A modern creative workflow

Posted by on Nov 6, 2014 in Productivity | 9 Comments
The north end of Jura and the Gulf of Corryvreckan from Scarba

The north end of Jura and the Gulf of Corryvreckan from Scarba

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?

9 Comments

  1. Laurie
    November 7, 2014

    I love the feeling bashing out hundreds of poorly spelled words on iOS notes or on a standard keyboard. The passion and exuberance of thumping them through is a self-regenerating activity that wanes and eventually ceases after stubborn finger joints enforce crossing the threshold between acceptable typographical errors and gibberish. This threshold is much lower on iOS notes, due to the marvellously blythe ‘can I help you’ attitude of the spell-checker.

    Move to a pen and the enjoyment of shape creation on paper using a well-designed pen quickly degenerates into illegible scrawl. Transcription is then difficult. However the enjoyment is real enough for me to look into your recommended option of the smartpen. Thinking Christmas present to self.

    Reply
    • Gavin
      November 7, 2014

      Using a smartpen has certainly improved my handwriting. I was really reluctant to commit to buying one, convinced that it would be a passing fad and a distraction from actually writing anything. 400 pages of A5 later it seems that these fears were groundless.

      I recommend a web page called top 10 smartpen reviews or similar as a starting point for your research, there are two main branches of the technology to consider. Be warned though, if you watch Livescribe’s indoctrination vids you’ll become obsessed and purchasing one will be the only way to get it out of your system.

      Reply
  2. Craig
    November 8, 2014

    I like the idea of Scrivener. I am at the early stages of editing a book that currently has over 400,000 words. It would be good to be able to tag chunks of text as ideas and drop them in and out at certain places.

    Reply
    • Gavin
      November 12, 2014

      Sounds like you might have two books or more there Craig! How long has it taken you to amass 400,000 words? Are you prepared to reveal what it’s about?

      Scrivener would definitely help, it’s great to be able to lift out sections and put them somewhere but still keep them handy.

      Reply
      • Craig W
        December 5, 2014

        Hi Gavin – it’s a history book. I though this would be a good year to release it. However it is still a work in progress.

        Given the huge amount of source material it wouldn’t be hard to amass over a couple of million words to work with! The tricky bit then working out which bits to leave out, and what spin – sorry, ‘narrative’ 😉 – to put on what is left in. The trouble is, I find almost everything interesting…

        Reply
        • Gavin
          December 5, 2014

          If you thought this was the year for it then I can hazard a guess at the topic – you should have it done for next time!

          Reply
  3. Colin
    November 8, 2014

    Interesting to see you using the Livescribe, Gavin. I wasn’t convinced when it first came out, and I’m getting to be a bit a of pen snob in my old age. My Lamy Safari (extra fine nib) and spiral bound notebook follow me everywhere, along with a stack of index cards. Any pages/cards that don’t have meaningful info on them get ripped and binned, leaving a slimmed down volume, more relvant and easer to process later. Might revisit the Livescribe again, if ican be convinced it will handle my “eccentric” handwriting.
    I miss the days when I had secretary–I dictated everything. I’ve seriously considered getting the enterprise edition of of Dragon Dictate–I could write some of the expense off as tax for work purposes…but will it handle my accent?

    Reply
  4. Dom
    November 9, 2014

    too much for a techtard like me to take in 😉

    Reply
    • Gavin
      November 12, 2014

      I’m always surprised by your preference for the old ways Dom!

      Reply

Leave a Reply