How I Work, September 2013 Edition

I get asked with increasing frequency (and incredulity) how I manage to do everything that I do. One of the key things I do is attempt to automate those things that I find myself repeating. To that end, I thought it would be useful to have a reference post to point people to when this question gets asked. I do have several posts about how I do this thing or that thing, but I find that the way I work evolves and changes over time, and some of those older posts are now out of date1. So, consider what is contained in this post how I work as of September 2013. As things change, I’ll create a new post with a new date. I’ll link to the current version of the post in the sidebar. If you are ever curious how I work2, you can find my most recent methods there.

My computers and mobile devices

  • Home office: 27″ iMac (circa 2011) with a 1 TB external hard disk.
  • Laptop: Samsung Google Chromebook
  • Phone: iPhone 5
  • Tablet: iPad 2

Other gadgets I use regularly

  • Bose QuietComfort 15 noise-cancelling headset
  • Fujitsu ScanSnap s1300i scanner
  • FitBit Flex

Frequently-used apps

  • Gmail. The hub of my communication system. I use it in Chrome on my iMac and Chromebook. On my iPhone and iPad I use the Mailbox app.
  • Google Calendar. The hub of my scheduling system. I use it in Chrome on my iMac and Chromebook. On my iPhone I use the Sunrise app.
  • Google Docs. The hub of my writing system. I use it in Chrome on my iMac and Chromebook. I rarely use it on my mobile devices.
  • Evernote. The hub of my paperless life. I use the Mac client on my iMac, the web client on my Chromebook, and the app on my iPhone and ipad.
  • Kindle App. Where I do the bulk of my paperless reading. I read books there, and also PDFs of my story drafts, or other stories I am reading for comment.
  • Audible App. Where I do the bulk of my reading while doing other things (like walking or chores around the house).

My workspace

I’ve posted pictures of my home office before, but the best current picture is the panorama shot I took for the header image of the blog.

Click to enlarge

What doesn’t show in this picture is the large bay window just to the right of the desk, or Kelly’s desk, which is behind mine, on the opposite side of the room. I don’t work in here as much as I used to.

How I write

Fiction and nonfiction

Since late February, I’ve hit upon a routine that has allowed me to write for 197 out of the last 199 days3. I write every day. And I do the vast majority of my writing in the evenings after getting my kids ready for bed, but before putting them to bed, typically while they are watching cartoons. I have a window of 20-40 minutes in which to write and I’ve learned to take advantage of this time, writing anywhere from 300-800 words. Through this method I have, since February 27, written a total of 175,000 words.

I use Google Docs for my writing, where I have numerous scripts that automate the tracking of my writing so that I can spend my time actually writing.

I write first drafts and second drafts using Google Docs. First drafts are for me only. Second drafts are for the reader. Second drafts are what get sent to my first readers. I write third and polishing drafts in Scrivener.


I use a self-installed and self-managed version of WordPress for my blogging. I write my blog posts in WordPress and often schedule them so that they are posted at some point during the day, when I am typically working at my day job.

I use several plug-ins on the blog, and I’ve recently listed the most important of them.

My best time-saving trick

Practical multitasking. I combine exercise and reading into useful mental breaks throughout the day. About three times each day, I leave the building to walk. At 10 am and 3 pm, I walk a brisk 20 minutes or so. At noon, I spent my entire lunch hour walking. While I walk, I listen to audio books. This allows me to get in exercise (the only exercise I get, really) amount to about 100 minutes of “very active” walking each day. It comes out to about 7 miles/day. At the same time, it allows me to read far more books that I have ever been able to do in the past. And it gives me a good mental break from work so that I come back to my desk refreshed.

Things I avoid doing

  • Going to movies
  • Watching television
  • Playing video games

I am perfectly willing to sacrifice these things if it means I am able to write every day. And the truth is, I don’t really miss any of them.

This is how I work as of September 2013. If things change, I’ll write another post, but if you have specific questions, feel free to ask them in the comments.

  1. A topic for a post in and of itself, sometime in the future.
  2. I love Lifehacker’s How I Work series, and while this post is not modeled on that series, I am borrowing elements of what tends to show up there because it is a useful guide for what kind of information to provide here.
  3. As of the date of this post.


  1. From time to time, I need to copy excerpts of Kindle books, but it is (for understandable reasons) impossible.

    Do you know if an appropriate application would take a snapshot and through OCR directly transform it into text?

    N.B. I know that Evernote recognizes the text contained into a snapshot, but I don’t knowwhether it is possible to retrieve the text separately.

  2. Jamie, I am wondering if your iPad is WiFi only and, if not, how often you find you really need to utilize the 3G?

  3. I was just wondering whether you’ve ever used software to help with planning, plotting and storyboarding? I saw a documentary recently in which JK Rowling revealed the wallpaper-length strip of paper on which she’d plotted the Harry Potter books by hand (she was careful not to let the camera too close!) Seems like a task ideally suited to the computer. I have looked at Scrivener, and also Power Structure which seems to offer more, but I’ve yet to use either for real. I’m just about to embark on a novel and I was wondering what you use?

    1. Matt, over the years, I have grown increasingly suspicious of plot as a starting point for a story. I think Stephen King once pointed out that life is not plotted, and when I look back at the stories I’ve written, my most successful ones (i.e., the ones that have been published) tend to be ones where I did not plan them out ahead of time, but wrote them organically. A few years ago, I wrote a science fiction mystery story that was heavily plotted. Most of my writers group, some of my beta-readers, and nearly all of the markets I sent it to said the same thing: “Everything falls too neatly into place. Too many coincidences.” That, I think, was a direct result of me trying to control the plot. But every writer is different and plotting works very well for some (J. K. Rowling) and not so much for others.

      All of my recent stories, including the novel draft I finished last month were done without conscious plotting or outlining. That said, I think planning is different than plotting. For instance, I generally know how a story is going to end before I start it. If I am writing a story with lots of characters (like the novel) I keep a running list of characters so that I don’t get confused. As for tools, I use Google Docs for first and second drafts and Scrivener for final drafts. I make heavy use of the “Comments” feature in Google Docs to keep notes about things that have to change or things I have to account for as I go along. And sometimes, when I finish writing for a day and have an idea of where to start the next day, I’ll leave notes for myself in the manuscript reminding me what should happen next. I wrote the entire first draft of my novel in Google Docs.

      That said, I used to use Scrivener for everything and have written quite a few articles on the tool. If you are really looking for how a writer who does a substantial amount of plotting and planning ahead of time, I’d suggest browsing my friend, Bud Sparhawk’s blog. He goes into great detail on his process and the tools he uses for managing that process.

  4. Hi Jamie, would you be interested in getting featured in the HIW series? I connected with one of the editors re: a book project the other day, who said they’re looking for suggestions. Obviously no guarantees, but I’d love to throw your name in the hat. If not something you’re interested in, no worries, but if you are please feel free to email me.

  5. Hi, Jamie – I noticed that you write quite a few book reviews. Could you describe your process for writing them? I’m trying to get practice by participating in Amazon Vine (forcing myself to write concise reviews on a deadline), but it’s still kind of a struggle. I’m sure you have a system!

    1. Erica, my “system” for writing book reviews amounts mostly to reading the book, jotting notes about things that might be interesting to mention, and then writing the review. I try to keep each individual review to 500 words, so that each column is about 1,000 words. I do this because I think people would rather spend their time reading the book than reading my review. I also try to avoid any kind of spoiler in the review. Besides, if I think a book reminds me of another book I enjoyed, I’ll mention it as a way of comparison. Otherwise, I don’t really have a system. My column at InterGalactic Medicine Show comes out every other month, so I try to read one book per month for the column, which means I review 12 books/year.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.