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The Perfect Writing Environment

An impossible goal? Maybe. But I don’t think so. I mean, what’s involved here?

  • It should be distraction-free.
  • It should provide potentially inspiring distractions.
  • Writing equipment (phone, laptop, voice recorder, whatever) should be well-suited to the space.

Right. No problem. What I’m getting at: for me at least, everything needs to be portable. And swappable! There are times when working on my laptop in my office makes sense. There are times, such as next week when I’ll be on a road trip, when I’d really like to get some writing done in the car. I also like coffee shops. And I don’t like carrying my laptop everywhere I go.

No problem. If I write in text files, they can be edited on any device. And if I use Markdown as a text format, the files can include such things as italics. (Otherwise, once I import the file into a word processor capable of italics, I can no longer edit them as plaintext, which restricts the devices/apps I can use thereafter.)

What I’ve been doing until very recently is using Scrivener to synchronize projects with text files. That’s worked pretty well, but then I’ve moved everything into Jutoh to create ebooks. (Yes, Scrivener can create ebooks directly, but I strongly prefer Jutoh’s vastly increased scope for fiddling with the resulting document.) I’ve never liked Scrivener for writing fiction–too heavy for me, with lots of features that just get in the way–but it’s been working.

The problem? Once I’ve moved the text into Jutoh, editing it has only happened in Jutoh. After all, it’s clearly better to have a single always-preferred location for editing. And I’ve had no desire to re-create all of my Jutoh-specific formatting once I’ve done it the first time.

But I’ve been emailing with Julian Smart, technical director of Anthemion Software Ltd., and he’s solved that issue for me! Well, probably not just for me. Probably he thinks there are multiple users who will benefit. I’m not sure he’s right about that, but here’s hoping.

Jutoh is now capable of exporting and importing to and from Markdown. There are still a couple of glitches in the process (including losing quotation marks upon import), but I’ve figured out some workarounds and I expect the problems to go away very soon.

[UPDATE: Yes, very soon. I got an email about an hour after I typed the above. The latest beta release of Jutoh has solved the issues with quotation marks. Awesome!]

I could always have worked this out for myself, exporting from Markdown to HTML prior to importing into Jutoh, and exporting from Jutoh to HTML followed by conversion to Markdown, but frankly I didn’t think of it. Also that sounds like a pain in the ass.

What does this mean? It means I can edit anywhere, on any device. And my work is saved in Dropbox. So even borrowing a computer or phone would work, with very little setup delay.

Rather than carry a full laptop, I can carry my phone, a folding stand, a folding keyboard, and a Bluetooth finger-mouse if I happen to feel like it. In addition, I can carry a voice recorder. All of that fits into a very manly pouch-dingus, by the way.

As far as that voice recorder goes…I could record directly into my phone, and sometimes I do. Mostly I don’t, because I like the microphones of the recorder better. Either way, I can upload files to Dropbox and have my laptop (which is still sitting at the house in this scenario, and connected to Dropbox) auto-transcribe them via Dragon NaturallySpeaking. The transcriptions are then uploaded to Dropbox, and available on any device I happen to want to use within a few minutes (depending on the length of the recording).

Another option is to use an app called Dragon Anywhere for dictation on my phone. But the profile I have on my laptop is much more configurable than the online version. It also doesn’t cost a goofy amount of money every month. It also doesn’t turn itself off every time I pause for 20 seconds.

We’re pretty deep into the weeds here. But just in case any of you think this sounds like fun, or even useful, I’ll give you a bit more information.

  • I use WriteMonkey 2.7 on Windows when I want to dictate in real time. WriteMonkey “natively” uses Markdown, so something like CTRL-I will italicize via Markdown (*example* yields example) and prevent me from having to explicitly voice asterisks and such. Or type them either. I have to use this older version of the program, because Dragon’s “Full Text Control” doesn’t work in the latest version.
  • I use JotterPad on Android for pretty much the same reason. It works very well with an external keyboard, and the usual shortcut keys work as expected.
  • There is also a program called Jarte which works with Dragon. Jarte is built upon WordPad, so Full Text Control works very well. Or anyway it works after you apply the fix found on the following page: Jarte does not understand Markdown, so it’s not ideal for me, but WriteMonkey creates additional files in your working folder that are sort of annoying, so if you’re not interested in the Markdown piece of this it’s a great choice.
  • FWIW, I strongly recommend not dictating into DragonPad, the text editor that comes with Dragon NaturallySpeaking. It crashes, taking Dragon with it, and losing your work. It’s much better to avoid this scenario.
  • I really, really like using Typora to edit text (and Markdown) files when I’m not going to be dictating and when I’m using my laptop. It works identically under Windows and Linux, as far as I can tell. There’s a beta version for Mac, but I haven’t tried that.

Things can get even more ridiculous, of course.

  • I can put my laptop into a backpack, connect a microphone, and walk around dictating.
  • I can use my phone as a monitor for the laptop using an app called aRDP to see what I’m doing as I wander, and vastly improve on the dictation experience I would have using Dragon Anywhere. This works via sharing my phone’s internet connection via a Hotspot, or if I want to avoid any interruptions I can conversely create a Wi-Fi network on the laptop, put the phone into Airplane mode, turn on Wi-Fi on the phone, and connect it to the laptop.
  • I can use an app called WO Mic to redirect the microphone from my phone to the laptop over Wi-Fi, and wander around the house or backyard, phone in hand, sans backpack, also using aRDP as above.
  • I can simultaneously use a headset microphone connected to my phone and carry the voice recorder in my hand, reassuring myself that one or the other will actually work. This is probably just me, but dictation works better for me if I don’t look at the words being generated…but if I don’t see them I’m constantly concerned that speaking into the air won’t really work. Have I lost a lot of work that way? Nope. But redundancy makes me feel better.
  • Since my voice recorder includes a jack for audio output, through which I can listen to my voice as I record (nice in a headset scenario when the recorder is in a pocket and I want to be sure it’s actually still working), I can get creative and run an aux cable from the recorder to a USB sound card dongle plugged into my laptop: this way I get both a recording (for backup purposes & training Dragon’s accuracy) AND real-time transcription. This is actually my favorite scenario, because I’m trying to train myself to use (and trust) the recorder by itself. Of course there are lots of other ways to get simultaneous recording and transcription. But I like this one.

So maybe this will help somebody. Or not. As for me, I have recently begun writing again. There’s a lot to say about that, and potentially also about my use of a pen name, but maybe I’ll get to it another day.

Have fun out there!

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