Writing Tools

An Exemplary Mouse

20 October 2017

PG just wore out a lovely mouse.

Fortunately, he had a spare so his online life could continue without tears.

Animal cruelty had nothing to do with this. It was the other kind of mouse, the one his hand grasps many times during a day without the conscious intervention of his mind. PG suspects that, over many years of computing, his brain has developed a lobe devoted entirely to sliding his right hand around his desk in precise patterns.

It would be unfair to call PG a mouse connoisseur. He’s not at all snobbish about his mice. French designs and limited edition mice hold no attraction for him.

He is, however, persnickety about his mice. Long ago, he learned he could work faster and longer at a computer if he used something other than the cheapo mouse that arrived in the same box as as a new computer. He is similarly particular about his keyboards.

PG doesn’t regard his high finger and palm standards as moral failings. Collecting Italian sports cars is far more expensive.

For a long time, PG was partial to a couple of different Logitech mice and used each until his palm wore off the silkscreened company logos and they stopped working.

A couple of years ago, PG had a wrist problem that required a wrap. Unfortunately, it was his mouse wrist and the wrap made it difficult to use his mouse.

A family member suggested an ergonomic mouse made by a company called Anker. PG had tried a couple of ergonomic mice in past years and found them both overly expensive and, while comfortable, not terribly good at being mice. Evidently the manufacturers had put all their money into the cases and scrimped on the quality of the inner works.

Back to Anker. Here’s a photo:

Here’s a photo of a hand belonging to an unidentified human holding the mouse:

.

PG was not instantly adept with this mouse, but his wrist felt better and, over the course of a couple hours, using the mouse became automatic (perhaps his large brain lobe had something to do with that). And the mouse was comfortable. In a few days, the wrap went away but the mouse stayed.

Tweaking photos often requires much more precise mouse control than dealing with documents, so PG used his prior mouse with Photoshop and Lightroom for a few weeks, but the Anker quickly came to dominate his right hand for all purposes.

Did PG mention that this mouse doesn’t cost a lot of money?

PG had looked at ergonomic mice prior to learning about the Anker and typically prices ranged from $75-150 on Amazon. The Anker mouse currently sells for $19.99.

PG keeps a spare mouse as a backup (although this is the first of the Ankers to wear out) plus another in the computer bag he takes on trips, so the demise of his original Anker mouse (with the logo mostly worn off) has not slowed down PG a bit (although he has, of course, been distracted enough to write this post).

Here’s a link to PG’s favorite mouse of all time.

Your carpals and metacarpals will thank you.

Why Digital Note-Taking Will Never Replace the Physical Journal

3 October 2017

From The Literary Hub:

 Some fortunate writers possess steel-trap memories and rarely need to jot things down. Their images and ideas materialize, as if on cue, when required for the cauldron of composition. Most, however, have developed different methods for taking research notes and roughing out early drafts. They collect scribbled-on scraps of paper, bar napkins, the backs of receipts, whatever is at hand, on their roundabout way to the writing table. Others thumb-type notes or pencil marginalia in books they happen to be reading. Still others dictate memos for later transcription. The most sensible perhaps, myself from time to time among them, keep a pocket notepad handy for capturing a bit of delicious eavesdropped dialogue or observing something, anything, seen or heard or tasted or smelled or touched that might be relevant to whatever writing project they have underway.

My memory is good, but capricious at times. My scraps of paper get misplaced or wind up in the laundry. I don’t want to figure out dictation software. And my thumbs are hopeless, which is only part of the reason I hate texting. In an era of smart phones, palm-sized digital cameras, and featherweight laptops—also known as “notebooks”—the very idea of lugging around a heavy, folio-sized, hardcover Boorum & Pease record-ruled 9-300-R ledger or oversized black spiral-bound artist sketchbook, would seem at once masochistic and medieval. Yet, these behemoths, straight out of some Dickensian accountant’s office or landscape architect’s atelier, have served as my notebooks of choice for well over 20 years.

I don’t tend to use my notebooks as diaries or journals. With rare exceptions, everything that I write, draw, paste, and tape in them has to do only with the novel I’m currently working on.

. . . .

Why do all this? Why carry around this antiquated technology? It would have been far quicker and easier to snap pictures of those gravestones and petroglyphs, scan those clippings, maybe set up a computer spreadsheet for my various invented progeny. I’m not, after all, a visual artist by any stretch. And my handwriting has continued to devolve toward illegibility.

Simply put, it has to do with the pure visceral nature of the act. When I draw a castle, a two-trunked willow, a billboard, a bird, the process of limning their outlines and angles—their optical information—makes them, for me, far more animated, individual, and finally more memorable than if I’d photographed them. Similarly, if I manually form the letters of my words, scribe out sentences, snatches of dialogue, however disjointed or inchoate or fragmentary, they register on my consciousness more fully than if I were to type them. This is especially true when I’m researching a novel—the stage in which I’m most impressionable, longing to learn, there at the foot of the mountain I must build as I climb.

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

PG suggests that any essay that includes the words, “never replace” in the title will almost certainly be erroneous unless the words, “for me” appear somewhere.

7 Free Online Tools for Writers and Authors

24 September 2017

From Digital Book World:

“All you need to be a writer is a pen and paper,” is something you might say if you’re one of those smug savants who can just sit down and write an entire novel longhand.

But for the rest of us? Well, we can take all the help we can get. Naturally, there are the everyday low-fi accessories that every writer should already have in their arsenal, like notebooks and a reliable pen. But there are also a bunch of high tech tools that the interwebs can offer us.

In this post, I’d love to share seven of my favorite free online tools for writers. They’ve helped me to manage my time, improve my creative flow, and publish better material. And, most importantly, they haven’t cost me a dime!

  1. Trello

“Trello…? Is it me you’re looking for?”

Trello was designed as a project management tool for small business organizations, which is exactly where I first came across it. Having used it for my day job for an entire year, I was able to adapt it to my writing work pretty quickly.

Trello is pretty much a virtual cork board — but better. I use it to keep track of small tasks (“buy new ink cartridge”) as well as organize my ideas as and when they occur to me. Best of all, Trello’s bulletin-board style interface lets me create “cards” relating to each section of a book, allowing me to move parts of the manuscript around as I’m grappling with the structure.

. . . .

  1. Buffer

As a writer in 2017, I know it’s a part of my job to maintain my public platform, meagre as it is. At the very least, that means regularly posting words of wisdom and sharing funny writing memes on social media.

I tried a handful of tools like HootSuite that allowed me to schedule social activity ahead of time, but I prefer the simplicity (and price point) of Buffer. Now I just spend 30 minutes scheduling posts every Monday — and for the rest of the week, I’m free to write without distraction. Right?

Well, as you’ll discover in the next section, it’s maybe not that simple…

Link to the rest at Digital Book World

PG doesn’t use Buffer with TPV but he’s a big fan of the tool for other projects involving social media.

Good Reasons for Writing by Hand

11 September 2017

From Self Publishing Advice Center:

This isn’t another one of those ‘how to write’ posts, it’s a post about the actual physical nitty-gritty of how we go about putting our stories down into words.

Lots of writers now use the ubiquitous laptop – some have even found a way of writing on tablets, and others still, as recent discussions following the recent BEA Indie Author Fringe have shown, have been talking about how they use voice recognition software for dictating their stories.

. . . .

When it comes to practicality though, I have always and still do, favour pen and paper. Specifically fountain pen and leather-wrap journal. It’s what works for me.

Of course writing this way is not without its downsides. Principally there’s the typing it up afterwards (‘though this too does have its own pros, but more of that later).

. . . .

The Advantages of Writing with Pen and Paper

  • Accessibility: Take the pen and notebook and you can literally write anywhere, at any ime, and be putting down your story in as short as time as it takes to flick off the lid and turn to the next blank page.
  • Portability: The leather-wrap journal is the ultimate in portability.
  • Power: It never runs out of battery, or crashes.
  • Legibility: You don’t have to worry about the glare of sunlight on the screen.

I’ve been known to write (as those dreams would have it) for hours in my favourite coffee shop or library, or in snatched moments at the end of lunch breaks at work, or on the bus whilst commuting.

Link to the rest at Self Publishing Advice Center

This Machine Learning-Powered Software Teaches Kids To Be Better Writers

8 September 2017

From Fast Company:

Every time students take a writing exercise on Quill.org–a writing instruction platform for schools–their responses are logged by computers and analyzed for patterns. Algorithms take account of every false word they type, every misplaced comma, every inappropriate conjunction, deepening a sense of where the nation’s kids are succeeding in sentence-construction and where they need extra help.

The algorithms substitute for human intervention. Instead of teachers having to correct errors late at night with a red pen, the system does it automatically, suggesting corrections and concepts on its own. The goal, says Peter Gault, who founded Quill three years ago, is to reach more students than traditional teaching methods, including those who need support the most. About 400,000 students in 2,000 schools have used the (mostly free) writing-instruction platform so far.

. . . .

Kids today write all the time, perhaps more than previous generations. Whether it’s texts to their friends, or posting on Facebook, they’re constantly hitting the keys one way or another. But all this composition doesn’t necessarily make for better writing, at least not in the formal, academic sense. Just 24% of 8th- and 12th-grade students are “proficient” writers according to the Department of Education’s “The Nation’s Report Card: Writing 2011,” published in 2012. Teachers often complain they lack professional development to teach writing well. And, there’s a widespread acceptance in education circles that writing instruction is less developed and successful than, say, math or science teaching.

“Teachers just don’t have enough time in the day to offer feedback on everything students write, and that becomes a huge blocker to students moving forward,” Gault says in an interview. “Using machine learning to detect these patterns really unlocks a lot of options that allow us to bring this to thousands, or millions, of additional students in the coming years.”

The New York-based startup trains its algorithms with about 200 responses to each exercise, submitted by its programmers (it has about 300 exercises so far). As the students offer up thousands of their own responses, the code is then able to detect patterns without additional human intervention. When it prompts students to correct their sentences, it does so based on the collective trial-and-error of thousands of other users of the service.

Link to the rest at Fast Company and here’s a link to Quill.org.

Microsoft Adds Read Aloud Feature to Word

1 August 2017

From PC Magazine:

This week Microsoft rolled out a number of new features heading to Office 365. The stand out addition is a feature called Read Aloud in Word, which you’ll eventually find available under the Review tab on the Word menu.

Microsoft offers a range of tools that come under the heading of Learning Tools in Word. They exist to “help you improve your reading skills by boosting your ability to pronounce words correctly, to read quickly and accurately, and to understand what you read.” Read Aloud falls squarely into the “read quickly and accurately” category.

When enabled, Read Aloud allows you to hear any given Word document being read out loud while each word is highlighted simultaneously. By going through this process, Microsoft believes it is easier to recognize and correct errors. And because Read Aloud happens within the existing work flow, it’s easy to rectify each error as soon as it becomes apparent.

Microsoft also views Read Aloud as beneficial for users with learning disabilities such as dyslexia. It should allow for improved reading and accuracy, and ultimately more error-free documents.

Link to the rest at PC Magazine

Creating Personas

30 May 2017

PG thought he knew what the OP would be about, but he was mistaken.

From Prototypr.io:

The first thing a good UX Designer should tell you about creating a persona is that if you just blindly follow a template, you have missed the point. User research should inform the layout — don’t let the layout constrain the research.

Put simply, don’t just follow a template.

Sadly, this advice is not very helpful when you are starting out, staring at a blank sheet of paper trying to create a set of personas.

‘Isn’t making a persona a waste of time? What’s the point?’

Personas are all about building empathy amongst your team. Great software gets made when the people who make it care about the people who use it. That means during every meeting, when making any decision, in every design and with every line of code, you should first be thinking about your users.

. . . .

‘What should I put in a persona?’

To answer this question with a question: what is it about your users that your team should know, remember and reflect on every day?

To answer your question in a more detailed (and longwinded) way, I have put together this worksheet that I use to guide my research:

Link to the rest at Prototypr.io

There is a second page to the worksheet at the OP. PG was interested in the similarity of the persona worksheet for a software user interface to a character sketch.

A Dozen Awesome Gmail Hacks

19 May 2017
Comments Off on A Dozen Awesome Gmail Hacks

PG posted a Wall Street Journal video discussing eight Gmail hacks yesterday.

Nate Hoffhelder at The Digital Reader was not satisfied with the wsj piece, so he wrote his own:

Gmail is possibly the most widely used email service, but are you getting the most out of it?

The following 12 Gmail hacks will help you take control of your inbox and go from being a Gmail user to a Gmail expert.  Read on to save time, avoid mistakes, and add a dash of style to your inbox.

. . . .

Use smarter searches

Everyone knows that you can use the Gmail search bar to look for emails to and from specific names (To: and From:) or under specific labels (label:) but did you know you can also exclude labels, senders, and recipients?

It’s true!

If you want to exclude a sender from a search in Gmail simple add a dash “-” before the From tag. For example, “-from:authorearnings@gmail.com ” will exclude any search results.

The same trick works for the To tag and the label tag.

Don’t fall for phishing emails

Scammers are getting pretty good at sending emails which you can’t tell from the real thing. This is why everyone warns you to not click a link in an email but instead visit a company’ website.

Luckily, Gmail has an experimental feature which can help you separate phish from fowl. Look in the Labs tab of the Settings menu and you will find an option called “Authentication icon for verified senders”.

When enabled, this feature checks the sender’s email address and adds a key symbol whenever it can confirm that the email is legit.

. . . .

Dropbox for Gmail

Do you like using Gmail and want to pair it with Dropbox rather than Google Drive?

Dropbox for Gmail is a Chrome extension that adds a Dropbox button to Gmail’s Compose window. This button makes it easy to share Dropbox links in an email, and it allows you to bypass the process of attempting to email large files — and saves valuable space in your inbox.

Yes, Gmail solves this problem by uploading large attachments to Google Drive, but if you already have all your docs in Dropbox then why not simply share a link?

Link to the rest at The Digital Reader

10 Time-Saving Gmail Tricks

18 May 2017

The ergonomics of writing

17 May 2017

From Mad Genius Club:

Writing is a freelancing business. Like all other freelancers and most hourly positions, you can’t get paid for new work if you’re too sick or injured to produce more. (And, as a massage therapist friend learned when she broke her arm, hospital bills tend to pile up when the money’s not coming in.) Therefore, it’s a good idea to not only prevent the work-related injuries to hands, wrists, neck, back, eyes, and arms, but to also keep the rest of your body and your immune system in as good a shape as you can.

The first way to stay in healthy & uninjured is to avoid doing things that’ll get you injured. So, let’s discuss your writing setup. While curling up  on the couch with a laptop occasionally is fine, if you’re going to be spending much time on the computer (and all the internet, email, and gaming time counts, too), you should have an ergonomic setup.

. . . .

The next step up is to make a standing or walking desk; this allows you to get out of the chair, and give your body a break from sitting. Walking desks range from homemade setups on garage-sale treadmills to expensive custom jobs.

. . . .

When I do sit, I have a yoga ball to sit on at the ancient media laptop’s desk, which keeps facebook isolated and unable to suck my time away until I sit down there. It also lets me work on core strength and stability, even though I’m sitting.

The second way to stay healthy & uninjured is to take breaks and stretch regularly. You can search for “computer & desk stretches” or “office stretches” and come up with hundreds of variations; pick the set that work for you, and try to work them in regularly.

. . . .

However, if you’re working from home, don’t feel limited to chair stretches: you can get up and do plenty of other things to loosen up. Whether it’s getting up and doing five minutes on a chore (putting a few more dishes in the dishwasher, sweeping a room, folding a couple clothes or moving a load over to the dryer), or getting out of the house and walking up and down the block while muttering over plot points, you can incorporate giving your eyes and body a break in many different ways.

Link to the rest at Mad Genius Club

PG would add that a good keyboard is also extremely important. He’s never suffered from repetitive stress injury, but he knows some people who have. RSI can put you out of the typing business in a big hurry and for a long time.

Ergonomic keyboard manufacturers have come and gone in part, because it’s not a huge market. Fortunately, Microsoft started selling its ergonomic keyboard several years ago and appears to be in the business for the long term. PG couldn’t remember the number he has purchased, but Amazon says it has sold him five. He currently uses the 4000 model.

Ever since IBM stopped making laptops, PG has detested the keyboards on portable computers. If you use a laptop as your principal writing tool, there’s nothing to prevent using a separate keyboard, wired or wireless, with it. During a period of time when PG was doing a large amount of business travel, he purchased a compact external keyboard to use with his laptop in hotel rooms.

While he’s at it, PG will also add some commentary on computer mice. Ergonomic design can help there as well and external mice work with desktops or laptops equally well. For a long time, PG was a fan of Logitech and bought several Logitech Performance Wireless mice which worked fine.

About a year ago, he was introduced to the Anker Ergonomic Mouse and has been a huge fan ever since. It looks and feels weird at first, but PG has observed that it’s more comfortable for his wrist after a long day at the keyboard. It’s only $20, which is cheap for an ergonomic anything. He also tosses one into his computer bag when he travels.

One final ergonomic suggestion – put something under your monitor or laptop to raise the monitor from the top of your desk. PG’s current favorite height is nine inches from the top of his desk to the bottom of his monitor screens. He has a couple of cheap plastic monitor stands something like these. His third monitor sits on a stack of books that brings its height up to the same level as the others. (Fiction or nonfiction books will work equally well. Ebooks are a nonstarter for this job.)

PG currently has one large monitor flanked by two smaller monitors. It looks cool to persons under the age of ten, but if PG were to do it again, he would probably opt for two large monitors since he rarely uses the small monitor on his left.

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