Track What You Write with Writeometer

What gets measured gets done is a truism in management consultancy. I find it to be the case for writing as well. Quantifying when and where as well as how much I have written is something I’ve tried to do ever since I read Rachel Aaron’s 2K to 10K. I datamine this information to see when and where I am most productive and if there is anything I can do to make myself more so.

Writeometer is a free app for Android phones that I’ve found useful for this. It keeps track of how many words you write per day.

K10 Screen

To use the program, you first input the name of your novel or short story or whatever it is you writing. You decide how long you want to be, and you decide on a completion date. You can set the program to remind you that you need to write and how much you need to write, or you can just log your word count once it’s done each day. When the reminder is due, the program will start a timer and prompt you to do your words.

You can have as many titles on the go as you want. Writeometer will let you track them all and then archive them when you’re done.

This is the core functionality of the app. The fact that it’s on your phone lets you keep track of what you’ve written no matter where you write. I use Scrivener, but I also use Word and WriteMonkey and Byword and a number of other word processors. Writeometer provides me with a dashboard that totals my word count no matter which program I use.

Writeometer will also do things like calculating how many words per day you need to write to finish a novel of a certain length. Scrivener can do this, at least on the Mac but I find myself using Scrivener for Windows a lot these days. It’s not just that Writeometer tracks your word counts, it also tracks how long you take to write those words. The program comes with a timer where you can record your session afterward. One of the most useful things it does is aggregate the word count from all of your sessions into total daily word count. It also keeps a running total of all the work you’ve done on any given project.

Writeometer Daily Total

You can add a note to your records telling you when and where you did your writing, your mood and anything else that you deem relevant. You can also export all of the statistics to a spreadsheet in Google Drive. Or you can email them to yourself or transfer them to OneNote or Evernote or various other places. This is very useful when you need to compile your statistics and take a broad overview.

Writeomter Daily Habit

Writeometer has plenty of other functions. It shows you graphs of your daily word counts. It also shows you other things. It lets you plan rewards for meeting your goals. It has a built-in thesaurus and various other things. It will show you inspirational quotes too. I don’t use any of these things, so I am not in any position to comment on them. I use it to keep track of my writing sessions each day and compare my word counts.

If the program has a weakness, it is that it only allows you to track new words written. I would love to see it log the amount of time and number of words I have edited as well. As someone who usually spends more time editing and polishing than he does writing first drafts, I would find this very useful information.

The program is beautiful. It looks good, and it’s very easy to use. I highly recommend it to any Android phone users.


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Dragon For Mac 6 Review

I have been using speech recognition software for years now, mainly to let me write when my RSI and assorted ergonomic related ailments got too bad for me to type. Over this period I have primarily been a Mac user. Speech recognition on Apple’s machines has been an area in which they have lagged well behind Windows.

I have tried every incarnation of Mac speech to text software, starting with iListen before it was acquired by Nuance and working my way through DragonDictate and the renamed Dragon Professional Individual for Mac. Every version has ultimately disappointed. When Nuance took over the basic speech recognition engine became the same superb one as used on Dragon Naturally Speaking for Windows. Unfortunately, the interface built around it was usually terrible— ugly, buggy and extremely prone to crashing.

The last (otherwise very good) version was ruined for me by the corrections interface. It randomly added characters as I typed corrections which made the process, so essential to accurate speech recognition, extremely long-winded and frustrating. Eventually, I gave up and went back to Dragon Naturally Speaking for Windows running on Boot Camp.

I booted up version 6 of Dragon Professional with no great expectations. It installed quickly and easily, and the accuracy was superb out of the box. My hopes started to rise, but they always do at this point in testing a new version of Dragon. I am so used to having them dashed I gritted my teeth and kept at it. I fed it the texts of 9 of my books and some of my journal pages so it could get used to my writing style.

This time around making corrections actually worked. There were none of the show-stopping bugs I encountered with version 5. Soon I was dictating happily within Scrivener with full-text control. A dream come true for me this. The program learned fast and well.

Screenshot 2016 09 20 10 22 29

The new batch transcription feature worked very well. I could dictate onto my Android phone, upload the results to Dropbox and then get the speech files turned into text. Being able to use a phone with speech recognition is incredibly useful. It lets you dictate anywhere and in a sort of secrecy. People assume you are simply making a call if they see you. If you are self-conscious about dictating in a public space, this is very useful.

I find myself making notes and jotting down ideas as I go. First time this has ever happened.

Recognition accuracy is extraordinary— over 99% on normal speech, 98.2% accuracy transcribing dictation of a fantasy novel with made up words. That’s 18 mistakes in 1000 words, better than my actual typing. (As an aside I tend to think my typing is more accurate than it really is— I correct mistakes automatically as I go along and so don’t notice them. When I bother to keep track, I discover I usually manage around 94% to 97%. ) I was dictating at 100 words a minute.

There have been a few problems, but they are fairly minor. Instead of randomly adding letters and symbols to my corrections, Dragon now sometimes locks up the letter A. No idea why. At first, I thought my MacBook’s keyboard was broken, but when I switched off Dragon, the letter became available again, and the program worked just fine. Simply restarting it got rid of the problem.

When it learns fantasy names, Dragon does not recognise the capitalisation. Kormak becomes kormak. Aethelas becomes aethelas. This can be cured with a simple find and replace, though. It’s a huge improvement on previous versions where there were certain words I could not train or get the program to learn no matter how often I tried.

You still can’t train Dragon to learn new words and phrases from your transcription files. I wouldn’t have noticed this except for the fact that the Windows version has been capable of it for several generations now.

These are all relatively minor glitches. The highest compliment I can pay Dragon for Mac 6 is that I have been using it and getting work done. My previous experience of Mac speech recognition has been to desperately try to make it work and give up in disgust after a few days or weeks and return to Windows.

So far it looks as if Mac speech recognition has finally come of age. I’ll report back in a few months and see if I still feel that way.

Addendum: Jeff Leitman from Nuance responded to my review with the following clarifications and solutions to the problems I mentioned. With his permission, I am sharing them here.

I wanted to let you know we are planning a 6.0.1 update this Monday, September 26th, that addresses a number of issues, including the difficulty with the A key you reported. It is related to changing Shortcuts, located in the Preferences.

The best way to have Dragon learn proper names is to add them to the Vocabulary Editor. If you use Vocabulary Training to read documents, it will use lower case. We will look into that for future updates. I added both Kormak and Aethelas directly into the Vocabulary Editor capitalized and Dragon did save them as capitalized terms.

I’d like to thank Jeff for reaching out. I am very impressed by the dedication this shows.

Addendum Two: A number of people have written to me concerning bugs and flaws in this version of Dragon. Since the last update, I have experienced a return of the random letters appearing during correction bug. More information is available in the comments below.


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Scapple for Plotting

I am currently working on a murder mystery. I started with an interesting central character (a wizard detective),a setting that excites me (a magical steampunk version of nineteenth century Russia) and a strong idea (our hero has to investigate the murder of a rival he hated, one suspect being the woman he once loved). I was happily writing my outline until I came to the point where the body was discovered. At that point a red flag went up.

I had no idea who committed the crime.

This sort of thing happens to me a lot. I start with an image, or a character or an idea that excites me and I build on it. I assume I will fill in the details as I go along.

Now I needed to know more than who committed the crime and why. I needed to have lots of plausible suspects too. The nature of the suspects would allow me to explore elements of the world.

In a mystery novel there needs to be a web of relationships between victim and suspects. It needs to be complex enough to obscure the nature of the murderer. It’s not the sort of thing my usual linear outline process lends itself to. It usually leads to lots of false trails, redundancies and even large sections dropped from the finished book.

I had recently been reading Storyteller Tools, M Harold Page’s excellent book about plotting. He uses mind maps for his plots. It struck me that this time it might be an good time to do the same.

I’ve owned Scapple for quite some time. It’s by the same people as do Scrivener. I’ve never used it much but figured that if I was going to do a mind map, this was the software to do it with. It’s simple, I owned it already and it integrates well with Scrivener.

So I sat down nervously and drew my first box in the middle of the screen. I put the victim’s name and what had happened to him in the box. I then drew a line between him and the box representing the detective. This was to show that there was a relationship there of some sort.

I already knew this to tell the truth. The detective had gone to the same magical Academy as the victim and they hated each other. There was rivalry there between them over a woman. I wrote this in the detective’s box.

As it happened this woman was also a student at the same school for magic. She was now one of the primary suspects for the murder. In went another box with the woman’s name and lines linking a both the detective and the victim. So far so good.

That was the three basic relationships that I already knew about. Now I needed some more suspects. One by one more boxes appeared. More links sprang up between the different characters. A large number of different people started to take shape.

Here was the anarchist syndicate and it’s surprisingly suave leader. There was the corrupt secret police chief and his brutish minion. Oh look, there are the socialist revolutionaries stirring trouble in the massive armaments factories.

I put in more lines that indicated connections between the people and the factions.

Soon I had a large intricate diagram showing the relationships between all the characters. They were colour-coded. Green represented the hero and the characters connected to him. Red represented the suspects. Blue represented the various political factions that might or might not be involved. All the human players in the story got a box with rounded edges. Factions got boxes with jagged edges.

In the space of a couple of hours I added an enormous amount of detail to the world. I also found that the large number of connections suggested elements of the plot that I had not thought about myself.

The leader of the revolutionaries turned out to be a childhood friend of the detective. The wife of the millionaire industrialist had also been having an affair with the murdered man. There were links between the Lovecraftian Other God cult and the Nihilists– who knew?

The story began to grow in depth and richness because I had done this mind map. I was impressed by how clear it made everything.

Of course, this merely gave me an intricate web of relationships that the detective would need to investigate. I knew roughly who the detective needed to talk to and from that I could work out an order which would be both dramatic and interesting.

For this I decided to use another tool, Aeon Timeline, I’ll talk about that in a future post.


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When You Need to Block Out the Internet Just Focus

Over the past few years I’ve used a program called Freedom to cut myself off from the internet when I’ve needed to be more productive. It works well but it’s a bit brute force– it blocks all access to the net. Recently the makers of Freedom have started moving towards a subscription model. This leads me to believe that the standalone app might not be long for this world. I like Freedom but I am not a big fan of the subscription model so I started looking around for alternatives.

I had a half-price coupon for a program called Focus so I thought I would give it a try. I’m glad I did. It’s a bit more subtle than Freedom, at least to begin with. Over a time period of your choice, it stops you from accessing specific sites. Instead of getting Facebook, you get a motivational quote, which I thought was a nice touch. The program can be set up to block both websites and apps on your computer.

You can choose to use a white list. The program prevents you from accessing everything except approved sites. Or you can use a blacklist which blocks only specific sites like Facebook or Twitter. There is a default list populated with all the usual suspects and it’s easy to add your own personal banes to it.

The blacklist method lets you cut off all your primary timewasters yet still have access to the net for research.

Normally you can over-ride the program so it functions more as a nudge in the right direction that an absolute cut off. There is also a hardcore mode which prevents all access and cannot be over-ridden for those times when a gentle push is not enough. So far I have not had to use it but it’s nice to know it’s there.

The program can be set up to come on automatically on a schedule such as between 9 am and 12 am or 2pm and 4pm. (This is what I use.) Schedules can be as complex or simple as you like. Its a useful way of blocking out a work day. It let’s me know there are times when I absolutely should be working and still leaves me times to check email, social networks etc.

You can also set it up to run scripts during focus periods but this is beyond my level of competence.

So far the program has worked perfectly and been a pleasure to use. If you find willpower alone is not quite enough to cut yourself off from the lure of the Interwebz, you’ll find Focus useful. It costs $19.99 for a single computer license and is available here.
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More Useful Software

DragonDictate 4

As someone pointed out in a review elsewhere finally does what it’s supposed to do is not exactly a great slogan but, in the case of DragonDictate 4, it is an apt one. This is the first version of DragonDictate which I have not had a problem with, and believe me, I have tried them all. For me, speech recognition on the Mac has had a long dishonourable history of raised hopes and dashed expectations. This time around Nuance have finally got things right first time.

The main thing about DragonDictate 4 is that it’s pleasant to use. So far, and I have been testing it since it was released a month ago, I have not had any problems. Recognition accuracy is at least on par with Dragon Naturally Speaking on Windows. The program has also learned to cope with the made-up words I use in my fantasy novels too.

The remaining big difference now, as far as I can see, between the Mac version and the Windows version of Nuance’s flagship product is that when you make a correction in Windows, the cursor automatically returns to its previous position at the end of the document. With DragonDictate you still need to send it there with a voice command.

For the Mac version Nuance has added something else to sweeten the pot. You now get the able to transcribe dictation as part of the program. I’ve tested this using the speech recording program on my Galaxy S3 and it works pretty well. It does make the odd error in transcription, and, as far as I can tell, there is no way you can teach the program it has made a mistake as you can with realtime speech recognition. Since the transcription ability was only previously available on the Mac as a very expensive standalone program this is a welcome bonus.

There is one area that the Mac version is ahead of previous Windows versions of Dragon Naturally Speaking and that is in the ability to define your own user commands. In the Windows versions I own this is only available as part of the extremely expensive Professional edition. It is baked right in to the Mac version. It works too.

So far using DragonDictate 4 has been a pleasure– it is not even had a problem running at the same time as TextExpander which in the past used to give it a lot of problems (on my machines at least). If I am hedging my bets and sounding less than convincing, it is just that Mac speech recognition has a history of leaving me disappointed and I am still waiting for the other shoe to drop. So far, it hasn’t, and I am starting to suspect that finally speech recognition on the Mac has come of age.

Hazel

If like me you are naturally lazy and sloppy, then Hazel is a godsend for keeping your surroundings tidy, on a computer at least. It is a program that runs on the background on your Mac and performs assorted house-keeping tasks. It does this by following rules that you set it and these can be as long or as short as you like.

For example, I have Hazel monitoring my downloads folder and shifting any PDFs it finds there into my PDFs folder. Once it gets to the downloads file, I have it further set so that if certain names are part of the files title they automatically can transported to the appropriate folder. For example if Hazel finds Mutants and Masterminds as part of the files name, that file automatically gets transferred to the M&M folder.

You can set Hazel to perform more complicated tasks, such as rename files and move them based on their content. I know of one example where someone takes scans of various financial statements and has them shifted to the appropriate folder based on the contents. The example I found most striking was where the Hazel Rule involved looked at the scanned file and if the content contained the name of his gas company and the word statement, Hazel tagged the scan, renamed the file as Gas Bill Date X (Where X was the date of the scan) and moved it to a folder called Gas Bills.

I have Hazel set to clean my desktop of assorted things that get dumped there and move them to their proper folders. I also have it set to tidy away files from my Dropbox once they are older than a few months. I have set up exceptions in the Hazel rules so that it ignores the files I specifically want left in there. I do need to be careful about this since sometimes Hazel is left running in the background and I forget about it and it shifts some important files around that I have forgotten about.

Hazel is a fine example of a program that does one thing really well. I find it well worth the money I paid for it. 



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WriteMonkey

Over the past few weeks I’ve been doing a lot of writing in simplified plain text word processors using Markdown. I was surprised and rather pleased to discover my favourite of these was not one of the many excellent Mac programs such as Byword or iaWriter but WriteMonkey which is available solely for Windows.

WriteMonkey hits all the right zenware buttons. After launch you get a blank screen and a blinking cursor. At the bottom of the screen is the name of your file, your word count and a small digital clock. All of these can be switched off either en masse or on a case by case basis, for those times when all you really, really want to be looking at is a blank screen.

Since all of the zenware applications look pretty much the same why do I prefer WriteMonkey? There are a couple of reasons actually.

The first is that WriteMonkey is not, arguably, zenware at all. For me that implies a really stripped down and basic writing environment which cuts down on the number of features available and lets you just get on with the writing rather than tinker with your formatting or your settings. WriteMonkey actually has rather a lot of features but they are all ones that I really like or need. In fact, WriteMonkey has almost every feature from Scrivener that I require and that from me is high praise indeed.

It has an easy automatic backup system. You don’t need to worry about file format since it’s plain text.

It has a timer and a progress meter. Want to set yourself a target word count? WriteMonkey has you covered. Want to set yourself a countdown for writing sprints. WriteMonkey has a timer. Want to combine the two and attempt to write 1000 words in a fixed interval. WriteMonkey can do that to. WriteMonkey will even show you a progress bar along the bottom of your screen if you want.

There’s a scratchpad for keeping your notes somewhere easy to find so you can refer to them. Those features are pretty much all I need from a basic word processor. On top of that WriteMonkey can do a lot more.

There are small TextExpander type shortcuts similar to auto-replace in Word which allow you to insert the date by typing /now. Any other word or sentence boilerplate you have previously defined can be triggered by a combination of keystrokes you define.

If you make a donation, you get access to WriteMonkey’s plugins. These range from index cards that float above your text when you need them and vanish when you don’t, to my favourite (and a feature Scrivener does not have) a Pomodoro timer. This is very useful indeed if like me you use the Pomodoro Method. I’ve never actually found a pomodoro timer for Windows that I like as much as the ones available for the Mac so this is a real bonus. Another plug-in allows you to navigate around your document using the Markdown headers.

There are many more plug-ins such as a sentence highlighter, a clipboard picker and a thesaurus. I haven’t used any of those.

All the features can be uncovered by hitting function 1 which provides you with a handy list of everything that is possible. The same list provides you with a guide to Markdown syntax if you want to use it.

The other reason I like WriteMonkey is that its quirky. If you like it will make typewriter noises when you type or provide you with a funny quote when you load up the program. It’s a zenware program that has a bit of personality and a sense of humour. All of these things can be switched off if you don’t like them.

WriteMonkey can be installed on a USB stick and carried around with you. It’s free. If you make a donation you get access to the plug-ins but you don’t need to and everything essential is there in the basic program. I could do my pomodoro sets using the dash timer if I really wanted to. If only WriteMonkey could move blocks of text around within an outline structure the way Folding Text can then it could do everything I need from a word processor. As it is, it is by far my favourite of the plain text zenware writing environments. Highly recommended.


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