Experimenting with Research, Writing, and Editing Software
In the past couple of years of blogging, I’ve tried a large number of writing, note-taking and organizational tools. Some have been successful experiments, some less so. These have included mind mapping tools, outliners, text processors, other writing tools, office programs, photo and graphic tools, digital notebooks, online storage, and, for the past year and a half, WordPress. My computing platforms are mainly Windows for my laptop, and my iPad – each with its distinctive workflow. Most of these tools are free or low cost. Here’s my experience.
My current favorite mind mapping tools are MindMaple Pro on my PC, and iThoughts on my iPad. iThoughts is actually my “go to” app because my iPad can go with me almost anywhere. (I’m still looking for a device that I can use in the shower if inspiration strikes me there, but the iPad is pretty good, otherwise.)
Although I was previously a great user of outlines, my experience is that iOS and Macs always had better outlining tools than PCs. I have experimented with three on my iPad: Outline Pro, OmniOutliner, and Cloud Outliner. Honestly, though, I haven’t used them (or any other outliner) much, lately, using mind maps instead.
Getting the words down. Here is where I’ve done the most experimentation.
I currently have four (!) office suites on my computer. Microsoft’s Office 2007 was once my main tool. Since last summer I’ve been experimenting mostly with LibreOffice. (See my comparisons of the suites here.) I also have SoftMaker Office 2012, a highly polished German brand, which I bought on sale for about $15. I need to experiment with it more. I also keep the latest version of Apache OpenOffice handy, mainly to compare with LibreOffice. (There should be a new version coming out soon.)
Frankly, these are all great tools for long-form writing, creating PDFs, desktop publishing and paper printing. In my opinion, they are a bit of overkill for simple, plain-text web writing, which is what I need for blog posts. Yes, it can be done, but I now prefer other tools. Sometimes simplicity is more important than having every formatting feature in the world. (Some days I feel nostalgic for MacWrite.)
Recently, I downloaded a free trial of Scrivener for Windows and went through the tutorials. I can see how it could be an excellent resource for long form writing: books and scripts, particularly fiction. So far, though, I think it’s too complicated for short-form blog posts and it does have a bit of a learning curve. (It took me about five hours to get through the “two-hour” tutorial.)
I’ve used plain text processors for more years than I’ve used PCs. They are good for blog writing, as well as programming. (No, I’m not a programmer.)
Many years ago, when Macintoshes were still so new and all, I liked BBEdit Lite for the Mac. On Windows, I use WordPad and Notepad++. On my iPad, my definite favorite tool for writing with the screen keyboard is Textastic, because the application’s keyboard is vastly superior to most other iPad text processors. (Apple’s design for its on-screen keyboards is a major flaw in iOS design, in my opinion — but that’s a post for another time.) Textastic also nicely implements Markdown (see below).
Zen Writing Software
I’ve blogged about Zenware tools for writers, here and here, and two I’ve come back to use again are WriteMonkey and FocusWriter, both on my PC. I like WriteMonkey’s access to internet reference tools, and FocusWriter’s ability to customize with my own photos and its disappearing menus.
Surprisingly, in the past couple of weeks I’ve found that the new, free version of OneNote also works as a distraction-free writing resource. With two clicks I can expand the window to full-screen and hide the menus for a large, blank writing space. Yet I can easily access dictionaries, a thesaurus, and formatting tools from within the program if I need them.
Instead of writing and coding in HTML, I’ve been using the simpler, easier to read, Markdown while drafting my posts. It allows me to add formatting in a text-only processor, and is easier to proofread before translating it to full HTML code. With Markdown, I can concentrating on the writing, not the coding. Any features I cannot do in Markdown, I do with my WordPress editor.
To learn about Markdown, see the Daring Fireball website, where it all began.
Curiously, the iPad has many more tools for writing Markdown and translating it into HTML markup than Windows computers. Again, Textastic (mentioned above) is my favorite iPad resource for writing, viewing the text as it would format on my blog, and then translate it into HTML to paste directly into my iPad WordPress app.
From my laptop, however, I’ve not found a single markdown tool that I like or that wasn’t buggy. So I use online tools to edit, proof, and translate to code. Here are four I like:
- Evernote is my all-time favorite data collection and archiving tool. I use it on my Windows laptop, on my iPad, my Android phone, and online. My biggest gripe is that each version has its own interface peculiarities. It still has better reading and clipping tools than its competitors, and you can organize it to the end of time. I do have too many notebooks and should concentrate on using tags better to find things, but I would be a lesser person without Evernote.
- Paper Notebooks – I keep a pocket-sized, Moleskine-style notebook with me at almost all times. It’s great for sudden inspiration and quick drafts of ideas, making quick lists, and meeting notes. I don’t have to wait for a program to boot up, and it takes a variety of input media (pens and pencils – all colors). Some days I just prefer the feel of putting pen to paper. I could photograph the pages and import them to Evernote, but I generally type a second draft or notes directly in another app.
- OneNote – Just in the past couple of weeks, I’ve returned to OneNote, but less as a research notebook and more as a writing and reference tool. Now I use OneNote just for blog writing. I keep blogging ideas in one tab, drafts in another, and selected research in a couple of others. Why OneNote? It has a cleaner interface than Evernote, it has easier-to-use writing tools, I can block out all the menus and concentrate on writing or editing, I can add formatting easily when I need to, and now it’s free.
So far, my plans are to use OneNote for writing, and Evernote for everything else I’d use a notebook application for. Years ago I tried using both for research, but it was too easy to forget which app I used to store a specific clipping and, consequently, wasted time trying to find things. (See my recent comparison of the two apps.)
File Sharing and Reading Apps
Dropbox is so well integrated into iOS that it was always the best choice for sharing text files, photos, graphics, and other notes between my iPad and my PC. I also use Evernote to share clippings.
Box handles larger files easily. I’ve started using it to exchanging Word and PDF files for my proofreading business. I’ve had an account for years, but I’m just starting to use it more.
I also have used Google Drive, Zoho Docs, Microsoft’s OneDrive, SugarSync (until they stopped their free access), and other accounts. I’ve probably forgotten a few of them.
I should also mention using Pocket, a web reading app. If I see an article online I want to read later, I clip it to Pocket (formerly known as Read It Later). I started using Pocket a couple of months ago and it’s wonderful. Now, if I could find an app to control galactic-universal-time-flow speeds, I could make more time to actually read the articles.
I also use Feedly for checking RSS feeds, which allows me to follow about 500 blogs and news sites from a single application. (Feedly allows me to clip articles to Pocket, too.)
Photos and Graphics
Because I’m producing this blog on a shoestring budget, I’ve used a variety of free photo-editing tools to work with photos, scans, screenshots, and design. These include:
- Irfanview is now my principal photo and graphic viewing app. I use plug-ins for editing (particularly nine Topaz plug-ins, of which I use Topaz Adjust 5 and Topaz Black and White 2 the most). I like Irfanview’s printing tools and JPEG creation tool, too. See my article on using plugins with Irfanview.
- GIMP 2 and Paint.net are two terrific, free, full-featured photo editing tools. Each has its strengths and it’s quirks.
- Photoshop free – I recently learned that an older version of Photoshop, from Adobe’s Creative Suite 2, is available for a free download from Adobe. Back when I used Macs, I had Photoshop. So, when I learned there was an older, free version for Windows, I grabbed it. Although, this version is missing many newer tools, including a healing brush and tools for HDR photo production, it does have adjustment layers (which GIMP does not). I don’t know how long this version will still work with Windows upgrades, but so far it feels like an old friend.
I also do my own photography, mostly as a hobby, but also to help build up some clip art for blogging and publishing. In the past few weeks I’ve been scanning lots of old film into digital files using an Epson flatbed scanner with Digital ICE.
Last But Not Least – WordPress
None of this would make much sense without WordPress. This entire workflow is designed for uploading text files or HTML code, adding artwork, and fine-tuning it all in WordPress. WordPress was designed for bringing web publishing to the people. It does that very well. Yes, I use plugins, but that’s an entire other post.
Free vs. Paying
There’s nothing wrong with paying for software and other tools. I’m not bragging about these tools because they cost little. However, if you do need to economize (say, when you are laid off, unemployed, or simply need to scrimp to pay a bill or reach a goal), it’s good to know that you can get a lot done with available free software and services. Having the gold-plated office or graphics suite doesn’t automatically make you a better writer or photographer or job hunter. That’s part of what Frugal Guidance 2 is about.
Thanks to all the programmers and organizations that make the above (mostly free) tools available and keep them up-to-date. You really are successfully helping to change the world.
Tool board photography by the author, Andrew Brandt, texturized, desaturated and toned with Topaz Adjust 5 and Topaz Black and White 2.