Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Writer’s Toolkit

Philip White

What makes a successful writer? Talent? Certainly. Knowledge of and passion for one’s subject? Absolutely. The ability to find a market for your wares? No doubt.

Yet without the proper tools, a writer, like any craftsperson, will face serious difficulties.

The best communicators through the ages have turned to the latest innovations to help them eke out words and a living. The Roman orator and statesman Cicero relied on his Tiro’s invention of tablet-based shorthand (no, not an iPad 2!), a Royal Quiet Deluxe portable typewriter was Hemingway’s weapon of choice, and Raymond Chandler used a Dictaphone for the first drafts of his screenplays.

In the past few years I—a Twitter-averse, text message-avoiding, Facebook-shunning curmudgeon—have forced myself to find tools that eliminate paper-shuffling inefficiency and allow me to record late night thoughts that invariably evade me the next morning. (Putting such things out of reach of my four-year-old son, Johnny, and his two-year-old brother, Harry, was also a good move). So, here goes with my list of treasured tech tools, which see a lot more use than my dust-collecting hammer, screwdriver or pliers.

Speech Recognition Software + Mic Winston Churchill tormented many a secretary with late-night transcribing duties and, while she’d make a fine scribe, I doubt my good lady wife, Nicole, would care to record my nocturnal babble. So, I turned to technology—namely, a wireless, Bluetooth-compatible microphone and a copy of Dragon Naturally Speaking. When my mother first purchased its predecessor, Dragon Dictate (complete with a very poorly designed dragon logo), some 15 years ago, this was a crude, ineffective technology that required more coaching than a preening, high-strung NFL wide receiver. Now, it’s quick, user-friendly, and mostly accurate. Although you can’t eliminate the occasional hilarious gaffe—I don’t think Joe Stalin would’ve cared for what my speech recognition software calls him.

Tablet + Stylus We’ve moved on a little since the aforementioned Tironian notes were in their heyday, but the concept is similar—take a stylus and mark semi-intelligible scribble on a tablet. Now, I know there are a lot of Apple fanboys and girls who will want to string me up for saying this, but, despite its numerous merits, the iPad is not the best thing for the job. That honor goes to the HTC Flyer, whose seven-inch form and handy “Magic Pen” make on-the-go note taking a cinch. The real power is the wireless synch with Evernote, which runs OCR on your notes so you can find certain words later with a full content search from any device. And if it can read my scrawl, it can read anything. Another bonus is the ability to highlight and annotate within e-books downloaded from the Kobo store—as close to marking up a real paper and glue copy as you can get on a slab of aluminum and plastic. Yes, having to pay extra for the stylus at Best Buy is a fine example of tech company money grabbing, but to me, at least, it was worth it.

Olympus Phone Call Recording Thingy OK, before you think I’m going all 1984 here, I try to tell interviewees that I am going to record our conversation lest they outpace my makeshift shorthand. The technology here is simple: a tiny microphone that sits in my ear and records both sides of any phone conversation on my voice recorder. Just like the NSA (totally kidding, noble overlords). I then connect the recorder via a USB cable and rip the file right into iTunes. Love this gizmo, except the droning of my own voice. (Who, except talk show hosts, politicians, and Charlie Sheen actually likes to hear themselves talk?) There has to be something similar for the iPhone, iPad, iWhatever, too, Applenistas.

How about you, dear readers? Do you have any tech toys/tools that you’d find it hard to live and write without?


Unknown said...

Scrivener ( ) and Tinderbox ( ).

PW said...

Dan, Scrivener looks amazing. Is it just as good as the testimonials suggest and, if so, what do you like best about it?

Veronica said...

May a humble,if I could write like you, I would be amazed at myself,reader add one more very simple gadget?

By the bed I keep a 'nightnote'.It holds a stash of ruled blank cards, and a small pen. When that wayward thought comes in the middle of the night,I pull the pen out, and the paper is lit up by small LED lights. Replace the pen, and the lights go out.

Not technologically advanced perhaps, but,as the famed meercat would say, "simples"!

Unknown said...

Yes, Scrivener is as good as the testimonials say, especially at the price! I suppose there are some free-flow types of writing projects it wouldn't work well for, but for anything that's outline-driven, Scrivener rules. I'm using it to write my diss. Each point I want to make goes on its own "page," with a trail back to the source. The "pages" go into chapter folders, and can be rearranged as needed. Some of the story details will be edited out of the diss. Much of the historiography will disappear from the book manuscript. All the source materials could be swept together into a document for the local historical societies where they came from, etc.

LD said...

I am low-tech and old-school. My sine qua non for writing is the same tool used by Anthony Trollope: sealing wax. 'Cause when all is said and done (and there's always a lot more said than done), there's nothing for it but to glue my butt to the chair and get to work.

Alas, I am running low on sealing wax.

hcr said...

This is really useful. I need to get up to speed, but always think I'll do it tomorrow....

One piece of advice I got about tools, though: a colleague once said that the world's best editorial tool was a drawer. It's true. Six weeks in a drawer and any manuscript will beg to be revised.

Anyone want to tell me why I should get a pc again, rather than a Mac?

LD said...

@HCR, As a former PC partisan, I exhort you: Go with the Mac!

Randall said...

It's a mix of the ipad, digital camera, and macbook for me.

PW said...

Randall - certainly agree about the digital camera. Particularly useful at dusty old archive centers that charge 50 cents per photocopy!

Dan - thanks for the detailed info on Scrivener. Keeping notes, source info, chapters etc organized in the abomination that is MS Office is as much fun as barefoot running on a pebble beach.

HCR - see above - can't wait for the day I can throw my Windows PC in a volcano (OK, maybe a recycling bin at Best Buy) and get a MacBook Pro.

I'm certainly not into gadgets for gadgets' sake, but more so for getting things done (my use of Android apps on the HTC Flyer extends to Starbucks, a Bible reader and Amazon Cloud Player - aren't I a bundle o' laughs?)

hcr said...


I read this in a hurry and thought you said ipad, digital camera, and matchlock... which I thought was a brilliant combination!

Ok, ok. It's probably going to be a mac. But I hate their keyboards! Any thoughts on the ipad? Can you really type on it? What do you use it for?

Unknown said...

Nope, you can't type on an ipad. I use a Macbook Air for mobile, and keep my data on 32GB Kingston thumb drives. My kids get to play fruit ninja on the ipad.

But honestly, once you use a 27 inch iMac, and get to see all your data files and sources while you're working on your document at 125%, it's just all over. You're spoiled for anything else.

PW said...

I only have a humble 22-inch monitor that I connect to my laptop when at home, but it certainly makes viewing docs a lot easier side by side.

Typically I take the Flyer with me to coffee shops and put it on my nightstand to record handwritten notes - certainly a lot more convenient and portable than a full sized tablet. I find I think better with a pen (or, in this case, an aluminum stick with a battery inside it) in my hand than if I'm picking - and I do mean picking, no touch typing here, folks - at a physical or on-screen keyboard.

The speech recognition lark takes longer to get used to - I mainly wield it for recording long passages from research books I've borrowed (due to the afore mentioned 8 words per minute typing rate). Helps that the software now has international accent support and there's less lag between talking and typing than there used to be.

Has anyone else made use of Dragon or similar software? I've heard that even the Windows speech app is quite useful.

Unknown said...

I use Dragon on the Mac. Works very well, and I too use it for transcribing passages from source texts. It has helped tremendously with the letters I'm using as the basis of much of my research. Now, rather than stare at my digital photos of these handwritten sheets from the 19th c., and then type a brief synopsis, I can read the whole letter aloud, and get an accurate transcript of the whole thing.

I do find, so far, that the writing part still involves fingers on keyboard, though. Maybe this will change over time. I can blog speech to maybe I'm evolving.

hcr said...

I had to use Dragon extensively a few years ago after an injury, and I loved it. It didn't recognize specialized words, of course, but otherwise it was fast and accurate.

I went back to my own typing just as soon as I was able, though (after swearing I would never leave Dragon). There is something about interacting with your own text that you can only accomplish by typing... or so it seems to me.

PW said...

HCR, certainly agree with you about interacting with the text.

Typically, I used Dragon to dictate lengthy passages from limited loan library texts (with the proper citation, of course!). As you mentioned, it took me a while to get in the rhythm of it, but once I was rolling it was useful. The post-dictation review was typically quite amusing - particularly due to the 8th grade humor - it'd invariably turn "budge" into "bugger", etc. For disabled people, I think Dragon is invaluable. Or, for that matter, for those with either carpal tunnel or sure-wish-I-could-type-faster-than-my-four-year-old syndrome.

I appreciated your earlier point about putting a manuscript in a drawer for a while, too. The eyes see what they want to see when we're poring over our own work for too long. One of the many reasons that I have five reviewers for A Lion in the Heartland!