About Doug Toft

Writer and development editor. I help busy experts finish their book manuscripts. More at dougtoft.net

The Joy of Plain Text Editors

DSCN0680For me, Microsoft Word peaked at version 5.1. After that, it became bloated and buggy. But this is a gift because it drove me to Word’s nemesis—plain text editors.

If you haven’t tried a plain text editor, then joy awaits you. These apps are ideal for capturing ideas on the run and organizing them later.

What is Plain Text?

A plain text editor handles ASCII characters:

  • The letters of the alphabet (upper and lower case)
  • Punctuation marks
  • Common symbols
  • Spaces
  • The numbers 0 through 9

That’s it.

What plain text does not offer is formatting—italics, bold, underlining, and different fonts and font sizes. Tables and images are a no-go as well.

Why Use Plain Text?

The limitations of plain text are also its strengths. In short, plain text is:

  • Tiny. Plain text files are much smaller than Word documents—often half the size or less. As a result, plain text demands far less storage space.
  • Fast. In Word, long documents take forever to load. With plain text, speed in opening and moving through your document is the norm.
  • Portable. Most applications can retrieve plain text. In software, it’s a near-universal language.
  • Future-proof. Plain text ain’t going away. Because it’s so basic, this format persists. In contrast, try opening a Word file that you created 10 years ago.
  • Cheap. Laptop and desktop computers typically ship with a text editor included—TextEdit for Mac, Notepad for Windows. You get a powerful writing tool for free. You can buy text editors with more horsepower, but they’re still way cheaper than Word. For example, my favorite plain text editor for the Mac—iAWriter—is currently on sale for $5.

All of the above are potent advantages when it comes to curating your ideas.

You can keep these benefits and add formatting by using a text editor with Markdown capability. I’ll post about Markdown in the future, but for now check out:

Some Plain Text Editors to Consider

Caveat: This is an incomplete list and skewed to Mac users. Just key plain text editor into a search engine and you’ll find many more.

First, I’ll list the text editors I’ve personally used:

  • Notational Velocity. This was my go-to text editor for a long time. (Leo Babauta praised it here). Alas, there have been no updates for 3 years, and a couple features are broken. However, other developers have taken up the torch. One result is Brett Terpstra’s nvALT, which includes Notational Velocity’s features and adds more. (Michael Schechter offers useful tips for nvALT here.) For Windows users, there is ResophNotes.
  • TextWrangler. Mac users can download this app for free. I’ve set mine up to look like Notational Velocity.
  • iA Writer. Minimal. Beautiful. Cheap. Works on the iPad and iPhone as well.

Next, text editors that I haven’t used but other people rave about:

Finally, a few online text editors (I’ve not used them yet):

Where to Learn More

A Plain Text Primer by Michael Schechter

Organize Your Ideas With Plain Text Files by me

Brett Terpstra’s awesome list of text editors for the iPhone

The Why and How of Content Curation—Insights from Copyblogger

green_red_bokeh Content curation is the process of:

  • Finding useful ideas about a specific topic from many different sources
  • Organizing those ideas
  • Sharing the ideas in a useful way with a specific audience

I’m excited about this emerging field because it’s critical for idea entrepreneurs. These folks are constantly curating, whether they use that term or not.

Fortunately, Jerod Morris and Demian Farnworth at Copyblogger created a series of podcasts about content curation.

Following is my personal list of take-aways from this series. Also check out the primary sources:

Three Types of Curation

  • Curation is distilling information that’s interesting to you and useful to your audience.
  • Link curation means creating lists of content that’s already been published.
  • Knowledge curation is “connecting the dots” between ideas in ways that serve your audience.
  • Idea curation is your personal process for gathering ideas so that you can easily retrieve them in the future.

Benefits of Curation

  • Curating serves your audience by guiding them to relevant information and ideas.
  • Curating is the logical culmination of something that you’re already doing—reading.
  • Curating serves you as a source of useful content that you don’t have to create from scratch.
  • Curating builds your reputation as a trusted expert—and a creator of products and services that are worth buying.
  • Curating allows you to be a good online citizen by spreading the good work that other people do.
  • Curating helps you build relationships with those people.
  • As a renewable source of ideas, curating helps you avoid writer’s block.
  • Curating content is a useful way to build an e-mail list.
  • Sharing a little bit about yourself as you curate is a way to round out your online presence.
  • At the same time, content curation is just one way to gather a tribe. Consider Seth Godin andCal Newport, who built large followings without curating.

Curating Links

  • Find links to share by following skilled curators such as Dave Pell and Maria Popova, subscribing to email newsletters such as Atlantic’s The Wire and Farnam Street, or using an RSS tool such as feedly.
  • To judge whether a link is worth sharing, think ROAR: I’ve Read it, it’s Original, it’s Applicable, it’s from a Reputable source.
  • Because curating reflects on your reputation, maintain editorial control of the links that you share.
  • Share links on your blog and on the social networks where your audience hangs out.
  • Experiment with sharing links at different times of day to see when they gain traction.
  • If you don’t find anything to share on a particular day, resurrect a good post from your archive.
  • Remember to curate links that challenge conventional wisdom and prompt disagreement.

Curating Knowledge

  • The ultimate goal of curation is to make ourselves and our audiences wiser.
  • Wisdom comes from a combination of reading, writing, and actively testing ideas.
  • Wisdom is expressed when you put ideas in context and find intriguing connections between them.
  • It’s easier to make connections when you specialize in a particular subject and think across subject matters.
  • Consider immersing yourself in one subject per year by reading, listening to podcasts, watching videos, taking courses, and creating playlists.
  • Remember to read books as well as online sources.
  • As you share ideas, balance factual knowledge with emotional intelligence.

Curating Ideas

  • Ideas will occur to you at random times and come from many different sources.
  • Put a simple system in place to capture ideas on the run. For example:
    • Carry a notepad or index cards and pen.
    • Dictate a voice memo on your phone.
    • Use a note-taking tool such as Evernote.
  • To organize the ideas you capture, create a commonplace book that matches your preferences.
  • Look in particular for:
    • Remarkable quotations about your topic
    • Relevant data points
    • Interesting anecdotes
  • Cite a source for each of the above.
  • Present ideas in narrative form—as a story with a beginning, middle, and ending.
  • Approach your topic as a blank slate and let the story emerge organically from your sources.
  • Stimulate your thinking by creating mind maps and other kinds of visuals.
  • Let ideas incubate while doing “mindless” physical activities such as walking.
  • Record interesting ideas even if you’re not sure how you’ll use them in the future.
  • Trust the process: The best ideas will keep coming back to you.

Chris Brogan on How to Finish Your Book—Five Essential Posts

cbheadshot-300x300While John Butman eloquently explains the why of book writing, Chris Brogan addresses the how. His posts on this subject are practical and grounded in personal experience. The following series goes back a while, but it’s worth revisiting.

Writing a Book—Finding Time

Do you believe that a lack of time stops you from writing a book? After reading this, you can release that excuse. Give up low-priority activities, use small pockets of time, and capture ideas on the run. As Chris notes, “A lot of writing is done before you sit down to actually write.”

Writing a Book—Discipline

This post demolishes the belief that you have to feel “inspired” in order to write. As Brogan notes, “if you’ve kept a decent amount of notes, and if you’ve got a reasonably detailed outline, you can work without inspiration.”

Writing A Book—Structure

Devote at least 25 percent of your book project time to creating a table of contents—a great title along with chapter headings and sub-headings that draw readers in. Then writing your book simply means filling in the spaces between headings. This can be a huge time-saver.

Writing a Book—Marketing And Promotion

No matter whether you sell your book to a publisher or choose to self-publish, promotion is still your job. You can do this without being sleazy.

Writing a Book—Making Money

Can you make money writing a nonfiction book? Well, if you depend solely on book sales, probably not. But if you use your book as a portal to teaching, speaking, and consulting, the outlook gets considerably brighter. Chris lays out the options.

Never Lose An Idea—Recording Your Aha’s and Finding Them When You Need Them

splashYou know the feeling: You’re standing in the shower and while shampooing your hair you get a bolt of inspiration:

  • The solution to a problem that’s been plaguing you for days
  • The idea for the best blog post, article, or book that you’ll ever write
  • The entire structure of your next presentation or webinar
  • The seed of a profitable new product or service that you have to develop

I’ve got to write this down, you say to yourself. But after you dry off and get dressed, the phone rings. Or somebody engages you in conversation. Or life interrupts in some other inevitable way.

What happens to all those bright, shiny aha’s that well up at the oddest times and most inconvenient places?

They’re lost. Forever. Unless you have a fail-safe system to record those gems and recall them when you need them.

The Problem

Ideas are fragile and fleeting. They’re easily lost. They’re helpless babies. They need constant care and feeding.

In this enlightening post, Jerod Morris at Copyblogger says that he lives in “a perpetual state of fear that I’m going to forget a brilliant bit of inspiration and not be able to use it when I need it most.”

Like him, you’re swimming in ideas. They’re coming at you constantly from your reading, your conversations, the people you overhear in coffee shops, and your random moments of inspiration. Maybe one of those ideas could make money, make the world a better place, or do both. But how will you make sure that idea is recalled, fully developed, and skillfully shared?

Right now there’s an emerging conversation about content curation. But for idea entrepreneurs, the cutting edge is idea curation—finding answers to the question I just posed.

The Solution

Today, we are all idea curators—especially if we write, speak, train, or consult for a living. We need a rich, organized, and constantly updated catalog of ideas and supporting material.

Idea curation is an emerging field. We get to create the principles and adapt them to our personal workflow. As you forge your own process, look to these sources for guidance:

Writing Books For Behavior Change—A Checklist

102Most business, self-help, and psychology books have a single purpose — to help readers create enduring and positive changes in behavior.

This usually means appealing to the whole person — our capacity to think, feel, and act. Readers need to know what to do, why they’re doing it, and how to take the very next step. When our writing touches people on all three levels, our odds for success improve.

Following is a checklist that summarizes what I’ve learned over a couple of decades of writing and editing books for behavior change. I hope they prove useful for crafting your next manuscript.

Help readers learn by thinking

  • Include an early and explicit statement of what your material is about and what readers can gain from it.
  • Focus on a single main topic that’s familiar to readers and a handful of closely related subtopics.
  • Create a clear structure and logical flow in your material with advance organizers (previews), summaries (reviews), and strong transitions (turn signals).
  • In each chapter, focus on a handful of clearly stated key points.
  • Include processes (step-by-step instructions) with a clear, logical, and memorable sequence of actions for readers to take.
  • Use words that readers will know—usually shorter rather than longer words.
  • Write sentences with a minimum of internal punctuation.
  • Emphasize key points with visuals such as icons, charts, tables, illustrations, and photos.
  • Create additional emphasis with design elements such as bold and italic fonts, headings, and lists.

Help readers learn by feeling

  • Focus on problems that readers want to solve and goals that they want to meet.
  • Include stories of people like your readers who face the problems you mention and use the solutions that you recommend.
  • Write stories in present tense and first person.
  • Infuse stories with authentic details by including compelling characters, actual events, and real dialogue.
  • Avoid simplistic stories that illustrate the “right way” and the “wrong way.”
  • Avoid stories that offer a thinly veiled lecture.
  • Avoid otherwise flat, generic, and sanitized stories.

Help readers learn through action

  • Include a variety of elements that guide readers to take specific actions. For example:
    • Ask readers to list examples (or counter-examples) of a key point.
    • Present a sample problem and ask readers to suggest solutions.
    • Present readers with a story and ask them to list the key points it illustrates.
    • Ask readers to provide personal stories that illustrate a key point.
    • Ask readers to practice a script or experiment with another new behavior.
    • Ask readers to state a specific outcome and list the physical, visible actions that they will take to achieve that outcome.
    • Ask readers to deconstruct their desired outcome into a series of Tiny Habits.
  • Encourage readers to do any of the above with guidance from a teacher, coach, mentor, sponsor, peer, or support group.
  • For every action that you suggest, ask: Could I actually do this based on these instructions?

For related ideas, see these excellent guidelines from New Harbinger Publications.

Steal Like An Artist—10 Keys to Creativity from Austin Kleon


Austin Kleon (photo by Ryan Essmaker)

On the heels of Austin Kleon‘s second book Show Your Work: 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered, I read his first one, Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative. Both are highly recommended.

These form a perfect pair. Steal is about creating good work; Show is about sharing that work with the world. Each book is short, visual, and dense with useful ideas.

I’ve summarized Show here. Following is the table of contents from Steal and a sampling of delicious quotes.

Note: When Austin uses the world steal, he means choosing your influences and finding novel connections between existing ideas—all while giving proper credit to your sources.

Steal Like An Artist

First you figure out what’s worth stealing, then you move on to the next thing.

All creative work builds on what came before.

You are the sum of your influences.

You’re only going to be as good as the stuff you surround yourself with.

…chew on one thinker—writer, artist, activist, role model—you really love.

Keep a swipe file.

Don’t Wait Until You Know Who You Are to Get Started

It’s in the act of making things and doing our work that we figure out who we are.

Pretend to be making something until you actually make something.

You don’t want to look like your heroes, you want to see like your heroes.

Emulation is when imitation goes one step further, breaking through into your own thing.

Write the Book You Want to Read

Draw the art you want to see, start the business you want to run, write the books you want to read, build the products you want to use—do the work you want to see done.

Use Your Hands

The computer is really good for editing your ideas, and it’s really good for getting your ideas ready for publishing out into the world, but it’s not really good for generating ideas.

Side Projects and Hobbies Are Important

Creative people need time to just sit around and do nothing.

Keep all your passions in life…. what unifies your work is the fact that you made it.

The Secret: Do Good Work and Share It With People

…you want attention only after you’re doing really good work.

Step 1: Wonder at something. Step 2: Invite others to wonder with you….

Geography Is No Longer Our Master

…90 percent of my mentors and peers don’t live in Austin, Texas. They live everywhere.

Your brain gets too comfortable in your everyday surroundings.

Be Nice. (The World is a Small Town)

There’s only one reason I’m here: I’m here to make friends.

You’re only going to be as good as the people you surround yourself with.

…get angry. But keep your mouth shut and go do your work.

…show your appreciation without expecting anything in return….

… get comfortable with being misunderstood, disparaged, or ignored.

…it’s still a tremendous boost when people say nice things about our work.

Be Boring. (It’s the Only Way to Get Work Done.)

Eat breakfast. Do some push-ups. Go for long walks. Get plenty of sleep.

The art of holding on to money is all about saying no to consumer culture.

A day job gives you money, a connection to the world, and a routine.

Creativity is Subtraction

The right constraints can lead to your very best work.

Know Your Big, Beautiful Question

PA281186One of my mentors in print is Gordon Burgett, a prolific author and self-publisher. And the single most important thing he taught me is that your nonfiction, how-to book exists to answer a single question.

I call it your big, beautiful question.

Consider Three Examples

In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey asks one big, beautiful question: How can we reliably cultivate independence (personal autonomy) and interdependence (the ability to work effectively with other people)?

In Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, David Allen asks: How can you create a rock-solid inventory of all your current projects and trusted reminders for the very next action to take on each of those projects?

And in How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work, Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey ask: How can we prevent our unconscious attempts to sabotage the changes that we consciously intend to make in our lives?

Saving Your Sanity

Defining your big, beautiful question takes time. But it will save you hours of writing time. Why? Because you’ll know what to put in—and more importantly, what to leave out—of your book.

My heart bleeds for writers who don’t know their big, beautiful question. That question leads to an outline (table of contents). And as Ryan Holiday explains, the lack of an outline can quickly turn your book project into burnt toast:

An author friend recently told me that he’d written 115,000 words for the book he was working on; a book that contractually was only going to be 60,000 words. And worse, it was only just now that he’d really figured out the thrust of the book.

It almost broke my heart.

Obviously there are many different ways to skin a cat, and I’m not hating on another writer’s style because there are many legitimate ones. But this writer could have written that book in half the time if he’d simply started with a clear outline before he started.

I strongly suggest that writers avoid the temptation to “find the book as they’re writing.” It’s not going to happen. And if it does, it will be a costly discovery.

The person that Ryan describes wrote 55,000 more words than he promised to his publisher. That’s almost another entire book!

Knowing your big, beautiful question can save you from those additional words (and the hours it takes to produce them). Just keep your question in front of you as you work. If the paragraph that you’re writing doesn’t provide a relevant answer, then let it go. Now.

Discovering the Structure of Your Book

How do you create an outline, as Ryan suggests? Just turn to your big, beautiful question again and let it expand naturally.

For example, Stephen Covey’s answer to his big, beautiful question is seven key habits. Each chapter in his book describes one of those habits.

David Allen answered his big, beautiful question with a five-stage model for your personal workflow and another five-stage model for “natural project planning.” The table of contents for Getting Things Done was born.

Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey answered their question with seven “languages for personal transformation.” They explain each language in a separate chapter of their book.

(For another example, see How to Develop a Table of Contents for Your Book.)

This path to structuring your book is pure magic—a joy to behold.

And it all starts with a big, beautiful question.

The Business Case for Writing a Book


Michael Port

If you make a living by selling services and ideas to clients, then Michael Port’s Book Yourself Solid might be the most useful business book you ever read.

Michael explains how you can benefit by creating information products such as a book. Since he says it so well, I’ll just quote him:

Products create opportunities for multiple streams of passive or leveraged income. They can be in retail stores or online, at your web site and the web sites of your affiliates, 24/7/365, with worldwide availability. You can consistently get orders for your products from people all over the world.

Having a product enhances your credibility with your prospects, your peers, meeting planners, and the media because it establishes you as a category expert and sets you apart from your competitors.

Products can help you land more clients because they speed up the sales cycle. Since your services have a high barrier to entry, your potential clients may need to jump a few high hurdles to persuade themselves they need to hire you.

Having a product to offer based on your services gives potential clients the opportunity to test you out without having to take a big risk. Then if they connect with you and are well served by your product, they will upgrade from the lower-priced product to the higher-priced service.

If you use public speaking as one of your marketing strategies, having a product at the back of the room when you speak gives you credibility, and you also have a relatively low-cost way to introduce prospects into your business and generate ancillary revenue at the same time.

Products leverage your time…. For example, if you speak in front of 100 of your prospects and you’re able to sell a couple dozen of your information products at $50 each, then you’ve just increased your hourly rate from $100 to more than $1,000 an hour.

What is Your Personal Table of Contents?

file7641301548646Much of my work consists of helping clients create a table of contents for a book they’d like to write. This is essential work. Lately, though, I’ve concluded that our primary task is to think bigger.

Consider that people who write nonfiction books are now called to become idea entrepreneursThis involves connecting with a critical mass of people who will embrace and embody your ideas (the non-spammy meaning of having a platform).

On a practical level, this means expressing your ideas in multiple formats. Yes, you’ll write your book. But you’ll also create blog posts and presentations as well. You’ll probably also take part in social media such as Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Perhaps you’ll also do webinars, publish an email newsletter, and play with video and podcasts. And at some point, you’re likely to consider doing another book.

This sounds like a lot of work. But there’s an opportunity as well. Since your job is to continuously develop and present ideas, why not create a single roadmap for all your ideas in all their expressions? This is more than a table of contents for a single book. It’s a table of contents for all the books you’d like to write—and all the other content you’ll publish and present over the whole arc of your career.

I don’t have an official name for this roadmap yet. For now, let’s call it your personal table of contents.

For example, Patrick Carnes is a psychologist, author, and speaker who developed a thirty-task model of recovery from addiction. This is the big picture of all the work that he wants to put out into the world. He’s already published books that cover many of these tasks in detail. Future books are planned about the rest.

The beauty of the personal table of contents is that it becomes a single, big bank of ideas from which you can “withdraw” content as needed for the book, article, update, or presentation that’s on your plate right now.

After all, why re-invent the wheel every time you sit down to create a piece of content? Instead, zero in on a single, small section of your personal table of contents. Then flesh it out with something from your ongoing collection of supporting material (facts, anecdotes, and quotes in your commonplace book).

For me, the whole idea of a personal table of contents is a new idea that’s just starting to come into focus. Stay tuned for more updates.

Three Must-Reads for Nonfiction Authors—John Butman on Idea Entrepreneurs

john-butmanCheck out these foundational posts by John Butman, author of Breaking Out: How to Build Influence in a World of Competing Ideas.

Idea Entrepreneur: The New 21st Century Career

The idea entrepreneur is an individual, usually a content expert and often a maverick, whose main goal is to influence how other people think and behave in relation to their cherished topic. These people don’t seek power over others and they’re not motivated by the prospect of achieving great wealth. Their goal is to make a difference, to change the world in some way.

How to Influence People with Your Ideas

Answer these questions: What is my purpose? How does my personal narrative convey the idea? How can people put my idea into practice? Do I have enough supporting material? Who do I really want to reach? How does my idea connect with a greater “thinking journey?”

Should You Write a Book?

Is it impossible for you not to?