Two pieces of software good for writing.

I’m not much into promoting software but two programs are particularly useful to me in writing and / or similar projects that I figured I ought to mention them. I am a Mac user, the first piece of software is for both Mac & PC, the second, Mac only.

So the first, Scrivener. how good is this piece of software? It’s like other writing programmes are a basic model car and Scrivener is the luxury model. Sure you can do do the job in the basic car, but if you want all the little things that help you, make the ride that bit easier, that take care of you and your ride, well you want the luxury model. The exception here is that this luxury model is the same price as the basic model. So which should you choose now? Well it’s subjective of course, but Scrivener really excels when used to manage a document of more than one chapter. It is good for rearranging ideas, creating multiple drafts, tracking characters and changes, the user has complete control. This however barely scratches the surface as there are numerous meta-data tools, research organiser and display tools, page views, outline views, character trackers and more. It is incredibly intuitive to pick up. I’m not going into this in huge technical detail, refer to the Scrivener website for tutorial videos, and a useful forum. However, here are some of the things I like:

  • The Cork-board view. Similar to the faces view in iPhoto (for Mac users). Sort of. Well the cork-board bit in the background, ok? I don’t do it justice, it is far smarter. Think of it as creating a series of index cards. You can place the Index cards on the board containing scenes for the plot of a book you are beginning to plan and (hopefully) write. Each card, a scene. If you don’t like the order, just move it drag and drop style. Need something else, just add it in. A digital version of the Index card planning system. The info added on the card works as a plot summary so you can enter into the card itself by just changing the view and do the writing for this chapter or section, or whatever lump of text it is that you wish to use it for. If you subsequently move the card, the writing goes with it.
  • Metadata & the outline view. As well as the summary data mentioned above, you can enter metadata for e.g. character, location, or a field of your design. This can all be tracked via the intuitive outliner which also shows the outline of your cards from the point above. Or you can use it to drive the above. Select from the outline certain documents and bring them into the cork-board mode excluding unselected ones. Basically arrange it how you want, and include, exclude, and track whatever you want. – Plus you can add comments.
  • Full screen mode – Hide the outline, corkboard, etc, by going into fullscreen mode. Customise the look of the screen to the clutter free design you feel comfortable writing in.
  • Revision mode – Assign versions or revisions to each card and use the version tracker to compare changes. Want to view only the cards assigned to e.g. “Draft 3″ ? Well you can.
  • Research display – Bring research into scrivener. Just press the spacebar on the document name to open it in a floating window which you can drag around, copy from, etc, as you wish. You can even split screen the editor to have the document you are writing on one side and the research document on the other.
  • Compile, Export and printing- Good export functions allow you to compile which cards you wish into one document (various document types to choose from) e.g. to export to Microsoft word so regular non scrivener PC plebs can read it. Various options at the point of export allow some amendments to formatting on the export. Same thing applies to printing.

This doesn’t begin to cover everything. A generousdemo period is available, so you can give the thing a run out yourself. I already had paid for this when I noticed the large list of testimonials from published writers. I’m starting to sound like I have a professional interest in selling this app. I declare now, that I don’t. It’s good, I like it, if you like writing, I’ll be surprised if you don’t like it as well.

The other piece of software I would recommend is a database called DEVONthink. It’s a fabulous piece of software which has various tools for adding, editing, and managing the data it captures. As a database it’s primary function is to store various types of data, mainly written but it could be other if used correctly with metadata. It can store files directly in the database as a copy or it can index files outside of the database so they can be included in documents an important point I shall refer to later. The most important function for me though, is the search functionality that includes some intelligent AI (more below). – I’m not however, going to make this a tech document describing all the functions, you can refer to the DEVONthink website for that. Therein are various tutorials and videos that can be used to learn what it does. They are useful as, unlike Scrivener, this application does not have an intuitive design. There is a somewhat of a learning curve, but well worth it if you proceed, and if of course, it suits your needs. Here I shall talk a few points of how I use it, and will use it in the future (including the primary reason I bought it):

  • To organise a whole bunch of documents I have. The database encourages a structure for similar related files to aid it’s Artificial Intelligence. When importing or indexing it is useful not not just dump the files in but to keep it relatively tidy as you go, i.e keep the structure somewhat “relational”. Obviously that meant I had a file tidy up (and clear out) to begin with when setting it up. I now have a tidy structure for all the documents I have.
  • To bring together some research or reading materials. Not exactly the same as the above. The Pro version of the database has a good piece of Optical Character Recognition software (OCR) well actually, using a licensed version of the ABBYY Finereader software. It’s a great tool to scan in documents as PDFs including the text layer, which makes them searchable. Once in the database it is easy to merge or rearrange pages mainly using a drag and drop style interface. I’ve used it to bring in documents that were previously only print documents rather than electronic, and were therefore not easily searchable. The OCR does all the difficult text conversion stuff.
  • Email back up. There is full integration with Mac mail so it is useful as an email archiving database. All emails including the content are searchable within the database, and emails can be replied to without going back to mail. I used this for archiving, and to tidy up the emails. I had rubbish going years back. Not any more.
  • Store Web pages. Save a link or for a site which isn’t too large, save it locally to your database. Again fully searchable.
  • Basic RTF editor. Not amazing but a useful tool for making notes. Useful when picking a few things from articles in the database and putting them together.
  • Drag and drop desktop function. A document can be dragged straight in and dumped in the database inbox for you to file later. Actually I don’t use that too often but it is useful for when I do.
  • Integration with DEVONagent. DEVONagent is an intelligent web search application, or as they call it “research assistant” with various specialised search functions. Also you can save web pages as a PDF document. Clever AI and presentation improves on the mass of links you get from google. I suppose it is a good research aid. I got it on one of those one day deals. It is not useful (to me) for everyday browsing (although I suppose it could be) but is useful when I’m looking for something specific or something related to something specific. That is to say it can pick up on things also common in the search which might not have been the exact thing you had begun to search for. Sometimes useless but occasionally the clever link you were hoping for. Which leads me to the following.

All the above is very useful (and well put together). The OCR alone is great and would normally cost something similar for a piece of software doing this alone. However the main reason I got the database was for this:

  • Intelligent searching using AI. As the index in the database increases in size, i.e. there is more to search in, normally this would make searching through a bunch of documents a bit of a drag. DEVONthink uses searches on documents for any terms you put into the search, but does more than that. It will examine similar words, thus helping where a word may have been spelt incorrectly in a document. It will look at words around the searched words to see what else it thinks may be related. Thus if you search for one thing, then the text is examined in all documents that contain the search words. Any “common” words which also appear in other documents, make these documents appear in your search. Don’t worry though you don’t end up with a jumbled search, this is all intelligently organised so you can get exactly what you are after or related documents. Doesn’t sound like much? Well the thing is the related documents may bring back something unexpected. It can give you an unexpected direction or connection. It gives the “oh, I hadn’t thought of that” moment. It stimulates the mind and creativity. Therefore as the database expands, lets say, with your research for a project , thus the potential directions you can go in increase, but with intelligent searching, you don’t lose them, you can actually find them. Even the ones you didn’t know existed, (The DEVONagent search above works in a similar manner). This is a valuable tool for anyone writing something using some research or notes, e.g. a book, an academic paper, or even something like storing code for IT or web projects.

A rather generous demo period is available here: http://www.devon-technologies.com/download/index.html

The only downside is the two pieces of software do not integrate too well, but there are ways around that. If I had to choose one of the two, if into writing, go for scrivener, but both are very good pieces of software, and as mentioned above, give good trial periods if you wish to try.

Lexicon word of the day: Paralogism.

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