There are a plethora of writing tools. Smart, creative people regularly introduce a fresh approach to the craft of composing sentences. Editorially, iA Writer, Medium, Svbtle, and Draft each innovate on what has come before. As someone who spends a great deal of time stringing words together, I’m enormously appreciative of (and curious about) these efforts.
There isn’t as much focus on the idea stage of writing. How do you keep track of the topics you want to write about? Where do you play with six different titles for your essay? How do you collect sources and quotes? Most of my writing is more straightforward, but a recent project forced me to expand my toolkit and rediscover the power of the outline.
I love working in outliners like OmniOutliner, Tinderbox, and WorkFlowly, but mostly for organizing lists and tasks, planning features and writing product specs. Dave Winer, who has spent most of his professional life working with or on outliners, recently started a new company that is building them for the browser, first Little Outliner and now, the more powerful Fargo.
I have become quite enamored with Fargo over the past few weeks. Working with software that has decades of experience and knowledge behind it is a pleasure. It’s a joy to use and rapidly evolving. In the past week, Fargo has gained support for Markdown and posting to WordPress. What's particularly powerful is that as new capabilities are added to the software, the community is able to influence the form and direction they take. The potential of most apps and services these days is scale, what might happen with thousands and millions of users. Fargo's potential lies largely in the creativity of its users.
For my lastest writing project, I decided to use Fargo as the foundation (the above is a screenshot of a hypothetical article-in-progress). Using an outliner at the formative stages provides the greatest benefit. I can quickly add ideas and notes and reorganize them hours later, as patterns begin to form.
When I find relevant content online, I add the title and then the link, reflected by the bookmark icon. I paste quotes under that heading.
Where outliners shine is the ability to expand and collapse sections at will. I can collect lengthy quotes from a piece and then collapse that section to focus on other parts of the project. I find it very easy to get lost in a long document or collection of ideas; with an outliner, I work on one idea at a time.
Outliners have served me well in many areas and are now an essential part of my writing flow. It’s much easier to think flexibly when the tool is so flexible. If you haven’t tried one, Fargo makes it easy; it’s free, runs in your browser, and uses Dropbox for storage.
My priority this weekend was putting together a site to raise money for my sister's increasing medical bills. Then, I received a phone call that her condition was rapidly worsening. An hour later, my phone rang again from the same number. No part of me wanted to answer it. She was gone.
Laura was the middle child in our family and I was the baby. I would often tell people that being three years apart, we were constantly mad at each other growing up, but as I looked through photos from those days, there we are, side by side in picture after picture, smiling.
We played innumerable board games together, wrestled over the remote control, fought until there was physical evidence. I kept score at her high school volleyball games and marveled as she went on multi-day bike trips with my dad. In the days before the Internet, DVRs or even VCRs, I would watch her favorite soap opera to let her know what happened when she got home late from school. I teased her about her first boyfriends and sat on the bed and listened to her when they broke her heart.
Laura was so great about my first girlfriend, of course, that she was a bridesmaid when Lori and I got married. Laura knew food and cooking better than most anyone and she and Lori shared many irreplaceable hours in the kitchen together, most recently at Thanksgiving.
She lived with us for a few months while our son was a toddler. He used to push the door open and tiptoe into her room to get a peek at this exciting new presence. She would sneak up to meet him with a surprise, “Boo!” and he would squeal and laugh and run while she chased him. For years she was known in our house as Aunt Boo.
What a sweet woman she was. Everyone who met her loved her, every man was mesmerized by her beauty. She agonized over the smallest decisions, but jumped at every sudden opportunity to get on a plane. She sought out beaches constantly and found peace at the ocean's edge.
There were always interesting tales from her travels. For some reason, her story about getting pulled over for speeding while driving across New Mexico was one of my favorites. She started by expressing surprise, but the cop would have none of it. “We've been following you for 10 miles. The only time you slowed down was when someone didn't get out of your way fast enough!” She told it with the biggest smile. I doubt she actually got a ticket.
Laura was so unique. She helped endless new families and babies as a doula. She played guitar and had a wonderful voice, became fluent in sign language, was a vegetarian before most knew such a thing existed, and danced to reggae in Jamaica. She was the one who seemed unsure of her opinions, but left you wondering why you were so sure of yours. Somehow she introduced me to Firefly, yet doubted my ability to pick out clothes for her, even from her beloved Sundance.
Whenever we watched movies and shows together, she would get frustrated and groan at unrealistic scenes. “That would never happen.” Each time, I'd chide her, “It's a story! Who wants to watch real life?”
Not me, not today.
Many years ago, she and a girlfriend traveled the globe for six months, from Thailand to New Zealand to Malawi and more. They brought with them nothing more than massive backpacks and a fierce belief that there is no time like the present. She knew better than anyone I know that all that matters in life is people and moments.
God, I miss her.
If you'd like to contribute to Laura's memorial fund, donations will help cover her medical and memorial expenses. Visit this site to give. Thank you for your kindness and generosity.
What hurdles does a new app face? Moves, the iPhone app for tracking your steps, has been part of my life for a few weeks and I love it. Watching my usage evolve and interest in the app spread has prompted some thoughts about the hurdles a mobile app must overcome.
First, an app has to find its way on to your phone. Moves launched at the end of January and from an outsider's perspective, has grown organically and consistently since. I came across the app from a tweet and every week, I see someone else talking about it. When someone mentions Moves, you can sense a smile on their face. They are delighted by the combination of the design and experience, the encouragement of healthy behavior, and the price (free). Side note: I'm skeptical of free apps with revenue-to-be-named-later and that applies in this case, too.
This type of slow word-of-mouth is ideal, in my opinion. Many apps launch with a large coordinated push. For a day or two, it seems like everyone is talking about it. A week later, no one is. Seeing new people discover and actually use an app, and then talk about it because they love it, is much more powerful than a mad rush to be first to a new fad. Nothing beats “I use this app and like it. You might, too.”
Not everyone sees it that way, and of course, many apps harness that initial momentum (even if largely manufactured) and go on to great success. One way or another, an app has to stand out. It might be through App Store promotion, a marketing campaign, the pedigree of those behind it, the love of influencers, or people raving about it.
Even when a app breaks through the noise, a person has to:
remember the name
search for it or revisit a link
download the correct app
open the app
in many cases, sign in or create an account
If a new app does make it to your phone, how likely is it to stay? I installed Moves and a few days later it was on my iPhone's home screen. I checked my total daily, kept my phone with me on the treadmill, told friends about it, and wondered if I'd hit a new daily record during SXSW (I did).
Then, I had to replace my iPhone.
A screen issue required a trip to the Apple Store. With the possibility of a replacement in mind, I backed up my phone before I left. Sure enough, the screen wasn't repairable and I left with a new phone.
When I restored from the backup later that day, I noticed that some apps were missing. I actually didn't know which ones, but just sensed gaps on a few screens. Apparently backing up your iPhone does not save apps that aren't in iTunes (that's my theory, anyway).
The next day, I realized that Moves was missing and installed it again. When I opened it, the data I had collected was gone, no epic days downtown and no lazy Sundays. After a few days, I checked to see the fresh data I had collected, but each day showed zero steps. Something wasn't working correctly. I reset everything and now, things are working smoothly again.
Most likely, none of those hurdles were the fault of Moves. In fact, I gladly take the blame for them. These scenarios are not uncommon, though. Even a great app like Moves, an app that is basically doing everything right, faces these hurdles.
How many people would:
notice an app was missing?
take the time to search for it and download it again?
continue using it if previous data, scores, achievements were missing?
continue using it if it didn't work initially?
If the app is considered essential (part of the mail, messages, lists, and calendar flow, tied to friends or family, an addictive game or service) we'll jump through many hoops, but that is the exception.
There isn't a formula for success here, unless you include temporary shortcuts like paying for installs or viral loop tricks (the “Invite All” button is awfully close to the “Invite” button, isn't it?). At the most basic level, the quality of the app and the size of your existing audience are the two biggest factors in determining success, but thousands of companies and developers are tying to solve these problems every day and great apps don't always succeed. My experience using Moves and working on other mobile apps has reminded me to:
Appreciate the challenge
We don't always appreciate how difficult it is to create a successful app. Be reasonable in your expectations, supportive of your fellow developers, and humble if your talent and good fortune deliver a hit.
We focus a lot of removing hurdles that keep someone from installing and starting to use an app, but much less on those that cause a current user to drift away. We're often casual about things like requiring users to sign in again after an app update. Yes, it's unavoidable sometimes, but know that a single new hurdle can leave some of your users behind.
Create something inspired
If an app solves a problem in a unique way, reflects passion and care, or is simply inspired, it's obviously easier to gain and keep someone's attention. A new app should matter. It should have a core reason for existing, beyond “to make money” or “gain a lot of users”. People can tell if the creators believe in what they've built.
Form a relationship beyond the app
Don't let the app be the only relationship you have with a user. That tenuous connection can be broken through something as small as lost credentials that require logging in again, a bug in the latest update, a new phone, or a fresh install. If someone is connected to the company behind an app, they are more likely to reach out for support, forgive a misstep, provide helpful feedback, or try the next, new thing.
An update from the Founder and CEO of World Wide Web, Inc.
October 1, 1998
I know this blog has been quiet lately. It's been a crazy few months of meetings and negotiation here at WWW HQ, but we're finally ready to share our big news: World Wide Web is joining the America Online team next month! We couldn't be more excited.
When we first launched the World WIde Web in 1991, we never expected it to catch on or turn into a business. The last few years have proven us wrong. The New York Times has a website, Vice President Gore mentions us in speeches, and some people buy books through their web browser.
We've always admired the guys at America Online, so when they approached us this summer, we jumped at the chance. By combining forces with their amazing team, we can leverage the technology and scale of their platform and focus on what matters. Our small team has been lucky just to keep up with your questions and bug reports.
The World Wide Web has been great, but to be honest, it's also been a lot harder than it needs to be. I know some of you love creating new web pages and participating in online discussions, but the last thing most people want when they get home is one more thing that makes them work. That's why television is so much more popular.
We know how frustrating it can be to click a link that turns out to be broken, or visit a page that you thought was about one thing, but turns out to be about something different. Many pages are filled with typos and inaccuracies. We would never put up with that in our newspapers and magazines. Why should we online?
Our team will be working with first-class partners to bring you the content you deserve, from the best magazines in the checkout isle to in-depth reporting from your favorite network news programs. We want your new World Wide Web to be a place you can trust.
Some of you have put many hours into adding pages and sites of your own to the World Wide Web. Your passion and enthusiasm for quirky topics and off-the-wall ideas were great.
Don't worry, all of that hard work won't be wasted. The World Wide Web will remain accessible for 30 days, which will give you plenty of time to update your readers and customers. Each of you will also receive a 30-day free trial for AOL. Look for your CD in the mail soon.
Even better, we've created an import tool to make it easy to migrate everything you've put on the web to American Online! The address will change, of course, but now it will be available to every AOL member. You may find that you don't need to bother, though. America Online already has groups and pages about almost every topic you can imagine. Take a look around first and you might save yourself a lot of time. There are only so many different ways to say that Citizen Kane was a good movie!
We understand that not all of you will become AOL subscribers and not all web sites will move to the new platform. Just to be safe, be sure to print out all of your favorite pages before the end of the month.
It's been a wild ride, but we're just getting started. I look forward to seeing you online, America.
A recent talk by Cory Doctorow reminded me once again how lucky we are that no one owns the Internet. Thanks to Tim Berners-Lee, Cory, EFF, and so many others for steadfastly defending the World Wide Web against those who would co-opt it in the name of safety, commerce, or anything else. As Dave Winer says, “Ask not what the Internet can do for you, ask what you can do for the Internet.”
Readmill released a brand-new iPhone app today and it's the talk of the Internet (or at least the corner I find myself). Already available for the iPad, many have eagerly awaited an iPhone edition. The app is beautiful and has been widely praised.
The blog post announcing the release is masterful. The writing is succinct and friendly (I like the “Stick it on your homescreen…” line). There are raves from influential people. The images are enticing. The post has a sense of “We built this for you and us”, which is invaluable. The talented people creating Readmill clearly love the app and what it makes possible.
But what does Readmill make possible?
Reading, obviously, but reading what? The post includes a reference to what you might read with it, “the latest page of your book”, but that leaves a few unanswered questions.
read Kindle books, iBooks, PDFs, or mobi files?
read articles, similar to Instapaper?
add previously purchased ebooks?
Without browsing the site or visiting the app page, it's unclear.
Writing for multiple audiences is one of the hardest and most common content challenges. A company is telling an ongoing story to what feels like a consistent audience. If the company is doing interesting things and people are talking about its products, though, new people are regularly stopping by, especially when there is significant news. These visitors are starting with hardly any context, most likely just a link from a friend.
I think about content like hospitality. If you're having people over to your house, there is a familiarity with those who've visited before. “Grab something from the fridge and relax on the porch. We have that drink you liked so much last time.” Much goes unsaid.
You go out of your way for people who are visiting for the first time, though. “Let me show you around. The restroom is down the hall and to your left. Oh, that's Pixel. Don't worry, she doesn't bite.”
Try to read your content, especially announcements, from the perspective of someone who hasn't heard of your company or product (or better, find someone like that to provide feedback before its published). The people who are already part of your story don't mind a short paragraph that bring visitors up to speed. Go out of your way to make everyone feel at home.
Note: Readmill is awesome. This is simply an illustration of a common content dilemma, one I struggle with often.
I grew up in Michigan where the card game of choice was euchre. My high school friends and I would play whenever we could, especially during lunch.
As we got better at the game, the games got shorter. We learned the patterns and could often see clearly how a hand would play out based on what cards had already been played. Instead of finishing the hand, someone would point out the inevitable outcome and we'd stop where we were, count the points, and start a new hand.
The ability to see how something plays out is enormously valuable. The experience and wisdom that make it possible are rare and often ignored.
With technology, the assumption is that the pace of change renders the past obsolete. “What we're doing hasn't been done before. The old rules don't apply.”
We've experienced revolutions, no doubt; unexpected innovations that confound us and change how entire industries work (or create new ones).
These rare revolutions provide the excuse for us to avoid difficult questions about how something is going to play out. “Something” might be a new feature, business model, or strategic decision.
The reality is, we often know exactly how it is going to play out, because hundreds of companies have gone down the same path. The one thing the technology industry doesn't lack is prior art (and exhaustive discussion) about what has worked and what hasn't.
The temptation is to care more about momentum than progress. We just want to keep moving rather than think through where a decision will lead. We treat new features like the pull of a slot machine handle, as if the odds aren't well known.
Make decisions informed by what's come before. Seek out advice from people who've been in similar situations. Pause, look at the cards that have been played, think about the cards that remain, and play out the rest of the hand in your head.
Experiments with predictable and ultimately unsatisfying results aren't worth the time now or the change in direction later.
Since moving to Austin three years ago, I've been lucky enough to see a few terrific concerts. I've been thinking about the emotional allure of live performance. What is it that brings us together in one place, despite the cost and oftentimes numerous obstacles, to hear songs we likely own and watch a performance that will be on YouTube a few days later?
The best concerts are not note-for-note reproductions of favorite songs. They are the heart and soul of a performer feeding off of the crowd. When I think back on concerts I've experienced (whether in person or not), the moments I remember are the mistakes and surprises: Chris Martin forgetting the next verse at a Coldplay Austin City Limits taping, Gary Clark Jr. breaking a guitar string, Led Zeppelin playing For Your Life live for the first in 2007, Radiohead stopping a song to get someone help, then continuing right where they left off. There was the time when Arcade Fire grabbed a branch from the ACL set and used it to beat a drum, and this great moment from Madison Square Garden.
And you're going to be like, “Remember when I saw Arcade Fire and they played the first minute of their song and they started over? That was the best moment of my life.”
The energy of the audience and band are completely different after it. Now, they've shared something truly unique and memorable.
A live concert is one of the increasingly rare chances to experience those imperfections and unexpected moments.
Sigur Rós is one of my favorite bands. There is one song in particular, Ára Bátur, that gives me chills whenever I listen to it. There is a note that the lead singer, Jónsi, has to strain to reach. He sings most songs falsetto, but in this one, there are moments that lie just beyond his range. You can hear his effort to reach the note, which makes the performance even more emotional.
I was reading about the album that includes Ára Bátur recently and discovered that the song was actually recorded live at Abbey Road Studios and the performance itself was filmed and is available online (the specific moments I'm referring to begin at 5:50). Even without knowing that, and without the sound of crowd, the song had the emotion and energy of a live performance.
Technology encourages us to chase perfection, but often it's at the expense of unexpected moments and emotional connection. Like Auto-Tune, we try to calibrate our products and experiences to remove any imperfections or surprises. (I'm not talking about banking apps and such. There are plenty of situations where people prefer an experience free of surprises.) We exchange raw honesty and openness for a world where we're always excited and every feature is awesome.
One of my favorite examples of surprise is Glitch, the online game and community which recently came to an end. The game began with months of beta testing. What made the beta so much fun is that it was done in short bursts. The game would be available for just a day or a weekend at a time and you never knew when the next opportunity to play would be. It became an event you didn't want to miss.
I want to build things that leave space for the people who use them to take them in new directions. I want there to be small moments that surprise and delight. I want people to experience passion, not perfection.
In the year ahead, I want to reach for notes that are just out of my range.
When you're bringing something new to life, do the values you want reflected in the result have to be part of its creation?
If you're building a travel app, but you've never left the country, will that show in the end result? Can you paint a serene scene in the midst of a chaotic life? Will a political campaign dedicated to changing the status quo be successful if it's run no differently than the campaigns that came before?
I don't know that there is a simple answer to this question. For individuals and artists particularly, there can be a certain amount of disconnect and the result still be what was intended. A star engineer can help create a groundbreaking new game without being a gamer. An artist can draw a fantastic logo for a product she has never used.
For an organization, though, I think the answer is different. The passions and values that you want expressed in the product (whether a magazine, app, site, game, service or anything else) have to be the same passions and value of the team behind it. When the two are not aligned, the product will fall short of what it was meant to be. A company without a love of games in its DNA is unlikely to create something people will love.
While working on Uncommon in Common with a group of friends for the last five months, this question has often been on my mind. (You can catch up on the story so far if you're curious.) The dream of Uncommon is a slow web community that celebrates favorite things, curates the best parts of our week, embraces limits and rhythm, and encourages time away from our screens.
That is a fine goal, but I want that now. I want to hurry up. Uncommon is a labor of love for all involved. There aren't VC's to please and we don't have to meet payroll every two weeks. Nevertheless, my instinct is to seek the attention of the right people, promote and over-promise, and work late into the night. I know there is a way that new things for the web are supposed to be built and promoted and expectations for how any new community should work if you want to be successful, from Facebook sign-in and rows of share buttons to ads and username games.
Those expectations often present a dilemma. Can a site determined to support people in finding a healthy balance online be birthed out of imbalance? Can a community embrace patience if we are anything but? There are shortcuts and temptations at every turn.
Thankfully, everyone helping create Uncommon, from the advisors and core team to our amazing founding members, understands what is at the heart of it. They know that we can't create something uncommon through methods that are anything but. And each time I find myself unclear or make a wrong move, they don't hesitate to remind me.
What are the values at the core of what you're building? Let them guide what you do and how you do it. In the end, those values are your product.
On a recent weekend, I watched two documentaries, Jiro Dreams of Sushi and Woody Allen. They were oddly similar — two stories of men pursuing their craft with incredible persistence. The films are interesting bookends; both men chase perfection in different ways. Whereas Jiro controls every step of the process and holds each person to the highest of standard, Allen appears resigned to the unreliability of the creative process. Each year, he creates a new movie. The moment it's finished, he begins the next. Some of them work, some don't. Some are very successful, most aren't. Allen hopes to improve as a filmmaker each time, but knows he will always fall short.
There was one moment in the Woody Allen film that stood out. Naomi Watts was talking about what it's like to work with Allen and said:
While he's giving us a lot of free rein, he's still going for something very specific.
I love this. In my experience, it's how the best people lead and how most of us want to be led; clarity as to the goal and freedom in how to achieve it.
By goal, I'm referring to both the end result (increase sales by 20%, design a page where someone can create a playlist, write an article on the latest feature) and the broader, “Here's what I'm looking for.” It's the “he's still going for something very specific” part. The actors clearly know what Allen expects from them; they aren't guessing.
The combination of clarity and freedom is what makes work a joy; one without the other is where you find frustration. When you have great freedom, but an incomplete understanding of the goal, you're likely to invest hours of effort in a futile attempt to hit a target you can't see. You know this is the case when you see revisions requested again and again, or products that are perpetually delayed.
On the other hand, a clear goal with little freedom in how to achieve it produces uninspired work by dispirited people. The lack of freedom is experienced as a lack of trust and confidence. People in these environments will eventually seek out new places to work.
The freedom Allen gives his actors is possible because he has chosen people he trusts. Earlier, the film discusses how he casts his films. For the main roles, Allen typically has a single person in mind. He sends a hand-written note to the actor asking if they would consider appearing in his film, along with a copy of the script, which they must return the next day. Most say yes immediately, not only because of his status as a filmmaker, but because of the quality of work they see other actors do for and with him.
It's the same in our companies. The way to attract the best people is to develop a reputation for talented people doing amazing work.
There's nothing revolutionary or complicated here: Hire great people, be clear about the goal, and provide the freedom to achieve it.
If someone uses your site, app, or service for a year, reward them, celebrate them, thank them. It's one of the simplest ways to improve your relationship with your customers and few companies do it.
I actually can't think of a single company I frequent that acknowledges ongoing loyalty, outside of displaying “Member since” on an account page or membership card. The Internet makes it trivial to switch companies, which makes it incredibly rare that someone remains a customer or member of a site year after year. These are likely your most valuable customers. Why not do everything you can to reward and keep them?
The bar is so low that a short, thoughtful email from the CEO each year (which could be written, designed, and automated in a day or two) would put you in the top 5% of companies.
I just wanted to thank you for being a customer. You made your first purchase with us one year ago today and a few more since. We hope we've exceeded your expectations each time. If we haven't, please let us know so we can improve. We look forward to working with you for many years to come.
That's it, really. Acknowledge the milestone, show appreciation, and provide an easy way to respond with questions or concerns (and then address them, obviously). Another option would be a note inside the site itself. The more personal you can be, the better. If you're small enough, you could sign and mail an actual note.
Rewards are certainly an option, too, such as a discount on the next order, free shipping, or maybe early access to a new feature or high-demand product. The free birthday drink that Starbucks gives to card holders is a good example of this - simple, no fine print, and more personal than most large corporations tend to be.
Subscriptions are a little different. We often use pricing to encourage loyalty through the early-bird approach; be one of the first to sign up at the temporary, lower rate, then keep that rate as long as you remain a customer. That works well for your very first customers, but what about the many more who sign up later? What if the subscription price actually decreased each year someone renewed, or the benefits increased? It's an idea I'd like to experiment with for Uncommon eventually.
Companies are typically good at recognizing and rewarding dedication when it comes to employees. Start date anniversaries are acknowledged, sometimes celebrated, and loyalty rewarded through increases in salary, perks, and vacation days. A similar approach can show your customers that they are valued.
We have all of these fields in our databases for a reason. Find your loyal customers and treat them with the respect they deserve. It's simple, right and, in the end, smart.