Writing Tools

Smartphones Killed Handwriting. Let’s Bring It Back.

15 July 2018

From The Wall Street Journal:

When I go to meetings, I normally bring my laptop to take notes. I type pretty fast, and it’s nice to have my email right there in case things get boring. But recently I’ve been doing the unthinkable—bringing pen and paper, and writing notes by hand. I have to tell you, it’s been great.

Handwriting has lost its importance in society. Some schools don’t even teach cursive anymore. Yet studies have repeatedly shown that writing by hand can help you process and remember information far better than typing. A 2014 study found that when students typed notes, they tended to just transcribe whatever the professor said, while those working with pen and paper were mentally summarizing and paraphrasing, which led to better test scores.

At the same time, pen and paper lack the advantages of the digital age. If you leave your notebook at home, you can’t just grab your notes on your work laptop. It has no search button or sharing tool. You don’t have a backup if it gets lost or destroyed—and my Field Notes notebook is a lot less waterproof than my phone.

. . . .

Have an iPad Pro or the most recent iPad? Consider plunking down another $100 for anApple Pencil. You can sketch and write in Apple’s own Notes app, but I’m especially fond of GoodNotes, an $8 app that offers note-takers lots of creative features. Likewise, if you have a Surface or other Windows Ink-friendly PC, you can open up OneNote and write away withMicrosoft ’s $100 Surface Pen. A number of Chromebooks offer pen support, too, though their precision and speed don’t match other platforms.

. . . .

The pen isn’t going to replace your keyboard or touch screen, but when you’re in a meeting and don’t want to hide behind a big screen, or when you’re marking up a contract, you might want to reach for your pen.

Of the devices I use every day, only my phone remains stubbornly pen-free.

. . . .

Unfortunately, sliding a stylus over a glass screen feels nothing like writing on paper. Plus you’re dealing with a blazingly bright display, a breakable body and a battery to charge—none of which applies to paper.

. . . .

That’s why a few manufacturers have built devices meant to more closely mimic the paper feeling. And a few tried to make paper itself a bit smarter.

My favorite of the kind is Sony ’s Digital Paper, a wafer-thin tablet with an E Ink screen (like an Amazon Kindle) that you write on with a stylus. Sony says it is used mostly by lawyers and doctors who need to read long contracts without hurting their eyes, but who also want to scribble notes or corrections in the margins. It turns a pile of printouts into a list of PDF files you can mark up, organize and share. It’s useful, but at $600, it’s unnecessary.

I am similarly intrigued by the Smart Writing Set from Moleskine, the popular notebook maker. It comes with a normal-looking paper notebook and a special pen, which transmits everything it writes and draws to a companion app on your phone or tablet. Every time you start writing in your notebook, the digital counterpart updates in real time to match. Yet at $200, this, too, is expensive, and its software can be unreliable. It’s clever, but it isn’t ready.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal 

How to Be a Better, More Efficient Editor of Your Own Writing

9 July 2018

From Medium:

You need to edit your work even if you’re working with the world’s best editor. Especially if you’re working with the world’s best editor. Submit your best version — proofed and polished — and watch as the world’s best editor tears it apart.

Cry softly and tell yourself it’s for love of the craft.

Your editorial process can be simple and quick, but have one.

. . . .

Not all editing is the same editing. The three main types are substantive, copy, and proof. The type of editing you’re doing determines the kind of tool you want to use. For example, you don’t use a spell checker to do substantive editing.

Substantive edits

You’re rearranging sentences, deleting pieces here and there, moving the order around, adding or removing details, and otherwise messing with the content itself.

It’s intense and can take a lot of time. Also called revising. (Every writer knows the dreaded email subject line: “Revision request.”)

Copy edits

You’re adjusting grammar, switching out a word or phrase, fixing repetition or word usage or spelling errors.

Also called line editing, the idea is to look at your piece line by line. You’re fixing and improving, but not changing the substance of the piece.

Proofreading

You’re doing one last read to find any typos, spelling errors, or missing punctuation. Proofreading often happens right before you hit publish (or send, if you’re submitting your piece somewhere).

Of course, some tools help in multiple ways. Use as you will. And at your own risk. I don’t have insurance for this kind of thing.

The point is that you use them to become a more thorough and efficient editor of your own work.

. . . .

Hemingway App

Use the browser version or the desktop app. Hemingway lets you copy and paste your work in, then berates you for being terrible. Um, I mean, it highlights adverb use, passive voice, complex word choices, and hard-to-read sentences. You want to be aware of those issues, even if you don’t cut or change them.

Cliche Finder

Don’t fall prey to the unseen cliché. I wrote that little rhyme myself. Run your piece through this tool, because it’s easy to overlook clichés.

. . . .

Slick Write

It’s a good alternative to Grammarly; ironically, the interface is not as slick. But it’s thorough and helpful.

. . . .

Typely
Typely doesn’t mess with grammar. That’s cool; proofreading is not about grammar. Turn on the Markdown preview to check your formatting. Customize what Typely checks for from a wide range of options. Get a score, an estimated reading time, reading level, and a sentiment analysis. Not quite sure what that last one is, but I like it. Also it makes typewriter sounds. (You can turn them off if they get annoying.)

Link to the rest at Medium

Predictive Keyboard

31 May 2018

From Bloomberg:

Botnik is creating an unusual predictive keyboard—suggesting words based on what’s been typed—to generate everything from scripts for new episodes of Seinfeld to funny Valentine’s Day recipes. The results are by design weird as hell.

. . . .

Art created by artificial intelligence has become a reliable success in the finicky world of viral content, resulting in everything from eerie cat drawings to dadaist punk music. Botnik’s interactive keyboards let anyone create surreal rearrangements of familiar words.

. . . .

At the New Yorker, Mankoff created the caption contest, spawning a huge data set mined by Google. This piqued his interest in AI, and he got in touch with Brew, who’d been exploring the topic by sending texts on the iPhone’s predictive keyboard. Botnik made its debut in 2016, then landed a $100,000 contract from Amazon.com Inc. to help make its Alexa AI assistant sound more human.

. . . .

Ultimately, Brew looks at the content created by the broader Botnik community as advertisements for the real product: the virtual keyboards themselves, which roughly 1,000 people per day play around on. Two full-time programmers have been working on a broader platform evolved from the keyboards, to be unveiled this summer. Eventually, Brew and Mankoff hope to charge for access to the platform.

Link to the rest at Bloomberg

Returning to Analog: Typewriters, Notebooks, and the Art of Letter Writing

4 May 2018

From The Millions:

In 2009, Cormac McCarthy sold his Olivetti Lettera 32 typewriter at Christie’s for $254,500. With it, he wrote close to five million words over the course of five decades, including his highly regarded novels The Road and Blood Meridian, and the Border Trilogy, which brought him commercial success. Rather than graduate to a computer after the sale, McCarthy replaced his Olivetti with the exact same model—though one in a newer condition. He valued it because it was lightweight, reliable, and portable. For these same reasons, this classic Olivetti model was popular with traveling journalists in the ‘60s.

Don DeLillo and Will Self are also loyal typewriter devotees. “Writing on a manual makes you slower in a good way, I think,” Self told The Guardian. “You don’t revise as much, you just think more, because you know you’re going to have to retype the entire thing. Which is a big stop on just slapping anything down and playing with it.”

When I first began writing, I would have considered this apparent technophobia as old school—or worse, trendy. Writing can be done anywhere and with anything, can’t it? Writing on a computer is convenient.

I first realized the advantages of analog when observing how my husband, who is a photojournalist, uses his vintage film camera from the ’60s. It is a slow, tedious process, one that many other photographers who have “graduated to digital consider unnecessary, given technological advancements. He spends up to a minute changing each roll of film. A roll contains 12 frames. Between each shot he must wind the crank. For these reasons, a photograph cannot be taken as instantly as it could be with a digital camera. The film is costly to buy and to develop. You can’t check the frames as you take them. These might sound more like disadvantages, but his photographs, taken during a trip to Cuba and Mexico two summers ago, went on to win the people stories prize at World Press Photo 2017 and were published widely and exhibited internationally.

One disadvantage of digital photography is the temptation for photographers to check their pictures while they’re still shooting. The thumbnails on that tiny display screen often look better than they actually are when enlarged on your computer screen. The digital photographer relaxes—“I’ve got this,” they think, perhaps preemptively.

With film there are fewer distractions like this tendency to self-assess as you go along, and the financial and speed limitations encourage a more mindful process. To avoid wasting precious film and energy, the photographer must frame the picture more carefully. The results are consequentially more often better thought out; the composition more exact. The editing process is also more arduous, given the need to scan contact sheets. You spend more time with your pictures and get to know them better.

The pictures, though fewer in quantity than their digital counterparts, are usually better.

. . . .

There is something romantic about the notion of writing in a notebook, though unfortunately I can only sustain it short-term for journalling and the jotting down of ideas; my writing is so small that it’s sometimes illegible even to me, and I can’t imagine having the wrist power to write an entire first draft with pen and paper.

During that summer in Cuba with my husband, I realized how dependent I had become on the Internet for everything; I also learned how much of a distraction it can be from the things I really want to get done. It was the summer of 2016 and Internet access was hard to come by in the country. You had to go to an Internet point and pay about $5 an hour for an Internet card. Even then, the Internet was slow and many websites were censored. Often these Internet zones were on the street; they were easy to recognize, for crowds with smartphones and laptops would be gathered sitting on the sidewalk, despite the stifling humidity. An unusual sight in a country that is not connected. An uncomfortable place to write anything more than a few emails.

Link to the rest at The Millions

PG says everyone should use the creative tools they prefer, whether they are in fashion or not.

For his own work, PG is 500% digital.

Long ago, PG’s mother made him take a high school typing class. She said it would help him in college. Looking back at the intervening years, it was the single most important class he ever attended.

PG was a good typist. He not only used his typewriter for all his college papers, he also earned money typing other people’s college papers. Later, he typed his answers to bar exams on two different occasions with good results.

Perhaps it wouldn’t be a bad thing, but, if it existed at all, TPV would be much more abbreviated than it is if PG weren’t still a rapid typist. When he had two paralegals working for him, PG would dictate some documents and type others himself.

Having used both film and digital cameras as part of his semi-serious photography pursuits, PG says digital is much better. For one thing, if he is photographing a location he may never visit again, he immediately knows if he got the shot or not. He’ll take 20 or 30 different photos of the same thing to make sure he has captured it from the best angle and with the best light.

His film and slide photos sit in boxes, the only copies of many important moments. As is their nature, they’re deteriorating as the chemicals used to create them age. PG’s digital photos (including some film photos he has scanned) are backed up to the max with copies existing on a couple of different nearby hard drives as well as up in a couple of separate computer clouds. Every copy of a digital photo looks exactly the same as every other copy of the photo. He understands bit rot is a thing which is why he rewrites his digital files to disk on a regular basis.

PG has physical writing tools nearby at his desk, but only because he can multitask while speaking on the phone better with a pen than with a keyboard. He scans important written notes onto his computer after he finishes the call.

 

The Basics of Using Styles in MS Word

28 March 2018

PG says if you’re formatting your own books for self-publishing or if you would like to minimize the likelihood of your ebook and/or CreateSpace formatting services from making mistakes that adversely impact your manuscript, Word Styles are your friend.

Styles are not difficult to use when you’re writing your book. Once you have a style sheet you like for your drafts, you can reuse that style sheet over and over for each new manuscript you create.

If you need to convert your manuscript into a different format, Word Styles typically convert along with the rest of the text. (PG can’t think of a text-oriented format that won’t preserve Word Styles, although the styles may not look exactly the same as they did in Word. Differences in font designs in various formats are often the culprit.)

Following is a 15-minute webinar that shows the basics about how to use Word Styles.

Microsoft starts testing voice dictation in latest Office apps

14 March 2018

From ZDNet:

On March 12, Microsoft began testing this feature with its Office Insider testers. The @OfficeInsider account tweeted yesterday:

“Windows #OfficeInsiders, get ready to ditch your keyboard and use your voice to write documents, compose emails, and create presentations! Voice dictation is available now to #InsidersFast.”

Microsoft officials touted the coming Office dictation technology in January, saying it would be available in February 2018.

To test dictating using voice, customers must be running the latest version of Office for Windows (Office 2016) and be an Office 365 subscriber. The voice dictation feature, which uses speech recognition technology to convert speech to text, is available for Word 2016, PowerPoint 2016, Outlook 2016 and OneNote 2016 and in US English only for now. To test this, users must be in the Windows desktop Office Insider program.

. . . .

I’m not sure if Microsoft is using the Dictate technology developed by its Microsoft Garage incubator as the basis for the Office Dictate feature. Dictate originally was an add-in for Word, Outlook, and PowerPoint and used the same speech-recognition technology in Cortana for converting speech to text, coupled with real-time translation. I’ve asked the company if this is the case but haven’t heard back yet.

Link to the rest at ZDNet and thanks to Felix for the tip.

PG has been trying out computerized dictation software forever.

He thinks his first attempt was with some software from Kurzweil, then he had an extended and frustrating relationship with Dragon Dictate. He did find an article he wrote about Voice-Assisted Legal Research for the ABA Journal in 1994 (and hopes nobody relied on it to jump into voice recognition).

PG is perennially hopeful, but, in the absence of a smart legal assistant, has always found typing to be more satisfactory than dictating. He’ll try Microsoft’s Dictate when he gets a chance, but will be braced for disappointment.

The Chinese Typewriter

9 March 2018

From The London Review of Books:

Nominally a book that covers the rough century between the invention of the telegraph in the 1840s and that of computing in the 1950s, The Chinese Typewriter is secretly a history of translation and empire, written language and modernity, misguided struggle and brutal intellectual defeat. The Chinese typewriter is ‘one of the most important and illustrative domains of Chinese techno-linguistic innovation in the 19th and 20th centuries … one of the most significant and misunderstood inventions in the history of modern information technology’, and ‘a historical lens of remarkable clarity through which to examine the social construction of technology, the technological construction of the social, and the fraught relationship between Chinese writing and global modernity’. It was where empires met.

. . . .

Long before it could be a technological reality, the Chinese typewriter was a famous non-object. In 1900, the San Francisco Examiner described a mythical Chinatown typewriter with a 12-foot keyboard and 5000 keys. The joke caught on, playing to Western conceptions of the Chinese language as incomprehensible, impractical and above all baroque: cartoons showed mandarins in flowing robes, clambering up and down staircases of keys or key-thumping in caverns. ‘After all,’ Thomas Mullaney writes, ‘if a Chinese typewriter is really the size of two ping-pong tables put together, need anything more be said about the deficiencies of the Chinese language?’ To many Western eyes, the characters were so exotic that they seemed to raise philosophical, rather than mechanical, questions. Technical concerns masqueraded as ‘irresolvable Zen kōans’: ‘What is Morse code without letters? What is a typewriter without keys?’ A Chinese typewriter was an oxymoron.

The earliest alphabetic typewriters were devised at a time when orthographic Darwinism was fashionable. In the 1850s, the naturalist Henry Noel Humphreys suggested that the Chinese ‘never carried the art of writing to its legitimate development in the creation of a perfect phonetic alphabet’. Bernhard Karlgren, in his Philology and Ancient China (1926), led a vanguard of alphabetic supremacists, arguing for the characters to be replaced with a phonetic system. Over the following decades, scholars would even suggest that the writing system, by depressing literacy, ‘inhibited the development of a democratic literate culture’. More recently, Derk Bodde and William Hannas have claimed that the Chinese writing system inhibits creativity and the capacity for independent thought. These are corollaries of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which holds, in its strongest forms, that language limits thought. A language incompatible with typewriter keys was incompatible with modernity, and bespoke an equally incompatible country.

. . . .

With the dominance of Remington’s single-shift machine over its competitors, index and double-keyboard typewriters that promised greater flexibility for non-Western languages faded from view. Decades of ‘minimal modification’ followed, reaching peak futility in the system adopted to send messages by telegraph, which required operators to familiarise themselves with 6800 characters assigned a code between 0001 and 9999, a task about as conducive to productivity as memorising pi. ‘Whether Morse code, braille, stenography, typewriting, Linotype, Monotype, punched-card memory, text-encoding, dot matrix printing, word processing, ASCII, personal computing, optical character recognition, digital typography, or a host of other examples from the past two centuries,’ Mullaney writes, ‘each of these systems was developed first with the Latin alphabet in mind, and only later “extended” to encompass non-Latin alphabets.’ For nearly two centuries, China had been a left-handed kid in a world of right-handed scissors.

. . . .

By the early 20th century, baihua, or ‘plain speech’, reformers were making arguments that recall Boulez’s line about having to set the Louvre on fire before civilisation can be freed. The founder of the Communist Party, Chen Duxiu, was among those calling for a ‘literary revolution’, a revolt against the ‘ornate, sycophantic literature of the aristocracy’ and in favour of the ‘plain, expressive literature of the people’. Baihuaproponents were also driven, at least in part, by frustration at decades of effort to reconcile Chinese characters and Western-derived systems. The early script reformer Qian Xuantong argued that the reform of systems had to begin with characters, ‘if we wish to get rid of the average person’s childish, naive and barbaric ways of thinking’.

. . . .

Unlike moveable type, which developed in China earlier and independently of the West, the typewriter has always been a foreign import. As such, its most successful inventors have tended to be boundary-walkers themselves, versed in both cultures if not entirely fluent in both scripts. The first machine marketed as a ‘Chinese typewriter’ was invented in 1888 by the American missionary Devello Sheffield, his goal less to create a typewriter than to replace the missionary’s intermediary, the opinionated Chinese clerk. ‘They usually talk to their writer,’ Sheffield wrote, ‘and he takes down with a pen what has been said, and later puts their work into Chinese literary style … The finished product will be found to have lost in this process no slight proportion of what the writer wished to say, and to have taken on quite as large a proportion of what the Chinese assistant contributed to the thought.’

. . . .

Part of the problem with these early typewriters is that they didn’t much resemble typewriters. The typewriter’s attraction was not only its usefulness, but its cultural cachet. One thinks of the famous image of Chinese dignitaries gathered around a Gatling gun. The point was being in a position to announce: ‘We have the technology!’ Inventors worried that if the typewriter were altered for the Chinese market, ‘the resulting machine [might] prove entirely illegible and unrecognisable to the Western eye … And if unrecognisable to the world as a typewriter, would it be a “typewriter” at all?’ And so it is unsurprising that engineer Shu Zhendong’s eminently typewriter-like typewriter was the first to be mass-manufactured. The Commercial Press in Shanghai, Republican China’s busiest printer, sold at least 100 units a year of ‘the Shu-style typewriter’ between 1917 and 1934 to customers as various as the Chinese Consulate in Canada and the Chinese postal service.

. . . .

Briefly, following Japan’s defeat, Chinese manufacturers were able to reclaim the market by selling copycat Wanneng machines, or even selling Wanneng machines directly, without pretensions to originality or patriotism. One Shanghai company sold a ‘People’s Welfare Typewriter’ – slapping a name borrowed from Sun Yat-sen on a Wanneng. The Communist government engaged in the same practices on a grander scale, seizing the Japanese Typewriter Company and rechristening it the Red Star Typewriter Company. In the 1950s, resistance to Japanese machines finally collapsed: the Shanghai Chinese Typewriter Manufacturers Association was created out of a consortium of ten Chinese typewriter companies – their enduring legacy would be the ‘Double Pigeon’, a sprightly Wanneng-based number that would dominate the market for decades to come.

Link to the rest at The London Review of Books

Here’s a link to The Chinese Typewriter

 

How To Use Dictation For A Healthier Writing Life

28 January 2018

From The Creative Penn:

The word ‘writing’ has become associated with hitting keys on a keyboard to make letters appear on a screen or inscribing by hand onto paper.

But the end result is a mode of communication from one brain to another through the medium of words. Those words can be generated by your voice, just as people can ‘read’ by listening to an audiobook.

Famous authors who have written with dictation include diverse creatives John Milton (Paradise Lost), Dan Brown, Henry James, Barbara Cartland and Winston Churchill. When Terry Pratchett, fantasy author of the Discworld series, developed Alzheimer’s Disease, he found he couldn’t write anymore, so he moved to dictation in his final years.

. . . .

So, why dictate?

(1) Health reasons

You can dictate standing up or while walking, or lying in bed with injuries, or if pain stops you typing.

I started using dictation when I had RSI and used it to write the first drafts of Destroyer of Worlds and also Map of Shadows, plus some chapters for this book, which I dictated while walking along the canal towpath.

Dictation can help alleviate or prevent pain right now, but learning how to write with dictation can also future-proof your living as a writer in case of problems later.

(2) Writing speed and stamina

Dictation is faster at getting words on the page than typing, especially if you are not self-censoring.

I’ve made it up to around 5000 words per hour with dictation, while I only manage around 1500 words per hour typing.

There is a trade-off with ‘finished’ words as you will have to at least lightly edit to correct transcription issues, but if you want to get that first draft done faster, then dictation can be the most effective way.

Link to the rest at The Creative Penn

During his professional career, PG has dictated approximately a trillion letters and documents (give or take), but he’s never been able to comfortably dictate anything remotely creative. Of course, while he was doing this, he usually had a couple of very intelligent secretaries/assistants/paralegals who turned is spoken words into something that wouldn’t get him disbarred. Alas, those valuable people have turned to more remunerative and fulfilling pastimes when PG moved into executive roles in some large organizations which occupied him for quite a few years..

However, Joanna has given him incentive to try dictation again. We’ll see how it goes.

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