Writing tools for imaginative minds

Writing in Word sucks for anyone using imagination towards creative expression. I have no doubt that those who love to write in linear forms, obsess over grammar and follow templates love using Word, but for millions of the rest of us, it doesn’t inspire and Banksy seems to get by without it. I often wonder if people become habitual Word users eventually, more interested in the oxford comma than a new idea.

Ideas were never meant to be put into Word, they are to be drawn, torn up, scribbed on, re-arranged and debated. Word almost certainly means ‘critique’ and ‘literal interpretation’. Hands up who wanted to work in a typing pool when they were young, and who wanted to be in Hanoi Rocks until Razzle died.

Many people, especially creative people are all about being difference engines. The easiest way I know to explain it is to cast your mind back to childhood (tempted to sing “up and around the bend). The kids who loved to ‘read’ comics didn’t finish them in moments, but pondered them for weeks. What was going on between the frames was just as important as visual text. They processed it, imagined what was going on and what wasn’t — and most of them wrote and drew their own comics. Comics were not academic when I was a kid. A sure sign of a vague, wandering mind — the smart kids read books and the diligent kids studied grammar. I liked books and writing too, but liked comic books and was obsessive over the fluidity of handwriting and the formation of letters into words. I grew up to study illustration and typography. I was probably in my mid-20s before I was forced to use Word.

There is an alternative. Scrivener2 is a great non-linear writing tool. I don’t have the inclination to explain it all here — suffice to say, if you like to work in pieces and figure out how the pieces come together, you’ll like it. Then there is the other tool Literature and Latte make – Scapple. It’s a mind map gizmo. It lets you think in organised pictures — move pieces around, and then drag that drawing into Scrivener as the basis of a document. You can also use MindNode too, but I’ve moved to Scapple because I just find it faster to use.

When you’re done — compile your masterpiece for Word, PDF, ePub, Kindle, iBooks and even share it via Amazon.


Academic writing workflow for geeks

Warning: This post is about writing not gaming, so you might want to bail here.

At this point in my geek-evolution, I have managed to use just about every widget and tool around. Most of them I’ve concluded are like having a baby rattle on a pram. Ultimately you’re occupied, even happy, but someone is pushing you from A to B.

Now when it comes to creating a workflow for writing, it’s actually quite hard if you’ve been bashing the rattle as long as I have. Which tools to choose, which to ditch. So many choices, so many things I tried and abandoned. Worse still, so many things I used in a basic way, avoiding filling out the details. Live in the pram means wasting crazy amounts of time procrastinating, experimenting and avoiding commitment. A decade of using this stuff requires some degree of conscious remedial effort to get out the pram and walk around again.

The key is to remember this is that writing is about getting from A to B. Yes it’s about grammar and conventions too, but for many students – it’s about A to B. In my case, I’ve got to write this thesis thing, which seems rather dense and complex, and there’s only one way these things get done efficiently.

Everyone is different, by my brain doesn’t work well by starting at A and going to B thinking, so Word is useless to me. Word is a drag on academic writing, and it usually trows up talk of ‘referencing’ using End Note. I hate End Note, it crashes, it’s spawned of DOS and a resource hog in my view. Some people love it. I figure the same people who like to line up for things in shops. I’ve used Diigo and Mendeley for years in serious (and successful) protest.

I like to write using two tools. IA Writer, a bare bones, clean typing machine and Scrivener, which is an organisational powerhouse for writing an non A to B methods. I won’t dwell on Scrivener, plenty have done it already. But as yet, Scrivener and Mendeley are not wired together, which is frustrating. However, the solution (for me) is Papers2 and Scrivener.

I had to bite the bullet, and face up to being the consequences of spending too much time in the pram. I exported all my Mendeley references and notes in BibTex format and imported them into Papers2. I then used the smart keywords gizmo in Papers2 to semi-organise what I had (some clean, some dirty) into rough themes. Next I made folders for related (sort of) papers, cleaning up my tags I went. For example, I’m working on a narrative analysis of New York Times reports about games as networks right now, so I have a folder and keyword tags for that. I can also import my Diigo online-articles into Papers2 using the same process. Yes it’s boring, but it has to be done if I’m ever to walk upright in the sunlight.

The biggest question I had was – how do I insert references as I write. First, let’s assume I’ve cleaned them up (as Mendeley often gets them wrong). In addition, Mendeley’s ‘cite’ function into Word is still slow and clunky. I have to use two programs at the same time – and always fight off Word’s insistence that it knows better about formatting. In my Master’s years, I found OpenOffice to be less irritating with Mendeley, but ultimately the high-lords of academia only speak [doc], so more conversions and ‘save-as’ inconsistencies occurred.

The solution for me has been to use Papers2 double ‘control’ tap cite as you write. As I write in Scrivener, I just double control tap to bring up a gizmo that then lets me insert a reference (as a sort of short code). An example is something like {Seale:2010ip} 

When I’m ready,I can compile it for a format I want (word, pdf, epub) and so on right out of Scrivener. For most people, writing ends up in the infamously over-bloated Word as I’ve said. Using Papers2, all you have to do is tell it Word to compile your exported Scrivener text, and all you’re wonderful references turn into a flat Word [doc]ument.

One key advantage for the writing process is that you can now organise and re-organise ‘pieces’ of writing to different ends (some for blogging, some for journals, chapters and so on) plus be able to compile for many formats. No more A to B writing, no more citation dramas and lost time.

Writing isn’t just about wrangling Word and EndNote. It’s all about workflow. Sync your documents to SkyDrive, Dropbox, Google Drive and you have a complete system whereby you have a few ‘source of truth’ files, and an almost endless ‘lab’ for writing on multiple platforms and devices.