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Book writing tips: technology to make writing less painful

Writing a book invariably entails long hours in front of a computer screen and it requires huge amounts of organisation. The aim of this post is to explain some of the technology I use to organise my research and keep myself generally motivated when writing.

The textbook I co-authored,Online Journalism: The Essential Guide, weighs in at around 120,000 words. As a journalist I am used to thinking about word counts in terms of feature article lengths. Most features are in the region of 3,000 words which is manageable to research, draft, re-draft, edit and proof. Book writing feels like a much tougher gig which demands project planning and significant amounts of motivation to get you through.

The types of issues we faced:

  • Flow – textbooks are usually designed to be dipped into (read non-sequentially) and not cover-to-cover. However, in an ideal world you want to ensure key terms are defined fully at first mention. The textbook should also progress to address increasingly more complex issues. This means that moving blocks of text around causes problems, thankfully some of software beneath can help with this.
  • Style guide – When you write a Dummies guide, you are provided with a style guide almost the size of one of their, very fat, yellow books. When we wrote Online Journalism we had to define the style guide ourselves and this raised consistency issues.
  • When dealing with 120,000 words everything takes ages – Basic editing of a chapter would takes days. Printing costs money. Moving files around can be slow when dealing with so many  hi-res images. Getting permissions sorted seemed to take weeks.
  • Deadlines – you need to set these yourself. Without deadlines a book can easily drift. I should say that I used Google Spreadsheets to ensure I was meeting my monthly word count target. It never happened!
  • Permissions – When we couldn’t get permission to use images (or the copyright holders wanted to charge ridiculous fees) they needed re-numbering within the body text. Incidentally, we found local newspapers , websites, and tech companies were usually very generous with what they allowed us to use for free. Some of them couldn’t be more helpful and really wanted to be in the book. National newspapers often demanded high fees for just basic screen shots taken from their sites. Okay, we know times are tough in Fleet Street, but these are media organisations that often rely on the generosity of their readers to generate content. Very odd.
  • A moving target – tell people you are writing a book on online journalism and the first question they ask is how do you cope with all the changes. It’s impossible to future-proof a book, but you look for trends in the industry. I will talk more about this in another post.

Getting organised

There are many cool tools for writers. Using these won’t guarantee you will write a big seller (whatever that is these days) but they may save your sanity:

EVERNOTE

This is my favourite bit of software ever – I have it everywhere I research and write (even my phone).  My top tip – organise your folders based around chapters rather than subjects or topics. Most people will know what it does, but briefly Evernote stores all your research material in whatever format it comes in be they images, PDF journals, PowerPoint files, hand-written notes, Web pages and even audio files – it can handle the lot and makes it all searchable. The desktop software is brilliant and you probably won’t need to pay for it unless you store huge amounts of material each month. However, while the desktop app works off-line (your data is stored locally) you’ll need to pay the modest monthly fee for off-line access via smartphone and tablet app versions. I therefore mostly used the mobile apps  when I had wi-fi available.

DROPBOX

We used both Dropbox and Google Drive at various times. I shared our manuscript with our publisher (SAGE) using this method when for some reason I couldn’t get FTP access to their servers. When two authors are collaborating on the same files in the cloud you obviously need to make sure you have a back-up – we had a few near misses on this front. Both work well on smartphones and tablets when you need access to files on the move. The only place I couldn’t access Dropbox or Google Drive was on my office Mac at the university. The IT department don’t support it and I was getting some IP issues when logging in.

SKYPE

We never managed to do a three-way Skype call with our publisher, but as co-authors Paul and I Skyped a lot.Using cloud tools like Google Docs you can edit and Skype at the same time which is pretty cool. The other person can see the changes you make as you type them.

APPLE iWORK PAGES

I have mixed feelings about Pages. Part of me thinks it is a pile of crap and no substitute for MS Word or even Google Docs. But at various points in time I was writing or editing chapters using Apple Pages on my home Mac and iPad. Pages seemed to be the source  of quite a few text formatting problems which had to be sorted before the manuscript was sent to the publisher. When it comes to the iPad app, you can download files from Dropbox but it does not allow you to save directly back. Very odd. It’s also pretty poor at handling MS Word Track Changes, which we used a lot.

iPAD 2

I used a Bluetooth keyboard from Logitech when writing on my iPad, but it’s not great. However, the iPad is good for reading the manuscript when you don’t want to kill a few trees and print the thing.

NOTABILITY

Most academic journal articles tend to come in PDF format. Reading, highlighting and annotating PDFs is easy in this cheap (not free) iPad app.

REFWORKS

The university has a subscription to referencing software Refworks and it’s handy when it comes to storing the masses of references and outputting your references in the standard Harvard way. The Refworks interface looks like it was designed in 1994 and is hardly intuitive, however you can import references directly from Google Scholar which saves a lot of time.

DRAGON NATURALLY SPEAKING

“You talk, it types” is the slogan. Well just about. I attempted to use Dragon voice recognition, but it became a pain trying to train it with some of the weird journalistic jargon and it often made errors. I used it for some of the very early drafts of chapters and it really helps with RSI.

SCRIVENOR

I downloaded this, but never used it. This tool is aimed at authors of fiction and, along with standard word processing functions, you get a range of useful planning and story boarding tools. It makes rearranging whole chapters of sections of writing much easier. However, part of the reason why I didn’t use it is that I need my tools to be available on both Mac and PC (tablet and phone?) and it just isn’t available widely.
I used PowerPoint (yes, PowerPoint) in the early outlining of chapters. I used it to switch sections around to generate a more logical flow. I’m sure Scrivener is useful though.

A COFFEE MACHINE (E.G KRUPS)  

A coffee machine is really rather helpful. We have this one from Krups in the office at the university. Much of its output was drunk during the writing of Online Journalism: The Essential Guide. This is a capsule machine and allows you to make a decent brew without moving from your computer or buying any milk. Better than the instant stuff, but no match for real coffee.

NIKE AIR (shoes)

Make sure you get out and grab some fresh air for at least 30 mins a day. When in doubt, walk to the local shops or a nearby park. You’ll need shoes and Nike Airs are back in, so why not head to SportsDirect and buy a cheap pair. A  Fitbit Flex Wireless Activity Wristband will also force you to get out of the house.

HAVE A CO-AUTHOR

While the technology above should help to reduce the pain of writing a book and get you organised, you are still going to have lots of dark moments. My final tip is to get yourself  a co-author. It  means you have someone to whinge to (who isn’t your publisher), meet for beers, provide reflection and generally share the workload. I’ve had some great co-authors and I wouldn’t write a book without one!

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