My Pluralsight course writing workflow

It’s been almost exactly a year since I started writing and developing courses for Pluralsight’s video library. It was last year at WordCamp Salt Lake City 2012 that Megan first came up to me and asked me if I’d be interested and  the 2013 SLC WordCamp passed just last weekend. Over that time, I’ve stumbled several times in figuring out the best way to get a course together and live into the queue. I’m currently finishing my sixth course and the last two have gone through the review and publish process virtually without a hitch. I feel like I have a good system going and thought that I’d share my process.

Outline

It all starts with an outline — which gets sent to my content editor at Pluralsight as a pitch. But even before I create an outline, I start sketching out my ideas on Trello. Trello has a great drag-and-drop interface for organizing ideas. It works really well as a brainstorming tool to organize my thoughts and put things together in a particular order before formalizing it into a specific outline. Once I’ve got a course mapped out on Trello — meaning I’ve created several different “lists” (which become the course modules) with different “cards” (which become ideas to explore in the course’s modules) laid out, I transpose that into an actual outline on Google Docs.

The outline is based off the Trello board, but also adds a little bit more detail, specifically in what each clip or topic might be covering. Each course starts off with an introductory module, where I talk about all the stuff that I’ll cover in more detail later on. The course I’m currently finishing off has a separate clip in the first module that focuses on each of the 3 topics that I then cover in depth in separate modules.

It’s very college prep English — your first paragraph is composed of a thesis statement, three supporting statements (which will be expanded on in the next 3 paragraphs) and a closing statement; that’s sort of how I built this course. It sounds horrible, but it works to keep me — and the course itself — organized.

This outline also includes a short course description and a long course description — both of which are used on the Pluralsight site — as well as descriptions for each module. This is to communicate to the content editing team what I plan to accomplish with the course and the modules, to keep myself straight as I start to write the modules, and to be used later when I’m creating the meta files that are used to build the course for their system.

Writing

Once the course outline has been approved, I start writing. This is probably the most time-consuming part. I’ve learned, though, that if I don’t write out the entire script before I start, I will end up regretting it — I’m not good at talking on the fly and this helps me organize my thoughts. So, I write the entire course, from front to back, as if I was saying it out loud. I usually write the way I talk anyway, and I try to keep that same voice as I’m writing the course. All the writing, of course, has already been mapped out in the outline I’ve already prepared, so it’s usually just a matter of expounding on the ideas I’ve already come up with and added to the outline. The script isn’t completely done at this point, it gets reviewed and edited several times between now and recording the audio, with new things being added or removed all the time. I generally consider the script to be changeable right up to the point that it’s been recorded and occasionally I’ll make last-minute changes as I’m recording the audio if something doesn’t sound good.

Slides

Once I’ve got the script written, I start preparing the slides for each module. I was using OpenOffice for this, and to create the .ppt and .pdf that would be used in the course. But if you’ve ever used OpenOffice for anything, you’ll know that it’s pretty clunky. Moreover, it didn’t have a native feature to export the slides as images — a trick I learned at the 2013 Author Summit in February — and I had to download an extension to get it to do that (and even with the extension, it was still pretty clunky. I’ve also found that the image quality in outputting slides as images is a lot better in Keynote than in OpenOffice). I eventually gave up and got a copy of iWork (you know, because I’m on a Mac) and have been using Keynote ever since and it’s much easier to use.

The slides are an extension of the outline and the script. They are broken up into sections based on the ideas that were first saved as “cards” in Trello and adapted into sections in the outline with more detail added based on the actual script. I first save each module’s slides as a separate Keynote file, then export to PPT, PDF and then images, and I store them in different locations…

Directory structure

It’s about this time — since now I’m creating files that are going to be going into the actual course files — that I start creating a directory structure. My courses have 2 folders — one which will be named the slug of the course I am currently working on, e.g. /my-pluralsight-course/ — and the other which will be the same thing with -work at the end of it, e.g. /my-pluralsight-course-work/.

The first one will have everything that I send off to the content editing team at Pluralsight. The second one will contain all the work files that I will use to create the course. This is where my Keynote files go, whereas the actual /my-pluralsight-course/ folder is where the PPT and PDF files will go.

I also create a folder named /img inside the -work folder, and that’s where I dump the output of exporting my slides to images.  Later, I’ll add a /camtasia folder (for Camtasia files) and an /audio folder (for rendered and work audio files). This time around I also stored my demo code in the -work folder (which I could then compress and copy into the course folder) and any other files I create or use in the actual course.

Demos

For this course that I’m finishing up, I started doing something a bit different that I realized was really critical; preparing the demos (and the demo code) before doing the audio and video. This is because, when you’re writing out a description of what you’re going to do (like I am, when I’m writing the script), it’s easy to forget  or miss things that  may ultimately lead to bugs in your code. And if you’re recording the audio before doing the video, you’ll already have rendered audio for the broken code and may need to go back and re-record parts so you can describe the right way to show whatever it is that you’re trying to show.

Preparing the demos first  means you can do all your debugging before you even start recording and you can have some ideas about how you want to present your demos in the course. It also means that if things change from the way the script was written, you can make those adjustments to the script before recording the audio.

Since all my courses are WordPress-related, my demos are usually WordPress plugins or themes and to test/use them, I need to work in a local MAMP install. Once I have everything working, though, I can copy the plugin or theme into my course -work folder, then create a zip file to copy into the course folder.

This time, too, I also created a separate Sublime project which contained both course folders. I do my normal development in Sublime, so that’s natural for creating any demos, but I also created a couple of Sublime snippets that I can use for creating the course and module meta files that are used to put the course up live. Previously, I was just using an old meta file and using Sublime’s multiple cursors to select all the instances of the old module slug and change them to the new one, but this saves some extra time highlighting the old module and section titles by allowing me to just tab to those to change them.

Audio

As I said, I write my entire script first. Recording the audio goes through two stages. First, I’ll set out a time when I have about 3-4 hours to record. During this time, no one else is home, I shut down my other computer and I keep the bird in the other room. The dog, well, we just edit him out and give him dirty looks  when he barks at people passing the front door.

I’ve got a Rode Podcaster mic with a pop filter on a Rode swivel boom arm. I learned the hard way that the boom helps immensely in your signal-to-noise ratio (that is, the signal — your voice — to noise — everything in the background) because you can get the mic much closer to your face and not have to lean over it to get close. I was previously using a Blue Snowball (which I still have) on the same mount, but I’ve found that the audio quality seems to be a bit better with the Rode.

Another piece in this puzzle, of course, is other noises. You need to eliminate them as much as possible. I don’t type or do anything on the computer when I’m recording the audio, so I don’t need to worry about tapping from the keyboard (or getting a shock mount), but I also use an exercise ball as my computer chair, so I also don’t need to worry about chair noises. I don’t have a soundproof room, so getting rid of these sounds that I can prevent are key. The only things I have to worry about is noises coming from the street — particularly large trucks — since the computer room has a street-facing window beyond which is a fairly busy street, so time of day to do the recording becomes a factor (e.g. it’s a bad idea to record around 5pm or 8am).

I’ll record the whole course straight through, taking bathroom or whatever breaks in between modules. I’ll record each module separately and store them in module-specific folders in my -work folder. I’m a musician, and I use Ableton Live, so all my voice recording goes through Ableton.

Once I’ve recorded all the audio I edit out any bad takes and run everything through an Ableton rack I built specifically for voice recording. The rack is a combination of a number of audio processing tricks I also learned at the Author Summit this year and includes a Gate — to eliminate background noises when I’m not speaking — a Compressor — to boost my voice when I am speaking — and a Limiter, to duck the signal if it ever peaks enough to cause distortion. The Compressor is pre-configured to boost my voice and the Threshold is also pre-configured to match my normal speaking voice (though I do make occasional adjustments if it starts swallowing up words).

My Ableton voice processing rack

If you’re doing this yourself (outside of Ableton or configuring my rack for your own use), this is a good guide for how to use compression on voice and why you’d want to. For Gaters, the trick is to lower the threshold to the point where it stops sounding like a bad cell phone reception (dropping in the middle of words) but  not so low that you are still picking up background noise.

So, I throw my rack on the voice track, then I edit it, and I break the track up into chunks for each section/clip. I’ll color-code each clip so I can see, visually, where it starts and ends. The result looks like this:

 

From there, I can select the chunk I want to export, and export just that section as a .wav file. I’ll do this for a single module, then move on to editing the video for that module so I can finish a module and hand it in, then start working on the next module. Camtasia for Mac’s audio processing capabilities are pretty lacking, so using an external program like Ableton Live lets me do the audio processing stuff in a native application built for audio processing stuff.

Video

At this point, I’ve got half of what I need for the module already done. I have the slides — each rendered as images — and I’ve got the audio — already filtered and ready to go. The reason I like exporting the slides as images is that it gives me much more control over the timing, which is important because I’ve recorded my audio beforehand. Before doing this, I would play the audio back and try to time my slide transitions with the audio as it was playing, but inevitably, I’d get things wrong. Now I can find the peak in the audio that I’m using as a reference point and time my slide change to that and have it trigger exactly when I want it to.

But Pluralsight courses aren’t all about slides. They are also about showing your work. So I need to do some screencasting. One thing I did for the last couple courses was switch my theme in SublimeText to something lighter, specifically the Soda Light theme. Besides liking it, personally, the white background means I can take screenshots of code in Sublime and put them into my slides and it matches the slide, rather than what it would look like with a dark theme.

I start the Camtasia project by importing all my slide images, and then import the audio file for the module I want to work with. I save this as a file named -c, e.g. my-pluralsight-course-01c01, which is also how I name the video files.

The easiest modules are the ones that are mostly slides, the hardest the ones that are mostly demos. Easy and hard is relative, of course, and the hard ones aren’t hard so much as they’re just time consuming. This is why it’s important to have the demos prepared beforehand, because if you’re coming up with the demos at this point, then you’re going to be spending a lot of time working on those when you could just be recording stuff.

I have two monitors, so the way I do my recordings is set up one monitor with the resolution recommended for Pluralsight videos (1024×768) and I set Camtasia up to record from that monitor. When I’m doing demos, I’ll have my original code up on my main monitor (my iMac) and type out that code into a new Sublime window on the monitor that Camtasia is recording from.

Camtasia lets you adjust the video speed pretty easily, and I’ll time my recordings to correspond with what I’m saying on the audio track. I talk fast, so I’ve started trying to add breaks in  the audio so the video of me doing whatever I’m doing (generally writing code) doesn’t look quite as insane.

Once a clip is done, I save it again, then export it with the highest possible quality settings as an .mov file to my course folder. (Pluralsight video editors then take the .mov and re-encode it as a .wmv which is the format the player needs. This is why I try to export the file with the highest quality I can, to try to alleviate any re-encoding compressor issues.) Then I move on to the next clip.

Finishing up

The last step is making the additional files needed for the module before handing it off, specifically the module .meta file (which is a custom xml file) and the questions file that will be used for the assessment questions in the course. As I said, I now have a Sublime snippet that I can use for module (and course) meta files, which makes this step pretty simple.

As a rule, I try to come up with at least 3 questions per module no matter how long the modules are (it’s recommended you have 1 for every 5 minutes, I believe, so this seems to average out about right). I try to come up with the questions right after I finish the module, so they are fresh in my head, but this is still a tough part of the job. I’ll often look at my slides or my script to get ideas about what I should ask.

After that, all I should need to do is hand off that module to my editor. If I have time, I’ll watch my clips one more time, but generally I’ll do this anyway before rendering the video.

That’s pretty much my whole workflow. You can check out my Pluralsight courses here and I’ll update this post if my workflow ever changes.

Brought to you by Sublpress

This post is being written in Sublime Text thanks to a new package by Nicolas Dienstbier — who has a much cooler way of shortening his name than I do (what could I do? rnlds? Actually…) — called Sublpress. The premise of Sublpress is simple — use Sublime to manage your WordPress site(s). You can do just about anything you could do logging into your site and you can manage multiple sites. But, of course, the most obvious thing you’d want to use it for is posts, right? I mean, that and never having to leave your IDE which is pretty cool, too.

Sublpress uses the command palette for everything. Thanks to a recent update, once I’m connected, I can go straight to new post. And so it is that I am typing this in Sublime and not the WordPress dashboard.

Since working with Dropplets, I like using a simple text editor (okay, maybe not a simple text editor — but rather one that has extra capabilities to handle formatting and displaying text) to write posts. And while I’d probably prefer composing this post in markdown, and uploading someplace automagically (via drag and drop or some kind of autonomous synchronization), using Sublime is pretty nifty, too, and it may turn out to be my preferred method of posting.

I will say that I have a couple pet peeves about Sublpress. One is inherent in the framework and that’s the lag for connecting to your site to do certain actions. Originally (before I raised the issue on GitHub), you had to go into the Manage Posts screen before you could create a new post. I have thousands of posts, and this made Sublpress just crap out before it ever got to that screen, so I asked for it to be moved to a higher-level screen so you wouldn’t need to go in there. But there are similar issues with selecting categories or tags — it has to load all of the categories or tags before you can assign them to the post. And as of this writing, I have to go to Manage Taxonomies → post_tag to create a new tag and then go into Post Actions → Modify Terms and Taxes → post_tag to assign that new tag to the post, rather than just being able to add a list of comma-separated tags the way I can in the WordPress Edit Post screen, creating new tags on the fly if they don’t already exist, all the while waiting for Sublpress to connect to the site and query for that information (on the flipside, though, I don’t need to wait once I’ve told it to do something, e.g. I’m typing this now as I’m waiting for my tags to pop up). You can’t set a featured image for a post and — considering you need to connect to the server (and wait for it to respond) just to pull up a list of the available post statuses — it’s not very reasonable for actually publishing posts. But it’s still under development and there’s lots of room for improvement and growth.

SublimeText 2 on Mac OSX 10.5.x with Wine Bottler

Because I can never leave well enough alone, I installed a copy of OSX 10.5.7 on my Dell Latitude D531 via a copy of iATKOS v7 I had lying around.  Why Leopard and not Snow Leopard or Lion?  Well, first of all, by the time I got a couple moderately successful installs of Leopard (enough that I knew how to reproduce it), I was pretty satisfied to leave well enough alone, but also I wasn’t sure the Dell laptop could handle the newer software.  In going through and setting up software to make this a functional work machine, I realized that my IDE of choice SublimeText wouldn’t run natively on 10.5.  This had to be remedied.  SublimeText, as I’ve discussed before, is the best development environment (and possibly the best text editor, in general) there is, and I would not accept a lesser editor after embracing Sublime so fully.  And anyway, a solution was readily available.

First, download Wine Bottler.  Wine Bottler is an app that bundles Wine for OSX and will take care of setting up your Wine configuration so you don’t need to worry about it.  But, more than that, it allows you to create .app shortcuts that can then be redistributed (if you so desired) or installed into your Applications folder like a regular app.  (This is one of the annoying parts of using Wine — it installs in it’s own little isolated environment, which makes creating shortcuts that you actually can, you know, use, tedious and occasionally problematic.)  Wine Bottler will even bundle Wine into your .app file, so if you were going to redistribute the app, your users wouldn’t need to have Wine installed themselves.

Once Wine Bottler and Wine are installed (both are in the download bundle from the Wine Bottler page), you can download the Windows version of SublimeText.  I chose the 32-bit version because I didn’t really trust my laptop nor Wine to be able to handle the 64-bit architecture, even though the Dell has a 64-bit processor.  I didn’t want to try to push my luck.  (Note, this process could probably be applied to most other simple Windows apps.  I say “simple” because, although Wine 1.0 officially marks the milestone where Windows apps can actually be run natively within a Wine wrapper, there are still bugs with a lot of programs and it generally has to do with the complexity of the program  you’re trying to run (games, graphic applications like Photoshop, anything that involves rendering video might be a bit much to expect Wine to handle well — I tried running DVDShrink under  Wine and it failed miserably).)

You are about to open a Wine file

Double-clicking the SublimeText installer opened Wine Bottler automatically, and I was asked for some information about the app.  First it wanted to know if I should just run it as a Wine file or if I wanted to create an OSX application with WineBottler.  I chose the second, then immediately regretted it because I was running an install file — would the shortcut created be a shortcut to the installer?  Answer: no — the install ran through fine and at the end I was given a choice to pick the path (in the Wine /Program Files directory) for the app I wanted to create a shortcut for and where the .app file should go (I chose Documents then later moved it to Applications).

SublimeText 2 in Wine on OSX 10.5.7

Once Wine Bottler creates the shortcut, Sublime runs more or less the way you’d expect it to after a loading window pops up saying it’s preparing the file.  If you’re used to hitting the command key for everything, you’ll have to switch your thinking to using the control key (command+c vs. ctrl+c to copy, etc.), but otherwise it works the same as the native equivalents.

Applications

SublimeText 2 InfoNow, because this is vitally important, there is one last thing that must be done to fulling bring the SublimeText experience to OSX 10.5.x and that is the application shortcut icon.  I had a few, high resolution SublimeText png icons I had downloaded for my ObjectDock on my Windows machine that I found from the SublimeText forums in a Google search, but being a relatively new Mac user, I had to Google to figure out how to use those pngs as the icon for SublimeText to replace the generic app icon it was given automatically.  This is actually fairly ridiculously easy:

Open the png file in Preview, hit command+a to select all, then command+c to copy it.  Then go over to your Applications folder and either right-click and do More Info for the SublimeText shortcut or use command+i to open the application info screen.  Click on the small icon at the top left of the window (I was misled by the large icon at the bottom — don’t try to use that) so it is highlighted, then do command+v to paste your icon in and, voila new application shortcut icon.  Now you can drag this to your doc and it looks and acts like a regular, native version of SublimeText.

Again, this process could be used for other apps, too, but, since it’s Wine, your mileage may vary depending on the app.  Hopefully this was useful to someone other than me, let me know in the comments if you found this helpful.

SublimeText — I think I’m in love

I’m not one to gush about text editors. Pretty much they do their job and that’s about it. I respect the amount of work that goes into something like, say, OpenOffice.org Writer, but I wouldn’t say I’m in love with any particular aspect of it (except, perhaps, that it’s free — as in beer — and open source). My main reason for switching from Dreamweaver to Notepad++ was economical, but also to get away from the code that Dreamweaver liked to automatically insert into documents. For the most part, I was only using the source editor anyway, so it seemed a waste to use an application with a graphical editor that I never used and Notepad++ filled the gap nicely.

About a week ago, I found SublimeText 2. After using it exclusively for my web development projects for this past week, I can tell you I am never going back to anything else. Here are a few reasons why:

Theming

SublimeText 2 with Soda package, Monokai Soda color scheme, and Meslo font

Okay, so it’s pretty superficial of me to put aesthetics above everything else, but try and tell me that you aren’t like me and the first thing you do when you open a new program that has any kind of customization abilities isn’t find the perfect theme that works for you. SublimeText comes with 22 different color schemes and each one can be hacked if you so desire. You can download new color schemes. You can use any font installed on your system by adding a line to a configuration file (easily accessible through the Preferences menu). And thanks to a package (we’ll get to packages in a minute) called Soda, the entire UI can be customized in a smooth light or dark scheme (without Soda, the sidebar is not customizable).

Extensibility

You can extend the functionality of SublimeText through packages. Each package is based on a GitHub or Bitbase repository and repositories are checked for updates everytime the application is loaded. Functionality enhancements include things like bracket highlighting, PHPdoc capabilities, autofilling, support for various languages like javascript and HTML5, you get the picture. With PackageControl (which can be installed via an internal console just by copying and pasting the command in the readme file on the GitHub repo — pictured right), you can easily install new packages into Sublime without having to worry about where they need to be saved — everything is handled automagically.
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Projects

When I was using Notepad++ and Dreamweaver, my window usually opened with approximately 8,000 tabs for various projects in different states of being worked-on. Navigating between them usually involved using the arrow buttons to scroll through to the beginning or to get a list of the open tabs via the Window menu. More often than not, I would try to open a file only to find that it was already open, hidden somewhere behind tab number 6.753. In Sublime, you can create discrete “projects” by adding a directory (or multiple directories) to a project. This could be a WordPress theme, an entire website, a bunch of related plugins you’re working on, or any other variation (pretty much just listing the sorts of things I use this for). Rather than having every file for every project you are actively working on open in a unique tab, you can easily switch between projects and have the last-opened tabs in that project there for you when you go back to it. Meanwhile, the directories (and files therein) that make up your project are listed in the sidebar, making it easy to open any file in that project. Not only that, but single-clicking on any file will open a “preview” of that file without actually opening the file. Meaning if you just wanted to look at something but not change anything, you don’t need to open the file and then close it, you can just click on it to check it out and then go back to what you were doing. Now that I use projects, anything I was doing before just seems clunky and unsophisticated.
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Fully featured trial version

Don’t you hate it when you are using a “Freemium” or “Shareware” app and it does everything you need it to do except one tiny little thing that makes it completely useless without actually purchasing it? Like saving, for example? One of the things that instantly earned my respect was that installing SublimeText 2 let me do everything I needed to do without purchasing. After a certain number of saves, a pop up would appear asking me if I wanted to purchase, which could be easily clicked away and I was back doing whatever I had been doing. Some genius thought that programmers might be more interested in getting work done and that, after seeing just how good Sublime is at assisting them in that very task, they would be more inclined to pay for something they had been using for free.

Well, that genius was right. Despite the fact that I could have gone on indefinitely without paying the $59 for a single user license and just gotten an occasional notice to buy, I chose to actually purchase the application because it’s so damn good at what it does. I haven’t regretted that decision. The guys who make Sublime, well, sublime deserve to benefit from what they have created, which is an elegant IDE that is forward-thinking and extensible without a lot of bloat. Just hours after I installed a bunch of packages, I was already using most of them and felt the coding process suddenly become fun again.