Tools for Writing and Thinking

I'm a software developer, blogger, novelist, and catechist; many of my daily activities involve thinking about things, working them out in my head, and then writing or speaking about them. Over time I've tried various software tools that help me to figure out what I think, to organize my thoughts, and to get my thoughts down in print for consumption by others. Some have been more helpful than others. In this series I plan to write about these tools and the tasks I use them for.

Everyone knows about the big three: Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, and their clones, so I'm not going to dwell on them. (I have them, and I use them when appropriate, but outside of my day job I don't often find them appropriate.) Instead I'm going to focus on the tools you might not have heard of, and describe how I use them and what I've found them useful for. Or, to put it another way, I'm going to talk about the kinds of tasks I encounter and the tools I use to make them easier.

Here's a preview of the tasks I regularly encounter.

Writing Novels. Word is a great tool for memos and technical documents, but it's unwieldy for composing novels.

Blogging. It's possible to compose blog posts in your browser, and I've done that often enough; it's also possible to lose an entire post because of a browser or blogging platform glitch. I prefer to write blog posts off-line.

Analysis. When you're trying to solve a problem, whether it's a plot point, presentation of a theological concept, or a software design, you have to analyze the problem: figure out what you know and what you don't know, who your audience is, and what the challenges are. It's all about divide-and-conquer.

Brainstorming. Sometimes you have a wild idea and a blank page, and you just want to let your thoughts run wild…and then corral them before they go totally feral.

Taking Notes. For capturing notes during meetings, I find that a simple paper notebook works best most of the time: you can capture what you need to capture, and you can doodle when it gets boring. But when you need to capture decisions, priorities, action items, and so forth in a group setting, nothing beats a mind-mapping tool.

Project Notes. Any software or writing project worth doing will involve a plethora of notes, plans, gotchas, tasks (completed, in process, or not yet begun); it's a real help to have a place to stash them.

To Do Lists. There are lots of tools out there for managing to do lists; I usually like to relate them to a particular project, and so for me this is really a subset of Project Notes.

Knowledge Base. Especially in the software arena, I learn things that I want to be sure to remember later. It's useful to have a place to stash them for the long-term, so that I know where to go look for them later.

This is a wide range of tasks, and as we'll see no one tool excels at all of them. For any given task, though, there are usually a range of options; in future posts I'll talk about the options I've tried and the ones I'm currently using.

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photo credit: Tool Rack via photopin (license)