Going analog – pens and paper

Even though we live and work in the digital age there are times when an old fashioned paper and pen just can’t be beaten.

Every journalist needs to make sure that they have a pen and paper handy. Even though I’m an iPad addict, using it with Evernote for most of my note-taking, there are times when it just not possible to use the iPad or a laptop. For example, you may need to stand or, at the end of a busy day, you may be out of power with no access to a power outlet for recharging.

Notebooks – Moleskine

When it comes to stationery, I carry a Moleskine notebook. I prefer to use the Ruled Cahier Journal as it’s slim and light. I started using this type of Moleskine when I left home without a notepad on a trip and grabbed a three-pack at the airport. However, I’ve not looked back. I also keep a Moleskine 240-page hard-cover notebook handy in the office for making notes when something pops into my head. Also, there are times when I prefer to use pen and paper – it can be a kind of therapy.

Some of my friends prefer the Moleskine Reporter as the front cover flips back rather than opening like a regular book.


With pens, I’ve learned that you’re actually buying two things. The body of the pen is important and the type of refill is. A good pen store will left you mix and match in order to get the best fit.

I have two pens that I use regularly. One is a Rotring multi-pen that support four different writing tips. It simultaneously holds a black refill (I prefer black to blue),  a red refill, a mechanical pencil and a stylus.

With the Rotring, I use LAMY refills that are found at most of the stationers local to me. These are comfortable to write with, flowing nicely over paper without slipping or offering too much resistance.

You can buy the Rotring Multipen from the Amazon Store.

The other pen I use is a Fischer Space pen. This isn’t as comfortable to write with but the Fischer system is engineered so that you can write on just about any angle. This is handy when I need to take notes leaning on a wall or some other uncomfortable writing position.

The Fisher Space Pen is available from the Amazon Store.

Essential books for writers – The Elements of Style and The Grammar Devotional

I maintain that almost anyone can be taught to be a good writer. Sure, for some people it comes naturally but with sufficient effort I think anyone can write well. If you don’t have the time or money to attend a writing course, there’s plenty of help available. I suggest that anyone who needs to write clearly for an audience – and that means just about anyone in business – could do worse than get copies of these two books.

I read The Elements of Style once a year. It’s short – it only takes a couple of hours to run through. The Grammar Devotional is new to me but I intend to visit it regularly to make sure I don’t fall into bad habits.

The Elements of Style

The Elements of StyleWritten by E. B White, the author of Charlotte’s Web and his student William Strunk, The Elements of Style is a great guide in the correct use of the English language. Unlike the grammar books we all grew up with at school, The Elements of Style presents its information in a simple format.

It describes a set of 18 rules as well as some other guidelines such as commonly misspelt words and misused phrases. Rather than doing this with a bunch of technical rules, it simply presents each rule by showing an error and a correction. Each is presented in simple, non-technical language.

The Elements of Style is available from Amazon.

The Grammar Devotional

The Grammar DevotionalThe Grammar Devotional by Mignon Fogarty was recommended to me by Valerie Khoo. It’s designed to be read each day.

Divided into readings for each day of the year, it focuses on short rules like when to use use “whom” and “who”. There are also sections on people who were important in the development of the English language and weekly quizzes to test your knowledge.

Like The Elements of Style, most of The Grammar Devotional is presented in non-technical terms so it can be picked up by anyone wanting to improve their writing.

The Grammar Devotional is available from Amazon.

Make your home office more productive

One of the great benefits of self-employment is being able to work from home. While that sounds like fun, there are lots of challenges. Being productive at home takes discipline and organisation. That means establishing an area that is clearly for work.

When you’re working from home you need to set aside an area that is designated as a workspace. If you’ve got a young family, you’ll need to find a way to quarantine your work space. If you’re working from a shared home space, like a dining-room or kitchen table, you’ll need to train your family into making it a “Do not disturb” area during working times. I know that can be difficult – my family was pretty young when I started freelancing – but you need to find a way. That can be by setting some rules.

The “Time Quarantine” Method

For example, you can designate certain times to be work times when you can’t be distracted. Or, you can set your working hours to work around your family commitments. If your kids attend school or kindergarten, you can set your working hours so that you work when the children are out. Then you can give your family some attention when they’re home but focus when they’re out.

It doesn’t matter how you use the “time quarantine” method but it’s important that if you find a way that works for you.

The problem with just being able to quarantine time to work means that you need to be able pack up your office. If you struggle with keeping your research and other notes in order then it’s worth looking at online tools like Evernote (that I’ve written about before) to help you keep organised.

The “Space Quarantine” Method

If you have the luxury of a dedicated workspace then many of your productivity challenges are already taken care of. However, are you getting the best bang for buck from that space?

If you use a laptop as you main work computer, it’s a good idea to elevate it so that the display is at an ergonomically appropriate height. The rule of thumb is to have the top of the display at your eye level. The cheapest way to do this is with a couple of phone books although there are lots of more aesthetically pleasing options around.

With the laptop elevated, you’ll also need a mouse and keyboard. The best combination is the one you’re most comfortable using. Many computer stores have several models on display. Try a few out to see which are best for you.

If you have a desktop computer, the same rules apply.

One thing to consider if you have the desk space and budget is a dual screen (sometimes called a two-head) set up. This is where your computer desktop spans across two screens. The productivity benefits are substantial as you can have two applications open at once. For example, if you use Google Books for research and type into your preferred text editor you can have both open side-by-side. There’s myriad research supporting the productivity benefits. Just Google “dual screen productivity” to find some for the research.

Some general guidelines

Regardless of where you set up your workspace, there are a few things that I find helpful. Here’s a short list.

  • Keep your workspace tidy. Having lots of stuff you don’t need on your workspace distracts you.
  • Remove distractions. If there’s something in your workspace that breaks your concentration, get rid of it.
  • Have a filing system that works for you (here’s mine).
  • Cleanliness – I find I work better when my office is clean. That means vacuuming each week (at least), emptying the rubbish and recycling bins before they overflow and not leaving junk on the desk.
  • Make sure you designate your work area as a work area and that while you’re working, it’s a “no-fly zone” for others.

So, what are your home office productivity tips? Does a “no-fly zone” work for you? Tell us what works for you in the comments.

Flipboard – best social media and RSS reader

Yesterday, I posted a summary of the ins and outs of RSS and why journalists need to be across this important, time saving technology. I mentioned in that post that one way to access your RSS feeds was to use a special piece of software called an RSS reader or aggregator. If you’re an iPad user, one of the best apps for this task is Flipboard. That’s not a compliment I give cheaply.

Flipboard grabs data from different sources such as RSS, Twitter and Facebook and presents them in a magazine style format. For example, let’s say you’ve created a Twitter list from the TV shows you like to watch. You can create a new section in Flipboard that grabs all tweets and any included links and pictures and presents them in a visually appealing and more engaging format.

Below are images from Feeddler, an RSS reader for the iPad, and Twitter for iPad. Both are well regarded applications that present new information neatly. However, you’ll see that both present data in a linear form.

Flipboard completely discards this paradigm. It takes the same content but presents it in a magazine-style format.

See the difference? There’s nothing wrong with Twitter or Feeddler but in Flipboard, the experience is far more engaging. Also, because Flipboard pre-fetches content from links for me, and not just a link to a page, I don’t have to tap as many links or wait for things to arrive. When I want to move to the next page, I simply swipe a finger across the screen and the page turns, just like a magazine.

It’s only been in the most recent update to Flipboard that RSS integration, for Google Reader accounts has been added. Also, content is now cached so that you can view content when you’re not connected to the Internet.

Flipboard is free from the Apple App Store.

What is RSS and how does it work

As a journalist, keeping up with what’s going on in the world is an important part of your work. However, it can be challenging. Between websites, blogs, YouTube, social media and other online services, the volume of data journalists need to process each day is way beyond the amount of time we have available. That means we need to find ways to access and filter information in a time effective way. One such tool is RSS, or Really Simple Syndication.

In order to understand how RSS works, it’s a good idea to cover some basic background. This won’t be super technical but will give you a brief primer on how websites are built today. I promise this will be a technobabble-free zone.

A bit of history

In the olden days, when the Web was just a babe, websites were made up of a collection of pages. Each page was hand-crafted so if you wanted to change the look and feel of a site you had to visit each page and make the changes. As you can imagine, that got old fast. As sites became larger and more complex a different way to maintain websites was needed.

Some smart folks worked out that you could separate the look and feel of a website from the content. That meant that all the data (posts on blogs for example) could be held in a database. When someone accesses a page from your blog, what they are really doing is grabbing some specific data from the database of all your content. Then, it’s assembled into something attractive that uses some specific programming using stuff like HTML, CSS and other acronyms that are only meaningful to those who design website.

The important bit for us is that most websites store their data in a database. That means that if can find a tool that can grab content from the database automatically, without having to visit the site, we end up with a way of accessing content from lots of places without having to go to a bunch of different websites.

How RSS works

With the web-world having embraced databases, a subscription system became easily possible. It wasn’t long before a set of standards (which is the nerd word for rules) emerged so that software could be designed to grab content from website databases. This software is called either an RSS reader or aggregator.


One of the words that often scares off those new to RSS is “subscription”. As journalists, we’re accustomed to a subscription equating to a paid service. With RSS subscriptions are almost always free.

The only money you might outlay in using RSS is for the reader or aggregator software. However, there are so many excellent free options that we can’t see any reason to pay.

Start using RSS with Google Reader

Google Reader is a free service provided by Google. One of the great things about Reader is that most modern RSS readers can use a Reader account so that you can have a single, central collection of RSS subscriptions that can be accessed using just about any computer. If you’re happy using a web browser, Reader will work just fine. If you prefer to have a specific application installed to your computer, then it can access your Reader account.

Although the next little step-by-step guide uses Google Reader, most of the same steps apply to every RSS reader. At the end of the step-by-step there’s a gallery of screenshots for each step in the process.

Step 1 – Set up an account with Google. If you’ve got a GMail address (or Google Apps) account, this part is already done.

Step 2 – Go to Google Reader and sign in with your Google account

Step 3 –  Let’s add a subscription. Most websites have some sort of Subscribe option. With Journo Advice it’s in the top menu and on the right side of every page. Click that link. A new page will open in your browser that looks like a slimmed-down version of the website. Highlight the web address in your browser and copy it.

Then, in Google Reader, click on the “Add a subscription” button. Paste the address into the small box that appears and hit the “Add” button.

Almost instantly, the new feed will appear in your Subscriptions list. The number and length of the items that are available through the site’s RSS feed is determined by the author. Some sites provide a full feed – all of the site’s content – while others only provide an excerpt of the full article. This is so you visit the main site, enabling the author to potentially derive some income.

What happens next?

As you add more feeds to Reader, you can categorise them into folders by using the “Feed Settings” button to create a folder and move the feed into it.

So, that’s a primer on RSS. Is there more you’d like to know? Ask your questions by sending a comment. It’s free!