Tools of the trade – digital

It’s the third point of the triangle: my favorite purely-digital writing tools. Once again there’s a selection, depending on what part of the process I’m in. I don’t use all of these every single day – except maybe Microsoft Word – but they all tend to play a role in every writing project.

Microsoft Word – Yeah, I know, but first, most places want you to submit as a Word document, and second, I’m not going to talk about the typing aspect. While it’s useful, and my comfort my word processor, lately I’ve been utilizing the “Read Aloud” feature.

You can adjust the reading speed, but I keep it a little slow and jerky because I’m not really listening to get the meaning of what I’m writing. I use it to proofread, because Read Aloud won’t add extra words in if I’ve missed them, won’t skip over the extra words I’ve put there, and will pronounce whatever word I’ve written instead of the one I think I’ve written. Proofreading your own work is hard, but listening to a semi-robotic voice cover exactly what’s on the page helps.

Scrivener – I’m not as die-hard a Scrivener fan as some of my friends, but I’ve been playing around with it more since the update earlier this year. Scrivener lets you view things as notecards (a plus for me, considering my analog tool preference), move them around, and get an overview more easily than Word. You can choose how closely to zoom in on your work and when to pull back to see how it all fits together.

If you just jump in without watching the tutorial, you’ll probably be lost and think it’s pointless. It might not work for your writing style anyway even after you do watch the tutorial, but there are a lot of steps and processes built in to Scrivener that make it … Scrivener. Going through the tutorial means knowing all of the possibilities, and you might stumble across a different way of thinking about your writing.

Pro Writing Aid – A self-publishing friend of mine recommended Pro Writing Aid because it, like Scrivener, gives you a different way of looking at your work. You can try it out for free on the website with a small sample and play around with the various reports it offers. For me, Pro Writing Aid works best when I’ve got the writing as strong as I can, so it comes near the end of the process – I haven’t tried composing in the program, but just importing once it’s fairly polished.

All the reports and suggestions can be overwhelming, so it’s recommended to work on small sections at a time, anyway. It helps give an overview of your writing weaknesses and crutches, beyond “just” grammar and usage.

Dragon (formerly Dragon Naturally Speaking) – Whenever I mention this one, I get hit with “Oh, I could never dictate my writing!” I mean, not with that attitude …

There’s a learning curve. Any new process or technology has a learning curve. I first downloaded Dragon in December 2020 to give my hands a break because, for some reason, I decided to completely NaNoWriMo (50,000 words) in two days. Ow. So I looked into various dictation tools I already owned, and then went with Dragon because it’s not an add-on – it’s all they do.

And yes, you start off slow and feeling kind of silly. Yes, you have to train yourself to add in punctuation. But again, Dragon offers something that typing doesn’t, the way different programs have their own affordances and limitations. I like being able to dictate when my hands feel like they need a break, and I’ve put enough time into it that I can switch back and forth, depending on how I want to write that way. You absolutely can dictate your writing, if you decide it’s worth the time and effort.

What other digital writing tools do you use? Is there anything else I should try?

Tools of the trade: analog

There are a lot of steps to the writing process, and I’ve used a lot of tools over the years. (Fun fact: I wrote my first “novel” when I was 15. It ended up being about 25,000 words, all written by hand, using a mechanical pencil and college-ruled notebook paper.) Some tools come, and some go, but I’ve found that a number of hands-on pieces still work really well for me, especially in the planning stage.

Pens and markers and highlighters, oh my: I like thick, bold lines, so I’m apt to reach for Sharpies or markers. My husband writes with the finest pens he can find. On the plus side, we’re not going to steal each other’s writing utensils.

It’s kind of like what they say about kitchen knives: the best one is the one you’re going to use. The one that feels good in your hand. And, in the case of writing, the one that leaves the sort of mark you want it to leave. (Leaving marks with kitchen knives is a different story.)

I’m also all about colors. When I’m reading or taking notes, I’ll have at least two on hand: one for the important things, and one for the stuff I want to stand out as even more important. I know this about myself, so in the Before Times when writing in coffee shops was common, I always made sure I had multiple pens in my bag before going out to one.

I mentioned the Frixion brand in my other post, and they’re not just for Rocketbook – they work on normal paper, too, and erase with the heat from the friction of rubbing at the page with the rubberized “eraser.” I use their pens, markers, and highlighters for basically everything, because then I get my nice bold lines but also the ease of being able to fix any mistakes. (Note that disappearing in heat means don’t leave any important documents in your hot car, and that you shouldn’t sign important documents with them. Every tool has its intended purpose.)

Index cards and sticky notes: I like being able to capture ideas or due dates in bite-sized, discrete chunks. I’ve got a number of reminders posted around my desk on bulletin boards or just stuck there to keep me on top of the various projects I’m working on (because there are always overlapping timelines). These are, of course, color-coded, because I’m me.

It feels easier for me to have not only the condensed space of this smaller sheet, but also the ability to be able to move them around or toss them out if necessary. There’s something about typing an outline or initial ideas on a computer that feels too polished and final. In the initial brainstorming stages, I want to be able to write things down, cross things out, and shift them into new groups to discover better connections. Being able to physically move sticky notes around helps me do that.

I will frequently do sort of a quick study on plain white index cards or just one color of sticky notes and then, once I’m starting to see the shape of the project, group them and write them out again on different colors to trace the themes and ideas. I like the visual aspects of being able to pull back and see an entire project laid out like that, and then being able to focus today’s writing on just one of the points.

The Mover Family: the idea here combines sticky notes and magnets. I backed their first kickstarter campaign to get a number of sticky notes in two different colors and a couple of the magnet boards to place around my workspace. It’s like having eternally restickable sticky notes (and the new version turns each magnet from a finite amount of sticky notes that need to be replaced into mini whiteboards).

I like these because they’re meant to be moved and displayed, and the new whiteboards will cut down on the number of sticky notes I use. (Yeah, I know, there are apps and things that will look like sticky notes and index cards, but sometimes I want the feel of a pen in my hand and something in my own handwriting.)

What analog writing tools do you like to use?

Tools of the trade: hybrids

I think it’s a fairly common lament these days: I like writing by hand, but. But then I have to type it up. But then I forget it or lose it. But it’s just not feasible to share.

Personally I like writing by hand. I know it makes me think differently, and using different pens and colors helps me sort through my thoughts and get organizes. I also use two different tools that merge the handwritten and the digital. (I’m not sponsored by either of them. Yet. I just like good tools that make the writing process easier.)

First, there’s Livescribe. It’s a pen-and-paper system that pairs with an app via Bluetooth to digitize your handwritten notes and also to transcribe them. Let’s break it down a little.

  • The pen: the one I have is older, so it’s got a thicker barrel than most pens. You replace the ink cartridge when it runs out – I’ve used both black and blue. This is what syncs with your phone, so you don’t want to misplace it. It feels like writing with a normal pen because it basically¬†is a normal pen, at least where the ink meets the paper.
  • The paper: you need to use Livescribe dot paper with the pen, or else it doesn’t work. There are all kinds of notebooks and sticky notes, so you can find the style that works best for you. The paper isn’t blinding white – it can take a little bit to get used to the gray – but it feels like normal paper. You have to activate each notebook before you use it, and archive the old ones, so the pen doesn’t get confused and try to put your writing from page 1 in the new notebook on top of page 1 from the old one.
  • Pros and cons: Livescribe will transcribe your handwriting into text at the flick of a finger, and it’s fairly accurate. It’s at least faster for me to transcribe, copy into a document, and fix a few things than to have to type up my entire pages of notes. The ink only comes through as black, though, no matter which cartridge you use. This isn’t for you if you want your notes in color or if you need to routinely sketch or doodle for your notes. You will also fill up the notebooks and need to get more, but it took me over a year to complete my big spiral-bound one – and, for once, I did actually use every page.

My other go-to is Rocketbook. There’s a wider selection of pens (markers, and highlighters), but the “paper” doesn’t actually feel like paper. It uses your phone’s camera to digitize what you put on the page.

  • The pens: Rocketbook needs to be used with any Frixion-brand products. There’s a wide variety writing implements in this case, and colors? Use all the colors. As long as it’s Frixion, you can use it, from extra fine line pens to nice thick markers.
  • The paper: Rocketbook notebooks are reusable, so they don’t have nearly as many pages as Livescribe notebooks. My current favorite – the flip, with the binding at the top – has 16 sheets. Each sheet is lined on one side and has a dot grid on the other. The paper is thicker, and shinier, which is why you can erase what you’ve written after you’ve scanned it in. The newer versions erase with water. Some older notebooks, with more paper-like paper, erased using heat (you’d stick it in the microwave) so double-check which kind you have and don’t microwave other notebooks.
  • Pros and cons: Rocketbook turns your page into an image or a PDF. There’s no transcription, but it shows you exactly what you wrote or drew, in the proper colors. You can also set up the symbols at the bottom of the page to automatically upload your files into specific places – I’ve got mine going to different files on my Google drive, depending on what project it’s for. You can scan multiple pages into a single document, or jump around from page to page, depending on inspiration.

Both of these systems mean I can pull up digitized versions of notes in my phone in case I’m out somewhere and need to look something up. Livescribe means I have the paper cop on hand in case I ever need it, but Rocketbook means being able to erase and reuse without having to buy more notebooks. Livescribe means just buying ink refills, but Rocketbook can mean either buying pen refills or another set of pens. Livescribe transcribes, but Rocketbook saves your ideas in full color. I use each of them for different purposes, depending on what part of the process I’m in.

Have you used either Livescribe or Rocketbook? Which one’s your favorite? Is there another brand you think I should try?