In this episode of the Digital Publishing Podcast (which you can find a full transcript of below), I talk about the so-called perfect writing device, distraction-free writing software, and more.

You can also listen to the episode online by clicking the play button on the player below this. (If you don’t see the player, click here.) It’s about 24 minutes long.

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The Perfect Writing Device and Distraction-Free Writing Software [DPP053]  

This is episode 53 of the Digital Publishing Podcast, a podcast about ebooks, blogs, podcasts, social media, and other forms of digital publishing. My name is Tristan Higbee, recording again today in Kathmandu, Nepal. (And I’ll repeat my disclaimer from last time by saying that this is a noisy city, so I apologize if you hear dogs or car horns or people shouting in the background.)

This podcast is brought to you by my site Osmosio.com, where you can learn about the ins and outs of ebook formatting and get a bunch of nonfiction ebook ideas for any niche, among other things.

Ok, I’ve got 5 topics to talk about today, so let’s get started. Topic number one is…

1. The perfect writing device

Hemingwrite

Right now there is a Kickstarter project going on for something called the Hemingwrite. It’s essentially a digital typewriter with an e-ink screen. It has big keys with a lot of travel. It has a 6″ screen above the keyboard. It will apparently last for a month on a single charge of its batteries. It has a little carrying handle on it so you can, I don’t know, I guess easily carry it to and from the coffee shop. And it has WiFi built in, so it can sync and back up your data to the cloud. The machine syncs with Postbox, which you can then set up to sync with Google Drive, Dropbox, Evernote, and other cloud services. The early bird backers on Kickstarter could get one of these for around $350, but now they’re going for $399 each.

The Hemingwrite bills itself as “The Distraction Free Digital Typewriter” and “The Kindle of writing composition.” There’s a section on the Kickstarter page with the header “Why?”, and under that it says:

“Laptops and iPads are multi-purpose devices loaded with games, social media, work email, funny cat videos, and those birthday photos you still need to edit. Like many of you, when we tried to get down to writing, we quickly found ourselves down a YouTube rabbit hole which we rationalized to ourselves as research. Sound familiar? Don’t worry, you are not alone!

“As our computers and phones get more powerful, we become less productive.

“This is why we built the Hemingwrite, a single-function alternative.”

I get the idea here and the appeal of something like this. I have a Kindle and think it’s great, but I’m not ready to spend money on a Hemingwrite, and there are a few reasons for this:

First, I am very particular about my keyboards. I am very wary of allowing someone else to choose a keyboard for me and being stuck with it.

Second, I think that the Hemingwrite is solving a problem that can easily be solved in other ways for much less money. Recently I’ve just been turning off the WiFi on my laptop and have automatically created a distraction-free environment for writing.

If you wanted a more portable writing solution (and I should note here that the Hemingwrite looks even less portable than a laptop, carrying handle notwithstanding), you could do what I’m doing to write up the transcript of this episode, and that is to just buy a Bluetooth keyboard and use it with your smartphone or tablet.

There is one big area in which something like the Hemingwrite would be worth it to me, and that’s battery life. Lasting for a month without having to recharge it sounds pretty amazing. But when I think about the situations in which I personally might need something like one month of battery life, I think of things like going out into the mountains for a couple of weeks or going traveling in remote areas. Neither one of these lends itself to carrying a bulky 4-pound digital typewriter.

Here’s what my perfect writing device would be. It would essentially be an e-ink tablet with Bluetooth and cloud syncing capabilities. Then I could use my own keyboard. When I write using my phone and an external keyboard, I use the Apple Bluetooth keyboard. Its size and layout are exactly the same as the size and layout of the keyboard on my laptop, so I can move from one keyboard to another without going through that weird transition period when moving from one keyboard to another where you feel like you’re forgotten how to type and you make a bunch of typos.

Now, there are a couple e-ink Android tablets with Bluetooth. That would be the perfect solution. But none of the ones I’ve seen have gotten very good reviews. Until I see one that does, I’ll probably be sticking with my laptop, my phone, and my Bluetooth keyboard. If I needed my phone to last for a month, I could just buy a bunch of those external battery packs and that would probably still be a lot cheaper, lighter, and less bulky than the Hemingwrite.

Still, I think the Hemingwrite is a neat idea. I think it looks like a great tool for the writer who wants to go out to an off-grid cabin and write for a month. And I would be much more tempted to get one if it were only a couple hundred dollars. But the way I see it, this is a very, very niche product that only a very, very few people need. Everyone else can get by just as well using other methods that are much cheaper.

2. Distraction-free writing software 

I’m sure everyone listening to this had seen those distraction-free, clutter-free writing apps for computers. Byword, Ommwriter, WriteMonkey, and iA Writer are some of the better-known ones, and they’re out there for every OS and platform.

I think that this kind of software is kind of like the Hemingwrite. It’s something that a very specific group of people may find extremely useful, but it’s not necessary for everyone. And worse than that, I think that things like the Hemingwrite and distraction-free writing apps and even the Kindle can themselves be distractions more than anything else. We think that these things will be the answers to our problems, to why we don’t write more or read more. But they just mask the real issues of lack of time, lack of motivation, or inability to focus. They’re Band-Aids that attempt to treat the symptoms but aren’t a cure.

People are often surprised when I tell them that I still write all of my books in Microsoft Word. This is apparently an unsexy thing to do, because everyone says that Word is bloated and gross. And yeah, it kind of is. But it’s what I’ve always written in, and at this point I know how to do everything I need or want to do in it. I don’t see how things like highlighting text or inserting tables would be a distraction. If you don’t need them, don’t use them. Just ignore them, and you’ve automatically created your own distraction-free writing app.

And this isn’t really related, but speaking of highlighting in Word, that is actually a feature that I use all the time when writing my books. You know how everyone says to just write the first draft and not worry about editing it or perfecting it as you go? I do that, but I’ll often highlight in bright yellow the things that I’ll need to double-check or look up later on. Then those things haven’t interrupted the flow of my writing, and when I’m out of writing mode, I can go back and easily find those highlighted items that need my attention.

3. Hashtag to spreadsheet

One of my favorite tech podcasts these days is called Upgrade, and in one of the recent episodes (#13), they were talking about how listeners to the show could ask them questions or give them feedback. Then in the episode after that one, they mentioned a method that a listener suggested to them, and it involves IFTTT. IFTTT stands for “if this then that”, and it’s a free web service that is essentially a way to connect a bunch of the web’s different services together and make them do very useful automated tasks. There are more than 150 supported services, including Evernote, Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, Feedly, Craigslist, Google Drive, and Gmail, among others. So what the listener suggested was for people to use the #askupgrade hashtag on Twitter whenever they wanted to ask the hosts a question. And then the hosts needed to go in to IFTTT and create what’s called a recipe that stated that all #askupgrade hashtags would be copied into a Google Drive Spreadsheets file. So whenever the podcast hosts want to answer listener questions, they go check the spreadsheet, and it’s loaded with all of the tweets that people have used the #askupgrade hashtag in.

I think this is a really neat idea. It’s a great idea if you want a single repository for your Twitter feedback, like in the case of the Upgrade hosts, but it would also be neat in a couple other instances too. If you write or blog or podcast or record videos about gardening, for example, you could save all of the #gardening or #gardeningtips tweets and then go through them either to find stuff to write about or find new stuff to read.

If you did this with a really popular or generic hashtag, it might get out of hand quickly, but if you’re careful with your hashtag selection, this could be a really powerful reporting tool, and I’d be interested in hearing whether other people have other ideas about how to use this hashtag to spreadsheet thing.

4. How I use Twitter lists

I’m always trying to simplify my life so that I can spend more time focusing on the things that I really want to focus on. Recently I’ve been trying to limit the number of blogs and other websites that I subscribe to. I’m the kind of person that hates having an unread count in my inbox or app notification updates on a phone, so I have to check Feedly daily to empty out the feed inbox to get the unread count down to zero. I say “have to”, but I obviously get some value out of the blogs that I subscribe to, otherwise I wouldn’t subscribe to them, so it’s not some mundane chore that I have to struggle through. Still, I wanted to limit the amount of time I was spending checking and reading those feeds. The solution I came up with and have been using for about a month now was using lists on Twitter.

If you’re not familiar with Twitter lists, it’s a feature on Twitter that lets you group Twitter users together into a unified feed. You don’t have to follow the users in order to add them to a list. So I used to have a folder in Feedly, my feed reader of choice, that was full of travel blogs. I unsubscribed from all of them and instead added a bunch of travelers and travel bloggers to a list on Twitter that I named Travel. Now whenever I want to read or look at something travel-related, I can go look at this list in my phone’s Twitter app and see if there’s anything that looks interesting. I’ve also recently set up lists for media and publishing, Cambodia, and Nepal, and I’m sure I’ll create others as they come to me.

The great thing about these lists is that there are no unread counts. I can go look at those lists a couple times a day or once a week and it doesn’t matter; I don’t feel the pressure to go look at those lists like the Feedy unread counts create in me.

By creating these Twitter lists, I’ve been able to unsubscribe from a bunch of blogs but still keep up to date on the subjects that I’m interested in and care about. If that unread count guilt is something that you experience, or if you just want a convenient way to find things to read or learn what’s going on in a certain niche, give Twitter lists a try.

5. How I’ve been dominating email

I’m pretty good with email. For the past couple of years now, I’ve constantly been at or near Inbox Zero, which means that I haven’t had many or any messages in my inbox. My strategy has long been to deal with email at the end of the day and have it all done with before I go to bed, but as I’ve been more busy these last few months, I found that I always had 5 or 10 emails in my inbox and was rarely getting down to true Inbox Zero.

I hated seeing those 5 or 10 emails there because they represented things I still had to do, so about a month ago I decided to dedicate time to my inbox and put some systems in place to make sure I could reach Inbox Zero more often, and here’s what I did.

First, I unsubscribed from every newsletter that came in.

Second, I created filters in Gmail that automatically siphoned specific incoming messages out of my inbox and into their own folders, where I could read them whenever I wanted to. For example, I have a WordPress plugin called Wordfence installed on all of my WordPress sites, and it monitors the sites to make sure there is no malware or anything like that. If it finds a problem, it will email me about it immediately. The problem is that most of these emails are false positives, but every once in a while a real problem comes through. Because I’ve had problems with malware on my sites in the past, these emails are still things that I want to get, but I don’t want them clogging up my inbox, so I created a filter that takes all incoming emails with the word Wordfence somewhere in them and puts them into their own folder that I can check whenever I want to. For me mentally, that is much nicer than having them in my inbox proper.

I did this with a handful of phrases, and this took care of a lot of the routine but still important emails I was getting.

And third, I installed a new mail app on my phone. I’ve always used the default Gmail app, and it worked well enough, but I figured I’d try something different. My main phone is currently an Android phone, so I searched in the Google Play store for a good Android mail client and found once called CloudMagic. It does all the stuff that the Gmail app does, but I find it a lot easier, faster, and more intuitive to use. So now whenever I have a spare minute throughout the day, I’ll whip out my phone, open the app and sort through the email. By doing it throughout the day instead of just once, I make sure that I don’t have a big pile of it waiting for me at the end of one day or the beginning of the next.

I normally haven’t had email notifications turned on on my phone because I hate getting phone notifications and I have almost all of them turned off, but the CloudMagic app had them turned on by default, and I decided to keep that option turned on for a while. And I like it. Now that the amount of email I get is greatly reduced, I’m not getting notifications every fifteen minutes. I get a few a day, and I can easily take care of most of them right in the notification window by marking them as read, archiving them, or deleting them. It’s great. The amount of time that I spend now in my inbox on my computer has dropped to just a few minutes a day, and that’s just when I need to type out longer emails that would take too long to do on my phone.

As a result of doing those three things, my inbox is cleaner than it has been in years, and I’m on top of my email like I haven’t been in years. It’s a great feeling. Give some of those ideas a try and see if they can help you with your email issues.

Pick of the week 

And now it’s time for my pick of the week, or I guess that since this is no longer a weekly podcast, it’s now just my pick. This is where I pick one useful thing to share, and it can be an app, a website, a podcast, or anything else I find valuable. My pick this time is a website called Podcast Thing, which is at podcastthing.com.

Back in episode 12 of the show, I talked about a website called The Setup, which is at usesthis.com. Short interviews are posted to the site a few times a week. Each interview consists of the same 4 questions:

  • Who are you and what do you do?
  • What hardware do you use?
  • What software do you use?
  • What would your dream setup be?

These questions are asked to everyone from programmers to scientists to writers to teachers to artists, so it’s always interesting to see what the answers will be.

I talked in that episode about how this is something that could be done for a bunch of different niches, and that now brings us back to my pick, PodcastThing.com. The niche here is podcasts. Three questions are asked to various people about podcasting:

  • Who are you and what do you do?
  • What podcasts do you listen to?
  • How do you listen to podcasts?

I wanted to bring this site up for two reasons. First, I think it’s a nice site and an interesting way to find to podcasts to listen to. And second, I still think that this kind of thing can and should be done more often and in more niches. I’d love to read one of these sites that’s geared toward writers, for example, to see what they use to write and what they’ve been reading. I think that would be really interesting.

One more thing…

Before I close out the episode, I do have one podcast-related announcement. So the way this podcast has worked in the past is that I have kept a running list of things I wanted to talked about, recorded the podcast once the list was big enough to make an episode, and then posted the episode with a full transcript to the podcast’s website.

I think that starting from the new year, I’m going to take each of the 4 or 5 or 6 topics that I normally talk about in an episode, post each topic individually as a blog post, and then record a podcast when I’ve got 4 or 5 or 6 or however many of them I need for a podcast episode. That will force me to blog more on the site, which is something I’ve been wanting to do for a while.

If all you do is listen to the podcast, this shouldn’t affect you at all. But for those few people who are still subscribed to the blog, they’ll be getting the content first. I’ll continue to podcast once or twice a month.

Let me know what you think of this new setup and whether you have any suggestions or comments about it.

Final words

And that’s all for episode 53 of the Digital Publishing Podcast. Be sure to check out Osmosio.com if you want to learn more about digital publishing.

Please don’t hesitate to email me any questions you might have regarding digital publishing. I love talking about this stuff, and I’d love to help you out. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.digitalpublishingpodcast.com. That will redirect you to my Twitter account, since my name is a bit tricky to spell. If you do follow me there, be sure to say hi.

And finally, I’d really appreciate it if you went into iTunes and rated and reviewed this podcast. Thanks for listening.