A Twitterpal, Hamish, asked me:
How do you find so much great stuff, daily? He was referring to my Tech Universe column for the NZ Herald. I was thrilled that he thought the links I find were
great stuff. But I was also reminded that I’d intended to write a blog post about how I write the column.
I’ve been finding links for a couple of months now, and while it’s become a little smoother over time, I need more speed. At the moment it takes me several hours each day.
The core of my process is approximately 40 RSS feeds from science or technology sites. NetNewsWire refreshes those feeds hourly, so if I have time I can quickly skim the articles quite often during the day.
iPad apps and Twitter
I also pick up links from my Twitterpals, from various News apps on my iPad, and from some saved Google searches.
If I’m on my MacBook Pro when I catch those items I just follow the same process as for RSS feeds. If I’m using my iPad at the time though I generally email the link to myself. Then when I’m back on my laptop I can follow up.
Collect and write
If I have time and my brain’s fresh then I collect and write the links in one go.
When I find an item that seems a likely candidate to appear in the column I double click the headline or press the right arrow key in NetNewsWire to open the item in my default browser, Safari.
I read the item and if I decide it’s suitable then I paste the link to a ‘probables’ file I keep in BBEdit. I also write the headline and the couple of sentences that will be published.
Sometimes though I’m tired and ‘braindead’. In that case I may just grab the link and a couple of sentences so I can go back later to write it up properly.
I read through an awful lot more articles than I ever use. Sometimes I read for personal interest. At other times I find the item wasn’t actually very interesting.
Some interesting but annoying items I can’t use fall into one of two categories:
- Items that are just too complex to be able to express in a couple of sentences.
- Items that are way over my head. I read them but only understand one word in five. That’s mainly some of the very much more scientific articles.
Edit and rewrite
I have to file my column ‘first thing’ every weekday. On very rare occasions I have everything all sorted the night before, but usually I rise early to edit and rewrite the items.
I tighten up the wording, rearrange things for more effect and brevity, and hone the headline. Occasionally I make a last minute swap to take out a ‘weak’ item and replace it with something more interesting.
Finally I look at the sequence. I try to start and close ‘strong’. Maybe there’s a natural progression I can use too, where some items have some loose relationship, so they belong together.
Once I’ve finalised the day’s column I need to email it to my editor, save a copy to a reference file, add the items to a weekly blog post I build up and create a tweet with just the headings.
Each needs a slightly different format, but I invested a little time in creating a few Applescripts, so it takes only a click of the mouse to create the separate items.
This is a typical item, as I write it. I’ve removed the bulk of the text:
<p>FANTASTIC LIGHT: Photonics moves data using light … Broadband speeds willing, of course. <http://www.wired.com/gadgetlab/2010/07/silicon-photonics-50-gbps/> </p>
My first Applescript copies all 5 items to a new empty BBEdit document, strips out the
<p> tags, adds some extra Returns between each item, adds a header and footer.
I call it up through Keyboard Maestro which then takes the output, creates a new email message, correctly addressed and with a Subject that includes the date.
After checking the email I press Send.
Then I go back to my text file and call up more Applescripts through Keyboard Maestro. Each prepares the text slightly differently. One adds dates to each item, removes the
<p> tags and adds all 5 items to my reference file. I can easily check that file to ensure I don’t use the same item twice, and to check that I have a good variety of topics.
Another script turns the set of items into an HTML list so it can appear on this blog. It also takes the URL and makes the headline into a link.
The final script assembles just the headlines, and capitalises them, ready for me to send a tweet once the column is published.
The hardest parts of writing the column are finding potential items and then writing a succinct and, I hope, interesting heading and paragraph.
I’m learning a lot though: both about trends in science and technology, and about writing in a style different from my usual instructional prose.
I’d love to read your comments on my Tech Universe column. Let me know in the Comments here what you think of it.