Essays on Technology and Culture

On Work as Opposed to The Work, Or: Making Bricks

At work, there’s been a thought that keeps popping up in my mind like a bubble under a sheet of poorly-applied wallpaper: “I need to spend less time at work and more time on the work.” This is not to say I haven’t been spending time on the work–it’s what I’m doing right now. The problem is that various factors and obligations have forced me to work in little fits and starts whenever there is a moment or two of free time–lunch breaks, weekends, et cetera–and with whatever tools are at hand. In recent weeks, this has ranged from my computer and keyboard, to my iPhones, to pen and Post-It notes just to have something written down. Naturally, this leads to having bits of project scattered all willy-nilly between notebooks, text files, scraps of paper, and cards in Scrivener

It’s sub-optimal to be sure, but at least I am doing the work, and the last couple weeks have been more productive than the last year. Beyond posting on SansPoint, I’ve churned out five articles for Kittysneezes, have a sixth in progress, and thrown my hat in the ring to write for Popshifter. It’s a burst of productivity that’s unusual for me. To give you a rough idea, I’ve written nearly 7,000 words in the last two weeks. Meanwhile, in three years of work on my novel, I’ve only just hit the 30,000 word mark. And it’s not enough. If I had more time not allocated to those things which pay my bills, I could devote more time to the work.

As it is, I’ve developed a slightly idiosyncratic workflow to my writing. The majority of it is based around nvALT, a super-neat little app that provides a database of plain text files. Anything I think of ends up (presumably) in nvALT, either transcribed from a notebook, or created directly. I can add and modify those documents on my iPhone via Dropbox and a whole holy host of text editing apps. I’ve taken to using Notesy, but I’ve cast eyes at a few others lately. I don’t need to sing the praises of plain text, as others have done it so much better. While I haven’t suffered the compatibility issues of a gigantic archive of documents in proprietary formats, I have lost work, and thank the gods for Dropbox, and the ability to have everything automatically saved in the cloud.

As I primarily write for the web, I use a variant of Markdown, specifically MultiMarkdown–exclusively for its support for footnotes. [1] I use Markdown/MultiMarkdown for its easy exportability to HTML, but the potential is there for me to turn it into any format needed, whether it’s a Word document, LaTeX… thing… or some other thing to make the text look pretty. I’ve even taken to writing the novel in Markdown–and my handwritten notes. My brain simply formats in it. Once you start, you’ll never go back..

The gist of making my writing method work is based around a card from Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies: “Not building a wall; making a brick”. It’s a handy way to think about writing projects, especially in conjunction with Scrivener and nvALT. If I’m working on the novel, for example, I can bang out anything from a full scene to a short snippet or phrase that could spawn something larger. In nvALT, I have novel-related files as small as 21 words, and as long as 700. [2] These will go into Scrivener and worked into the larger structure, or even become chapters of their own, depending on length.

Even for shorter works, like blog posts and articles, the “making a brick” approach works well. I am free to jump around and work on sections as the inspiration comes to me. I don’t necessarily write linearly, and being able to dash off a clever sentence, short paragraph, or even just jot down an idea for a future, well, anything, is helpful beyond belief. For those shorter works, I generally don’t use Scrivener, but compose text in a combination of nvALT, TextMate, and/or Notesy, depending on location, level of concentration, etc. When I’m just working on little pieces of things at my machine, nvALT is where I do the writing, while TextMate is used for when I’m working on something more deeply.

The last piece of my workflow is something I only recently started doing. I am not sure where I actually got the idea from, but I think it was Episode 23 of Hypercritical. [3] When I am done the draft of a piece, I will preview the final Markdown text, and run it though OS X’s built in text-to-speech processor. Hearing my writing read aloud allows me to catch a lot of simple errors that will blow past my eyes, as well as get an idea of how the text flows. In the short time I’ve used it, it’s saved me from posting something with a grievous error multiple times.

This is all just what works for me. I would love to be able to work in a more focused manner, keeping everything centralized and not live in four or five different modes of writing–but as long as the writing gets done, it doesn’t make a lick of difference in the end. Looking back at the work done in such a short frame of time makes me happy to know it has been done. I look forward to doing more and making more. Starting is great, but every day you have to start again.

  1. Footnoting my writing is a bad habit I picked up from reading David Foster Wallace, and it’s stuck. Fortunately, I don’t do it in my fiction–I’ll save that for the great master himself. I can’t help it; I love parentheticals, em-dashes, and semicolons.


  2. The 700 word file was actually typed on my iPhone one Friday night while sitting at my favorite bar, drinking a delicious Dogfish Head Festina Pêche. I need to write there more often.


  3. If you write anything, this episode is worth a listen.