Deckset: Rapid Presentation Generation using MarkDown

My workflows have changed since I wrote my entry: “Why I Use Plaintext” in June 2012. The entry was about avoiding the distraction of Microsoft Word and Apple Pages while writing. At the time I wrote the entry there was no Ulysses. Now I use Ulysses for almost all my short-form writing. In 2012, there was no iOS version of Scrivener. Now I use Scrivener for all my long-form writing. Although technology has changed, some things have not. I still dislike bloated software packages that get in the way of my final goal. I still love Plaintext / Markdown.There is another requirement of my job that relies just as heavily on bloated software-presentations. Speeding up the development of a presentation is the focus of this entry.Presentations are used throughout business and academia to transmit ideas. Some influential thinkers, such as Edward Tufte, argue bulleted presentations shouldn’t be used at all. The reality is that presentations are deeply ingrained in business and academia. Many presenters rely too heavily on the glitz offered by the software at the expense of content. It’s easy to get lost in software features—spending hours tweaking backgrounds, transitions, and text placement.Which brings me to Deckset. Deckset is an amazing application for iOS that converts Markdown files into presentations. As this review of Deckset 1 in Macworld says: “It’s designed for the average person who needs to make beautiful slides without the muss and fuss of Keynote or PowerPoint.” With the release of Deckset 2 and its outstanding features, the application has become my go-to application for rapid preparation of presentations. Because Deckset uses Markdown, I find myself concentrating less on making my slides look attractive and more on content. Deckset works seamlessly with Ulysses, allowing me to quickly edit my presentations on my phone, my tablet, or my Mac. (You can use any text editor with Deckset. If you plan to use Ulysses, check out these helpful tips).I recently used Deckset to develop a new 30 minute presentation. I estimate the presentation took about 1/4 the amount of time to develop versus Keynote. The cost for Deckset 2 is $29 (with educational discounts available).Here is a link to the Deckset manual.

Meeting Workflows: Processing Meeting Notes and Discovering Linkages

It was a great deal of fun to join my friends, David Sparks - MacSparky, Katie Floyd, and Brett Terpstra (hosted by Dan Miller) on stage at MacWorld Live to discuss my Meeting Workflow. The session was webcast live from the MacWorld site. Following the session, I received many questions as to how I process my notes once they’ve been collected. Here is what I do…..

As I mentioned, I write and capture all my notes in Plaintext (using Drafts on my iPad and iPhone and nvALT on my Mac). I covered the way I capture ideas (IdeaX) using TextExpander. I use a similar method for capturing meeting notes (MeetX), chunks of writing (ScribbleX), quotations (QuoteX), and random thoughts (ThoughtX). Using Simplenote Notesy, I’m able to keep my notes on my iPad and iPhone in sync with my Mac. A single folder indexed by nvALT serves as the repository for everything, regardless of their content. In a pinch, I can search my notes on my iPad or iPhone using SimpleNote Notesy, but the true power of this workflow is realized when I return to my Mac.

I have alluded to my love of Devonthink Pro Office. I’m especially fond of DT's ability to find related notes using its artificial intelligence. For the purpose of this workflow, I have a single database that indexes three things: (1) my collection of manuscripts (from Papers2), (2) my web clippings, and (3) my nvALT notes. My web clippings are added directly to my DT database, but my Papers folder and nvALT folder are INDEXED, not imported into the same database. Indexing in DT is done by choosing File:Index… and navigating to the folder of interest on your computer (this is only during the initial set-up). You will have to manually update the index your folders each time you add new information. This is quick and simple– done by choosing the appropriate folder in DT and choosing File:Update Indexed Items.

When I’m writing (or searching for information), I can select a particular note and find all related information in my library-whether it’s a scholarly article, a newspaper clipping, a web site, or a note I’ve taken. Often times, DT finds linkages for me that weren’t readily apparent. This speeds my writing process immensely and makes me look like a magician to my peers. I hope it works for you too.

Appended March 2, 2013: Read this entry on why I switched from SimpleNote to Notesy.

Why I Use Plaintext

As academic physician, a large part of my work involves writing. I write emails, meeting notes, drafts of manuscripts and books, blogs, ideas, grant applications, and more. I've owned every version of Microsoft Word for the Mac. But over the last two years, my workflow for writing has changed dramatically.

For me, writing can be very difficult. I find I write best with minimal distractions. I need to be in a position to get into a flow state and type whatever comes to mind. I’ve found it best to get the stream of ideas down on the page as quickly as possible, then come back later to edit. Software features, whether for formatting, editing, or reviewing often become a distraction. Over time, I've found I do my most productive writing in a program that offers few options (and thus very few opportunities for distraction).  Knowing this about me, you won't be surprised to learn that I have all but forsaken Microsoft Word (and Apple Pages) in favor of plaintext.

You might find this odd coming from someone who writes manuscripts and grants for a living. You're probably wondering how an academic can survive without Word? And why would a tech-savvy nerd like me choose something so basic as plaintext?

Please let me explain. If left to my basic inclinations, I might flail for hours trying to construct the perfect sentence. For a long time, this "perfectionism" would leave me stuck-often on the first page of a large writing project. Only recently did I learn to overcome this impediment. For me, the key to productive writing is for me to minimize distractions.  I need to control distractions in my environment, distractions on my device, and distractions within the writing program itself. Once I start writing, I try to keep my words flowing freely, saving the editing for my second (and third, and fourth) pass.

Word no longer met the demands of my workflow. I resented Word for its proprietary format, the size of its documents, its complexity, and the worst of all: auto-formatting. I commonly found Word getting in the way of my writing rather than getting out of the way and letting me write. Pages was not much better. And with either program it was difficult to keep versions synchronized between my Mac, my iPhone, and my iPad. After I wrote something I wanted the text to be immediately available on every device I owned.

I started looking for alternatives to Word and Pages. And there was a plethora of minimalist writing programs for the Mac and iOS to choose from. Most had only a few features–just enough to enable writing and to do minimal formatting. My favorite programs seamlessly synchronized to the Cloud, allowing me to write once, but access the text on any device. Because I write text bound either for a word processor or the web, I needed a single way to write in in words and in HTML. Plaintext combined with Markdown-a plaintext formatting syntax developed by John Gruber-allows me to write once and then move my words either to a word processor or to the web. Fletcher Penny’s MultiMarkdown adds many additional capabilities to Markdown and is especially handy for academics. If my note isn't going to stay in its native plaintext form, I usually run it through Marked-a program that imports Markdown/Multimarkdown and exports formatted text in the end format I desire (whether it's for a word processor or the web).

These days, I do the majority of my writing on my iPad or Mac using use a Markdown-enabled text editor. I use Word or Pages only in the very final stages of a writing project (after the bulk of the writing and editing is complete).

But there’s more. I spend about 30 minutes commuting in my car each day. I now occasionally use this time for “writing.” The addition of voice recognition to the iPhone 4s gave me the ability to dictate during my commute. I dictate into SimpleNote Notesy or the Dragon Dictation app on my iPhone. If I use Simplenote Notesy, the text automatically syncs using Dropbox and is immediately available on my Mac or iPad. If I use Dragon, all I have to do is mail myself the dictation and import the text into my writing application. I find myself drafting emails, letters, and even beginning long manuscripts while commuting. Then, when I arrive at the office, I just need to polish my prose rather than start writing from scratch.

Once I’ve written the document, plaintext is easy to share across operating systems (Windows, Mac, Linux) and devices-negating the need to buy proprietary software or other converters. Plaintext documents are tiny, taking up a fraction of the space of a proprietary word processing file. Plaintext is flexible-serving as notes in its native form, or as the early stage writing / editing platform for larger writing projects.

My current workflow for most short documents is to write or dictate them into plaintext (I use Writing Kit on my iPad, SimpleNoteNotesy or Dragon Dictation for dictation on my iPhone, and Byword on my mac). Although I can’t dictate Markdown on my iPhone, it’s a simple task to add once I reach my destination. I use Dropbox to keep all my notes in sync. If I’m writing a document, I can used Marked to copy my formatted text directly to Pages or to Word for final formatting. For a blog entry or web page I can export my Markdown document to HTML using Marked.

There are numerous writing apps for the Mac and iOS. I suggest you try several (most are $5 or less each) to find the best fit for your personal style. Brett Terpstra recently wrote a blog entry comparing the different features of writing programs for iOS. Features important to me in the editors were: (1) built-in TextExpander, (2) import Markdown and Multimarkdown files, (3) synchronizes to the Cloud or to Dropbox.

For large academic projects, I have a more complex workflow that includes several other tools. I’ll cover this more complex writing workflow in a future entry.

Cheers, Jeff

Appended June 17, 2012: I was taking a look at @MacSparky's Twitter feed. He recommended this blog post by @yuvizalkow : I’m A Failed Writer #13: Beyond Microsoft Word… Or Not on the same topic.

Appended March 2, 2013: Read this entry on why I switched from SimpleNote to Notesy.

Enhanced by Zemanta