Writing isn't: Those other things

This is the third part of a series of posts about trying to publish daily. Check out the intro. For the first section of the series, I’m writing about things that aren’t exactly sitting down and adding words to something.

These things aren’t putting words to paper at all — but they’re probably more important.

Thinking about what to write

In the intro to this series of posts, I mentioned Gladwell saying that writing is the blissful part. And it isn’t the bulk of it.

For every hour I spend writing, I spend three hours thinking about what I’m writing.

It’s safe to say Malcolm Gladwell is more thoughtful about his writing than I am. But we already knew that. Still, I spend time thinking about what to write. Right now, that means thinking about writing about writing. He discusses his time at the Washington Post and Tim Ferriss mentions that journalists are different beasts. Gladwell says he doesn’t really have writer’s block (“working at a newspaper cures you quickly”).

All the thinking means that he can sit down to organized blanks left to fill in:

I know what I’m doing before I start.

I don’t know what I’m doing even after I end.

Reading about writing

It feels so productive. I get motivated hearing other writers say that they don’t wait to feel motivated.

I’ve been reading about writing. I’m not the first person (or millionth) trying to increase the amount of writing I produce. I’ve read books pretty specifically about increasing daily word counts. I’m not trying to reach a specific word count. Doing things like dictating gives me a nearly impossible block of words to edit. I think it might be worth practicing.

I’ve been reading about establishing writing habits. They partly overlap with general productivity books. I’ve read a lot of those. They’re useful for this current project, because I am establishing a habit of publishing daily. There’s usually a really good tip or two.

I’ve read books about improving writing quality. I’ll continue finding and reading them. More importantly, I need to deliberately practice1 writing.

Listening to things about writing

Podcasts make it possible to listen to multiple interviews with people I admire. A lot of them are writers. Many writers are happy to share their knowledge. Hearing about their morning routines is helpful. Both for inspiration and for thinking about how to apply their experience to my own process.

They rarely talk about the words themselves. Yes, it’s something that’s not writing which helps me improve in things that are also not writing. But that will help me as a writer. Please don’t take this paragraph as evidence.


I know how to make websites. I’ve programmed for a living. I design web apps for a living. I have a handle on what’s under the hood of this blog. So I’m tempted to tinker. If something doesn’t look right, I want to fix it immediately. That means opening a black hole of code and losing somewhere between 5 minutes and 5 hours2.

Maybe it’s like trying to be a writer in 1930 who’s also a typewriter technician and who happens to know how to adjust the printing press. The distraction isn’t quite as romantic as these old world tools, but the solution is the same: sit down and write. And stay away from those tools.

  1. After typing these words, I looked up a bunch of links about deliberate practice and writing. Hey, that sounds like a post idea.

  2. I usually set a timer when writing, but It’d be good to set a timer if I’m about to tinker. Time can fly when changing HTML/CSS or writing shell scripts trying to automate things. It can be rewarding, but sometimes it isn’t worth the lost time.

Writing isn't: Publishing

This is the first part of a series of posts about trying to publish daily. Check out the intro. For the first section of the series, I’m writing about things that aren’t exactly sitting down and adding words to something.

These are the things I don’t set time aside to do. They’re usually what’s left when I have a bunch of unfinished posts. They’re the things I can’t do completely offline so I’m most prone to distraction here.

Adding excerpts

Excerpts usually come from books or, lately, podcasts. For books, the best way for me to search is using the Kindle app on my MacBook. It’s still a little rough because I might not remember the exact wording so searching doesn’t work. If it’s highlighted then I can scroll through them and find it. Also a little clunky. I almost only read eBooks these days but it’s still not great trying to shuffle through the book.

Finding an excerpt in a podcast can be even more frustrating. I’m trying to be more diligent about bookmarking podcasts and adding notes1. I set fast forward to skip 30 seconds (for jumping through ads) and rewind goes 10 seconds back (to bookmark properly).

Sometimes I’ll hear something I’d want to write thoughts on later and skip bookmarking. I’ll be convinced that I can remember the general section it was in. But people can say so much, so quickly. You can skim a page and know if the phrase is on it after a few seconds. In the same amount of time, you can listen to maybe two sentences. It’d be great to comprehend audio at 10x.

And then there’s transcribing. I try to write it down as accurately as I can. I’m always surprised how many words are missing or just completely wrong after one pass. Because I’m focusing and trying pretty hard. “Has a gym” might become “runs a gym” because the previous sentence mentioned running.

Adding images

I usually try to use my own photos, which means I’ll do some editing. Actually, in any case I’m usually editing the photo in some way. And of all the things in this post, editing photos is the furthest away from actually writing. I like my Docs to Jekyll workflow right now, but images make things clunky2.

Right now, I’m pretty happy with the setup, but it took a while. Here’s what I do:

  • Browse through my pictures in Google Photos

  • Edit in Google Photos: Usually just Auto and then Resize with 16:9

  • Save from Google Photos to a local directory

    • This is where some magic3 happens to get it onto my server
  • Add to my post in Google Docs using TextExpander to do the Markdown markup

As for animated GIFs:

  • Go to YouTube to find a relevant video

  • Use LICEcap to record a few seconds of it

  • Use Photoshop to resize and make the quality awful so the filesize goes down

This takes anywhere from 3 minutes to 3 hours depending on how lost in YouTube I get.

It’s weird, links can be like super footnotes, adding tons of context. You send someone away and risk that they’ll never come back. The risk when writing is similar. I’m trying to find a link to something interesting. That site might also have other things I find interesting. Or I’m just linking to a GIF, but I want to find the perfect one. And then it’s thirty minutes later. I’m learning it’s helpful to batch these things or do them as I go along:

  • Book excerpts: I add a note to my Kindle highlight if I know I’ll write about it later. Highlights with notes are easier to find and I can write a sentence about what I was thinking.

  • Podcast excerpts: I’ve been bookmarking more and, similar to Kindle highlights, I add a note.

  • Images: I’ve been using Google Photos for editing and pasting straight to the document. I also add pictures I want to use into an album strictly for adding to posts.

  • Links: I’ve been using the *research feature in Google Docs *to add links. You can highlight a phrase in your document and press cmd+ctrl+shift+i and it’ll do a web search for the phrase. You can click “insert link” from the results page and you’re set. This keeps me from actually going to the site.

Whatever it takes to stay in a text editor. You know, writing.

  1. Thank you Instacast. I’ll pour one out for you.

  2. Possibly a blessing in disguise, because my goal with this project is to improve as a writer, not a photographer.

  3. Magic: A set of scripts and Hazel rules tenuously tied together that resizes and moves things from directories to mounted directories. If I breathe too hard, this breaks.

Writing isn't: Sort of writing

This is the first part of a series of posts about trying to publish daily. Check out the intro. For the first section of the series, I’m writing about things that aren’t exactly sitting down and adding words to something.

We moved a lot when I was a kid1. Even after moving to a different base, we would still move a few times within that stay. When first arriving, we stayed for a few weeks at a Navy Lodge until we found a house off base. We would stay at that house off base for a few months until we got to the top of the waiting list for a house on base.

These things aren’t quite sitting there churning out words. I consider these sort of like writing because things are moving out of your head to a paper or a screen.


I love outlining. It’s important to have something to follow to avoid thinking about what to write. Just fill in the blanks. Words are going down and you can feel like celebrating something incomplete. When trying to publish daily, though, it’s easy to outline without thinking about how long it will take to fill those blanks in. The time block ends and the outline does history’s mildest Mr. Hyde impression, transforming from an encouraging tree of ideas to an unfinished todo list2.

Playing with post-its (The Board)

This series of posts on writing is my first experiment with “The Board”3, a tool Blake Snyder explains in Save the Cat:

The Board is a way for you to “see” your movie before you start writing. It is a way to easily test different scenes, story arcs, ideas, bits of dialogue and story rhythms, and decide whether they work — or if they just plain suck.

He’s right, it is fun. It’s offline. I love moving post-its around4. It’s good to have structure to follow and, again, fill in the blanks. It really is another form of outlining, except it has a little more spatial awareness. And there’s less temptation to start writing anything of length5, because you can’t fit much on a post-it note.

Blake Snyder describes the board as a waste of time, knowing it can be a distraction. He’s half joking and explains that the board is a good distraction: you need time away from your writing for thoughts to brew.


To write anything good, editing becomes more important than getting the first draft down. But you can skip revising and still have something to publish. I set time aside each day to write but I still don’t set aside enough time to revise and finish posts. Revising and editing will help me get from writing bad posts to writing posts that aren’t bad6. Then comes trial and error to figure out what animal to sacrifice7 to get to good.

Someday I’ll have darlings to kill. In the meantime I’ll take be taking these garbage bags out back. My first form is a trash compactor. A programmer considers deleting a bunch of code a good day. It signals they’ve found a better way to do something8. Finding a precise word to replace four probably gives writers the same pleasure.

And on and on

I moved a lot as an adult. After moving to New York, I stayed for a couple nights at a friend’s place. Then a few days at an Airbnb, and another Airbnb. Then I moved to a one-month sublet. Then to another one-month sublet. Then to a nine-month sublet. And then to my current apartment, where I’m likely to renew for a 4th year. Things feel pretty good here.

Words and thoughts move more easily at the start9.

  1. I can’t assume anyone reading any one post will know anything about me, so I’m probably going to repeat this often.

  2. I guess most todo lists are unfinished.

  3. My girlfriend asked if people think others would think the board is weird. I’m at The Bean right now where I’ve seen people jamming on Korg controllers. High bar for weirdness here.

  4. UX designers do this to get good shots for their portfolios. Now I’m half joking.

  5. Outlining in Google Docs usually ends up being half outlining and half writing. No half measures

  6. Or going from two crappy pages to half of a decent page.

  7. Watch out for my book notes on The Lean Sacrifice in 2019.

  8. There’s gotta be some kind of articles talking about writing and programming and the similarities.

  9. I like the metaphor and can’t wait for the day that I can write about it elegantly. I’ll try again in a few months and hopefully again in a few years.

Washington Square Park

Washington Square Park is one of my favorite places in the city. Maybe my favorite place. Any time I’m away from New York for any amount of time, I like to drop by Washington Square Park as soon as I can when I return. I’ve had a lot of good times there. With people: taking my girlfriend there on our first date, bringing visiting friends there, and chatting with friends I met in New York. Without people: eating lunch, preparing for interviews, reading, trying to be a photographer.

When I first moved to New York, I stayed at an Airbnb on a sofa in a three bedroom apartment. Those were the days. The trio was pre-gaming and someone brought in a brown bag. As far as what was inside, my first few guesses were wrong. He pulled out a few falafels. “Man… Mamoun’s… so good.” And the roommates nodded and unwrapped theirs.

I jumped from that Airbnb to another sofa through Airbnb. I left shortly after their dog peed on that sofa, but not because I had too much dignity or anything. I just found a longer sublet to stay at: one-month sublet in Stuy Town. My first day in Stuy Town, got takeout at Vanessa’s Dumplings and collapsed on the bed there. I’ve never felt so happy to have a private room. It was the day before Thanksgiving.

After that sublet ended, I found another one-month sublet on Macdougal, a block from Washington Square Park. I signed the lease and nodded yes to the following verbal agreement to tell the neighbors I’m house sitting. If they ask.

I picked up some lunch nearby and found a table to sit at in Washington Square Park. It was cold and I remember the park being empty. Or at least empty enough that I remember it being entirely empty. I can’t remember it ever being empty after that. That was the first time I ate a Mamoun’s falafel.. so good.

Ten days in

I’m ten days in on this project and happy with the progress. There are some struggles, sometimes I’ve thought “What’s the point?” There’s always the reality that there might not be a point. Nothing at the end of the rainbow. But you just have to trust the process. Two crappy pages a day.

Then there are days where it’s a joy to write. Those days seem to come after a good night of sleep.

I do notice that I jump around a lot more when I’m typing compared to when I’m writing longhand. And that could be the charm of morning pages.

I’ve been writing pages in the morning. But I haven’t been doing my Morning PagesTM.


Here are some non-software tools I’ve been using for writing:

  • Composition notebook

  • Dr. Grip

  • MacBook

  • Chromebook

Here’s the software:

  • Google Keep

  • iA Writer

  • Focus@Will or random Spotify tracks found by searching “white noise” or “study music”1.

  • Google Docs

  1. I absolutely cannot write with music I would want to listen to. Sometimes I’ll write with a podcast on. It fills the gaps and might be good while free writing to queue things up. Like in high school I remember seeing a video of a rapper freestyling and being impressed that he could rhyme with random words the crowd would give him. Eventually I realized that the automated prompts can make it easier. Before trying to sit down and write, I was tinkering with Vue.js and… I was going to write the rest of the tech stack and actually it doesn’t matter exactly what I was using. But I was seeing if I could put together something that would let me write timed things based on my Amazon highlights as prompts. Then I got sort of too deep in the weeds and the tinkering became the thing, instead of the writing. So I was programming before and after work and happened to be programming at work at the time also. I got burnt out. I’m still curious about that idea though, because when I tried out a couple of the prototypes, I wrote a lot. They might be good for writing book notes. I tried something where it would give me 8 highlights from a book and then cycle through them. I wanted to see if I could do something where after the first sequence, it would discard the text from the bottom 4 (based on word count) and then you could add to the survivors, then discard half again until you were left with the one idea that you still have thoughts on. I also tried a thing where it would give me one highlight from two separate books and I would write about them together, forcing myself to think about the intersection. Some of the results were interesting. And I wanted to try something with timed writing that would just take you through different steps. There would be a pause button, but there would be no rewind button. You’d have a certain time to write an outline, then you’d have another time block divided up equally (or maybe you could specify what percent goes to what bullet point) and then you’d write each section out, then you’d get another round through, and then you’d be done. By the end, you’d have your first draft. It almost certainly wouldn’t be worth posting anywhere. But you’d have a good idea of if you have a good idea. All in, say, 20 minutes. I should try this out just using a timer. Maybe I can do that actually on the flight I’m currently on. With Bit Timer.