43 Folders

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Merlin’s weekly podcast with Dan Benjamin. We talk about creativity, independence, and making things you love.

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”What’s 43 Folders?”
43Folders.com is Merlin Mann’s website about finding the time and attention to do your best creative work.


What Makes for a Good Blog?

My friends at Six Apart recently asked me to make a list of blogs that I enjoy. I think they're planning to use it for their new Blogs.com project. Unfortunately, I'm late getting it to them (typical), but if it's still useful, I'll post it here in a day or four.

As I think about the blogs I've returned to over the years -- and the increasingly few new ones that really grab my attention -- I want to start with, ironically enough, a list. Here's what I think helps make for a good blog.

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Berkun's Game-Changer: Disruptive, Breakthrough Essay on Transformative Jargon Utilization.

Why Jargon Feeds on Lazy Minds - Scott Berkun

Georege OrwellScott Berkun, writing on how buzzwords cheapen language, dull meaning, and enfeeble our thinking:

If I could give every single business writer, guru or executive one thing to read every morning before work, it'd be this essay by George Orwell: Politics and the English Language.

Not only is this essay short, brilliant, thought-provoking and memorable, it calls bullshit on most of what passes today as speech and written language in management circles. And if you are too lazy to read the article, all you need to remember is this: never use a fancy word when a simple one will do. If your idea is good, no hype is necessary. Explain it clearly and people will get it, if there truly is something notable to get. If your idea is bad: keep working before you share it with others. And if you don't have time for that, you might as well be honest. Because when you throw jargon around, most of us know you're probably lying about something anyway.

Marry me, Scott. (And, yes: I, for one, will stop saying "game-changer" now. Tic noted.)

Orwell's excellent 1946 essay is freely available in numerous locations and in various formats across the web. I like this vanilla version.

[via delicious/charliepark]

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Lunch Poems

Guest post from our pal, Brian, on how one of my favorite poets of the 60s captured interstitial time to make art. —mdm

At the late late party after party we were talking about how you know if you're a writer. I suggested that actually writing routinely was the tip off. Then someone had a better idea: that writers are those who feel guilty about not writing. A first-world problem, to be sure, but if you know any working writers, one of their most beloved hobby horses is that they just don't have time to write. Students, money, speaking engagements, lint, bacon, the Cubs, morning sex. So many things between them and great sentences.

Frank O'Hara didn't seem to have this problem. read more »

Kurt Vonnegut on Writing Better

"How to Write With Style" by Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt VonnegutIn an essay from his 1981 collection, Palm Sunday, the wonderful Kurt Vonnegut offered simple, sensible advice on improving your writing. Love this bit on learning how to "sound like yourself":

I myself find that I trust my own writing most, and others seem to trust it most, too, when I sound most like a person from Indianapolis, which is what I am. What alternatives do I have? The one most vehemently recommended by teachers has no doubt been pressed on you, as well: to write like cultivated Englishmen of a century or more ago.

The seven points, in all:

  1. Find a subject you care about
  2. Do not ramble, though
  3. Keep it simple
  4. Have guts to cut
  5. Sound like yourself
  6. Say what you mean
  7. Pity the readers

[via MetaFilter]

(Ask me about the time in 1986 that Kurt Vonnegut bought me breakfast.)

Update 2008-07-14 09:11:30: If you're curious, [here's my Kurt Vonnegut story](kung fu grippe, which I shared on another site of mine not long after his passing. What a good human Mr. Vonnegut was.

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Whining, Blue Smoke & the Mechanics of Getting Unstuck

I've been working on a bunch of (non-43 Folders-related) stuff lately, but I started feeling that hankering to come back and write something new here. To get the engine started, I went through some old posts and turned up a few (oddly self-inspiring) ideas that I want to re-share. The topic? "Getting unstuck."

  • Hack your way out of writer's block - "Literally. Put five completley random words on a piece of paper. Write five more words. Try a sentence. Could be about anything. A block ends when you start making words on a page."
  • Solve problems by writing a note to yourself - "Seriously, open up your email program, type in your own email address, then choose a brilliant subject line that perfectly encapsulates your particular problem."
  • Do a fast "mind-sweep" - "And as long as you let that stuff accumulate as chunky deposits on the edges of your perception, it’s very unlikely it’ll get done since — well — they won’t get done until they’re been captured and properly started, right?"
  • Cringe-Busting your TODO list - "Per cringe item, think honestly about why you’re freaked out about it. Seriously. What’s the hang-up? (Fear of failure? Dreading bad news? Angry you’re already way overdue?)"
  • Patching your personal suck - "Every patch that fails teaches you a little something that might come in handy some day. Mistakes, as they say, can be a buddhist gift."

I guess all I'd add -- since it's on my mind today -- is that I'm learning how much it pays to listen whenever you hear yourself mentally whining.

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Creative Constraints: Going to Jail to Get Free

A Brief Message: No Resistance Is Futile

For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn

Paul Ford has been posting six-word Twitter updates for a few weeks, and now he's also created the magnum opus of six-word criticism: sexological reviews of the 763 mp3s in this year's SxSW torrent.

Writing on (the 200-words-or-less site) A Brief Message, Paul talks about how the constraint changed his approach and his thinking:

Now when I face a new writing project, I open a spreadsheet. I want a grid to keep track of sources and dates, or to make certain that the timeline of a story makes sense. The grid imposes brevity. Relationships between sentences are exposed. Editing becomes a more explicit act of sorting, shuffling, balancing paragraphs. In this spirit, I'm rewriting some blog software to read directly from Excel. We'll see how that goes.

Yes. Constraints. As Paul shows, constraints get you thinking about the creative process in a whole new way.

Me? I ♥ constraints. 30 seconds. 5 things. Less than 140 characters.

In fact:

Twitter's making me a stronger writer. I think harder about how to say more using fewer and shorter words. Nothing beats hitting the Twoosh. (140 chars)

Let's close with a favorite quote on creative constraint from Anne Lamott's wonderful Bird by Bird. She explains that she keeps a one-inch-square picture frame on her desk to remind her of "short assignments:"

It reminds me that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being.

Well put. (And only 17 characters north of the Twoosh.)

The Question to You

Got a good example of a creative constraint at work?

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William F. Buckley, Scourge of 20-pound Bond Paper

William F. Buckley Jr., one of the fathers of modern American political conservatism, died Wednesday. Whether you agree with his politics or not, it's hard to ignore this positively startling fact from his New York Times obituary: in addition to writing and editing more than 55 books,

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TOPICS: Work, Writing

Slate Magazine on the market for "Zenware"

Sort of an add-on to the New York Times piece Merlin linked the other day about Scrivener and its cohort of new writing applications, Jeffrey MacIntyre at Slate coins a new term for programs that eschew the familiar, bloated twiddliness of Microsoft Office for simplicity:

There's an emerging market for programs that introduce much-needed traffic calming to our massively expanding desktops. The name for this genre of clutter-management software: zenware.

The philosophy behind zenware is to force the desktop back to its Platonic essence. There are several strategies for achieving this, but most rely on suppressing the visual elements you're used to: windows, icons, and toolbars. The applications themselves eschew pull-down menus or hide off-screen while you work. Even if you consider yourself inured to their presence, the theory goes, you'll benefit most from their absence.

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Working In Close

"Inspiration is for amateurs. I just get to work." -- Chuck Close


Detail Chuck Close



It may be that I like hearing about the work habits of writers and artists I like almost as much as I like their work. How do you force yourself to do work no one (really, like, no one) is clamoring for, in addition to doing the long apprentice work you need to do to build your chops? As most of our work gets less structured and more creative, it might prove helpful to take a look at how artists get their stuff done.

And, sorry, all those romantic notions you have of absinthe spoons, manic episodes and Kerouac-like rambling on a long roll of butcher paper really aren't operative. Creative work is mostly showing up every day and enduring a million tiny failures as you feel your way to something a bit new.

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NYT Magazine covers Scrivener, other OS X writing apps

An Interface of One’s Own

I was delighted to see my favorite OS X writing app, Scrivener, turn up in today's "The Medium" column of the New York Times Magazine. I reviewed Scrivener about a year ago, and still use it whenever I have to research, plan, and draft anything more complicated than a blog post. In fact, as luck would have it, I was actually working on my upcoming Macworld talk in Scrivener when I took a break to read the paper and saw this article. Kismet or something.

Columnist, Virginia Heffernan, notes the app's beloved full-screen capability:

To create art, you need peace and quiet. Not only does Scrivener save like a maniac so you needn’t bother, you also get to drop the curtain on life’s prosaic demands with a feature that makes its users swoon: full screen. When you’re working on a Scrivener opus, you’re not surrounded by teetering stacks of Firefox windows showing old Google searches or Citibank reports of suspicious activity. Life’s daily cares slip into the shadows. What emerges instead is one pristine and welcoming scroll: Your clean and focused mind.

High fives to other great apps mentioned in the article, including Ulysses, WriteRoom, and Nisus Writer. Slightly lower fives go to Microsoft Word, which, once again, takes its usual drubbing as The Application Everyone Wants To Get Away From™. Poor Microsoft Word, the mascara-smeared Gloria Swanson of word processors.

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An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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Merlin used to crank. He’s not cranking any more.

This is an essay about family, priorities, and Shakey’s Pizza, and it’s probably the best thing he’s written. »

Scared Shitless

Merlin’s scared. You’re scared. Everybody is scared.

This is the video of Merlin’s keynote at Webstock 2011. The one where he cried. You should watch it. »