Andy Kemp

This is how I write…

By Andy | January 6, 2018 | 0 Comment

Having decide to spend more time writing (see previous post) I thought it might be interesting to look a little at the systems I have in place to make the process of writing a little easier.

Those who know me, will know that I’m an Apple fan, and therefore my approach is very much embedded in what works well on Macs and iOS. This particular bit of writing was started on my Mac, then continued on my iPad, edited a little on my iPhone before publishing it to my WordPress Blog.

Over the years I’ve tried lots of different systems and software packages to help me with my writing. When I was mostly doing academic writing, in the form of assignments and dissertations and theses, I was a huge fan of Scrivener used with the academic reference manager Papers. What I loved about writing in Scrivener was that you could break a large project down into lots of small manageable parts. So a 50,000+ word thesis becomes a collection of smaller 500-2000 word sections on different ideas which can be easily rearranged and restructured and then finally recombined into a single file which can be printed or published. Alongside the text itself I could store associated reference documents like pictures, PDFs, Word docs etc all within the same file.

For longer work this was a great system for me - the focus was on the content, not on the formatting (which apart from simple things like bold/italics is done at the compiling stage). However it always felt like overkill for a simple 500+ word blog post, and the process of getting the text from Scrivener to WordPress was too much like hard work... So I spent some time looking around at alternatives and found what I think (for me) is the perfect balance between simplicity and power in an app called Ulysses.

I should say at this point that neither Scrivener nor Ulysses are free applications— and I have not been provided with free or discounted version of either product (apart from generally available student discounts).

Ulysses is a universal Mac/iOS application which in the background syncs everything you have written or are writing in real-time via iCloud. Unlike with Scrivener where you create a new document for each project you are working on, Ulysses has what it calls a unified library which contains every piece of writing you have ever done collected into Groups. Writing is done on Sheets, which behave in some ways like infinite sheets of paper. Your document (how ever long it is) could be written on a single sheet, or can be broken down into lots of shorter sheets which can be grouped or glued together.

Something like a short blog post would probably be just a single sheet, whereas an academic assignment or a journal article might well be made of 5-6+ sheets with a separate sheet for each section. There’s no right way to do it, it’s just about finding what works well for you. If I’m writing something which is more than a few hundred words long I will typically start by identifying a rough outline in terms of sections and each section then becomes its own sheet. I can then write the different sections in whatever order I feel like, before pulling it together at the end for a proper edit.

One of the other features I find really useful about this approach is that I can collect writing prompts - an idea, title, quote, poem, etc. as a new sheet in the app and whenever I’ve got a few minutes to write something I can pick something that catches my eye and work on it a bit more… Because it’s all in one place it reduces the number of steps and makes it more likely I’ll actually get around to writing something!

Taking this a bit further I used the guide put together by @shawnblanc on how to save writing prompts in the form of quotes and highlighted text from Instapaper directly into Ulysses using an IFTTTrecipe. You can find his guide here How to automatically save your Instapaper highlights to Ulysses. I did the same for tweets which I ‘heart’ - although I find I have to curate this a bit more as I use the like feature in twitter for different purposes.

You can also send photos directly from your phone to Ulysses if there’s a page from a book or a whiteboard etc that you’d like to keep as a writing prompt.

The other writing prompts I really wanted to include were things I’d highlighted whilst reading on my Kindle. I changed a few years ago to reading nearly everything on my Kindle rather than real paper books, which for me was as much about the physical space real books take up - but also because it made it easier to make notes and review them at a later date… Getting the information out of Amazon’s notebook though was much less simple as there’s no export option. But I managed to find a good ruby script on GitHub called kindle-highlights, which with some adaptation did the job really well - I’ll write up how I got this to work in another post!

Do I need such a complicated setup just to do some writing? Of course not, but for me it reduces the friction in the system, and make it easier and quicker for me to get on with the crucial task of actually writing something…

I’m sure as I do more with it I may adapt my approach further but for now this is how I plan to do my writing in 2018!

What is everyone else using?

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