About Doug Toft

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

Shakespeare on Crap Detecting Ideas




Thus has he—and many more of the same bevy that I know the drossy age dotes on—only got the tune of the time and outward habit of encounter, a kind of yeasty collection, which carries them through and through the most fond and winnowed opinions; and do but blow them to their trial, the bubbles are out.

— Shakespeare, from Hamlet, Prince of Denmark


He’s like so many successful people in these trashy times—he’s patched together enough fancy phrases and trendy opinions to carry him along. But blow a little on this bubbly talk, and it’ll burst. There’s no substance here.

—Modernized version of the above quote, from the No Fear Shakespeare rendering of Hamlet

Celebrating Mistakes—Or, The Joy of Wrecks

DSC_9955I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot . . . and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. That is why I succeed—Michael Jordan

I never learned a thing from a tournament I won—Bobby Jones, golfer

Flops are a part of life’s menu and I’ve never been a girl to miss out on any of the courses—Rosalind Russell, actress *

This is an ode to mistakes.

Over the years, I’ve learned a lot from instructions in books, and from people who serve as positive role models in my daily life.

But my most powerful and persistent teachers have been my mistakes.

And, the mistakes that embarrassed me the most have also taught me the most.

Please understand: I do not mean that I set out to make mistakes. Instead, I strive to do my best. And, if I do make a mistake, I look for a lesson to learn.


I can write about mistakes with authority. Why? Because I have made so many.

Once upon a time I reduced a client to tears by editing her work. She had no idea that there are different kinds of editors. As a content editor, I spent hours crafting structural changes to her book manuscript. She thought I was a proofreader who was merely going to “dot her i’s and “cross her t’s.”

Big mistake.

The lesson: Always explain to clients what you do. Don’t assume that they know.

For another project, I spent weeks editing a book manuscript and greatly expanding the content. Then the designer “poured” the text into his book template.

The result: I’d submitted 200 pages of material beyond the client’s desired page limit.

Two. Hundred. Pages.

Another big mistake.

The lesson: Clarify word counts up front. Then use your text editor to regularly check word counts before you submit a manuscript.

When people approach me about working on a book project, I’ve assumed that they have something to say—and enough content to justify at least 20,000 words of text.

Yet another big mistake.

The lesson: Ask yourself three crucial questions before starting a book project. If the answer to all three is yes, then begin with a book proposal.

My wish for you: May you forever be blessed by the lessons you take from your mistakes.

*These quotes are taken from But They Did Not Give Up—something to read whenever you make a mistake.

Never Lose An Idea—Naming Files to Find Them Later

IMG_0127When writing, the last thing I want to do is waste time searching for a specific fact, anecdote, or quote in a mass of disorganized notes. Through painful experience, I learned to store notes in small plain text files (documents) and title them for instant retrieval.

I came to this strategy after diving into the literature on tagging, labeling, keywords, and creating a personal taxonomy. This stuff gets really geeky. Save yourself the effort and consider the following suggestions.

Predict the future you

This is the most important thing: Know your own mind. What keywords will you use to search for a file in the future? To answer this question, assume that you’ll forget:

  • That you created the file in the first place
  • Why you created the file
  • What the file includes

The goal is to create a name that’s easy to find and perfectly describes the contents of the file.

It might help to list the attributes of a file that matter most to you. Merlin Mann, gives these examples of attributes:

For instance, when you are filing or searching for a photo, what do you think of? The location of the photo? The subject or people in the photo? The event taking place when you took the photo? Something else entirely? Write out a list of the attributes that you think of when thinking of your target items.

Attributes of a text file include anything that describes its content. Some examples are the:

  • Topic and subtopic
  • Name of a person
  • Author and title of a book, chapter, article, or blog post

Again, this is entirely personal. Discover the attributes that matter to you. Pick the top two or three and think of corresponding keywords to put in your file names.

Include a project name

This suggestion is based on an über-useful idea from Scott Berkun: Everything that you do in life is a project.

I don’t know whether this idea is Absolute Truth, but it’s insanely useful. It means that you can stem the tide of chaos in your notes and get organized simply by asking one question:

What project does this relate to?

Your answer goes in the name of your file.

Note: There’s a robust discussion about projects in the book Getting Things Done (GTD) by David Allen. Also, I define projects in this post that mentions GTD. For more about GTD, see its website. The series on GTD best practices will give you other useful ideas for naming files.

Use the “x factor”

Honestly, this is what helps me the most. I stole it from Michael Schecter, who stole it from Merlin Mann. (But it’s not really stealing; it’s research, right?)

The basic idea is to end the first word in your file name with the letter “x.” For example, any project file begins with projectx, as in projectx write a blog post or projectx buy a new car.

The beauty of such keywords is that they instantly narrow down your list of search results. When I search with the keyword projectx, for instance, I only get a list of my current projects—not a list of all the files that merely contain the word project.

P.S. Whatever you do…

  • Be consistent with file names.
  • Use lowercase (easier to type).
  • Use singular words (for shorter names).

Useful links

The following articles will give you more to chew on. Note that suggestions for tagging files are also useful for naming files.

Some suggestions for better tagging

Becoming a tagging kung-fu master

Tagging best practices

Getting Organized: Great Tips for Better File Names

Naming Files And Avoiding Folders by Michael Schechter

How to Use Evernote If You Are a Speaker or Writer

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.