An iOS Shortcut to Make Querying Easier

I’d thought about posting this as part of my “iPad for Writers” series, but I felt it spoke to a larger piece about automation I plan on writing eventually, so instead I’m just publishing it as kind of a how-to for anyone interested.

The more I use the iPad to do my daily driving, the more I find myself looking for ways to simplify the tasks I perform each day. When compared to the Mac, the iPad seems limiting in what it’s capable of, but I’m finding the opposite. It’s not that it’s limiting, it’s that we’ve been doing things one way for so long, anything different seems wrong.

Which brings me to my current dilemma. As with every book I’ve written, I now find myself emailing literary agents my query letter, as well as any other materials they request, including sample chapters and/or the dreaded synopsis.

My previous process worked thusly:

  1. Find an agent I’d like to query.
  2. Start a new email.
  3. Look in my Sent folder for a previous query with some or all of the materials they’re requesting.
  4. Copy/paste from the old email to the new email.
  5. Change all identifying information (agent’s title and last name, what’s been included below the query).
  6. Verify all formatting is correct.
  7. Go back to website for agent’s email address.
  8. Copy/paste into TO field of new email.
  9. Check it again.
  10. Send.
  11. Realize I made a typo in the agent’s last name.
  12. Curl up under my desk and cry like the failure I am.

Okay, maybe those last few steps were a bit melodramatic, but my old process did leave a lot of room for error. I once realized I hadn’t included my name and address at the top of the query after I’d sent it because I hadn’t copied it. I even forgot to include the pages I’d said I’d included and had to resubmit the query.

The whole process was tedious and prone to mistakes. I had dabbled with automation here and there on my Mac. I dumped my query letter into a TextExpander snippet so I could populate an email with it just by typing ";query" into the message. It had a place to fill in the agent’s name and select what was included at the bottom. Unfortunately, TextExpander is limited on iOS, forcing me to open up Drafts, start a new draft and invoke the TextExpander snippet, then share the draft to an email or copy/paste it into a new message.

There had to be a better way.

Enter Shortcuts. In my previous experiences with Shortcuts, I’d installed a few pre-made shortcuts that calculated tips and set alarms for specific times. I’d never really explored the capabilities of the program. Then I had an idea: what if I could automate the querying process using a shortcut? Nothing existed already that would accomplish the task, so I set out to build my own solution.

Here’s how it works:

  1. I find an agent I want to query and copy their email address from their website.
  2. The shortcut asks the title of the agent I’m querying (Mr. or Ms.)
  1. Then I enter their last name.
  1. Those values are dumped into the query letter at the top ("Dear Mr./Ms. [LAST NAME]").
  1. I’m prompted to enter the number of chapters/pages I’m including (or I can delete that line entirely if I’m just sending the query).
  1. I select from a menu what I’m including (Query, synopsis, up to three chapters)
  1. A new email message is generated with my selections, a pre-populated subject line, and the email address I’d copied at the beginning dumped into the To: field of the email.
  1. I do a quick look-over of the message and once everything looks okay, I send it–all from within shortcuts.

No more copying/pasting. No more hunting through old emails for submission materials. I spent about an hour and a half configuring something that will save me roughly 10-15 minutes per query I send. Well worth the effort.

Here’s a link to a version of my shortcut where you can replace the stock text values with your own query letter, synopsis, and chapters. Then add it to your homescreen and/or your share sheet so you always have access to it.

DOWNLOAD QUERY EMAIL SHORTCUT

Hope this helps other iOS-focused writers and/or anyone looking to make the query process that much less painful.

iPad for Writers — Part 3: Keyboards

If you plan on doing any kind of longform writing on the iPad — you know, more than the occasional tweet or email — then it’s probably safe to say there’s a 100 percent chance you’re going to need an external keyboard. Before I got my iPad Pro with the Smart Keyboard Folio, I tried a lot of third-party keyboards.

I’m going to discuss a few options out there that should hopefully help you find a sweet spot for your own needs, or at the very least, put you on a path to that one true keyboard you’ve been looking for.

Apple Wireless/Magic Keyboard

I bought the first generation iPad soon after its release in 2010 and at the time we didn’t have nearly as many keyboard options available as are available today. There was the keyboard dock, Apple’s own wireless keyboard used with its various desktop computers, and little else. We didn’t have Brydge, or Logitech, or Belkin providing all manner of keyboards at varying form factors and sizes.

Since it was cheaper than the dock at the time, I opted for the wireless keyboard and an Incase Origami workstation case to carry it in. The case unfolded into a kind of cradle where you could prop up your iPad as you worked. One advantage it had over the dock was that it allowed me to use the iPad in vertical or landscape orientation.

While the Origami isn’t really an option anymore given the Magic Keyboard’s redesign from the original Wireless Keyboard, there are similar products available that perform essentially the same function.

Studio Neat makes what appears to be the best solution and it comes the closest to what the original Origami offered. The Canopy is a $40 sleeve for your Magic Keyboard that kind of folds over on itself when closed, then unfolds into a tented stand for your iPad. the button strap keeps it closed during travel and holds the stand together when opened. I haven’t tried it myself, but Studio Neat is a very well-known and trusted company and at $40, it’s worth a look. One thing MacStories writer John Voorhees noted in his review of the Canopy:

Sliding the Canopy around on a table works well, but in my lap I’ve run into a couple minor issues. The added friction of sliding the Canopy in my lap sometimes causes the snap to come undone. In addition, when I use the Canopy in my lap, my iPad sits lower in it than it does on a table or in the Smart Keyboard Case, which can make it difficult to swipe up to activate Control Center.

Something to keep in mind if you’re looking into using your Mac’s keyboard as your iPad keyboard, too.

Brydge

One thing you’ll often hear from skeptics is "the iPad isn’t a laptop." On a fundamental level, they’re right — though that’s all changing with the upcoming iPadOS. However, there are ways to bring the laptop experience to your iPad and one way is by using a laptop-class keyboard. If you want your iPad to feel like a MacBook, look no further than Brydge’s own Bluetooth keyboard. When I still had my 9.7-inch model, I used a Brydge keyboard with it and I loved it.

Not only does it feel like typing on a MacBook Air, but the keys are backlit and there are dedicated function keys for things like the Home button, Siri, and volume and brightness adjustments — keys not found on Apple’s own Smart Keyboards. You just slide your tablet into the rubberized clips on each side, sync up the Bluetooth connection, and you’re ready to write. The screen is protected when closed over the top of the keyboard, just like a laptop.

The battery life on a Brydge keyboard is arguably the best of all Bluetooth keyboards, the company promising it will last 12-months per charge. I never let mine get that low, but even charging it once a week was more than okay considering I need to charge my iPad about once a day anyway.

The new Pro models for the 2018 iPad Pro allow for 180-degree viewing, meaning you can flip the iPad around and either prop it up to watch a movie, or close the back of it over the keyboard and use it as a chunky tablet. There’s even a magnetic cover for the back of the iPad as added protection. The 12.9-inch model comes in at $170 while the 11-inch version runs $150, about $30 cheaper than Apple’s Smart Keyboard Folios. Not bad, considering the Brydge options offer greater functionality and protection than Apple’s own keyboards.

For a deeper look, I suggest you check out Jason Snell’s Brydge keyboard review over at Six Colors.

But for many users, owning an iPad is all about portability. You might not want to lug another laptop around, no matter how good the keyboard is. You want something you don’t have to charge, that you can remove in a second without having to fiddle with bulky cases or rubber grips.

That’s when you turn to Apple’s Smart Keyboard Folio.

Apple Smart Keyboard Folio

In a recent piece about keyboards on the Verge, Sam Byford threw a bit of shade at Apple’s offering, saying, "Apple’s Smart Keyboard Folio is the best option if you value portability and don’t plan to use your iPad Pro as a primary writing machine."

While I agree on the portability aspect, I think it’s more than adequate as an option for people who plan to use their iPad Pro (or Air) for writing. I’ve been editing my latest novel on it and while I expected not to like typing on such rubbery keys, I got used to it pretty quickly. One thing I didn’t like about the Brydge keyboard was how bulky it made the iPad. The beauty of the iPad is in its form factor — thin, light, easy to carry. Not that my MacBook Air isn’t also light and thin, but sometimes I don’t need a keyboard and I don’t want to have to struggle with removing the iPad from the Brydge’s clips.

Since it’s attached using only magnets, the Smart Keyboard Folio comes right off and pops back on without a problem. Where I struggle with it is in its "lapability." The Smart Keyboard Folio offers two angles of working — a steep, almost vertical angle and a slightly more tipped-back inclination, which is where I usually keep it when I’m typing. I certainly can use it in my lap, but it’s not as stable as a laptop or when using the Brydge. Keep that in mind if you don’t often use a desk or table at Starbucks when typing.

Other Options

Logitech, Belkin and a host of other third party companies make all kinds of keyboard cases for the iPad. They’re designed to protect the device on all sides while providing a kind of laptop experience. I’m not a fan of these. They’re bulky and getting the tablet in and out of them can be difficult. Basically, once it’s locked into the case, that’s where it stays.

There are also folding keyboards from companies like iClever. I have one and it’s good in a pinch or if you have limited space in your bag, but the keys are cramped and I have difficulty typing on it with my big, fat fingers.

Final Thoughts

Just like with your choice in word processor, your choice in keyboard is entirely up to your personal preferences. I love the Smart Keyboard Folio and use it daily. It’s the most portable of all of them and I don’t mind typing on the thinner, rubberized keys.

To keep things simple, here’s a quick recap of possible needs and the keyboard that would best suit them:

Apple Bluetooth Keyboard + Stand

  • You often write at home
  • Don’t travel much
  • You demand the same typing experience on the iPad as you get on the desktop
  • You want to be able to type in any orientation (portrait or landscape)

Brydge Keyboard

  • You want a laptop-style typing experience for your iPad
  • You want dedicated iOS function keys
  • You want backlit keys
  • You often find yourself typing with the device sitting on your lap
  • You’re looking for a cheaper alternative to Apple’s Smart Keyboard covers

Smart Keyboard Folio

  • Size and portability are your biggest concerns
  • You don’t mind getting used to the feel of a new keyboard
  • You often type at a desk or table, rather than with the iPad on your lap

Keyboard Case

  • You want ultimate protection for your iPad
  • Looking for laptop-like experience
  • Price is an important factor for you

Good luck in your search for the perfect keyboard for your needs. Hopefully this piece saves you the heartache and walletache I’ve gone through in finding what works for me. And if you haven’t caught up on the other pieces in this series, I invite you to check them out below:

iPad for Writers — Part 1: Changing Behaviors

iPad for Writers — Part 2: Scrivener and Apple Pages

Whither the MacBook?

I never expected this site to turn into a tech blog again, but here we are.


One week before WWDC, Apple quietly refreshed its Touch Bar model MacBook Pros with faster processors and improved keyboards. At the time, the question posed by bloggers and podcasters was, "Why not the 13-inch Pro without Touch Bar, or the Air, or the base model MacBook?"

The MacBook Air was only given a major refresh a few months ago, so I get why they didn’t extend similar upgrades there. However, after watching the keynote on Monday and getting a glimpse into the future of the iPad, I think I have a better understanding as to Apple’s thinking.

I believe the lower-end MacBook line will disappear within 3-5 years.

The company’s deliberate forking of iOS into two separate operating systems–iOS for the iPhone and iPadOS for the iPad–demonstrates the company’s focus on propelling the tablet into a true "real work" machine without being held back by the smaller screen of the iPhone.

We got a glimpse of this in last year’s "What’s a Computer?" ad where a young teen went about her day with her iPad Pro and Apple Pencil at her side, reading comics, creating Pages documents, and chatting with friends. The ending line always made me cringe–obviously you know what a computer is. You’re not that young, but the farther away from that "get off my lawn" mentality I get, the more I’m willing to accept how that person’s experience might become the default in a handful of years.

The iPad has grown from a fun in-between device for watching movies and playing games into a real, viable option for people looking to shed the PC life. Split View multitasking was the start. Being able to use two apps side-by-side seemed to appease users who wanted computer functionality, but found themselves hampered by Apple’s one-app-at-a-time UX.

With iPadOS, multitasking is elevated to a whole other level. App Exposé, Slide Over, and Split View combine to provide access to your apps in new ways while retaining the clean interface iPad users have come to love. Slide Over in particular seems like a great way to keep reference apps and file directories handy without having them take up an entire half of the screen, and the ability to cycle through a bunch of different apps, then swipe them away only makes it better.

There’s also the addition of SMB server support and external storage support in the Files app, two features that were heavily criticized for being omitted in last year’s major update, especially with the debut of the 2018 iPad Pro. Calling something a "pro" anything, for better or worse, carries a certain weight. In the case of the iPad Pro, users found it hard to consider the device a true laptop replacement when it didn’t do nearly as much as their MacBooks. That’s all changed this year.

Even iCloud on iOS (and iPadOS) has gotten a bump, with shared folder support across all devices. And Safari on iPad’s shift from mobile browser to desktop-class browser with download manager means your favorite web apps, like Google Docs, Trello, Basecamp, and more work the way they’re supposed to–the way they work on your laptop.

Most importantly, there’s Apple’s new universal app development initiative, Project Catalyst née Marzipan. A lot of people saw it as a way to bring beloved iPad apps to the Mac more easily, saving developers time, effort, and money by letting them build one app instead of two or three for Apple’s various platforms. But I see Project Catalyst going the other way, as less about bringing iPad apps to the Mac and more about bringing Mac apps to the iPad. As I’ve said before, Scrivener on the iPad, while a terrific app, lacks much of the functionality of its desktop counterpart. That doesn’t have to be the case anymore.

And with Photoshop coming to the iPad soon, we may see Adobe Premiere, After Effects, and even Apple’s Final Cut Pro make the move to the tablet in the future. Project Catalyst on the desktop will make Mac users more comfortable when switching to the iPad and give iPad users access to the apps they know and love from the Mac.

Which brings us back to my initial thesis: the end of the MacBook.

It won’t happen immediately, but I do see it happening sooner rather than later, starting with the 12-inch MacBook. Its last update was in 2017 and even then, its processor and RAM options were paltry compared to its Pro brethren. When the new Pro models came out last week with 8-core processors and the MacBook was left out of the cycle, that told me the warden pushed up the runt’s execution date. Dead computer walking.

The same goes for the 13-inch "Escape" model Pro (the one without the Touch Bar). The difference between the MacBook Escape and the MacBook Air is $100 and, as Macworld’s Michael Simon pointed out in his comparison of all three MacBook models back in November 2018:

The $1,299 non-Touch Bar model has a better processor than the MacBook Air, but not overly so, and it has the same base storage, RAM, ports, and screen. The Air is lighter, feels thinner due to its wedge design, and has better battery life.

At that size and form factor, I don’t imagine most people, especially students and hobbyists (amateur photographers, podcasters, writers) would opt for the higher priced Pro when they could get an Air that’s lighter and cheaper with better battery life.

Now, enter the iPad Pro, with its blazing-fast A12x chip and Liquid Retina display. It’s a powerful machine made even more powerful with the updates in iPadOS. Students looking for an ultra-portable machine to carry with them to class may likely find the Pro to scratch just that itch. They can read digital textbooks, email professors, take notes using the Apple Pencil, and chat with classmates while using the device as a pure tablet, or with a keyboard. It’s incredibly versatile and should grow even more so once Project Catalyst takes off.

A 12.9-inch iPad Pro with 256GB of space, the Smart Keyboard Folio, and the Apple Pencil comes in at a little over $1,500. That’s more expensive than the base model 13-inch MacBook Pro and the base MacBook Air. Laptop pricing for a true laptop alternative.

The updated iPad Air is no slouch either. It boasts an A12 chip, Apple Pencil support, and even uses the old Pro’s Smart Keyboard cover. A 256GB WiFi model clocks in at around $650. Add the keyboard and Pencil and you’re heading into the one grand territory. Again, laptop pricing.

Like I said, I don’t see Apple dropping the MacBook lineup tomorrow. I imagine it starting out slow, with the 12-inch models falling off the website, followed by the 13-inch Escape-model Pros. The 15-inch Pro will stick around. A portable machine capable of high-end video, audio, and graphic work will always be in demand, but the days of low-end Apple laptops for students and casual web surfers may be coming to a close. As it stands right now, Apple offers:

  • 2 MacBook models
  • 2 MacBook Air models
  • 4 13-inch MacBook Pro models
  • 2 15-inch MacBook Pro models
  • iPad mini
  • 9.7-inch iPad (Pro)
  • iPad Air
  • iPad Pro

I see that eventually becoming:

  • 2 13-inch MacBook Pro (Touch Bar) models
  • 2 15-inch MacBook Pro models
  • iPad Mini
  • iPad Air
  • iPad Pro

Yes, I also predict the 9.7-inch iPad fading away as well. Especially since the Air is less than $200 more and could feasibly come down further in price to better accommodate the education market, as well as consumers who don’t want to spend the coin on a Pro model.

I won’t be surprised if anyone disagrees with me. It’s a bold claim, but Apple isn’t a company that’s afraid to change things up, especially when they have a chance to move an entire industry forward. iPadOS is just the beginning.

In less than a decade, I can see my son turning to me with a puzzled look on his face and asking me, "What’s a computer?"

iPad for Writers – Part 2: Scrivener and Apple Pages

Before we get started, let me state right away that you can write a book in anything. Google Docs, Word, Drafts–it doesn’t matter. However, I’d argue that just because you can write in those programs doesn’t mean you should write in those programs. I can’t imagine writing a book in Word and the idea of trusting a browser app to hold 80,000 words gives me hives. But people do it and they are far braver than I will ever be.

There are dedicated applications designed for longform writing. One of them is called Ulysses. I know of several writers who swear by it, including authors Matt Gemmell and David Hewson. It’s available for Mac and iOS and it’s…fine. It seems to have a decent number of export options, including ePub, but it never sat well with me as a place to write something big like a novel or non-fiction book. I’ve tried it and I think of it more as a blog post editor. However, if you’d like to learn more, I encourage you to read Matt’s and David’s blogs, as well as this Macworld review.

For my fiction, I trust only the best and the best is and always has been Literature and Latte’s Scrivener, available on Mac, Windows, and iOS ($45 on Mac and Windows, $20 on iOS). Scrivener is the kitchen sink of word processors. It’s able to collect research, such as character bios, images, and webpages, it can export to all sorts of filetypes, including ePub and Kindle’s .mobi format, and moving scenes around is as simple and picking one up and dropping it where you need it to go.

On the desktop.

The iOS version, which I’ve been relying on more and more, does not share feature parity with its Mac counterpart. In some ways, that’s good. One of the biggest complaints about Scrivener is its high barrier to entry. Because it does so much, many writers find it to be overwhelming, choosing to rely on old standbys like Microsoft Word to do the job. Scrivener on iOS doesn’t have that problem, since the developers stripped out a lot of the power user features to give writers a simpler, cleaner interface.

Fonts and styles are tucked away under a separate button, so there’s less to fiddle with and you can focus on writing, not debating between Times New Roman and Cochin.

On the flip side, not having all the features of the desktop app makes tracking versions more difficult. As I work through edits on my latest novel, I like to take a "snapshot" of a chapter as it exists now before I start to make changes. Those changes can then be reflected in different-colored text on the page. Scrivener on iOS doesn’t have snapshots, so any edits I make can’t be tracked automatically.

I can still change text colors and highlight passages and make comments and footnotes, but all of that must be done manually.

Of course, the iOS version is still young and has a long way to go before it can be considered "complete." I’m hopeful features like Snapshots make it in soon.

The good news is many of the features I do use are present, such as Dropbox sync and the corkboard, which allows me to see each chapter displayed as an index card that can be shuffled around.

I can also see my progress as I write, including the word count for my current writing session, and I can set targets to hit each day if I hope to finish my first draft by a specific date.

For any writer who’s wanted to give Scrivener a try, but has been scared to dive into what they’ve believed is an expert-level program with a steep learning curve, I encourage them to take a look at the iOS version first. It provides a ton of features that can be explored at a steady pace, but without the clutter of the desktop versions.

In conjunction with Scrivener, I’ve also come to depend on Apple’s Pages app–a free download for iOS users. Pages has come a long way and what Apple has now is a capable word processor compatible with Microsoft Word. I recently hired a freelance editor to provide developmental edits for my novel, which he sent back as a .docx file. Since I work off an 11" iPad Pro, Word requires me to pay for a subscription to edit any documents and I already pay for way too many subscriptions.

Instead, I opened the edit document in Pages and was happily surprised to see all the tracking was still intact. The comments didn’t appear as little bubbles to the side like in Word. Instead, they popped up like little footnotes at the bottom of the window. Using the iPad’s split-window multitasking, I keep Pages on the left and Scrivener on the right at equal widths and edit my book side-by-side.

Also, a fun tip I learned from Jodi Hutchins on Twitter: adding "GOAT CHEESE" to your manuscript where you leave off in your edits makes it MUCH easier to find your way back to that spot later. This is especially true on the iPad, where apps are known to quit themselves and refresh spontaneously, stranding you at the top of your documents. Having to flick your way back to where you were near the bottom can take a while, so instead just conduct a search for any mentions of "GOAT CHEESE" and you’re right back where you stopped earlier. I add it to both the Scrivener draft and the edit doc just in case.

All of this is fine and dandy if you’re in the throes of editing, but what if you’re still drafting? Even on the Mac you can’t have multiple Scrivener windows open to the same project. If you need to stop writing to check your research folder for something, you need to bounce out of the active chapter, find what you’re looking for in the Research folder, then go back and pick up where you left off. It’s not a great system regardless of the platform.

On iOS, there are useful apps like Story Planner that can be flown in from the right side of the screen to give you quick access to character bios or research documents without taking you out of Scrivener. When you’re done, you can simply swipe them away and get back to drafting. I’ll be talking about Story Planner and other helpful utilities in a future article, but for more information on iOS multitasking, check out this helpful piece on iMore.

I’m not sure I ever would have written one novel, let alone six, had it not been for Scrivener. Its flexibility and robust feature set have made the act of writing not only easier, but also fun. But Scrivener, especially on iOS, is only the beginning. App choice is one half of the battle. The other half is in picking the right keyboard. Stay tuned for the next installment of this series where I’ll discuss the different keyboard options available. You’re going to be using the keyboard more than anything else, so choose wisely.

iPad for Writers – Part 1: Changing Behaviors

I’ve been a dedicated Mac user since 2003, though my history with the platform goes back further. My family had a terrible System 7 machine in the mid-’90s and before that, I was using an early Mac in the school computer lab to play the Oregon Trail and Math Racer.

I switched to PC in the mid-’90s, but no matter what I used, there was one constant among every machine: bulk. From big Macs to towering Windows machines to chunky PowerBooks and MacBooks, the computer I used was always large and in charge of my life. Of course, that was the limitation of the time. Laptops weren’t as slim and light as they are today, but they’ve always been heavy on the software and my tolerance for that bloat has waned over time.

I used to love having simultaneous access to the web and my music and my word processor and every other app I could get my hands on. I could rearrange windows so I was able to see four, five, six, or more applications at once.

And it was killing my productivity. Many people will throw constant notifications under the bus as the reason for their lack of focus, but notifications come and go with the flick of a finger. It’s the potential for procrastination that has forced me to rethink how I work and where my work gets done.

That browser window I have open behind Scrivener? I can watch YouTube. Or Netflix. Or read any number of websites that have nothing to do with the words I’m trying to write. Yes, there are ways to restrict access to certain apps and websites, but I’ll always be able to justify disabling them for one reason or another and then I’ll be back up to my old ways in no time. And the words? They’ll never get written.

What has worked for me, however, are boundaries. Whether self-imposed or hard deadlines set by someone else, I’ve always thrived by working within narrow confines. It’s not about locking distractions out, but locking myself into something I can’t get out of. I’ve written two novels by hand, I write for a popular podcast that requires a certain number of scripts per month, and I have goals I’d like to reach with my own novels, such as beginning the querying process for my latest by this June.

Writing a book in a notebook with pens and pencils was extremely frustrating, but it also taught me to be thoughtful with my words and to plan ahead so I wouldn’t get stuck wondering where I wanted my plot or characters to go. Unfortunately, the task was tedious and painful. I don’t plan on ever writing another book by hand again, but there are other ways to slow down and focus. The iPad has helped me in that regard.

I bought the first iPad when it came out in 2010, but the software and capabilities were pretty limited so early on in the product’s life. I eventually upgraded to an iPad 4. Again, it was hard to shift my workload to the tablet at the time due to a lack of proper file access and multitasking. I thought I might never use another iPad again, seeing as how they were always so hampered by glorified phone software.

Then I picked up a 9.7" iPad a few years ago. Technically a "Pro" model, the device allowed me to use two apps side-by-side and when paired with the Brydge Bluetooth keyboard, I felt like I was carrying around a compact laptop designed for focused work. I had Scrivener, Apple’s Pages, a browser to do research, I could disable notifications with a few taps, and BOOM — full-on focus mode to write books and scripts with minimal distractions.

And that’s what this all comes down to, isn’t it? Distraction. That’s what I’ve really liked most about moving my work over to the iPad: the lack of distraction. The multitasking is good enough without getting in the way or giving me too many options. There’s less to fiddle with. I can choose to work in one app and then move to another if I choose, but I usually don’t because it’s cumbersome, so I stay where I am and get my work done more quickly.

I’m going to use this series, as long as it runs, to explain my transition from laptop to iPad. I’ll talk about the apps and services, accessories, and shortcuts I use as a working writer to get the words down. Hopefully this will help anyone wondering if they can also make the switch. It won’t always be pretty or seamless–iOS is still quite limited in specific, crucial ways–but it will get better and with it, so will I.

The next article in this series will focus on apps, specifically Scrivener and Pages, as they are the two main word processors I use daily. If you have any questions about how I use them or problems you’re looking to troubleshoot, feel free to drop me a line on either my contact form or on Twitter.

The 333 Email System

Like most people, I struggle with email every day.

Wow, that sounds a lot like an infomercial. I mean, I guess this kind of is? Long story short, I got tired of a lot of the systems out there for managing my inbox because:

  1. I am my own man with my own hangups about people telling me what to do.
  2. I get a lot of email.

I tried Merlin Mann’s Inbox Zero method, which is a great concept and for a while, it worked okay. I didn’t adhere to it as strictly as some, but I did take away a few things that have helped me cut down on what was sitting in my inbox.

That said, I needed something a little less…formulated. The problem with systems like Inbox Zero, or David Allen’s Getting Things Done, or even Ryder Carroll’s Bullet Journal method is that they are systems. They are prescriptive, despite their creators insisting you can "do it your own way."

So, I tend to pull bits and pieces from each, leaving me with a piecemeal conglomeration of half-solutions. I haven’t gotten around to reconciling my analog/digital note-taking problems, so I’ll hold off on the whole Bullet Journal thing for a while. Same goes for GTD.

But email? Email I can fix.

The concept is simple. I call it the "333 System."

  • Three questions.
  • Three folders.
  • Three seconds.

(I added the folders bit to make it sound like a complete "thing," but really it’s up to you how you organize your emails.)

The whole thing hinges on the three questions and three seconds. I’m not the kind of person who can set aside time to review my email at specific intervals throughout the day, especially at work. Unfortunately, I work at a company where the primary form of communication is email. It’s gross, but it’s how we do, so I need to be ready to jump in at any time.

That’s where the three seconds comes into play. I have three seconds to decide what to do with that email, which is why I ask myself three questions, which I refer to as the "three I’s":

  1. Immediate? Can this email be dealt with right now? If it just needs a quick reply or to be filed, I can take care of that and get rid of it.
  2. Information? Does this email contain information I’ll need for later? I can keep that info in a running Google Doc, or a Draft, or a note and delete/archive the email away.
  3. Item? This was the closest word I could get to the concept in my head that would give me the last "I" I needed. Basically, if this can’t be done right away, can it be added to my to-do list for later so I can process the email itself out of my inbox?

These questions are the first things I ask myself when I get a new email notification and they’ve been working. I’ve been able to be more productive and get in and out of my inbox more quickly because of them.

As for the three folders, this part of the system is completely optional. You can use as many folders as you want if you’d prefer to organize your messages differently, but I like using three. Mainly, I hate long sidebars full of folders.

I use a service called Sanebox, which automatically filters my email based on type into folders like "Later" for newsletters/retail alerts, and "Blackhole" for emails I no longer want to receive. There’s also my general "Archive" folder for things I want to keep, but don’t necessarily need to have categorized.

For work, I have folders for specific projects because I might need to find something from six months ago in a short amount of time and I don’t feel like using Outlook’s search function to sift through thousands of messages. The key is the time spent in deciding what to do with the email and where it’s supposed to go, not how many folders I use to organize it all.

But for personal email? I really only need:

  1. An Archive folder
  2. A Later folder
  3. And an Unsubscribe folder

If you don’t use something like Sanebox, you can manually drag your newsletters and retail emails into the Later folder and save them for processing completely when you have some downtime.

Same goes for the Unsubscribe folder. You can give yourself three seconds to decide if this is something you no longer want to get delivered to you and add it to the folder so you can address it when you have more time.

The Archive folder is really for email you’ve already handled and need to file away. Stuff you probably won’t need to go back to again after you’ve replied or taken the information out of it.

The biggest thing I try to remember is that it is not about eliminating the email from my inbox as quickly as possible. I mean it is, but it’s more than that. It’s about processing the email I get in a meaningful way so it’s not weighing me down later. A hastily deleted email I might need later is just as burdensome as one still sitting in my inbox.

And that’s it. That’s my email system. Pretty simple I think. It’s been working for me and I figured I might share it for anyone either drowning in email or struggling to use an existing system for triaging new messages.

Hope it helps.