Writers I Read: Ben Brooks

For the third installment of “Writers I Read,” I’m sharing my conversation with Ben Brooks, writer of The Brooks Review, a great blog about Apple, tech and other nerdy stuff.

Stephen: Ben, thanks for taking some time to talk to me about what you’re doing over at brooksreview.net. “Meteoric” is the first word that comes to mind when I think about your site. In less than a year, you’ve grown it to one of the must-reads.

This series is all about getting to know the people behind the by-lines. I’ve read that the Brooks Review is the latest in a long string of blogs you’ve tried to pull off. Is that true? What makes this one stick so well?

Ben: Yeah I have been blogging off and on since college — so I would say I started in 2001–2002, but it never lasted for more than a few weeks with each attempt.

For me TBR has stuck because of the great emails and discussions that my writing generates with readers. I love the back and forth and it really keeps me engaged with the blog.

Aside from that, I finally have started to feel comfortable writing, while at the same time letting personal attacks roll off of me. You can’t blog and expect success if you are offended every time some one emails to yell at you.

Stephen: I agree. People can be vicious.

“Comfortable” is a good word for your writing. Some blogs read like speeches; yours reads like a conversation at a side table in Starbucks. I like that. What does your writing and editing process normally look like?

Ben: Oh boy, my writing/editing process looks like the back of a desk — a mess of cables going unknown places. At least that is how it feels right now. In simplistic terms my process looks like this:

  • Idea
  • Add to list of ideas
  • Pick an idea from list
  • Start writing in TextMate (markdown only)
  • Edit
  • Convert to HTML and paste into MarsEdit
  • Add missing links (it is at this point I usually forget to add some pictures)
  • Add pictures
  • Post

That is the short version. The long version is that I get two types of ideas: ones I want to write now, and ones that I want to write at some point. The ones I want to write now I do write as soon as I get the time. The rest I write and work on over longer periods of time. I used to work on multiple posts at one time (5–6), but that felt like my attention was being pulled in too many directions. Now I try to work on no more than 2 posts at a time. If I need to I will create an OmniOutliner document and start jotting down ideas for the other posts.

This keeps me from getting too overwhelmed with everything.

Stephen: It seems like you and I have very similar workflows, except I just work right in MarsEdit in HTML.

That type of workflow — for me, at least — can be quite manic. Do you go through periods where you don’t have ideas or just don’t want to write? Or is your desire/idea flow pretty stable?

Ben: There are definitely times when I don’t have any desire to write. I usually will have the ideas, jut not the drive to write them up. Either that or I go through spells when I have ideas, but they all suck. When ever that happens I take it as a sign that my brain wants to do something else, so I go do something else for a bit.

Stephen: Gotcha. I know you seem to stay busy between TBR and your business. What other hobbies do you enjoy?

Ben: Outside of the tech world and running a business I love to get out and hike as well as dabble in photography. I started hiking when I was young and my grandfather would take me out, teaching me about survival and just general manliness. Photography took a different route as digital is really what made me get into it. The idea that I could twist a mediocre picture into something great with Photoshop really stuck with me.

Then I found out that you still need to be an artist to make a crappy picture look good with just Photoshop. I decided it would be easier and faster just to learn the photography and try to make great pictures from the camera. I like photography a lot, but sadly it is the hobby that seems to get put on the back burner most often.

Luckily photography and hiking go very well together and Seattle has a lot of great trails to get out and enjoy.

Stephen: Cool — I didn’t know you were into hiking. My best friend from high school lives in Seattle now, and loves it. I’m a pretty serious mountain biker, and started with my dad when I was just a kid, similar to you and your grandfather. I love just getting into the woods — it really helps clear my mind. If we had any hills here, I’d probably be all about some hiking, too.

I think a lot of people think that {insert any photo app ever here} can cover up a bad shot. Sadly, you’re right. That said, I’ve seen some of your shots — I think you’ve got a good eye. What kind of camera gear do you use?

Ben: I am a Canon guy. Currently I shoot with a Canon 5D (the original not the sweet mark II) that was a hand me down from my Grandfather. I couple that with a few lenses that I have accumulated: Canon 50mm f/1.4, Canon 100mm f/2, Canon 17–40 f/4L, Canon 80–200 f/2.8L. That covers most of the range, but honestly I use the 50 most of the time and the 17–40 when I am hiking. The other two I usually use for portrait work.

Along with that I have a ton of light modifiers, but only one flash. I have an Canon G9 that I will take on overnight hikes so that I don’t have to carry the bulk of the 5D. The G9 also gets a lot of use by my wife to taking product shots. Lastly the iPhone 4 has become my primary and go to camera most of the time. It is not great in low light by any means — and turning on the flash is the worst thing you can do to your images — but it does a great job for macro shots and for general out and about snaps.

Stephen: Dude, I am a total G9 fanboy. I carry mine everywhere I go, and simply love it. If you don’t have it, the wide-angle attachment is killer — as is the macro mode.

What do you process your photos with?

Ben: Every time I use the G9 I am reminded just how great it is. I was a heavy Aperture user for a long time, but in September 2010 I switched to Lightroom. It came down to speed and quality. Lightroom just feels a lot faster to use, even though I don’t like the module layout of the app.

What really swung me to Lightroom was how nicely it applies any treatments you do (skin smoothing, neutral density filtering). It is done in a way that doesn’t make your photo look over processed. Overall I like Lightroom a lot, but Aperture still has its uses.

Stephen: Cool. I appreciate you taking the time and chatting about what goes on behind the scenes at the Brooks Review. As a nice way to close this out, what advice would you give to those who either want to start blogs or grow what they are already doing?

Ben: No matter what endeavor you take in life, people can always tell if you are passionate about it. The minute you become complacent in your writing, or work, is the same minute that people stop caring about what you are doing. We can all see through pitchmen when they are hocking goods in three easy payments of $19.99, but we can also pick up on when someone is selling something they truly believe in.

Passion is what will sustain you long term on any project that you start — I truly believe that. If you are starting something new, make sure that your heart is in it. If you are trying to grow something you already started, then you need to assess if your growth has stagnated because your passion is waning.

At least that is my $0.02.