As I struggled to regain traction on my novel, my head was abuzz with distracting gnat clouds of ideas and issues. Prewriting seemed the accepted and logical solution, so I broke my manuscript into individual scenes in Scrivener as a precursor to outlining the entire plot. This, unfortunately, served only to stir up additional clouds of writing gnats. So my next attempt to silence them was a technique I use at my day job: write myself empty. It is as if I literally pluck the distractions from my mind and stick them to the paper. The effort of articulating an item is an acknowledgment and respect of its importance. Then that gnat is content to remain in storage, quietly awaiting its turn to be at center stage and to find resolution. Let’s seek inspiration from the work tool (which I’ll call the “fly paper”) that I use to snare and subdue distractions.
Fly Paper for Day-Job Gnats
- Project Name
- The “About” section rarely appears for most projects
- It can be used to keep milestone or milestone dates top-of-mind
- It can be used to capture names, addresses, or numbers of particular consequence
- In Progress
- A concise statement of one task to be accomplished
- All items are dated since a superior may ask when an issue was reported, resolved, delegated, due, etc.
- ISSUE: Issues are prefixed with an uppercase label to make them easy to identify because they also tend to be urgent
- Items that are awaiting a response or action from another party can be prefixed with “AWAITING:” or colored (I use fuchsia)
- Bold text, red lettering, and/or yellow highlighting identify important or urgent items
- Next Steps
- Like the “In Progress” section, except for items yet to be undertaken
- On the Horizon
- Like “Next Steps,” but for items much farther into the future
- This section won’t exist for most projects
- The reason for keeping a completed section is not so much for a sense of accomplishment, but a quick reference when a superior wants a status update
- All items in the completed section use a gray font to deemphasize them
- Issues that have been dealt with receive a prefix of “Resolved,” “Work-Around,” “NAPWAD” (not a problem, working as designed), etc.
- This section is also a place to document major decisions made, who made them, and when they were made
Although, the title on this document is “Status Report,” it’s not actually something seen by my superiors. I’m the primary beneficiary and I use this document to juggle multiple projects—some of which can be complex, lengthy, and large in scope. Every workday morning I open this document to set my course, and it stays open to capture the inevitable additions that pop up throughout the day. It helps me silence distractions, focus on the top-tier tasks, and ensure next-tier items don’t fall through the cracks.
Oh, wait! That sounds a lot like writing a novel! The structure of the fly-paper for writing gnats will be different than day-job gnats. But it shares the same act of capturing and the same benefit of silencing. If you’d like to apply my “Status Report” template to a project at home or work, I’ve shared the file below, in Microsoft Word format, for download. For those without MS Word access, I’ve also uploaded and converted it to Google Docs and hopefully that will provide beneficial.
Which Fly Paper for Writing Gnats?
Mind Maps versus Flow Direction
Finding the right technique is not the same as finding the right tool to perform that technique. Instead of assuming the same tool can be applied to the technique, I wanted to carefully consider which “fly paper” would be best at capturing my writing gnats. The first idea that came to mind was the popular and obvious solution of mind mapping. There are plenty of mind mapping tools available, including Scrivener’s sibling Scapple. However, despite its integration advantage, Scapple is only available on Mac and Windows, so it doesn’t work on mobile devices nor is it cloud based. And even though I’ve tried some mind mapping solutions that are cloud based and available as mobile apps, I haven’t been satisfied with the results. Mind mapping is great on a giant whiteboard or even on a big sheet of paper. But most screens can only show a portion of a map legibly. And no matter the device, onscreen mapping doesn’t flow like handwritten mind maps. Instead it stutters and drags since I cannot dedicate my focus to mapping—some attention must be diverted to operating the technology. I’ve persevered when such mind maps were part of a group event, or a presentation, or when I needed to capture or publish the results. So I know that, with enough dedication and practice, mind mapping software could fit your need. If you’re already at that point, be sure to share your software recommendations (in the comments below) for your fellow readers.
For me, however, when it comes to writing gnats, the goal is to eliminate distractions, not accommodate or outperform them. My energy and focus needs to go to actual writing, and that as quickly and easily as possible. But more importantly, mind mapping flows in a direction very different from writing. Writing in English flows from left to right and down the page. In contrast, mind-mapping expands from the center of the page in all kinds of directions. So I need a tool that works with the natural flow of writing. The relationships that were previously captured in the bubbles and lines of a mind map can be transformed into headings, indents, and other rubrics that are compatible with the directional flow of writing. Those methods have already proven both their ability to capture and organize thoughts in my day-job tool and will work equally well on writing gnats. And since my mind is already practiced in those features, I want a tool that not only offers them, but also allows me to invoke them without interrupting my flow (i.e., intuitive and easy controls).
Before listing my test bed, I feel the need to address the tangent of “distraction-free” writing apps. Unfortunately, that term is often code for “dumb” and the creators are trying to sell a lack of features as if it were a benefit. I’ve tried a few of these apps and haven’t found any benefit to them. Perhaps you are the type who is truly distracted by menus and toolbars, but I have found these “distraction-free” apps a waste of money and time. I do, however, have to give Scrivener credit for its offering, because it hides rather than eliminates features. Also, Scrivener gives you control over that “distraction free” experience such as selecting a pleasing backdrop, scaling the font, setting the editor width, etc. But for me “distraction-free” is not about what is on the screen, but rather what is buzzing in my head, and the features that will quell those distractions are:
- Size, color, highlighting, bold, italic, underline: to draw the eye and triage importance
- Strikethrough: to indicate a consideration was made but rejected
- Headings: to organize and navigate the document
- Indents: to show dependencies and relationships
- Bulleted lists: the core element of the tool, and when sequence is not relevant
- Numbered lists: when sequence and hierarchy are both important
- Desktop: To leverage a full sized keyboard, mouse, and dual monitor setup (Microsoft Windows in my scenario)
- Mobile: The ability to work on a project while away from a desk by using a phone or tablet (iPhone and iPad for my scenario)
- Cloud: Allows work in a browser and ease of switching platforms because the files are stored in or synchronized through the internet.
- Copy & Paste: I should be able to transfer what I’ve captured to a finished document. That's typically via Copy & Paste, and the platform should not mangle the style or destroy proper typographical elements such as:
- urved double quotes, single quotes, and apostrophes: “, ”, ‘, ’ versus " and '
- Hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes: -, –, and —
- Ellipsis: … versus . . .
How is Scrivener a contender when it’s not even a cloud product? First, it is vigorously targeted at writers, so I want to know if it can stand up to the rigors of my demands. Second, its Dropbox support makes it somewhat cloud friendly. Dropbox sync is nearly automatic on desktops and on mobile the manual sync is so simple it’s hard to consider obtrusive. And, lastly, the iOS Scrivener app qualifies it for the mobile requirement.
Although it delivered on nearly every requirement, I found the interface quirky. Adjusting to its nuances had a slightly steeper learning curve than other products with which I’ve experimented. I also found its support for headings and numbered lists weak and indents can only be used with lists unless you elect to manually wrestle them into place. The most glaring issue was Copy & Paste, and a search of their forums found other Scrivener customers of the same mind. In the screenshots below you can see where I’ve pasted text into Scrivener. In the first example, the lines overlap each other and in the second they pasted as hyperlinks (although without any actual destination).
Google Docs passed with flying colors and offered all the features needed. It even made the sweet spot in the headings department, offering four pre-built levels (the need for levels deeper than four quickly diminishes as the hierarchy grows). The editor is responsive and fairly intuitive, and being browser-based not only qualifies it as cloud-based but multi-platform as well. But its crowning achievement is the price of “free.”
I didn’t expect the Notes app to be a serious contender. But recent improvements under iOS 11 and iCloud support made it worthy of at least a passing mention and experimentation. Unsurprisingly I found font manipulation and list features minimal, so it’d only serve those with equally undemanding requirements. But, for those with an iPhone always within reach the convenience is hard to deny for short and simple captures.
Microsoft Word is the dominant platform when it comes to word processors. And this admission comes from a WordPerfect expert who remained loyal to the very end. But the end did come, and in the long years following, Word retained its throne legitimately with a powerful feature set. Its iOS versions are incredibly close to their desktop counterparts, but the browser version had two issues. The most significant issue is the lack of smart quote support. Instead of getting curly quotes and apostrophes (like “this” and ‘this’ it gives you "this" and 'this'), which is important if you’re writing dialog or using contractions. Of lesser impact is that Word Online lacks decent tab key support, which customers have decried since 2012. Tables can be used as a work-around for the lack of tab key support. But I thought I’d mention these two shortcoming and Microsoft’s extended attitude towards these issues. And it’s worth noting that Google Docs handles both these features without issue.
Then there is the price. And that’s exacerbated by being bundled in a hard-to-resist office suite. For less than a hundred dollars a household of five not only gets Word, but Excel (spreadsheet), PowerPoint (presentations), Access (database), OneNote (like Evernote on steroids), Publisher (desktop publishing), Outlook (email), and a terabyte of OneDrive cloud storage and synchronization. While you’re certainly getting value for your money, it also cannot be called cheap, especially when it must be paid annually.
As a power user familiar with all the products in the bundle, with nearly 20 years of experience, and having multiple computers that can leverage the device licenses, it was easy to justify the subscription. But even into my second year of a subscription, I didn’t find myself using it fully due to a mental block. Despite my investment in Office365, I would catch myself in Google Docs to creating articles, idea lists, or project notes.
I couldn’t blame habit and familiarity because it only happened for personal documents—I dive into Word and Excel without hesitation every day at work. I can’t blame accessibility because even multi-factor access is both quick and flows smoothly. Nor can I blame capability because I hadn’t spent enough time using it to know if the features fell short or not. I was puzzled by my irrational reluctance until I realized that the annual subscription was haunting me, and that I was subconsciously treating its cost as a risk. Perhaps that was due to Microsoft’s troubled OneDrive history (I was an early adopter of the now defunct SkyDrive and Window Live Folders). But Google isn’t blameless either when it comes to abandoned customers (e.g., Reader, Picasa, Wave, etc.). So, I’ve begun to be intentional in my usage of Office365 to stamp out my irrational reticence and to surface and solidify any real concerns should they exist.
Productivity is the goal, so if you’re already proficient and content with a tool then stick with it. However, if you’re without a tool then pick one compatible with your financial assets, your mindset, and your skill set. Google is free, quite powerful, and a great place to start your journey. Scrivener is an affordable solution targeted at authors who want an integrated writing environment and only need a basic text editor. And finally, Office365 is for users who relish a rich feature set instead of being daunted by its power or its price.