Synchronised writing

Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying about Word Processors and Love Synchronisation

There’s been a gradual but inexorable change in my writing habits with the computer. After much obsessing about how to employ the tools I use to work and to write creatively in the most effective way, I concluded that simplification was the way to go.

My work has to do with text in two phases:

  1. Managing documents created by other people and sent to me for translation;
  2. Writing content – work-wise this means the translation of the original text, which can be in a file or directly on the Web (if I have to prepare a version of a website in a different language). Otherwise it means writing articles/essays on my blogs, or carrying on with some literary, creative project.

As regards to managing documents sent by other people, the easiest way is to have a tool that can properly display the document in its original format and, as it often happens, that can create a file with the formatting required by the client. This applies to Word documents, in most cases, but also to InDesign or (rarely) Quark XPress projects. In the case of InDesign and Quark XPress assignments, copying the text to be translated into another editor, to then translate it and paste the translation back in the InDesign or XPress file, doesn’t make much sense. It’s a waste of time, and moreover it’s important that the translated text respect the layout of the original document, without exceeding the limits imposed by the various text frames. With Word, instead, since I hate using it, I try as much as possible to write the translation in a simple and flexible text editor (BBEdit, TextWrangler, TextEdit) and then paste it into a new Word document. I work comfortably and the customer is happy — a win-win situation.

When it comes to my personal content, for blog articles I use MarsEdit, that is simply the best tool around and is worth all the (little) money it costs; for literary creations instead I use one of those aforementioned editors. BBEdit or TextWrangler if it is plain text or text that I’ll use somewhere else (on a personal publication, for example, whose layout or choice of typefaces isn’t yet final); TextEdit when I need styles, italics, bold text, tables, lists. For the occasional special case, I just launch Pagehand, which has the advantage of directly producing a PDF document as default. For ‘business’ communications and longer, more complex documents, I’ve learnt to appreciate Pages.

Lately, though, I’m getting rid of these bundles (where possible), and for writing original content I increasingly find myself using a combination of two software products that are really making a difference: Notational Velocity and Simplenote for iPhone.

The latest version of Notational Velocity supports full synchronisation with Simplenote for iPhone. I was already a user of Notational Velocity, but admittedly I wasn’t using it on a regular basis. Instead, I was treating it no more and no less than a practical notepad, remembering the times of another handy Note Pad, that of System 6 and 7. The fact that now Notational Velocity synchronises with Simplenote may seem at first just another cute feature. Instead, together with what Notational Velocity already offers, this has turned out to be a small Copernican revolution for me.

Notational Velocity is the classic application that provides a limited but well thought-out set of features:

  1. Notes can be written in rich text, therefore you can have bold, italicised, underlined, indented text.
  2. It uses the spellchecking tools provided by Mac OS X.
  3. Notes can be managed and written in a single database (and encrypted if you so desire), or as simple plain text files, RTF files, or documents in HTML format. These are thoughtful, wise design choices.
  4. There is no Save command. Everything you write is automatically and persistently stored, just like my beloved Newton. In the event of a crash you don’t lose anything.
  5. You can specify a keyboard shortcut to launch the application. I always keep Notational Velocity open, so I haven’t set it.
  6. It is already a 64-bit app, which does not hurt.
  7. The interface is minimal and, at least for me, beautiful.

These features, and the way Notational Velocity is designed, are the reasons that made me like this program right from the start. But the new sync feature with Simplenote has been the touch of genius that has exponentially increased my use of and my addiction to Notational Velocity.

1. Anything I write, any corrections I make, changes are immediately saved in both Notational Velocity itself (as I said, there is no Save command) and in Simplenote. That means I automatically have an updated copy of all my notes on my iPhone everywhere I go, and if I need to make lengthy additions/corrections, I can do so on every computer at hand, since I can login to the Simplenote website and use the Web-based interface.

2. By installing Notational Velocity on my other Macs, I also automatically have all my notes synchronised on each machine. I take notes on my iBook G3 or on the PowerBook G4 or on the Cube, then I can leave my home office with the MacBook Pro, open Notational Velocity and I will always work with updated notes and documents.

3. I’m out with just my iPhone. I have an idea, or see something that’s worth taking note of. I open Simplenote and write, copy URLs or tweets with interesting links. Then I get home and the notes I took on the move are already in the computer.

This writing system is extraordinarily handy and efficient. It’s the Dropbox of text editing. It provides me with two phenomenal automatisms: saving and backup. Notational Velocity takes care of the first, while Simplenote syncing handles the second. It is a system that doesn’t get in my way and lets me concentrate on creating and writing. And besides, it’s open source, and Steven Frank has hacked in a third pane that shows you the note you’re viewing as rendered by Markdown.

I find that this way of working with text reflects a fresher, more up-to-date approach, something more in tune with certain aspects of the ‘New World computing’ Frank himself spoke about recently. With Notational Velocity many things become simpler and the user need not worry about anything except what to write and note. Where the individual files are located doesn’t matter. There’s no need to waste time painstakingly filing them and sorting them into folders. Visually, they are ‘inside’ the application when you launch it, you just have to remember one little word to find notes written even a long time ago (in any case, you can easily sort and rearrange your notes by title, date created, date modified, and tags).

It is the antithesis of the bloated word processor (hi, Microsoft Word!), overflowing with functions and features, 450 of which will probably remain unused. Or, as I have often noticed, are entirely unknown to the user, either because they’re submerged by panels and tabs of options, or because they’re hidden in optional toolbars. Or again because they are difficult to understand, hardly usable or simply unnecessary in a word processor (we know that Word has delusions of grandeur and wants to do the work of other programs that have nothing to do with text documents).

And the simplicity of Notational Velocity does not mean less flexibility or versatility – quite the contrary. Clearly it can’t replace a full word processor if you need to manage styles, indexes, tables, long and complex documents (like books and manuals), and so on. Clearly it can’t replace a text editor focused on coding and programming, like BBEdit or TextMate (although it’s more than enough if you just need to copy & paste short snippets of code), but for the rest, the combination of Notational Velocity and Simplenote can be a really useful and practical solution.

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About Riccardo Mori

Writer. Translator. Mac consultant. Enthusiast photographer. • If you like what I write, please consider supporting my writing by purchasing my short stories, Minigrooves or by making a donation. Thank you!