Technology for writers and welcome to my new blog

 

Welcome to my blog – this supersedes the old MD Lachlan blog. I’ve started afresh because I’m writing under a number of pen names nowadays and it seems natural to have one umbrella site for the lot of them

Thanks are due first to  Jonny Nexus who has helped me set this whole thing up – despite me forgetting my WordPress password and the account having no email server to send me a reset link. Also, huge thanks to John Kovalic who has provided the illustration for the blog. I honestly couldn’t believe John agreed to do this illustration for me and I’m really honoured that he has.

This blog will carry lots of stuff I hope will be useful to writers, as well as my general opinions on what I believe young people call ‘stuff’. I will occasionally dip into commenting on politics but not too often. I’m someone who is passionate about politics but arguing about them on the internet is the sort of time sink normally only seen on the scarier episodes of Dr Who. Mostly you’re preaching to the choir anyway. I believe someone did once change their opinions after an internet argument. There is a plaque in cyberspace to commemorate the event, I understand.

Anyway, in the highly unlikely event you wonder what I think about a subject, rest assured it’s not ‘if only we could cut taxes for rich people and go back to the social make up and mores of 1951. That Jeremy Clarkson, he should be Prime Minister.’

I’m a very interested observer of US politics and, if I’ve got anything I think worth saying on that, it will be here. I find the American right morbidly fascinating, in a way that I’m not sure is entirely healthy – rather like a Victorian viewing curiosities at a fair. I think it’s the haircuts. How can you believe someone’s arguments when you don’t even believe in their hair? I hope to rise above the level of ridicule but I can’t promise.

Mostly, though, this blog will be about writing and writers – something on which I am at least mildly qualified to offer informed comment.

TECHNOLOGY FOR WRITERS

I’m going to kick off talking about technology and writing – as it’s clear computers have changed a great deal about even the most basic writing tasks.

There is a host of software products out there to help with writing. As someone who learned his trade on a clacking typewriter, I’m naturally a bit suspicious of these. All you want is words on a page, right? Anything else is just a burned offering to the Muse, hoping she’ll bless you with inspiration if just you buy product X, which she clearly won’t.

Up to a point. The best advice for writers is not ‘buy the products below’ but ‘write it’.  However, I have found the below six  software products really useful.

They are:

1 Freedom internet killer.

2 Vitamin R productivity software

3 Scrivener writing, er, software.

4 iAnnotate for iPad. Mark up a pdf on screen.

5 Autocrit. Flags up clichés, repetition and offers a whole raft of information on your writing from readability to word frequency. You don’t have to respond to what it says but it’s massively useful for drawing your attention to the fact you’ve written ‘he nodded’ fifteen times in one chapter.

6 Dragon naturally speaking software – not for my day to day writing but for special projects such as writing up a lot of interview notes.

In this first post I’ll deal with Freedom and Vitamin R as they’re quite simple in operation. The other programs will require posts of their own. I’m not going into a very detailed breakdown of every function here, just saying what I use and how I use it, which I hope will be useful to others.

 

1 Freedom internet blocking productivity software

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A godsend. Writers like to write. The problem is they don’t always like to write what they’re being paid to write and would much rather post smart comments on Facebook and Twitter. Freedom kills the internet for up to 8 hours. No email, no Facebook, no nothing.

At first I found this program unusable because it killed all connectivity throughout the house. My wife couldn’t use the net from her PC while I had Freedom on.

I’m someone who very rarely reads manuals and the like, preferring just to pitch in, so it took me a while to realise that the ‘local access’ icon would kill my internet without affecting anyone else. It has the double bonus of allowing me to pick up email on iPad and phone. This is necessary because I often work as a journalist. If a newspaper wants you at 10, the opportunity will be gone by the time you pick up your email at 5.
I don’t load Facebook or Twitter on either my phone or iPad because I don’t want the distraction. If I really need to do a bit of on the spot research I use the iPad but generally I prefer to wait until the end of the day.

Freedom aids massively with your concentration levels and cuts out the blight of distraction.

You can get back online if you restart your computer. If you find you’re doing this a lot you might want to consider programs such as Self Control that kill specific sites. The problem with this, I found, is that it doesn’t kill Tweetdeck, which I use to manage my Twitter account. However, Self Control won’t let you back into your selected sites until its time – up to 24 hours – has expired, no matter what you do. If may be the option for the worst internet addicts, particularly if you don’t use Tweetdeck.

 

 

Vitamin R

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I was very sceptical about this when I first tried it. How much can a program help you with inspiration or productivity? Quite a lot, actually.

Vitamin R allows you to split your day into ‘time slices’. You choose how long you want your slice to be, type in your goals – in my case normally  a certain number of words –  assess your concentration level and then, when the slice is done, review how you did.

I thought this sounded like bunk. All the time I’m assessing and typing in goals I could be writing. I tried the program about two years ago and didn’t get on with it. I set my time slice at 30 minutes, target 400 words. I hit this target but had no great urge to keep using the program.

After New Year I found it very hard to get back in to producing a respectable number of words a day so I was willing to try anything. Hence I sparked up Freedom again and also started with Vitamin R.

This time I cut the time slice to 15 minutes and put the target at 200 words. This had a surprising effect.  Two hundred words is only really about six  or seven sentences, give or take. So it feels easy to achieve. I didn’t let myself worry about quality, just getting the words down on paper. I find that I actually write anything between about 250 and 500 words per 15 minutes. The beauty of this program is that you focus on a series of very small, very achievable goals.

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There is some old tut about short time periods not triggering your flight or fight mechanism on the Vitamin R intro. That might be right or it might be psychobabble. The only thing I’m really interested in is ‘does it work?’ and the answer is a definite ‘yes’ – particularly in combination with Freedom.

You don’t need to set your goal as high as 200 words – I’m quite a fast writer. I think 50 would do or maybe even a single sentence. The important thing is that your goal should be easily reached. Starting is the most difficult thing and Vitamin R helps overcome that very well. Obviously you don’t stop when you reach your target.

Vitamin R also provides analysis of your day. Personally I don’t need to know if I found a session difficult or experienced ‘flow’. I just want to see I’ve done the words.
However, it was quite an eye opener to me when the analysis revealed just how little I actually work. I did my 3000 words a day target in roughly two hours. Without Freedom and Vitamin R I’ve been getting to the Mac at 9, ‘working’ until 5 and then starting again at about 9 at night and ‘working’ to about 1 in the morning, sometimes only doing 1000 words. So that’s roughly 10 hours of arsing around on the internet. Shocking, particularly so because I’d considered a standing desk to cut down on the long hours I spend sitting. It turns out I don’t need to sit for that long at all.

The program contains an ‘eliminate distractions’ box but I don’t use this. It didn’t really seem to work when I used it but I am a techno-dolt so that may be me and not the program. I didn’t need it anyway as I’m using Freedom.

I recommend Vitamin R. There may be other similar programs out there but this is simple and straightforward.

Next time –  the ego destroying beauty of Autocrit.