Getting more out of our expensive computers

Artist as producer. And geek.

part 1 of X

I've had a lot of anxious and/or bewildered conversations with artists and producers about using computers for writing and collaborating, email, communicating with teams and/or file management and more.

For independent artists, our laptops are often the most expensive thing we own. We may know our "professional" software well (Ableton, Logic, Adobe, Final Draft, Excel, Isadora etc...) but that doesn't mean we're using the computers well for the rest of our work. In small, always stressed, arts orgs and collaborations there is little time to reflect and find new processes. Turnover is so high and constant that training and learning suffers. So we "make it work" with applications and processes we inherited from late 90's institutions.

There aren't any final answers, because this is a constantly shifting landscape but there is some apps and some mindsets that I think can help.

I have been using Macs since 1984. I've never been a programmer or worked under the hood, but I like learning and trying processes out with computers (as well as theatre and conferences), if only because I too am anxious and bewildered by the work of the world.

I'm also sure there are people out there lightyears ahead of me.
Be gentle and thanks for visiting.

I owe most of everything in the nerdy how-to-work vain from listening to podcasts and reading blogs of some very specific people: Merlin Mann, Dan Benjamin, Katie Floyd, David Sparks and Brett Terpstra and all their various projects and guests. I've been inspired and also modified to personal and field differences. Which I think is basically the point:

Finding simpler ways to work better for the work you do and the person you are.

An example:

I really like to using plain text files and Markdown.

(It's even better if collaborators are using it. So this might be a little evangelical)

Much of what many of us do for work is basically typing.

We do different things with our typing: emails, plays, articles, reports, Facebook screeds, proposals or poetry, for example.

When I'm writing these things, I don't need all the bells, whistles and ribbons of options of a Word doc (or is it docx?)

When I'm typing I need a cursor and a screen and the words I'm typing. And maybe I want to make something bold or italic. I might need to make a list or, more and more these days, add a link to a webpage.

Many of the features in giant programs like Word are just distractions that sometimes crash. (And never format for the web in Word, it makes terrible code.)

Plus, both Word and Pages (Apple's Word competition) are formats that the corporations own and when they change their minds or go out of business we're left with files (e.g. Novel-FINAL.pages) that we can't open.

Most importantly, these days we're often going from a computer to an iPad to an Android phone to a different computer etc... and ad infinitum. And that's hard on formatting. But it's no problem for plain text files (.TXT).

Text files are one of the basic units of computers. They've always been there and mostly ignored. TXT files have no formatting information and therefore are very small and compatible across all platforms. But I do need some formatting and a way to save it across all these modes of working.

Which is where Markdown comes in.

Markdown is a way to write in plain text while keeping the most basic formatting like bold, italics, headings and lists.

It is especially good for writing that is 1) going on the internet or B) going back and forth between people and devices.

Markdown is a much simpler and readable way to write the code for putting words on the internet. It makes adding links and images easy and readable outside of HTML, that is by humans.

For example:

//[This is a sentence I want to be a link](


[This is a sentence I want to be a link][1]


Both of which are easier to read or remember than:

<a href="">This is a sentence I want to be a link</a>

Download the TXT file for this article if you want a full example.

For more of the syntax HERE is a simple guide from Byword, the text editor I use for the Mac ($13.99) and iOS (±$5). It's fast, simple and stable. It also displays Markdown formatting beautifully and legibly on the screen and is the easiest place for me to type on the computer. Others agree.

There is a community of indie developers making great little apps for Plain Text for both the Mac and iOS. Brett has a list HERE of all the possible editors on iOS. They're reasonably priced and support small teams doing good things, so don't be afraid of paying a Starbucks coffee or two for one.

I also use NValt on the Mac which is a longer story for another day.

If you're in Toronto and interested in learning more - I'm running a series of workshops in July on this kind of stuff. You can register and find out more about those here.

Further Reading:

  • A 2 minute read, on the reasons to use Markdown: CLICK here.
  • A 5 minute course and reference link on using markdown: CLICK HERE
  • A great example of Markdown for collaborative teams: CLICK HERE
  • For screenwriters, there is Fountian - a syntax like Markdown that works in plain text and hopes to avoid Final Draft until it's actually needed or useful.