure on its own. Research, planning, outlining, editing and writing all have their place. One can write in any font and publish in another in any number of formats.

I imagine that I was not the first, nor the last, to take one look at the complexity of “Scriv.”, and immediately started using it as if it were Word. Don’t get me wrong, It is a superb piece of software, capable of doing whatever one might need done, to write a novel; but intuitive, it isn’t. Learning to harness the software is a project on its own.

Wilderness

In one of my frequent quests for simplicity, I abandoned the complexity of both hardware and software and bought a Chromebook.

“Privacy be damned, knickers to complexity! I’m going to type directly into a Google doc on Google drive.”

Ahead of my time, I did this before Google made a a good Chromebook. My aged-brain could not quite buy into only having documents in the ether, so I soon returned to the Cupertino fold.

I tried many apps for writing. Pages, Bear, Drafts, Ulysses, Apple Notes, WordPress App, and probably more. None really worked for me, for one reason or another.

Ulysses

Listening to tech podcasts, I was intrigued by people singing the praises of Markdown and of Ulysses for focused writing. I knew that Markdown was the creation of John Gruber, but assumed that it was some sort of coding language. My experience of Ulysses was that it was mostly a blank screen. Nice in as far as a blank page is nice, but not exactly revolutionary.

I determined to explore a little more. Turns out that Markdown is all about simplicity. I had missed much of what Ulysses could do. A particular appeal was that my Mac would sync with my iOS devices. Scriv. was threatening an iPad app, and had been for years (it now has one.)

On The Sweet Setup, I found a course called “Learn Ulysses”, (which is still around for $37), which I took.

Ah.

This is a clever piece of software. On the surface, an uncomplicated interface. A digital notebook in which to write. Yet, hit a few keyboard shortcuts, and you are into a world of organisation, customisations and tools. More than enough for me, without being overwhelming.

At the end of the course, there were case studies, by real people. One of these was by Matt Gemmell. Much of my workflow is an adaptation of his, which is outlined both on the Ulysses site and in the Sweet Setup course.

Recommendations

Full disclosure. I receive no payment or incentive from Matt Gemmell, The Sweet Setup or Ulysses. Nor would I wish to, I am simply sharing my opinion.

Ulysses is a powerful application that I now use for all of my writing. The novel, blog posts, corporate reports, everything. I do so, because it’s a joy to use, both on my Mac and my iPad. It’s £36 per year. Money well-spent.

The Sweet Setup Course held my hand and walked me through the functionality of the app that was not immediately obvious. Could I have discovered it myself? Yes. However, taking the course was a shortcut, and eliminated frustration. $37 seems reasonable.

Matt Gemmell’s novels, Changer and Toll are excellent. His website exemplary and I have shamelessly adopted much of his method. Go have a nose around his site. I think you’ll like it.