Writing Tools: 2017

From time to time, folks ask me about how I write so much, or rather “how do you get so much done???” The reality is I tend to be very focused on tools and process. As I just revisited my tools over the new year, particularly when looking at a lot of new material that needs to be written, I thought it might be helpful to someone, perhaps, to write a post about what I’m using as the year turns over. Right now, I use—

  • Word
  • OneNote
  • Zotero
  • Notepad++
  • Smartedit
  • CorelDRAW
  • Acrobat Standard

I know I’m “old fashioned” in this tool set; I don’t do fancy markdown, markup, marksideways, or any of that stuff. I don’t swear by a platform (I don’t have a dog in the the Apple versus Microsoft fight), etc. But this set of tools has been modified, thought, and rethought across the last 20 years and the writing of millions of words of text contained in hundreds of papers, 11 books, many hours of classroom time, etc. I have been through periods when I really focused on finding some cool new tool to write with, maybe trying to “get rid of distractions,” or whatever else. Across this time, and experience, I have learned a couple of lessons I consider pretty important.

  1. Most of the distractions you face are in your head, not in the tool.
  2. Learning to customize the tool so my workflow and the tool meet someplace in the middle is more efficient than considering either the center of the workflow universe.

For instance, many people complain about the bells, whistles, and options in Word. Well, the problem is everyone needs a different tool set to do their work, or to blend the tool with their workflow (just like a generic router in every network in the world), so it will do far more than you probably ever want it to. There is a way to combat this problem, though. I have, for years, maintained a small set of macros and custom tool tabs in Word, and on upgrading from any version to any version, I immediately—

    • Create a new tool tab
    • Add the tools I use to the new tab
    • Keep my personally customized tab open 99% of the time, closing as many of the others as I can

This, for instance, is my primary Word tool tab right now—

The buttons are pretty easy to understand. I also have a secondary tab with some other macros and tools, but those are mostly mapped to function keys. I write something like 98% of everything using that one toolbar. I change it from time to time, but creating a custom tool tab and putting what you use on it makes using Word much more effective—and I don’t need to learn a small army of custom symbols to make bold, change typefaces, etc. I also use Word styles extensively; I rarely ever manually format anything using manual spacing, etc.

Yes, I understand that a lot of people hate Word, but I sometimes think this is because it is the “fashionable” thing to do, or because they had a bad experience some time ago and have not gotten over it, their friend had a really bad experience a long time ago, or whatever. I also don’t “hate” airlines because of that really bad trip to someplace once, either.

OneNote is the second tool on my list—another tool a lot of people love to hate for some reason. I tried EverNote a long time ago, and I think it is a great tool—but I found the layout of the notebooks, etc., to be rather restrictive. OneNote allows me essentially unlimited levels of outline, decent search capability, decent integration with email (Outlook)—it’s not great at anything, but it is pretty good at everything I have thrown at it. One thing I like is I just switched to Feedly for RSS feeds; the integration with OneNote is a great thing for my work flow.

I have tried replacements, including tools that propose to auto-organize things, or dump everything in one large bin with an efficient search. I prefer to organize rather than search; I find it much faster to organize and tag information first, and rely on search when I cannot find it. There are four reasons for this.

First, search first does not encourage me to scrub information from time to time; instead, it encourages me to hoard information, which I consider a bad thing. Knowing what to throw away is an essential skill when you live in a world awash in information.

Second, search first removes the metacognitive process. Organizing information is a mental discipline; refusing to do it seems, to me, to be a bit of laziness I am not interested in engaging in, no matter how much more “efficient” it might be.

Third, working with the information I have stored away allows me to keep a better “mental map” of it. Store and search encourages me to hoard and forget until it pops up in a search. Much like a taxi driver who learns the roads is often better than one who relies on a GPS, working with information on a regular basis allows you to keep a more intact mental map of the information you have stored.

Fourth, I find it important to take things in context; working with organized information gives me more opportunities to do so. I see a lot of writing today where the author makes a point, searches for a quote to support the point, and never addresses any objections (other than, perhaps, a straw man that was found in the article where they got the supporting quote). Our search culture does not encourage thinking and engagement, IMHO, but rather one sided “talking past one another.”

Notepad++ is my third tool; this is my “text editor on the side.” I don’t like to switch from rich to text only modes in my main word processor, so I will often pull text into another editor that allows me to do search/replace/etc. using regex (I already know regex!). I normally just keep Notepad++ up on my desktop all the time, and use it as a sort of “extended clipboard” to hold all sorts of things, including mini outlines. I do the same thing with OneNote, by the way, just depending on what I am working on.

Smartedit is my fourth tool; this is one you probably have not heard of. Essentially, this is a “lint checker” for Word; it tells you how many times you have used a word or a phrase, highlights all the words that could be used incorrectly (there/their/they’re), and a hundred other little things. This tool serves as my “first pass” on all editing.

CorelDRAW—I could learn something else, but I’ve been using Corel since the box shipped without a version number. My fingers know the shortcuts and I understand how all the tools work, which means I can build graphics very quickly. Corel does most every kind of illustration pretty well— designing houses (yes, I’ve done it), network diagrams, logos, etc.. I even build entire slide sets in Corel and import them into PowerPoint—as I find the graphics capabilities of PowerPoint to be rather stunted most of the time.

Zotero is one more tool you have probably never heard of, but it is a great tool for managing bibliographical information for a paper, book, etc. It integrates with most word processors, and can spit out citations in almost any format. It also integrates with most web browsers, and most book sites. Go to a book page on Amazon, hit the little “save to Zotero” button, and the citation is built. It does not always work, but it works often enough to make it really useful.

So, that is my writing tool set as of right now. It might change in the future, but for now, it works well, and it keeps me writing. I might do a separate post on other tool sets in the future.

1 Comment

  1. Ahmed Muhi (@aemuhi) on 3 January 2017 at 5:30 pm

    That was quite an insight about the search first way of collecting information, thank you for sharing it.