Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Technology for Writing more Efficiently – Tools to Free You from Paper

Abbreviated FreeMind map from Twisted Love, my recent thriller

It probably wasn’t original with him, but Abraham Lincoln referred to his signature stovepipe hat as his ‘office.’  In his early days as a traveling lawyer, he was known to keep court papers and other memos filed there.  When I was making a living as a corporate executive and a consultant a few years ago, I spent most of my working time traveling, and my compatriots and I used to joke that our offices were in our hats, although in our case, it was figurative.  Success in that environment, as in Lincoln’s day, required the ability to organize and produce creative work on the run without the support infrastructure of an office or a staff to research, document, file, and retrieve information.  Until relatively recently, the only tools available were paper-based.

I’m reminded of those days every time I work on a new book or put together a promotion for one of my existing ones.  When I wrote my first novel, I wrote it on loose-leaf paper, even though I had a computer available and could type adequately.  Why?  Because I found it easier to organize my thoughts if I could capture them wherever I happened to be when they struck me, and I always had pen and paper near to my hand.  It took me the better part of a year to produce a first draft, which I promptly keyed into my laptop, editing and rewriting as I went.  I think about that every time I release a new book.

Most of my recent full-length books have taken between 6 weeks and 3 months to produce, from start to publication.  I like to think that some of that increased speed is a result of experience, but I also know that a lot of it results from using today’s technology effectively.  In fact, I’ve written my last two books entirely without putting pen to paper – not even for those scribbled circles and arrows and doodles that I find necessary to work the kinks out of my plots.

Technology evolves more quickly than our ability to apply it most of the time, but I come from a high tech background and I work at trying new things to speed my writing along.  Most of us know the frustration of having ideas come and go before we’re able to record them, causing us to struggle to recover them.  There are readily available tools to overcome that problem; but they do come at a price.  The largest part of the price is time, though, not money.  They require some effort to learn and adapt, but the payoffs are large.  Most writers enjoy writing, but most of us enjoy having finished a piece of work even more than we enjoy producing it.  Judicious application of technology can significantly reduce the interval from idea to finished work.

The biggest reason I’ve worked to free myself from paper is the difficulty of keeping up with it and working with it.  Imagine sitting down to write and having every single piece of relevant information available on your PC desktop – even handwritten notes.  It’s not just possible; it’s imminently practical.  Some of my most valuable insights come to me when I’m reading.  Think of the value of being able to capture those insights without even putting the book down and booting up a computer or picking up a pencil.  The device I’m reading on always has all of the files for my latest work in process, up to date and a finger’s touch away from whatever I’m reading.  Programs to add to and edit the files are on the device as well.

Whenever I’m in a public place, I’m people-watching and eavesdropping, imagining how I might incorporate what I see and hear into my work.  Wherever I go, I have that device in my hand or my pocket, ready to modify or add to my current work in seconds.  I can even add a snapshot, if I think it might jog my memory later.  Writers’ minds are always writing, and the tools are at hand to capture those thoughts on the fly.  Once captured, they’re easily synchronized with files on a PC.  When I sit down to write, everything I need is on my PC’s desktop, ready to copy, paste, or study.

If you’re interested in how I do this, keep reading.  Don’t be put off by the techie flavor; remember, Google is your friend when you see an unfamiliar reference.  I’m not using anything that’s obscure or cumbersome, although the choices can be overwhelming.  The good news is that most of the hardware that I’m using is stuff that you may already have and be familiar with.  The software that you don’t already have is either free or costs no more than a few dollars, and it is intuitive in its approach. 

First, there are hardware choices.  The two big ones are what kind of PC and what kind of handheld device.  If you’re a writer these days, you probably already have a PC.  If it’s reasonably modern, it will do far more than you’re currently asking of it.  There are as many choices of handheld devices as there are of PCs.  If you’re using an e-reader, it may not have the flexibility to support a paper-free writing environment, but most smartphones will do the job, whether they’re Apple or Android.  Given the hardware, the magic comes from making judicious choices of software and then investing the time to understand and exploit its capabilities.  Rather than trying to enumerate the possibilities, let’s look at what I use.  Chances are good that what you have on hand can free you from the tyranny of paper.

I use a notebook running Windows 7, but there’s no magic there.  The software that I use will work on any recent vintage Windows or Apple PC.  I write in MS Word, and I use a free program called FreeMind to organize my material.  FreeMind is “mind mapping” software.  I don’t care for the term “mind mapping,” but that’s a personal hang-up.  FreeMind takes the place of all of those small scraps of paper and lets me draw circles, arrows, and doodles.  I can add text, pictures, or hyperlinks and move it all around to suit my whim.  Adopting FreeMind was the final step that freed me from paper.  Instead of reading about how I use it, I suggest that you download a copy.  For more information and a download link, click here.  Play with it for a little while; the learning curve isn’t too steep, and as you think of things that you’d like to do with it, spend a few minutes with the instructions or with Google, and you’ll probably find a way.

My handheld device of choice is an iPod Touch.  It offers most of the capability of an iPhone, but without the phone and the monthly bill.  If you have an iPhone or an Android equivalent, you’re in business.  I read ebooks on the iPod; after a day to get used to the small screen, I wouldn’t have it any other way.  The apps that I use most frequently in my writing are Goodreader, iThoughts, Wiki Offline, and a number of dictionaries (English, Spanish, Italian, French, and German) as well as several of my favorite grammar references.

Goodreader will readily synchronize files on the iPod with my PC and will open almost any kind of file.  Although Goodreader will open Word files, I usually save my work in process as a PDF formatted for print on my PC and then copy it to Goodreader.  When I open the PDF in Goodreader, I can actually mark up the PDF in different colors, right on the iPod screen.  I then upload the marked file to my PC and put the marked PDF on one half of the screen and the Word file to edit on the other half.  This is what I use for rewrites and self-editing.  Seeing the work in process formatted for print in PDF and being able to write and draw on it is helpful to me – it’s like working with a paper manuscript, but I don’t have to print it and handle it.

iThoughts is a mind mapping app for the iPhone/iPod/iPad that readily synchronizes with FreeMind on my PC.  When I have one of those bursts of inspiration, I open the map for my work in process and record it in iThoughts.  The next time I sit down at the PC to write, I just open the map in Freemind for the work in process, and there it is, updated with whatever additions or changes I made on the iPod.  Again, there is similar software available for other platforms; just make sure that it will synch with what you’re using on your PC.

Wiki Offline is an app that includes the entire Wikipedia database.  It’s handy for quick answers when I’m away from Internet service, and I can copy information from it and paste it into iThoughts.

There are a number of other apps on the iPod which I use for various things, but most are adjuncts to the core apps that I listed above.  Two favorites are WritePad, which does handwriting to text conversion off-line, and Notebooks, which is an all-purpose filing, organizing, and planning tool.  Most of the apps for the iPod/iPhone/iPad cost about what an ebook costs, so experimenting isn't expensive.

None of the tools I mentioned is unique; there are many competing apps which do similar things.  I’ve tried a lot of them, and these are the ones that best suit my needs right now, but I’m always looking, and I’d like to hear what tools you’ve found to make writing more efficient.  Please post your comments, questions, and suggestions below, and thanks for visiting.

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