Eddie Smith's Writer Workflow

February 06, 2012 by Gabe | [mmd] |

Editor's Note

Eddie is that ideal combination of intelligence, thoughfulness and generosity that I love about this community. He first caught my attention by saying smart things about OmniFocus but kept my attention with everything else he has contributed. I have not heard anything from Eddie that was not something I could immediately take advantage of to improve my work and I'm honored he agreed to participate in this series.


Professionally, Eddie is an actuary that works full-time on ginormous financial models of insurance and asset portfolios. He also instructs web-based actuarial exam seminars with a company called The Infinite Actuary.

When he isn't building light-dimming spreadsheets and abstruse financial models, he likes writing about productivity, technology, and whatever else happens upon his consciousness. Most of his writing appears on his weblog, Practically Efficient.

Of everything he does, his favorite job and pastime by far is being a dad.


How do you capture your ideas and research an article for Practically Efficient?

I've experimented with lots of apps and techniques, but I keep coming back to the 'Quick Entry' button in OmniFocus. As much as I'm in front of a computer during the day, the iPhone is the one object that I always have with me.

The 'Quick Entry' button is always available. Immediately. There's no waiting for an app to fully load or for data to sync.

Perhaps more importantly, since I review my OmniFocus inbox on a regular basis, I know that if I put an idea there, I'll see it again—soon. It won't disappear on some other notes list.

Can you provide an overview of your writing process?

The blimp cam view:

  1. Capture idea
  2. Draft in nvALT
  3. Finish draft in Byword or TextMate
  4. Publish in MarsEdit

Field level:

Once I start writing a draft, I'll either finish in nvALT or switch to Byword or TextMate. I really enjoy writing in Byword. It's a beautiful app with some really useful keyboard shortcuts, and it feels great in full-screen mode.

Geeky sidebar: I go to TextMate when I want to use tools in the Blogsmith Blogging bundle. A great example is inline web searching. Just select a word, type [ to wrap the word in brackets, then tab. Boom. Magic happens. Your selected word is piped into a web search, and a list of hits quickly appears. In sum: TextMate lets me do web searches and hyperlink words without leaving my text. Swoon.

As a draft nears completion, I almost always use Marked to preview the post in HTML. I like to align Marked next to whatever text editor I'm writing in. Marked updates very fast, so it's easy to get immediate feedback and make changes.

Once a text draft is good enough, I convert the Markdown to HTML using Marked, or sometimes I just copy the raw Markdown right into MarsEdit's HTML editor, where I use one of Brett Terpstra's Markdown services to convert the Markdown to HTML.

It's not unusual to make a few final edits in MarsEdit before (and, ahem, after) publishing it.

How long have you been doing it this way?

In 2010, I struck gold in three places. I discovered 1) John Gruber's Markdown, 2) Notational Velocity, the wonderful creation of Zachary Schneirov, and then 3) the app that put it all together: Steven Frank's original Markdown-enabled fork of Notational Velocity.

I was instantly hooked. Notational Velocity and Markdown, together, revolutionized how I write. I realized how much more I could create if I stayed in plain text. And I went from writing the occasional article in a word processor to writing hundreds of posts for PE.

What enhancements have you made?

Since discovering the efficiency of plain text, most of the enhancements I've made are simply things that make the process faster and more efficient. I owe a lot of thanks to Brett Terpstra. He played a big role in creating nvALT, he created Marked, and he also made the Markdown services that I use.

Do you have a specific work environment or setup for researching and composing an article?

Not at all. My life doesn't let me have a single place in space where I can always go to "focus." I write whenever I get the chance—often in 15-30 minute bursts when the opportunity presents itself. I'm a big believer in Yuvi Zalkow's method for writing when you're too busy to write.

If Apple hadn't invented the iPhone, iPad, and created the instant- and ever-on MacBook Air, I honestly don't think I'd be able to do what I do today—at least not with the intensity I've managed to maintain.

Does your workflow change based on the type of post?

Not really. Some posts get written in minutes; others in months. The longer it takes to write a post, the more likely I am to switch among the text editors I described above. Sometimes it ends up being a long journey to the trash can.

What parts of your workflow are you looking to change or improve?

I wish I had a better system for reviewing drafts. I create a lot of them, and sometimes they slip down the list in nvALT. Sometimes I'll start something, that, at the time, seems pretty great, but it'll get shoved out of sight by something else.

What parts of your workflow are you least willing to change?

I can't imagine not writing in plain text. I think future versions of the iPad, especially, are going to revolutionize the workflow of writers, and we'll see all kinds of apps appear for writing. But it's extremely difficult for me to imagine an efficient workflow that isn't rooted, in some way, in plain, boring, just-works text.