We used to do all this with pencils

I had the greatest time meeting up with an old friend the other day – hadn’t seen him in perhaps twenty years – and while we chatted, he gave me a pencil. It’s a gorgeous thing, a company pencil, all sleek and modern and I didn’t know how to switch it on.

Then yesterday I saw a photo of a page from Charles Dickens’s draft of Our Mutual Friend. The man wrote in ink, can you believe that? (Interestingly, he specifically wrote in blue ink because, at the time, that dried faster than black or any other colour available. So he could write and not smudge. There were writers’ lifehack tricks even then.)

So I accept that I may have a problem here. I might be a little software-dependent. I really don’t see myself as a computer kind of person, I’m a writer, but I did once count and discover that I used about twenty applications on the average day. And I use them hard. My entire writing life – and that really means my entire life these days – goes through my office 27in iMac, my iPad Air and my iPhone. And I don’t see any of those machines because they just work, they just stay out of my way and I am instead deep into the job.

Which means deep into software. Inspired by Laura Cousins’s recent list of music apps she relies on and by the latest of Federico Viticci’s annual My Must-Have Mac Apps, I want to tell you what software gets me through the day so well that it all makes me want to tell you about it.

You’ll need a biscuit here.

Writing software

This used to be so easy: I wrote everything in Microsoft Word. It’s easy and even fashionable now to criticise Word, so let’s. I used to find that it was fantastic at recovering documents that it lost. If they’d put just a pixel’s worth of the effort into not losing the documents in the first place, I’d have been happier.

Microsoft has spent more than a billion dollars developing Word over the years but right at its core, its very DNA, there are decisions that were made by people who don’t write. Each paragraph in Word is really its own entity with details in it for where it goes in your document. It’s a remarkably intricate idea but it has exactly no benefits for writers and intricacy is always delicate. Word gets confused very easily and it confuses us even more easily when you’re trying to figure out just why the formatting in this section went so very strange because you sneezed.

Word is powerful. So powerful that there is an online book called Bend Word to Your Will and I used to enjoy using its advice to get things done. Until one day I just thought bugger this, I’d rather be writing my own books. And I’m amused to see when I went to find that link for you that the fella who wrote it appears to have given up. Haven’t we all? Microsoft changed the format of Word documents from .doc to .docx in 2007 and still I find I have to send files to editors in the old version. A significant number of professional publishers, editors and writers whose entire careers depend on this software, have not upgraded it in seven years.

The OS X Mavericks operating system for Macs came out earlier this year – and for comparison ten percent of all Macs in the world upgraded to it within ten days – and when I tried to put it on my MacBook, it found a problem. My hard drive was knackered and the easiest, quickest thing to do was backup everything, get Mavericks to reformat the drive and install itself, then pop back on everything I needed.

A month later, someone emailed me a Word document to work on and I realised that I hadn’t popped Word back on to my MacBook. A month. And I still haven’t: I just edited that document in Pages and sent it back to them in Word format.

So after five paragraphs about Word, that’s my recommendation: use Pages instead.

The newest version of Pages is free, which I think extraordinarily under-values the software but it ain’t half handy when you’re on a budget. That’s Pages for Mac but Pages for iOS is now free too and they all work the same, the Mac, iPhone and iPad versions. Some people don’t like that: the Mac one shed a lot of features as Apple worked to make them all compatible with each other and they have a point but I don’t know what the features were. So they’re not ones that are important to me. And reportedly they’re coming back in fits and starts.

Here’s when I knew I was Pages-dependent. I was on a bus when I had an idea for a book. Because I had my iPad with me, because it had Pages on it, I wrote down some ideas. They turned into the first thousand words of The Blank Screen (UK link, US link).

Some people buy iPads that can email out wherever they are, that are really mobile phones if only for data, and I’ve never done that. I’ve always bought wifi-only ones and spent the money I save on things like getting greater capacity. I liked how I couldn’t go online unless I was at a wifi spot and it was terribly relaxing to be able to read a book on my iPad or watch a film and know that I couldn’t be doing any work. Now, though, with two taps or so I can tether my iPad to my iPhone and have it use the phone’s data connection. My peaceful reading time is no more. But it meant I could email those thousand words to Angela as I stepped off the bus.

And it means she could email back a few minutes later with praise and encouragement that warmed me, that made certain I would write the entire book, and with enough proof-reader’s critique that I believed the praise. If you’ve been on one of my workshops about productivity for creative writers, and if you enjoyed it, you owe it to Pages, iPad, tethering and Angela.

If I start a new piece of writing now, it is likely to be Pages that I use. I’ll still often have to deliver in Word so I do keep a copy of that on my office iMac, but I don’t like thinking about what application to use when, I like thinking of what I’m writing and just reach for the thing that’s nearest.

Weirdly, though, all this year I’ve been finding that this the nearest and natural thing to reach for is not a word processor. It’s Evernote.

It’s just an application for making some notes in. There must be eleventy-billion such apps. And okay, you can also pop PDFs in there. Images. You can make a clipping from a web site and drag that in to Evernote. Okay.

But I was in a meeting, right, and suddenly needed a contract that had nothing to do with that day’s work. “Oh, yeah, that one,” I said and then called it up on my iPad exactly as if I’d been a soothsayer and known to bring it with me.

That worked and made me look very good because whatever you put in Evernote, you can get out of Evernote – wherever you are. I enter a gigantic number of notes in Evernote for iPhone and Evernote for iPad but I also use the Mac one a lot and I’ve used the PC version on occasion. I’ve been waiting in someone’s office and I’ve used their computer to open the Evernote website. And in each case, wherever I am, whatever I’m using, every single note I’ve ever made is right there.

So many ideas start as a quick paragraph and I’ll jot them down into Evernote because it’s there, wherever I am, and because it somehow feels unwieldy to start a whole word processor document for a paragraph. And once I’ve written a paragraph, I tend to write a couple more. Sometimes I find I’ve done the whole thing in Evernote.

Can’t tell you why, can’t tell you when I do that and when I go to Pages, but I can tell you that my Evernote has about three thousand notes in it and the place is a mess. Yet I can find anything instantly. I cook from Nigella’s recipe books sometimes and for speed and handiness I’ve taken a photo of some pages and Evernote finds them. Finds the text in the photo. Type ‘ragu’ and there’s my slightly off-centre blurry photo snap of her page for Rapid Ragu. The photo. It feels crazy.

I’d like to let me then copy out the text, but.

I do most of the cooking for us, by volume, but the quick summary is that if it’s a meal you’d enjoy, Angela made it. I do the steady, yellow and brown, boring stuff that gets you through the day. But I am improving and I’m finding I have more time to improve so I am using Nigella books but I’m now also becoming slowly, steadily, addicted to Paprika for iPad. It’s a recipe manager with the most gorgeous ability to browse to a food website and nab a recipe. Not just take the text or an image or a PDF, but parse the information so that it slots the ingredients into one list, the detailed instructions into another, and here’s the photo too. You can then get it to send the shopping list of ingredients to Apple’s Reminders.


I never use Apple’s Reminders.

Except I use it all the time.

Because it lurks there in the background and the To Do software that I do use, that I am obsessed with, nabs anything any app sends to Reminders. I use Siri on my iPhone a lot. Seriously, a lot. Whenever I’m driving, I’ll think of a dozen things I need to do and I will tell Siri to remind me. OmniFocus picks up the lot.

OmniFocus is a To Do app but that’s a bit like saying War and Peace is a stack of paper with some ink on it. I’ve raved about it before and odds to onions I will again. But for now, let me caution you that it solely works on Apple gear so if you’re on a PC, you’re out of luck. Seriously out of luck this time, I think. I just told you that I now have time to cook: it’s because of OmniFocus. I’ve fallen off the wagon with it a few times, but I get back on and I know what I’m doing, I know where everything is and what I can do to move things along. I know when I’m done for the day. That’s an alien feeling. I guiltily like it.

OmniFocus is also more expensive than most To Do apps. The best version of OmniFocus is the iPad one which costs £27.99 ($39.99 US) and once you have that, you will cave and buy the iPhone and the Mac ones. I think I spent about £80 in total but the price today is nearer £100. And I have said many times that I would pay that again and happily and immediately because the three OmniFocuses are so good and so valuable to me. And now I’m going to put my money where my claim is.

Because all three versions are getting updates that will not be your typical free ones.

The iPhone version has already been updated and I did already buy it immediately. In fact, it needs iOS 7 so I installed iOS 7 and then immediately bought OmniFocus 2 for iPhone. As handy and good as the first version was, this one is better and I use it more. I didn’t think that was possible, but I do.

I don’t know when the iPad one will be updated and that makes me hesitate over recommending it to you. But even if The Omni Group updates it an hour after you bought the current version, you’d still have got a superb app, so.

The Mac one is another question. Man, but it’s confusing. It also looks very old. I’ve worked at it and now very much enjoy the power it brings, but it’s a slog. And I realise, saying this to you now, that I’ve forgotten how it works. A beta version of OmniFocus 2 for Mac was released earlier in 2013 and I got on the programme to use the program. It wasn’t finished and it had all the issues that any beta does, but still I liked it enough that I happily carried on using it after the beta trial ended. Unfortunately, the beta ended in part because Apple announced new features for iOS and for OS X and the Omni Group hit pause on the Mac one in order to get the iPhone version done.

Can’t and don’t fault them for that. But it means that when OS X Mavericks came, the beta for OmniFocus 2 for Mac didn’t play nice and isn’t going to be updated – it’s only a beta, after all – so I had to go back to OmniFocus 1. It’s actually a chore to use that now. And I find I don’t. Hardly ever, anyway. So I’m missing out on some features but I live in the iPad and iPhone versions happily.

So let me recommend the iPad one, even though it’s going to be updated soon to soonish, and not recommend the Mac one because it’s going to be updated at some point.

We could actually stop here

Give me Pages, Evernote and OmniFocus and I’m good to go. Throw in Paprika too. Also Dropbox. Couldn’t work without Dropbox. And iTunes, iBooks, iBooks Author, Numbers, Keynote, Excel, Aperture, Adobe InDesign, Calendar, Mail, iMessages, Skype, FaceTime, Reeder, OmniOutliner, 1Password, TextExpander and Pocket. Then I’m good to go.

Let me pick out one of those that’s new to me and that I’m surprised I like so much. OmniOutliner. It is from the same firm that makes OmniFocus and I did look at it solely because of that: I like and rely on OmniFocus so much that I did check out what else the company does. They do a lot. This was about the only one I could afford or at least justify spending the cash on.

And I did that despite a so-far lifelong aversion to outlines. I will write a treatment for a Doctor Who story before doing the script but that’s because if I don’t, I don’t get the commission to write the script. Fair enough.

I’m still the kind of writer who likes exploring on the page and I am fine with the fact that this means I routinely throw away pages of script or thousands upon thousands of words of prose.

But I had a particularly complex book to do and I outlined it in OmniOutliner. Currently I’m pitching ideas to a particular project and it needs a lot of ideas, each needs a lot of detail, and I’m trying to do it quickly in order to fit it in around other work. I’m finding that I can jot down scenes in OmniOutliner and before I really know it, I have the shape of the whole story and can see what’s missing, can see what’s thin. Writing treatments is never easy for me and it’s rarely fun, but there have been a few ideas lately that went so easily from OmniOutliner to full-blown Pages prose treatment that I’ve enjoyed it.

I need to do another of those ideas now. And by god you need more biscuits and tea. Can you slip some whisky in there? Just for medicinal purposes. You’re allowed. You earned it.

I used to do a podcast that had two episodes I especially, especially loved. One was where I’d say my top ten DVDs of the year (sometimes I’d do it in hexadecimal in order to have a top sixteen; what was I saying about not being a computer guy?) and the second was an utterly gorgeous sequel where you did the same. Your top ten DVDs of the year. So much fun.

I’d ask you now for the software that you rely on but, come on, who has time to write and read, say, 2,754 words about software?

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