Writing applications are growing as plentiful and affordable as the number of platforms on the market to help me record my thoughts. I am using this blog to review and define my system of capturing ideas.
I no longer have to wait until I have my favorite notebook and pen or return to my computer desk. Smart phones like the Apple iPhone and other devices running Android are great for capturing ideas or even making progress on longer work.
For the record, I prefer the iPhone and will focus on iOS apps and work on a Mac so you can stop reading now if that’s not how you roll. I didn’t write this to tell you what you should do, but if it works for you then that’s terrific. This article is selfishly focused on helping me work better.
I’ve narrowed the types of words I capture to three types, and use different applications on different platforms depending on my environment.
My iPhone is always at hand, making it a nearly perfect “ubiquitous capture tool” (to use the lingua franca of GTD) for basic notes. If I overhear something interesting or funny, I jot it down. Think of something I don’t want to forget? This is the perfect tool to help me remember it.
One offs. Lists. Scribbled thoughts. Nothing formal here, just random thoughts. A few bits of reference I want to have with me all the time. I periodically review and process these notes to create or supplement projects or delete them.
How I get notes into my iPhone depends on the situation. I use JotAgent to fire off a quick note. The app creates a new file stamped with the date and time down to the seconds. This ensures I won’t have two files of the same name and I can add a description later when I process my notes.
Applications I Use: JotAgent and Elements on the iPhone. [Notational Velocity] on the Mac (I prefer Brett Terpstra’s variant [nvALT]).
Honorable mention: MarkdownMail, Nebulous Notes, Plaintext, Simplenote, and Writeroom (for iPhone and Mac).
Some notes are more refined than others, and I am going to call these research notes. These are notes that may drive my writing to some end, or maybe notes from meetings I attend.
This is an area where I struggle. I still take notes the old-fashioned way, with pen and paper, and I haven’t figured out how to digitize those notes. I know the LiveScribe pen is one option, but it just doesn’t sound right to me. I don’t think I would like it.
I tried pairing an Apple bluetooth keyboard with my iPhone. It works, but it’s still a clunky kludge and not much better than using a laptop.
The iPad 2 is appealing—the MacBook Air, too—but I don’t have the spare capital to swing either purchase right now.
Applications I Use: Elements on the iPhone. Scrivener and TextMate on the Mac, which I keep coupled together using QuickCursor.
Honorable mention: DEVONthink Pro and Yojimbo for data storage and retrieval.
Snippets grow into notes, and ideas develop into a novel, a blog post, or a research paper. A note captured while walking to the mailbox could grow into a masterpiece to export later into LaTeX or some other formatted output for publication.
Applications I Use: Scrivener and TextMate, MarsEdit for blog posts, Pages for print.
Honorable mention: Mellel, Microsoft Word, Pagehand.
BBEdit, TextMate, Text Wrangler, Ulysses
All of my writing that ends up being worth anything spends a good deal of life in a text editor before publication in print or online. TextMate is my weapon of choice, and my bullets are written using Fletcher Penney’s MultiMarkdown, which extends the formatting capabilities of John Gruber’s original Markdown.
MultiMarkdown is a markup language that allows for semantic text editing. As a plain text file it is infinitely portable and flexible. The file can be exported to Rich Text Format, LaTeX, HTML, and other formats for further processing before publication.
Ulysses is another kind of semantic text editor worth a closer look.
Mellel, Microsoft Word, Pagehand, Pages
Word processors do more than edit text. They allow you to pick different fonts, adjust margins, and all kinds of other fiddly activities you should really avoid unless you are actually finished writing. Until then, I’ll stick to a text editor and recommend you do the same.
You would be amazed how liberating a simple monospaced font can be for your writing. Try it.
Microsoft Word is my least favorite word processor, but it’s a necessary evil because it is so deeply ingrained in office culture. If you need to share a file and preserve formatting, you’re probably going to need Word.
Having said that, I only use it when I must share my files with someone else. If someone sends me a file, I open it in TextEdit or Path Finder’s text editor.
Outliers and additions
Evernote is a terrific application. I keep trying to work it into my workflow, but it just doesn’t fit. David Sparks summed up my feelings during the podcast he records with fellow attorney Katie Floyd. About 19 minutes into their episode titled Taking Notes on Mac OS X and iOS he said, “Evernote is, in my case, an elegant solution where I don’t have a problem.”
That’s exactly what I’ve been thinking but lacked the eloquence to package my thoughts.
OmniOutliner Pro can’t be beat for making outlines, but for some reason it slips off my radar when I’m at a point where it makes sense. I crank out most of my outlines in a Markdown text file, but OmniOutliner is the ultimate outlining tool on the Mac.
TextExpander (and it’s iPhone counterpart TextExpander Touch) is the glue that holds my writing life together. Apps that have a hook for TextExpander to grab onto don’t get a lot of use from me.
Thoughts on file names
I’ve tried some naming schemes that got awfully convoluted, but they got to the point that I couldn’t remember what was what. I’ll probably make it difficult for myself again, but for now I stick with dating each file and providing a brief descriptive name. Like this:
2011-03-06 brief descriptive name
Just remember to lay down some context for your notes or you may find yourself a bit lost in the days, weeks, or months to come.
Like I said in the beginning, this article is an exercise to help me define how I work. I hope it helps you in some way, but recommend that you try several options to see what works best for you.