Monday, November 25, 2013

Notes and writing programs

I do a lot of writing. Often, I just make notes - article or project ideas, for instance. But sometimes, they have more business-critical implications: a speaking engagement, with full scope notes and travel arrangements, for example. Other times, I'm sketching out a longer piece of writing.

I have complicated my life with gadgets, of course: an iPad, an Android phone, an Android tablet, a laptop that dual-boots Windows 7 (which is how it came) and Ubuntu (which I prefer). So I never know which gadget I'll have in hand when a new idea comes to me, or I want to work on something I started on another gadget.

Dropbox is a help. I can stash docs, spreadsheets, and presentations there for use by several programs. Google Drive can be handy (although I find myself drifting away from it). But I've noticed a distinct preference for a few characteristics in my software tools lately:

* clean, open, minimal UI, very simple formatting.
* one or two panes - structure on the left, detailed content on the right.

On Windows and Linux my workhorse program is Notecase Pro. It's a two pane outliner, and has many features I never get around to. But it's reliable, fast, and stores huge (and encrypted) amounts of data. The only downside: I can't really use those files on the iPad. There's an Android version, but it's a little clunky. 

After an IOS7 update, the Plaintext notes/writing program (which I'd paid for) got an update too, and suddenly became unreliable. It wouldn't do searches, tossed up new ads and distractions, and became generally annoying to use. I went to the App Store to register a complaint, but found that the author was offering a temporarily free upgrade to WriteRoom while he fixed things. So I installed it, and found that this is a wonderfully clean, fast, easy writing environment. It too uses the plain text, two pane approach. But WriteRoom is an iOS-only package. On the other hand, it writes its files to Dropbox, which can be fetched and edited with other software.

I went back to look at Workflowy, a one page outliner that again has that clean, open, white paper-ish quality to it. On Windows and Linux, I use it in a browser. There are great apps for the iPad and Android. So that's a keeper.

Finally, I took a look at SimpleNote yesterday, and realized that this is a perfect fit with how my brain works. It captures very much the feel of my preferences these days. There was a crazy moment when I had it running on Ubuntu, and had just installed the apps on my phone and iPad, and could see the note synching across all devices as I typed. Impressive. Evernote just made me tired, every time I used it. The interface always felt busy, and it had odd editing results sometimes (like the refusal to insert a word to the middle of a sentence).

The terrible truth is that hunting up applications is one of the key ways I get out of doing any actual work. I just rearrange my tool chest. But the advantage of settling down to a consistent approach across multiple computing platforms is that when I do pick up a gadget, it all feels familiar, I don't have to struggle to recall arcane commands, and I can pick up where I left off.

At any rate, I'm really enjoying using all of these tools lately. We'll see how long that lasts.

And for what it's worth: Notecase Pro is a commercial applications, as are WriteRoom, and PlainText. Workflowy is free up to a certain level of use, then is a subscription. Evernote has a free and premium (subscription) service. SimpleNote is free, at least right now.

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