Scrivener

A Lawyer's Take on Macworld

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In addition to my job at Macsparky (the business card really does say "Chief Slacker"), I have another job that actually pays money as a business attorney. So every year in addition to looking for things new and geeky at Macworld Expo, I also take a look for tools useful in the practice of law. Here is this year's take:

Daylite Touch



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Marketcircle's Daylite has become the “go to” applicaiton for running your law practice. This year they had a strong presence at Macworld including numerous demonstrations, presentations from the David Allen company, and previews of their soon to be released iPhone client. It supports full synching with your Daylite database. This is excellent news for Daylite users.

Livescribe Smartpen



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Livescribe’s Pulse Smartpen is coming to the Mac. This is, essentially, a computer in a pen. It records all pen strokes and then recreates the pages on your screen. It also records audio while you are taking notes and indexes it to your notes. You must use their paper (printed with the required microdots to give the computer context) but I could use this every day in my practice. This could also be a nice gift for any university students in your life.

FileMaker Pro 10



The new version 10 of FileMaker took several lessons from their consumer product, Bento. It still uses the same file format so the upgrade should be relatively painless. With features and improvements such as persistent sorting, dynamic summary reports, and editable table views, it is clear this upgrade is all about the user experience.

MacSpeech



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MacSpeech has now been with us a year and the software is showing its maturity through increased stability and additional features. Speaking with the developers I was most impressed with their sense of urgency. These guys are working hard to leverage the Dragon engine on your Mac. If you are practicing law without this tool, you are missing out. Give your fingers a break and check this one out. You can read my full review here.

OmniFocus



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The Mac software community has exploded with task management applications. I have been running my practice out of OmniFocus now for a year and a half and consider it the best tool for the job. It allows management of tasks by both project and context, allows for easy capture of new tasks from anywhere on your Mac, and includes a robust, syncing iPhone application. Furthermore, it is fully supported by a reputable Mac developer, the Omni Group. The cost for both a desktop and iPhone license is under $100 and while there are cheaper solutions, I've not seen anything better. You can read my full review here.

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Omni Booth at Macworld 2009

Microvision Projector



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One of the most notable new technologies was Microvision’s laser based projector. This tiny projector (about the size of an iPhone) easily fits in your pocket and projects at 10 lumens. Because it is laser based, it focuses at any viewing distance. It looks really sharp and you can get 2 hours of projection off the battery. The unit is expected to be available this summer in the $500 price range.

Timeline 3d



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While Timeline 3d has been out now a few months, BeeDocs' presence at Macworld should be noted. The developer continues to refine and polish this excellent timeline application that is extremely useful in presentation work. You can read my review here.

SMART Digital White Board



These digital white boards combine the benefits of your analogue whiteboard with the technology of your Mac. This could be useful both in the conference room and the courtroom.

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Who wrote that?

iWork 09



While a lot of people still refuse to look at iWork as a serious business tool, I continue to make other attorneys look bad using Keynote. It just about 10 years ahead of PowerPoint. The new improvements, particularly "Magic Move", will save me hours of fiddling. The increased mail merge hooks between Numbers and Pages will increase your ability to set up forms. I still must admit I do all of my serious writing in Scrivener (review here). Regardless, for me Keynote is worth the price of admission.

While Apple appears to keep focusing its energies toward the Mac as a consumer device, the third party developer community continues to develop excellent resources allowing you to get the edge in your practice with your Mac.

WriteRoom Review

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Perhaps the single biggest obstacle to writing on a computer is distraction. Think about it. Back when you used a pencil and paper or a typewriter, those devices didn't have the ability to instantly deliver mail to you, serve up a news feed, play games, check scores, or twitter your friends.

So the one thing our old technology had over the new stuff is that when we used them, we had no choice but to actually write. This is where WriteRoom comes in. Hog Bay Software's WriteRoom is a word processor that excels at one thing, distraction free writing. When you start up WriteRoom and put it in to distraction free mode, your Mac magically turns into an Apple II. You see nothing but a black screen and green text. There is not tempting menu bar, Safari window, or anything else to distract you. Just the words and the screen.

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There aren't many features in WriteRoom and that is a selling point. This developer is not looking for users who buy software based on a "check the box" mentality. There is a limited amount of formatting available and that is about it. You are not going to find yourself tweaking the page settings, setting margins, and getting your fonts "just right." You are, once again, confronted with words on a black screen. I found this liberating. It reminded me of how I sometimes need the TV off before explaining something to my children. It just brings an instant focus.

While the application is sparse on features, it is well thought out. For instance, it advances the screen at the middle allowing you to see the text below and not forcing you to always stare at the bottom. What little interaction there is with the screen is hidden. If you put your mouse on the top of the screen, you can see the menu bar. On the bottom, you see a word count and on the right is a scrollbar. Even the cursor is old school with the block in lieu of the blinking line that all modern word processors use.

In the settings you can change the system font and even turn on opacity for the background but that seems to defeat the point. If you are going to use WriteRoom, keep it sparse and get something done.

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Under Tiger, WriteRoom has a plug-in that allows you to integrate with other applications. For instance, you can write and edit your mail messages in WriteRoom for sending in Apple Mail. The plug-in, however, doesn't work in Leopard. Instead, the developer made their own, open source, separate application that allows you to open text in an external editor such as WriteRoom. The application, QuickCursor, is activated through a menu bar icon and this isn't as convenient as a plug-in. On my MacBook Air, the menu bar icon doesn't even show when I run Mail because of limited menu bar space.

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As a word processor, WriteRoom is snappy and does not get in your way. I've been using it nearly exclusively for 3 weeks and not had any bugs, crashes, or problems with it. WriteRoom is a one trick pony but boy does it do that trick well. The question is whether it is worth the $25 license fee. I think that depends on the user. If your primary goal is distraction free writing above all else, WriteRoom is the answer. Likewise if you have another word processor like Pages or Word and you want something to write the rough text in, it just may work. The $40 Scrivener gives you a lot more features and a no-distraction mode for just $15 more. It is, however, more complex than WriteRoom and some people don't like that. If I had to choose just one, it would be Scrivener. However, when you consider that you can buy both Scrivener and WriteRoom for a fraction of the price of Microsoft Word, you may find you want both applications. If the developer can get the Tiger plug-in working in Leopard, it would be a much easier decision. Regardless, for distraction free writing, WriteRoom has no equal. You can download a trial copy of WriteRoom from www.hogbaysoftware.com.

You can listen to this review on the MacReviewCast episode #190.

More Love for Scrivener

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I've been neck deep in work the last few days but in catching up with the news I noticed my favorite Mac word processor, Scrivener, got some nice press in the New York Times. Virginia Heffernan explains:

Our redeemer is Scrivener, the independently produced word-processing program of the aspiring novelist Keith Blount, a Londoner who taught himself code and graphic design and marketing, just to create a software that jibes with the way writers think. As its name makes plain, Scrivener takes our side; it roots for the writer and not for the final product — the stubborn Word. The happy, broad-minded, process-friendly Scrivener software encourages note-taking and outlining and restructuring and promises all the exhilaration of a productive desk: “a ring-binder, a scrapbook, a corkboard, an outliner and text editor all rolled into one.”

Ring, scrap and cork sound like fun, a Montessori playroom. But read on — and download the free trial — and being a Scrivener-empowered scrivener comes to seem like life’s greatest role. Scriveners, unlike Word-slaves, have florid psychologies, esoteric requirements and arcane desires. They’re artists. They’re historians. With needs. Scrivener is “aimed at writers of all kinds — novelists, journalists, academics, screenwriters, playwrights — who need to refer to various research documents and have access to different organizational tools whilst aiming to create a finished piece of text.”


For loyal readers however, this should be old news since I already reviewed Scrivener right here.

Review - Scrivener

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This is a review that has been a long time coming.  I think the most important thing a word processor can do is get out of your way.  What I mean is that Hemingway wrote his genius on a napkin while I sometimes write complete drivel on my expensive MacBook Pro.  No matter what software you use to write, at the end of the day it is your words and not some arbitrary feature set that determines the quality of the final product.
 
This is why I like Scrivener from LiteratureandLatte software.  It is a word processor that attempts to help you with the words.  Scrivener is not just a word processor.  This application is as much about planning and organizing your writing project as it is about getting the physical words on the screen.
 
The first thing you need to do with most writing projects is a bit of research.  Using Scrivener I can capture all of my research in the same project that I am writing my masterpiece in.  When writing legal briefs I have reference cases and statutes, exhibits, and a variety of other source materials.  When writing for the Mac community I also have research materials that include screencasts, images, and web pages.  It doesn’t matter.  Scrivener takes just about anything I throw at it and organizes it in a research tab.  Scrivener doesn’t make you monkey with getting your research and your document on the page at the same time either.  It easily displays your research while giving you a separate typing pane with no troubles.

Following this paradigm, Scrivener also has a virtual corkboard.  Maybe I’m dating myself but I remember writing papers in school with index cards.  You would summarize important points and ideas and then spread them out on a desk and start playing with their organization.  Well the Scrivener developer must have had the same experience because Scrivener comes with a virtual corkboard and an endless supply of virtual notecards.   All of your research and related documents are given their own index card which you can then shuffle and sort on the virtual corkboard.  For those of you who remember doing this, it will feel like sliding back into a pair of comfortable shoes.  For those among you that have never tried using notecards, I highly recommend it.  Scrivener keeps an eye on how you move the cards around and sorts the underlying documents to conform.  It also allows you to tie keywords to your notecards to make organization and retrieval easier on large projects.

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If you need to reduce your notecards to an outline, Scrivener has that handled as well.  This outline is much more robust that found in other word possessors but not quite up to snuff in comparison to OmniOutliner.  However, with the added bonus of being attached to your research and drafts, I don’t find myself missing OmniOutliner and for someone who likes OmniOutliner as much as I do, that is saying something.

Scrivener also realizes that sometimes our editing can go a bit astray.  The application has a “snapshot” feature that allows you to capture versions of a document during the editing process.  You can then go back and retrieve that discarded treasure later when you come to your senses.  It is a bit like Time Machine for documents.

In addition to getting you ready to write, Scrivener makes the process of writing as simple and distraction free as possible.  It has a very clean full screen mode that clears all the usual diversions off your screen and provides you easy access to your research.  If you are a nostalgic old guy like me, you can even configure it to be green words on a black screen.  I used to write for a newspaper on one of those old machines and every time I see this view in Scrivener, it brings back fond memories.

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One of the things I like about Scrivener is how it changes all the rules.  Page formatting is not there.  Instead you have these various chunks of text displayed in a visual way that is very conducive to making the actual words better and less prone to the white noise a lot of word processors can throw your way.  This doesn’t mean you can’t do your standard formatting in Scrivener.  It just doesn’t become your focus.

If you are writing a screenplay, Scrivener also has built in tools for you that covers the basics of Script editing and exports to other scriptwriting software.  I played with these tools a bit but have no experience scriptwriting and really have no ability to give an informed opinion on this issue.

Once you’ve got your document written, Scrivener can print it for you or export it in one of several formats including Microsoft Word, text, HTML, and others.  It even supports multimarkdown markup language which I’m told is important for typesetters but again this is a feature I don’t have any experience with.

In summary, I really like what Scrivener does for my writing.  It actually makes the words and documents better.  Scrivener is substance over form.  If you find yourself managing large writing projects, you really owe it to yourself to give it a try.  Scrivener will cost you $39.95.  The developer has a free 30 day trial.  There is also an excellent screencast on the website to show you how Scrivener works.






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Scriviner Gets New Spots

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Scrivener is one of my favorite Mac applications. I hesitate to call it a word processor because it is really more of writing tool than a simple word processor. One of these days I'm going to give it the review attention it really deserves. Nevertheless, today I'll just report it has been updated for Leopard and looks great. Check it out.