Writing


Automation

How I’m Using Shortcuts and Data Jar To Help Write Link Posts

18th April 2020 PERMALINK • 3 min read

Last night I spent some time reading on my iPad, and I noticed a few articles that I might want to link to from my blog. Except I didn’t want to start creating drafts in iA Writer, or doing any manual work. I just wanted a way to remind myself that I want to link to this at some point.

I started to think that I could simply create a reminder in the Reminders app (I’ve switched from Things), possibly with the URL as a note so I could get back to it when I needed it again. However, that would require me to then later load the URL, and fetch the details from it. And seeing as I would have had the article loaded at the time of reading, it made more sense to store this data, and then be able to reference it at a later date.

So I came up with an idea of two shortcuts, one to store relevant data about the article I wanted to reference, and then another which I could use to select from the list and kick off a draft in iA Writer.

That’s when I thought about using the recently released data store app, Data Jar, which is a fantastic tool for storing all kinds of data.

Store Link Post Idea

To start off, the Shortcut I created to do the initial data storing and reminder creation was relatively simple. It accepts input from the Share sheet, in the form of a Safari web page, and then has just three actions:

  1. Add a new reminder with the title of the article to my blog list.
  2. Create a dictionary with four pieces of data – the title, URL, any text that was selected that I want to quote, and also the author. Although I’ve found the author to not be very reliable.
  3. Store this dictionary at the end of my drafts list in Data Jar.

Download the Shortcut: Add to Drafts List

Starting a Link Post

This shortcut is a bit more complex, as it has to do quite a few things:

  • Retrieve the list of link post ideas from Data Jar.
  • Show the list, and allow the user (me) to select an option.
  • Transform the various pieces of data into a link post outline.
  • Create a new document in iA Writer.

It’s a bit long, so I’ll put the long screenshot below, and then explain why it may seem pretty complicated for what it does, and the things I had to work around.

Start Link Post From Draft Shortcut

To start off, the shortcut gets the list of drafts from Data Jar. This contains all the drafts that have been saved.

It then does a little transformation with that data, using a temporary variable in Data Jar. It clears the value for the specific key I’m going to use, and then it loops through the list of articles, and extracts the title and the index of each article into a new list. This is because we need to show the list of articles, and also perform operations on the specific article that was selected.

The temporary list is then displayed, and from the chosen article, the Index is then used to fetch the complete article data from Data Jar. That includes the title, author, page selection (snippet), and the URL.

Once that data is extracted, the page section is formatted as a Markdown Blockquote via Text Case (my app), and then it’s put together with the rest of the data to form a basic link post outline.

Finally, the outline is URL encoded and opened as a new document in iA Writer via the URL scheme.

Download the Shortcut: Start Link Post From Draft


These two shortcuts are simple in theory, and to be honest I could have achieved the same result with less complexity, and maybe even without Data Jar. However, I like that the storing and kicking off a link post in iA Writer are separate processes. Because it allowed for more flexibility in the future and also doesn’t distract me at the time of reading an article. Which was one of the big reasons for me making these.

I really liked using Data Jar for these as well, so I hope I can make use of it again in future shortcuts!

Links

Find the apps used, and the shortcuts below:

Writing

Simply Writing

4th August 2019 PERMALINK • 4 min read

Ever since the iPad 2 was released, I’ve owned an iPad. And one of the main things I use it for is to write. The iPad for me is a perfect writing device. And in so many ways, it’s become my favourite computer to use.

That’s slightly off-topic here though, as I want to focus on the software that I’ve been using to write. And how it’s changed over time.

I’ll focus on just three applications that I’ve used over time, that I think represent my thoughts behind my writing, and the content I do (and want to) create.


The first writing application I’ll mention is iA Writer. It’s not the first app I’ve ever used to write, but probably the one when I first became serious about writing regularly for my blog.

I used it mainly because when I was getting into writing with Markdown, it was the most popular at the time. But I kept using it because of the simplicity, and how it let me focus on the raw text, rather than a typical WYSIWYG editor would. 

Eventually, I moved to Ulysses, partially because it was becoming more popular and was recommended by a lot of writers. But the biggest reason was that it provided a kind of full writing ecosystem. It lets you write, add photos, publish to your blog, and also organise your writing, all in the one app.

That was a big deal for me at the time, as I wanted a simple writing flow. And Ulysses allowed me to separate all my writing into one place.

However, the reasons why I chose Ulysses in the first place, eventually became the reasons why I switched away from it.

Although it wasn’t far from a plain text editor, it started to feel a bit too rich for the content I was starting to create. I was beginning to lean towards more text-heavy articles, rather than ones full of links and images. It also really bugged me that you couldn’t just write Markdown, and have it leave it in its raw state.

I also realised that I wasn’t using Ulysses to its true potential and that it felt like extra baggage that I didn’t need. The way I used to publish articles was just to use the built-in publishing tools in the app, but I was slowly moving to a more automated flow using Workflow/Shortcuts. It let me to essentially just use it as a text editor with Markdown support.

That actually led me back to iA Writer, as it let me write in plain Markdown again, and also let me separate my writing app away from where my writing was stored on my device.

At the same time as the switch back, I started using more and more automation. I was creating initial outlines with templates, for things like link posts (Gruber style), and my daily journal that I used to publish here on the blog.

But eventually, iA Writer also felt like too much for the way I was writing. The raw Markdown support was the main reason why I started to use it again, but I still wanted an even simpler solution.

That led me to an app called Pretext. I’m actually using it to write this post, and at this point in time, it just feels perfect. It’s quite possibly the Markdown app on iOS with the least features. And I absolutely love that.

It integrates with the Files app, which it also uses as the backbone of the application. As when you create a new document, you are essentially inside the Files app, and then transported to the Pretext editor, where you can completely focus on writing inside the text file, away from any other distractions. It doesn’t try to interrupt you with any handy features, or visually abstract your writing away from its raw format, all you do it write.

There’s near to none customisation available to you. You can change the text size, UI theme, and the app icon. In the past, that would be nowhere near what I needed, as I tended to worry too much about the exact font I was using, the various colour styles, and in general things that took me away from what I was actually inside the app to do.

With the overall lack of features, with I think is a good thing, it feels quicker than apps like iA Writer and Ulysses. Given all you do is create/open a file, write text, and then either share or close the file, there’s really no lag between hitting the key and having text appear on the screen. It feels super responsive, and while it may be all in my head, that’s not necessarily a bad thing:

Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real? – Albus Dumbledore

With the simplicity of Pretext, it doesn’t change the way I wrote using iA Writer that much, as I can still do all the automation I used to do because of two things. Firstly, the documents are just plain .md files, which I can access through the Files app, and therefore any automation that deals with files is fine. But also, because it features the native iOS share functionality, I can still use my Shortcuts that deal with my writing, like the one I use to publish articles on my blog.


What’s interesting to me, is that how the software I use to do my writing, represents the content that I want to write. With my recent focus on raw text most likely stemming from my desire to write cleaner articles, with more precision, and less fluff.

In an ideal world, the content here on this blog would feature some heavily thought out pieces of writing, side-by-side with various pieces of writing from other people that I’ve linked to, and shared opinions on.

But that’s an ideal world, not where I am right now. I’m still learning how to write better, and at the same time discovering what I want to write about. There may be a long process ahead of me in order to reach that goal, but at least this is one step in that direction.

Archive

Two Rediscovered Pieces of My Writing

12th October 2018 PERMALINK • 1 min read

I happened to stumble upon two super old articles of mine today, and then I discovered that I’d never moved the content to this blog.

They’re both extremely different, but it shows that the types of writing I

From Ideas To End Users This was published 3 years and 1 day ago (11th October 2015), and it’s about my experience with developing a game, and what it’s like to witness other people experience your creations.

The Heart of a Black Hole This was was even earlier, I published it on the 16th December 2013! From reading it back, I can tell it was inspired by a BBC special, The Science of Doctor Who, which actually featured Brian Cox. I still don’t understand why I decided to try and explain to everyone what a black hole is, how an event horizon works, the effects of time dilation, and also what’s at the heart of a black hole. All I can say, is that I’m pretty weird.

Blogging

#OpenWeb →

13th April 2018 PERMALINK • 1 min read

Michael Rockwell, writer for Initial Charge, has come up with a fantastic new project, #OpenWeb:

I spent a few days over the past week working on a little project that’s been bouncing around in my head lately. I’ve wanted something like this to exist for years and with the skills I’ve obtained from Treehouse over the past several months, I thought it was finally time to build it myself. Today, I’d like to announce #OpenWeb.

The site aggregates headlines from independent publishers that focus on Apple products and software. It also serves as a directory of single-person weblogs within our community. Over the past few years, social networks have become less and less exciting to use and there have been some subtle indications that the open web is poised for a comeback. With Micro.blog, JSON Feed, the meteoric rise in podcasting, and the frustration that many of us have had with Twitter and Facebook — I think weblogs could be the next big thing.

The idea of a place to discover new bloggers, and to help push more independent writers (like myself), has always been something I’d liked to have.

There are 16 sources currently being fed into #OpenWeb, and I’m sure this will grow and be refined over time. But along with the combined feed of posts from these blogs, you can also find an .OPML file, which will allow you to add all of them to your RSS reader of your choice.

Obviously, I’m massively grateful that I was included as one of the sources! I’ll have to pay that back by trying to write better, and more often.

Check out #OpenWeb, and read Michael’s blog post introducing it.

Design

Picking a Great Writing Font →

4th January 2018 PERMALINK • 1 min read

Michael Descy has written a great piece about finding a writing font, and why it isn’t just a waste of time.

Choosing the perfect writing font is a classic way to procrastinate—but it is not a waste of time. Fonts are important. A good font is not only highly legible, it also conveys a subliminal emotional effect on the reader. Naturally, it follows that it will also have similar effects on the writer. A good font will make you feel better while you are writing—maybe because you can read it more easily, or because you find elements of it, its curves or serifs, aesthetically pleasing. Whatever the reason, picking a font that is pleasing can have a profound effect on your writing.

He goes into detail on what makes a good writing font, some considerations you will have to make, and also a bunch of great suggestions.

For myself personally, I’ve always used a monospace font to write with. I once saw someone write about it before, although I can’t remember the source, but they explained how they used monospace fonts while they were writing/editing, and a sans-serif for previews. This is similar to how I feel myself.

Because I write everything I do in Markdown, it still feels like I’m writing code, not a programming language, but still something that has to be deciphered before it’s fit to be seen by anyone else. And for some reason, monospace fonts use feel like they represent something that’s in progress.

So, the font I use for nearly everything is SF Mono. It’s the monospace version of Apple’s San Francisco font, and it’s been my favourite ever since they released it. However, it requires some fiddling to have it installed like a regular font. Before that I used the pretty similar, Andale Mono.

iPad

The iPad is a More Efficient Writing Device

5th March 2017 PERMALINK • 2 min read

Can you do real work on an iPad?

Well if the real work is writing, then I argue that it is probably better at it than most other devices.

A writer’s provisions are the tools they use, and their imagination. This is why a lot of effort is put into finding and using the appropriate tools, because it allows the focus to be on the writing.

In my opinion, because of the writers need to focus on what they are writing, the best tools are the ones that don’t make themselves a distraction from the end goal. The ideal environment needs to adapt to the writer and not the other way around, which is where I think the iPad fits in perfectly. It’s of course, not a new product, but still the argument on whether work can be done on it successfully continues (although this seems to be dying out).

With the iPad, you have a fully portable device that is not only able to be taken anywhere, but it’s also able to be used anywhere. It also benefits from the consumerism around the device, because this has led to a wide array of accessories being made, such as external keyboards, stands, and now the Apple Pencil. Especially with iOS being such a flexible platform, and apps for pretty much every single scenario.

I have a MacBook Pro and while I like to write using it, I still find the iPad to be more suited to the job. With tasks like visually organising notes and ideas with the touch screen, or making use of the Apple Pencil, it’s as if you’re really interacting with the content, without any unnecessary distractions.

Also, it may sound strange, but the Workflow app for iOS is another reason for why I favour the iPad for writing, as it makes all the management tasks associated with writing much more streamlined and adaptable. The way I think of the comparison between writing on an iPad and writing on my Mac, is the ratio on which actual writing is done, compared to the time you spend managing your writing and the related process. For me, my Mac is okay for longer-form writing pieces where I spend a long time writing, that the amount of time editing, submitting to blogs, embedding images, and so on isn’t a big deal. On the other hand, with my iPad I have all of my processes automated with apps such as Workflow, Opener, Trello (Trello has a website you can use), so I can focus on the writing, regardless of the situation.

I of course can’t complain too much, because my Mac is the newest MacBook Pro, so it’s super light, and the keyboard is nice to type on. But I still believe the iPad edges out in front.

An iPad may take longer to get used to, and maybe a while to find and configure the writing tools for you. But once you’re there, you’re free to just write.

Writing With Bear
Bear

Writing With Bear

4th November 2016 PERMALINK • 4 min read

Since Bear has been officially released for both iOS and macOS (also been selected for Editors choice!), I thought I’d share my thoughts on the app.

I’ve actually been using Bear for a while, ever since it entered beta. And it’s been a remarkable tool for me, whether it’s writing blog posts or even just jotting down small notes.

Bear actually differentiates from other apps quite a lot, but mainly in the way it looks. It has its own version of Markdown that it uses, but you can always change that to support the original Gruber version. Then you have the 9 really cool themes to choose from, and there’s more variety then other apps. I personally use Panic Mode.

As it’s available for both macOS and iOS, there are slight differences in the design, but these are just platform differences, not how the app functions.
It’s split into three different views, the tags view which is on the left, the list of posts in the middle, and then the actual post on the right. On the Mac you can choose which views you want visible, and on iOS it appears differently based on what orientation/device you are on.

Editor

The editor is clean, and it lets you focus on the content. It’s a style used by most of the modern apps, and I really love it. There’s an Information panel you can bring up, by just tapping the (i) button in the top right corner (iOS and macOS). It brings up some some handy information like read time, last editing device, and also gives you the option to export to different file types.

You can do the standard markdown formatting like bold, italics, underline, and strike through text. Of course it supports links, but it displays them slightly different with a link icon and the title. You don’t see the underlying Markdown code or URL, but with a tap/click on the link, you can change the
title or url easily.

Another benefit over other apps is the ability to insert inline images in a post, which isn’t especially useful for me when I’m writing these types of posts that require screenshots.

There’s also support for embedding lines or blocks of code, and you can actually specify a language to get better formatting.

When you’re typing on iOS, a custom shortcut bar makes it even easier, with quick access to different formatting, links, photos, and code blocks.

Organising Notes

The way you organise your notes in Bear is by adding tags, you can add these anywhere in a note. It allows you to see them clearly separated in the Tags view, or even search or them.

It’s a format I quite like, as it allows to be more flexible when writing. I for one lose track of notes when I have to place them in certain folders, so being able to just add a “RadThinker” tag, I can quickly find all the posts I’ve written for my blog.

Something else I don’t really see on other apps, is a trash folder. In Bear you can view any document you’ve deleted, and then restore it if you’ve done it by mistake.

Import/Export

Most people already use a note taking app, so you’ll want to move it all to Bear. Well you can import text files straight in to Bear, and it also features an import feature for Vesper users.

Exporting is even better, with the ability to export a note into .MD, .PDF, .HTML, .DOCX, .JPG, and .RTF. It also supports the standard share sheet, which is very useful.

What makes exporting even better, is when you combine it with an automation app like Workflow. For example you could export to Markdown (MD), and then share that to a workflow which posts it to your blog.

Pro Subscription

Bear is free to use on macOS and iOS, but there is a Pro subscription which will unlock loads of awesome features. Of course I signed up straight away.

With Pro you get access to things like syncing between your devices, access to all the themes, and exporting to every good file type.

You can choose to subscribe monthly, or yearly. With the prices being $1.49 per month, or $14.99 per year.

Final Thoughts

Overall I think Bear is great. It’s my note taking app, and also the app I use to write for this blog. Now I have syncing across macOS and iOS (Wasn’t available in beta), it’s even better.

The few things I think could improve Bear would be the ability to have some form of sub tags? to further organise notes, the option to have a link preview, and maybe even shared notes, but I know that’s a lot harder than it seems.

One big feature that I would love is Ghost integration, as that’s what RadicalThinker is run on. So being able to post directly from a text editor, would save uploading images, entering tags, and more importantly even opening my browser to access a (quite annoying) web interface.

I can see a bright future for Bear, and it’s started out with such a high standard, it can really become everyones default notes app right now. Of course there’s so much more Bear can do than I’ve written here, so the best place to find out more is on their website , or by checking it out yourself.

Download Bear for iOS and macOS , and then make sure you support them by subscribing to Pro!

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