Writing apps – the software I use to get words on a page

writingI probably think about this sort of thing far more than I should – after all, doesn’t everyone just use Word? – but I like playing with different tools for writing.

After all, for me, typing words into a computer makes up probably 75% of my job. That’s a lot of typing and so it’s worth making it as little of a painful experience as I can.

So here is a list of the different tools I use to write text with.

Byword

Byword is a ‘distraction free’ writing application which works on my Mac and iPad, syncing through Apple’s iCloud service. It’s a very simple editor, that pretty much just lets you type in text in plain text format. You can do some formatting with Markdown, which you can then export, but I tend to use it when I just want to bash some words down, without thinking too much about how it looks.

Find out more about Byword

MarsEdit

MarsEdit is the app I use to write my blog posts. It’s a bit of desktop software that lets me bash in the content for my posts offline, using a very simple plain text editor. I’m able to add tags and categories to my posts, which I then send up to my blog in draft, ready for a final check, adding images and hitting publish.

I don’t know why, but I just find writing posts in MarsEdit more comfortable than using the WordPress editor – hence why I class WordPress as a publishing tool rather than a writing one. A big part of it is probably down to the keyboard shortcuts I use to quickly enter and mark up content in MarsEdit, rather than having to constantly switch to the mouse to select icons.

Find out more about MarsEdit

Apple Mail

An awful lot of the words I write are emails, and so my email client has to feature in this list. I use Apple Mail mostly by default nowadays – previously I have used Gmail’s web based interface, but I do find using a desktop client helps me pace myself a bit and be a little more thoughtful. It’s basically ok – I have no complaints but then I’m not exactly a huge fan either. It works.

Find out more about Apple Mail

OmniOutliner

This is a seriously good outlining tool, which I mostly use for drafting pieces of writing or presentations. Outliners let you build up bullet style lists of content, indented at various levels of a hierarchy, which you can then drag around and reorder. It allow you to structure a document really well in the planning stage – to figure out your ideas and how they slot together.

Find out more about OmniOutliner

Google Docs

When I need to collaborate in the early stages of preparing a document, I usually turn to Google Docs. Due to the fact that it is online, it does tend to stress me out a bit – I prefer desktop apps with local copies of files when possible – but Docs is the best solution to working on something with others, particularly at the same time.

Find out more about Google Docs

Scrivener

I occasionally work on longer pieces of writing, although they almost never get published anywhere. Scrivener lets you write chunks of content for a larger work, which you can then reorder, drag around and so on. It also lets you save research notes in the same place as your draft document, which can be helpful. At the end, Scrivener spits out a rich text file that sticks all your chunks together, for a final edit, or formatting exercise in a word processor.

Find out more about Scrivener

Evernote

The writing I do in Evernote differs wildly, from meeting notes to pasting in web addressees to check out later, to

Find out more about Evernote

Pages

Pages is Apple’s own word processor, which I use occasionally for more graphical documents. It just has a more creative, desktop publishing type feel to me, which makes it ideal for that kind of work. It’s really easy to use, and I find it the best tool to work with when a document has a lot of graphical elements.

Find out more about Pages

Vesper

A super iPhone text editor. It does one thing very well, and that is writing short notes on my phone. It has a beautiful design and is incredibly easy to use and for when I just need to quickly write something without worrying about it syncing up anywhere else, Vesper is perfect.

Find out more about Vesper

Simplenote

Yet another cloud-syncing text editor. I use this to quickly get text onto my phone from another device. It’s fairly niche, but stuff like when I look up an address for a meeting on my laptop and want to get it to my phone – I’ll usually use Simplenote rather than creating something in Evernote.

Find out more about Simplenote

Word

OK, so I do use Word. Quite a lot, actually, in its various incarnations – Mac, Windows, online (via Office 365) and now, of course, on the iPad. When it comes to needing to share a document with others in a format they are likely to be able to edit, its still the best option.

Find out more about Word (really?)

What are your favourite writing tools? Do you use as many, or even more, than I do?

Snapchat, WhatsApp and the rise of anti-social networking

Apparently, private messaging service WhatsApp has overtaken Facebook messaging as the goto mobile messaging platform.

I can understand why growing numbers of people are picking up on private messaging services like WhatsApp, SnapChat and so on – particularly young people.

These apps allow users to send each other messages, whether text, images or video, privately. It can be within groups, so there is a social element, but it’s also private in that this isn’t taking place in the open.

Snapchat is a particularly interesting example because of its key feature – that messages and media self destruct after a certain time period.

After all, young people are facing the possibility of having their every move for the rest of their lives documented publicly online, for everyone to see, including parents, future employers and so on. Having some of that stuff private, and wiped from the record, must be attractive.

Drag and drop app development from Mozilla

zteopenOne of the things we get asked about all the time, whether from artists, community groups or bigger organisations is how to develop apps for mobile.

Usually the answer has to be ‘pay someone to do it’ – even though this can be an expensive process.

There are some do it yourself options – the App Inventor for Android from MIT springs to mind – but it’s fair I think to say that they still aren’t terribly easy to use, and of course in the case of App Inventor, your projects will only work on the Android platform.

Mozilla – the cool folks behind the Firefox web browser amongst other great projects – might just have another option in the works. It’s part of their development of FireFox OS, a competitor to Apple’s iOS, Google’s Android and Microsoft’s Windows Phone. In other words, a smartphone operating system.

The unique thing about FireFox OS is it’s use of web apps rather than native apps. What this means is that instead of having apps that are written specifically for one platform, whether that be iOS or Android or whatever, these apps work through the web, and so can be accessed on any device.

This also means that no one company can control what apps you decide to put on your phone or tablet – as they are all accessed via the web, the user is completely in control.

Mozilla is also aiming this work at emerging markets – in other words, they aren’t necessarily out to steal Apple’s crown. Instead they want to bring the power of mobile computing to those areas of the world where tradition feature phones dominate.

One early example of this endeavour is the ZTE Open, a phone running FireFox OS. You can buy one, completely unlocked, here on ebay for just £60. I have one, and it’s fair to say it won’t be impacting on sales of the iPhone 5s any time soon. It’s closer to the low range Android phones, such as the Samsung Galaxy Ace range. However, as a cheap, effective and open entry point to smartphones, it’s an interesting device and it will be fascinating to watch how other manufacturers decide to use Firefox OS.

So, how to make apps for this environment? Mozilla is working on that too, with Appmaker. This is at a very early stage in its development, but you can have a play with it. It gives you a drag and drop style interface to build web apps, and seems really easy to use, and could put the power of app development into the hands of pretty much anyone.

Of course, tools like this make developing apps easy, but I suspect developing great apps is still just as hard!

Here’s a video explaining more.

Link roundup

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Link roundup

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Dumb Store

Apparently, not everyone has a smartphone! News to me.

Anyway, the Dumb Store is potentially very exciting, I think. Apps for ‘dumb’ phones – ie those that have limited ability to access the internet and the web.

They can be interacted with by sending SMS messages or making voice calls.

The SMS option is most interesting as it turns your message into a command line of sorts. So, for the Google Maps directions app, you text something like:

dir High Street, Peterborough to Letsbe Avenue, Dundee

and you then get a text back with the directions. Neato!

Apps are written in Ruby, apparently. Still, a potential step forward for making web services more accessible to folk without the latest mobile kit!

Link roundup

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Living on a cloud

While despatched on a mission of digital mercy a few weeks ago Mr Briggs (of this parish) and I fell to comparing our computers. Or rather he fell to ridiculing my rather ancient Samsung laptop (seven years old I think, it doesn’t like to process video, original power supply fell apart and it now boasts a rather lovely Maplin back up device). Apple fans do tend to look upon me with fear tinged with pity when I unpack the machine.

I explained to Dave that all I really need is an OS to show me a browser because I live in the cloud. He’s become slightly cloud obsessed lately with visions of Chromebooks floating before his eyes. When he challenged me to write a blog post about my online working I realised that that I’m still not quite there.

The Basics

I do rely heavily on those lovely people at Google. They handle my mail for a start. A huge variety of email addresses are sent into my email account (or collected by GMail from mailboxes) and the system handles them smoothly. I virtually never see any spam and it is rare (though not unheard of) for real mail to get caught in the spam filter. I have a couple of Android devices that sync happily with the big G’s servers and lo: mail wherever I need it.

And I make a lot of use of Google Docs. Or Google Drive as we must now call it (what are they going to call the self-directed cars then?). The word processor meets my day to day needs.

Google Spreadsheets meet my fairly simple requirements perfectly well. There was a time when I demanded much of my spreadsheets but those days are mostly behind me. And for the days when they aren’t I have Google Fusion Tables.

Paying for stuff

Mountain View doesn’t seem to be able to deliver a decent task manager. For this I must turn to the excellent Remember The Milk. It’s idiosyncratic but it is fast, in the cloud and it has a cow logo which is nice.

For presentations I am inexorably drawn to SlideRocket. This is NOT cheap but it does make slideshows look good and its library system is easy to understand and flexible. If, like me, you create a lot of slideshows and then embed them all over the place it is probably worth the money. I guess it must be worth the money or I wouldn’t pay. I wish it cost less money though.

I use Hootsuite to help me manage my extensive social media real estate. I even pay them a little.

Other toys

I do use Dropbox but I haven’t fallen in love with it.

I’m more enthusiastic about Evernote. Especially since its Android app has got so good.

Google Reader is quite annoying but I haven’t found anything better for subscribing to blogs and other sites via their RSS feeds. And it handles my podcasts quite well.

What I still don’t do in the cloud.

Serious document prep. When I have a big report to prepare I will do the grunt work in Google Drive but I’ll apply the final formatting offline in Libre Office because it packs a lot more formatting oomph. And Scribus and InkScape are still my go-to guys for what we used to call DTP.

Stills and video editing. Actually simple edits are now pretty easy to do on things like Picnik (now integrated into Google+ of course). For stills there’s the GIMP for video there’s Kdenlive and for sound Audacity, natch.

When the rain comes

There are two big risks with leaving your stuff lying on random servers scattered around the world:

  • other people might see the data without my permission
  • the data might vanish or be locked away from me

So I fret a quite a bit about security. Google has good tools and I try to keep an eye on account activity, change passwords and use 2-factor authentication and so on. As to people being allowed in without my knowledge. I try not to think about that. This does make moving between machines less than frictionless but it seems to be sensible.

And I regularly take copies of my data and documents out of the internet and hide them in a lovely little Buffalo Terastation where they nestle quietly on a RAID. Google’s Data Liberation Front is a bit marvellous in this regard.

Luckily no-one asks me to do any heavy coding, design or other things that require a sooper-dooper machine. I suppose I could do that on a virtual box but that’s hardly the same.

But the crucial question is, when the old laptop finally gives up the ghost should I buy a shiny Chromebook or just shove Linux on a passing laptop?

Tools for writing

I use a ridiculous number of apps for writing stuff down digitally. It all depends on the context!

Rough notes, ideas and that sort of thing tend to be stored in Evernote. It’s easy, and ubiquitous and everything gets kept in one place.

Blog posts are written in MarsEdit, an offline editor. My local drafts folder is full of half-written, half-baked posts which occasionally get resurrected later on.

Any coding I have to do usually happens in BBEdit, or occasionally something like Nano in a terminal window.

Proposals and other documents which I’m the only person likely to ever edit are done in Pages, and then exported to PDF for distribution. I just like the way Pages works in terms of laying things out and so on.

Documents and reports that I need to share in an editable format with colleagues or customers have to be written in Word. Since upgrading to the 2011 version on the Mac I have found myself getting angry much less!

Longer documents, such as various guides and handbooks I am working on tend to be planned using an outliner tool. My favourite at the moment is OmniOutliner.

I sometimes use a mind mapping tool to plan a document though, which is a bit more visual. My favourite mind mapping app is MindNode.

(As well as for documents, an outliner or mind mapper is really useful for planning presentations.)

For the actual writing of bigger documents, I use Scrivener. This lets you break down the document into smaller bits, which can then be dragged around and re-ordered. Scrivener then sticks it all together into one document for you when you’re ready to publish. It’s great!

Whether using OmniOutliner or MindNode, I can import my outlines into Scrivener by exporting them to an OPML file, which then loads into Scrivener, giving me all the headings under which I need to bash text.

One type of editor that I don’t find myself using are the stripped down, distraction free apps like Writeroom or Byword.

What apps do you use for writing?

What I’ve been reading

I find this stuff so that you don’t have to.

You can find all my bookmarks on Pinboard.