gust-screenshot

Revolutionize Your Blogging With This WordPress Plugin

I’ve always been kind of a minimalist. You might not believe that if you saw my bedroom (I’m a lazy minimlaist). But when it comes to writing, distraction free is the way to be.

I was pretty stoked when Ghost, the new Node.js blogging platform, came out. It had a slick fullscreen editor complete with Markdown support. I am a huge fan of Markdown. It makes writing so much easier.

I even moved my site over to Ghost for a while. If I was just using this site for a blog I would probably have stuck with it. But it’s still a young platform and to do everything I want with this site I would have had to do a lot of custom work. Which I wasn’t prepared for.

So I moved everything back to WordPress.

A New WordPress Editor

After my return to WordPress I was really missing the Ghost post editor.

I was pretty much overjoyed when I came across the Gust plugin. Basically it takes the Ghost editor and slaps it on top of WordPress. It’s magic.

Gust Screenshot

This is a screenshot of this post open in the Gust editor. Markdown on the left and the rendered html on the right.

It has just about everything that the normal editor does. You can add tags, categories, upload images, change the slug, and all kinds of other stuff. It’s doesn’t have every single thing that the regular editor does but when you’re in writing mode it is much better.

If you are a writer or hard core blogger you should definitely give Gust a shot.

rescuetime-dashboard1

Two Tools To Boost Your Web Development Workflow

If there is one aspect of my professional life that I need to improve upon it is tracking my time.

What? Track time?

If a client, or my boss, wanted to know exactly how much effort I’d put into a certain project I’d be lucky if I didn’t have to give an educated guess. If it was a project that I hadn’t worked on in a long time I’d be in trouble.

Wores, I have no idea how efficient I’ve been and no way of knowing how to improve.

Out of the frying pan

Recently we had a few big projects come down the line at work and I found myself turned into a bottleneck. There were a lot of good reasons like inacurate time estimates and scope creep. But bottom line was me working like crazy while the rest of the team twiddled their thumbs. Not a good situation.

What’s worse is that I was stuck in the thick of it. I was trying to catch up, without the luxury of being able to take a step back and see how I could make it better.

I was so busy running around putting out fires with a bucket that I was unable to go and find the hose or figure out how to prevent the fire in the first place.

Luckily I recently stumbled upon two different web apps that have come to my rescue. :-)

Rescue Time

Rescue Time is my new favorite web app. It automatically tracks just about everything I do when I’m on the computer or using my phone. I can tell exactly how much time I spend using a certain program or browsing a certain website.

Instant Magic. I feel like I have always made pretty effective use of my time. But installing the app and just being aware of exactly what I am doing has made it much easier to keep focus.

One of my favorite things about the app is that the UI is so simple I can tell at a glance how effective my day has been. This screen show shows exactly how much time I recorded, when it was recorded, and how much time I spent in various preset categories. All this activity is distilled into one big, bold number that tells me how productive my day has been.

Rescue Time Dashboard

Rescue Time also records in detail so I can look and see what my top websites have been. Not only is it pretty interesting to see my tracks all across my desk top and the web, but it’s also incredibly useful

Rescue Time Spotlight

I haven’t yet sprung for the premium version but at this point I think it’s inevitable. It’s just too powerful a tool not to.

Wakatime

Wakatime automagically tracks how much time I actually spend in my code editor making things happen. It integrates with all the major code editors.

Wakatime Supported Editors

Sublime Text is my go-to all-purpose editor. But, when I’m working on something particularly complex, I often find myself in PHPStorm or one of the other Jetbrains IDEs. I like Brackets a lot and I use it for some Javascript stuff but it hasn’t quite reached the level of Sublime Text. Adding the plugin to each of these editors was as simple as a few clicks.

As soon as everything installed, Wakatime started tracking.

Wakatime Dashboard

Just one glance at the dashboard told me a lot about what I was working on. Like the fact that I somehow managed to spend the exact same amount of time working on my two projects that day.

But that wasn’t the only insight. I was able to see which tasks I could just blast through and which ones have taken a little time to work out.

For example I can look at the gaps in my reelgrobman project and figure out just what they were. The biggest gap was my lunch break and a 30min meeting right after I got back. But the other gaps are either times when something in the office distracted me or when I was not working inside the code editor.

The Punchline

What really gets me pumped about these two apps is how they work together. I can login to Rescue Time and see which programs/websites I was using during the time gaps I found in Wakatime.

If Rescue Time tells me I was on Facebook that’s obviously not a good use of time. But if it tells me I spent all my time on stackoverflow or google then I know I was probably troubleshooting some code or digging around for answers.

How awesome is that. Now if I go back to my task list I can see which tasks were simple and which ones required a little more work. I can also tell exaclty how much time I spent coding as opposed to searching for answers.

I’ve just gotten started using these tools but I’m excited to see what new things I can learn. I’ve you haven’t yet tried either of these apps you definitely should. They are pretty awesome in their own right. But with their powers combined…

eecummings

Forget About Finding a Voice and Just Be Yourself

e.e. cummings quote

If you have ever read Cormac McCarthy you know what a writers voice is. Every single clipped sentence is blunt, stark, and brutal just like the subjects of his books.

We can all recognize a writer’s voice once we have a little familiarity. Just as we recognize people by their voice when we can’t see them.

But somehow, somewhere, someone got the words tone and voice confused. The subtle but significant difference between the two has been so obfuscated that I’m confused. So confused the I will probably use voice when I mean tone and tone when I mean voice at least once in this post.

The Problem

Mostly it is a harmless error, like the difference between a Pedialyte and it’s generic knockoffs. Both of which will help a sick infant stay hydrated. But sometimes this confusion is not so harmless, like the difference between Pedialyte and Pediasure which is apparently a shake that helps toddlers get enough fiber. Sorry honey.

One not so harmless error between tone and voice happens way too often.

A lot of hot shot blogging experts advise newbies to “find their voice” and they are totally right in saying so. A voice that is fresh and different is an awesome thing to have.

But a lot of newbies take this to mean that they need to pick a tone and stick with it. Example: “I’m an upbeat happy blogger so my tone will always be butterflies, puppies, and fluffy hugs of joyness.”

WRONG-O. Never ever pick a tone and try to stick with it. Such a course of action will only end in misery, like giving extra fiber to a sick seven-month-old.

Just so that we are clear, never do this!

You Will Be Frustrated

Have you ever tried to write a happy story when you were sad? It is impossible. This is true with any tone of voice. If you are feeling thoughtful then it’s probably a bad time to write that snarky marketing post that you are planning.

(Oh. Snarky Marketing. That’s good. *checks domain availability* Dang it).

Anyway…

Readers Will Be Frustrated

First of all no one wants to hear the same tone all the time. It gets old. I love McCarthy, but if I somehow survived the apocalypse and had nothing but The Border Trilogy to read I would lose my mind. Probably quite literally, those are some depressing books.

Second, your writing will be disingenuous. NEWS FLASH >> Readers can tell when you are not sincere and they don’t like it.

Don’t try to sound smart. Readers can tell when you don’t really know what words mean and when they are out of place in your writing.

Don’t try to sound sarcastic. You will probably just offend a lot of people. Written satire is much harder to pull off then auditory.

Don’t try to sound humorous if you don’t think you are funny. You jokes will fall flat.

Don’t try to sound like anything!

Beyond The Tone

There is much more to a voice then just tone. If Cormac McCarthy ever decides to write a happy, sprawling, Victorian novel in the mode of Jane Austen, sure the characters might flounce around in pretty dresses and covet the same gentlemen, but even out of his traditional subject matter McCarthy would still be McCarthy.

This is because there is much more to a voice then just a tone. You can recognize e.e. cummings poems before you have even read a word just by the way that they look on the page.

Syntax, paragraph structure, grammar, word usage; all of these things add layers to the voice and take it beyond the realm of simple tone.

So don’t worry about people not recognizing you. If you usually write pensive calm posts don’t be afraid to rage-post if you are worked up about something. Most likely your readers will be saying to themselves, “Thank goodness we are not reading a robot.”;

Be Who You Are and Let Your Voice Find You

A writer’s voice is their personality. Part of it comes naturally but part of it also is a result of a lifetime of reading and writing experiences.

Just like a real personality, a writing voice is mercurial. At least the part that people see. Think of it this way. When you are mad you are still you. You are just the angry version of yourself. When you are sad your personality hasn’t changed, you are just showing a different side of it.

Don’t deprive yourself or your readers of the entire glorious thing that is you. Let them see every little facet.

Throw out your blogging tone and just start being yourself. People will love you for it.

Talk To Me

What has your experience with voice and tone been? Let me know in the comments.

Image credit: Flickr

ideas

How To Write About Things That Matter

ideas

My ears get hot and I feel the uncontrollable urge to swallow for no reason. That’s how it feels when I talk about ideas that mean a lot to me.

I know you have felt it too whenever you open your mouth to express something coming from deep inside you.

It’s hard to talk about the stuff that really matters. So hard, that many of us never do it. Many of us have profound ideas that can change the world but they never get expressed.

These thoughts need to be exposed. Ideas that are not shared are worthless. How can we ever find the truth without giving what we have to others? These things that matter are what make us human.

Each of us has the potential to be awesome. We all have thoughts that matter. We all have a voice and we all have something that needs to be said.

What’s Stopping Us?

Our biggest obstacle is fear.

We are afraid that people will criticize our ability to express our thoughts or we are afraid that people will criticize our thoughts themselves.

That’s all. Remove these two obstacles and a whole new world will open to you (if you weren’t already singing Disney’s Aladdin you are now).

But how do you get past them?

Train Yourself

In college I took a song writing class. The professor gave us one piece of advice that has always stuck with me. He said, “Train yourself to a national or world class level and then turn your heart to the things that matter to you.”

No matter how good your lyrics are if your music sucks no one will listen. No matter how profound your thoughts, if you can’t write a decent poem no one will ever understand them. Train yourself because then you are able to tell your story and share your idea.

There will always be naysayers. But when you are confident in your abilities it is much easier to brush them off.

If someone told me today that my writing sucked I would politely thank them for their opinion and then give them the finger as soon as their back was turned (I would never do this). I know I am a good writer. I have not always been and if someone had told me that I sucked a few years ago I might have been devastated.

But confidence in my abilities has allowed me to write about things that matter to me.

Start Somewhere Safe

Earlier tonight my younger brother came over. He is in his second year of college and is trying to figure out what to do with his life. Last week it seemed like he had found a direction that would make him happy. But tonight when I asked him about it he was reluctant to talk.

Turns out he told someone about his plans and she said that they were stupid. Stupid is the vilest word in the English language. If I knew who this “friend” (in quotes for a reason) was I would give her more than one piece of my mind.

Once again, there will always be naysayers. If you are unsure about your idea share it with someone you trust. Someone who you know won’t make you feel dumb.

I can always count on my parents and my wife to give me great feedback. They love me and even though they sometimes have to tell me that my ideas need a little work, they never make me feel like I am dumb.

Whatever your situation, find a circle of safety. Share your thoughts with these people. Take their advice and make your ideas better.

Take Small Steps

I started writing poetry in high school. Like most high school poets I sucked. Also like most high school poets I was blissfully unaware of how much I sucked. My mom loved my poems. My teachers thought they were pretty good too.

Then I got to college and quickly learned the truth. My mom didn’t know much about good poetry and she couldn’t give me the feedback I needed to get better.

Your circle of safety might be protecting your feelings and giving your confidence a boost but, in order to really become better and make a difference, you have to branch out.

My first creative writing class was terrifying. I was acutely aware of just how inadequate my writing was. But as I shared it more I realized that everyone else was just trying to get better too. As I took higher level writing courses I met even better writers who gave me even better feedback.

One of the last courses I took was a mix of undergrads and grad students. It was intimidating reading the work of truly talented writers. If I had jumped into this class my first semester, I probably would have seen how my work paled in comparison and given up. But the little steps I took during my other classes prepared me. As a result the class was a challenge that strengthened me rather than breaking me.

It was scary but, after a lot of hard work and a lot of anxious writer’s workshops, by my senior year I was able to turn out a decent poem. I even had one published in the university’s literary magazine.

I am not claiming to be a great poet. I am not the next Billy Collins or W.S. Merwyn. But I have improved a lot and I know I am at least semi-proficient.

Taking small steps outside my circle let me incrementally improve my writing without reaching the point of discouragement.

Your Turn

What are your big ideas? What are you afraid to share? Let me know in the comments. This is a safe place I promise.

Image credit: Flickr

hgtv

What HGTV Taught Me About Blog Posts

House Plans

My wife and I are big fans of the HGTV show Love It Or List It. The premise of the show is this: Hilary tries to remodel a home so that the family will want to stay in it and David tries to find the family a better home so they will move out.

Today as I was writing this post a wonderful metaphor hit me right in the face. This show demonstrates perfectly the process of writing and organizing a blog post.

Building/Remodeling The House

No one builds a house one room at a time. First they construct the outer walls. Then the inner walls. Then everything goes crazy.

Once the framework is up people start working on every single room of the house at the same time.

It is the same with remodeling. On the show, once Hilary gets into the house there are people putting sheet rock up in the bedroom while someone else is tiling the kitchen.

I write in the same way. For me the process of creation is non-linear. Starting with an introduction, moving to the first paragraph and so on until the conclusion would be impossible for me. I wouldn’t even try it. Usually I start with an idea and a I write down a few bullet points. Once the house is constructed I start filing out the rooms.

Paragraphs come together. Words spill out at random. Some rooms are finished before others. Some don’t get any attention until the very last minute.

Often, if something feels wrong, I will rip it all out and start over. I had the idea for the HGTV connection when I was about halfway through this post. I had to delete most of the things that I had written, some of which were quite awesome.

Giving The Tour

Although you can build a house or write a post all over the place you can’t show it to someone else that way.

If Realtor David started by showing people the kitchen then the 2nd floor bathroom, then the basement closet, then the main floor dining area he probably wouldn’t get many people to move in.

The same is true of your blog posts.

When you show your ideas to someone else it has to happen in a logical order. If most of your thoughts are still sitting half formed in your head or if you start running all over the place you will lose your reader.

Holla Back

Are you a linear writer or all over like me? What tricks do you use to keep yourself organized?

Image credit: Flickr