Using the iPad for: email newsletters in Markdown and HTML

This article is part of a series on going iPad-only.

If you’re a maker of iPad apps that my readers would be interested in, you can sponsor this site for a week.

I offer a membership option for this site, which comes with some cool benefits including an email newsletter every Monday morning (with an exclusive essay, and behind-the-scenes info on my current writing projects, amongst other things).

Because my beloved members support my writing during the long periods between releasing novels, finding a workflow for preparing the weekly newsletter was my first priority for going iPad-only.

On the Mac

Here’s how I’ve always prepared the newsletter before, on my MacBook:

  1. Run a Keyboard Maestro macro that creates a new Markdown file with the appropriate filename (newsletter-0089.markdown etc) in the relevant directory of my Dropbox. It does so by reading a Markdown template file in that same directory, and running a simple regular expression find/replace to put the correct issue number into the new document. Finally, the file opens in Byword for editing. That all takes a second or so.
  2. Write the damned thing, in Markdown (I wrote a little book on that, y’know). Have a coffee. Re-read and edit until satisfied. This is the time-consuming part. If it’s done within two hours, start to finish, it’s a good day.
  3. Run a script I wrote (it’s either Ruby or Python; I’ve forgotten which, because I use both and it was a long time ago) to grab the new issue as Markdown, convert it to HTML using the Markdown Perl script, then insert it into an HTML template document and thus create the full HTML version of the new issue. It gets saved to Dropbox beside its Markdown source file. The contents also go onto the clipboard. This also just takes a second or so.
  4. Go to MailChimp’s web interface, replicate the previous issue’s campaign, edit the title to reflect the new issue number, and paste in the HTML. Then schedule it for the upcoming Monday morning. This takes two or three minutes.

It’s a little dorky, but it works well. The advantages are that I can keep everything in Markdown files in my Dropbox, and I also don’t have to mess around with MailChimp’s slightly janky web-based visual email editor, which gives me a headache. I just paste in the fully-formed HTML (which has some MailChimp variable-markers in it, from my HTML template), and it’s done.

Now, yes, there are less convoluted ways I could do all of this. I don’t have to use Markdown, and I don’t have to use my own full HTML template. I don’t have to use scripts, or macros. But my background is in tech, and I’m a power user and tweaker. I naturally think about tasks in terms of customisation and automation. I’m not sure that’ll ever change. So, even though making a weekly email newsletter from scratch probably isn’t a task that many other people do, it does serve as a kind of litmus test for how readily I can transfer my working style from a Mac to an iPad. That’s what this series of articles is all about, after all.

And it was easy!

On the iPad

I have one word for you, and it’s a word you’re going to see again and again here: Editorial. It’s the cornerstone of a lot of my iOS workflows, and it’s brilliant. Federico Viticci wrote a bloody book on it, and deservedly so. It’s essentially a text editor with extensive automation capabilities, but then a car is essentially a metal box on wheels.

At time of writing, Editorial was last publicly updated in June 2015, but the new version is in private beta right now. So, don’t worry about it being abandonware; it’s not. The version from 2015 is the one I’m using, and it works just fine.

In a nutshell, when I’m making a new newsletter issue, Editorial does the whole thing — with the obvious exception of the final couple of minutes of pasting stuff into MailChimp (but Editorial does put the HTML on the clipboard for me). And come to think of it, MailChimp has APIs for various things, so maybe I could even automate the last part too — but I’m not quite that crazy yet. I can live with two minutes of fiddling. It’s like a ritual of closure.

There are two main aspects to how I get things done in Editorial:

  1. Dropbox. Editorial can open files from, save files to, and sync with Dropbox. You can choose which folder in your Dropbox to sync with. I chose the root folder, so that it gets everything — because Editorial is clever enough to only sync text files, and then only in folders you visit in the app. Which is pretty brilliant.
  2. Workflows. Editorial has a thing called workflows, which are like an in-app version of Automator on macOS. You build up a sequence of actions to accomplish things, and you can trigger them via a popup, or the Bookmarks bar across the top of the editor pane, or by typing an abbreviation of your choice, or by pressing a keyboard shortcut on an external keyboard. It’s very powerful.

I won’t cover workflows in detail here, but Federico’s article dealt with them extensively. You can also read the documentation. Note that, if you want, you can even write full-blown Python scripts, or build custom user interfaces with buttons and checkboxes and all that stuff. Oh, and it can use your TextExpander macros too; even the fill-in kind that produce input dialogs. It’s ridiculous. (Seriously, why don’t you have it yet?)

I have two workflows that I use when making newsletters: my Newsletter document template (even templates in Editorial are workflows, so you can do things like automatically name the file appropriately, insert boilerplate text including dates and variables, use the clipboard, position the insertion-point, and so forth), and my Newsletter to HTML workflow which does all the magic. So, I just tap, write for a while, tap again, then spend a couple of minutes finalising things at MailChimp.

Here’s a screenshot of my Newsletter to HTML workflow.

Newsletter to HTML workflow in Editorial on iPad

I can still jump out to Byword for the actual writing part (everything is in Dropbox, remember, so I can use whichever Dropbox-savvy app I want as an editor), but mostly I just stay in Editorial from start to finish.

It’s compelling, and it’s actually less hassle than on my Mac. This is a theme you’re going to see again and again. I can do real, proper work on the iPad, without sacrifices.

I just wish I’d switched sooner.