How to blog: Text Workflow on an iMac

If you are thinking about starting a blog, you should first watch this episode of the PBS TV Kids Show, “Arthur” in which Muffy decides to start a blog, and all hell breaks loose. If you spend any time at all on the blogsophere, you will find this episode both familiar and frightening. The point of showing it to you now is to put ourselves, bloggers, blog readers, commenters, tweeters, all of us, in our place. Sometimes a children’s cartoon is the very best way to do that:

OK, now, if you still want to write a blog and you happen to be using an iMac, I have some suggestions for how to go about it. This is not about setting up a blog, or about what to write, or any of that. Here, I’m just talking about the (mainly text) workflow … the software … that I use to produce this blog on an iMac. I also use a Linux platform but we won’t cover that here.

Keeping track with NoteTabs Pro and maybe Evernote

This first part may not be useful to many of you. I just find that I like to keep track of ideas and information, more or less informally, so that good ideas that I don’t have time to address aren’t totally lost. This is aside from bookmarks on your browser. I have a utility on my menu bar, up on top, called “NotesTab Pro icon.” It is kind of like a “Post-It” note utility except it stays up and out of the way. You can have several pages to organize your notes. This is what my current NoteTab notes TOC looks like right now, deployed by clicking on the icon:

I hope I’m not showing you something private there.

There is another utility that you should know about that a lot of professional writers use. I don’t happen to use it for various reasons. I’m talking about Evernoteicon. This is a free utility for keeping track of research notes, but to get the most out of it you may want to subscribe to the paid service. I don’t think is is very expensive, as as I said, many professional writers seem to swear by it, so I’d give it a good look. I don’t use it because when I came across it I had other systems in place that I’m pretty happy with. (Perhaps I’ll write something later on more heavy duty keeping track of information for more intensive research.)

Writing with BBE Edit

When I write in my Linux environment, I use a souped up version of emacs. Naturally. I installed a couple of different versions of emacs on my iMac, but they did not port all that well. So, I tried a different program that was a free version of a major editor that people who program on Macs use, and quickly decided that the paid version was very much worth it. This is BBE Editicon. It is an amazing editor. It is a simple text editor at the core but with a lot of features, many of which are geared towards programming but that are useful for any kind of writing. It has the ability to keep track of snippits of text which in my case means the HTML code for links to a handful of blog posts I frequently reference in my writing. It is a very well behaved text editor that easily handles multiple open files. Here’s a picture of a BBE Edit session:

Notice the list of open files on the left side. Also notice the name of the current file with a little picture of a piece of paper to the left, on the top bar. That will become important in a moment.

I’ve used Skitch (see below) to circle two parts of this document. Up top you see a greater than sign. This is a “markdown” code indicating a blockquote. The lower circled area indicates some text in [brackets] followed immediately by a URL in (parentheses). This is markdown code for a link. The text will be included as the link text, and that URL will be the linked-to destination.

Markdown is a quick and dirty way of “marking up” text in a simple text editor. Some software, including some blogging platforms, can convert this markdown into HTML. Or, you can convert it into a PDF file or a Word document, or whatever, if you have the right software. For blogging, I want to convert it into HTML, so I use another utility for that…

Marked for Markdown

Markedicon is a very cool piece of software. First, you install it and make sure it is an icon on your “Dock” which is usually at the bottom of your screen, like so:

Marked is the little black book with the blue band, in the middle. Now, remember that little picture of a piece of paper in the title bar of the BBE Edit window I mentioned earlier? Grab this piece of paper and drop it on that icon, on the Dock. This opens Marked with the Markdown’ed text document now marked up as HTML. Like so:

Now, you can use a menu item to put the HTML on your clipboard and then paste it in your WordPress or other blogging software window. Or, you can click on the little less than – greater then symbol in the upper right and show the document in pure HTML, like this:

That is useful because you can copy and paste parts of it to put in your blogging window. Notice, for instance, that I had typed the title of that post up top. When I select, copy, paste this code I’ll just leave that part out.

There’s a trick or two to this. First, until you’ve saved the document once, that little piece of paper won’t be there for you to drag. Then, and this is cool, every time you save the document in BBE Edit, the Marked screen will instantly update. This way you can watch an approximation of what your document will look like evolve as you write it.

You can insert graphics into this window as well, but that’s not as convenient as waiting until your document is in the WordPress browser editing window, so I won’t demonstrate that here.

Basic Graphics

Speaking of graphics, though the main point of this post is to discuss text related workflow, I wanted to mention two pieces of graphic software that I use now and then to good effect. I should mention that I use The Gimp for most of my graphic manipulation, either on the iMac or on Linux. I use my Linux box for all scanning because the scanning software I use there is excellent (gee, I think there’s a Mac version of that, but I’ve not found or installed that yet). So, the following advice does not pertain to much of what I do, but there are two neat little tricks you will want to know about.

First, is a utility known as XnConvert icon. This is the iMac’s answer to Image Magick, though not as powerful. You open the utility and drag a graphic (or several graphics) onto it, the specify stuff you want done to the graphic, and then the graphic spits out (in a specified location) in a new form. This is handy for taking one or several graphics that are too big to put in your blog post for rescaling. That is mainly what I use it for. The user interface is less than intuitive in some respects, but once you’ve figured out how to do some basic things with it, you’re golden.

Next, is Skitchicon. This is part of the “Evernote” suite of utilities mentioned above. I use it in a very limited way. The idea of Skitch is to make notes on graphic files. It is what I used to make the exemplar of BBE Edit with Markdown above. It is very easy. You drag a graphic onto the Skitch icon on the Dock (or otherwise open it) and you can start annotating it right away. I used it recently to annotate a set of photographs to guide students in a brain dissection, and it was really easy and produced a great set of graphics. Again, it integrates to the overall Evernote framework and is probably more useful if you subscribe to that service, but I can’t tell you much about that.

Happy Blogging.