Reconsidering bundling apps.

Recently I tried three, and reluctantly settled on one. After a long chat with the founder of one of the others, I’m thinking again.

Not so long ago, I tried out three apps designed for lawyers to handle paperless bundles: to make them, and use them. As I explained, I don’t need the “use” bit; PDF Expert hits the button for my multi-device workflow in a way that none of these services comes close to achieving. But bundling hurts.

At the time, I selected Hyperlaw and rejected Casedo because the former did three things the latter didn’t: OCR; handling emails with (nested) attachments; and handling multiple document types. (I rejected Bundledocs because it did these things, but with an appalling interface and a shocking price tag.)

I’ve tried. But I just can’t love Hyperlaw. It sucked in documents beautifully. But putting them in order, making sure they’re what and where they need to be, took me forever, through an interface that just makes no sense to me. And that process, given that I had several dozen documents to process, ended up taking almost as long as extracting the emails individually would have done.

So I gave Casedo another whirl, on a new M1 MacBook Pro (which, incidentally, is glorious). I like what it does, and how it does it. OCR I can live without; ReadIris does the job well for me. Most of my docs are Word or PDF anyway, so that’s no great hardship. The nested email thing remains a stopper. But I had a long chat with Ross Birkbeck, Casedo’s founder, and I’m reassured it’s a priority.

So I’m trying Casedo. I’ll have to disentangle nested emails myself for a while, which I loathe. But everything else about bundling is far closer to the holy grail of “it just works”. So they’ve got my cash. We’ll see how it goes.

Scrivener. Wow.

Ten days ago, I wrote about Scrivener. I said I thought it might help me get through a book project with a tight deadline. Boy, did I understate things. I think I’m in love.

So that’s (nearly) it. 25 days and some 30,000 words later, the first draft of the book chunk I’ve been working on is done. (Nearly, because I still need to read and no doubt do some rewrites and cuts tomorrow. But I’m fine with that.) It’ll be with the friend and colleague who commissioned it by Monday morning.

And I couldn’t have done that without Scrivener. (And to a lesser extent Notion, the other app I wrote about.)

I wrote about Scrivener 10 days ago, lauding it (although complaining about its iPad app) and hoping it’d help me get this thing done. (And incidentally giving said friend and colleague the fear – which I can understand; after all, I did say, explicitly, that I was indulging in displacement activity by trying it out.)

I was wrong. In that I understated things. Truthfully, I don’t think I’d’ve done this, in this time, without the app.

I recognise that I’ve barely scratched the surface of it. Its manual, a wonderful old-school single PDF (albeit one with full and loving internal linking), is 921 pages long. I’ve probably looked at a dozen of them. I haven’t even begun to experiment with its ability to compile documents into specific formats. Frankly, right now, I don’t have the time.

But simply by encouraging one to split the project up into logical chunks, and then make it staggeringly easy to see, manipulate and write or edit them separately, in groups, on a pinboard, as an outline, or as a cohesive whole, it makes writing anything of any size conceptually straightforward. And it’s blindingly fast. The only downside is it seems only to sync through Dropbox, as far as I can tell, which I barely use. I’d prefer not to have to have it running all the time. But it feels a relatively small price to pay.

I finally understand why another friend, Naomi Cunningham, now pretty much refuses to use anything else.

I’m now actually going to RTFM. Honestly. I want to get under the skin of this thing.

A quick word about Notion, too, the other app I was experimenting with. I haven’t settled into it as an “everything bucket” yet, not least because it doesn’t seem to have a Safari web clipper – so I’m still on Evernote as a “clip web pages and store PDFs” dumping ground. But in other ways, it excels. I’ve pages running for several projects, and for a live case list. Each page is using a different kind of design – a list in one, a kanban board in another (that was for the book – I finally get the point of kanban, although it’s definitely a project thing rather than for general todos), a straightforward wiki in another. Once I’m used to it, I may simply import the Evernote stuff and stick with just the one. Time will tell.

In the meantime, though, Scrivener – wow. Just wow. And thanks.

(UPDATE, following a bit of further reflection. I might have been able to do this without Scrivener. But I probably wouldn’t have been able to do anything else. Whereas instead I’ve managed to keep other work running alongside – admittedly with long hours, but Scrivener has really helped me keep focus even in the wee hours. Now that’s the real miracle…)

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…