One of the advantages that I’ve had over the years as an innovator is that I don’t waste time writing. I don’t mean by this that I avoid writing. Obviously, speeches, articles, blogs, and even fiction are a major part of my life. But, there is a certain amount of dithering (often induced by anxiety) that can get in the way of productively approaching the task of writing. Greater efficiency in writing gives me more time for other interests, and it was really the cornerstone of my ability to dedicate hours to innovation projects.
The most useful techniques I have are discipline, time management, and preparation. However, given the theme of this blog, I will focus here on tools that increase productivity.
Dictation. I was a fan of dictation back when it was error-prone and difficult to use. Microphones, software, and processing power have all improved greatly over time, and it is possible now for me to dictate full pages with few corrections needed. (In fact, my dictating error rate is probably less than that for my ham-handed typing—except in the case of fiction writing.) I dictate about half of the 10 to 20,000 words I write each week, and I suspect this practice has not only increased my productivity, but saved me from repetitive stress syndrome.
Grammar and spelling checks. This is obvious, isn’t it? But it does save me a lot of time proofing my material. There are two other checks that I use that may be less obvious. First, I have a list of what I consider to be “junk words” that I keep in a file for one of my final proofs. By searching for these specific words, I am able to tighten my prose in a faster and easier way than if it were to simply reread my work. The second trick I use is taking advantage of my system’s text-to-speech function. (I have a Mac, and luckily I can stand to listen to one of the voices. The others – yech.) By hearing my words read to me, I can get enough distance from them to recognize awkward phrases and mistakes that I otherwise would miss.
Project manager. Another tool, which I am still getting used to, is Scrivener . My wife, a novelist, uses this program to move quickly through the chapters of her book, reposition scenes, and collect research material that may include notes, pictures, audio, video, and links. Given the complexity of the job, this would’ve been of great benefit for me when I was writing Innovation Passport.
File-sharing service. If you are someone who is involved in the collaboration, it is quite valuable to share and store the latest versions in the cloud. I use Dropbox. I recently edited a book that had three key authors and several other contributors. We all had access to chapters that were being written and edited in parallel. Dropbox allowed me to make changes, additions, and edits wherever it made sense at the moment, without having to constantly communicate with the other parties.
Keeping notes. I tend to make notes in a very low-tech manner. I’m fussy about the mechanical pencil I use, but the notes could be on anything from the page of a bound notebook to the back of a receipt. However, many people find that their electronic devices–smart phones, tablets, and dedicated devices—are the best way to keep things organized. And disorganization is the biggest enemy of the writer who intends to be productive.
Staying on task. Writers often suffer greatly from distractions or have difficulty with bad habits, such as looping (going back to rewrite the last sentence or paragraph repeatedly, rather than moving forward). Luckily, there are automated forms of discipline. Full-screen writing programs will hide other applications on a laptop, and there are programs that will make it difficult to alter anything that’s been typed (Typewriter “All you can do is type in one direction. You can’t delete, you can’t copy, you can’t paste. You can save and print.”). There is even a site, Write or Die, where writers can set their goals and their penalties for not fulfilling those goals. There is even a “concentration tool,” Omniwriter with music and backgrounds aimed and mellowing out the stressed writer. I find all this more amusing than helpful, but I do have writing friends who swear by these tools.
Without a doubt, the most useful tool that I use as part of my writing routine is very low-tech. It’s a timer. I set it for the allotted time and that taught myself to make good use of those minutes. (There are timer apps, but I tend to use a kitchen timer.)
But what does the future hold? Some people already have some success with handwriting recognition, but I would love to have it advance the point where he could recognize my scrawl. Ideally I’d like to be able to take a picture of my handwritten notes with my cell phone and have it immediately translated into text. I would also like to have an easy way to move from device to device with a given writing file, similar to the transparency people now have when they are watching television shows and can almost seamlessly move from the TV to the laptop to the cell phone. (Evernote seems to be a step in this direction.)
Both marking up and handling marked up manuscripts is still painful and time-consuming—especially when the markups are hand written. I’d like revisions to be more like conversation. In fact I’d like voice-recognition software, perhaps augmented with gesture recognition, to become an important aspect to my rewriting efforts.
I can imagine some other possibilities, although these would have to prove themselves in practice. One would be to be able to find the word for a given object (such as a machine part) by taking its picture. It could also be possible to get the word for an action by demonstrating it in a video. It might be interesting to be able to capture the diction, pacing, and style of a character or an individual, and be able to transform something written in my invoice to that one. (Although, such application might end my days as a speechwriter.)
Ultimately, writing of all sorts is likely to become more of a multimedia experience. We are likely to include more pictures, video, and references in novels, articles and other materials that are traditionally text only (or mostly text). To effectively do this as a writer, I may need a system similar to the gesture driven application that Tom Cruise’s character used in Minority Report . That looked like fun.