Justin Lancy's Writer Workflow

February 09, 2012 by Gabe | [mmd] |

Editor's Note

Justin Lancy is better known to me as Veritrope. He's the man behind one of the most useful public AppleScript repositories you'll find anywhere. His scripts are elegant and instructive. I've examined his work just to learn how to be better. His own scripts span a wide number of uses but he caught my attention with Evernote and OmniFocus scripts.

In addition to the geeky scripting stuff, Justin writes about real and culturally relevant things with a personal insight that is still rare. Veritrope is the only site I read that has an entire section dedicated to the arts (which says as much about me as it does Justin). More than that, Justin believes in real things that matter to real people.

"When meritocracy exists in this world, it is only because human beings have made sure that good works were supported — and that kind people were encouraged. No one person on their own can make the world into a decent place." — Justin Lancy

About me

I've worked for the past eight years as a consultant in New York City, designing workflows for creative professionals: Most of my clients work in film/television, academia, writing, or journalism. My job, essentially, is to watch how these smart people create and then to build a supportive platform of technology around them so that they can do their work even better. Outside of New York, most people in the Mac community know me as the publisher of Veritrope.com.

Veritrope is where I share (among other things) tools and resources for people interested in the artful use of their Macs. Over the past couple of years I've published versions of AppleScripts and Services originally developed for my clients there, as well as examples of useful code from others. I'm hoping to return at least a little bit of the oxygen that I've received from talented and generous people in the Apple ecosystem over the years while, at the same time, helping to advance the notion that computing can be a more bespoke experience than it usually is.

I've also recently made a point of visiting new places whenever time allows. Mark Twain once wrote that “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness” and, as I wouldn't mind seeing any one of those three things getting hit by a bus, I've already visited twenty-nine countries. Close to 250,000+ miles worth of planes and trains later, I still feel like I'm just getting started. And, you know, Twain was right: Seeing more of the world has changed pretty much everything I thought I knew about it before I first walked out my door.

As an outgrowth of that awareness that 1.) The world is so big and 2.) My brain is so small, I've been spending more of my time with Non-Profit organizations who are doing truly admirable and necessary work in some of the places I've visited. In 2011, I joined the Board of Directors for Village Science, a group which creates textbooks and initiates science education programs for people in developing countries. I think it's been another wonderful way for me to dispel my ignorance, though I must confess it often causes me to visualize a #FIRSTWORLDPROBLEMS hashtag running across the foreheads of people who complain about the ordinary inconveniences of life in my presence.

All and all -- it adds up to quite a lot of things to write about!

Why do you write at Veritrope.com?

Veritrope.com (and its Twitter feed) collects my favorite tools and bits of inspiration about Travel, Global Culture, and the intelligent use of technology. But at a more fundamental level, I write because it helps me be clearer about who I am, what I think, and how I feel about things. (Also, I find the mechanical act of dismantling sentences and putting them back together in a more elegant way to be intensely satisfying.)

Writing can be an incredibly powerful thing, as it holds within it the secret to de-bullshit-ifying your life. Take a moment and try to find the right words to frame whatever it is you're thinking about. Write them down and look at them. Read them back to yourself aloud (do your best Morgan Freeman voice, if that helps). Repeat the process until you can't hear that creaking sound coming from the rhetorical tree limb you were out on - but didn't know you were out on - anymore.

Another reason I do it: Part of why this big, beautiful world isn't a natural meritocracy is because everyone has a different idea of what is valuable. Writing is a great way to use whatever influence you have to ensure that your treasures -- the "good people" and the work which you admire -- are discovered by others.

Veritrope is my attempt at regularly putting these ideas into practice.

What are the applications you use for making a post on Veritrope.com?

I keep a updated resource page on Veritrope which has some of my favorite Mac / iOS tools for writers, but let's see if we can't do a truly Macdrifter-worthy drilldown into some of the items on that list! ;-)

I think of apps in an almost GTD-like way: Some are for finding and collecting ideas and some are for turning those ideas into action...

Finding and Collecting Inspiration:

RSS Feeds

I've been a diehard RSS junkie for years and some of the first AppleScripts that I ever wrote were for NetNewsWire. These days, I'm using Reeder for Mac and the iPad.

Twitter

Fresh content and concise delivery? Me likey!

I think one of the more "slept on" features of Twitter is Lists. I use Lists to quickly find content that I am only occasionally interested in, but where it wouldn't be easy to get at it with a single hashtag or a simple search. Sometimes I like to look at, say, European Airline Twitter feeds for deals. Sometimes I want to know what my favorite Mac people are talking about. By creating lists around different areas of interest, I can maintain a high signal-to-noise ratio for my main Twitter stream (and quite probably save myself a fair bit of money because I'm not as tempted to buy plane tickets!).

To augment this approach of targeted attention, I also use multiple search columns in Tweetdeck to monitor topics and trends that I'm interested in. It's a great way to meet people who are into the same stuff as you, but who weren't on your radar before.

Oh... I used to think all of the talk about Tweetbot was overblown -- until I tried it! Tweetbot makes it incredibly easy to collect your daily nuggets of Twitter gold and share them -- or to sock them away in your Instapaper piggybank for later.

Instapaper

What else can I say about Instapaper that hasn't already been said? It's the web for people who like to read -- and I use it more and more all the time. I put the things that I want to look at carefully in Instapaper. If I want to keep an article when I'm done, I "like" it and it auto-magically goes into Evernote. If there's an article that I want my wife to check out, I often just send it directly to her Instapaper email address so she can have some good brain-food for her commute on the Subway.

Vis à vis my philosophy of "helping the good people win" -- the man behind Instapaper (Marco Arment) is one of those people you'll want to personally support by using his product. Marco provides a free version of Instapaper that is almost as good as the subscription version he charges USD$1/month for, but in spite of this (and perhaps because of it), many people are happy to pay him that dollar.

If you read his subscription page, I think you'll see why.

Evernote

Speaking of "freemium services" that are almost as good as their paid versions, I've been using Evernote for so many years that I've lost count.

I came to it because I needed a cross-platform note-taking and paperless office application for my clients. With every month that passes, Evernote's Mac client is catching up to feature-rich, Mac-only apps like DEVONthink Pro -- and their iOS client is, in my opinion, the best in breed. I tuck away all sorts of stuff in Evernote, including all my research materials for things that I'm writing.

Their corporate philosophy of "building a hundred year company" is both refreshing and, based on my experience with people who work for Evernote, sincere.

OmniFocus

For me, one of the signs of a good app is that it scales well between simple and complex uses. My task manager of choice, OmniFocus, can be used for simple to-do lists, for outlining posts, and even for basic project management.

It kicks ass at all three.

Mind Mapping Tools

I sometimes use Mind Mapping Tools like Mindjet Mindmapper or OmniGraffle for the iPad to organize my thoughts, usually for more complex bits of writing. Kind of a "blue moon" thing for me...

Turning Ideas Into Action

iPhone 4S

For me, there's currently no better tool for turning ideas into action than an iPhone 4S. I use it as a camera, to keep up with what's going on in the world, to keep myself on task, and to dictate blog posts and notes.

And about a bazillion other things.

Matias Tactile Pro Keyboard

When I'm not dictating into my iPhone 4S, I'm making an absolute racket with my Matias Tactile Pro Keyboard. The Matias is a "clicky" keyboard (or using the proper terminology, a mechanical keyswitch keyboard) that gives tactile feedback for greater comfort and faster typing speeds. It also makes you feel like a old-timey fedora-wearing reporter, chomping on a cigar stub and racing to meet a deadline.

And when you really get going on a piece, it sounds like it's Chinese New Year! (龙年吉祥!)

It's a love-it-or-hate-it kind of deal -- and I love it.

TextExpander

TextExpander is invaluable for when I'm writing things containing boilerplate elements (like formatting a new AppleScript, for example). I often combine it with AppleScript and TE's own "Fill" feature to knock out huge blocks of text in a matter of seconds.

MarsEdit

If you write blog posts on a Mac, you should definitely give MarsEdit a close look.

Because it balances powerful functionality with a simple design, MarsEdit is really a model for Mac apps and, not surprisingly, its author Daniel Jalkut is a model Mac app developer. He connects directly with his customers and commits personally to making his products great.

As much as I admire his dedication to continually refining MarsEdit, I'm hoping he'll release a new app soon so I can give him some more money. (Help. The. Good. People. Win.)

Scrivener

For some of the longer-form writing projects that I work on, I use Scrivener. Scrivener is the best kind of Franken-app, combining a word processor with project management tools... and an outline/corkboard... and, uh, a place to collect research. Its goal is to put all of these tools together in a way that gets you over the finish line on a "First Draft" and it does that job very, very well.

Script Debugger / BBEdit

Kind of a specialty item here but, if you write as many AppleScripts as I do, you'll probably want to spend the money on Script Debugger. Always open on my desktop.

If you write all different types of code -- or want a super-powerful, Markdown-friendly text editor -- BBEdit is your joint.

Clarify

I've also started playing around with Clarify, an text/screenshot app designed to help you quickly create documentation and walk-throughs for people. I'm just getting into it, but I think it's a well-designed tool and can already see its potential value in my writing workflow

Can you give an overview of your workflow starting from the initial idea through, researching and posting to the site?

Often times, it starts with a piece of paper and a pen. Sitting on my couch with a cup of coffee, listening to some music and writing out my most basic thoughts on a legal-sized yellow pad.

If it's not an code-related post, I may continue writing that way for a while and do a first draft longhand. Sometimes, I'll dictate a post directly into my iPhone to capture my raw thoughts about something and then I'll go back and edit it into some sort of sense later.

I will then use MarsEdit or the WordPress web editor to start composing the web-ready layout. I begin to add hyperlinks at this point and to decide whether or not I need screenshots or images. If I need screenshots, I use a variety of different apps depending on how I want the final screenshot to look.

I tweak. And tweak. And tweak....

When I can't take it anymore, I hit "Publish" and try to move on with my life.

The AppleScript posts obviously start from a specific piece of code. As a writing exercise, it's actually pretty cool - sort of like going to the gym and doing an exercise set which gets at a different part of the muscle: I've created a thing, and now I have to explain what it is, what it does, what it doesn't do, etc. There's an added layer involved to make sure my technical details are attended to (like making sure that the "Open in Script Editor" links create something that compiles), but it's not that different otherwise.

How long have you been doing it this way?

For a long time. Certain tools get substituted, but the general workflow is the same. Think, create, revise, organize, review, revise some more, post, exhale.

Do you have a particular process/tool for researching a post?

It depends on the type of post: if it's an code-related post, I usually try to Google around to see if one of my other fellow Mac friends have already tackled a similar project. Often time, I find that Brett Terpstra or elasticthreads have already done what I'm thinking of and so I sigh, tip my cap in respect, and move on to something else.

Researching the other types of my writing usually involves me getting off of my ass and doing something good: traveling, reading a book, seeing a movie. I have a tendency to park myself in front of a computer screen and drift for hours unless I make a deliberate effort go do something else. (Personal inertia is no joke, people!)

As a writer, it can sometimes be difficult to straddle the line between being present in whatever you're doing while, at the same time, also capturing your "writerly reactions" to the things. I use Evernote on my phone quite a bit to quickly capture text, snapshots, and small bits of information -- although I find myself using Siri Reminders more and more for this since I got my iPhone 4S. ("Add to my OmniFocus List.... ")

What are your custom tweaks to your workflow that are tailored just to you (i.e. what's your secret sauce)?

I have a huge number of AppleScripts that I've never published which tie my applications together in very tight, extremely customized ways. At this point, I've got about as much unreleased shit in the vault as Prince does.

One of my favorite custom tweaks is based on an OS X Service that I released publicly called the "Evernote List Builder". Using it, I can highlight a bit of text anywhere on my Mac, and quickly direct it into a time-stamped scroll of captured items. I keep all sorts of lists this way: Restaurants I want to check out, books I want to read, etc.

A writing-based example: I've been collecting quotations to share once the new version of Veritrope.com rolls out (coming soon-ish!). Now whenever I see one that I like, I just highlight the text, select my List Builder and place the clipping directly to my quotations list in Evernote. When it's time to publish them, I can use another script to format and load the all the quotes on the list into WordPress as separate posts via MarsEdit.

Collect the ideas. Turn them into actions.

What parts of your workflow are you looking to change or improve?

All of them. That's the spirit of kaizen, baby!

What parts of your workflow are you least willing to change?

A good cup of coffee within reach makes everything better, especially writing. However, I tend to agree with Dr. Drang that beverages are meant to be consumed, not fetishized.

Make it strong, pour yourself a big mug of it, and get cracking!

Anything else you would like to share about your workflow?

Developing a workflow is really an attempt to understand how you think and how to do your best work with as little friction as possible. In many ways, it's an attempt to think deeply about what makes you happiest and most productive and then turn that into a system.

I try to remember that this is a process -- and it's a different one for everyone.

Colleen Wainwright recently said something about workflows on the Mac Power Users podcast that I thought was really smart and on-point with that: "Anything that I can type into is a chance to start writing." Sometimes I also use OmniFocus as a text editor and -- you know what -- that's okay!

To me, it sums up what I try to remember when thinking about my own workflow. You should spend some time trying to refine your way of working but, in the end, you should never forget that systems and tools are less important than something else -- actually doing your work.


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