Editorially: A New Twist on Text Editing

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Have you ever had the experience of using a piece of software that felt like it was built just for you? I had that feeling when I logged into Editorially for the first time.

It’s a web-based editing tool, where you can write documents as well as manage the editorial process. All writing is done using Markdown (which everyone already knows I’m a fan of) and you can invite collaborators to give you feedback or comment on your work. It’s even possible to pull out different versions and revert back to old ones. I could easily see using this tool to manage a lot of the day-to-day articles I write.

The export function is the only place where my Editorially experience felt particularly rough. While I’m perfectly reasonable about not being able to hook an editorial tool up to my content management system of choice (though it’s a feature I’d love to have), a streamlined export tool is absolutely necessary to me. Editorially’s ‘Export’ button saves a .zip file to your computer. That folder, when unzipped, contains both an .html and a .md (Markdown) file. I have to go through multiple steps to get a folder open to the point that I can dump the text I’ve written into wherever it’s going to go. Even just having a button that allowed me to choose one format for exporting at a time would move things along much faster.

Being able to copy text in various formats directly out of the application would also be awesome — especially if I could copy it in some sort of rich text / already formatted version. I work with a lot of content management systems and you’d be amazed what formats work best for submitting content sometimes. I’m going to keep my fingers crossed for a better process, but I’m going to make Editorially a mainstay of my writing process in the meanwhile.

And — just a note — I wrote this review entirely in Editorially.

FinCon and a Flash Sale

This October, I’ll be speaking at FinCon, a conference specifically for financial bloggers. I’m excited about the opportunity because I’ve blogged about personal finance on various sites since 2007.

I’ll be talking about how to effectively bring in bloggers to help you grow your site — the precise topic is “Building a Great Blog with Voices Other than Your Own”. Trust me, there are right ways and wrong ways to manage a blog with multiple writers and I’m going to get deep into them.

Interested in attending FinCon? There’s a flash sale on tickets running this Thursday and Friday — August 22nd, 8 AM CT to August 23rd, 11:55 PM CT. During the sale, tickets are $179. On August 24th, they go back up to $249.

Furthermore, I’m prepared to sweeten the deal. I’m going to offer hour-long consulting sessions while I’m in St. Louis. I’ve done the math and I can offer five of these sessions and still actually hear speakers. These sessions will be free to the first five people who buy their FinCon pass through my affiliate link.

>>This is the affiliate link!<<

Obviously, I’m going to profit from such sales — that’s the point of an affiliate link. But even if you calculate out the share I make as an affiliate, I’m only earning about $90 per consulting session. That’s $25 less per hour than you can currently work with me in any other way. But I’m offering these sorta, kinda free consultation blocks for two reasons: First, I don’t get a lot of opportunities to actually sit down in person and talk with clients. I miss it. Second, I’m hoping that I’ll get to know a few of you before I speak, so you’ll feel that you just have to come here me speak. I live in fear of giving talks where no one actually shows up, so I’m happy to offer a bribe.

Want to grab one of these sessions? Click the link and buy your ticket. Then forward me the confirmation email. I’ll email you what I need from you to prep for the session (like what website you want to talk about) and time slot options. Already got your ticket, but still want a consultation? Email me and we’ll figure it out.

A Website By Any Other Name

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All the good domain names are taken.

It’s a refrain I hear constantly — and that I say myself on a regular basis. But there’s also a counter that I hear on a regular basis: domain names don’t matter now, because no one types a domain name into the address bar. We all click links, since we constantly have web-enabled devices at hand.

Does Traffic Really Come Only from Search and Links?

Longer domain names are harder to remember and harder to type into an address bar correctly. There’s no dispute about that fact. But the argument that most people click links to navigate the web may be a reflection of the echo chamber: certainly most people who are technically savvy and obsessively plugged in navigate that way a fair percentage of the time.

But we’re talking about a fairly small percentage of the population — it’s the percentage most likely to buy domain names, but not nearly the only people who use them. Outside of the technically savvy echo chamber, there are plenty of people who go online every day and type in each address of each website that they visit every day in succession. Some people will type those domain names into a search box. I regularly watch certain relatives open up their web browser and type ‘gmail.com’ into the search box on whatever pre-bookmarked home page came set up with the computer.

You can’t make assumptions about how people will access your website before you’ve even built it. Even if you know your audience fairly well, there are always surprises when it comes to how some people will interact with the internet.

You might even be surprised by your own habits, if you’re prepared to invest a little time paying attention to them. How often are you chatting with a friend and she mentions a website you want to look up? You might try to make a note of the domain name, type it in on your phone or even trust your memory to trot it out again later. Even if you have a smartphone or even a laptop, you’re going to have to get that friend to carefully spell out the domain name if there’s anything even a little unexpected about it.

Do You Want to Wind Up Competing for Your Brand in Search Results?

The whole process of accessing a website you’re hearing about for the first time can be involved. I’ve had plenty of encounters where people have suggested “Just Google me.” The suggestion has been less than useful, on occasion, when I’ve had to sort through several people with similar names to find the one who clearly does what I’m interested in. Sure, you might be on the first page of search results, but that’s not good enough when you’re suggesting searching as the easiest way to find you.

But what honestly scares me is that if you’re using a brand that you haven’t been able to secure the .com domain name for, the odds are very good that someone else out there is using a similar (if not identical brand). It’s tough enough to compete with people who are offering the same sort of service or product — adding in a level of competition with companies with the same name is just adding an unnecessary burden to your work. Whether that work is more or less effort than finding a fairly unique domain name is a question that you have to answer each time you purchase a new domain name.

There isn’t a lot of hard research on how .coms perform versus other top level domains; I’m going off of anecdotal evidence for the most part. I’d love to run an experiment on this question, though I’m struggling a bit with the experimental design: comparing two sites with different content or different readers is a bit like comparing apples and oranges.

What About All Those Shiny New Domain Names Coming Soon?

My husband is excited about the new top-level domain names. He hasn’t been able to get the .com version of his name, but he’s confident he can grab the .phd domain name. Given that he has that credential, he likes the idea of showing it off as soon as someone looks at his website.

Users have become somewhat more acclimatized to different top-level domains over the past couple of years, especially as companies have found interesting ways to make a domain name match with their company name. There’s still a huge audience that will trip over using any domain name that doesn’t end in .com. However, you can hold out some hope that as big companies back alternative domains (Google is planning to have .google domain names, for instance), more users will become adept at recognizing that a website’s address doesn’t always end with .com. There won’t be an overnight improvement, though.

I’m not necessarily willing to bet on that shift moving fast enough, either. Getting something that I’ve bother to put online in front of an audience is important to me; more often than not, I put up websites with the intention of earning a profit from them. Hoping that a prospective visitor can figure out the difference between a .net and a .com — or any of the many other options out there — is a big risk. If I’m confident of the audience’s abilities to search or I know that they live in that same bubble that I do (where we don’t even use paper!), the risk is reduced. It’s still there, though, making me nervous.

What about you? Do you or would you use a domain name that doesn’t end in .com?

Image by Flickr user Grey Hargreaves

The Best Guide to Starting a Business I’ve Read

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Normally, I try to look for a bigger theme or a bigger idea when I post about books here; I don’t necessarily like writing basic book reviews. But the book I want to bring to your attention today doesn’t waste any time getting down to important information, so neither will I.

If you’re considering starting a business ever, go out and buy The Pocket Small Business Owner’s Guide to Starting Your Business on a Shoestring, by Carol Tice. For everyone who has ever asked me where to get started when planning a new business, this is the book you need to read.

Tice covers all the mechanics of setting up a new business, with a heavy emphasis on where you can bootstrap or otherwise set your business up for a minimal cost. She goes through each step, from conducting market research on your business idea to paying your taxes after your business starts making some money. In the interest of full disclosure, I did receive a review copy of the book. However, I’m already planning to buy a few copies for a few friends who keep asking for advice on starting up their businesses.

It’s as simple as that. The book is an excellent reference guide for new entrepreneurs, with lots of hands-on advice. I can’t recommend it any more strongly.

You Need to Write Something Short, Specific and Stunning

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There seems to be a switch that flips in some consultants’ heads after a few years working with clients: “I’m going to write a book that answers all those questions that I keep getting!” I can’t count how many business books I’ve read that are essentially a codification of an individual consultant’s approach to her area of expertise, often with some explanations of the broader topics of interest related to her field.

I’m torn about the concept as a whole. I’m a big fan of writing about your area of expertise and creating great resources for your customers. But these books are often so similar.

I read one such book recently: Clockwise, by Andrew Pain. It was a fine enough overview of some of the basic concepts of productivity. If you needed a refresher or were, perhaps, coming to the concept of time management cold, it’s not a bad book.

But anyone interested in hiring a consultant to help with time management is a bit beyond this book; it’s not something that firmly establishes Pain’s expertise even over his local competition. Given the ease with which you can publish something short, specific and stunning these days, it’s practically necessary to stand above the crowd — at least if you want the effort of publishing your book to be worth the bother.

Writing a book can’t just be something that you cross off the list in order to make yourself more marketable in your career. You have to have something worth writing — even just a morsel of an idea that will take your readers to a new level, especially if they’re hoping you provide solutions to the problems in their lives. Push harder: that nugget of something new (at least to your audience) is there somewhere.

Take a Moment and Say Hi

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Our concept of a place is tied directly to experience: what we did there, what we said, who we met allows us to navigate just as much as latitude and longitude. There are a million tools that are built on this fact — Foursquare check-ins can drive up return rates for that very reason — but I have a new favorite.

Hi calls itself a narrative mapping tool. Obviously, I’m always up for anything that involves writing, but it’s a little more sophisticated than that. You can add a few words about any location, along with an image if you so desire.

You can probably guess what a lot of the content looks like: plenty of scrumptious food and majestic scenery, with the occasional questions of “How do I use this?” But there are occasional bits of surprise: a moment that stands out through sheer color, a quote that puts a museum exhibit in perfect context, a captured idea from a technical talk… there is an interesting potential here that is a little more thoughtful than the typical social media update.

Currently, Hi is wait-listing people who want to join and then onboarding them in batches. But even if you’re still waiting for an invite, you can explore other people’s posts — I prefer just clicking around on the map interface and seeing what I find.

Craig Mod is part of the team behind Hi. His projects never fail to fascinate me. Mod has written an essay about the logic behind Hi. It’s not required reading for using the platform, but it’s got some interesting ideas on narrative, starting new platforms and creativity in general.

It’s All About a Meaningful Life

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One of my journalism classes in college included an exercise require each student to write her own obituary. There were plenty of discussions about what makes a life interesting and worth more than a few lines on the obits page. The goal was to learn to write an obituary, but the class seemed to conclude that we first needed to learn to write a death notice for all those people who didn’t seem to warrant anything longer.

College kids are generally jerks, I’ve since decided. But the underlying question is an important one: How should you live your life? What’s good enough?

It’s a question that’s obviously been on Colin Wright’s mind as well. This summer, he released Act Accordingly. It’s a shortish ebook, weighing in at 78 pages, in line with the core message.

You have exactly one life in which to do everything you will ever do. Act accordingly.

It’s a reality that most of us need to be reminded of on a regular basis. We set our priorities and work hard, but do we really spend time on what we truly want to accomplish? I’m not talking about setting up things so that our lives are easy and neither is Wright. We need challenges to keep things interesting and to keep from stagnating. But we do need to focus, preferably on something we’d prefer to be known for and that we personally enjoy.

The book is a fast read. I recommend it, especially if you need a reminder of what you really want to be doing with your day.

Why Only One Senior Thesis?

My sister finished her capstone project for her degree in graphic design this spring. Before I jump into some thoughts that her work sparked, check out this short (two minutes) video about how she taught kids in Baltimore how to create signs — and why. The site for the project is here.

Baltimore Sign Project from Reed Ratynski on Vimeo.

I’m proud of my sister’s project because she put a whole lot of work into it. But the process got me thinking: why do we think in terms of creating just one capstone project or one senior thesis?

Sure, anyone who tries to do two projects of that size at one time may not survive to come out the other side. But we treat college (and perhaps graduate school) as the best opportunity for someone to dive into a giant project and put it on display for critique.

I’ve Had to Do More; Why Should I Suffer Alone?

I should provide some context. I did a massive paper to complete the graduation requirements for the International Baccalaureate program in high school. I created a new magazine from scratch in order to graduate from college. I participated in a massive group project where we essentially created a new product and a marketing plan to go with it to complete my master’s degree.

I like ridiculously massive projects. I routinely seek them out for myself. Publishing an ebook isn’t that much less work than some of these projects have been. So I’m biased in favor of looking for these sorts of opportunities. There’s also a certain element in my reasoning that I’ve had to do massive projects to mark the milestones in my life, so everyone else should, too.

But, even with that bias accounted for, it seems a bit ridiculous that most people only wind up doing one of these massive projects with the intention of showing it off.

Sticking a Flag in the Map

At least in theory, we’re always improving our skills. That’s the whole point of maintaining a portfolio and updating it regularly. We need to be able to show off our best work; it proves our value in our chosen fields.

But a senior thesis isn’t always our best work. Rather, it’s a project that forces us to reach for something we may not be quite ready for. It requires us to apply skills that we haven’t yet mastered, in a fairly flashy way. It comes with an expectation that we will publicly present this big piece of work and accept critiques on it. A senior project is as much a part of the learning process as it is proof that a student actually attended the necessary classes to earn a degree.

For those of us committed to being life-long learners, not routinely pulling out all the stops on a project in the vein of a senior thesis is illogical. Sure, we may apply new skills in little pieces and avoid the risk of public failure. But we don’t have a map of how our abilities progress — we don’t plant flags in our personal maps that say that we’ve conquered a whole new skill set.

Just the Right Amount of Stress

I’m not talking about doing an intensive project every year — I’ve just about lost my mind on every capstone project I’ve done, desperately working so that the damn thing is done and off my plate — and not even every other year. Something on the order of once every five years sounds about right to me.

The stress should stay, though: it’s a result of actually having something (like a grade) on the line. We make major breakthroughs and figure out entirely new approaches because failure is not an option. When a whole degree is on the line, almost everyone can produce. Academia may be on to something with the requirement that professors must ‘publish or perish.’

However, it’s pretty tough to find a situation where something big is on the line after you get out of school. Sure, you can keep going back for graduate degrees, but eventually you will run out of places to hang diplomas. Massive work projects can be stressful, but it’s rare that you find yourself pushed that far out of your comfort zone: projects might have short deadlines, but it’s rare that you’re given work that you haven’t already proved that you can accomplish.

That only leaves social expectations as a driving force for this sort of project. Social expectations got me through a bat mitzvah, including learning two Torah portions (quick translation: double the work most Jewish kids have to do). Well, social expectations and the promise of a big party. We all stress about what our friends think of us; why not direct that angst towards something useful, like proving once every five years that we are absolutely amazing?

Making Your Own Milestones

It would be nice to be able to tie the sort of big creative pushes to other milestones in our lives, but let’s be honest: having a kid or getting married are stressful enough markers all on their own.

Telling all of your friends that you’re committing to getting a big project done — something that scares you and excites you and stresses you out — is about as close as you can get. While that adds more stress to the process, it also adds a little bit of that ‘must succeed or else’ quality that we need in order to push through. Without that drive to make it through, without the consequence that (at least in our heads) our friends will laugh at our failures, it’s hard to tackle something big and scary.

If you’re willing to go all in, you may drag some of your friends along for the ride. Since misery loves company, I consider this a benefit. I’d love to see our society just generally expect us to do something cool every couple of years. It would help all of us get to those cool ideas that just seem a little too hard to pull off.

Understanding Self-Publishing with the Help of Shane Lee

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Self-publishing is hot these days. All the cool kids seem to be put together short ebooks and publishing them on Amazon. In an effort to collect some of the wisdom of authors who have been self-publishing since before the trend started, Shane Lee put together The Self-Publishing Playbook.

This ebook isn’t necessarily my preferred format: Lee interviewed twelve authors who have self-published their books and collected the results in ebook form. Most of the ebook is, in fact, questions and answers. The questions are fairly similar across each interview. Lee clearly had his system down.

This structure isn’t easy for me to read. I get bogged down in the repetition. But there is a value here for those of us who have a hard time with the format: because Lee took this approach, it’s easy to see what strategies are really working for these successful authors. In reading through the interviews, it quickly became obvious, for instance, that they sell most of their ebooks through Amazon. Many other sites don’t sell enough of even wildly popular ebooks to register. That’s a crucial detail for anyone considering self-publishing.

I need to note that I was asked to do a review of The Self-Publishing Playbook. The author alerted me to a free giveaway he was doing through Kindle and asked me to download the ebook. Right now, the Kindle version is selling for a couple of bucks.

Hidden Skills are the Hardest to Learn

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We all know the importance of building great skills in our chosen fields. If you’re a writer, you need to practice writing constantly. If you’re a developer, you need to constantly write more code. If you’re a painter… you get the point. But there are a host of hidden skills that go along with being successful in these fields, whether you want to work on your own or you want to work within a larger organization.

One of my sisters is about to finish up a degree in graphic design: she already freelances and has landed some great internships. But she’s had to learn the mechanics of both worlds on her own. Her program teaches students how to build portfolios, like any traditional art school, but doesn’t give them a grounding in how to price their services or negotiate a salary. Almost no colleges offer those sorts of classes — and those that do, focus on a more theoretical level while teaching business majors.

How Do You Learn Hidden Skills?

I lucked out in terms of learning how to run a business: I was drafted into various family endeavors from a very young age. I learned bookkeeping because a family member needed someone to type numbers into QuickBooks and I wanted to understand why what number went where. I learned plenty of other administrative skills in similar ways. The experience didn’t entirely prepare me for running my own business — my family tends to prefer selling products to selling services, which is where I started — but it was a great basic education.

Not everyone has the option to learn from family members or even mentors who can guide you through what hidden skills are truly necessary, though. Sometimes, you have to dig deep to find out that there’s even a skill set that will solve your problem! The ability to document work processes fell into that category for me for a long time. Since all the businesses I worked for didn’t really have a habit of writing down how certain tasks were completed — there was usually a founder around who planned to only leave the business in a casket and so acted as the source of all knowledge. But as my business has grown, I’ve found myself in the position that I didn’t want to constantly teach people how to do a given task over and over again.

The hard part wasn’t finding resources to learn the skills necessary; rather it was figuring out what to search for. Searching for information about documentation often takes you straight to help on writing documentation for code. That’s an important skill set, but I was actually looking for something broader at the time. It’s an issue that many people seem to run into: we know we need to learn something, but don’t know the terminology or jargon to look for. The situation is even more complex when you consider that each speciality has its own hidden skills: a developer needs to be able to document her code, while a writer needs to be able to fact check her articles.

The Cure is Talking Shop, At Least for Now

Surprisingly, my (nominal) competition has been one of my greatest resources when learning how to tackle hidden skills. Just casually talking shop has lead to many discussions about how we each operate our businesses, letting each of us discuss problems and offer up solutions. And even if one of my peers can’t directly recommend a solution that will work for me and my business, she can at least introduce me to some new vocabulary that lets me continue the search on my own.

While I love talking shop, though, I’m not entirely enamored with this approach. I’d still love to see more creative training courses introduce some of these hidden skills, even if that means there’s a little less time dedicated to improving our craft. Every entrepreneur (past, present or future) can benefit from taking a bookkeeping class, no matter whether you’re a freelance writer, a startup founder or even a babysitter. Knowing how those basic functions of your business work can make a world of difference.

A note just for developers: I’m speaking during Day Camp 4 Developers on Friday. The theme of DC4D #6 is ‘Non-Programming for Programmers’ — which falls right in line with what I’ve been talking about here. It’s an online-only conference, so attendees can be anywhere. Tickets are $40 and, yes, I get a cut of that. But I believe in the value of this conference, which is why I’ve spoken at it multiple times. So, if you want to learn some of the less obvious skills that go into programming, buy a ticket.

Image by Flickr user Edinburgh City of Print