Serious writers, I need help selecting my tools and discussing workflows (TL;DR and OCD warnings)

Discussion in 'Community Discussion' started by iRock1, May 4, 2016.

  1. iRock1 macrumors 6502a


    Apr 23, 2011

    I'm by no means a professional writer (and I'll clarify right now too that English is not my native language). However, I did earn money doing some stuff for a couple of websites a few years ago, and currently I spend an important part of my time writing. Also, I won't deny that I'd like to make a living from this in the future.

    With regards to what kind of stuff I write, I'd say it's mostly journal entries, essays and shorts stories, none of which ends up published online (this point is technically relevant).

    Even though I think the important thing is writing rather than wasting time selecting tools, there certainly are some issues that surface after one chooses his mediums—and then realizes they might not be the most efficient ones. This situation ends up producing noise, breaking the writing-flow and distracting. So even if it does't look like that, selecting the right tools is, in fact, very important.

    Now to the point. As I see it, there are two relevant stages in my workflow, which tend to be chronologically separated. One of them would be “capturing” an idea (to use some GTD terminology), like an interesting plot or something that I just saw on the street. The other stage would be actually writing something, be it a journal entry, short story, etc.

    The problem appears when I have to choose among a wide variety of tools for each of those stages—stages that, to makes things even worse, are not always clearly separated.

    Because of the latest, I'll share a list with all the mediums that I use to write currently (they are iPhone/iPad apps mostly), hoping that you can provide me some feedback on how to simplify things.

    So these are my current tools and my comments on each of them:

    - Drafts (iPhone and iPad apps): I'm in love with its keyboard-customizable-extra-row, which makes this app, by far, the best thing to use when it comes to writing on the iPhone's little screen.

    Drafts also supports TextExpander Touch (another huge win and time-saver) and it's super flexible when it comes to interacting with text, whether that means exporting it to another app, sharing it online or something else.

    Almost everything I write on my phone starts in Drafts. I use it for creating short stories, capturing some basic ideas or thougts regarding some plot, writing my journal entries, composing emails, etc. Then normally I end up exporting everything I write here to another app, depending on what it is. Therefore I try to keep Drafts, again, only for capturing.

    - iA Writer Classic (iPhone, iPad and OS X apps): Until a couple of years ago, even before Apple implemented iCloud on their own software, this was one of the few apps that had a native version for every Apple device, which was exactly what I needed at the time.

    Apart from its deep integration into Apple's different platforms, iA Writer also has some convenient features, such as an extra row on the iOS keyboard (even though this one is not as good as Draft's, since it's not customizable), TextExpander Touch support, and the beautiful and super useful full-screen and focus modes in OS X.

    Right now I use it to develop ideas or stories (second stage in my workflow) and mainly because I can work with my texts in three different platforms. I simply love its interface (that typography and blue cursor are just so cool) and I kind of feel pleasure in using it, based probably not only on its beautifully-crafted UI, but also on the fact that iA Writer has been my main tool for a long time.

    - Momento (iPhone app): This is a journal app. I use it to capture what I'm living, seeing and thinking everyday.

    (An interesting thing—Momento not only allows me to write, but also to take photos, which, by the way, creates another problem, as there are some cases when I don't know whether I should take a regular picture with my camera and make it part of my photos library in Aperture, or keep the photo in this app... But that's another story, I guess.)

    Momento is nice and useful. The problem is that I tend to write looong pieces of text when perhaps I shouldn't, and because of that I feel like it would be more comfortable to write a full-length entry somewhere else in my computer, rather than on this little app which, I guess, is supposed to store the strictly necessary. On the other hand, it can't be denied the convenience of having a digital diary all the time in my pocket—and the fact that Momento has many features that makes it uniquely convenient, like adding people met, tags, places, events, social entries (like tweets, Facebook posts or Swarm check-ins), etc. Once again, I struggle with the decision.

    - Evernote (iPhone, iPad and OS X apps): The classic throw-anything-at-digital-box. I've been using it for years (since I migrated to the Macintosh almost a decade ago, to be more precise), which means that it currently is a huge mess of pictures, URLs, snippets, etc. Its main purpose is to serve as a digital repository of ideas to work with in the future (plots and characters for my stories, topics for some essay, etc.)

    - Omnifocus (iPhone, iPad and OS X apps): Another classic when it comes to GTD and task-management. Now, I understand if it looks rather weird to see a productivity app like this one here. However, it really sort of makes sense. If you've read about the GTD method (which I try to follow, though I end up failing miserably most of the time because of my lack of discipline), you'll know that one of the core concepts is to centralize the capture process in one single and accessible place, so everything, from tasks to ideas, should go there—and only later one should be able to process each of those elements and give them an adequate destination. Because of this notion is that I frequently end up writing key concepts or two-line ideas for future texts in a task-management app.

    - Voice Memos (iPhone app): GTD's author proposes several types of repositories for his system, one of which could be a recorder (among others like a smartphone app, physical notebook, etc.). In my case, I've worked with text all of my life, but there are some situations in which writing something to take it out of the way is just too much PITA. So in those cases, like when it's a rather long or complex idea and I'm walking down the street, I tend to record a voice memo using the default iPhone app (terrible choice, by the way).

    The problem with Voice Memos is that because it's a single app and doesn't work with the cloud, I end up leaving that precious idea for a world-changing story just there. I've tried replacing it with OmniFocus and Evernote, but both have proven being not reliable on this regard (actually I've lost important voice memos in the past, because for some reason they were not working after I pressed the frigging record button or some other sync issue).

    - Text Edit (OS X app): My go-to app when I'm in front of the computer and I don't know where else should I go. In fact, this was my preferred and almost only tool in previous years (when I wrote semi-professionally and earned money for it), the reason being that I was all into that “plain-text only” crap. (Because of that now I have dozens of .txt files spread across my Dropbox folder, even when I'm getting more and more used to work actually in the opposite direction, i.e. using internal app structures generally based on iCloud.)

    Right now I don't know where Text Edit sits. Sometimes I just need to write down something relatively large, and before I start thinking where it should go or what's going to be, I just open up Text Edit and type.

    - Pages (iOS and OS X apps): Pages is the place for all the work that will end up being shared. Because I can't send my texts to some contest or professor in Markdown (God I hate the fact that most text-apps use that, as if we all were developers), I use Pages as a Microsoft Word replacement, so I can format my texts properly.

    - Moleskine (not an app, but the actual notebook): Ah, the good old paper. Call me a romantic, but nothing replaces the feeling of touching a sheet of paper and actually writing on it. Also needs to be noted, it gives you a flexibility to put down your ideas that is absolutely impossible to replicate on any digital artifact.

    I carry my Moleskine with me all the time—it's almost impossible for me to go out without it. There you will find anything—from thoughts and ideas for future stories to all the stuff I jot down when I assist to my classes. Even drawings, to-do lists and contact information can be found there. Needless to say, my notebook is somewhat chaotic, but I guess that's the beauty of it—the fact that somehow is the creative portal from my mind to the exterior reality.


    The problem, as I've said, is that I'm using all of these tools currently, so I have duplicates everywhere, disorganized messes of files here and there, etc. And worse of all, when an idea crosses my mind and I need to put it down or develop it, I don't know where to go.

    So at the end, dear fellows, would you mind giving me some feedback to go simpler, share your thoughts on this whole topic and tell me about your own workflows?

    Cheers, and thanks in advance!
  2. Scepticalscribe, May 4, 2016
    Last edited: May 24, 2016

    Scepticalscribe Contributor


    Jul 29, 2008
    The Far Horizon
    What works best for you? What do you most enjoy - and what do you feel most comfortable with - using the most?

    Personally, I use paper (yes, Moleskine) and a fountain pen, and I use my MBA, where I use Word (Office for Mac) mainly because the world - along with everyone I have ever worked for, or worked with, - uses it.

    And that is all: I used to have an iPad and ended up giving it to my brother as I found it exceedingly frustrating to use. I don't have a smartphone. Instead, I bring my (CTO) 11" MBA with me when on the move, and that, and (physical) paper notebooks, meet all of my needs for writing and note taking.

    Now, yes, of course, I know that there are other better platforms and programs out there: However, unless I am persuaded that they will utterly transform my life - and others can access them easily, - they are not of immediate interest to me.

    To your question: My sense is that you may need to simplify what you use, and cull some of those redundant and confusing platforms completely, while retaining what you are comfortable with.

    Good luck.
  3. iRock1 thread starter macrumors 6502a


    Apr 23, 2011
    That's one of my concerns — I use them all to some degree and for different purposes, therefore the difficulty of ditching some of them.

    Sorry for my noobiness, but how are you able to use a fountain pen on your Moleskine without making an inky mess?

    That's the problem of Microsoft Word precisely—everybody use it because, well, everybody use it. But the truth is that it's a terrible choice when it comes to creative writing. It's clunky, slow, and way overweighted for the mere task of typing. It's like using Photoshop or Corel Draw to draw a blue square! Its cluttered interface is hard for me to swallow.

    Just curious, what did you specifically found frustrating about it?

    Though I'd love to adopt a similar simple setup, I see several problems there—at least for my needs.

    First, I already have a MacBook (it's an old 13" aluminum MacBook) and it just doesn't work as an ultraportable device. Put it simply, it can't compete with the mobility of an iPhone.

    Second, on the go, I just find easier and faster to type on a touchscreen rather than writing on a paper notebook. What happens when you need to write down something really complex? Do you stop and spend 5-10 minutes using your wrist muscles?

    By the way, what kind of writing do you do?

    Cheers and thanks for your insight.
  4. Scepticalscribe Contributor


    Jul 29, 2008
    The Far Horizon
    I used to be an academic and I am a published author (of history books).

    In addition, more recently, I have worked as an editor in the parliamentary debates office and - later still - as a political analyst. Thus, a my work has involved a lot of note taking and report writing for the bodies I have worked for. For work, I also give presentations, and take notes and minutes at meetings.

    In any case, I couldn't stand the iPad, and found writing - or, more accurately, - trying to write with it - absolutely infuriating. To my mind, while an attractive device, it has been designed to enable you to consume content rather than create it. Re frustration, for proper writing, (as opposed to an occasional text), I find that I need a keyboard - I am not at all comfortable using a touchpad screen.

    For on the spur writing, - and ideas, and thoughts, and when taking minutes - and giving presentations - I use pen and paper. Otherwise, I use a keyboard. Yes, I can write - hand write - for hours. A good fountain pen helps in this regard (and these days, I only write with a small Mont Blanc Meisterstuck. My experience is that I find it very comfortable in my hand and on the wrist).

    My 11" MBA has a proper keyboard, is a fast, reliable, powerful and exceedingly portable computer. When travelling, that is what I use.

    As for inky spots and blobs, I use Mont Blanc Meisterstuck fountain pens (and Mont Blanc ink cartridges); I have used fountain pens since I was at school, and all through university and beyond. Anyway, blobs, and spots are not an issue for me.

    Well, yes, Word may be clunky, but I am well used to it, and it works fine for me.
  5. iRock1 thread starter macrumors 6502a


    Apr 23, 2011
    Thanks. I really appreciate your views on the matter. Your post left me with a few ideas to process.

    Regarding the note-taking process on a paper notebook, whenever I use something fancy for writing I get ink stains. As soon as I finish writing a paragraph I close my Moleskine, only to find later that the ink is splatted between pages. How do you avoid this? Do you wait a few minutes before closing pages? Is it the special kind of pen that you use? (Again, sorry for my ignorance, but as a millennial I know practically nothing about that field and always end up using some cheap Parker.)

    Finally, did you ever try the iPad using a keyboard? That's an entirely different experience in my opinion (in fact I agree with you—the virtual keyboard is far from optimal for serious writing).
  6. Scepticalscribe, May 4, 2016
    Last edited: May 11, 2016

    Scepticalscribe Contributor


    Jul 29, 2008
    The Far Horizon
    I did try using a keyboard with the iPad and also found it frustrating and concluded that the iPad - stylish device though it is - is not for me.

    In fact, I even bought a second one subsequently as so many of my colleagues had raved about it, but I ended up giving both of them away - one to each of my two brothers. With or without a keyboard, the iPad just annoyed me; I far prefer the MBA, and the 11" meets my requirements for power, portability and an excellent battery life perfectly.

    Re pens, I have already told you that I have been writing with fountain pens since I was at school, and that, these days, I write only with a Mont Blanc Meisterstuck pen. Ink stains, blots, blobs, and spatters have never been a problem for me. Moreover, I write on excellent quality paper, (Moleskine is pretty good) and use Mont Blanc ink cartridges.
  7. iRock1 thread starter macrumors 6502a


    Apr 23, 2011
    I get that you use a Mont Blanc Meisterstuck pen. My question is how do you avoid all those problems. I mean, is it the ink that dries super-fast, the quality of the brand or what? Seriously, I don't know how it works.

    Regarding the exclusive use of paper and a MBA, I've come to think, don't you find extenuating (from a psychological point of view mainly) the fact that you have to write all over again on a different support? Because, actually, that's one of the benefits that I've found in using multiple digital devices with proper apps—I can start typing on the bus with my iPhone and continue or edit that later on my iMac.
  8. iRock1 thread starter macrumors 6502a


    Apr 23, 2011
    Somebody else with a more geeky approach to this?
  9. lowendlinux Contributor


    Sep 24, 2014
    North Country (way upstate NY)
    The only real and important writing I do is technical but I just use a simple text editor both on my phone and on the computer.

    Honestly I'm with scribe on the note taking via notebook but I just use a pencil or ball point
  10. cdcastillo macrumors 6502a


    Dec 22, 2007
    The cesspit of civilization
    Maybe you would benefit from using drafts for, er, drafting, and everything else (organizing, extending, ploting, etc.) in scrivener. They still do not have an iOS app out, but are already on beta.
  11. brewmonkey macrumors regular

    Feb 17, 2016
    Another vote for Scrivener. If you take the time to do the (rather lengthy) hands-on tutorial built into it, giving Scrivener a try may be well worth it.
  12. A.Goldberg macrumors 68020


    Jan 31, 2015
    Wow, you have put quite eloquently (per usual) and concisely what I have been trying to express simply for years. Consumption>>>>>>Creation.

    The iPad Pro and MS Surface lineup might be a source of change. Too bad the iPad Pro is heinously priced.

    Every time I have upgraded MS word for Mac since the year 2003 I have regretted the change. :rolleyes:
  13. iRock1 thread starter macrumors 6502a


    Apr 23, 2011
    I'll give scrivener a try, though it looks like adding another app to the equation might actually make problems worse.
  14. rhett7660 macrumors G4


    Jan 9, 2008
    Sunny, Southern California
    Maybe you should strip everything down to just a pen and paper and start over your approach to writing? It looks like you have an awful lot of tools that you might be able to do away with or re-think how you should approach the task at hand.

    I have a feeling once you use a writing tool that has a little more of what you need, the other items will drop off the must use.

    I realize you are asking, but sometimes the technology can get in the way.
  15. Scepticalscribe Contributor


    Jul 29, 2008
    The Far Horizon
    Excellent post, very well said, and thank you for expressing it so clearly, in a way that might be of some assistance to the OP.

    Agree; sometimes, the technology gets in the way, or can add clutter - and confusion - to what needs to be done.
  16. nightlong macrumors 6502a


    Jun 16, 2012
    It can be expensive and time-consuming sifting through apps trying to find one that does everything you need, but making that effort has improved my workflow, freed me from dreary Word, reduced the amount of paper I use, given me a broader range of options for how and where I write, and I like having my handwritten notes in digital form, and everything with me, compact and portable, when working away from home.

    I haven't found one app that does everything but I have settled on these: Notability for handwriting, excellent with Apple Pencil on iPad Pro 12.9. Pages for typing on iPads, I transfer that to Scrivener on MBPr. I also use Apple Notes for lists (grocery shopping, To Do lists).
  17. Zenithal, May 20, 2016
    Last edited: May 20, 2016

    Zenithal macrumors 604

    Sep 10, 2009
    When I wrote my manuscript years ago, I used Word. It's been dead in the water for years as my agent retired early from William Morris, and got passed onto a colleague who put a lot of effort in. By that time I gave up as I had lost complete interest. I'm sure I've got the file somewhere. I was offered a nice advance for a NF manuscript based on some historic event I can't even recall that the moment. That was well over 7 years ago. Point of this story is that even then, the options were slim. Scrivener was relatively new and using it on my then MBP was a pain in the ass. So Word on Windows it was.

    Anyway, the best software you can use right now would be Scrivener. Especially the OSX version, as it's loads better than the Windows variant. Ulysses is also a FANTASTIC piece of software on OSX only. Ia Writer isn't anything special. You could try Focus Writer, but it's without the big global scroll on the right or left side. But as I said, Scrivener will do a lot for you. If you couple it with OneNote, you can draft and plot your ideas, import notes and images into Scrivener, and do a lot more. Be forewarned, it has a very steep learning curve.

    Edit: Remembered I posted about it somewhere. Random House Publishing contacted me in 2010 and offered me a hefty advance for a Mexican-American history book. I'd already started my first a couple years before and didn't give a damn or their silly advance. I don't know a damn thing about Mexico other than their tequila history.

    Edit 2: Don't worry. Your English is fine. If people take issue with it, I'd like to see them learn it as a second language.
  18. iRock1 thread starter macrumors 6502a


    Apr 23, 2011
    Following that logic, I guess I'll have to keep testing until I find a super-powerful app that does all I need and more, so I can stop using the rest.

    Definitely. If my case doesn't prove that, I don't know what it does. However, I need to keep looking in order to find something that really suits me. I know in advance that pen and paper only won't cut it.

    So you type on Pages on your iPad, go home, open up Pages on your Mac and then copy/paste to Scrivener? It looks a little bit cumbersome...

    Also, what's the treatment that you give to your handwritten notes?

    Well, I didn't download Scrivener but at least I watched a couple of videos on their website. It turns out that—yes, it looks like it has a painfully steep learning curve. That's a deal-breaker for me, as I'm trying to find as less friction between me and my writing as possible.

    Regarding iA Writer, I like its focus mode and fullscreen view on OS X. Its iOS counterparts are great too, with a keyboard-customizable-extra-row that offers some advantage over other iOS writing apps. The only downside is that it uses Markdown, and as I've said that is useless to me.

    And thanks for your compliment on my English, by the way.
  19. Zenithal macrumors 604

    Sep 10, 2009
    To be quite honest, Scrivener is quite easy to use. The basics are very simple to learn and quite intuitive. The specialized bits of it have a learning curve. At the risk of sounding like an ass, there is a Scrivener for Dummies book floating around. It's a good read and will introduce you to concepts fairly easy.
  20. Goatllama macrumors 6502a


    Jun 24, 2015
    Mountaintop Lair
    I echo Scribe's sentiment. Pen and paper and one word processing application. In my case, Pages. iCloud integration is great, and it gets the job done. Google Drive comes in handy when I cannot share with other Apple users, though.

    As for all those other apps, cut them out and simplify, simplify. It'll hopefully encourage more efficient organization.
  21. iRock1 thread starter macrumors 6502a


    Apr 23, 2011
    Well, I'm sure using its basic functionalities must be as easy as on any other writing app. However, why should I spend time learning to use the more advanced features? How does it add to my already complex workflow? Or how could it replace some of the apps that I've already bought?

    The problem is that it's not so easy. If you read what I wrote in the first post, you'll see that every app has its purpose, and many of them are really good at something specific, which is too difficult or just plain impossible to replicate on other apps.
  22. Scepticalscribe Contributor


    Jul 29, 2008
    The Far Horizon
    We did read what you wrote in your first post, but the advice which some of us have tendered (streamline your apps, cull most of them and focus on using one or two of them), or, use different forms (such as, pen and paper in addition to computers), or, use something which can fulfil most of these functions - such as Scrivener - is not advice that you feel has any relevance to your immediate situation.
  23. Zenithal macrumors 604

    Sep 10, 2009
    Which is funny considering Scriv's website shows what it can replace and how it streamlines everything into one app.
  24. iRock1 thread starter macrumors 6502a


    Apr 23, 2011
    Calm down, people. I really appreciate and read each one of your posts. It's not like I ignore them...

    Pen and paper, as I've said, doesn't cut it for me. No doubt different people have different needs, but in my case I rely on writing fast and comfortably. Better yet, I prefer having all sorted and organized, which is always easier on a screen.

    I know I have to ditch as many apps as possible from my workflow, but I have to be sure in doing so that I won't left any area uncovered.

    Scrivener looks nice, and I've been trying to get to know it more deeply with some screencasts, but still I think it doesn't cover all of my needs. It's something I have to keep exploring, unless I really find out it's not for me and then have to see some other options.

    I guess it's easy from an external perspective to say "ditch everything and go with one word processor", but if you follow carefully each one of my needs, you'll see my workflow could be broken. I need to be smart on the approach.
  25. chown33 macrumors 604

    Aug 9, 2009
    on the Western Slopes, with E. A. Poe
    Write a prioritized list. Put only features or capabilities on the list, not apps.

    Include features that may seem obvious, such as "fast search" or "reorganize easily". For example, one reason for not writing things out on paper using a lovely fountain pen (or whatever) might be the complete absence of automated search. In other words, paper and pen doesn't support ⌘F for finding things; you have to manually catalog all the written words and then manually search the catalog.

    Also include features like "runs on all my platforms: iOS, OS X, web", and features like "easy sync".

    Make sure the list is kept prioritized. That is, if feature A is more useful than feature B, it should be higher in the list (closer to the start). If you're keeping the list in pen & paper format, write one feature per index card, and sort the cards in priority order.

    Make sure the order is based on actual usefulness, not just "it's nice even though I rarely use it". If you want to know what actually gets used, keep track of that over the course of a week or so. I think you might be surprised.

    Once the list starts to stabilize, you can start matching the features to the various apps. This should pretty quickly tell you exactly which apps are indispensible and which are meh, or even which are just kept around for sentimental reasons.

    At any point, you can also do a "If I had to cut, where would that be?" on the prioritized list. In other words, if you had to draw a line in the list, and everything below the line was completely eliminated from your everyday tools, where would that line be?

    You can maintain the list, move items up and down in priority, rematch to apps as their features change, etc.

    One neat thing about the list is it's an exercise in writing, which means it uses the very tools and features being listed. Keeping the list is an exercise in evaluating the quality of the list. If you find you keep the list in a simple text editor, that alone tells you something useful.

    Making a prioritized list is a well known way to determine which features are necessary when designing new software, vs. those which are merely nice to have. This can be used for decision guidance when it's time to schedule work or cut features.

    It's also a good way to cull woodworking tools, or mechanics tools, or pretty much any set of tools.

    There will always be tradeoffs between tools that are a more precise fit, and those that are "sloppy" but more flexible. To me, the canonical example is a set of open-end wrenches (spanners for UK readers), which have fixed sizes but are much less likely to strip a head, vs. an adjustable wrench (aka Crescent wrench) or a set of Vise-Grip pliers or just slip-joint pliers. Another example is a pipe-cutter vs. a hacksaw, or a chisel vs. a utility knife.

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