I have just updated my article entitled What’s RSS and why is it useful? It still contains the basic information, but now that Google has decided to axe its RSS reader, I’ve included a note about alternatives, and a link to a very informative article on the subject.
It’s confession time again. When I said that I like to work on paper, for instance when drafting an outline for an article, I omitted to mention one important fact. Apart from when I jot things down in a notebook I carry around in my inside jacket pocket, all the notes I write the old-fashioned way are converted into a digital form as soon as possible afterwards.
There are two main reasons for this, both of them pragmatic. First, if I write down a brilliant idea and then lose the notebook I wrote it in, that’s pretty disastrous.
Second, I have boxes in my loft full of notebooks in which I wrote stuff – and it’s almost impossible to find anything, or at least very time-consuming.
Now, I tend to write the date on the cover of my notebooks. For example, one notebook I have proclaims that it dates from January to March 1984. That’s obviously better than its not being dated, but it still means that in order to retrieve an idea I have to try to remember the month and year in which I had it!
These days there is no need for such shenanigans, if you’re prepared to invest a bit of money. I use two different solutions, which are as follows.
This is a special pen, which works with special paper. It does several things.
First, although you write with it in the usual way, when you get back home you synchronise the pen with your computer, and it not only transfers your notes to your computer in digital format, it makes them available as a pdf should you wish to print them out or email them to someone.
What that means, of course, is that it doesn’t matter if you subsequently lose or mislay the notebook – apart from the inconvenience and expense!
Another thing it does is make your handwritten notes searchable. I have no idea how it does so, and I am especially impressed that it can interpret my handwriting most of the time! What that means is that as long as I remember a keyword I can find my notes about it very quickly. When I say ‘keyword’, I mean it’s pointless searching for a word like “the”, because it will result in hundreds of results. Rather, I tend to give my notes a heading, which is what you’d do anyway. Thus I headed my notes from the Education World Forum conference ‘EWF13’, and that’s what I search for if I need to refer to them.
You can also amalgamate notes from different meetings or occasions. For example, I have been undertaking research on a phenomenon known as Bring Your Own Technology, and giving my notes on that topic the heading of ‘BYOT’. I have also created a subsection called ‘BYOT’ in the Livescribe desktop application, so I can copy any notes on BYOT into it. That means I have all my BYOT notes in one place.
Another handy feature is the ability to record as you write. Amazingly, it matches the recording with the writing. What that means is that if you cannot remember what you meant when you wrote something quickly as you were interviewing someone, say, you can press the pen on the word and it will play back what was being said at that time.
You can also purchase software that will convert your digital handwriting into text, but I didn’t find that to be very effective.
So there are plenty of advantages in using the Livescribe, but there are some disadvantages:
On the whole, I find my Livescribe pen an essential part of my writing toolkit, and never go to a meeting without it.
You have to buy special paper, in the form of a Smart Notebook. These are quite nice, being the Moleskin brand, which I adore anyway. They’re not cheap, but lovely to write on.
The good thing, though, is that you can use any pen you like.
To transfer your notes from the notebook to Evernote, you need a phone or other device with the Evernote app installed. What you do is take a photo of your page(s) with the camera icon in the app, and then synchronise your smartphone notes with your online notes in the usual way.
As with the Livescribe pen, your notes become searchable -- even though they are embedded in photographs. This feature works very well indeed.
There are a few disadvantages however:
Nonetheless, given the fact that you can use a comfortable and/or cheap pen, this is a nice option. Also, if you use Evernote anyway you can have all of your notes in one place. (In theory, Livescribe links with Evernote, but I have never managed to get it to work.)
It’s up to you which of these options you think would be ideal for you. Each of them enables you to transfer your handwritten notes into digital, searchable text. For me, both of them are useful, but for different purposes. If I am going out and about, but not to a conference or formal meeting, I tend to use the Evernote notebook because I like the paper and I like my favourite pen! But if I need to make sure I have a record of what was said, eg if I am talking to a supplier about the features of their product, the Livescribe is the more appropriate choice.
Erm, look. I don’t quite know how to put this but, well, er, sometimes – gosh this is so embarrassing! Well, the thing is, I know I’m supposed to be some sort of techno-geek but often I find that working on paper is better than working on a computer. For the initial outline anyway. There, I’ve said it. I feel much better now!
There are several reasons why working on – and with – paper is beneficial.
Unless the sources I’m using are both relatively short and relatively few, I find that printing them out and splaying them all around me is much better than flicking between dozens of tabs in my internet browser, or through several documents. It’s much easier to annotate for a start, easier to organise (I usually end up with several piles according to topic, with some documents placed widthways so I can find them faster) and, frankly easier to read.
I’m not alone in that, incidentally. I think it will merit a separate post, but there is a body of research to suggest that people read differently on screen than on paper, and that the reading isn’t as deep – or at least long-term retention has been found to be lower.
The journalist Gay Talese apparently drafted his outlines (in some detail it has to be said) on paper before doing any typing. And if it was good enough for Gay Talese, it’s certainly good enough for me! (Find out more about him, and read his seminal ‘Frank Sinatra has a cold’ at Esquire.)
I find that if I outline an article on paper, even if only in a sketchy kind of way, it helps me organise my thoughts.
Here’s an example of a brief outline I wrote for an article while sitting in a café:
(In case you’re interested, that became ICT and computing lessons should be organic.)
That’s another thing. I find it easier to and quicker to jot down some ideas in a paper notebook while sitting in a café or even waiting at a bus stop, than doing so on a machine. Having said that, I do sometimes email myself some notes for articles, but they’re not as detailed or ‘joined up’.
When I outline on paper, I often end up drawing arrows and lines from one part of my notes to another, creating small boxes of bullet points and doodling (which aids my concentration!). In other words, working on paper enables me to make connections, to join up different ideas, in a way which somehow is different from, and I would say better than, doing so on a screen.
I don’t outline every article on paper. In fact, I don’t do so for many articles. But I do find that with larger projects, such a s a book on Bring Your Own Device which I’m working on at the moment, working on paper in the first instance may seem slower (to be honest, I’m not convinced it is), but it yields better, ie richer and deeper, results.
Unless you’re so poor at spelling or English in general that a spell-checker wouldn’t do you much good anyway, there isn’t really any excuse for this sort of thing:
Did you spot the two errors? I especially liked the rendering of the word ‘intelligent’!
But just think: it was not only the person who wrote this who failed to notice the spelling mistakes. So too did the person who signed it off to be printed, and so too did the person who printed it.
Of course, the spell-checker won’t pick up words which are incorrect in the context, but correct in themselves. This fact is exemplified in the following poem. There are several versions of this. I obtained this one from the Louisiana Tech University website.
Eye halve a spelling chequer
It came with my pea sea
It plainly marques four my revue
Miss steaks eye kin knot sea.
Eye strike a key and type a word
And weight four it two say
Weather eye am wrong oar write
It shows me strait a weigh.
As soon as a mist ache is maid
It nose bee fore two long
And eye can put the error rite
Its rare lea ever wrong.
Eye have run this poem threw it
I am shore your pleased two no
Its letter perfect awl the weigh
My chequer tolled me sew.
I wonder if the management/business model of levels of competence applies to writers? The basic premise is that as you travel on the journey from novice to expert, you pass through four stages of competence. These are:
Level 1: Unconscious incompetence, ie you don’t know, and you don’t even know that you don’t know.
Level 2: Conscious incompetence, ie you still don’t know, but at least you know that you don’t know.
Level 3: Conscious competence, ie you know that you know
Level 4: Unconscious competence, ie you are so good at what you do that you don’t even have to think about it: you just do it automatically.
Now, it’s that last stage that sits uneasily with me as far as writing is concerned (and perhaps even in general). Because it seems to me that unless you are innately gifted you can’t reach stage 4 and write stuff that is actually pleasurable to read.
Another way of saying this is that I think unconscious competence can be faked. I’m thinking in particular of at least one “content mill” which specifies the exact number of words you have to have in the headline, how many in the first paragraph, how many in the second paragraph, plus quite a lot more rules about what sort of words should be in the headline and so on. I've come across bloggers who recommend this sort of thing too.
Now, I suppose you could get into the swing of writing in this formulaic way, and become so good at it that you would reach the heady heights of Level 4. And I also suppose that if you were able to pack useful information into your articles, you would have an audience for them. But would your writing actually be enjoyable to read?
Would such a formulaic approach ever produce such gems as this, for example:
“It was the kind of wind that seemed to peel the flesh off your bones and come back for the marrow.”
That was from the pen of sports writer Hugh McIlvanney, and is just one example of brilliant writing that you would want to read over and over again.
For myself, I can ‘bash out’ (as my wife so charmingly puts it) articles fairly quickly, and people tell me they like reading them. But I am always striving to become a better writer, as even a cursory glance at my credit card bill would prove.
In fact, to me, the very idea of being in a state of unconscious competence suggests stagnation. Much better, I think, to continually feel there is another pinnacle to reach.