New tools.

Amid deadline hell, I’m doing what geeks always do to procrastinate: try out new stuff. But two new toys are actually pretty tasty…

I feel guilty. Not only am I weeks behind in writing stuff about PDFs and bundles (page numbers. Oh dear…), but I’m also whingeing about having deadline pressures. When so many of my friends and colleagues at the Bar are desperate for work (and thus for earnings), it feels pretty selfish to complain about deadlines right now.

But there it is. In particular, there’s a book, or a third of one, which I’m revising, updating, and rewriting. The deadline looked fine before I lost the best part of three weeks to the Bug. Now – not so much.

So in the finest traditions of geekdom, I’m using my time wisely by trying out new tools which – if I squint hard enough and ignore the weight of experience – I can convince myself will actually help me get the job done.

Yeah. Right.

Honestly, though, two are breaking through, because they solve problems that have nagged me since forever. One I’m now wholly convinced about (thanks to my friend and Chambers-mate Naomi Cunningham, who’s been swearing by it for ages). The other – well, I’m only 24 hours in, but it’s hitting all the right buttons.

The first is Scrivener. It’s an Apple-only app, albeit iOS as well as MacOS [CORRECTION: it’s Windows as well], that makes writing long-form text far more straightforward. Books, long skeletons, things like that – anything which tends to end up as “chunks” rather than a single unbroken screed – Scrivener excels at. It makes it easy to add notes or synopses, to attach files for ready reference, and most important can compile the whole thing into a single sweet file, which looks like you want it to.

OK. That last point rather skates over the complexity of getting compilation to work for you, not to mention the sheer depth of the thing. And in other imperfections, it’s very Mac-first; the iPad app is satisfactory, but definitely an adjunct rather than an equal partner. (Unlike, say, Ulysses, which also sells itself as a block-by-block writer’s tool. Its iPad app is lovely – but it doesn’t handle attachments, and its export let me down too often when I tried it during another deadline crisis. Not that there’s a pattern.)

But I’m convinced. I’m flying far faster through the book than I had before. For what it’s designed to do, it just – as the phrase goes – works.

The second new toy that I’m loving is Notion, which does the exact opposite of one thing well. The “everything bucket” grail will be familiar to many with geekish tendencies. God knows I’ve tried loads. Evernote stuck for years, but I drifted away. I tried OneNote, but its sync is just appalling, or used to be. (With sync, once bitten…) Bear is my current dump-and-forget favourite. (Anyone remember I Want Sandy? Showing my age there. But it was lovely while it lasted, before Twitter bought it and killed it. Sob.)

But I’ve always loved wikis. I’ve tried a few. And Notion is the first wiki-style tool since Backpack (now long retired) back in the day to grab my imagination. Instead of just having a list of entries a la Evernote or Bear, possibly arranged into notebooks/folders/whatever and tagged, Notion allows you to build your own pages. Containing kanban boards, database-style lists, todos, embedded files, or just plain old text. And everything can link to everything else.

Again, it’s complex, and in a couple of days, I haven’t even started to scratch the surface. But it just feels… right. And it’s got a free tier that now comes with unlimited “blocks” (the basic construction unit of Notion pages). I haven’t seen how it deals with web clipping and adding stuff on iOS, but if that’s OK, I’m probably hooked. Worth a look.

If the complexity and sheer whatever-you-want of Notion is alien to you (and that’s quite understandable), there are lots of alternatives. One is Workflowy, which despite the name (adding a Y doesn’t make anything better. It just doesn’t) is one of the nicest outliner implementations I’ve seen. For its aficionados – Daniel Barnett, also from Outer Temple, is one, whose Workflowy setup is so comprehensive and efficient it terrifies me to my very core – it can work wonders. Not for me, though. I’ve tried outliners before, and they’ve never suited me. I tried Workflowy, and it was the same. Shame.

Really, though, the everything bucket is probably the most personal kind of app out there. Everyone’s pain points and needs are different. Some want radical simplicity – for which something like Bear is great (fabulous search, excellent quick addition through iOS share sheets, and Markdown syntax – what’s not to like). I like it myself. But Notion’s got me. My notes for the book are already in it, on a page where the chapters I still have to write are arranged on a kanban board and cross-linked to other pages detailing relevant cases. Let’s see if it works. Ask me in about 11 days. Gulp…

4 thoughts on “New tools.

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