It’s almost ridiculous how much effort and time I have put into trying to find a better way to keep track of the snippets of writing that form the foundation of my life.
The great majority of what I write is public, and for that I use Tumblr, principally. That part is simple.
But I am constantly at work on other projects that are intended to be published in other ways, and until recently the fragments of writing that I produce — or the snippets of text that I collect — were all over the place. Some as text documents on my hard drive, others in Google docs, others as posts in work media tools. A total mess.
A few weeks ago, as I was starting to work on The Business Of Social Business, an ebook to be published by GigaOM’s new publishing arm, I started to collect quotes and observations of a small group of smart people. These come from online forms, as well as notes I was copying during interviews. Since I wasn’t planning on writing the book as a single monolithic document, I realized I needed a few things if I were to research and write the book in a sane fashion:
- A tool (or tool) to manage fragments, thoughts, and quotes.
- A tool that lets me easily edit fragments,
- add some lightweight styling to the text,
- possibly publish to the web, or export in various formats, and
- simply organize the bits and pieces.
- Preferentially, I thought it would be good if this solution would integrate with Dropbox, so I could potentially work on multiple devices, so that was more iffy.
- I had envisioned using an ‘index card’ like interface, but not based on previous experience.
- And, although I was motivated principally by the book, I thought it would be best if the tool would support more than one project at a time, as well.
I didn’t think this would be too tall an order. But it became a personal hell, because it seemed like none of the tools I heard or read about would match my personal way of doing things, or, the way I would like to do things if I only had the tools to do so.
I will start with the bottom line first: I finally — only last week — stumbled upon TextDrop, which is a browser-based web application that is integrated with Dropbox in a direct way. I think this was the first review I saw:
Matther Guay, TextDrop: An Online Text Editor for Your Dropbox Files
A native app for plain text writing will usually let you edit any plain text file on your computer, and save new or edited files in any folder as you’d expect. You can then copy the file onto a flash drive, edit it in another app, post it on your website, or anything else you want. That’s the beauty of plain text: it works anywhere, and you’ll never have to worry about losing what you wrote as long as you have the files.
Most writing apps online, however, store your text in their own database, making it hard to save what you’ve written as a plain text file and almost impossible to sync to your computer and edit in other apps without resorting to copy and paste. TextDrop is a new web app that turns this totally around, letting you edit and create plain text files in your Dropbox account, right in your browser. All your files are safe and synced with Dropbox, and you’ve got all the benefits of a minimalist writing app in your browser. It’s like a writer’s dream come true.
And, with the exception of the index card UX metaphor, I am happily using TextDrop, although ‘dream come true’ might be pushing it a bit.
So, now having gotten to the end, let me start at the beginning.
I started by looking for tools that supported text fragments and the index card metaphor.
Index Card for iPad looked like a likely candidate, but the iPad is too limited in support for typing, and there is no web or mac version. I fooled with it, but decided that I would need to do my research and writing elsewhere, even if I were to use it downstream for composing fragments into sections of the book.
Scrivener is widely regarded as a great tool for book writing, but I found it overly complicated and finicky. Also, Scrivener has a private database, so there is no easy way to sync the elements of a book and use other tools to edit or create them. There is a so-called integration with Simplenote, but its a kludge.
I tried out Ulysses, which seemed simpler than Scrivener, but shared some of the same problems:
I considered using Simplenote, which is a very simple web-based text editor, one that can integrate with Dropbox and which has clients on many devices (iPad shown below), but it has a few issues, the biggest being this:
- Simplenote’s integration with Dropbox is based on the creation of a single Dropbox folder, called ‘Simplenote’, and all the notes are managed there as text files. I really wanted a tool that would be able to edit text files across my entire Dropbox directory, not just in one folder.
- Simplenote does have tags for notes, and clients on all the devices I use, but more than that I wanted to be able to mark up text a bit, and Simplenote doesn’t support that.
I read about Notational Velocity, and I really liked everything about it. It seemed to meet all my needs except one glaring defect. While you can opt to work on text file in a Dropbox folder, you can only have a single database/folder. Other than that, great features:
- UX is very smart: the same text area is used to create new notes and search against existing ones. If the text entered doesn’t match an existing file, pressing return leads to it being created.
- Supports Markdown, a simple text-based approach to styling text, and also can be exported as HTML-based styled text.
A variant of Notational Velocity, called NValt, adds extra features, but inherits all the same limitations, principally the issue with a single datablase/folder.
So, I was stuck: I liked the user experience of Notational Velocity, but wanted to be able to roam from one Dropbox folder, where I might be storing the fragments for the book, to a second one, where I could be amassing text fragments for a report, or a presentation.
And then I learned about TextDrop, which was a/ inspired by Notational Velocity, but b/ allows users to edit anywhere in their Dropbox account.
So, now I am set, and productively working on several projects at once.