Sunday, August 21, 2016

Tools Of The Trade

I love the idea of writers going completely old school: settling into a comfortable leather chair (or better yet, hunched somewhat uncomfortably over a kitchen table only recently cleared of dishes) and scribbling on a yellow legal pad, preferably using a number 2 pencil. There's something about that image and about the sounds and scents of it all: the acrid, sawdust smell of a freshly sharpened batch of pencils; the scratching of pen or pencil on paper; the rustling of pages being filled and then flipped over to expose a fresh, empty sheet with its blue or green ruled lines; the occasional rub of an eraser, possibly accompanied by the writer's mutterings—frustrated or frenzied or simply excited by the struggle to get ideas placed on the page before they disappear into the ether. 

This is part of the Photos section of one Leveling the Playing Field
manuscript chapter as it appears in OneNote.

This approach isn't completely unheard of, even today in this age of computers and tablets and networks and clouds and Chromebooks and the like. There are still writers—truly good ones—who write in longhand, at least for the first draft or two. I was thinking about these folks when attempting to answer a question that I sometimes get: "What tools do you use when writing?"

The Web, Duh!

To begin with, the Internet, naturally. We've democratized information, so the answer to almost any question is usually just a mouse-click away. (We've also democratized misinformation, so be careful.) Many times, a link to Wikipedia is among the very first hits listed on the results page. I happen to think Wikipedia is a wonderful resource, and I always urge students to use it feely, but not exclusively. It's an excellent place to start, though, and especially helpful are the citations within the Wikipedia article itself. If you're seeking first-rate vetted research materials, Google Scholar is a great Internet resource, though much of the content there resides behind paywalls of one kind or another.

Email is incredibly useful. I've "interviewed" dozens of sources via emails sent back and forth, sometimes in quick succession, but often over days or weeks. It's not as spontaneous as a real-time interview, but it can be more measured and much more convenient for both parties. And it gives the interviewer the ability to quote the source very accurately—and to point out the source of the quote, should questions arise later.

Audio & Video Interviews

Another set of interview tools I've used extensively are Skype and a Skype recorder called Evaer. Using Skype with Evaer running in the background, I can record the video and audio streams of both participants, or of just the interviewee. Handy stuff. 

While interviews are useful and can be great fun, transcribing those interviews is no fun at all. In fact, it’s a royal pain. In my case it seems to take me about twice as long to transcribe an interview as it did to conduct it in the first place. (Then again, my typing skills are . . . well, not terribly impressive. I generally type with just four fingers, a thumb, and an occasional elbow, so you ace touch-typists out there may fare better than I do when transcribing.) 

But then I discovered a secret weapon. Not a playback pedal, though those are pretty handy. Instead, I use an incredibly helpful free Web service called oTranscribe. Just import your audio or video file, and then play it back at a speed you select. You can add italics or bold if you choose, and press CTRL-J to add a timestamp. (Very useful if you need to go back later and listen to something again.) Just press ESC at any time to stop or start the playback; when you start again, the audio automatically rewinds a few seconds so that you're where you left off, but with a little breathing room. When I asked the developer, Elliot Bentley, why he didn't charge anything for such a useful tool, he said it was really just a hobby, and he didn't want to mess with collecting money, paying taxes, etc. I found oTranscribe to be so useful that I really wanted to help out the developer by paying something. In the end, I assuaged my hurt feelings by going to Dairy Queen and toasting Elliot with a double-dip chocolate swirl. It seemed to help.

Notes & Organization

I'm not sure about writing fiction, but with nonfiction, half the battle (possibly more than half) is collecting, making notes about, and storing in some accessible place a huge volume of information: quotes, transcripts, photos, articles, facts and dates, phrases you intend to use, and on and on. (I also found this to be true when writing magazine articles. In every single case, writing the article was the easiest part of the job; interviewing, finding and storing information, and deciding what to use was the tough part. In other words, in nonfiction, it's mostly legwork. If you did the legwork well, the writing was easy. If you kept hitting walls when writing, it was almost always because your legwork was sloppy.)

For years, I used Evernote as my go-to notetaking application. It was free and fast, it was available on multiple platforms, and it did everything I needed and nothing I didn't. But as the developers added new features, Evernote became bloated and clumsy. (It's no longer always free, either; if you need access to advanced features or want to run it on more than two devices, it’ll cost you.)

I switched to OneNote. Microsoft's powerful note-taking application is complex, but the user interface makes it work. Instead of bolting features onto a UI that could handle only a limited number of tasks, OneNote feels like it was designed from the start with sophistication in mind. I can set up a notebook, and then add sections (or tabs) for each part of the project: one for interviews, one for media, one for materials and queries from the publisher, and so on. Within each section I can have pages and subpages. For instance, in my Manuscript section I had pages for the draft manuscript itself and subpages for photos, tables, audio clips, notes, etc.

Not only is the application free, but it's almost impossible to find a device for which there is not a version of OneNote. (To get the most out of it, you need a Microsoft OneDrive account, but that's also free, for up to 5GB of storage. More than that will cost you a few bucks per month.)

Writing Them Words

So, eventually you have to deliver a manuscript, and the days of messengering over to the publisher a large box containing your typed or handwritten masterpiece are long gone. These days, the publisher needs digital files, and like it or not, that almost always means Microsoft Word files. Of course, you can use any number of other excellent word processors and then convert the file, but sometimes things go awry in the conversion process.

In my case, I just start in Word to begin with, after that first draft in OneNote. Most publishers don't need anything too fancy: just a nice, clean double-spaced manuscript in 12 pt. Times New Roman or whatever. You could create such a document in just about any word processor, but I happen to like Microsoft Word, especially since that's the desired end format anyway. (Lest you think I'm some sort of Micro$oft lackey: I did not start out as a Word fan. I was a die-hard WordPerfect user, going all the way back to the DOS versions that displayed on a monochrome screen. I loved those early versions of WordPerfect, and I pretty much refused to run Word until I found myself creating help files for a Windows program. It turned out that those were much easier to create if you used Word, so I switched, "temporarily." That was 23 years ago. I'm still "temporarily" using MS Word.)

So that’s my toolkit. It’s not a complete list, by any means, and I'm sure that others may have different tools that work better for them. What do you all use when writing or putting together a project of this sort? It’d be interesting to hear from writers, crafters, project managers, and other folks who have to collect and keep information in some organized, accessible fashion.

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