On Fountain Pens

Since late in 2016, I’ve been writing long form drafts, note-taking and planning almost exclusively with fountain pens. I returned to writing drafts in long hand (as a respite from keyboard-related carpal tunnel) in 2012.

I already knew that I remembered notes I wrote by hand better than those I keyboarded. I’m not new to handwriting, but I quickly discovered that writing with a fountain pen was much easier on my hands than using gel or ballpoint pens.

With conventional pens, you’re physically moving the pen across the paper, and exerting force to move the “ball” so that it coats itself with ink, and transfers it to the paper. Because the pen needs to be impelled with some deliberate force to move, writers grip the pen, creating tension in the hand and arm, which often leads to writers cramp or dystonia.

With a fountain pen, the nib (the pointed metal object at the business end of a fountain pen) spreads the ink; the ink is liquid and the pen is inclined to glide across the paper with little force being needed. Moreover, the fountain pen’s tendency, because the ink is liquid, is to join letters, requiring less effort from the writer. Ball point pens, on the other hand, use thicker ink, and require more effort.

Other reasons to consider using a fountain pen, if the ease of writing alone doesn’t tempt you, include the enormous variety of inks; there are hundreds of shades and a number of different kinds of ink (permanent, archive quality, waterproof,  . . . ). If you sometimes need to draw or sketch a diagram or chart, a fountain pen can be a marvelous tool for sketching as well as writing. And, like other analog tools, fountain pens are extremely portable; if you’re not comfortable with the idea of carrying a bottle of ink with you, you can find ink cartridges for almost any fountain pen.

If you’re new to fountain pen writing, a fine point nib or even extra fine (rather than medium or broad or italic or stub) is usually easier to use and still produce legible writing. If you want to use bottled ink (it’s economical, environmentally kind, and there’s an enormous range of color options and ink types), make sure that the pen comes with a converter (an expensive device to fill a fountain pen with ink from a bottle) or that you can purchase one for that specific pen.

There are a number of economical options for those interested in trying writing with a fountain pen before buying a more expensive keeper. There are low-end pens that are $3.00 to $5.00 dollars each, including disposable fountain pens like the Pilot Varsity. The Platinum Preppy fountain is an affordable (c. $3.00) alternative to a disposable pen; it uses Pilot cartridges, so it’s refillable. There are also a wide range of reasonable pens that are under $30.00, like the Lamy Vista, the Lamy Safari, the TWSBI ECO, or the Pilot Metropolitan. These are perfectly good pens and will last for years.

You’ll have better results  with fountain pens if you use slightly better than average paper; a Mead 5 Star notebook is tolerable, but heavier weight paper (c. 70 gsm or better) will work better and you don’t have to break the bank.

Moreover, you’re not limited by the offerings at Amazon; check out the options at JetPens.com or The Goulet Pen Company, both of which offer reasonable “starter pens” and notebooks or pads of paper suitable for fountain pens.

2016: It’s a New Writing World in the Cloud

I’m still adjusting to a career as a full time writer.

I’m not complaining, mind, it’s work and it results in pay. But it’s not something I envisioned doing for a career.

I’ve made some of the changes I wrote about last year. I’ve reduced the number of sites I run for other people. That’s been a welcomed decrease in workload.

I’m  using TextExpander even more now, for a variety of different writing projects and lots of site admin-related work.

I’m currently using an older 13” Aluminum MacBook as my primary computer, with regular recourse to my iPad with a Brydge keyboard case, and lately, to a older model Chromebook hand-me-down.

I generally do most of my email triage on my iPad, reading and sorting (and deleting) mail I need to keep, mail I can answer immediately, mail I can delete, and mail I need to answer as a separate task.

I haven’t touched Microsoft Word in a bit over three years, and that’s been wonderful. I’m using Pages via iCloud quite a lot, even on the Chromebook.

I’m also using Google Docs and Google Spreadsheets, on the MacBook, the iPad, and the Chromebook.

I’ve finally purchased Numbers for OS X and iOS, and I’m using it via iCloud and my MacBook and iPad for documents that Google Spreadsheet struggles with. I’m new to Numbers, so this has been interesting.

I’m still using BBEdit for heavy lifting in terms of complicated HTML or CSS, cleaning up text files, Perl, and Regex, but I’m using Markdown more than last year, which BBEdit handles.

I hadn’t expected how much, because of iOS 9 and Yosemite and Handoff, I’d be using TextEdit and the new version of Notes via iCloud. I wrote an AppleScript to count words in a TextEdit document, but I need to figure out how to trigger it from the AppleScript menu, and that means finding out where the heck the AppleScript menu has gone. It disappeared when I installed Yosemite.

I’ve gotten deeply into using <a href=”http://get.esellerate.net/get/ALP877983468/default.htm?skuid=SKU81634174866&affid=AFL4151654610&at=”>Scrivener 2</a> and Scapple, because of a new non-fiction book and non-technical book I’m writing. Scrivener makes dealing with primary resources very straightforward; I can have them all in a single file, a file that I can backup easily, and Scrivener offers me a number of ways to organize my research and the current draft. Scapple mostly out of curiosity; I’m not given to mindmaps in general.

I’m breaking my writing sessions into two or three hour chunks, and often, even smaller sessions of 90 minutes or so.

I’ve been writing at libraries more, partly because of the need to do research using non-circulating materials. I’m also deliberately choosing to write away from home, because the walk and the different environment is good for me in multiple ways.

I’m using my iPad 3 and Brydge Keyboard more than I expected to, partly because I can read the iPad screen more easily than my MacBook’s or my Chromebook. I plan to look at Editorial, but so far, it’s been baffling. I’m interested in reducing workflow steps and processes, and Editorial seems to want to add both.

Having rejoiced about being Microsoft Word free, I probably should take a look at the “cloud” versions of the Office suite, Office 365. It includes a terabyte of Cloud storage on Microsoft’s .servers, as well as the full suite on iOS, Android, OS X and Windows. I’d still want local options though, given outage issues common with Cloud services from, well, anyone.




Markdown and Me

As part of my determination to come up with a cleaner less keystroke-intensive workflow for all my writing, I’m taking a hard look at Markdown.

Dustin Curtis’ Markdown Mark

I first heard about Markdown back in 2004. I’d been blogging for a few years, and and hand-coding HTML. I came to HTML with surface familiarity with SGML in a library and deep familiarity with WordPerfect and WordStar. I’d been following Dean Allen’s development of Textile, and using Brad Choate’s MT-Textile plug-in for MovableType. John Gruber of Daring Fireball (one of the blogs that introduced me to blogging) created Markdown (with assistance from Aaron Swartz) as a way to format text for the Web without having to delve into HTML. In 2004 Gruber wrote about Markdown:

Markdown is a text-to-HTML conversion tool for web writers. Markdown allows you to write using an easy-to-read, easy-to-write plain text format, then convert it to structurally valid XHTML (or HTML).

One of the virtues of Markdown is that it is easy to use, and easy to remember. In Markdown, you use *for bold*, _ for italic_. Headings are marked by a leading *for the largest heading, **for the next size down, ***for the next level. The tags are easier to remember and shorter than those for HTML. They’re minimalist, and less likely to obscure text and slow down writing or editing.

John Gruber thoughtfully provides simple to understand Markdown syntax documentation.

When I discovered that Gruber’s Markdown Perl scripts worked with MovableType (this blog ran on MovableType then), I installed it and used it for a while. When I moved from MovableType, I stopped actively using Markdown, but I remained interested in both Markdown and Textile (and even used TextPattern Dean Allen’s CMS bases on Textile). But recently, I became much more actively interested in Markdown for a couple of reasons.

First, TidBITS, the publishers of Take Control ebooks, started  using Markdown as part of it’s work flow for creating Take Control ebooks. Next, Michael Cohen asked me to find a way to support Markdown in his WordPress Blog. He had become accustomed to writing in Markdown because of Take Control books. Secondly, publisher of The Magazine and smart tech writer Glenn Fleishman relied on Markdown format to produce The Magazine. Glenn’s enthusiasm about Markdown got me looking at Markdown much more closely than, say, learning enough Markdown to work on Wiki documents intended for internal documentation.

Why Use Markdown

  • A Markdown file is liquid data; it’s going to be easy to convert in the future, just as it is easy now to covert Markdown formatted text files to HTML, RTF, .Doc, or .PDF.
  • Markdown means fewer keystrokes than HTML. That means less keyboarding and no reaching for a palette or button to click. The longest tag I know of is three characters in a row.
  • Markdown lets you use HTML as needed, without having to do anything exotic involving obscure technical feats or escape codes.
  • Markdown may be easier to implement than HTML when writing on an iPad. At least that’s my current theory.
  • Markdown allows you to concentrate on the text as content, rather than the text as document.

Last year I wrote a long essay (eventually published by Boing Boing) that I initially drafted in Markdown, then hand-converted to HTML. I know, now, that there were better ways to do that, but I used BBEdit for the Markdown version and for the conversion to HTML, so it was relatively trivial to do. BBEdit not only fully supports Markdown as a language, it was one of the first applications Gruber provided Markdown tools for. The current version of BBEdit (11.0.2) has built in support for Markdown (including the ability to Preview Markdown files in BBEdit and customizable syntax coloring). And using Markdown in documents destined for the Web doesn’t mean I can’t simply insert any HTML I need that isn’t covered by Markdown tags.

For any markup that is not covered by Markdown’s syntax, you simply use HTML itself. There’s no need to preface it or delimit it to indicate that you’re switching from Markdown to HTML; you just use the tags.— John Gruber

If you want more BBEdit Markdown support, Watts Martin has created a nifty BBEdit Markdown Extension Package that builds on the work of John Gruber and Aaron Swartz, and adds some additional commands, not the least of which are Transformation commands to convert Markdown to HTML, HTML to Markdown, and Markdown to BBCode. There’s a catch to using Markdown in BBEdit; you have to set Markdown as a Language in BBEdit’s Preferences, and you need to use “.md” and “.mdown” as file name suffixes/extensions.

I’m going to spend a few weeks or months deliberately using Markdown as much as possible. I’ve installed Watts Martins Markdown Extension Package in BBEdit. WordPress via a Jetpack plugin supports Markdown, and there are a number of dedicated Markdown editors for OS X (Markdown Pro from RADSense Software, Mou from 25.io, Typed from Realmac Software) and iOS (Editorial from OMZ Software, Byword from Metaclassy, and others).


Workflow Changes

Given the release of Yosemite for OS X and iOS 8, I’m taking the opportunity to re-examine and revise my writing workflow. I write a great deal, not only books and articles for publishers, but blog posts and email. I am an Admin for a number of large Websites. Two of the Websites include not only site Admin, but Managing Editor tasks, including answering questions from readers and general user support for contributors. Both of these involves email either to individuals or to one of several private email lists. One of the Websites, Absolute Write, requres a fair amount of user / member  support, including writing (and answering) FAQs, emails, private email lists, local message systems, and the Absolute Write Website and blog.

And then there are the Websites I admin for various writers, and my own Websites.

It’s a lot of daily writing. And it’s fairly constant throughout the day (and night).

I have some workflow tools in place:

  • I use TextExpander on all my iOS and OS X devices, and it’s a huge labor and keystroke saver.
  • I use filters or “Rules” in Mail.app, but even so, I receive around 175 emails from individuals a day, and send about that many or more. ( I’m increasingly considering an alternative to mail.app, at least on iOS, just to reduce main-management frustrations.)
  • I use custom scripts and and droplets for many of my frequent tasks.

These are some of the changes I’m considering:

  • I generally draft my shorter articles and blog posts in BBEdit using HTML. I’m going to look more closely at using Markdown, especially because Markdown is thriving on iOS and BBEdit has built in support for Markdown.
  • I already use iOS a great deal for email triage (especially via my iPhone); I’d like to do more with email on iOS, especially responding to email on the iPad.
  • I’d like to try writing more of my shorter pieces on iOS. I can write longer pieces on the iPad more easily now with the Brydge + iPad keyboard.
  • I do a lot of writing in Google Docs/Google Drive, but for book-length pieces Google Docs is not optimal. I’d like to move to Apple’s Pages as my primary word processor, particularly given the newly released version of Pages with collaboration and sharing via the Web/iCloud and Pages for iOS, as well as on OS X.

I’m sure I’ll discover more ways to improve my workflow as I continue.

Blogger Buzz: Best Blogging Advice

The official Twitter for Google’s Blogger, @Blogger asked:

What’s the best blogging advice you’ve ever received?

I answered, and they posted.

I also sent a tweet about the absolutely brilliant post on blogging and conversation by Patrick Nielsen Hayden.

Effective blogging is a combination of good personal writing and smart party hosting. A good blog post can be a sentence long, or three pages long; what matters is that it encourages further conversation.

And, not to be overlooked:

Talk to the rest of us like we’re human beings at an interesting social event. If you feel like you’re up at a lectern on a big stage, reconsider. Tor.com aspires to be a room party, not Carnegie Hall. Circulate and talk.

Go read the whole post.