Category Archives: Tools for Writing and Thinking

A Better Mind-Mapping App

Mind-mapping, originally understood, is a right-brained way to explore a topic by making a diagram of bubbles and lines and drawings and colors and little pictures on a piece of paper. There are a few applications, notably Buzan’s original iMindMap, that aim to give the same experience on a computer; and there are many more “mind map” applications that are essentially outlining tools that display the outline as a graphical map rather than as a list of indented topics.

I’ve been using the latter kind of tool for many years. It’s a great way to organize your thoughts, to keep notes, to plan documents, and like that, and the 2D graphical layout means that you can get much more content onto a single screen than you can with a traditional outliner.

I first used FreeMind, which is a great little tool with a somewhat peculiar user interface that takes some getting used to. It’s free, available on all platforms, and doesn’t seem entirely at home on any of them; and it’s clear from both the app and the website that visual design isn’t the FreeMind team’s strong point.

Some years ago the FreePlane project split off from FreeMind, with the explicit intent of improving the user experience while keeping the same capabilities. I switched to FreePlane and used it for quite awhile, but eventually got discontented. As I recall the team kept changing things in ways I didn’t like, but the main thing was one particular setting I hated.

One of the things you can do in most mind mapping tools is control the appearance of the arcs between your topic bubbles: curved vs. straight, wide vs. narrow, and color. The idea is that you assign meanings to different colors and appearances, and use them to make your mind map communicate better.

FreePlane decided to add a mode where the app assigns different colors to the arcs all on its own, apparently just to make the mind map more colorful. They made the mode the default for all new mind maps. They didn’t add it to the normal preferences, so that every time I created a mind map I had to turn the damn thing off. Trivial, I know, but I got tired of it, and went looking for a replacement.

I went back to FreeMind for a short while, and ended up using XMind, an app about which I am deeply conflicted. It’s the most advanced mind mapping tool I’ve used, and has all kinds of fancy capabilities—most of which I don’t care about, and will never use. There’s a lot about it I dislike.

  • It supports a wide variety of layouts for mind maps, all of which you can apply on the fly. I basically like only one of them.
  • It allows you to attach icons to your topics, and has a nice set of them; but it draws them smaller than the other tools I’ve used, and the icons themselves aren’t designed to be easily distinguishable at small sizes—at least, not to my eyes. And some icons I’m used to using in other tools are simply missing.
  • The GUI layout in XMind 7 is highly configurable; there are a number of panes, and you can arrange them pretty much as you like. I’d found a configuration that worked really well for me. The new XMind 8 isn’t nearly as configurable, and I can no longer set things up the way I like.

Compare the image at the top of this post, which is of a FreeMind window. It clearly indicates that I find iMindMap to be too expensive, that Worksheets are an important thing, that I’ve chosen to use XMind, and that I’m not entirely happy about it. The topics are all more or less the same size: there’s no wasted space. Now, contrast that with the following image:

Note that the central topic is the biggest thing; it’s also the least interesting, and takes up far too much space. Note that there’s no big red X on iMindMap; there’s no good replacement for that in XMind’s icon set. Similarly, there’s no exclamation point icon on “Worksheets”. The checkmark on XMind is much harder to distinguish than that in the FreeMind shot, and the crying emoji is really no replacement for the sad face in the.

Worksheets are the one feature that give XMind an edge over other tools. If you’ve used Excel, you’ll know what I mean: a single Excel document can contain multiple spreadsheets, accessible by a row of tabs along the bottom margin. XMind is the same: I can create an XMind document for a project, and that document can contain multiple mind maps. I can have a mind map for the project schedule, and another as a to do list, and another for brainstorming problems, and others for particular issues. These days I’m often working multiple projects simultaneously, and it’s a real help to be able to open one document and have everything at my fingertips.

FreeMind? FreePlane? Can you get with the program and give me worksheets? I’d be most grateful.

Ulysses: Now Better for Blogging

Ulysses now exports to WordPress. The evening after publishing my post about using Ulysses as a blogging tool, I checked for software updates and found a new version of Ulysses that will publish directly to WordPress blogs. I tried it and it worked a treat. Instead of four clicks, a paste, and a title copy, it's now basically one click. Very, very nice.

DropBox Sync. In addition, I took Ulysses' DropBox sync for a spin. (You are using DropBox, aren't you?) The DropBox sync appears to work just fine across both OSX and iOS; however, there are some limitations. Normal Ulysses "sheets" can contain images, annotations, footnotes, comments, file attachments, and the like, none of which exist in vanilla MarkDown, or really, fit into Markdown's pure text paradigm; and so sheets saved in external DropBox folders can't use them. You're protected against data loss, though: if you try to copy a sheet that uses these advanced features from a folder that supports them to one that doesn't you're warned and given a chance to change your mind.

A Note. I should add: I'm writing about these tools because I use them and like them. I have no relationship with any of the tool vendors I'll be talking about in this series, and I'm not getting any kind of consideration from them for talking about their products. 'nuff said.

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photo credit: Rob Hurson Molly Bloom via photopin (license)

The Problem of Blogging, Solved!

In my last post I laid out my requirements for a blogging tool. I said:

Bottom-line. I wanted a solution that would let me compose blog posts off-line, using whatever hardware I had to hand; would let me move from device to device as convenience dictated; would keep the posts resident in one place on my local machine; and would streamline the posting process.

My current favored solution is a tool called Ulysses, which you can see in the screen shot at the top of the page. Ulysses is a tool for getting your words down, and then getting them where they need to go.

Let's start by taking a quick look at the default window layout (pictured above), which shows three columns. The first column displays a tree of folders that you use to organize your work. You can define any set of folders you like. As you can see, I've got a Blog Posts folder that contains a Zymurgia House folder, which in turn contains folders for the different categories of blog post I write. The middle column contains a list of the documents (Ulysses calls them sheets) in the current folder and its subfolders; and the third column contains the text of the current document.

To begin a new post, I select the Zymurgia House folder and press the new document icon on the toolbar; and then I just start typing. Once I've finished the post, I drag it from the Zymurgia House folder to the appropriate category folder for safe-keeping; and I can easily copy and paste the content into WordPress.

Ulysses and My Requirements

So, how does Ulysses stack up against my requirements? Let's take them one at a time.

Access. Ulysses has versions for OSX and iOS (sorry, Windows users), and it syncs your data between your devices over iCloud. I've written posts on my desktop, my laptop, and my iPad, and they all sync up perfectly well. iCloud is not DropBox, which I much prefer, but it gets the job done. Consequently, I can work anywhere, and move seamlessly from one machine to another. (You can also sync to an external folder, which might be in your DropBox, but there are limitations so I haven't tried that yet. And if you don't like iCloud syncing, you can turn that off and just keep your files locally.)

Offline Composition. Yeah, got that. I can write whether I've got a network connection or not, and let Ulysses sync things up later.

On-Site Backup. Ulysses stores your documents to your local disk, as well as to iCloud; and it stores them as plain text files. You have to know where to find them, mind you; the information is in the Ulysses FAQ. So even if iCloud went away, I'd still have my files; and because they are plain text files I'll always be able to read them. And since your documents are synced via iCloud, you also get off-site backup as well.

No Formatting Fix-ups When Posting. And here's where Ulysses really shines. Ulysses saves your documents in a text format called Markdown. It's a simple format, easily learned, which lets you add formatted headings, boldface, italics, hyperlinks, and so forth to a plain text document. If you've ever used a Wiki, it's basically a kind of wiki markup. It's intended to be both easy and pleasant to read, and easy and pleasant to type. (Actually, Ulysses supports several markup styles; the default is something called Markdown XL.)

For example, to make something bold you enclose it in double-asterisks. To put something in italics, you enclose it in underscores.

This is **bold** and this is _underlined_.

But Ulysses is more than just a fancy text editor. You can enter bold and italics using these special characters, or you can use the usual command keys you'd use in Word or most other programs. Ulysses displays both the special characters, and the style you asked for, as you can see in the screen shot.

Because it's using Markdown, Ulysses can easily convert your prose to a wide variety of formats, including plain text, HTML, Word, and ePub format (used by e-readers). You click the "export" button on the toolbar, and it will export the desired format. More than that, it can export it in a number of ways: to a disk file, in another application, or (my preferred approach) directly to the clipboard.

Uploading a Blog Post

When I finish this post, I will upload it to the blog as follows:

  1. Press the Export button in the toolbar. Select HTML from the pulldown, and press the "Copy to Clipboard" button.
  2. Open the WordPress dashboard in my browser, and create a New Post.
  3. Select the "Text" tab rather than the "Visual" tab in the WordPress editor.
  4. Paste the post.
  5. Cut and paste the post's title into the Title field.

As far as formatting fix-up goes, #5 is the only step. And in my normal usage, HTML is always already selected in step #1, and the "Text" tab is always already selected in step #3. I get my text into WordPress without about four clicks of the mouse.

After that, of course, I need to set categories and tags and attach a featured image…but all of those are easier to do in the WordPress GUI, and they don't involve editing the body of the post.

Caveats

Ulysses isn't for everybody. First, it's an OSX/iOS app, which leaves out a lot of people. It's not free, either (though there's a free OSX demo you can try), though I find the cost to be worth it (and as a working programmer, I don't mind paying for a good tool; the workman is worth his wages). And, of course, you need to be willing to deal with Markdown. But given that, it's just about perfect for my current needs.

Other Features

The real point of Ulysses is to make it easier for you to get started writing. You've got an idea, you start Ulysses, you hit the "New Sheet" button, and start writing. Later, you can drag the sheet to whatever folder you like. But it's there, and you can find it again. You don't need to worry about where to save it or what to call the file, and because the formatting is so simple you don't get caught up in trivialities like playing with the header font. You just start writing.

You can work on your documents anywhere, with or without a 'Net; you've got both an on-site and off-site backup; and you can export your writing in most formats you're likely to need. What's not to like?

Update: Ulysses now exports directly to WordPress!

The Problem of Blogging

I’ve been blogging more or less since blogs were a thing, and had a website since long before that, and I’ve used a whole raft of tools to get words onto the Web, from hand-coded HTML to custom markup and hand-written formatting tools to a variety of blogging platforms.

Over that time, I’ve learned that blogging presents me with certain problems, and I’ve come up with the following requirements.

Access. I do most of my non-fiction writing on a desktop computer, but I also have a laptop; and there was a time when I did a lot of writing away from the house on an iPad. Whatever I write, I want to be able to work on it wherever I am, on whatever hardware I’ve got with me. I initially solved that problem by installing the MovableType blogging software; then I could blog from any web browser. But ultimately that fell afoul of my next requirement.

Offline Composition. I don’t much like composing in a browser window. Using MovableType, and later the early versions of WordPress, it was far too easy to lose your work before it got saved to the server. That led me to a neat app called MarsEdit, an off-line blogging client. MarsEdit knows how to talk to most kinds of blog software; and it lets you compose your posts on your own computer and then upload them to the server at your leisure. It was pretty nice; but it didn’t run on my iPad, and it only kept the most recent posts. That became the next requirement.

For a while I tried to finesse the iPad issue by composing my blog posts in Evernote, which I like a lot, and still use for other things. It’s available on every device I own, and (given ‘net access) syncs to every device I’ve got. But Evernote fell afoul of the next two requirements.

I should add: the in-browser blog editors have gotten much more reliable, and by this time are quite reliable. But they don’t meet the next requirement either.

On-Site Backup. Usually you hear about off-site backup, and I agree that off-site backup is very good thing—but you get that automatically with blog posts, since they usually live on a server in a server farm somewhere. I’ve become much more interested in on-site backup, which is to say I want to keep the words I’ve written closer at hand, where I can get at them, and maybe re-use them or repackage them later. It’s possible to download a complete backup of your blog posts from WordPress, but it’s not in a very pleasant form. That meant using something that runs locally and saves data locally, but also works via the cloud.

Consequently, my next solution was Scrivener, which I’ll be saying a lot more about at another time. Suffice it say that one Scrivener project can contain any number of blog posts, categorizing them any way I like; and if I save the Scrivener project in my DropBox folder (you do use DropBox, don’t you?) then it’s available on all of my machines. I’d gotten my laptop by this time, so iPad access wasn’t needed (though Scrivener has recently added that).

Scrivener did the job pretty well, and since I use it for other writing projects I was pleased to use it for blogging as well. But both Evernote and Scrivener had a serious flaw: any formatting I put into my posts rarely carried over properly when I cut and pasted them into the WordPress blog editor. Evernote and Scrivener had differing problems in this area, but they both had them. And that led me to the next requirement:

No formatting fix-ups when posting. Having written and proofread a post, I wanted to be able to copy and paste the post from my off-line app into the in-browser blog editor, and have it retain all of the formatting and links.

Bottom-line. I wanted a solution that would let me compose blog posts off-line, using whatever hardware I had to hand; would let me move from device to device as convenience dictated; would keep the posts resident in one place on my local machine; and would streamline the posting process.

And I found one…but that’s another post.

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photo credit: Sjors Provoost Dragon via photopin (license)

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)