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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

Going back to the Mac to finish the Six Colors Report Card

Last week I posted the annual Six Colors Report Card, a story package that includes lots of quotes (about 5,000 words out of the 30,000 words submitted by panelists) and a bunch of charts. It’s a large project and I worked on it across both macOS and iOS, starting in Google Forms, moving to Microsoft Excel, and going through a text munging process in BBEdit to generate a document with panelist comments collected together, organized by topic area.

I edited the story together on both my Mac and my iPad, moving back and forth depending on where I was and what I was doing. The last few hours of work were done largely away from my office, on my iPad. But as it came time to wrap up the story and get it ready for posting, I ended up moving back to my Mac. As someone who advocates working on the iPad, I thought it was worth noting the places where my iPad either couldn’t do the job or couldn’t do it easily enough for it to be worth doing.

I’ve reached a point where many of my work tasks are actually easier on iOS than on my Mac—when I post a new podcast episode to Six Colors, for example, I use a Shortcut on my iPad or even my iPhone. Others are equivalent, like the Automator- and Shortcuts-based tools I use to export Apple financial charts. But there are still a few times when the iPad is a worse tool for the job.

Recently I decided to change all my charts over to Proxima Nova, the font used in the Six Colors logo, and one available to me with my Adobe Creative Cloud subscription. I wasn’t thinking about the fact that this means Numbers won’t necessarily display my charts properly, because there’s still no straightforward way 1 to install or embed typefaces on iOS. So I exported all my charts from my Mac.

More than that, I discovered that certain chart format features available on Numbers on the Mac simply don’t exist on iOS. I wanted to modify a chart to use an additional data set, only to discover that I wasn’t able to style that data set to match the presentation of the other data in the chart. That was a Mac-only feature. It’s frustrating.

Finally, there’s the text munging itself. I mentioned above that I needed to use BBEdit to process the input from my panelists. Google Forms lets you walk away with a spreadsheet containing all the data, which I was able to download as an Excel file. What I needed wasn’t a giant Excel file with one respondent per row; instead, I needed to view each category and all the comments within it, with each comment preceded by the name of the person giving it. I was able to do this with a bunch of Excel finessing and several pattern-matching search-and-replace functions in BBEdit.

At the end of the process, though, I found I needed BBEdit again—and while it’s possible that there are iOS solutions to my problems, I couldn’t find the tools at hand and I knew they were available on my Mac, so I jumped back.

The first issue was one of formatting. In my story, I wanted to link similar short quotes together in order to tell the larger story. Typical journalism convention involves putting each quoted speaker into their own paragraph and more generally trying to reduce confusion about who said what. But in assembling this particular story, I didn’t want to separate every small quote by paragraph. That led to me having a lot of paragraphs that looked like this:

There was also praise for the MacBook Air revision. “The MacBook Air looks like it’s going to be a great machine for the majority of users, even if it is a couple hundred dollars more expensive than I’d like,” said Stephen Hackett. “I like the new retina MacBook Air a lot, but it was overdue by at least a year,” said John Gruber.

The problem with this style is that readers are likely to think that the second quote is in Stephen Hackett’s voice until after it ends, when it’s revealed that it was John Gruber all along. Not great. I was not sure what I wanted to do, but—prodded by Charles Arthur—I spent some time pondering and decided just to put the attributions in front of the quotes. It’s not something I prefer to do in most stories in which I quote people, but the Report Card is a strange beast and it was important to be very clear about who said what.

But now I have a 5,000-word article, already written, full of quotes that are formatted the wrong way! What to do? The answer, of course, was to compose a regular expression in BBEdit that swapped the location of the attribution:

grep pattern

The end result (I walked through the document making each change individually in order to make some minor corrections on the fly where necessary):

There was also praise for the MacBook Air revision. Stephen Hackett said, “The MacBook Air looks like it’s going to be a great machine for the majority of users, even if it is a couple hundred dollars more expensive than I’d like.” John Gruber said, “I like the new retina MacBook Air a lot, but it was overdue by at least a year.”

And it took me a couple of minutes to write the regular expression, instead of a half an hour laboriously copying and pasting flipped-around attributions.

Finally, I needed to create a list of all my participating panelists to place at the bottom of the article. I wanted this list to be alphabetized by last name. Again, BBEdit came to the rescue—it’s got a Sort Lines command that lets you match a regular expression and then sort by any portion of that expression. This let me match first and last names and then sort on the last name, at which point I could replace the line breaks with commas and, voila—a comma-delimited and alphabetized list.

One of these days I suppose am going to have to invest some time in finding the iOS equivalents to all these BBEdit features. But in the meantime, I was glad I could pop into my office and finish this particular job on my Mac.


  1. This doesn’t mean there isn’t a way, it’s just not what I’d consider “straightforward.” More on this in a later post. ↩

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