Talking Tools is an ongoing series of interviews with people whom I respect as creators, communicators and craftspeople. The goal is to dig deeper into how these people work, what their toolboxes look like and how they engage in their own processes.?
Today’s unfortunate victim is tech journalist to the stars, David Chartier. Ol’ David has a pretty impressive résumé having written for Ars Technica, Wired Magazine and The Unofficial Apple Weblog, as well as serving as Chief Media Producer for Agile Web Solutions (makers of the venerable 1Password). These days he finances his Apple store purchases as Associate Editor for Macworld.com. I’ve been pestering David online for a good while now and he finally agreed to talk with me if I stop sending him my daily homemade greeting cards (which are awesome).
As a writer for Macworld, it stands to reason that most of your equipment would bear a certain fruit-shaped logo. But, for those following along at home, please tell me a little bit about your hardware.
I have a late 2009 17-inch MacBook Pro, so the dual-video-card generation, but before they could swap without requiring you to log out and back in. Since I work at home, my primary machine is a 2010 27-inch iMac core i5. I also have an iPhone 4 and an iPad which I am writing with more frequently.
What is your writing tool of choice? Are you a word processor guy or a text editor guy?
I’m a word processor guy, even though I have some web design chops that I picked up in school and through tinkering off and on. But to me, code and writing are two different beasts. When I write, I want to see the paragraph the way the readers will; I want to see the flow and rhythm of the text, and where links appear as they will look in the final products. Having to parse HTML code, or even the much slimmer Markdown, ruins that experience for me.
What kinds of applications and services do you use to track potential stories and articles? How do those differ from what you use for pleasure reading?
I use a variety of tools like Google Reader, Evernote, and MacJournal (my word processor of choice). For pleasure I read plain old bookmarked webpages, sometimes in Instapaper, as well as in iBooks and Kindle.
Do you do any type of versioning or incremental backups of your pieces that are in progress?
I don’t use anything like Git, but I do use Time Machine, CrashPlan for offsite backups, and Dropbox. I’ve never been very happy with change tracking features in word processors. If I finish a first draft of a longer piece and think I might want to change it significantly, I’ll duplicate it either as an inpidual file or as a second journal entry in MacJournal so I can compare the original and the second draft side by side.
I’m assuming you use multiple devices when writing – how do you make sure you’re always working on the most recent copy of a given article or post?
I write almost everything in MacJournal, and its documents sync quite well over Dropbox. I still have to remember to quit it on one machine when switching to another, but it’s become habit by now so I rarely run into trouble.
How do you capture and track ideas for articles or blog posts?
A good chunk of my writing is news, so many times if we find something, I have to jump on a story right away. But I have a lot of ideas for original content too, and for a long time I’ve been using Things for that stuff. The Quick Entry feature is great for getting an idea out of my head and into a task inbox for dealing with later. I’m probably going to switch to OmniFocus though, now that it’s out for the iPad, which in light of your sync-related questions, should make things a lot easier for my workflow. I won’t have to be in the same room as one of my Macs to sync OmniFocus on my iPhone or iPad, and I won’t have to worry about ruining my task list by leaving Things open on one of my Macs.
What about general tasks and projects?
Whoops, guess I jumped the shark there. But basically it’s the same answer: I’ve been using Things, but I’m pretty sure I’ll switch to OmniFocus.
Tell me a little bit about how you “do” email.
I use Mail on my Macs and i-devices. I have a personal MobileMe account and a work account for Macworld, which is powered by Google Apps, so I have decent webmail interfaces for both accounts should I ever need to fall back on them. I don’t have an intricate system for my email, and I am not constantly chasing “inbox zero.” I do, however, use a few Smart Folders, and I like to frequently create Smart Folders and regular folders for projects, usually working with a source or PR on a news story or review.
One of my Smart Folders is simply “Unread,” which displays nothing but unread messages from both of my inboxes. It’s great for the occasional session of pounding though a backlog, since even if I don’t delete a message (maybe I need to flag it for followup or just keep it around for acting on later), it disappears from that Smart Folder once I select another message.
I have a Flagged Smart Folder for obvious reasons, but I usually also create Smart Folders for a specific person or product’s name if I’m going to be working even for couple days on it.
I also have a few key regular folders, such as “Coverage,” into which I toss messages that I want to make sure we cover. We often email links, PRs, and story pitches to a an editors and bloggers list, and if there’s something that needs to get covered, even if we have to wait on it for a day, I add the original message we send to that Coverage folder to maintain a sort of running checklist that I can compare against our published and upcoming stories.
During the course of a day, if there’s a message that I need to act on a little later, maybe it’s my next story or a reply I need to draft once I finish a story I’m already working on, I’ll double click to open it in a separate window that sits in a specific place on my display where I keep messages like this.
Of all of the folks I know, you’re a pretty outspoken proponent of Tumblr as a blogging platform. Can you tell me a bit about why this is?
Tumblr brings the most unique mix of simplicity and style to the table, and I’m not really talking about the themes. It’s stupid-simple to sign up and start posting, but I really like its concept of different “types” of posts, like links, media, and plain old text. Sometimes all you need to do is link something you found – you don’t need or want to say anything more – be it a photo you shot or cool site you found. On Tumblr you can do exactly that – you can post a photo with no title, caption, or forced blog post required, and you can link another page so the headline becomes a clickable link to that page. Tumblr lets your blog be as simple, flexible, or involved as you want, which is refreshing in a market of me-too, gimmicky WordPress and Blogger ripoffs.
Kindle, iBooks or dead trees (and why)?
iBooks and Kindle (apps), I’m a digital man – I read on my iPad and iPhone now, and I only get a dead tree if it isn’t in digital form yet or there is some significant extra media that you can’t get in the digital version. I get a little nostalgic for physical books every now and then, but the advantages of digital outweigh the longing for yesterday. I love being able to search books and have them all with me on the train. I’m thrilled about the potential for a much more engaging and informative experience that rich media books are beginning to explore, and I feel a lot more comfortable with my collection knowing that Apple, Amazon, CrashPlan, and I have backups in case I lose a device or my house burns down.
Do you have a favorite band or artist to listen to while you work?
I’ve been relaxing and focusing with instrumentalists like Bonobo and Amon Tobin. I love the grooves and rhythmic soundscapes that they produce, and as I’ve slowly grown away from some of my college music tastes I’ve come to find lyrics in music to be really distracting. It might be because I still love to sing and play music, so I want to play along in my head to more “traditional” rock sings with a lead singer. But give me a cool, layered track with a heart beat and I’m a happy worker bee.
You’ve spent a long day hunched over the keyboard, tapping feverishly. The work day is done, you’ve got a tall glass of something cold within arms reach and a Mac in front of you. What are your favorite ways to unwind online?
One kind of winding involves gaming, which is arguably anything but unwinding. I have a PS3, but I’ve always preferred gaming with a mouse and keyboards, especially FPS games, so during my downtime gaming I bounce between Mac OS X and Windows a lot to play games like Left 4 Dead 2 and Batman: Arkham Asylum.
Exploring all the interestingness and craziness that comes out of the Tumblr community and sifting through non-work-related feeds in Google Reader are also high on my list. Even though I’m not using much of my multimedia design degree, I still like to read a lot of design blogs like Motionographer, Iconfactory, PhotoJojo, and Jeffery Zeldman. Then there is of course my Twitter account and Facebook for keeping up with the gamut of readers and friends.