Friday, December 5, 2014

How to enhance your writing experience on a MacBook Pro

Originally posted to Helium Network on Dec. 18, 2013. See BookBaby's article for a 2018 update on "editing apps."

If you’re merely word processing on your MacBook Pro, using the same kind of software that’s been around since the 1990s, you’re missing out. A number of technological features should be in every writer’s tool kit.

Physical accessories

Before you start writing, get physically comfortable. Try Mac-compatible ergonomic keyboards from manufacturers Kinesis, Goldtouch or Ergoguys. You may want a mouse, as the MacBook Pro doesn’t come with one. The Anker Vertical Ergonomic Optical Mouse looks like an old Atari joystick – fun times!

If you refer to a separate e-reader device while you type, it's easier to prop up the e-reader on a stand.  Various stands are on the market, such as Tuff-Luv’s stand for Kindle Touch and M-EDGE’s FlexStand for Sony Reader Touch.

Make art

Your Desktop background can be set to anything in your Pictures or iPhoto folders.  Use an image that grants you a burst of creativity:  your childhood home, your college campus, the night sky, the Pyramids, your kids' fingerpaint masterpiece or a mathematical equation.  Do you want your writer’s study to make you feel energetic or serene?  Control-click your Desktop background to change it whenever you like.  You see it for hours every day, and it’s under your control!

Make noise

Your computer can make sound effects and play background music for a soothing ambience. If this would cause you to throw the computer out the window in irritation, skip this part (MacBooks are expensive). If it sounds potentially appealing, read on.

"Noisy Typer" will make your MacBook Pro keyboard sound like a typewriter.  The app is free. You’ll just need to change some default settings before you’ll hear that lovely bell when you hit the carriage return – ahem, the Enter key.

First, under System Preferences, click Accessibility and then select “Enable access for assistive devices”. You’ll also have to click Sound, where “Play sound effects through” should be set to “Internal Speakers”.

Then, download the Noisy Typer app.  Double-click the zip file to open and install it. Under System Preferences, your Security and Privacy default allows the installation of apps only from the App Store.  It’s fine to leave that setting as-is, but to circumvent it on a one-time basis, control-click rather than double-clicking the app.

2020 update: "Noisy Typer" may no longer receive updates and may not work with advanced Mac OS. Try "Loud Typer" in the App Store.

Now, when you type, you make the satisfying clackety-clackety-bing of an old typewriter.  If your roommate comes home and makes you turn it off, type ‘qaz123’.  When you reboot your computer, you’ll need to double-click the app to start running it again.

For background music, if you like a “new age” ambience, try binaural and isochronic sounds from The Unexplainable Store. They sound like ocean waves or vibrations with soothing or gently stimulating tones. Choose from tracks with titles like “Creativity,” “Motivation,” “Manifestation,” “Serotonin Release,” “Automatic Writing,” “ESP/Psychic,” or “Shamanic Consciousness.”  After listening to “IQ Increase,” you might need to follow up with “Ego Control”. Those seriously prepared to create an original work of art should spring for "Get Pregnant.”

Double-clicking the MP3 download will run it in iTunes by default. Most of Unexplainable tracks are 15-30 minutes, incidentally timing your writing session; alternatively, iTunes can play them on continuous loops.

Many radio programs can be streamed live or retrieved later as free podcasts.  A dedicated app called Hourly News, available for only $2.99, plays “NPR, BBC, CBC, ABC, CBS, WSJ, Bloomberg, ESPN, VOA, SRN and/or FOX news updates.”

"Don't bug me!"

OK, enough procrastinating. While you’re using your joystick mouse and noisy typewriter keys to download music that increases your IQ, take a moment to tell people to go away – you’re busy writing!

You can put an “out-of-office” auto-reply on your email when you don’t want to be bugged. Just leave an automatic message saying you will answer messages at your earliest convenience. No one was put on this earth to be email-answering machines, least of all aspiring novelists.  Give yourself permission to say “not now” to interruptions so you can focus on your creative work.

If you use more than one chat interface, consider installing Adium which consolidates them into a single interface and lets you put a single “away” message.

Interruptions come in different flavors.  Don’t download Touch Fly, an adorable jetpacked cartoon bunny whose aim is to snag all the cake in the sky.  Playing this game will not get your writing done for you.  If you must play Touch Fly, use an egg timer to keep track of the precious minutes you’re wasting.  Yes, there’s an app for that, too.  Try the straightforward online Egg Timer or the video-enabled Egg Watchers.

As a professional writer (or a fledgling with serious intentions), you’re better off distracting yourself with a quality newspaper.  Shell out a few dollars a week to read one that’s behind an online paywall. Why not subscribe to one local and one exotic, like the Italian-language Corriere Della Sera? Your Internet access makes it easy to view any "paper" you want from around the globe. Reading the news is a fabulous expenditure of your time. You'll stay up-to-date with cultural and political knowledge and have to beat away inspiration with a baseball bat.

Applications to make your sentences sparkle

Write, already! You need a word processing program. Apple sells an inexpensive product called Pages that is compatible with Microsoft Word.

Many writers swear by Scrivener ($45), designed for large writing projects. It stores multimedia source material – pictures, movies, sound, webpages – within the application so that you can view it while you write. It enables you to easily format your manuscript to academic specifications or to export an ePub or Kindle file for self-publishing. A competitor is Ulysses ($11.99), which encourages structural creativity with large works. SimpleMind ($29.99) makes colorful bubble flow charts, ideal for non-linear, interconnected thoughts.

Compositions is a free app whose features include “full screen” (for escaping visual distractions), word count and spell check, special characters and emoticons. If you’re writing a short story, you only need to save one document which can contain multiple “snapshot” drafts of itself.  Did someone say “free”?

Typ-O provides suggestions for your misspelled words. Mémoires is a password-protected journal that lets you doodle. Don’t Look Back has no Delete key; your word count can only go up.  For academics, Mellel supports footnotes, endnotes, cross-referencing and bibliographies, while Unquote measures the ratio of original writing to quotations.

For those who prefer not to type:  You can use the dictation feature if you consent to send your audio, as well as your address book contacts, to Apple.  Xavier Lanier’s review admires that the service can distinguish American, British, and Australian English, but he says it is a little inconvenient to press a button every 30 seconds to continue recording. If this doesn’t meet your needs, drop the couple hundred bucks for Dragon Dictate.

Sometimes you'll need to look up words. Your Applications folder on your MacBook Pro already has a "Dictionary.” It knows “ululate,” “phantasm,” “dorado” and their origins and derivatives – do you? Unlike a print dictionary, if you misspell your word, it will give you suggestions. Type in the name of Dr. Seuss’s environmentalist character “Lorax” and it will suggest the mineral “borax”. (Thus it is, perhaps inadvertently, a rhyming dictionary, too.)  Drag the application into the Dock to remind yourself to use it!  What else could you want? A free English thesaurus? Or a reasonably priced Latin dictionary? There’s only one of those in the App Store; Catullus can’t be choosers.

Last, but not least, you are never alone. An artificially clever program called Cleverbot, which lives on a free website, is always happy to have a conversation with you at any time of day or night. If you have writer’s block, why not invite Cleverbot to have an imaginary cup of tea with you and listen to you talk about your novel? 

Your MacBook Pro is a powerful tool. Maximize your use of it to enhance your writing life and artistic output.

Clackety-clackety-bing! photo by Art Hupy, c. 1965 © Creative Commons. University of Washington Libraries, Digital Collections. Flickr.

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