Tag: writing

Why I Love Joe Posnanski’s Writing

aerial view of sports stadium during daytime
Photo by Tim Gouw on Pexels.com


Each morning, rain or shine, I go out for a walk. The time of my walk more or less follows sunrise throughout the year, with me getting out shortly after the first light appears in the east, but before the sun peeks above the horizon. My walk takes me through the park behind our house, and about a mile-and-half later, to a nearby 7-Eleven. The total walk is about 2-1/2 miles and takes me about 40 minutes on average.

I usually listen to a book while I walk. I see the same people out, wave, and occasionally stop to chat with someone. The mornings are quiet. Depending on the time of year, I see different local fauna. Lots of deer this time of year. And the bats are finally out, scooping up mouthfuls of mosquitoes and other insects as they dive and weave about the treetops.


Walking home from school yesterday with the Littlest Miss, with waves of hit visibly rising from the sidewalk, she said to me, “Is ‘cool’ a pun?”

“I guess it could be, depending on the context,” I said, “but it is really a word with two completely different meanings.” So is “bat.”

I haven’t watched a baseball game all season, my mild protest against what I feel is the sacrilege of allowing a clock into the game in an attempt to speed things up. I miss watching baseball games, but I don’t realize I miss them unless there is something that forces memories of how great the game is into my head. I’m sure that I will come around. I’ve changed my mind on many things over the years. I used to think I could never listen to an audiobook, for instance. I’m sure I’ll see that a pitch clock is good for the game, but I am a baseball purist, who still believes that the designated hitter rule was a mistake.

I do miss baseball, but until my morning walk this morning, I’d forgotten just how much.


On most days, over the course of my 40 minute morning walk, I am quiet. I listen to my book and walk, and watch what is happening around me, allowing myself to wake up. Once in a while, something in the book I’m listening to might make me smile, or even chuckle. When this happens, I always look to see if anyone is around. I imagine it must look pretty amusing to see someone laughing to themselves while they walk.

This morning was different.

I was listening to Joe Posnanski’s new book, Why We Love Baseball. I became a die-hard Joe Posnanski fan after reading his book The Baseball 100 in the fall of 2021. It was my favorite book of 2021. So I’ve been really looking forward to this new book. I started reading it yesterday and continued when I headed out for my walk this morning.

You can tell, from Posnanski’s enthusiasm for the game, that the game is magic to him, and that alone reminded me how the game is magic to me as well. But Posnanski’s writing, his storytelling, is also magic. His writing controls your emotions. On the outbound walk, listening to stories of why we love baseball, I found myself on the verge of tears several times. (There may have been one or two that managed to escape and find their way to the pavement.)

Scattered throughout the book are “5 moments” of various types, sidebars to the the 50 moments Posnanski goes through in detail. On my return walk, one these sidebars was titled “5 meltdown.” Listening to these stories made the first half of my walk home more a stagger. I was not chuckling. I was laughing. Out loud. I had to move off the bike path and wipe tears from my eyes several times. If someone saw me walking on the bike path this morning, they may very well have thought I’d lost it.


Tears. Laughter. Smiles. Thrills. Humor. Surprise. This is why I love baseball. Joe Posnanski has reminded me of this, and I am grateful. More than that, Joe has done what many great writers struggle to do. He brought all of these emotions out in me with his words. While I was walking. In public. For other people to see.

And sometime this weekend, I’m finally going to set aside 2-1/2 hours (down from just over 3 hours from last year) to watch a ballgame.

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The Essayist

person holding blue ballpoint pen writing in notebook
Photo by picjumbo.com on Pexels.com

I. The Fiction Writer

There are painters who transform the sun into a yellow spot, but ther are others who, thanks to their art and intelligence, tranform a yellow spot into the sun.
— Pablo Picasso

November has rolled into December and with it, a milestone on the road of my life is just ahead. December 12, 1992 was the day that I finished the first story I wrote with the idea of submitting it to a magazine. I was still on the junior side of being a Junior in college. I don’t remember exactly what inspired me to do this. It may have been the glossy new science fiction magazine Science Fiction Age that recently debuted on the newsstands. It may have been my wandering through the science fiction stacks in the Tomás Rivera Library when friends and roommates returned home for the weekend and I was left in the apartment all alone. Whatever it was, around December first, I decided that despite all of the school work I had, and the hours I put in at the dorm cafeteria, I was going to write stories and submit them.

That first story was terrible and I promptly sent it off to a magazine I’d never heard of until I saw it listed in a book on writer’s markets. On that December 1, I send out a dozen letters requesting copies of those magazine’s writer’s guidelines, and I sent the story to one of the few that I’d received. It was rejected, of course. In later years, I would sometimes pull the story out in later years and cringe at how badly it was written. But it was a critically important story for three reasons:

  1. It demonstrated that I could tell a story (no matter how awful) with a beginning, middle, and ending.
  2. It proved that I could actually sit down and write the thing, banging it out in Word for DOS 5.51.
  3. Preserved as it is, its sheer awfulness is evidence that I was capable of improving with practice.

I’ve probably written a hundred stories2 in the three decades since that first one. Of those, I sold 11 to magazines and anthologies that pay “professional” rates as defined by the Science Fiction Writers Association. I mention all this because, with that record, it seems to me that thirty years is a good time to officially retire as a fiction writer.

This isn’t the first time I’ve announced my retirement from fiction. Wishful thinking sometimes spurs me to try writing again. The problem is, when I look at the quality of the stories being published today and compare them with mine, mine are mediocre at best. Thirty years of effort simply can’t compete with the amazing quality of fiction I see in the world today. It is one thing to say, “Hey, keep at it, you’ll get better with practice.” It is another to have been practicing for thirty years, and finally admitting that there is a plateau that I have reached in my fiction-writing ability that no amount of practice will overcome. Here is how I visualize my trajectory over time:

A chart of my fiction writing quality over time as a limiting function.

Put in mathematical terms, the quality of my fiction writing over time is a limiting function. A lot more practice only improves quality by a tiny amount. I’ve reached the point of greatly diminishing returns. It took me 14 years of practice just to reach the level of quality that allowed me to make professional sales. But based on the fiction I read today, and the quality of the fiction I write, I’m convinced that no amount of practice will get me to the quality of the fiction that is being published today. I can celebrate my minor successes, they were wonderful. And, really, it is the experience that matters.

There is another important lesson I’ve taken from 30 years of writing stories: I’m just not built to be a fiction writer. Paraphrasing what Picasso said of painters, my fiction writing could turn the sun into a yellow spot, but it could not turn a yellow spot into the sun.

Meanwhile, for the last seventeen years, I’ve been flirting with, and finally, practicing writing of another form here on the blog. We call these things “posts” informally, but what I have been trying to produce are essays.

II. The Courtship

My courtship with the essay probably began with Al Martinez and the column he wrote in the Los Angeles Times, a column that I read in the late 80s and early 90s in that transitionary period between high school and college. Martinez’s column was the first that I regularly returned to, and his name is the first newspaper writer that I deliberately remembered and sought out.

I first came to appreciate the essay at its own art form as I read through the hundreds3 of essays that Isaac Asimov wrote in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction over the course of 33 years. These essays were not just entertaining; they had a colloquial, cheerful voice that I think I eventually incorporated into my own writing style. Moreover, I learned something from each one of those essays. I was learning more than I knew.

Later, there was Andy Rooney’s syndicated column, which taught me that essays could be about anything, even mundane things like the pleasure of a wood shop, or the stuff you find in your pocket at the end of the day–and be both funny and entertaining.

I finally fell in love with the essay after reading E. B. White’s One Man’s Meat in 20184. I’ve written about my notion of the perfect story. E. B. White’s essays are perfection of the form.

These courtships produced a Cambrian explosion as I sought out more and more essays. A.J. Liebling on boxing or French cuisine. John McPhee on long-haul truckers or the people of the Pine Barrens. Martin Gardner on math and logic. John Steineck a la America and Americans. Annie Dillard and Jon Krakauer. Will Durant’s shorter pieces on history. Barry Lopez’s nature essays. Paul Theroux’s travel essays. Little pieces by Don Marquis, as tiny as a cockroach, and big pieces by Gore Vidal, the size of his ego. The essays of Michael Cohen on reading, writing, and flying, where we seemed to share the same mind. Edmund Morris on the value of handwriting and David Foster Wallace on the adult entertainment industry5. Today, I seek out essays the way I sought out science fiction thirty years ago.

Meanwhile, I’d started to write essays without knowing it. In 1994, after graduating from college, when e-mail outside of AOL was still new to me, I would sent long essay-like email messages to my recently graduated friends. I wrote letters that were informal essays. And then, for reasons I can no longer recall, in 2005, this blog took its early form on LiveJournal6. My early posts, like my early stories, were pretty bad7. Unlike my fiction, however, writing essays feels natural to me. Fiction requires great amounts of energy and thought. Essays form themselves in my head, almost as if by magic, and writing them is often an exercise in mental dictation. Where I’ve plateaued with fiction, I feel like I am still on an upward trajectory with my essays. I don’t think I can ever be a great fiction writer, but it is not out of the realm of possibility, with more practice, for me to be a great essayist.

I’ve had plenty of practice here on the blog, with more than 7,200 “essays” made up more than 3 million words. The challenge for me is: how can I became better? How can I become great?

III. The Essayist

For starters, I am dedicating myself to writing essays and to writing them here on the blog. I’m still figuring out what this means. In the past, I’ve written here every day, often for years at a time. I produced frequent, shorter (~500 word) pieces of mixed quality. Going forward, you may not see me posting every day the way I used to. Quality takes time and it is the quality I am seeking to improve8.

A careful eye may have noticed this pivot9 already. I’ve changed the tagline of the blog from “Writer” to “Essayist.” I did this on my Twitter profile as well. With a kind of laser focus, I am identifying not just as a writer, but as a writer of essays.

Having embraced the essay as my medium, I need lots of practice to improve to the level that I think I’m capable of attaining. But I’ve got time. I’ll retire from my day job in a little under 9 years. Between now and then, I plan on working on my essay writing here on the blog, with the idea that it is all practice for when I can write full time in retirement.

Unlike my fiction, which was only rarely solicited, my essay writing here on the blog has, in the past, led to requests for writing in other places. Recently, I’ve had a flood of requests to put ads here on the blog, and I’ve rebuffed all of them. I briefly considered doing some writing over on Substack, and then decided against it. I think one of the best measures of quality is when readers reach out to comment on something I’ve written, or they go and tell a friend about it. Another measure is how often people reach asking me to write essays for other outlets. All of this is to say that nothing will change here on the blog. I am committed to keeping the blog subscription-free and ad-free. My hope is that as I improve more and more people will notice and that will lead to opportunities outside the blog, as it has in the past.

I’m still figuring all of this out, which is why I am not committing to any post schedule yet. In my head, I’d like get at least one essay posted each week in 2023, but I want these to be higher quality than what I’ve done in the past and quality takes time. I’m not writing on deadline. I’m writing to see if I can master a form. I’ve started to curate a list of topics to work on. This is not to say that there won’t be the occasional posts like I’ve done in the past. Indeed, I’ve got a few posts lined up on subjects like Obsidian and note-taking10. But my goal is to improve the quality of what I am producing for you, and for me.

Written on 12 November – 4 December, 2022.

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  1. Still my favorite word processor, despite it having gone the way of the do-do.
  2. For some reason, I never kept particularly good records about the stories I wrote, so that I know far more about what I’ve read than what I’ve written.
  3. 399, to be precise.
  4. I have now read this book six times and it never palls on me.
  5. Or his essay for Harper’s on visiting the Illinois state fair, which I mentally compared and contrasted with E.B. White’s “The World of Tomorrow” also written for Harper’s about the World’s Fair in New York in 1939.
  6. It moved to WordPress in 2010.
  7. They were less essay and more Jamie thinking out loud.
  8. Often, I would write a 500 word post 20 minutes before I posted it. I started writing this essay you are reading now back on November 12, and this version is the fourth version I’ve produced.
  9. I’m not particularly fond of this word. It is overused in the startup world, but it does seem accurate here, despite my distaste for it.
  10. As popular as these are, they are not my favorite type of pieces to write.

Practically Paperless with Obsidian, Episode 26: Use Case: Managing My Blog Writing in Obsidian

a vintage typewriter
Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

Welcome to my blog series, “Practically Paperless with Obsidian.” For an overview of this series, please see Episode 0: Series Overview.

In Episode 25, I described how I managed my “professional” writing in Obsidian. I also mentioned that I looked to Obsidian as the one place to do all of my writing. That includes the writing I do here on the blog, so I thought I’d use this episode to describe how I use Obsidian to write for my blog.

WordPress and the Block Editor

I use WordPress for my blog services, and I have been incredibly happy with the service. I like the block editor for writing and editing posts, too. However, when I finally decided to do all of my writing in Obsidian, I intended to do my blog writing there, too. There are a number of advantages to this, but the main one is a single interface and set of commands for all of my writing. Also, all of my writing is now stored in plain text files, using markdown formatting, and readily accessible locally on my computer within my Obsidian vault.

Writing for the Blog

The bulk of the writing I do each week is for the blog. Readers who come for the Practically Paperless posts see just one of eight to ten posts I publish each week. I’ve been writing here on the blog since late 2005, about 17 years, and in that time, I’ve published more than 7,000 posts. Since January 1, 2021, I’ve made it a goal to publish at least one post everyday. As of this writing, I have published at least one post every day for 467 consecutive days.

I generally try to write 2 posts per day, scheduling them out so that I build up a backlog. I do this for two reasons:

  1. It keeps me writing, and keeps me thinking, both of which I enjoy doing.
  2. It acknowledges the truth of writing for me, which is that there are some days where I just can’t bring it. I’m either too busy, too tired, or I write something that I just don’t like. Having a backlog takes the pressure off publishing a post every day.

For instance, as of this writing (I am writing this on April 3, 2022), I have posts scheduled out through April 23. I sometimes leave gaps in the schedule, like I did for this post, since these Practically Paperless posts go out on Tuesdays.

There are two ways that Obsidian helps me with the blog writing: (1) Collecting ideas, and (2) writing posts.

Collecting ideas for the blog

Over the years, I’ve realized how important having a list of ideas is to writing posts whenever I have time. I’ve gotten into the habit of jotting down every idea I get. I don’t always use the ideas, but I jot them down regardless. There have been too many times when I told myself I would remember an idea, only to forget it.

If I am away from the computer, I’ll jot an idea in my Fields Notes notebook. That idea will get transferred to the current day’s daily note at the end of the date. I detailed some of this back in Episode 24. If I am sitting by the computer, the idea goes directly into the daily note as a task. The task gets tagged with “#post-idea”. These tasks, uncompleted and completed are collected using the Dataview plug-in a note called “Post Ideas.” When I am ready to write each day, I’ll pull up this note and skim through the ideas to see if there is anything in particular I want to write about. This note also shows the list of ideas that I have either completed writing or discarded.

Example of my Post Ideas file -- showing the section on ideas I've either written about or discarded.
Example of my Post Ideas file — showing the section on ideas I’ve either written about or discarded.

Writing posts for the blog

When I am ready to start writing, I make use of a template and the QuickAdd plug-in to generate the note in which I compose my post. The template and plug-in prompt me for information about the kind of writing I am doing, generate the note, and automatically file the note in my Writing/Blog/Posts folder in my Obsidian vault. At this point, I start writing. Below you can see the process for creating a new post note:

Animated gif showing how I create a new blog entry in Obsidian using Templater and the QuickAdd plug-ins.

Here is an example of what a post note looks like after I’ve started to write. I’ve used this post for my example:

draft of the current post in Obsidian

I try hard to keep most posts between 500-600 words. That makes writing 2 posts per day much more managable, given my time constraints. It also helps me practice writing to a target length, which is useful when doing professional writing and an outlet requests a piece of, say, 500 or 800 words. Some posts (like many of the posts in this series, are significantly longer). WordPress tells me that for the 114 posts I have published so far as of today, the average length is 784 words.

Publishing to WordPress

Once I finish writing my post, immediately schedule it in WordPress. Usually, I schedule it for the next open date on my calendar. As of today, the next open date is Sunday, April 24, but since I left a gap in my calendar for this post, I would schedule this one on Tuesday, April 12.

This is a manual process for me, and it goes as follows:

  1. Copy the text of the post out of Obsidian.
  2. Create a new post in WordPress and paste the copied text into the body.

The combination of Obsidian and WordPress make this a very simple process and it usually takes just a few seconds. The reason it is so simple is that my posts are written in Obsidian using Markdown formatting and WordPress knows how to interpret Markdown formatting when it is pasted into a post. All my formatting comes through cleanly, which saves a lot of time.

Once I have the post in WordPress, I schedule it for its future date. I change the status on my Obsidian note to “scheduled” and add the date that it was scheduled for.

Managing My Posts

I have “Blog Post MOC” note that i use to manage my posts. There are three sections to this post, each using a different dataview query to display a list of posts:

  1. Posts scheduled tomorrow. This lists any posts that are schedule for the next day. I use this to proofread the post the night before and try to intercept any obvious typos I happen to notice.
  2. Posts scheduled today. This lists any posts scheduled to be published on the current day. This reminds me what is being published. I also use this to update the meta-data in the note to reflect the status (published) and the link to the published post.
  3. Published posts. This is a list of all the published posts, with a link to the published URL for the post in question.
my blog MOC showing the tomorrow, today, and published posts sections
A look at my blog MOC.

Comments on the Blog

As I said, I try to capture all of my writing in Obsidian. That includes significant comments I make on my blog (or on others, for that matter). I have template for blog comments and I use it to write out my comments before posting them to the blog. This has a few advantages for me:

  1. It keeps all of my writing in Obsdian. I can use the Vim keyboard mappings I am used to and store my comments locally as part of all of my writing captured in my vault.
  2. It allows me to think through my comments and write them with the same care I’d use for any other writing. When I wrote comments on the fly, in the spur of the moment, I tend to (a) make mistakes, and (b) miss some important points I want to make. Writing them out in Obsidian ahead of time let’s me think through what I want to say.

The process for creating a new comment note in Obsidian is similar to the process for my other writing. It makes use of a template and the QuickAdd plug in. After I select the destination as “Blog” the template gives me the following options:

Selecting "comment" in my template.
Selecting “comment” in my template.

This provides a quick way for categorizing the note as a comment to a blog post. I also use this for other significant social media posts: posts and comments to Reddit, to various forums, and to other blogs, for instance. I find three advantages to this:

  1. It allows me to do all of my writing in Obsidian.
  2. Writing out a comment or reply in Obsidian allows me to to think about what I am writing and edit it much easier than if I did it in a text box of a blog or a social media site like Reddit. I don’t feel rushed. I can draft a comment, then come back to it later and edit it before posting.
  3. It allows me to collect all of my writing in one place, whether that is my “professional” writing, blog writing, or social media posts and comments.

Final thoughts

In my attempt to collect all of my writing in text files in Obsidian, I’ve shown how I manage my professional writing, and my blog writing. There is one final bit of writing that I now do and capture in Obsidian. In next week’s episode, I’ll go through my process for writing my journal entries in Obsidian.

See you back here next week.

Prev: Episode 25: Five Use Cases for Managing My Writing in Obsidian
Next: Episode 27: Use Case: Writing Journal Entries in Obsidian (coming April 19, 2022)

Written on April 3 and April 11, 2022.

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Practically Paperless with Obsidian, Episode 25: Five Use Cases for Managing My Writing in Obsidian

shallow photoghrapy of black and gray type writer keys
Photo by mali maeder on Pexels.com

Welcome to my blog series, “Practically Paperless with Obsidian.” For an overview of this series, please see Episode 0: Series Overview.

Years before I began using Obsidian, I’d wanted to consolidate all of my writing into a single format–preferably text files. I wanted all of my old writing files accessible in plain text, and wanted to do all future writing in the same format. Ideally, I would use a single editor for all of this and would only have to know a single set of keyboard mappings. Once I started using Obsidian, and learned more and more of its features, I began to do what I’d I’d always wanted: centralize all of my writing–all of it–in a single place.

This episode, and the several that follow will describe how I’ve centralized all of my writing in Obsidian. I’ll begin with how I use Obsidian for my “professional” writing, illustrated through 5 use cases.

Professional writing?

In addition to this blog and my day job as an application developer and project manager, I also write stories and articles for publication. I began to write with the idea to sell stories almost 30 years ago, while still in college. It took 14 years of writing, submitting, and collecting rejections before I made my first professional story sale. Sales came quicker, and I branched out from writing stories to writing articles as well. Writing short fiction and nonfiction pieces was never going to take over from my day job as my primary source of income, but it was my avocation: something I’d always wanted to do and something that I really enjoyed doing.

Over the years, I’ve used all kinds of tools for my writing. When I began to write in college I was composing my stories in Microsoft Word 5.5 for DOS–still my favorite word processor to this day. I moved onto other tools. I was a long-time user of Scrivener, and later, Google Docs. When I began using Obsidian more than 15 months ago, I decided that I wanted to do all my writing there. Moreover my vault could serve as the repository for all of my writing.

Writing as a profession–even one as humble as mine–involves more than just typing words onto a page. I have identified 5 tasks I perform as part of the overall process of managing my writing. They are:

  1. Writing drafts
  2. Managing writing projects
  3. Tracking submissions
  4. Tracking sales and contracts
  5. Seeing the big picture


There are a couple of tools I use in conjunction with Obsidian to make the overall process smooth and seamless.

  • Templater plug-in. I use this to build a set of writing-related templates so that I am not re-inventing the wheel every time I create a new draft manuscript note, or a new submissions note.
  • Quick Add plug-in. I use this to speed up the process of creation and to populate some of the meta-data in my templates.
  • Dataview plug-in. I use this in my “writing project” notes for collecting together related information about the project in one place. Because the dataview plug-in does not actually link notes together, I have, as you will see, taken additional steps to ensure that all of my writing notes have links within them to keep them related to their projects. This serves as a kind of backup to the dataview plug-in.
  • Pandoc. I use this to automate compiling a draft note into standard manuscript format. Standard manuscript format is used by most of the professional publications that I have worked with. It is a simple set of guidelines for formatting a manuscript that takes the job of figuring out how to format a document out of the writer’s hand. This is a good thing since getting bogged down in formatting is a good way to avoid writing.

Use Case 1: Writing Drafts

My process for actually sitting down to write in Obsidian is straight-forward:

  1. Create a new note using a New Manuscript Draft template via the Quick Add plug-in. This creates a note with the appropriate meta-data at the top (the YAML frontmatter) and a callout footer with a link to the project. It also automatically files the note into my “Working Drafts” folder.
  2. Write. This is the activity where I try to spend the bulk of my time.

There isn’t much formatting involved in the types of manuscripts I produce. I use simple markdown for things like italicized text. I use markdown headings for sections or parts of a story or article. Otherwise, I just write. I do, however, have a process for working through my drafts that has evolved over the years and I have built that process into my workflow in Obsidian.

1st draft and 2 second drafts

When I create a new note using my New Manscript Draft template via the Quick Add plug-in, I am prompted for several pieces of information:

  • Draft title. This is often a working title. My first published story was called “When I Kissed the Learned Astronomer,” for instance.
  • Project title. A name of the project that this piece is associated with. This is often an abbreviated version of the title. In the case of my first published story, the project name was “Learned Astronomer”
  • Draft: The draft version, 1st draft, 2nd draft, etc.

After providing this information, a new note is available to me with the meta-data in the YAML frontmatter of the note file, and a footer containing a hard Obsidian link to the project note. Now I can begin writing. Here is what it looks like in action:

My New Manuscript Draft template in action
My New Manuscript Draft template in action

At the bottom of my template, you’ll notice a callout section called “Note” which contains a link to the project name. Many of these notes are surfaced through the dataview plug-in, as you will see. However, the dataview plug-in does not create actual links between notes. The “footer” in my templates create links between the note and the project: in this case, between the draft and the project. This serves as a way to see the relationships in backlinks, or the graph view. It also serves as a kind of backup to the dataview itself.

The footer of my template, which creates a relationship between the draft and the project note.

For me, a typical story or article goes through two drafts. On rare occasions, I’ll have a third draft. Each draft gets its own note so I can see the evolution of the piece from one draft to another. These drafts are accessible from the project note, as I will demonstrate in Use Case 2.

Submitted and publication drafts

In addition to “1st”, “2nd”, and “3rd” draft, my template also provides me with two additional options: “Submitted draft” and “Publication draft.”

  • Submitted draft. This is a version of a piece that is formally submitted to a specific market. There can sometimes be several submitted drafts, each one tied to a specific market, slightly different based on feedback I have received, or changes I have made between submissions.
  • Publication draft. This is a version a piece that is ultimately published. This may differ slightly from the submitted draft. Some magazines and publishers provide authors with “galleys” of their piece set in type from which minor corrections can be introduced prior to publication. Changes I make on a galley get reflected in the publication draft.


Ultimately the creation of the new manuscript draft note takes just a few seconds. The templates and plug-ins help speed that process along and keep everything standardized so that I can get to the writing itself, which is what matters.

These templates and plug-ins eliminate a lot of overhead and allow me to focus on writing.

Compiling a manuscript with Pandoc

When I have a submission draft locked down, I will compile a manscript using Pandoc. Pandoc, for those who aren’t familiar with it, is a tool that takes one format of text and converts it to another format. For my purposes, it takes a plain text markdown file and generates a Word document (or sometimes, a PDF) in standard manuscript format.

I have a simple command I run at the command line to do this. Because I’ve already set up a “standard manuscript” template in Pandoc, I run my command against a given note in Obsidian, and out comes a properly formatted Word document ready for submission. After running my command, Pandoc generates the manuscript. Here is an example of the first page of a manuscript that is produced (header information is made up for this purpose):

sample first page of "compiled" manuscript draft via Pandoc
Sample first page of a manuscript compiled from a text file using Pandoc.

Once again, this saves me time. I want to spend as much of my available “writing” time actually writing.

Use Case 2: Managing writing projects

If I manage to complete a draft, I create a “Writing Project” note. (If I give up, I trunk the draft.) I have a “New Writing Project” template that I use to create the project. Like the “New Manuscript Draft” template, it prompts me for a bunch of information, and the resulting project file gets places in a project folder.

animated gif showing how I create a new writing project
Creating a new writing project.

There are five sections to my New Writing Project template:

  1. Drafts: a dataview table listing all of the drafts associated with the project.
  2. Submissions: a dataview table listing all of the submissions associated with the project.
  3. Contracts: a dataview table listing all of the contracts associated with the project.
  4. Appearances: currently, a manually maintained list of places the piece has appeared, with links if available.
  5. Notes: notes and other items related to the project.

Here is an example of a Writing Project note from my first published story from back in 2007:

Writing Project note for my first published story, showing four of the five sections
Writing project note for my first published story.

Everything on the template, with the exception of the “Appearances” is automated so long as I use the same project name throughout the process. Below is what my actual Writing Project template looks like in source mode so that you can see the dataview queries:

a sample of my new writing project template
Template for my New Writing Project.

Once again, because the “footer” in my Manuscript Draft, Submission, and Contract templates contains a link to the project note, there are hard links between the notes, in addition to surfacing the related notes through the dataview plug-in. For instance, from the project note, I can see the backlinks to all of the related notes (drafts, submissions, etc.):

A view of a writing project with showing the backlinks to related notes
A view of a writing project with showing the backlinks to related notes

As indicated, the {{VALUE:Project Name}} comes from a Template configuration I have in the QuickAdd plug-in. That configuration looks as follows:

Quick Add plug-in configuration for my New Writing Project template
Quick Add plug-in configuration for my New Writing Project template

The result is that when I create a new draft, submission, or contract that uses the same project name in the meta-data, it will appear on the MOC for the project in question, surfaced in the dataview tables as well as the backlinks to the note.

I have a writing project MOC for every writing project for which I completed a first draft, even if the story or article was ultimately trunked. More on this in Use Case 5 below.

Use Case 3: Tracking submissions

When a story or article is ready for submission, I use my “New Submission” template. This prompts me for two pieces of information:

  • Project name
  • Market name

The market name is typically an abbreviated version of the market to which the piece is submitted (e.g., IGMS for InterGalactic Medicine Show, Daily Beast for The Daily Beast, etc.)

When the note is created, it is automatically filed in a Submissions folder. I then manually add a couple of additional pieces of information:

  • Submission date
  • A note link to the the submitted manuscript draft.

Recall that some projects may have multiple submission drafts. This link is what ties a specific draft to a specific market. Here is what a submission looks like:

animated gif showing how my New Submission template works
Creating a new submission.

When I hear back from a market, I will update the submission note. I’ll update the status, as necessary, and the status date. I will also make running notes in the note itself. For instance, if an editor requests changes, I’ll note the changes in the submission note that need to be incorporated into the published draft.

As I make these changes, or add new submissions, they are automatically captured on the Writing Project MOC for the project in question.

Here is a look at my New Submission template:

My New Submission template
My New Submission template

Use Case 4: Tracking sales and contracts

When a piece is sold, a contract usually follows that contains the terms of the sale, how much I am to be paid, and what rights I am selling. When this happens, I create Contract note using my New Contract template via the QuickAdd plug-in. The contract template collects information like:

  • project name
  • market
  • contract date
  • payment
  • contract terms/rights

This information goes into the meta-data of the note. I then manually add an embedded link to the PDF version of the contract. This note gets autmatically filed into my _documents folder. The contract is automatically listed in the “Contracts” section of the project MOC for the piece. For some projects, there may be more than one contract. This will happen for reprints or foreign sales, for instance.

Here is an example of what a contract note looks like. This one is for my story, “Take One For the Road” which appeared in the June 2010 issue of Analog Science Fiction:

Contract note for my story "Take One for the Road" (Analog SF, June 2011)
Contract note for my story “Take One for the Road” (Analog SF, June 2011)

The contract is automatically listed in the “Contract” section of the corresponding project note. Like my other templates, the contract template also has a “footer” with links to the project note and the corresponding market note, thus creating hard links in Obsidian between those notes.

Use Case 5: Seeing the big picture

Finally, I have a “Writing Projects MOC” note that lists all of my writing projects using the data view. It has three parts:

  • projects in progress
  • projects that have been complete/published
  • projects that have been trunked

This is the 50,000 foot view of my writing. It lets me see everything and then drill down into those project MOCs that I am interested in seeing in greater detail. Here is what my Writing Project MOC looks like today:

my master writing project note, listing all of my writing projects, active, completed, and trunked
Master “Writing Projects” note listing all of my writing projects, active, completed, and trunked.

The screen capture above cuts off after my first four “trunked” stories, but there are at least a hundred of them in that list, going back, as you can see to as early as January 1993, when I first began submitting.

There are other views I have as well. I can see tables showing me how much I was paid in a given year–useful for tax season. Or I can see a listing of publications by market. One thing I am working on is creating a template for appearances; this will essentially automate my bibliography.

Final thoughts

No solution is perfect for everyone. This one works well for me because it allows not only to do all of my writing in Obsidian (and in plain text files), but it allows me to manage my writing in plain text files as well. The dataviews are convenient for this, but not required. As I have shown, my templates also create hard links between projects and related notes so that I can see the relationships in backlinks, and graph view, in addition to the dataview tables.

There is certainly room for some improvement in my process. But that comes with time. I should also point out that I use this process for my paid writing. I have a similar, process for how I managed my writing here on the blog — but that will be the subject of next week’s episode.

I know there is a lot in this post. I am happy to try to answer any questions, technical or otherwise about managing my writing in Obsidian in the comment thread.

Prev: Episode 24: Use Case: How I Capture Field Notes in Obsidian
Next: Episode 26: Use Case: How I Manage My Blog Writing in Obsidian (coming April 12, 2022)

Written on March 24-26 and April 1, 2022.

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Blog Quality Assurance

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I am frequently reminded just how kind and understanding my readers are when they write, politely, to point out typos and other infelicities in my posts. There is never any sense of annoyance with these typos. Indeed, the feeling I get from these readers is the same feel I recall getting from teachers who wanted me to succeed. I try to respond to these readers quickly by thanking them, and fixing the problems that they have pointed out.

Of course, it isn’t my readers’ responsibility to ensure that my posts are typo-free. That burden rests with me. I have excuses for this. I have often borrowed Isaac Asimov’s excuse for having typos in his manuscripts: I willingly trade accuracy for speed. I have limited time during the day and I write these posts quickly, and I don’t always re-read them after I write them, even though I always intend to. But I can and should do better.

Interestingly, I am fastidious about bugs in code I write. I take extra pains to handle exceptions, and I work closely with our quality assurance team to make sure that they uncover anything I’ve missed before the actual users of the software find them. It seems only fair that I treat my readers the same way.

In traditional publications, this quality assurance often happens at the editorial level, with editors and proofreaders going through a piece to make sure no such errors exist–or to minimize them to the best of their ability. With a standalone blog, I am writer, editor, and proofreader. I’m pretty good at about one-third of that job.

But I am trying to do better–for the sake of those readers who stick around, and are kind enough to politely point out my mistakes. And I think I’ve hit on a way to do this. For the last month or so, I have been aiming to write two posts each day, which allows me to build up a scheduled backlog of posts, and gives me breathing room for particularly busy days when I can’t get any writing done, or when I am too mentally drained to write. This post, for instance, is being written on February 11, 2022, but it is likely that you won’t be reading it until at least a week later.

It occurred to me that this delay has some advantages. In the past, I’d write a post and publish it almost within the same breath. Now, with a delay between writing and publishing of a week or more, I can get some distance between myself and the post. I’ve often found that distance helps me see what I’ve written more clearly. In addition, I’ve started a process whereby I review the next day’s schedule post the night before it is due to be published. This review allows me to re-read the post with some distance, and provides me with an opportunity to catch typos, correct errors in logic, and sometimes even, completely rewrite a post1.

I’m not saying that this new process will eliminate all of the typos that end up in my posts. But it is my attempt to do better. Readers deserve that effort.

Written on February 11, 2022.

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  1. As happened with my recent post on book banning which, in its original form was a completely different approach than the one I ended up going with.

How My First Novel Was Written

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Earlier today (as I write this), puppeteer, author, and audio book narrator Mary Robinette Kowal mentioned on Twitter that she’d found her first novel. She posted a picture of it, and asked everyone how their first novels were written. As you can see, hers was on legal pads that got transferred to 5-1/4-inch floppy disk.

If you are interested in the craft of writing, the responses that followed were fascinating. People listed how they wrote their first novels: on paper, on typewriters (with carbons!), on word processor machines, plus, the various computers, new and old. It was a wonderful peek behind the curtain to see the tools that writers used in the context of their first novel.

This put me in mind of a terrific book I finished toward the very end of 2021, Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing by Mattew G. Kirschenbaum. The book is exactly what its subtitle suggests: a look at the history of word processing through the writers who used them. Many of the writers mentioned were science fiction writers, perhaps because they tended toward technology and were willing early adopters. The writers mentioned in this book included my friend and colleague Robert J. Sawyer, as well as Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Frank Herbert. Stephen King was in the book. Amy Tan was there. The book examined the history of the word processor through a literary lens. As someone who has tried countless word processors over the last 40 years, I thoroughly enjoyed the book.

Mary Robinette’s post was like a mini-version of that book: a look into how many writers wrote their first novels.

I mentioned that I wrote my first novel on an Apple IIe sometime in the mid-1980s, but that I couldn’t recall the software I’d used. Later on, it came to me: it was called AppleWorks.

The Apple IIe that I had came with dual 5-1/4″ floppy disk drives, side by side. You could have the software disk in one drive, and your data disk in the other drive. It reduced how often you had to swap the disks around. I remember almost nothing about AppleWorks, other than it was suite of applications that included a word processor and something that resembled a spreadsheet. I seem to recall it having a WYSIWYG display, which was new to me. I recall some reports I did for school that had all kinds of fancy fonts, and multiple column.

It was around this time that I wrote my first novel–well, half a novel. Or maybe it was a third of a novel. I’d guess that by the time I got tired of the thing, I’d written 30,000 words. They were all single-spaced and printed on that folded, perforated computer paper. I no longer even remember what the novel was about, except that the main character’s name was Steve. This was around 1986.

Fast forward to 2013. At this point, I’d been selling stories to the science fiction magazines for several years, and had just started selling non-fiction pieces as well to various magazines. All my writer friends had written novels in their youth. Some had written dozens of them. I had written exactly 1/3rd of a novel when I was 14 years old. I decided that it was time for me to write one.

I wrote the novel in Google Docs, tracking my writing every day with my Google Docs Writing Tracker that I’d coded together. I started on February 28, 2013, and I wrote the final words in the Arlington County Central Library on September 14, 2013. The manuscript came in at about 90,000 words. That’s not too bad for 6-1/2 months.

Nothing came of that novel. I never even considered submitting it somewhere. I didn’t even write a second draft. I did it to see if I could complete a novel-length story, and to get the practice. I disovered that, for me, writing a novel is much, much harder than writing short fiction. And writing short fiction is much harder than writing non-fiction. And of all the non-fiction articles I’ve written, by far the easiest are these essays I write here on the blog.

Maybe that explains why I am not a best-selling novelist. Instead of taking the hard road, I decided to take the easy one. I’m still glad things worked out this way.

Written on January 22, 2022

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Two Posts A Day Keeps The Stress Away

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I set a goal for myself in 2022 to write two blog posts each day. This is a step up from my 2021 goal of publishing one post every day of the year. Note the subtle difference: in 2022, the goal is to write two posts per day, not necessarily publish two. As far as publishing goes, I still plan on one-a-day as my baseline, with some days having more. I was motivated to do this as our vacation wound to its end because I had pre-written three weeks worth of blog posts so that I wasn’t stressed about missing a day while on vacation. It got me thinking about the value this writing has to me. There are two parts:

  1. Writing is a form of meditation for me. When I sit down to write, stress is temporarily abated. Sometimes it is because I am writing about things that stress me out and doing so acts as a kind of relief valve. But mostly, the act of writing is calming.
  2. Having a goal of publishing a 600+ word post every day of the year can, itself, be stressful. Writing two posts a day can help alleviate this stress by ensuring that if there is a day that I don’t feel like writing, or don’t have time to write, there will still be posts scheduled in advance.

Because of vacation, I started on this goal on Sunday, and since then, I have written two posts every day, scheduling them out one per day. I am writing this post on Tuesday morning (January 11) but you won’t see it until Friday or Saturday (I sometimes move things around). What I find interesting about this is that if I keep it up through the month of January, then I’ll have all of February’s posts written by the end of this month. And by the end of June, I’ll have a year’s worth of posts written.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that I won’t write an ad-hoc post to comment on something timely in the news, or even have multiple posts in a single day on some days. It turns out I did that quite a bit last year. But the main goal for me is to write two posts each day and build up a lead.

I’ve gotten pretty good about jotting down ideas for posts. I tag these ideas in my daily notes file and when I review that file each evening, I assign myself two ideas to write the following day. The posts I write aren’t always the ones that I assign myself. I am not that disciplined. Indeed, this post was not on the list of posts to write today, but I thought it would be interesting to write so I wrote it. The second idea I was going to use today I’ll push to tomorrow instead.

There will be days when I don’t have time to write, or don’t have the motivation or ideas. I find that the latter (motivation and ideas) come in waves. So in reality I suspect my average “posts written per day” in 2022 will be somewhere between 1 and 2. In 2021, this number was 1.24 posts per day. I’m hoping that I’ll be closer to 1.75 or above in 2022.

One interesting side-effect to this that I learned while on vacation is that I don’t always remember what posts are coming, especially the further out they get scheduled. So the posts that appear that day become a kind of surprise for me as well.

Do you have any writing goals for 2022, blogging or otherwise? I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

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From Book Reports to Blogging: On Writing Essays

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In addition to teaching me (almost) everything I know about science, Isaac Asimov taught me that essay collections are poison at the box office. He then went on to become the exception that proved the rule by publishing scores of essays collections. Prior to reading Asimov’s essays, my general perception of the form was that it was something dull. I distinctly remember wondering why anyone would commit an essay on purpose.

This began to change for me in 10th grade. Prior to that, essays were things written for standardized tests. Or they were book reports. They were formulaic, the formula being one part introduction, two parts argument, one part rebuttal, and one part conclusion. This was how one made an argument in writing. Rhetoric, it was sometimes called. In older times, it was referred to as a “theme.” Good letters to the editor would often be comprised of the five paragraph essays in the measures listed above. Really good letters would also have five sentences to ensure publication.

In high school, this all changed. I went to a humanities magnet high school in which I was surrounded by a lot of really smart kids–although I didn’t know it at the time. Instead of the usual curriculum of English and History, we rotated through a core of four interdisciplinary subjects that wove through one another: Philosophy, Literature, Social Institutions, and Art History. A key component of the program was that we never had a test that was not an essay test.

A typically essay test for, say, 12th grade philosophy, might go something like this: “Prove you don’t exist. If there isn’t blood on the page before you finish, you can’t get an A.” That latter part, while actually stated aloud to us by our philosophy instructor, Ray Linn, was understood to be hyperbole. But the first part was legit. We had to write an essay to prove that we didn’t exist.

Studying for these essay tests meant reviewing everything we’d read, and trying out arguments. There was no way a five paragraph essay would work here. These essays had to be factual and creative. They were also intensely competitive. Upon completing an essay test (we typically had 2 hours to write our essays) we would meet in the hall and commiserate with one another. Instead of the usual, “What did you get for number 12?” we would hear things like, “I managed to write eleven pages. How many did you get?”

Keep in mind, this was the late 1980s. There were no iPhones or iPads. There were no laptops. We had paper and pen and our grades depending partly on our knowledge of the subject, partly on how well we communicated that knowledge, and partly on pure stamina: the literal blood on the page from blisters after two nonstop hours of writing. Still, we were encouraged to be creative and it was the pressure of the essays and the encouragement to be creative that began to change things for me.

In college, I never worried about essays that I had to turn in. Cleveland had prepared me for them. I often waited until the last minute to write them, but Cleveland Humanities Magnet (now Cleveland Charter School) had prepared me well. Typing a 5-page essay 2 hours before it was do was nothing compared to trying to write a cohesive essay by hand in 2 hours while trying to one-up your classmates by seeing how wordy you could make it. Much as a newspaper journalist learns how to write on deadline, I learned how to write essays on command. And my essays stood out. Many of the essays I saw fellow students write for a political science class in college began with a typical, “Machiavelli’s The Prince is an instruction manual for autocratic leadership in…” Mine started with verse that I made up on the spot, on a whim. I worried about that one a little, until I discovered the professor had posted it on a bulletin board as an example of a unique and creative way to write a paper. (In college, essays were always called “papers” for some reason.)

Being able to write on command like that has served me well ever since. But when I began to write with the idea of selling what I wrote, the essay never entered my mind. It was poison at the box office. I wanted to write stories, and stories are much harder to write than an essay.

By then I’d read hundreds (if not thousands) of Isaac Asimov’s essays. They were colloquial, often humorous, and entertaining. I learned new things from them. I could see how he made his arguments in convention ways and unconventional ways using the essay form. I started to branch out. I read a lot of Harlan Ellison’s essays. I read Stephen Jay Gould. I read Martin Gardner. I got to the point where I enjoyed essays as much as short stories, when they were interesting and well-written. From there I moved onto John McPhee, who introduced me to long-form nonfiction essays. And of course, E. B. White, who is the single best essayist that I have read.

At some point in 2005, I began to want to write essays like the ones I was reading, but who would I write them for? Who would read them? It was the desire to write essays that inspired me to start writing a blog. I wrote my very first essay for public consumption on October 10, 2005. In the more than 16 years since, I’ve committed more than 7,000 additional essays for this blog. You’d think I’d be sick and tired of it (or at the very least, my audience would) but the more I write these pieces, and the more I read other’s posts and essays, the more I want to do it.

Those early posts are often embarrassing in retrospect. Not just the subject matter, but the writing. I leave them up for historical purposes. It shows me (and others) where I began, and how far I have come. I think my essays are better today than they were five years ago. I think the ones I wrote five years ago are better than the ones from five years before that. And I am hopeful that the ones I write five years from now will be better than the ones I am writing today.

I’ve said before that I was incredibly fortunate to get to attend Cleveland Humanities Magnet high school. There, I learned critical thinking, but I also learned how to write. Real, practical writing, not the kind of writing that allows you to pass a test. I’ve said that if it wasn’t for Cleveland, it is likely I never would have published any of the fiction or nonfiction pieces that I’ve sold over the years. Even more, I owe a debt to my teachers who taught me the importance of an essay, and how it could be so much more than five parts boring. They taught me how to write a creative essay and without that, this blog simply would not exist.

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Distraction-Free Writing Tools

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There is an interesting article in the current issue of the New Yorker on “Can Distraction-Free Devices Change the Way We Write?” The article, by Julian Lucas, initially made me jealous. How I wish I could have written that piece for the New Yorker. But I soon realized that it was likely that I’d be able to do it. I like to think I have the writing skill. The problem is I am too distracted by distraction-free writing tools to actually sit down and write. Early in the piece, Lucas writes,

I’d fallen into the trap that the philosopher Jacques Derrida identified in an interview from the mid-nineties. “With the computer, everything is rapid and so easy,” he complained. “An interminable revision, an infinite analysis is already on the horizon.”

This seems to describe why I get very little non-blog writing done these days. I am constantly fiddling with writing tools, telling myself that this one will be the one to work for me. Indeed, after finishing the article, I decided to take another look at both Ulysses and iA Writer. I did this, of course, instead of writing, telling myself what I always tell myself. If I find the right tool, one with just the right set of features, one that eliminates distractions just so, all of my problems will be solved. In reality, the distraction is not all of the elements on the screen, not the endless notifications, not the array of features, but the very existence of the tools to begin with. The distraction is the search for perfection.

Yesterday, for instance, I wrote two posts for the blog. One (Episode 11 of my Practically Paperless series) came in at about 1,600 words. The other, a post that will go out a week from today, came in at 1,200 words and isn’t quite finished. That’s nearly 3,000 words of writing in a day, which is marvelous. It is not paid writing, but considering my full-time job and family obligations, 3,000 words is amazing. I wrote them entirely in the WordPress block editor tool inside my web browser. For some reason, I don’t hunt for writing tools for blogging. I sit down and write. I am more professional about my hobby than I am about my professional writing. The WordPress block editor let’s me get my work done. I don’t worry about “distraction-free” features. I just write.

Why can’t I do that for my fiction writing? Why do I feel compelled to revisit tools that I’ve tried before. I spent maybe an hour last night comparing the features of Ulysses and iA Writer. The former has packaged a lot of functionality and appears to be designed to get you from first draft to final manuscript. The latter’s focus is focus. Getting words on the page. I keep telling myself that if I could minimize the time I spent on all of the other stuff (formatting, tracking revisions, etc.) I could spent more time writing. Therefore, a tool like Ulysses is alluring: it helps with that stuff.

On the other hand, I am not writing, I am spending my time looking at tools for writing. iA Writer’s focus is on minimalist. It dumps all of the bells and whistles and says, just get to work, willya? It doesn’t format my manuscript the way Ulysses or Scrivener does, but then again, if I am not writing, I have no manuscript to format in the first place.

Later in the piece, Lucas discusses the FreeWrite Smart Typewriter:

Released in 2016, the Freewrite Smart Typewriter is a hefty little lunchbox of a machine with a noisy mechanical keyboard and an e-ink display the size of an index card. The user can type and backspace but not much else, and, with the default settings, only ten lines of text are visible at a time.

Back in late 2019 or early 2020, I got a FreeWrite. I told myself this would be the ultimate distraction-free writing tool, and that it would be the thing to get me writing again. After all, it looks and feels like a typewriter. The problem was that one of its noted features just doesn’t work for me: there are no arrow keys. You can backspace to edit, but you can’t go back and insert a word, or correct a typo. That’s just not how I write, so the FreeWrite has sat in a drawer for the better part of two years now, unused.

What I need is a tool like the WordPress block editor. It gives me the basic functionality I need to write, and nothing else. iA Writer seems to be closest to this model. It gives you the basic tools to write, and you just write. I love tools like Scrivener, but they combine many things into one. They are as much desktop publishing systems as Microsoft Word, and I don’t need a desktop publishing system.

I’ve often said that my favorite all-time word processor was Microsoft Word for DOS 5.5. This was back in the days before Word has a WYSIWYG display, and more features than there are words in this post. I transcribed all of my class notes in college into Microsoft Word for DOS. I wrote all of my papers there. And I wrote dozens of the first stories that I sent out to magazines on that word processor. I never thought about “distraction-free” because there were not distractions, just the words on the screen. WordPress’s block editor is like that: just words on a screen. And more so than Ulysses, iA Writer is also just words on a screen.

I will likely play around with iA Writer while on my holiday vacation. Maybe, I’ll pretend it is the only solution out there. If there is only one option, you get used to it. It is still possible to use Microsoft Word for DOS via DosBOX. There are reasons that people like George R. R. Martin and Robert J. Sawyer still use WordStar for DOS. It might be what they are used to, but I envy how distraction-free that writing must be.

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Blogging as a Hobby, Writing as an Affliction

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What makes something a hobby? For me it is something you do because I love to do it. You love it so much that you are willing to pay to do it, rather than be paid. The thing that matters most is the enjoyment it brings me. People can and do make money from their hobbies. I did that when I was writing fiction and nonfiction articles for various publications. But it is not about the money. Indeed, I make no money from this blog and I have continued to work at it for more than 16 years because I enjoy it. For me, when money becomes involved in a hobby, it begins to feel like work, and my hobbies are one escape I have from work. I was reminded of something I read in Oliver Burkeman’s book Four Thousand Week: Time Management for Mortals:

In an age of instrumentalization, the hobbyist is a subversive: he insists that some things are worth doing for themselves alone, despite offering no payoffs in terms of productivity or profit.

This is true for me, and is the main reason I pass on offers to monetize what I do here on the blog. Here is a place where I can write about whatever I want, and have it in front of an audience as quickly as I want. There are no submissions, no dealing with contracts or expenses. There is also, alas, no working with editors, which is one part of freelance work that I particularly enjoy because I learn so much from them. But I am fortunately to have readers who are kind and gentle in diligently pointing out the spelling, grammar and typo infelicities in my writing. That is almost as good. It means people are reading closely.

Over the years, I’ve considered reading to be my hobby, and writing stories and articles to be my hobby. But in truth, writing for the blog here is my hobby. Blogging is writing and through the transitive property, writing is my hobby. I think it is better for me to hold writing as a hobby than as a career. I’m not sure I’d could make it as a career. I like what E. B. White had to say about writing as an occupation while filling out a government questionnaire during the Second World War:

Writing is not an occupation nor is it a profession. Bad writing can be, and often is, an occupation; but I agree with the government that writing in the pure sense and in noblest form is nether an occupation nor a procession. It is more of an affliction, or just punishment.

White goes on to justify my own position, someone for whom writing is not a primary professions, but which takes place in the spaces between everything else I do: my day job, time with the kids and family, reading, chores around the house. He wrote,

I think the best writing is often done by persons who are snatching time from something else–from an occupation, or from a profession, or from a jail term–something that is either burning them up, as religion, or love, or politics, or that is boring them to tears, as prison, or a brokerage house, or an advertising firm.

There are many writers out there who make their livings from their blogs alone. I find that amazing and encouraging for writers. For me, I enjoy writing as a hobby. The more I think about it, the more I realize how much I look forward to this writing I do each day. I enjoy my day job, too, but there is a edge to that, a level of stress that doesn’t seem into this daily affliction of mine. Nor does this daily writing add to the stress of the day. Indeed, it acts as a stress absorbent. If something bothers me, I sit down to write about it, often in a humorous way, and feel the stress of the thing evaporate.

I sometimes wonder if my writing has improved at all by writing here on the blog. I’m not an objective observer on this matter, but when I go and look at older posts–posts going back 12 or 15 years, and compare them to the ones I am writing today, I think I can see some improvement. I like to think of these posts as essays, and it seems to me that no one can write more than 7,000 essays without showing some measure of improvement, especially when spurred on by readers of said essays.

I like thinking of writing as an affliction. For me, there could be no truer expression. I was afflicted by this particular bug as far back as at least third grade, when I wrote a story about two friends visiting Moscow for a social studies class. (This was the early 1980s and I’d seen pictures of the Kremlin splashed over the television news.) From that time on, I wrote, unable to resist the virus running through my veins. I can’t help but write, and if blogs didn’t exist, I’d be writing anyway, for an imagined audience, to imagined cheers and accolades.

Fortunately, I have this blog, and this audience upon which to spread the germs of this affliction.

At the beginning of 2021, I had a goal of trying to jump start things here on the blog. I had written only 51 posts in 2020, 47 in 2018. As of today, I’ve written about 417 posts in 2021. That is more than all of 2017-2020 put together, and a good part of 2016 as well. I set out to post every day of the year, and as of December 1, when I am writing this piece, I have managed to do just that, with quite a few days containing multiple posts.

This hobby, this affliction of mine has produced about 265,000 words so far in 2021. I might have spent the same amount of time and words attempting to write two novels, and not nearly have as much fun as I am having here.

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Impressive Feats of Writing

I’ve mentioned how I am reading The Baseball 100 by Joe Posnanski. It is a delight and treat to read these 100 essays on baseball players, that tell a fascinating history of the game. It has quickly jumped toward the top of the list of best baseball books I have ever read. I’ve learned (or been reintroduced to) all kinds of incredible things that have happened in the sport over the last 150+ years.

But actually, the book itself is an impressive feat of writing. These essays originally appeared in The Athletic. As Posnanski writes in the introduction:

This book contains almost 300,000 words, just about all of them originally written over a 100-day stretch when this series first appeared on the web pages of “The Athletic.” I lived this book twenty-four hours a day during those weeks, writing, reading, learning, dreaming baseball.

Three hundred thousand words in 100 days. To put that in some perspective, that’s 3,000 words per day, fifty percent more than a prolific author like Stephen King aimed for in his prime. In the book, Posnanski discusses why getting 3,000 hits is such an achievement. It means consistently hitting the ball over a period more than a decade. That means playing as much as possible, staying healthy, and still managing to make enough regular contact to get those hits. I think of 3,000 words a day for a hundred days as a similar achievement. And when you couple that with the reading, learning, and dreaming that Posnanski refers to, it really boggles the mind to think that all of this was written in 100 days.

Consider, that as of this post, I’ve published post for 283 consecutive days, writing 345 posts so far in 2021. My average post length is about 650 words, and I’ve written, on average, 1.2 posts per day. Doing that math, that means I’m writing about 780 words per day. Generally, these posts require little or no research, so I don’t have that to worry about. So, 283 days into the year, I’ve written a grand total of 222,000 words here on the blog. Posnanski wrote 300,000 in 100 days. That is just mind-boggling.

What makes it even more amazing, to me, is that, like the best baseball writing, Posnanski’s essays are engaging, have a distinct voice, and are endlessly fascinating. One of the great pleasures of the book is not looking ahead to see who will the next essay be about? It is almost as if, as each player gets better as you move down the list, each essay rises to the level of that player. As one writer looking at another, I am in awe. It is as if I am in the minor leagues, watching a Hall of Fame work in his prime.

It is at time like these that I think back to that day when I decided I was too busy to work on the college newspaper. I think I could have been a decent sportswriter. No Joe Posnanski, but I would have a done alright. And just imagine having a job like that? I never could have played in the majors, or minors for that matter, but when it came to sportswriting, I could have been a contender.

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How to Start an Enjoyable Blogging Experience in 3 Easy Steps

I originally gave this post the clickbait-y title of “How to Start a Successful Blog in 3 Easy Steps.” I recently made the mistake of subscribing to a blog1 about how to build a successful blog. I went there to see if there might be anything I was doing that I shouldn’t be doing, or not doing that I should be doing. I came away from the experience unsubscribed, and feeling a little bit dirty. Some of it must have rubbed off, and thus that original title. Fortunately, I was able to change it in the nick of time.

The gist of this particular site is a familiar pattern that I’ve seen as the foundation for a lot of pieces on this topic. There are three steps:

  1. Produce good content.
  2. Build an audience through a multichannel marketing scheme.
  3. Measure, fine-tune, and repeat.

These steps are short and vague enough to make them seem like good advice, and perhaps, depending on one’s goals, these are the right steps to take. The devil, however, is in the details, and much of the thinking behind this sort of advice is anathema to my way of thinking.

Producing content makes me think of a production line, with an endless line of the same thing rolling along conveyor belts side-by-side, one after the other, in an endless parade of mediocrity. I’m a writer and so I write. I don’t think of what I write as “content.” Instead, I write essays. I’m okay with the term “posts” as a synonym for essays in this age of blogging. I try my best each time I set out to write something. Not all of it is good. But it is from those essays that aren’t good that I can learn how to do better.

The rationale behind blogging advice like the three steps above is to bring eyeballs to content in order to increase revenue. The implication, with some truth behind it, is that most blogs out there are attempting to earn money. More eyes means more clicks, more clicks means more ad revenue.

What’s missing is a model for blogs, like mine, which is a hobby, free of ads (because I find them annoying when I see them on other blogs), of sponsored content, done as an avocation, out of the joy I get from writing and discussing what I write with others. For someone who wants to build an audience without a business plan in mind, just a hobby, just to have fun, the model seems to fall apart.

One way to increase clicks, for instance, is to display only a lede paragraph to a post, and then require a reader to “Click to read more.” From a stats standpoint, a specific post will get more views in this model than one in which the entire post is available without clicking into it directly. I prefer the full post be available, and that’s how I have it setup here. You don’t have to “click to read more.” The entire post is there for you to read. The downside of this is that my stats undercount how many people see a given post. If the post is one of the 12 that are on the “front page” of the blog at any one time, a reader can read through the entire thing without ever clicking into it. This counts a “view” toward my “Home Page/Archives” but not to the specific post. It is a tradeoff I am willing to make to avoid inconveniencing readers.

There are other tricks that these advice sites give. Clickbait-y titles are another draw, and indeed, many of the advice blogs I’ve looked at focus on the importance of a post’s title, almost to the exclusion of everything else. They argue that if the title doesn’t draw in a reader, then no matter what you’ve written, it won’t get read. There is some validity to this. But titles should be accurate descriptions of what a piece is about, not bait-and-switch. Drawing in readers with one title only to show them something else is just annoying2.

As a writer, I want more readers because I write for readers. But I don’t want to get readers at the cost of annoying them. For a blog like this one, growth of readership has to be more organic. Success that I’ve had in the past has been largely based on 3 different factors than the three steps listed above:

  1. I write fairly well.
  2. I write consistently–meaning every day.
  3. I got lucky with what I was writing.

The first point is obviously debatable. But having sold fiction to the major science fiction magazines and some anthologies, I think my judgement in this is justified. I was paid for writing that was accept over other writing that could have been published in its place. This is also true for the dozens of pieces of nonfiction I’ve sold over the years.

Consistency is my superpower. Back in the heyday of this blog (say, 2012-2015), I was writing at least every day, and often multiple times a day. Readers could rely on me to have new stuff for them to read on a regular basis, and because of that, they kept coming back (assuming they liked what I was writing about).

Luck is the big unknown. If it goes your way, it can make a big difference. I was lucky to have an audience of readers who read what I wrote because of the fiction or nonfiction I was publishing. I got really lucky with my writing about Evernote. They reached out to me, because of my writing, and asked me to be an ambassador. That led to my Going Paperless series, and with Evernote’s signal boosts, dramatically increased the readership of my blog. It was more than I could have ever imagined. In 2013-2014, I was exceeding a million views each year. But it was mostly due to luck. The fact that I could write helped. And the fact that I was consistent helped make that luck, but there was still luck involved.

I don’t know what the average blog readership is and I doubt it is possible to get accurate stats on this. There is not a category for “blogging” stats in my 2021 edition of The World Almanac. They do list top newspaper websites and information website, but not “top blogs.” A Google search produces mixed results that tells me that smaller blogs should aim for at least 45,000 views/year with month-to-month growth of 6%. I found one site that suggested that if you are trying to make a full-time living from blogging, you should be aiming for at least 100,000 monthly page views. In that peak of 2013-2014, I was seeing number of about 120,000 monthly page views.

I’m not seeing those numbers today. There are several reasons for this. I burned out on the Evernote stuff, and a lot of people were coming to the blog to read those posts. There were years where I wasn’t writing as much or as consistently. Readership steadily dwindled to a low point last year (when I wrote only about 50 posts the entire year). This year, after more than 8 months of consistently writing at least one post a day, I am beginning to see the numbers come back up–slowly, but definitely up. Once again, two things have working in my favor:

  1. I still write fairly well. I like to think any writing today is better than what it was in 2013-2014, but that is an entirely subjective observation.
  2. My superpower is still consistency. With this piece, for instance, I have now posted for 255 consecutive days. In that time, I’ve written and posted 300 pieces. That’s write, you are reading my 300th essay of 2021.
Heat map of my posts for the last year. Since January 1, I haven’t missed a day.

What’s missing–and what is making the difference in terms of numbers from 2013-2014–is that element of luck. I don’t have an Evernote retweeting my posts to its 400,000+ followers.

Which begs the question: do the numbers really matter? They matter for blogs that are businesses, and for people who are trying to make a living from their blogs. But for hobbyists like myself, does it really matter how many people read what I write? From a practical standpoint, it probably does not. But from a human one, of course it does. I write so that people will read what I write and engage with it, and hopefully find value in it, whether it is simply something fun to read, or something that illuminates a part of life for them. The more people I can do this for, the happier it makes me. Maybe that shouldn’t be the case, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t care about how many people read what I wrote.

I started this piece with a clickbait-y title suggesting advice on how to start a successful blog in three easy steps. Let me conclude it with some real advice, for those who may be seeking it, for how to start an enjoyable blogging experience in three easy steps.

  1. Be able to do something fairly well. Writing is a good start since most blogs are centered around the written word. But there are photography blogs, music blogs, art blogs, AI blogs, you name it. Find something you are pretty good at and start there.
  2. Be consistent. Both in terms of quality (I always try my best) and frequency (I write every day, but consistency could mean weekly, monthly, etc.)
  3. Be patient. Don’t give in too soon. It takes time. Sometimes, a lot of time. I began this blog in 2005 and it took 8 years of writing, and consistency before luck stepped in and played its role. Remember that each time you want to give up could be the time that luck steps in for you.

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  1. I’m not going to link to it here. It is not my intention to be cruel.
  2. I almost did it here, but it was in the spirit of satire.