Disciplining the mind with software

One of the challenges with writing is switching between different mindsets. Theoretically it is possible to switch between these mindsets within a single writing environment like Microsoft Word or even on a sheet of paper. The problem is that when we do this, we are increasing the cognitive load because we’re simultaneously asking our brains to ignore tempting distractions (like reformatting heading styles or editing the paragraph we wrote yesterday) and to write.

Similar to the person who’s trying to quit smoking and flushes his or her cigarettes down the toilet, using different software environments can help impose discipline on the writing process. It separates the act of deciding what to do from the act of doing and the form[atting] from the content.

Virtually all creative writing needs to go through the three drafts: the first draft to get it down (creation), the second draft to fix it up (change) and the third dental draft to reach clarity. In my writing workflow, I spend little time on how to move between different software (copy and paste usually suffices even if it means hand-editing some formatting). The key principle which guides my software choice is getting myself in the right space for the part of the writing process which I want to focus on.

For creation I use OmniOutliner to collect ideas and Byword to create text. OmniOutliner (OO) is an excellent environment to brainstorm in because it’s very easy to add headings below (↩) and above (⇧↩), create sub-headings (⇥) and assign styles with hot keys–all without your hands leaving your keyboard. OO, however, goes beyond a simple brainstorming tool: since it’s so easy to rearrange material in it, it can stay with you throughout the writing process and help you manage the whole project.

Byword is a minimalistic and simply beautiful text editor which is my go-to when I need a clear uncluttered writing environment to create. It supports multi-markdown and has a small unobtrusive wordcount at the bottom of the screen so you can see how much you’ve written without opening any menus (which is incredibly useful if you’re trying to write a certain number of words per day).

For change I typically move my text (and outline) into Scrivener. This, however, is only relevant for long pieces. For shorter pieces, I edit in Byword and reverse outline in OO.

Finally, for clarity I take it into the software which I will use for compilation and formatting. For shorter or collaborative pieces this is usually MSWord or Pages and for longer-self-published pieces, like my thesis, it’s LaTeX.

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About Jessica Jewell

Jessica Jewell is a Research Scholar at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.
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8 Responses to Disciplining the mind with software

  1. Csaba Pusztai says:

    You were gone for a while.

  2. Randy says:

    Great entry..thanks! I clicked on the link and perused your thesis (though I felt a bit like a voyeur), and loved the toothpick-deep hole analogy in your acknowledgements. Any thoughts re: LaTeX? Will you continue to use it for publication papers?

    • Jessica Jewell says:

      Good question. I love working with LaTeX and I will definitely use it for anything self-published. It’s harder to use for articles for a couple of reasons. For one, a lot of journals in my field don’t accept LaTeX manuscripts. But also, it’s not the best software for collaborative writing because it doesn’t have a track changes features as good as MSWord.

      • Graham says:

        I would be really interested in reading more about your LaTeX workflow, as I recognize that my own workflow in this area is in need of some fine tuning, to say the least.

        My own somewhat dysfunctional workflow currently involves a three stage editing process using an outliner currently Tree, and Scrivener, and then cutting and pasting the text in TexPad. I know that I can export from Scrivener to LaTeX, but so far have never been really happy with the results. LaTeX has become my preferred tool for creating the final output, as although I still consider myself a beginner I find that I am able to produce the desired output faster using LaTeX than Microsoft Word.

        Recently I have started using version control on the .tex files using P4.

      • Jessica Jewell says:

        Request noted Graham. I’ll write that entry as soon as I have time to put together a minimal working example.

  3. Pingback: The Tao of the three drafts | Academic workflows on Mac

  4. Pingback: 5 reasons to write your thesis in Scrivener | Academic workflows on Mac

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