Writing Workflow, Summer 2013


  • nvALT lets you maintain and edit a library of plain text files (syncing via Dropbox).
  • OmniOutliner is a super efficient outliner, with nice styling options. It’s purpose-built for outlining, and it shows.
  • Apple Preview used for reading and annotating PDFs.
  • Pages My go-to text editor, when I need more involved formatting than what Markdown provides (i.e. things like page numbers and footnotes and bibliographies).
  • Elements an iOS Markdown text editor, which syncs via Dropbox.

Getting Going

The process varies slightly, depending on what type of piece I’m writing.

I start with a topic. Sometimes this is just a thought that comes into my head (e.g., like this post), sometimes it has been outlined as part of an assignment in a course I’m taking. Once I have that, I try to flush out what exactly I’m going to be writing about it, what specifically is there in that topic that interests me or is relatable to the course I’m taking. This stage doesn’t really have a specific tool associated with it — sometimes I jot down quick thoughts in a notebook, sometimes in a text file in nvALT, sometimes I’ll collect a list of possible topics for an assignment in an OmniOutliner file.


Research, in my academic work, has two major avenues of attack. Once I’ve found my topic, I’ll start searching both for physical books, as well as online journal articles, which deal with the subject. How I record pertinent facts/quotes from each differs.


When I come across something relevant in a physical book, I’ll note the page number and then write down the specific quote that I’m interested in, sometimes writing down my own comment on it. This is done in a fairly standard point form.

-p.73- “This specific quote is exceedingly relevant to the topic at hand.”
• Perhaps this is because I wrote it.

These reading notes get recorded either on paper, or in OmniOutliner.

Sample of reading notes, in OmniOutliner.

Sample of reading notes, in OmniOutliner.

Sometimes, if the relevant section of the book is short enough, I’ll take digital photos of the particular pages I’m interested it, or even scan them in, just so I can refer back to them after I’ve returned the book to the library (e.g., to double-check the specific context of a quote I recorded).

Digital Sources

My process for digital sources is a bit different. I’ll collect the PDFs in a folder, then read and annotate them with Apple’s Preview, highlighting quotes and sections I think I’ll want to come back to. Sometimes I’ll transcribe these over to a file in a format like what I did above, but if there are only a few —short— documents, I may just leave it at the highlights and move on.

Sample annotated PDF document, in Preview.

Sample annotated PDF document, in Preview.

Often, by gathering all of this information about my specific topic, I’m starting to get a more exact feel for what I want to cover or argue for, in the piece I’m writing. This leads to the next stage…


I do my outlining in OmniOutliner. I’ll block it into sections based on the subheadings I think I’ll have in my paper. Starting with an “Introduction” section, under which I’ll place a rough version of my thesis statement, then moving into the following sections of my paper. This is where I figure out roughly how the paper will flow. How does one argument and its support lead into the next? What points should the conclusion touch on? As I fill all this in, I’m constantly cross-checking with my reading notes, looking for anything that would either support or contradict what I’m saying, and copying those quotes into my outline (along with their corresponding reference information), so they’re on-hand when I get around to writing.


These days, I start my writing in nvALT, using the Markdown markup language. I use this particular system for two reasons. Simplicity and availability.

Markdown lets you use a common-sense syntax to format text in a plain text file. e.g., to italicize a word, you bookend it with an asterisk (in the plain text file, I wrote: *italicize*). What this does is let you not be tied to a proprietary file format, like .pages or .docx, etc. But, it has a secondary benefit. Plain text files can be opened by just about any computer on the planet, so they’re incredibly portable between computing devices and programs. Plain text has been around for years, and will continue to be readable well into the future (unlike those ClarisWorks files you have laying around on a floppy disk from the 90s).

nvALT is one such plain text editor, in fact, it’s what I’m writing this post in right now. You point it towards a folder on your computer, it shows you a list of all the plain text files in it, and lets you edit them. It’s an elegant and simple tool for the job. Because it’s just reading from a folder of plain-text files, I have that folder sync to Dropbox, which lets me access it from any computer or device with internet access (e.g., a school computer, or an iPad, etc.).


Editing a file in nvALT.

However, nvALT is only available for Mac OS X, what if I want to edit my text files from an iOS device? That’s where Elements comes in, it’s an iPhone and iPad app that —just like nvALT— you point towards a folder of text files. It shows them to you in a list, and you can edit away, to your hearts content. Then, because it’s syncing via Dropbox, when you sit down at your computer, you pick up right where you put the phone down, without having to use some kind of convoluted e-mail system to send the file back and forth.

Elements Screenshot

File, editing, and Markdown preview views in Elements.


Once, I’ve either got the piece written out, or have it sufficiently far along that I need more complex formatting options than Markdown provides, I move things into Pages. Just a simple copy and paste from the formatted preview that nvALT provides does the job for me. If it’s for the web, nvALT also provides a nice HTML output that I can also copy and paste to wherever it needs to go.

In Pages, or in a preview of the web page in a browser, I’ll go through and make final edits, touch up any formatting as needed, and call it a day.

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