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November 7, 2011


Working in the Word Mines – Software

by Michael Langlois

Let’s talk about writing tools.  You don’t really need anything more than a text editor to get the job done, but unless you’re a real stickler for the minimalist approach, there are a lot of options out there to lighten your load.

Being a nerd, of course, I’m always tempted to optimize everything to within an inch of its life.  That usually means trying to find the perfect tool for every job, or trying to cram every job into a single do-everything tool.  It turns out that neither approach works very well for me, so I’ve settled on using the smallest number of tools possible to get the job done.

Here’s a look at what I’m using:

Research, Recording Ideas – Evernote

I used to carry around a Moleskine notebook so that I could jot down random ideas and thoughts whenever and wherever I might be when they struck.  This had two problems: going back to look for something sucked, especially across multiple notebooks, and having my ideas on paper and my associated research on the computer.

Evernote lets me use my phone when I’m out and about instead of a notebook, which means one less thing I have to lug around, and access my notes from anywhere.  And the search is incredible.  It even has the ability to make text in a picture searchable, which is pretty dang cool.  And since I do 95% of my research on the web, it’s easy to clip anything I find into Evernote and tag by related topic.  Now my notes and research are all in one place, and I can actually find stuff when I need it.

Brainstorming, Plotting – Springpad

Evernote is awesome for collecting notes and research, but it’s missing one thing that I need: index cards.  When I’m working out the plot for a book or a series, I like to write down events and scenes at a high level and lay them out in front of me so that I can visualize the flow of the story.  I also like to shuffle them around when I make changes.  Using index cards like this is a common technique, and there are a ton of software alternatives to carrying around an actual pack of paper cards.

Unfortunately, most of these alternatives are based on particular tools that can only accessed from a specific location or device.  Springpad neatly solves that problem by having an index card ‘corkboard’ in their web interface, as well in their apps for IOS and Android.   For me, the best part about Springpad is being able to get away from the PC and noodle on the plot on my iPad.  The board interface is beautiful and very touch friendly.  Perfect for lounging around somewhere pleasant and thinking.

Now I have a place to do my plotting that’s accessible from anywhere if an idea strikes me, plus I can stick my brainstorming notes in the same place.  The board is just one function of Springpad, in other respects it serves the same purpose as Evernote.

I would have liked to replace Evernote with Springpad to keep the number of tools to a minimum, but the clipping function in Springpad just isn’t up to par.  Instead of grabbing the actual content that I want to save, it saves the URL and a screencap of your browser window.  That means search is limited to the URL and your tags, and if you want to go back and read it, you need to go back to the page and hope the content is still there.

Information Repository, Timelines – Liquid Story Binder

Liquid Story Binder is actually an all-in-one writing tool.  It has functions for everything under the sun, but for me the most useful parts are dossiers and timelines (shown above).  Take a look at their site to get an idea of what it can do.

I used to use LSB for plotting as well, but since it’s a PC only program, I always had to be at my desk to get things done.  Now that I’ve discovered Springpad, I may drop this.  I find that if I do my index cards right, I don’t really need a separate timeline.

If you’re looking for an all-in-one tool, however, I highly recommend this one.

Writing – Word

Yeah, good old Word.  Why not write in Google Docs?  Or Liquid Story Binder?  Or even Scrivener?

Mostly because I’m used to it and it works well for long-form writing, but also because it’s the de-facto standard when I’m working with editors, proofers, and formatters.  You can export from lots of other tools into a .doc file, but without exception, I find that I have to go back afterwards and massage the results.

I don’t use much of the formatting capability that Word has, but what I do use is easy to setup.  I typically create a template that I use for each chapter, which is a separate file.  So, for each new chapter, I simply open a new doc with that template and I’m good to go.  Separating the manuscript into chapter files helps me keep organized and allows for a modular structure that’s easy to work with.

As I said earlier, none of this is really necessary.  If I were brutally honest, I could probably get along with nothing but Evernote and Word, and be 99% as productive.

Maybe after this next book …

Read more from Blog Posts, Writing

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