Posts on Writing & Notes Apps

Here are a few posts I’ve written on the four writing and notes apps I use: Apple Notes, GoodNotes, Word, and Ulysses.

I’m pretty happy with this workflow, and each apps seems to be getting better and better. The iOS 11 previews promise a substantial update to Apple notes; GoodNotes has told me about a pretty significant upcoming feature; and Ulysses is king of the hill. Word? It gets a lot of updates, but meh. I hope the iOS app becomes more full features in the future, but it’s fine.

Word for Mac & iOS

For writing anything more than a note, I use two apps: Ulysses and Word. I like one of them and tolerate the other. I’m just going to tell you about Word today, the one I tolerate.

If I weren’t a student and a teacher, I would never touch Word because Ulysses is absolutely sublime. If your document has footnotes, however, you should be using Zotero, and this means using Word on a Mac or Windows computer. So for the dissertation and any conference papers, I turn to Word. Word also gives you more control for precise, quick formatting, which I need for writing assessments.

For about the past year, Word for Mac has worked well with right-to-left scripts like Hebrew and Aramaic. For a couple decades, Word and Mac didn’t play well together. I you were doing anything with Hebrew you had to use something like LibreOffice or Mellel. Many people don’t realize that this era is over. The only remaining Hebrew/Aramaic hang up is the fact that the vowel points in SBL fonts do not align correctly. As I understand the situation, this is SBL’s problem and not Word’s. My school allows the use of Times New Roman font throughout the entire document, and I actually like the look of TNR for Hebrew, Greek, and English. It’s not my preferred font, but for technical writing it’s easy and everyone has it on their devices. The only situation where you will run into a problem with TNR is if you want to put diacritical marks above a Hebrew letter to mark the letter as “partially visible” or something like that. If you are working with DSS transcriptions, you will probably still have to use SBL Hebrew and Mellel at this point. Hopefully SBL will update their fonts soon.

The real draw towards using Word is that your documents are easily shareable. The chances are that whomever you want to share your work with uses Word. But there is another significant benefit: the iOS app works pretty well, especially if all you need to do is edit documents on the fly. During the past school year, I would take only my iPad to class, and when we found a typo in a quiz, I would fix it right away in the Word iOS app. Occasionally, I would print handouts from Word using Readdle’s Printer Pro, and maybe once or twice I actually wrote a quiz in Word for iOS. This became problematic for the vocab sections of the quiz because for some reason with a multi-column layout combined with Greek polytonic characters, Word began acting crazy. The cursor would jump around all over the place when I would start typing.

I don’t think you can create new character and paragraph styles in Word for iOS, but if you open a document that already has styles applied, you can use those styles with the same document. I think you can also save a blank document as a template with the style you want, and just start there.

One other thing the Word iOS app does really well is work with cloud storage. You can log into your Google Drive, One Drive, or Dropbox accounts and open files within the Word iOS app. Word downloads the latest version and opens it pretty quickly. While you are working in the document, everything automatically saves, and when you leave the document, Word uploads your changes to your cloud service. Everything stays in sync.

I really prefer to write in Markdown, and that’s where Ulysses comes in. But good old rich text word processing is still necessary for the time being, and Word isn’t bad.

Writing Every Day

This marks my first full month of posting every weekday. About a month ago, Renshaw and I made a commitment to posting every day, and so far both of us have kept our promise.

This week has been particularly difficult because I’ve been on vacation, visiting with family, and I’ve also had a looming deadline to get all my grades in by midnight tonight. I’m almost there with the grades, and I’ve still got about 45 minutes.

My routine has been to write whenever I have a chance during the few down times during the day. Not a set time in the morning, just here and there. I have been surprised that I have not lacked for something to write. There is something about just knowing that you have to post everyday that creates ideas. “What should I write about?” That question lingers on the back burner all day, and ideas come. When the ideas come, I open a new sheet in Ulysses, write down the topic and maybe a line or two stating the thesis of the post. Several of these pile up, and when the morning comes I pick the one I am most interested in writing about. That’s about as complicated as it gets. I’ve already seen my writing improve, and if you have any inclination towards writing everyday, I recommend trying a similar write-every-day resolution and see how it goes.

I’ve found these posts from Seth Godin particularly motivating:

My Two Notetaking Apps

I’d probably long ago have gone seven kinds of crazy, one for each day of the week, if I didn’t simplify my life in every area where I do have some control. – > Odd Thomas

When I worked as an English tutor, I would regulary read that book with students who were struggling with reading comprehension. I fell in love with the story, and this quote always stuck with me. Like Odd, I think fewer is better; minimal is the goal. For notetaking, there are only two apps I use.

I’m making a distinction between notetaking and writing apps. These are just for notetaking.

GoodNotes

I’ve written about GoodNotes here (re: teaching) and here (re: notetaking). I use GoodNotes to take Greek and Hebrew reading notes, I use it to occasionally to jot down notes in a meeting, and lately I have been using it to take sermon notes in church. I use it for several other things, but these are the primary ways I use it for notetaking.

Apple Notes

For everything else, I use Apple’s Notes App. I moved from Evernote to Apple Notes a couple years ago and haven’t looked back. Just about every note I add goes into the default Notes folder. When using Evernote, I had a lot of individual folders, but I’ve come to think this is a waste of time. My notes are sorted by last updated, which means whatever I’m looking for is usually at the top of the list. If it isn’t, I can search for it. All my notes are stored in iCloud, and the iCloud sync has worked wonderfully for me.

It is also super easy to share a note with someone. You click a big plus sign and select how you want to share a link. That’s it. One way we use shared notes is to keep up with Beau’s steps every day. I share a note called called “Beau’s Steps” with my wife, and whoever puts him to bed can add his step count at the end of the day.

I like to use the Notes app to compile a list of links. To do so, I hit the share button in Safari and create a note with a link to whatever website I’m on. And you don’t have to create a new note each time. After clicking the share button and selecting the Notes icon, you can select the note to which you would like to add your link. This makes it easy to collect links for gift ideas or research topics or themed blog posts or anything else. It took me less than a minute to put together this list.

Competition

As I said, I shot the big green elephant.

The big, bad Bear, however, is trying to break into my notetaking workflow. I’ve fought him off for the time being, but I do really wish Apple’s Notes App had markdown support. I considered switching to Bear for mardown, but I could not find a way to export all my notes with images from the Notes App and import them into Bear.

Ideally, I could use Ulysses for both notetaking and most long-form writing. The one hiccup: Ulysses doesn’t support inline images. You don’t see your pictures until you export from Ulysses to PDF or docx or one of their many other export formats.

For now, notetaking happens in Apple’s Notes app and GoodNotes. Hopefully, we will see some improvements to the Notes app (markdown!) at WWDC next week.

The Best Blogging Platform

I’m still searching for it. Squarespace can’t be the best option.

The OK

For someone like me, a CSS and HTML novice, Squarespace is easier to customize than WordPress. You have to customize because an elegant, simple, blogging template doesn’t exist, in my opinion. As long as you are writing text-only posts, Squarespace’s iOS app is decent. You can easily write your post in Ulysses and paste the Markdown straight into the Squarespace’s Blog app. And you can easily edit a post in the Blog app without having to open a browser.

The Ugh

It stinks, however, that Squarespace is basically inaccessible from a mobile browser, which means you cannot tweak the design of your site away from your computer. Even on a computer, customizing the site or editing a post is driven by a sidebar menu that buries settings in submenu upon submenu. Editing a draft or finding the button needed to write a new post is far from elegant. I should do a screen cast to show you all the little pop-ups and invisible menus that appear as you hover your mouse across the screen to find the Manage Posts button. Oh, and if you want to include pictures in a post, don’t even think about it until you get to your desktop or laptop. But when you finally get to your laptop and open your Markdown post in a browser, good luck with typing your first edit in the correct place. Your cursor will likely be in one place, but when you start typing the words will appear either one line down or one line up. Hopefully, you are just working with a Markdown box and not HTML. If you are working in an HTML box, then apparently you have to insert custom CSS to get your hyperlinks to show up in the right color. Finally, it seems to me almost every Squarespace template is designed to be an online store front or art portfolio. This template is the closest thing I could find to a clean, minimal, template for text-mostly blogging.

Whether using Squarespace in a browser or mobile app, the platform feels clunky and disorganized. There has to be something better out there. I wish the Ulysses folks would create one.

More/Better Writing

Brian Renshaw’s post on writer’s block reminded me of a quip I heard from one of my favorite college professors:

Perfectionism leads to procrastination.

In enneagram speak, I’m a 1/9 so I can relate. I’ve been wanting for months to write a post about how I use GoodNotes while reading Greek and Hebrew, but the thought of all that it would take to write that post “perfectly” means I’ve written nothing on it.

A couple related posted direct my way: Seth Godin’s Talker’s block and SUSDAT.