As a child, I was horrified by people who wrote in books. In high school, I’d go through my textbooks at the start of the new school year and carefully the penciled scribbles and doodles left by previous students. Once I started college I was expected to write in books, to annotate books, to know how and what to annotate. At the time, I rejected the very thought of annotating books; it just felt wrong. I wasn’t going to to do it.
I successfully avoided annotating books until my senior year as an undergraduate English major, when I first took my first Chaucer class in Middle English. The Robinson Chaucer, while an admirable scholarly text, was not student friendly. There were no notes on the page; they were all appendices at the back of the book. I resorted to making careful glosses using a fine point orange-body Bic Pen (my favorite tool for annotating books for decades).
As I read more texts in Middle and Old English and Celtic languages in graduate school, I used marginal notes to help me find particular passages, and glossed difficult words and concepts that weren’t otherwise explained by the text. Once I started teaching, I glossed with colored pencils in order to make finding a particular passage or note easier while lecturing and leading discussions. I still regularly annotate books, and thought I might save others some time by explaining how and why I annotate.
What Does it Mean to Annotate
Here’s a formal dictionary definition of annotate from the American Heritage Dictionary:
v.tr.To furnish (a literary work) with critical commentary or explanatory notes; gloss.
v.intr.To gloss a text (s. v. American Heritage Dictionary annotate).And here’s the entry for annotation:
- The act or process of furnishing critical commentary or explanatory notes.
- A critical or explanatory note; a commentary (American Heritage Dictionary, s.v. annotation).
In other words, when we annotate a book or text, we mark it up, via marginal notes or glosses, marks in the text itself, or highlighting and underlining passages in order to create additional meaning and understanding for ourselves. By careful annotation, we make a text our own. Careful, thoughtful annotation helps us engage with the text and remember it.
Annotating books (or other reading matter) helps us read as an active, engaged reader more likely to remember what you read. When we annotate or mark texts to emphasize the important information, the goal is to emphasize the key points or concepts. Don’t simply highlight or underline everything. Prioritize the material that you know you will use later in your own work, or that you want to be able to find quickly and easily later.
Glossing and Marginal Notes
Glossing, or making notes in the margins and within the text itself can help enormously when you locate something you read and need to remember. Glossing can be either a note that summarizes or comments on a passage or it can be a label, for instance, adding the word distinction in the margin, to note when an author draws a distinction between two items, or analogy, when an author compares an unfamiliar concept to a familiar one. Or you might gloss something with short note to provide a definition of an unfamiliar term. This last method was the most common kind of gloss in earlier eras when scribes would annotate a foreign term with a marginal note, as in the image to the right from the 8th century Gospels of Lindisfarne. A monk named Aldred added Old English glosses between the lines of the Latin text of the Gosples as a translation aide. Medieval and earlier glosses like this eventually resulted in the modern glossary, a collection of terms appended to a book). Etymologically Modern English gloss derives from Middle English glose, from Old French, from Medieval Latin glōsa, from Latin glōssa, foreign word requiring explanation, from Greek, “tongue, language” (American Heritage Dictionary s.v. gloss 2).
Highlighting and Underlining
Highlighting, that is using a colored marker or pencil that colors text so that the text is still readable through the color, is a useful technique for annotating books. It is different from underlining in that the entire line(s) of text are colored in highlighting, whereas underlining usually means to draw a thin line under the line of text.
Don’t get carried away with underlining or highlighting. If you highlight or underline more than about 15% of a given page, you’re probably not prioritizing the information. Only highlight those concepts or points that are most important.
As an alternative to underlining or highlighting, consider annotating by drawing a vertical line in the margin to mark the passage in question, possibly with a note in the margin about why it’s important.
Annotation Styles and Codes
It’s a good idea to create your own personal style of annotating books. You might circle important concepts, and underline terms and definitions. Consider using the margin to summarize key points with a brief note. It can also be useful to use the margin to ask questions that are answered in that section of the text. Many readers use a question mark in the margin to make it easy to find a section or concept that they do not understand. It’s helpful to create your own personal style of annotating. You might circle important concepts, underline terms and definitions, or summarize key points with a brief note in the margin. You can see an example of one way of annotating a text here.
In some cases, you might want to have a short note on the flyleaf of a book, if you’ve used special annotation symbols just for that book.
Keep It Clean
Many readers particularly students planning to resell their textbooks hate the idea of annotating books. Sometimes it’s just a personal dislike; sometimes it’s because the book in question isn’t yours, so you shouldn’t mark it permanently. In that case, consider using post-its that you can remove before selling the books or keep in books you own. There are special stickynotes designed explicitly for making notes about a page as you read. Alternatively, I often take notes by hand in a notebook or pad of paper or on my computer as I read instead of or in addition to marking up the book.
If you routinely use .pdfs or ebooks, there are digital equivalents for the forms of annotation used in printed books. There are minor differences in the methods for accessing and creating the annotations based on the app in question, but the basic methodology is similar. Typically you can make digital marginal sticky notes, dog-ear pages or book mark them with a note, highlight text, and underline. With most .pdf readers, you can also draw circles, arrows, and other shapes, on the .pdf pages.
Annotating has two primary purposes; it allows us to find particular passages or ideas in a text, and it aids our memory and understanding because as we closely read and think about the text, and engage with it by annotations, we make the text our own. We add personal meaning and interpretation.
Tools for Annotation
You don’t actually need fancy tools to annotate books or documents. But the right tool can make a difference in legibility and utility.
Smaller sticky notes, the familiar 1 3/8 inch x 1 7/8 inch notes are useful for making marginal notes without marking the page. Page flags make it easy to find the pages and passages you know will be important without writing in your books.
Sometimes it’s helpful to take extensive notes about a page without writing on the page. These removable notes have tabs that you can label, making it easy to find the specific topic you’re looking for. And you can use them to take notes while you read and then remove them, either to save in a notebook for later use or discard when you no longer need them. There are a lot of different kinds of sticky notes, with all sorts of uses. It’s often convenient to have a portable assortment to use not only for annotating, but for note-taking, and marking sections for review.
Taking notes while you read, either in the book or text itself or on paper is often particularly useful when you’re researching for use in something you write later. Cornell notes, which have a central area for the note, a margin for comments or page references, and a summary field at the bottom for questions or ideas to emphasize can be particularly helpful in annotating and taking notes about what you are reading. You easily print your own; there are many free templates to print your own online, or you can use paper you already have, and draw some lines with a straight edge. I did this for years, and eventually made my own template.
A multi-pen with red, blue, and black ink, and a .05 mm mechanical pencil is exceedingly useful as an all-purpose writing and annotating tool. You can use it to make color-coded annotations, take notes, and you have erasable pencil too.
The utility of highlighting passages with very visible color is that they’re easy to find. But sometimes it’s better or easier to use pencil to make notes and marks that you can erase later. These Apsara pencils are smooth-writing dark graphite wood-case pencils and they come with a sharpener and an eraser. You will be surprised how nice these are to write with, and by the quality of the sharpener.
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One reason a lot of writers tell me they’ve never tried NaNoWriMo, the annual November challenge to write 50,000 words in a month, is that they can’t fit in long writing sessions; they work and have other commitments, or they don’t have a portable device and can’t write at home because there are too many distractions. They, and you, need a portable writing studio.
One strategy for coping with the requirement to write every day for NaNoWriMo is to have a portable writing studio that doesn’t rely on digital technology and a convenient electrical outlet for writing. The “portable” part means you can carry the basic necessities to make any place your writing studio. The “basics” are what you personally need to be able to write. They need to be portable (and I really do mean “the basics”) and you need to have a convenient way to carry them.
Everyone’s Portable Writing Studio (PWS) is a little bit different. For some writers, it means having everything they need for several hours of intense writing, including food and drink. For others, it means their notebook and pen (or pencil), and grabbing ten minutes here and fifteen there, to write. Your PWS will reflect the way you write. You might need a small backpack; others will be able to pack their studio in a slim messenger style bag, or even in a back pocket, for the true minimalist.
It’s a matter of personal preferences, with the goal of being able to write effectively, without distractions, and without the need for electricity. For some, that means a battery powered tablet or minimalist laptop; for me, that means paper, pen and pencil.
It took me a couple of years to figure out what I really need to write effectively almost anywhere; there was a lot of trial and error, and it changed for me recently because it became harder to rely on the ubiquity of the Internet for backup and the availability of electrical outlets for power. I mostly write in long sessions; 90 minutes or so, then a break away from my chair for 15 or 20 minutes.
My PWS consists of:
- 1 “large” A4 (c. 8.5” x 11”) or B5 (“composition notebook” sized) notebook with good paper (suitable for a fountain pen) that easily erases.
- 1 “medium” A5 (c. 5.7 x 8.3) notebook with good paperGood paper is a matter of personal choice and intended use; I want to be able to take notes with a fountain pen without a lot of bleed-through, or with a pencil and be able to erase the pencil easily … Continue reading
- 1 fountain pen with spare ink cartridges in blue or blue-black
- 1 fountain pen with spare ink cartridges in green
- 1 Kuro Toga mechanical pencil with spare lead
- 1 Tombow Knock eraser with refill
- 1 set over-ear headphones
- 1 iPhone with music/ambient nature recordings for writing
I fit this in a small messenger bag, with room to spare for a bottle of water or a snack. I do a lot of writing in places where connecting to the Internet or electricity is problematic, or downright impossible because the AC outlets aren’t usable or are in use. That means I’m often writing by hand, with handwriting that only I can read. I draft and take notes and plan by hand, and later, keyboard the actual draft. Often I don’t have time to type up the previous day or night’s work, so I begin the next session by making a clean copy of the writing from the previous session, and revise as I go. This process of making a clean copy and revising really helps me get back into the flow of what I’m writing.
I use the larger “composition” sized B5 notebook for drafting, notes, and planning; I use the smaller notebook for clean copies of drafts, to keyboard later. I use Mead Composition books that are made in Vietnam from sugarcane; they work well for first drafts with fountain pen or pencil (I can write on both sides of the paper) and cost less then $1.00 on sale.Look at the back of the notebook for a tiny label that says Made In Vietnam, and sometimes, the word sugarcane will be included I use an A5 sized notebook (c. ) with decent paper for my clean copies. This might be a Scribbles that Matter notebook, or a Baron Fig notebook, or a no-name similarly-sized notebook with decent paper (lined or dot-grid for me).
Test whatever notebook you plan to use with the pens and / or pencils you’ll use, to make sure they’ll work for you.
I frequently my rough draft in pencil, writing as fast as I can before the ideas melt away. I’ll revise in ink, or use a different color of ink, if I need to distinguish between versions or possible alternatives. I’m a multiple drafts/recursive reviser sort of writer, usually, so I’ll draft and revise, and then copy a clean draft in the smaller notebook.
I like the Kuro Toga mechanical pencil because it’s designed to rotate a little each time you press and lift the pencil up from the paper; that means it’s never dull. I like Tombow Knock erasers because they let me erase precisely and very cleanly.
I prefer to write with fountain pens because it’s easier on my hands; fountain pens glide over the paper. When I’m writing away from home I use pens I can afford to lose, like the Platinum Preppy.
I listen to a playlist of downloaded local music or ambient nature sounds on my iPhone to help mask background sound.
A Possible “Minimalist” PWS:
The idea behind the minimalist PWS is that you can fit your notebook and pen in your pocket, literally. You can write anywhere you happen to be. The poster child for “pocket” notebooks are the small paper bound Field Notes; there are similar notebooks on Etsy, and from a number of other companies. Some writers use one small notebook per chapter, and carry a second notebook for background note, plot ideas, etc. Some people like to use a single small bound A6 notebook like Moleskine or Leuchturm; they still fit in a pocket.
A multipen means that you have more than one color of ink available, and even a pencil or stylus, depending on the base pen. You can write wherever you are, whenever you have ten minutes, with the intention of either keyboarding your current work later or making a “clean” copy by hand after you edit.
It’s not too late to create your own PWS for NaNoWriMo. What’s in your PWS for writing anywhere, anytime?
Originally published on AbsoluteWrite.com
↑1 Good paper is a matter of personal choice and intended use; I want to be able to take notes with a fountain pen without a lot of bleed-through, or with a pencil and be able to erase the pencil easily without smearing ↑2 Look at the back of the notebook for a tiny label that says Made In Vietnam, and sometimes, the word sugarcane will be included
Fall is here, and that means we’re getting closer to NaNoWriMo.
One way to start thinking about what to write for NaNoWriMo is to keep a writer’s journal, one that’s primarily about prepping to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days during the month of November.
Writers’ journals are a venerable tradition, used by many writers in the past and increasingly popular today. A writers’ journal can be a conventional “dear diary” journal, of the sort Samuel Pepys kept, or it can be a record of where you are in a writing project, where you need to go, what plot points and character traits you want to remember and emphasize — even your emotional response and impressions about your writing.
John Steinbeck kept a writers’ journal from the beginning of his work on The Grapes of Wrath, later published as Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath. For Steinbeck, journaling helped him cope with and mitigate his anxiety and stress about writing every day. Sample entries include short notes like these:
May 31, 1938: I shall try simply to keep a record of working days and the amount done in each and the success (as far as I can know it) of the day. Just now the work goes well.
June 18: I am assailed with my own ignorance and inability. Honesty. If I can keep an honesty to it… If I can do that it will be all my lack of genius can produce. For no one else knows my lack of ability the way I do. I am pushing against it all the time. Sometimes, I seem to do a good little piece of work, but when it is done it slides into mediocrity
September 7: So many things to drive me nuts… I’m afraid this book is going to pieces. If it does, I do too . . . If only I wouldn’t take this book so seriously. It is just a book after all, and a book is very dead in a very short time. And I’ll be dead in a very short time too. So the hell with it. Let’s slow down, not in pace or wordage but in nerves.
October 4: My laziness is overwhelming. I must knock it over . . . I’ve been looking back over this diary and by God the pressures were bad the whole damned time. There wasn’t a bit that wasn’t under pressure and now the pressure is removed and I’m still having trouble. It would be funny if my book was no good at all.
Other writers are less interested in their emotional response to their writing, and more interested in counting the words; they often write short notes about the current word count, the daily word count, and what they mean to start writing about in their next session.
567 words this morning; 31789 total. Must figure out who Bryan really is, and why he wants to find the crater. What is his driving need? What will finding the crater do for him?
As a way of prepping for NaNoWriMo, consider starting a NaNo journal. Starting a NaNoWriMo journal now allows you to plan, plot and work on characters and backstory without actually drafting. Consider the NaNoWriMo journal a sandbox for your writerly imagination. A journal can not only be really helpful in terms of concentrating on writing during NaNo November, it can be a great deal of fun.
A NaNo journal doesn’t have to be elaborate; a .99 cent composition book from the corner drugstore, a spiral notebook, or even a small pocket notebook that’s meant to fit in a back pocket or purse are all perfectly fine; whatever works for you. You might be happier and more like to use a journal app that runs on your smart phone. Like a pocket notebook, an app for journaling on your phone is convenient, letting you make quick notes about your WIP while waiting for the bus or during your lunch break. There are journaling apps for Android and iOS. You might even want to use a bullet journal as a writers’ journal.
If you’re intrigued by the idea of journaling, October 1 starts National Journal Writing Month:
National Journal Writing Month (NaJoWriMo) helps you start and maintain a journal writing habit in 30 days. NaJoWriMo is geared toward personal growth, reaching your goals, and recording your life as you live it.
NaNoJoWriMo is a quarterly event (January, April, July and October) meant to encourage people to try journaling. It’s not terribly rule-bound; you can journal as you see fit, with a goal of journaling every day for 30 days. There are daily prompts, as well as lots of tips about starting and maintaining a journaling habit. NaNoJoWriMo has a theme every quarter; this quarter’s theme is Unleashing Your Creative Mind Through Journal Writing. That sounds perfect in terms of NaNoWriMo planning. The NaNoJoWriMo website has a free newsletter; sign up for a free downloadable with lots of tips about starting and maintaining a journaling habit.
Journaling is a great way to start your writing day, and it can be freeing to be able to write without it having to be your WIP. You might want to keep a journal to remind yourself of the good things in your life (an awesomeness journal). Journaling is a one way to freewrite and start your writer brain, especially if you’re struggling with writers’ block or your well of inspiration is temporarily dry. If you’re in front of a keyboard and screen for much of the day, or working on your WIP on your computer, consider journaling with pen and ink (or pencil) as a way to free your writer brain to work on your story while you write differently.
Originally published on AbsoluteWrite.com
I returned to writing drafts in long hand (as a respite from keyboard-related carpal tunnel) in 2012. I used fountain pens fairly often before that, but mostly for letter-writing. Since late in 2016, I’ve been writing long form drafts, note-taking and planning almost exclusively with fountain pens.
I already knew that I remembered notes I wrote by hand better than those I keyboarded. I’m not new to handwriting, but I quickly discovered that writing with a fountain pen was much easier on my hands than using gel or ballpoint pens.
With conventional pens, you’re physically moving the pen across the paper, and exerting force to move the “ball” so that it coats itself with ink, and transfers it to the paper. Because the pen needs to be impelled with some deliberate force to move, writers grip the pen, creating tension in the hand and arm, which often leads to writers cramp or dystonia.
With a fountain pen, the nib (the pointed metal object at the business end of a fountain pen) spreads the ink; the ink is liquid and the pen is inclined to glide across the paper with little force being needed. Moreover, the fountain pen’s tendency, because the ink is liquid, is to join letters, requiring less effort from the writer. Ball point pens, on the other hand, use thicker ink, and require more effort.
Other reasons to consider using a fountain pen, if the ease of writing alone doesn’t tempt you, include the enormous variety of inks; there are hundreds of shades and a number of different kinds of ink (permanent, archive quality, waterproof, . . . ). If you sometimes need to draw or sketch a diagram or chart, a fountain pen can be a marvelous tool for sketching as well as writing. And, like other analog tools, fountain pens are extremely portable; if you’re not comfortable with the idea of carrying a bottle of ink with you, you can find ink cartridges for almost any fountain pen.
If you’re new to fountain pen writing, a fine point nib or even extra fine (rather than medium or broad or italic or stub) is usually easier to use and still produce legible writing. If you want to use bottled ink (it’s economical, environmentally kind, and there’s an enormous range of color options and ink types), make sure that the pen comes with a converter (an expensive device to fill a fountain pen with ink from a bottle) or that you can purchase one for that specific pen.
There are a number of economical options for those interested in trying writing with a fountain pen before buying a more expensive keeper. There are low-end pens that are $3.00 to $5.00 dollars each, including disposable fountain pens like the Pilot Varsity. The Platinum Preppy fountain is an affordable (c. $3.00) alternative to a disposable pen; it uses Pilot cartridges, so it’s refillable. There are also a wide range of reasonable pens that are under $30.00, like the Lamy Vista, the Lamy Safari, the TWSBI ECO, or the Pilot Metropolitan. These are perfectly good pens and will last for years, but you should try one in person, first, especially the Lamy Vista or Safari; the triangular grip isn’t for everyone.
You’ll have better results with fountain pens if you use slightly better than average paper; a Mead 5 Star notebook is tolerable, but heavier weight paper (c. 70 gsm or better) will work better and you don’t have to break the bank. Ordinary “composition notebooks,” those mottled sewn binding books are often just fine for long-hand drafts in fountain pens; look for composition books manufactured outside of the U.S. (often made with sugar cane or rice bran fibers). Buy one on sale and take it home and try it with whatever you might use to write. If it works, look at the colophon on the back cover, and the copyright date, and get exactly the same model.
Moreover, you’re not limited by the offerings at Amazon; check out the options at JetPens.com or The Goulet Pen Company, both of which offer reasonable “starter pens” and notebooks or pads of paper suitable for fountain pens.
There’s a high probability that you already know what a Bullet Journal is, in which case you can skip ahead. If you think a bullet journal is for gun enthusiasts, read on.
What’s A Bullet Journal?
As originally designed, the Bullet Journal is a minimalist system relying on a notebook and numbered pages. You use short codes to tag kinds of data and tasks. You create your own pages to suit your personal needs and style. A bullet journal (BuJo for short) is an efficient way to track your time and goals, and other data that you use for short-range and long-range planning.
If you’re completely unfamiliar with the concept, a place to start is the original bullet journal video Bullet Journal – YouTube by Ryder Carroll. I’ve also linked to some useful pieces about how to create, customize and use a bullet journal in the Resources section below.
Bullet Journals for Writers: The Basics
Because a bullet journal is so very flexible, many writers use a BuJo just for managing their writing time and tasks. I find a bullet journal especially useful in terms of tracking multiple projects and deadlines.
The first thing to do when you start using a bullet journal is to number the pages. (Some notebooks have pre-numbered pages, like the Leuchtturm1917 notebook, but it takes mere minutes to do it by hand).
The second thing to do is reserve the first three or four pages of your notebook for your Index. The Index is a list of pages and what’s on them; it makes finding your information very quick.
Tobias Bucknell, SF/F author, has written a helpful post about his experience creating, using, and customizing a BuJo for use by a writer This is how I Bullet Journal | Tobias Buckell. Bucknell says that for him the Index was a key point in making a Bullet Journal personally useful:
But creating an index, that was interesting. Because now I suddenly, like a light bulb going off, realized I could create not only daily to-dos, but project to-dos, and flip back and forth. Even better, while I used a variety of to-dos via digital software, some projects of mine were getting so complex that I needed a way to glance at the 30,000 foot view quickly.
Bucknell’s post provides a wealth of information about customizing the basic concepts and practices behind bullet journals with lots of specific suggestions about how writers might want to use a bullet journal.
There are lots of writers of every sort using bullet journals; some of your peers are likely using bullet journals, and may very well have some specific tips. In the meantime, here are some suggestions about ways to use bullet journaling as a writer.
One of the primary techniques behind bullet journaling is what Ryder Carroll calls “rapid logging.” It means making brief notes about tasks, events and ideas, marked with identifying symbols to make it possible to tell what kind of a note you’ve made, and whether it’s a completed task or event or re-scheduled, at a glance. There’s an “official” Bullet Journal key; it looks like the image to the right. People customize the symbols they use all the time.
Collections are Powerful
A bullet journal Collection is a collection of data; that data can be lists or images or mind-maps or sketches, or trackers (more about trackers later). These are some possible Collections for a writer
- Backstory and plot notes
- Character notes (and sketches)
- Setting notes (and sketches!)
- Scene or Chapter breakdowns
- Brainstorming—ask yourself questions about your WIP (why does Whitney go to the barn? What does Simon need? What does Simon want?)
- Inspirational Quotes (See Tobias Bucknell’s post on starting with a motivational quotation)
- A list of those words, you know, the ones you can’t spell without having to look them up.
- List special character and place names, or special spellings of standard words, archaic words, idioms or invented words that you’ll want to submit to your editor so they won’t get changed.
- Your personal style sheet; leading and trailing spaces before and after em-dashes, or not; spaces before and after ellipses, or not; preferred spellings of words that have options. Sure your editor and publisher may have different opinions, but if you standardize the way you do it, they’ll be much easier to change later, if it’s necessary.
- Patricia Wrede has some great questions for fantasy world building that are useful to answer in a bullet journal as part of your backstory.
Trackers are a visual method of tracking repeated events or habits. They’re often used for things like tracking sleep or miles walked, or water imbibed, or pages read, or words written. Technically, trackers are a subset of Collections in official Bullet Journal terms, but they’re endlessly flexible.
- Trackers can be as simple as M T W Th F S S to represent a week. Draw a line through the letter to mark the days on which you met your daily goals.
- Use a row of boxes with numbers for tracking monthly goals. Cross off or fill in the boxes on the days you met your goal.
- If you want to track multiple daily habits for a month, create a simple graph; habits or tasks across the top of a two-page spread, and numbers for the days of the month down the side of the left-hand leaf. Use a filled- in square or dot or X to mark the task (or habit) you completed under the column across the top. (Here’s a tracker example from Heather Haft).
You can get colorful of course, and there’s lots of advice and models about using trackers in your bullet journal. See for instance Bullet Journal Habit Trackers from Productive & Pretty. Lots of people use trackers to track good habits and health. You don’t have to be artistic; personally, I’m pretty utilitarian.
Migration in bullet journal terms refers to an event or task that wasn’t completed when you planned, so you migrate it to another day. In other words, you move it from Tuesday the 6th to Friday the 9th (or whenever). The official Bullet Journal Symbol for migrating something is >; lots of people use other symbols. Part of the point of migration is that you have to write the thing down again every time you migrate; if you find yourself doing this repeatedly, it’s an indication that you really don’t want to do the thing, or, that maybe, it doesn’t really need doing. As Ryder Carroll, the inventor of the Bullet Journal says:
You can reduce the amount of things you have to do by transferring things by hand. If a task isn’t worth the time to rewrite it, it’s probably not important. Spend time with things that are important and be mindful of how you spend your time.
Plan to Write
As writers, we all struggle with time management; with finding time to write. One way that a bullet journal habit can help with that is that you plan not only the time but what you’re actually going to write.
By reducing the time we spend in non-writing activity in our writing time, we can actually get writing done. Those collections with questions, and character notes, and plot points can be springboards, specific starting points for your daily, nightly or weekly writing time.
Tip: A particularly useful technique in terms of tracking your narrative and writing progress, is to make a note when you end a session about where to start the next session.
Bullet Journals are Analog
We’ve got Google Calendar, and iCal and all sorts of ways to sync data between our phones, our computers and our tablets. I’m still using them. But there are some advantages to writing by hand on paper.
- Handwriting aids retention.
- Handwriting allows us to use the parts of our brain that we don’t when we keyboard; there’s a thing that happens when we’re doodling or brainstorming with a pen in our hand where we solve problems, whether of plot, narration or character motivation, or planning. Some of it is perhaps not conscious, but as we write, we formulate a solution.
- Because of the way we concentrate on what we are doing and because it is slower than a keyboard, writing by hand gives us time to think.
- There’s something to be said for having a single place to track our time and ideas, especially when we write on a digital screen. Think of the journal as a portable extra screen, one that doesn’t require switching windows or apps.
A Note On Aesthetics
Lots of people spend a great deal of effort on prettifying their bullet journal; if you’ve got the time and skill that’s great. There are some incredibly beautiful BuJo’s out there. Me, I have neither time nor talent. I started my bullet journal in stumbled-upon blank page notebook.
Bullet Journal Resources
There’s the video that Ryder Carroll made, of course, but these are some particularly useful guides to getting started using and customizing a bullet journal to suit you.
For a quick intro see Buzzfeed’s WTF Is A Bullet Journal And Why Should You Start One? An Explainer
It’s worth signing up to the once-a-month newsletter at Ryder Carroll’s official bulletjournal.com site to download a copy of the free .pdf starter guide. It’s a cheat sheet for getting started with a bullet journal.
The best starter guide (full of practical suggestions for customizing) is How To Bullet Journal: The Absolute Ultimate Guide from the Lazy Genius Collective. Lots of useful pictures, and down-to-Earth advice.
Kim at Tinyrayofsunshine.com has an excellent Thorough Guide to the Bullet Journal System. Her pictures are very helpful and there are some excellig ideas about simplifying and customizing.
Bullet Journals for Writers
Writer’s Edit’s The Complete Guide to Bullet Journaling for Writers has some excellent suggestions about getting started, tracking submissions and using a bullet journal to plan and to manage NanoWriMo.
Victoria of Something Delicious has more specific tips for writers using bullet journals in Bullet Journaling for Fiction Writers. (Scroll down past the introduction to bullet journaling to see specific tips for writers).
Belle Cooper has some great practical suggestions for using a bullet journal to track freelance writing.
You might want to try bullet journaling first before making an investment in pens and notebooks.
According to Bullet Journal inventor Ryder Carroll “All you need is a notebook and a pen . . . ” Consider using something you already have to start with (I did!). If you don’t have a blank page notebook (notebook paper isn’t really suitable) consider something like this Amazon Basics Classic Notebook, in either blank or “squared” (graph paper lines).
If you’re sure you’re game, consider using a notebook that has either a square grid (like graph paper) or a dot grid; they’re easier to use for charts, and they make it easier to write legibly.
If you already use a BuJo, let us know how you use it. What tips do you have for those just starting out? What do you suggest in terms of bullet journaling for writers?
Originally published on AbsoluteWrite.com
I’m still adjusting to a career as a full time writer.
I’m not complaining, mind, it’s work and it results in pay. But it’s not something I ever envisioned doing for a career.
I’ve made some of the changes I wrote about last year.
- I’ve reduced the number of sites I run for other people. That’s been a welcomed decrease in workload.
- I’m using TextExpander even more now, for a variety of different writing projects and lots of site admin-related work.
- I’m currently using an older 13” Aluminum MacBook as my primary computer, with regular recourse to my iPad with a Brydge keyboard case, and lately, to an older model hand-me-down Chromebook.
- I generally do most of my email triage on my iPad, reading and sorting (and deleting) mail I need to keep, mail I can answer immediately, mail I can delete, and mail I need to answer as a separate task.
- I haven’t touched Microsoft Word in a bit over three years, and that’s been wonderful. I’m using Pages via iCloud quite a lot, even on the Chromebook.
- I’m also using Google Docs and Google Spreadsheets, on the MacBook, the iPad, and the Chromebook.
I’ve finally purchased Numbers for OS X and iOS, and I’m using it via iCloud and my MacBook and iPad for documents that Google Spreadsheet struggles with. I’m new to Numbers, so this has been interesting.
I’m still using BBEdit for heavy lifting in terms of complicated HTML or CSS, cleaning up text files, Perl, and Regex, but I’m using Markdown more than last year, which BBEdit handles.
I hadn’t expected how much, because of iOS 9 and Yosemite and Handoff, I’d be using TextEdit and the new version of Notes via iCloud. I wrote an AppleScript to count words in a TextEdit document, but I need to figure out how to trigger it from the AppleScript menu, and that means finding out where the heck the AppleScript menu has gone. It disappeared when I installed Yosemite.
I’ve gotten deeply into using Scrivener and Scapple, because of a new non-fiction book and non-technical book I’m writing. Scrivener makes dealing with primary resources very straightforward; I can have them all in a single file, a file that I can backup easily, and Scrivener offers me a number of ways to organize my research and the current draft. Scapple I’m using mostly out of curiosity; I’m not given to mindmaps in general, though I know they really help large numbers of writers.
I’m breaking my writing sessions into two or sometimes three hour chunks, and often, even smaller sessions of 90 minutes or so. That’s a lot easier on my hands.
I’ve been writing at libraries more, partly because of the need to do research using non-circulating materials. I’m also deliberately choosing to write away from home, because the walk and the different environment is good for me in multiple ways.
I’m using my iPad 3 and Brydge Keyboard more than I expected to, partly because I can read the iPad screen more easily than my MacBook’s or my Chromebook. I’ve tried Editorial, but so far, Editorial has been baffling. I’m interested in reducing workflow steps and processes, and Editorial seems to want to add both.
Having rejoiced about being Microsoft Word free, I probably should take a look at the “cloud” versions of the Office suite, Office 365. It includes a terabyte of Cloud storage on Microsoft’s .servers, as well as the full suite on iOS, Android, OS X and Windows. I’d still want local options though, given outage issues common with Cloud services from, well, anyone.
As part of my determination to come up with a cleaner less keystroke-intensive workflow for all my writing, I’m taking a hard look at Markdown.
I first heard about Markdown back in 2004. I’d been blogging for a few years, and and hand-coding HTML. I came to HTML with surface familiarity with SGML in a library and deep familiarity with WordPerfect and WordStar. I’d been following Dean Allen’s development of Textile, and using Brad Choate’s MT-Textile plug-in for MovableType. John Gruber of Daring Fireball (one of the blogs that introduced me to blogging) created Markdown (with assistance from Aaron Swartz) as a way to format text for the Web without having to delve into HTML. In 2004 Gruber wrote about Markdown:
Markdown is a text-to-HTML conversion tool for web writers. Markdown allows you to write using an easy-to-read, easy-to-write plain text format, then convert it to structurally valid XHTML (or HTML).
One of the virtues of Markdown is that it is easy to use, and easy to remember. In Markdown, you use *for bold*, _ for italic_. Headings are marked by a leading *for the largest heading, **for the next size down, ***for the next level. The tags are easier to remember and shorter than those for HTML. They’re minimalist, and less likely to obscure text and slow down writing or editing.
John Gruber thoughtfully provides simple to understand Markdown syntax documentation.
When I discovered that Gruber’s Markdown Perl scripts worked with MovableType (this blog ran on MovableType then), I installed it and used it for a while. When I moved from MovableType, I stopped actively using Markdown, but I remained interested in both Markdown and Textile (and even used TextPattern Dean Allen’s CMS bases on Textile). But recently, I became much more actively interested in Markdown for a couple of reasons.
First, TidBITS, the publishers of Take Control ebooks, started using Markdown as part of it’s work flow for creating Take Control ebooks. Next, Michael Cohen asked me to find a way to support Markdown in his WordPress Blog. He had become accustomed to writing in Markdown because of Take Control books. Secondly, publisher of The Magazine and smart tech writer Glenn Fleishman relied on Markdown format to produce The Magazine. Glenn’s enthusiasm about Markdown got me looking at Markdown much more closely than, say, learning enough Markdown to work on Wiki documents intended for internal documentation.
Why Use Markdown
- A Markdown file is liquid data; it’s going to be easy to convert in the future, just as it is easy now to covert Markdown formatted text files to HTML, RTF, .Doc, or .PDF.
- Markdown means fewer keystrokes than HTML. That means less keyboarding and no reaching for a palette or button to click. The longest tag I know of is three characters in a row.
- Markdown lets you use HTML as needed, without having to do anything exotic involving obscure technical feats or escape codes.
- Markdown may be easier to implement than HTML when writing on an iPad. At least that’s my current theory.
- Markdown allows you to concentrate on the text as content, rather than the text as document.
Last year I wrote a long essay (eventually published by Boing Boing) that I initially drafted in Markdown, then hand-converted to HTML. I know, now, that there were better ways to do that, but I used BBEdit for the Markdown version and for the conversion to HTML, so it was relatively trivial to do. BBEdit not only fully supports Markdown as a language, it was one of the first applications Gruber provided Markdown tools for. The current version of BBEdit (11.0.2) has built in support for Markdown (including the ability to Preview Markdown files in BBEdit and customizable syntax coloring). And using Markdown in documents destined for the Web doesn’t mean I can’t simply insert any HTML I need that isn’t covered by Markdown tags.
For any markup that is not covered by Markdown’s syntax, you simply use HTML itself. There’s no need to preface it or delimit it to indicate that you’re switching from Markdown to HTML; you just use the tags.— John Gruber
If you want more BBEdit Markdown support, Watts Martin has created a nifty BBEdit Markdown Extension Package that builds on the work of John Gruber and Aaron Swartz, and adds some additional commands, not the least of which are Transformation commands to convert Markdown to HTML, HTML to Markdown, and Markdown to BBCode. There’s a catch to using Markdown in BBEdit; you have to set Markdown as a Language in BBEdit’s Preferences, and you need to use “.md” and “.mdown” as file name suffixes/extensions.
I’m going to spend a few weeks or months deliberately using Markdown as much as possible. I’ve installed Watts Martins Markdown Extension Package in BBEdit. WordPress via a Jetpack plugin supports Markdown, and there are a number of dedicated Markdown editors for OS X (Markdown Pro from RADSense Software, Mou from 25.io, Typed from Realmac Software) and iOS (Editorial from OMZ Software, Byword from Metaclassy, and others).
Given the release of Yosemite for OS X and iOS 8, I’m taking the opportunity to re-examine and revise my writing workflow. I write a great deal, not only books and articles for publishers, but blog posts and email. I am an Admin for a number of large Websites. Two of the Websites include not only site Admin, but Managing Editor tasks, including answering questions from readers and general user support for contributors. Both of these Websites involves email either to individuals or to one of several private email lists. One of the Websites, Absolute Write, also has a forum. Absolute Write is a large, vibrant community for writers and supporting the community requires a fair amount of user / member support, including writing (and answering) FAQs, emails, private email lists, local message systems, and the Absolute Write Website and blog.
And then there are the Websites I admin for various writers, and my own Websites.
It’s a lot of daily writing. And it’s fairly constant throughout the day (and night).
I have some workflow tools in place:
- I use TextExpander on all my iOS and OS X devices. Smile TextExpander is a huge labor and keystroke saver.
- I use filters or “Rules” in Mail.app, but even so, I receive around 175 emails from individuals a day, and send about that many or more. (I’m increasingly considering an alternative to mail.app, at least on iOS, just to reduce mail-management frustrations.)
- I use custom scripts and and droplets for many of my frequent tasks.
Changes I’m considering:
- I generally draft my shorter articles and blog posts in BBEdit using HTML. I’m going to look more closely at using Markdown, especially because Markdown is thriving on iOS, and BBEdit has built in support for Markdown.
- I already use iOS a great deal for email triage (especially via my iPhone); I’d like to do more with email on iOS, especially responding to email on the iPad.
- I’d like to try writing more of my shorter pieces on iOS. I can write longer pieces on the iPad more easily now with the Brydge + iPad keyboard.
- I do a lot of writing in Google Docs/Google Drive, but for book-length pieces Google Docs is not optimal. I’d like to move to Apple’s Pages as my primary word processor, particularly given the newly released version of Pages with collaboration and sharing via the Web/iCloud and Pages for iOS, as well as on OS X.
I’m sure I’ll discover more ways to improve my workflow as I continue.
Jason Snell of Macworld and TechHive has written an interesting thoughtful essay “Why I’m writing on the iPad” about how writing using his iPad and the on-screen keyboard has changed his writing process, and, he thinks, the final text. You should go read his essay; it’s well written, and thoughtful.
I want to pick up a few specific ideas that struck a chord with me. First this bit:
I’m no Oliver Sacks, but I’d wager that I’m just not taking more time to choose my words, but I’m actually using different parts of my brain when I write this way. And not only does the actual act of writing feel different, but the end result feels different to me too.
I’m no Oliver Sacks either, but I do know a lot about the writing process, writing systems, and, through an odd neurological quirk, my own neurological text processing. I’m profoundly dyslexic and dysphonetic ( I know, I know, but by the time I discovered why writing was so hard for me, I was already a Ph.D. candidate in English). I moved to writing on a computer when my older brother told me about WordStar and started bringing home Trash-80s, Exidy Sorcerers and Apple IIs to debug code for Instant Software games.
I prefer to write on a keyboard because the letters are automatically always facing the right way, and it’s easier for me to put the correct letters in the correct order. When I write in longhand, or I print, no matter how carefully or slowly I write, I’m much more likely to put the right letters in the wrong order. It’s an entirely different kinesthetic memory for me.
But when I started taking classes in paleography and calligraphy as all good Medievalists do, I noticed that the discipline required to write the letters correctly using the correct stroke order generated far fewer errors. In my case it wasn’t a matter of speed as much as it was a matter of using different parts of my brain. And eventually, via participation in a live functional MRI scan, I discovered that at least in my case, I’m using different areas of my brain when I write with a pen on paper, when I write as a paleographer, and when I keyboard.
Lately, as I’ve experimented with using a stylus (rather than a keyboard) on my iPad to write, or dictation, I’ noticing that those tools affect my composition process. Dictation especially makes me inclined to write less academic and more casual prose because of my desire to avoid punctuation.
Jason Snell also notes:
The iPad also offers a remarkable lack of distractions. When I write on my Mac I find I am endlessly checking Twitter and email and my weather station’s current conditions page and anything else I can find to distract myself from the difficult task of putting one word in front of another. On the iPad, I am more focused—and when I do finally take a break to check my email, it feels like an actual break, not a distraction.
In the last several years I’ve noticed a number of smaller word processors designed for writers that feature the ability to devote the full screen to the text editor as a way to remove distractions. WriteRoom is one of those. I suspect that that’s part of the attraction of the OS X Full Screen mode for many. But while I understand the importance of keeping a mind on task, and not being distracted by Twitter, email, or YouTube, I also know that for many writers doing something else is not so much being distracted as letting their hind brain work on writing and (especially for fiction writers, but not exclusively) figuring out what happens next.
As someone who doesn’t write fiction but does write, I know that there are times that stepping away from the text in question and doing something unrelated, whether it’s playing a game, writing a short email or blog post, or going for a walk, or washing dishes, helps me figure out the next thing to write, or unravel a structural knot I’ve created for myself. And sometimes, I return to writing a draft in long hand (or often, printing) on paper with a fountain pen.
What’s the best blogging advice you’ve ever received?
I answered, and they posted.
I also sent a tweet about the absolutely brilliant post on blogging and conversation by Patrick Nielsen Hayden.
Effective blogging is a combination of good personal writing and smart party hosting. A good blog post can be a sentence long, or three pages long; what matters is that it encourages further conversation.
And, not to be overlooked:
Talk to the rest of us like we’re human beings at an interesting social event. If you feel like you’re up at a lectern on a big stage, reconsider. Tor.com aspires to be a room party, not Carnegie Hall. Circulate and talk.