Category Archives: Writing


Writing on the Go: Where Paper and Pen Fit Now


In a mostly mobile world filled with digital devices, writers, thinkers and creators may have lost their rhythm when it comes to the use of paper and pen. At least that’s what happened to me.

I was an early adopter with the Palm Pilot in the late nineties. I wasn’t writing on paper all that much then because I was fascinated with this new tool. Somehow in the mid 2000’s or so I got caught up in the Moleskine craze and journaling and filled about 20 moleskine notebooks over the next years. Those were mostly large Moleskines but I did try to use the Pocket versions too. Problem was they were small but still too big and uncomfortable for a back pocket.

Flash forward to 2014 and I now have 4 years of iPad use seeking to again go digital but not quite ready to give up on paper and ink either. I’ve got an iPhone and an iPad plus a MacBook Pro and iMac 27 so I’ve got everything one could ask for digitally and mobilely.

I am a fast typist so it is more efficient for me to type when writing. But then, I don’t always have my MacBook Pro with me. And I’ve kind of given up on the Logitech Keyboard Cover even though I bought one for my iPad Air and it works for typing fast into an iPad app. It works, but I have reason to bring my MacBook Pro so then a keyboard for the iPad seems superfluous.

The four apps that keep me chained to the MacBook Pro are: FileMaker Pro, Scapple, Ulysses III and Circus Ponies Notebook 4. These apps either don’t have an iOS equivalent or have an iOS counterpart that leaves a lot to be desired.

A lot of people are writing notes everywhere they are and with whatever is handy so that means on a computer or other digital device or on paper. Paper is still better for a lot of things. Here are just a few of the many reasons paper is still around:

Paper Is:

1. Flexible. You can write at any angle and draw as you please which makes it wonderful for annotation, cocktail napkin diagrams and much more.

2. No Electricity Required. Our digital devices all suck battery like nobody’s business and so require all this maintenance with cables and adapters at every turn.

3. Personal. It’s not neat and orderly necessarily but it is more personal and has an authenticity and expressiveness that can’t be matched in a typed digital document.

4. Typing on glass sucks. It’s a hard surface that doesn’t give at all and doesn’t provide tactile feedback.

5. Speed. What would you prefer when the phone rings and its an important client or other call that requires some note-taking. When all your resources need to be attending to the call, paper’s flexibility and sheer speed of entry usually wins.

6. It folds. Yes, you can unfold an 8-1/2 by 11″ sheet and use it. When iPads can do that and more, the days of paper may be numbered but it’s going to be a few more years I’m afraid.

7. The Feel. Get a good pen like my favorite the Uniball Vision Elite and good paper from Field Notes, Doane Paper, Moleskine or the exquisite Clairefontaine. This is not finger or stylus on glass. This feels much better.

Choosing the best pen and paper or notepad or notebook takes time to get right. But now it’s worse. You might need to rethink your previous favorite methods. I have.

There are a million use cases for paper and I don’t want to write a book on this so will confine my discussion to what I’ve been using and why.

Back Pocket

Any kind of knowledge professional or enthusiast needs to capture their thoughts on the spur of the moment. I like carrying a small notebook in my back pocket that doesn’t hold a wallet. Yes, I’m a woman who doesn’t carry a purse constantly, only when I have to. And I walk a lot for exercise. Who wants to carry a purse then? So I just have a notebook in my back pocket along with a pen all the time and that covers me. When I go to bed, it is on the nightstand.

What do I use? Here are the 4 recent contenders: Doane Paper spiral bound note pad, Doane Paper utility notebook, Field Notes pocket notebook and Moleskine cahier pocket notebook.

Doane Paper Utility Notebook (3 for $10 direct).  The Doane paper is best of this group. Stapled binding. If you like to bound notebooks, these are really good and should be tried if you haven’t yet. Bright white paper with light small grid plus rules. Some might find it busy but I like it.

Field Notes Pocket Notebook (3 for $10 Amazon or direct or in stores). Stapled Binding. Field Notes harks back to farmers using notebooks over 100 years ago so if you like retro at all, you might fall in love with their brand. Fun is also utmost with all sorts of interesting variations. I will warn you away from the Arctic explorer notebooks though. The water repellant paper doesn’t hold roller ball ink at all. Field Notes is the comfiest bound notebook in your pocket because its paper is thinner than Doane above. You really should go to and watch the video and see their amazing stock. Also, when you order direct, they often give you extra goodies.

Moleskine Cahier Pocket Notebook  (3 for $8 Amazon).  It is the thickest in your pocket with 64 pages which is not quite as comfortable as the thinner 48 page Doane Small Utility and Field Notes. The Moleskine is also the sturdiest and stitched not stapled. The feel of actually writing on the Moleskine is best in the sense it feels like you are writing on a quality journal. You may prefer Moleskine’s cream colored paper.

Doane Paper Small Flapper Jotter (3 for $13 direct). Same paper with spiral binding on top. If you don’t want a bound notebook for your pocket, this is a great option and the one I’m currently using. Smallest size in the group – 1/2 inch narrower and shorter. It’s not quite as sturdy as the others so it tends to bend out of shape but doesn’t fall apart either. Use one-handed a little better. Tear off sheets with ease and without guilt. Lies flat so better for photographing the pages.

With any of these back pocket options, I turn the pad over every time I put it back in my pocket to reverse the bend and it works pretty well.

Medium-sized Note Pad

Here’s the biggest change to my protocol. I no longer regularly use the bound notebooks like the large Moleskine. Now that I’m mostly digital, I am not journaling on paper on the average day. I do it sometimes but I’m more likely to type in a journal entry into my super favorite journaling program: Day One. Now, I’m photographing journal pages I write on paper and storing them. If it isn’t too many pages, I’ll probably do single entries in Day One for each page so I can capture all of it digitally there. If too long, I will store the page images on my computer and add them all to an Evernote note for reference if I haven’t inserted them into one of my dedicated Circus Ponies Notebooks.

Once you say no to paper journaling as your main journaling medium, then you might not want a bound journal to write in. I am using the doane paper Large Flapper Jotter and loving it. I also use the larger Field Notes steno pad when it fits my use case.

Where the Flapper Jotter Rules: I find that the 80-page Flapper Jotter 5.5 x 8.5 inches is big enough for me and smaller and easier to carry than the 6 x 9 inch Field Notes Stenopad. This is perfect most of the time when you are sitting at a table or otherwise have a writing surface. $9 direct.

Where the Steno Pad Rules: The Field Notes Stenopad wins when you need to write in unusual locations like in the car, in bed or standing up because it has a really rigid and thicker cover and back.  I also like the black coating on the spiral wire on the Stenopad compared to the bare wire on the Flapper Jotter. $9.95 amazon or direct or in stores. If you haven’t been to, you should once – it is very entertaining.

Coffee Shop Computing circa Dec 2012

Let’s agree that computing extends to iPads and iPhones, tablets and smartphones and the iPod touch. I prefer to get my morning exercise and some caffeinated computing done while outside the house at a local coffee spot. My rule is that I can’t go play at the local coffee shop unless I walk there. Seems fair.

I have a near weightless REI backpack to carry my gear – the kind designed for carrying water while cycling. Here is my current configuration:

  • retina MacBook Pro 13″
  • iPad 3 and/or iPad mini
  • iPhone 5

With this lineup, there’s no need for an extra keyboard, I’ll use the rMBP if there’s much typing involved. And love every minute of it. Cost 3.5 lbs.

Favorite writing apps include Day One, Byword and iA Writer. I’ve grown to prefer apps that support markdown because rich text isn’t universally supported across apps and is especially weak on iOS. I also prefer doing my email (Mail), strenuous web research (Safari) , free form diagramming (Scapple) and other non-iOS work like FileMaker Pro development on Mac (I just finished release 12 of my Studio Manager product – yay!). I got a lot more enthused about Mac once I acquired this retina wonder in October.

Reading, which is probably the biggest chunk of my time on these outings, is done on iPad 3 with its awesome retina and better reading form factor. It’s almost a toss up between the 3 and my cute, svelte, nearly weightless iPad mini. I often take both of these so I have the choice between the sheer eye pleasure of retina or the feather-weight delight of the mini. If you take the iPad 3, what’s another .68 lbs? Both offers you the chance to switch away from the iPad 3 if it starts feeling heavy after a while. The already rumored retina mini may make this twosome obsolete next year. The only casualty in all this has been a Kindle – I haven’t popped for a nearly free ($119) Kindle Paperwhite due to lack of juggling capability. Even I have my limits.

Where does that leave the iPhone 5 then? This handheld of choice is still relevant my friends. The form factor is incredibly ahem handy especially when moving or in line. You still can’t beat the ease of use you get when in motion – walking to and from my coffee place of choice. If not in hand, it is in pocket and ready at a moment’s notice. I still prefer this little guy when reading in bed or on the couch in many cases. This preference will probably go away once the retina iPad mini is here. But the iPhone 5 awesome retina – better than ever due to blacker blacks, is a serious competitor for reading with the much less rewarding text of the iPad mini. Don’t forget all those lines we wait in. The omnipresent iPhone 5 is there by your side. No pack or purse required. It doesn’t hurt that it has cellular data either.

Why My Favorite Notebook App for iPad is ThinkBook

Thinkbook app for iPadThinkBook was released for iPad a little over a year ago. It took the app store by storm and was highly acclaimed. Since then, updates have been few and far between for this app. Nevertheless, this app stands tall in the app store because it is the best Think book. You should be using it as your idea book on your iPad. It’s available for $1.99 right now. Crazy good deal (iTunes).

ThinkBook is a remarkable digital notebook. There are many notebook apps on the iPad and I’ll discuss them briefly to explain how they differ from ThinkBook. Then on to twelve reasons to love ThinkBook and a couple limitations that might stop you. And one wish list item…

Handwriting is something else. First, there are a large number of Notebook apps that let you handwrite on the iPad with your finger or stylus. There are a bunch of these and the best of them are probably Penultimate and Notetaker HD. I’m going to skip that discussion to say, if you can type, you’ll probably prefer typing on your iPad even on the glass to handwriting just because it isn’t as tiring and you get digitally readable text when your done. Text is a godsend. It is lightweight and repurposable in the extreme. These handwriting apps are great and I keep hoping that Notes Plus will get debugged enough after its ambitious rewrite to win the handwriting category one of these days.

Catchall Notebooks Like Evernote are Different. I use Evernote to clip things to. To save articles for reference. It’s like an electronic filing cabinet for me and accessible from Mac, Web, iPhone and iPad. Evernote provides important knowledge functions – capture, collection, storage and search, primarily. ThinkBook is more about thinking than storing. It’s where you keep your thoughts and work with them. ThinkBook has the most powerful outlining and organizing tools I’ve ever seen. Keep using Evernote, but don’t stop there.

ThinkBook App for iPadThinkBook is this magical thinker’s notebook with unique and original features found nowhere else. There are limitations to ThinkBook and I will get to those, but first I want to talk about what is original and uniquely valuable in ThinkBook. The reason you should use it if your thoughts are an important part of who you are.

Twelve Reasons to Love ThinkBook

1. It’s an Amazing Outliner. Indenting and moving notes, to do items and more is built-in at the ground floor of this product. Organizing your ideas and notes is at the root of what this product does.

2. Several Great and Unusual Note Types. In ThinkBook, a notebook is a type of note. A Page is a type of note. A Project is a type of note. A To Do is a type of note. A Question and its answers is a type of Note. And, of course, plain text notes are notes.

3. Everything is a Note. I know that doesn’t sound like much, but what it means is any note type can be inside another note type. So, I can create a Day Page (note) on a Client Page (note) in a Clients Notebook (note) on some Business Page somewhere. It’s kind of like Alice in Wonderland or something. You get to stash things where you want. And then move them somewhere else or put things inside of the smallest thing.

4. Dashboards. ThinkBook has these widgets that will show you your outstanding to do’s and unanswered questions. They are called Finders because they allow you to define criteria about notes that makes them qualify to be found. Kind of like Smart Folders in OS X. Dashboards define a scope (Everywhere, a particular notebook or page to which it applies), required Tags, the number of found items to show, etc.. Very powerful stuff.

5. Projects. One of the note types you can create. A project has a special circle icon at the left and its text appears in bold. Underneath that project goes at least 1 to do item and any number of notes. As to do items under a project get completed, the circle fills in like a piechart showing % of completion of your to do items. Brilliant!

6. Fast Search. You can still just search for what you want when you want and get it in a hurry.

7. Tagging. What would a modern notebook be without tagging, so you can cross-reference to your heart’s content. And tags are inherited which is cool when notes can be inside of notes. If you tag a page business, then the notes on that page are automatically tagged as business.

8. Gorgeous Look. Every page of your ThinkBook is beautiful. ThinkBook looks amazing on the new iPad. I love it! I also really enjoy using Vera Sans Mono which is an unusual but very cool monospaced font option. Helvetica Neue, Gill Sans, Trebuchet MS, Hoefler Text, Palatino, New Times Roman and a cool newer font called Nobile is also available. Lots of font size choice. And three themes, Sky Blue, Polar White and Black Pearl. All three themes are great and I have trouble sticking to just one for very long.

9. Delicious Feel. You will love the intuitive and uber responsive gestures:
a. Indent or Outdent by dragging left or right and then down to move a series of contiguous notes. We need this all the time when outlining.
b. Drag notes to the right into the Slider when you drag on the right side of the screen. This feels wonderful once you get the hang of it.
c. Drag the slider up and down like butter and it pops into place in between items.
d. Drag things out of the slider by dragging left.
It goes on but the main thing is it is just right on iPad.

10. Tabs. My man Emiliano thinks things through. By default you get the most recent notes you visited last across the top, but there’s more. You can define some persistent tabs and then undefine them when your priorities change. If you are working on Money issues this week, bookmark that tab so it will stick around on the left side of the tab bar. When you have your money under control, slide the tab to the right to make it a normal tab that will only stay present for a while. Let’s say you made a mistake and really needed that Money tab back. Just slide it left and it gets a nice little black star on it to show it is here for the duration.

11. Dropbox Integration. You can save backups to dropbox of specific notes, notebooks, pages, projects. Or backup your entire Thinkbook to dropbox. Or you can save the text of a note, notebook, page, project to dropbox. By saving the text, you can then edit that text from Mac/PC or iPhone. Since dropbox is accessible via web, you can access from other devices too although you may need to download the file to edit it and then put it back in dropbox when you are done. You double-tap the icon to get all sorts of options for that item.

12. The Little Visual Help System. OK, I ran out of numbers. I could keep going but I like this help system! Lots of pictures. Accessible from whereever you are by clicking the little i in the left sidebar. There are 5 little instructional videos on the Thinkbook website. There is a Thinkbook Notebook on the Home Page with a lot more detailed help.

What’s Not to Like

1. Right now ThinkBook is text only. No pictures or documents or PDFs can be put inside your ThinkBook. But this is on the front burner for the Bitolithic development team.

2. Exporting is Limited and no Fancy Printing. You can email a notebook, page, project, to do or note in modestly formatted text form reflecting outlines, to do’s and notes. And don’t worry your data is not trapped in ThinkBook. In fact, ThinkBook’s notes are all plain text and use XML which is the most universal data language on the planet. The foundation is built, but, for now, ThinkBook doesn’t directly print or export to PDF so you don’t get the formatting pizzaz that comes alive inside of ThinkBook.

3. Useable URLs. Another essential addition – is on the do list.

Big Wishlist Item

1. ThinkBook for iPhone! But I can wait. The big plus will be that always with you thing that would place your wonderful Thinkbook in your pocket.

Don’t Wait

Don’t wait for more features. What has happened in the last year is the product has been debugged, polished and made wonderful. What hasn’t happened is these 3 items above and a lot of other things on the drawing board. But, ThinkBook is telling us our wait will soon be over. If you are anything like me, you’ll want to enjoy the powers of this tool now. It is mind-bendingly good!

Writing on Mac, iPad, iPhone – Best Apps

iPad, Macbook Air, iPhone 4 side by sideThese days people have two, three even four computers when you count smartphones and tablets. It helps a lot if the writing tools you have can roam freely between Mac, iPad and iPhone. Some apps I recommend work on all three which can be ideal. I’ll look at four different writing situations and the top app for each.

Besides app power, one must consider return on learning curve and whether or not an app has staying power. Evernote, for example,  recently acquired additional millions in  funding so can tick the staying power checkbox with an exclamation mark. Money isn’t everything, though. Nimble and innovative independent developers, like Marco Arment of Instapaper fame, have often beaten out much better endowed competitors.

As an independent knowledge professional, two things are critical:

  • You can’t do your work without Tools and Technology.
  • Time is short – Learning curves need to be kept in check.

Going Apple. By consolidating around Apple products right now, you save time on those infernal learning curves and position yourself for the future. With iPhone and iPad hitting the top customer satisfaction ratings year after year, it behooves you to choose them if you already have a Mac.  The trifecta of Mac-iPad-iPhone is the most streamlined, powerful, future-proof toolkit available.

iPad is Where the Action Is. I’ve been focusing on the iPad in this blog since the first iPad came out March 2010. Most posts are about iPad apps for knowledge professionals. The reason I focus here is that the iPad is changing the way we work. Knowledge professionals need to learn about this new kind of computer and what it can do for you.

These are early days. There are lots of apps and some are still getting better at a rapid rate. There are clear winners but victory is fleeting. Some apps have benefitted by being early but have lagged and can’t compete a year or two later. Newer entrants that took more time to make better apps or have leveraged the latest iOS, hardware and emerging ideas, have taken the lead in many cases. Writing Kit and Drafts are perfect examples.

Since I write software myself, albeit using FileMaker Pro (which does have an iPad and iPhone counterpart by the way), I focus on the software for iPad and iPhone.

Mac Still Matters. The Mac is part of the picture and Mac apps can be synergetic partners with iPad and iPhone apps. That’s Apple’s plan. Apple isn’t pushing the Mac so much as it is reinventing computing on all three of its platforms: Mac, iPad and iPhone.

The Cloud is the Glue. The fourth partner in the mix is the Cloud and iCloud. Dropbox has developed quite a following among iPhone and iPad users, especially for those who want to do a bit of real work on their mobile device(s). Since iOS has this quirk of not having a shared storage place on board (like the Finder on Mac), you can substitute the Dropbox cloud for that shared storage spot.

The couple of gigs Dropbox provides is enough for most document sharing schemes and you can get more by inviting friends or paying a few bucks. I have light concerns about security from hackers, lost laptops and government prying eyes but Dropbox is so handy that I use it anyway as needed – without overdoing it. By the way, I have least concerns about Apple than any other cloud provider which leads me to iCloud.

iCloud. The new Cloud on the block. The “it just works” thing about iCloud is completely addictive. I turned iCloud on in February and it has been working flawlessly for me. These are still early days, though, since most apps don’t support iCloud yet. Brooks Review just wrote a good piece on iCloud today.

Dropbox Does Have Advantages. The one issue with iCloud is it doesn’t allow for sharing data between apps. But Dropbox does. It takes a decent app to be programmed to allow you to use the same dropbox folder or all dropbox folders, but when it is, you can then avoid using many folders for similar kinds of things if you happen to be using three or so writing apps which is what I am going to recommend in a minute.

My Top Picks for Writing Apps

Four Kinds of Writing Apps. Writing is a big deal for a knowledge professionals and all writing is not alike. I recommend you have at least two writing apps and I use three. That doesn’t count some other Mac apps that come into play from time to time.

Drafts App iConCapturing Quick Notes. Right now the coolest capture app on iPhone is Drafts from Agile Tortoise. What makes it great for capture is that when you open the app, it instantly creates a new document, handles naming for you, and brings up the keyboard. If you have the iPhone 4S, you also get a microphone key that lets you dictate the note. Also, Drafts excels at getting your notes from Drafts to where you need them for a project. You can send your note on to email, the clipboard, Dropbox, Pages, Writing Kit, Elements, iA Writer, Byword, PlainText, WriteRoom, TaskPaper and more. Drafts is a great example of do one thing well and play well with others. This is a great new trend for apps on the iPad and iPhone. Drafts is not yet available on iPad, there you may want to go with your favorite distraction free text editor to get a speedy open for those important fleeting thoughts and notes. (Drafts 99¢ in the App store).

Distraction Free Pure Writing. Most of the best plain text editor writing apps these days offer a really good distraction free writing experience. The best experience is iA Writer, but there is competition here. Just know that iA Writer is super simple, clean and pristine with a truly great monospaced font. Also, iA Writer is available across the board on Mac ($8.99 in the Mac App Store), iPad and iPhone (iOS Universal app 99¢). That’s where you get the most mileage if all 3 apps are really good which is the case with iA Writer (iA stands for Information Architects and that’s what these people are). If you are willing to go down a notch in clean and simple but still want distraction reduction, try Byword. Byword is also available on Mac ($10), iPad and iPhone ($3) and it is more powerful and gives you some customization options in return for a wee bit of distraction.

Longer Document Online Writing. I just wrote about this option in my last piece on why you should be using Writing Kit for iPad and iPhone when you write. Writing Kit is a pleasure to use with some great typefaces, a wonderful extra keyboard row, built-in Duck Duck Go search and a browser plus deep integration with Instapaper and much more. Here’s where you can write your blog post, eBook or anything that will require a bit of onine research along the way. The only weaknesses here are that this is a full-on rig! Writing Kit gets out of your way, but its powerful tools at your fingertips aren’t going to provide quite the pristine zen-like experience of an iA Writer. However, what you get in return is sheer efficiency with a lot less time lost to interminable app-switching. ($5 for both iPad/iPhone).

Word Processing. I seem to avoid this category more often than not, but you may either have a long-term love affair with Microsoft Office, have to live with it due to company policy, or just want a real word processor for your writing needs. If so and you have a choice, you should start with Pages which is available for $20 on Mac and $10 for the universal app for iPad and iPhone. Pages has great iCloud document handling which will get even better in Mountain Lion (right now the Mac is lagging iOS relative to iCloud and you have to actually download things yourself from iCloud when on a Mac. I also highly recommend Keynote at the same prices as an amazing all-purpose creation app that will do graphics, outlining, presentation-creation and animation. It’s not strictly a writing app but you sure will find it handy and it does work with all 3 of the holy trinity.

One Last Thing to Look Forward to. I’m a sucker for index cards as an organizing tool and really think Scrivener on Mac rocks. It’s available on Windows too. Scrivener on Mac is so hot that I am willing to hold out a lot of hope for what we will see when they release their iPad and iPhone versions of Scrivener. Beware of vaporware, folks but this could be really good. Meanwhile, these various writing apps are so good that I would never wait before meeting my needs now with what is real and available on iPad and iPhone. Happy writing!