Aug 18

Gadgets and Apps and Less Killing Trees

This is going to have to be a short entry, as I’m behind on revisions for Uncharted Zones and I don’t want the director sending hired goons to my door. (“I prefer the personal touch you only get with hired goons.”) But I wanted to write a bit about the technology I’m using as a playwright, or in some cases misusing – I’m really a technophile with certain stubborn luddite tendencies, and it often takes someone else showing me a better way to really make an improvement in my methods. So if you’ve got any suggestions, please feel free to make them.

I do most of my writing in Microsoft Word 2010, and this is the place where I’m the furthest from savvy – I don’t set up macros, I don’t use any sort of template except to start a new script from a copy of a previous one so I can just wipe out the dialogue without having to hit carriage returns down a couple dozen times creating the title page and list of characters. I know there are other options – everyone talks about Final Draft but who has the money, and there’s Celtx and I know there are other scripting tools – but most of them seem to be designed for screenplays and their theatre templates are unwieldy, and I just don’t have the time for the necessary learning curve something else would take. Word gets me there, and I don’t mind having moments to think while my fingers automatically type in character names over and over or hit indent four times before my stand-alone stage directions. I suppose it’s possible I’ll change some day, but it’ll take a fairly convincing argument.

I’ve also started using Word’s Review function extensively only with my most recent project, and it’s been really helpful. Instead of scribbling on a paper copy, I can make notes right in the document and see exactly what I’m changing. I can add comments and highlight passages for further review, I can enter notes and possible alternatives, I can even compare the whole document with a previous version and see a list of every difference between the two.

Oh, and speaking of comparing documents – I recently upgraded and added a second monitor to my desktop setup. I’d wanted to do this for a while, mostly for multimedia stuff like gaming, or watching Netflix while chatting, but it’s been invaluable to my writing process. It’s so much easier to review multiple documents at once. Last night I had the previous version of a play open, the revised version I was creating, and my updated outline all side by side, all viewed at 100%, and I could still get to my browser to do on-the-fly research as well.

Of course, I keep all my files backed up – I have an external hard drive always hooked up to my desktop and Windows does automatic back-ups once a week; I also have a USB flash drive on my keychain that I periodically back up to, as well as storing works in progress in between the scheduled backups I mentioned above. I also use Dropbox, which I’ve mentioned before that Monkeyman uses extensively; I use it both for backing up my files and for accessing them when away from home (you can login from the website, and there are apps for my phone and tablet). But I feel fairly secure at this point that, even given a house fire or some other catastrophic event, the bulk of my writing would be safe. (I’d lose a staggering amount of porn, to be sure, but backing that up seems a tad bit obsessive.)

I used to have a netbook that I liked quite a bit for writing in coffee shops and the like, but it was useless when I had the most random free time – on the bus going back and forth to work. So I’ve switched to a Motorola Xoom tablet computer, and I’m liking that quite a bit. I have a stand and a bluetooth keyboard that I can use when I do want to write out and about – but it’s a million times easier to read something, and even to edit and take notes, where there’s not a table or desk handy. (It’s the wifi-only model, and I do feel like that was a bit of a mistake – if you’re buying a tablet now for similar reasons I’d suggest going to a phone provider and getting something with a data plan.) The Xoom has a 10.1″ screen which is just about perfect for looking at documents a page at a time; I wouldn’t want anything much smaller than this. The battery life on it is quite good. There can be a bit of a problem with screen glare when it’s bright out, but since I tend to seek out the darkest corners of any room (or public transportation) I’m okay with that. It’s really been the one gadget that’s finally freed me from printing out copies of scripts over and over for editing purposes, and has almost freed me from carrying around a paper notebook as well (but not quite).

There are three apps in particular that I find invaluable. The first is Thumb Keyboard – it changes typing on the screen from hunt and peck into a smooth, sleek experience. I’m not a huge fan of on-screen keyboards on phones, in part because of the size but mostly because I miss the tactile experience. But this works well for me. The split layout means that I’m not stretching to reach the letters, whether I’m holding the tablet in portrait or landscape. It’s still mostly for entering comments or notes, instead of writing whole documents – but that’s as much a function of the tablet itself; holding it in that position for an extended length of time is gonna get to your wrists and forearms. When I am doing actual writing, though, I paid the exorbiant-for-an-app fee of $15 to buy Quickoffice Pro so I’d have a decent office suite for creating and managing documents. Like Word, I haven’t taken the time to learn keyboard shortcuts or advanced features, and because it’s a little less robust than a desktop application I wind up going home and pasting dialogue from it into a fully-formatted document, but it gets the job done.

The last Android app I’d mention is really a must-have specifically for writers – it’s RepliGo Reader, designed for pdf document viewing / annotation on the fly. I use this practically every day when I’m in revision mode. Back at home, I can save documents I want to look over into pdf format, load them on the tablet and then while I’m on the bus, spend every free moment reviewing and making editing notes. RepliGo mirrors the Adobe annotation function – you can add comments, highlight text, cross out, underline, circle items … pretty much everything I’d be doing with a pen and paper.

When it comes time to share my documents with people I’ve asked to help with the editing process, or with my collaborators, I use Dropbox as I’ve mentioned above, and of course my Gmail account for sending documents directly. I do use Google Docs occasionally, but until I can easily import Word documents, edit them, and then export / save them in the same format, it’s not much use for my scripts themselves. Where it is useful is in sharing lists (such as revision notes), or brainstorming ideas with others, or other similar documents you’d be creating on the fly.

And that’s about where I am as far as integrating technology into my playwriting processes. What do you do that’s better, or worse, or so far beyond me that it might as well be gibberish? I want to hear it all!


1 ping

  1. Martin

    Consider the goons sent. 😉

  2. David

    Nice tool set. I like the Word Review tools too. You might want to check out evernote.com. It’s a cloud based note system that would compliment the cross-platform use of the Xoom and your desktop.

    1. Deej

      Thanks! I do actually have an Evernote account – I mostly use it for clipping articles, etc. I think you have to have the paid version, though, to be able to access your notes offline – so it’s not as useful to me when I’m in transit. Still, I like it enough that I may pay eventually.

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