Jack Kerouac typed furiously on a continuous scroll in a benzedrine fuelled frenzy. Roald Dahl retreated to his shed, placed a board over his blanketed knees and started writing longhand. Paul Theroux’s product was finished after he’d produced two handwritten drafts from his notebooks. My own creative workflow comes across as rather convoluted and tech reliant when compared to these traditional methods, but I suspect that their apparent simplicity actually masks a lot of index card based thought organisation, transcription from notebooks and other paper-based faff. Here’s how I do it.
The Magic of the Morning Creative Burst and Livescribe Smartpens
Each morning I write longhand for around 45 minutes as soon as I get up, before taking any food or drink. There are various theories as to why this is a good thing to do. Some regard it as a means of clearing out the brain. Others regard it as exercise for the writing muscle. Often I produce about 700 words of self indulgent rubbish, but frequently ideas crystallise as I write and sometimes I even get good usable content.
My secret weapon is a Livescribe smartpen, a wonderful device which is a regular ballpoint pen that automatically digitises my hand writing as I write it. Instead of adding to my shelf full of forgotten notebooks I now have searchable digital notebooks on my laptop. That’s right, when I type in a search term it returns all instances in all my notebooks. And the magic doesn’t end there, I can convert my handwriting to text using the MyScript for LiveScribe desktop app. The conversion is as good as the handwriting; my scrawl gives an error rate of around 5 %. Correcting this is much easier than typing the whole lot in.
I’m using the LiveScribe Echo. This is an older model that transfers content by USB cable. There is a newer version that syncs using wifi, but it relies on Evernote rather than the LiveScribe Desktop app, and Evernote requires a subscription if you want to access your content offline. Then there is the LiveScribe 3 which works in combination with iOS but has no desktop app. So I reckon the Echo remains a good choice.
There is something about writing by hand that I find lets the ideas flow better than when typing. I’m not alone in this retro-thinking, a piece in last week’s New Scientist discussed how handwritten notes turn into more durable memories than typed notes.
Capturing ideas when out and about using voice memos and a Swype Keyboard
Ideas often come to me when running or cycling. Depending on whether or not I have an audience I will capture these as a voice note or as a note on my phone. I find that I can capture text quickly and smoothly using a Swype keyboard, there is something about the Swype text input that is similar to handwriting in that each word becomes a shape rather than a series of finger stabs. I am such a fan of this keyboard that if Apple hadn’t started allowing third party keyboards I would have gone back to an Android phone.
I still have to digitise my voice notes by typing them up. There must be a decent voice note to text app out there somewhere but I haven’t found it yet and the error rate using dictation software is not yet good enough for those of us with non-standard accents.
Storing ideas from other texts in my Bookends library
I do a lot of my reading on kindle these days and the inability to copy and paste text has almost irritated me enough to convert my ebooks to pdf using DeDRM, but there is enough formatting hassle to put me off. Doing so would be legally wrong but entirely justifiable from a moral standpoint. It is possible to access notes and highlights by logging into kindle.amazon.com but the format is crude and I am informed that some modern books limit the number of characters that you can access by this method. I’ve taken to making notes using my smartpen and find that this really helps me to internalise and remember the words.
No matter how I harvest my notes, I store them in my Bookends library so that they are accessible in a few years time when I have a vague recollection of having once read something about a topic. Bookends is Mac only but the general principle of using bibliographic software to keep track of media that has been consumed is a great one.
Combining the ideas in Scrivener
I combine my ideas in another Mac-only piece of software, Scrivener. This is technically a word processing app, but it is so much more than that. It allows me to chop and change text around without working in an unwieldy long document. Individual paragraphs or short sections can be viewed in a file structure or as index cards. It’s great for planning the structure of a document. To be honest it’s not actually that fantastic for processing words into a finished draft, when I get to that stage I compile and export to Word or Pages for final tidying.
Back to the old ways – refining the draft with red pen on paper
When I get to the stage of having a chapter I print it out and go over it with a red pen many times. I’ll then transfer the changes into my Scrivener file, then repeat this process until I can read it out loud without wincing. Then I put it aside. After a week or two it will make me wince again and I will reach for my red pen and repeat the cycle.
So there you go, a thoroughly modern tech-enabled creative workflow. It seems to work for me. What works for you?