As I’ve noted several times over the years, I do almost all my writing in a text editor, BBEdit. But when I write a blog post in BBEdit, the process of getting it onto the blog is not as straightforward as it might be. I write a post in Markdown, convert it to HTML, and copy it to my clipboard. Then I open a browser tab for the relevant blog/blogging platform — WordPress for my personal blogs, Blogger for this one — paste in the text, add some tags, and hit Publish.
I can do all this very quickly, and save a step or two with Keyboard Maestro, but even so it’s not ideal. The estimable Dr. Drang has written some scripts to post directly from BBEdit to WordPress, but I lack the skills to make those work for me, and I can’t even imagine having the skills to write an equivalent script for Blogger. So…
I’ve owned Daniel Jalkut’s blogging app MarsEdit for a long time, but just recently have dedicated myself to using it every day — and it’s great, a marvelous piece of software. You can write in rich text, HTML, or Markdown (the last slightly awkwardly, but it works) — it even lets me edit a post in BBEdit if I want. MarsEdit offers very convenient options for pasting in links, and also serves, if you wish to download your previous posts, as a backup for your blog.
For me, one of the most useful features of MarsEdit is the ability to draft a post in any of my blogs and then with a dropdown menu change it to a different blog (this feature aids in cross-posting also).
When I’m done drafting and adding tags, I click “Send to Blog” and it uploads flawlessly, every time.
MarsEdit has been around a long time, and I hope will be around for a long time to come. Frustration with most of the dominant social media platforms has led to a mini-revival of blogging, which I hope will become a full-scale revival. Austin Kleon has been blogging daily for several months now; Dan Cohen has gone “back to the blog”; Gordon White recently wrote, “Last night, sitting by the outdoor fire, drinking and ranting into a wordpress window as in the days of yore was joyous.” The great Warren Ellis has noticed: “My RSS reader is starting to get nicely repopulated, and the more people who notice this, the better the world gets.”
Let’s do this thing. Let’s bring back the blog. And if you have a Mac and want to make blogging as simple and seamless as possible, use MarsEdit.
“Use the right tool for the job,” Walter Koehler says in response to this post, where I complain about having to use too many communications applications. That’s great advice for carpentry and auto repair, but I don’t think it’s always applicable to life on our computers. There are a lot of highly specialized software applications out there, and while specialization brings certain benefits, it has significant costs as well. A few years ago, I was using one application to write books, another to prepare class notes, a third for essays, letters, and so forth. Each of them was well-tailored for the jobs I was using it for, but I spent a great deal of time (a) switching between applications and (b) figuring out which tool to use for various projects. That got increasingly frustrating over time. Once I made the decision to write pretty much everything in one app my efficiency and clarity of mind increased dramatically. Whether I’m working on class notes or articles or blog posts or books, I’m in BBEdit — I even write a lot of letters in it, which probably doesn’t look all that professional, but hey, I’m a tenured full professor, what do I care? It’s amazing how much you really can do in plain text files if you put a little of your mind to it. And almost everything that I don’t do in plain text I do in my browser, where I have my email (Gmail), and my personal organization. Which means that I spend about 90% of my time in two applications. This simplifies my life, and that makes me happier. Of course, you can carry all this too far. I’m not going to go the Giles Turnbull route and put my whole life in one big-ass text file — though don’t think I haven’t been tempted — and I’m certainly not going to follow the example of those über-geeks who use Emacs for everything from basic text-editing to web browsing, email, life planning, and taking over the universe. Nor am I going to spend all my life in my browser, as some people do who write in Google Docs and have tricked out Firefox with fifty-seven extensions. But sometimes it makes a lot of sense to give up specialization for simplicity.
Just in case it’s not obvious, there is at least one common thread in these recent posts about how I read and how I write: Distraction is the enemy. Yeah, I know, you think you’re a master of multitasking, but you’re not. Seriously, you are not. Okay, I mean it, Give it up. For most of us, focus and concentration are the pearls of great price, and if we want to get them, we have to be prepared to give up options. Options, possibilities, choices are the obvious enemies of focus. This is why I do most of my writing in my office, because when I’m at home I always have the option of seeing what’s on TV to watch or in the pantry to snack on. I have options at the office too — primarily seeing if there are any friends around to talk to — but those typically don’t afflict me quite as much as the tube and food do, not because I don’t like my friends, but because I know that a planned brief visit can easily turn into an hour-long schmooze session. TV and pantry are usually briefer stops. Of course the internet provides options almost wherever I am. Years ago, I would sometimes take the Metra train into Chicago and work all day at a coffee shop in the station — the buzz of commuters somehow helped me concentrate, like a kind of animate white noise — but the advent of public wireless access has made that a less Spartan, and therefore less attractive, alternative than it used to be. And you know, I need the internet. I need to look stuff up. I need to find PDFs that I’ve saved so that I can copy quotes and paste them into essays I’m writing; I need to check dates or confirm authorship. So what I have to do is find that right balance: the balance that allows me access to what I need while offering minimal additional distractions. One of the ways I get that is by reducing the number of options available to me in my writing environment. I don’t need to be wondering what this essay would look like in another font, or with different spacing. (For that matter, I don’t need to be trying to decide which fountain pen to use with my Moleskine notebook — or should I be using an Alwych? But that’s a story for another post.) I need to achieve the highest level of attention possible to writing the words I need to write. For some people that means using a full-screen editor like WriteRoom, and while I think WriteRoom is cool, I don’t like going in and out of full-screen mode all the time, which is what I have to do as I work with my research. If I were a fiction writer Writeroom might be more attractive to me. But for me BBEdit seems to hit the sweet spot. You mileage may vary, of course — but I can’t bring myself to believe that Microsoft Word is the sweet spot for any writer.
Before the Kindle came along, I wasn’t looking for it — I wasn’t in search of a new set of tools for reading. I was (and still am!) happy with books and with the tactics I have developed over the years for reading, learning, marking, and inwardly digesting them. (Allusion alert!) I bought the Kindle on a whim and, as I have said, like it more than I thought I would, at least for some uses. But tools for writing I have been thinking about for a long, long time. Like many other people, I think Microsoft Word (for the Mac, anyway) reached its highest level at version 5.1, released in 1991, and started sliding precipitously downhill thereafter. Long ago I came to agree with Louis Menand: “It is time to speak some truth to power in this country: Microsoft Word is a terrible program.” But unlike Menand, I not only spoke such truth, I acted on it. About four years ago I deleted Word, and indeed all Microsoft applications, from my computer. And I have been a happier man ever since. When I tell people that I don’t even have Word on my computer, they look at me as though I has just told them that I don’t have electricity in my house. “Then what do you use?” To most of the folks I talk to, Word simply is writing, or at least writing on the computer — especially if they’re not old enough to remember the days when WordPerfect was a legitimate rival to Word. So what do I use? Well, to format documents I use Pages, but I never write in it. In fact, I think word processing programs in general, while fine for processing words — that is, preparing them to be seen by others — are inimical to writing itself. I write everything — blog posts like this, articles, class notes, and whole books — in a programmer’s text editor called BBEdit. I started moving in this direction nine years ago, when I read Neal Stephenson’s little book In the Beginning Was the Command Line — which you can download for free here — but it took me a while to wean myself completely from dependence on Word. But eventually I achieved my freedom. Most of the posts in the early days of this blog are laying out topics for further discussion — I haven’t said my last word about the Kindle, despite my enthusiastic endorsement of PEG’s bottom-line comment, posted just below; and I will have much, much more to say about the varieties of screen experience — and this is another post like that. Later on I’ll describe the benefits of working in a text-only environment. So please stay tuned.