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Links and articles about technology, design, and sociology. Written by Rian van der Merwe.

Reading and writing on the web: my tools and workflow

I’ve had quite a few questions about my reading/sharing/writing workflow in recent months, so I thought I’d write down what I do just in case it has some broader appeal. In this post I will outline the process and tools I use for reading on the web (and taking action on the good stuff). We all have to find our own way on the web, of course, but maybe there’s something here that resonates.

First, it’s important to say a little bit about why I spend so much time tweaking and improving this workflow. All of the process work is just a means to an end. And the end is to never stop learning new things. I like how Michael Schechter puts it in Finding Your Passion For Learning:

Today, I read more than I ever have before. Today, I crave new topics to dive into. Today, I love learning more than I have any time of my life. While I’m not always the best at learning what I should, I’m continually discovering and constantly seeking new ideas.

I couldn’t agree more with that sentiment. I read so much because I’m incapable of keeping my curiosity at bay. What ultimately drives me is a need to get better at what I do because I know I still have so much to learn.

So, let’s get to it. My workflow has two main phases, and I’ll discuss each in detail:

  1. Inflow is about the process of finding and reading good articles on the web.
  2. Outflow is about choosing the most appropriate ways to save and/or share the good stuff.

Inflow

As the old saying goes: Garbage In, Garbage Out. We are in a period of constant content bombardment, and unless we find ways to focus only on things that are worth our time, we’re going to be lost at sea. The process for disseminating good content is actually pretty easy once you get into a groove. It’s finding the right things to read that is the constant struggle. I use two main sources for finding things to read, and both requires continuous tweaking.

RSS feeds

RSS is dead, apparently. Well, maybe if you have 80,000 followers on Twitter and only care about major tech stories that’s true. But I don’t have that many sources following me, and I care about too many off-the-highway things to be able to rely solely on Twitter for news. If I only relied on Twitter, I most likely wouldn’t see posts from authors I love who only post infrequently.

I use Reeder on Mac and iOS devices to keep up with the feeds I subscribe to. I spend quite a bit of time adding new feeds and removing feeds I’m no longer interested in. I organize feeds in folders like Design, User Experience, and Coding. I also have two folders with must-read blogs that are always at the top: Favorite tech and Favorite Design and UX. These are the folders I make sure I check in on if I don’t have a lot of time. There’s a lot of churn as I learn more about what I like and read – I add and remove feeds in these two folders all the time.

Twitter

I envy people who treat Twitter like a river they can just dip their toes into every once in a while. I get nervous if I miss a few tweets, so I’m not able to follow more than about 250 people. This isn’t personal, it’s just how I choose to use the service. I like the way Chris Bowler puts it:

One fact that I do my best to keep in mind is this: there are two very different ways to use Twitter. Option A is as a social tool to interact and joke around with others, to connect. Option B is to use it as a source of sharing information, usually in the form of links to content or pithy blurbs of opinion.

Some people like the service for one, but not the other. Some people manage to strike a lovely, harmonious balance between the two. The catch is that “” in my opinion “” we mostly want to follow folks who use the service in the same way we do.

I use Twitter mostly for Option B, so those are the kind of people I follow. So, even though I do a little less shuffling on Twitter than I do on my RSS feeds, I do make some changes once in a while to adjust the type of content that comes into my stream. I also use Twitter lists extensively, mostly to keep up with people who are Option B users but extremely frequent updaters (and therefore too noisy for my main stream).

I use the official Twitter app on Mac, and Tweetbot on iOS devices.

Outflow

Once I see an article in RSS or on Twitter that might be interesting, a very specific workflow kicks into gear as I decide what to do next.

Read it later

If I don’t have time to read an article right away, I use Instapaper to save it for later reading. From RSS, Reeder has easy shortcuts to send articles to Instapaper. On Twitter I just favorite the tweet, and then there’s an If This Then That Recipe that automatically sends the link in the tweet to Instapaper. I could send the link directly to Instapaper from within the app, but I like to save the entire tweet so that I can credit the source if I end up doing something with that content. Attribution is really important to me.

Read it now

I usually spend about 30 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes at night just reading and catching up. This happens either in Reeder, or in Instapaper.

Save permanently

Whenever I read something I like, I save it to Pinboard immediately. Both Reeder and Instapaper have Pinboard integration, so this is a really easy process.

I have a paid archive account on Pinboard that enables additional features like full-text search and cached copies of articles. Seriously, everything in this workflow revolves around Pinboard. I’d be lost without it. It’s a safety net of epic proportions. I go there to look for articles I vaguely remember reading and suddenly need, and it’s constantly in use when I’m writing longform pieces (like this one). If there is such a thing as a hub in this little process of mine, Pinboard would be it.

(Yes, I’m a fan.)

Do something

Once an article is in Pinboard, I do one of four things with it.

1. Do nothing

If it’s just an article I’m saving for reference, or a new method I want to try at work, I move on and don’t do anything else with the article. I might come back to it later when I’m writing something or in need of a refresher on a new design technique, but I’d say I do nothing more for about 50% of the articles I save to Pinboard.

My Pinboard saved links are all private, but if you’re interested you can get access to the private RSS feed by becoming a member of Elezea.

2. Share on Twitter

If I think an article will have broad appeal I share it on Twitter. I usually do this with Buffer. The main use case for Buffer is to queue tweets for sending at specified times, but I use it mostly with the handy “Post now” link in the Chrome bookmarklet as well as the iPhone app.

I use Buffer as my tweet app of choice because it’s the only one I’ve found that allows me to send an article’s title and custom bitly-shortened URL from Chrome or mobile Safari directly to the app for easy posting.

The only exception to this is when I read something right away in Reeder and want to share it. Reeder has really good Twitter integration with custom bitly links as well (only on iOS though – for some reason the Desktop app doesn’t allow you to use your bitly Pro account, so you can’t track your links easily).

3. Share on Tumblr

If I want to share a short quote or photo that’s not directly related to what I write about on this blog, it goes to the B-sides. I use the standard Tumblr browser bookmarklet for sharing.

4. Share on Elezea

If it’s something I’d like to add some thoughts to it goes on this blog. There’s probably an 80/20 split between quick link posts and more substantive articles like this one. I don’t know if that’s the right split, so I’d love to get some feedback – let me know if you’d like to see more/less of something.

My writing workflow is probably worthy of a post on its own, but in short, here are the apps I use:

  • I use MarsEdit to post to WordPress. For link posts there’s a very handy browser bookmarklet that grabs the currently highlighted text and adds all the information you need to just start writing.
  • Instapaper recently added support for Simplenote, which in turn syncs with nvALT on the Mac. So more and more I find myself highlighting something in Instapaper on iOS, creating a new Simplenote text note, and then completing the post in nvALT on the Mac.
  • I use iA Writer for longer posts.
  • I write exclusively in Markdown. I use MarsEdit to post Markdown directly to WordPress, and the PHP Markdown plugin converts it to HMTL on the site. This means that I almost never see the WordPress Dashboard. Which is awesome.

And that’s it. Reading through this again, it suddenly looks complicated. So if you have any suggestions to improve the process, please let me know via email or on Twitter.

Here’s to learning.