The apps I use to read and write for this blog

20.20, Friday 27 May 2022

Because I’ve been asked a couple times recently:

I keep up with 345 websites and newsletters using an app called NetNewsWire. It’s free and I have it on my Mac, iPhone, and iPad. It’s a type of app called a newsreader.

When I find a blog or website I want to follow, I look for an RSS feed (sometimes just called a “feed”) and subscribe. This is also free. NetNewsWire grabs the feeds periodically, and presents the articles so that I can read them without ads or design.

(There are many newsreader apps out there. NetNewsWire is my favourite because it’s clean, easy, and fast.)

(Learn the basics about using RSS at The feed for this blog is here.)

How does NetNewsWire keep my subscriptions in sync between my various devices? When you run the app for the first time, it asks you to set up an account with one of various providers. It’s a bit like the way your email app will ask you who hosts your email. One free option for syncing is iCloud. I didn’t do that. Instead I first created an account with Feedbin for which I pay $5/month. NetNewsWire uses Feedbin to sync my devices.

I pay for Feedbin for one big reason: it gives me a secret email address that I can forward anything into. Here’s how I use it:

I read a lot of email newsletters, and email newsletters don’t have RSS. But my email client is a terrible place to read long articles. My inbox is full of distractions and I often miss things. So when I subscribe to a newsletter, I also set up an auto-forward rule from Gmail to my secret Feedbin email (and auto-archive the original email). Now newsletters appear in Feedbin, and therefore I get to read them in NetNewsWire.

Here’s my subscription list (you’ll find a bunch of blogs there you can also subscribe to).

How I use NetNewsWire:

I don’t read everything.

NetNewsWire has a “smart feed” called Today which only shows articles that have been published today. I look at that multiple times daily, then occasionally at particular favourite blogs to see if I’ve missed anything. I have about 6,000 unread articles. That’s fine.

I do almost all my writing in an app called Ulysses. It’s on my Mac, iPhone, and iPad and keeps in sync with iCloud.

It keeps short text notes in an overall library, organised by folder. I’ve used it for years. It’s well-designed, simple but not over-simple, and reliable.

I have top-level folders for

  • Work
  • Projects (organised by year then project)
  • This blog
  • And miscellaneous others, such as cooking, writing fiction, talks, and so on.

(I don’t keep track of to-dos much, but when I need to I use an app called Things which I have on all my devices. It’s also well-designed, structured without enforcing too much structure, and simple without being too simple. I organise tasks by project, and tag them by person and by whether I’m expecting to hear from them or they’re expecting to hear from me. This keeps general to-dos out of my notes.)

Inside the top-level folder for this blog the main two folders are:

  • Links
  • Posts, broken into Drafts and Posted.

My writing process is as follows.

Whenever I see an interesting link, on the web or reading subscriptions, I use the share icon and save it to my Links folder in Ulysses. I copy and paste a little context, or add a few words to make sure I can find it later. I don’t sweat it with tags or detail. I save maybe a dozen links a week.

(My long history of keeping these links is also how I put together talks, or do invention work when I’m in client work mode. I don’t have to be smart about a topic, I just have to have been keeping notes for longer than most people would think reasonable.)

Whenever I have an idea for a blog post, I make a quick note in Drafts. This might be a single line or it might be a paragraph. Drafts tend to start with an observation, a question, me trying to explain something to myself, or a connection between two ideas. Ideas for post appear suddenly and disappear just as fast – so I’m diligent about writing them down immediately even if I’m half awake or walking down the street. I write down maybe 3 or 4 ideas a week.

When I’m in the mood to write, I browse through my collected links and my drafts and wait for something to catch my eye. This is rarely at the same point as capturing an idea.

Often what happens is that two drafts rhyme with one another, so I bring the two together.

Another frequent occurrence is that I can’t think of anything to write, so I start by trying to explain in plain language why I find something interesting. I might get a few paragraphs along before I feel like the post isn’t going anywhere, so then I stop but I leave the expanded text in the draft.

I do this probably daily, 20 or 30 minutes expanding notes, trying bits of narrative, connecting ideas, and generally reminding myself of what’s in my notes.

Two or three times a week a post gets all the way to the end. Sketching and thinking my way through an idea is a different process to actually writing. I often surprise myself in this process – I usually don’t write with an endpoint in mind. It’s more like improv, and my opinion sometimes turns 180 through the process. I barely copy edit when done. Once over quickly, that’s it.

Then I title it and it’s done.

My blog is a homegrown setup and it doesn’t include an editor, web-based or otherwise. Posts are in Markdown (for the last decade; the first decade they were in XML). It’s all templated and I wrote my own server-side app for rendering.

When I write a post I save the text file in a directory with today’s date and add it to the code repository using git. On my Mac that means using Terminal. On my phone and iPad I use an excellent app called Working Copy which is a git client. The code gets pushed to Github. Then I connect to my server over SSH and run a script which deploys the latest code, including the new post.

This is a pretty baroque process. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. But I like controlling my own code and having the ability to tweak the way my blog works, so it’s good for me.

I’m very often not happy with what I write. Sometimes I’m super excited. However I also know (from experience) that my feelings about a particular post do not correlate well with how it will be received. So out into the world it goes, either way.

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If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it by email or on social media. Here’s the link. Thanks, —Matt.