Post-Paperless Automation, Case Study #1: My Writing Process

During the Google Hangout Evernote Q&A earlier this week, I talked about how I was beginning to delve into the “post-paperless” automation. One of the advantages of being paperless is that you can more readily automate processes, since the “paper” you deal with is really just data in the cloud or on your computer, table, or phone. I thought it might be helpful to others to see just how you can take advantage of post-paperless automation and so I figured that over the next few weeks, I’d share examples of what I’ve done. Maybe it will spur further ideas. Today I’m going to talk about my writing process and how being paperless has allows me to automate more and yet spend more time just writing.

Setting the scene

If you follow the blog than you know that I am a writer. I write stories, articles, book reviews, and of course, blog posts. While going paperless over the last two years, my writing process has evolved somewhat. Recently, it took a big leap forward, thanks to the acquisition of my Google Chromebook.

I think when you get right down to it, most writers just want to write. They don’t want to spend time messing with files, formatting manuscripts, backing up data. We just want to write. Some of us (dare I say most of us? also want to see that we are making progress with what we write. You’ll often see writers saying that they wrote 500 words today, or 1,200 words yesterday. It’s pretty easy to get these numbers from your word processor, but of course, it requires action on your part. Also, if you want to store these numbers that show your progress, it takes further action. Then, too, some writers probably like to be able to see what they wrote on any given day. I am one of those writers. For me, it helps the completest in me capture everything about my day. Of course, that can be a bit burdensome, too. You have to figure out what files you updated, which parts of the files you updated and then store those changes somewhere. While I think having that data is cool, what I really want to do is–you guessed it–spend my time writing.

So, when I got my Chromebook, and realized that I was now probably far along down the paperless path to really benefit from automation, I started to think about my writing process, and how I might change it so that I could capture everything I wanted, but not take any action on my own to capture it. My writing process is roughly as follows:

  1. Write a first draft (which is like a sketch, or as Stephen King likes to say, me telling myself the story).
  2. Write a second draft (in which the story comes alive; this is where I tell the reader the story.)
  3. Move the draft into Scrivener1
  4. Polish the second draft in preparation for sending out to my beta-readers.
  5. Incorporate changes.
  6. Produce a manuscript for submission.

Here is the list of requirements I came up with for my “post-paperless” automation version of my writing process:

  1. Use the same tool for writing the first and second drafts, no matter where I am.
  2. Be able to capture daily word counts in my “quantified-self2without any action on my part. In other words, this data would be collected automatically by processes.
  3. Be able to capture what I wrote each day in Evernote, highlighting any changes from the previous day so that there is a smooth picture of progress. Once again, I didn’t want to take any active part in capturing this information. It would need to be automatic.

My new writing process

With those requirements in mind, I made–for me–a very big decision with respect to my writing: I would write my first and second drafts exclusively in Google Docs. After the second draft, I transfer to Scrivener for the rest.

This was a huge decision for a number of reasons:

  • I am a big fan of Scrivener and love the interface.
  • I am a big fan of clean and simple interfaces when writing–distraction-free is my mantra.

But the benefits outweighed the other factors. For one thing, although I looked hard, Google Docs was the only really reliable word processor that I actually liked and trusted on my Chromebook. For another, it occurred to me that if I used Google Docs for my writing, I could automate just about everything except for my actual writing of words on the virtual page.

And the truth is, it’s not bad writing in Google Docs. Someone created an iaWriter template for Google Docs so that my writing screen looks just like it does when I use iaWriter at home. It’s also nice not to have to use one word processor on my iMac and another on my Chromebook. I use the same one everywhere and reap the benefit of familiarity.

Google Docs

 

So, here is my process for writing:

  1. Sit down to write
  2. Open Google Docs
  3. Either create a new document based on the iaWriter template or open an existing document
  4. Write.
  5. Finish

Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

That’s all I do. I don’t futz with files and formatting. I don’t worry about word counts and previous versions. But there is one rule that I stick to that is key to the whole process: all of my documents go into a “Working” folder on Google Docs.

What I’ve managed to automate

By simply doing those five steps above, I now get a wealth of data, automatically without me doing anything except those 5 things listed above3. To understand what happens, you must first understand about that “Working” folder I mentioned a moment ago.

I have a folder in Google Docs in which any active document gets filed. If I am actively working on it, it goes into this folder. There are probably three or four documents in there at any one time (so far). This folder has a subfolder which contains the previous day’s version of the documents in my “Working” folder.

With the scripts that I have written, the following happens automatically one each night:

  1. A total word count of the words I wrote on that day is computed from the working document (and differences with the previous version) and the resulting number is collected as part of my daily “quantified self” data4
  2. A single note in Evernote is created containing all of the new writing I’ve done that day. By “new” writing I mean anything newly written, as well as changes made to existing working document. The note contains the full text of each document that has changed along with colored highlights showing what changed.

And I don’t have to do anything. This stuff happens automatically, like magic, freeing me up to focus on just writing.

How did I do this?

Some people are probably thinking, “Why bother?” while others are wondering how I did it. The gist of the system is this:

  1. I wrote a set of scripts using Google Apps Code (which is essentially JavaScript that runs on their servers).
  2. One set of scripts loops through any documents in my “Working” folder that have been modified that day. It counts up all of the words, checks the documents against their versions from the previous day, adjusts the word count5, and then sends the resulting value into my quantified-self data repository.
  3. Another set of scripts loops through all of the working documents that changed that day, does a “diff” against the previous day’s version (if one exists) and generates a nicely formatted HTML output that illustrates all of the changes I made6. The resulting output, which includes any new writing, plus any changes to existing writing, regardless of the file it resides in, is then sent to my Daily Writing notebook in Evernote.

Are these scripts available?

I anticipate that a few people might ask if they can use these scripts. I do plan on making them available, but they need to be tested a bit more before I release them into the wild. They are currently stored in a private repository in github. Once I think they are ready, I’ll make that repository public.

Results so far

I’d estimate that since I started using these scripts (it hasn’t been long) I save on order of 2 hours a week. That’s two hours that I can spend on something else–like writing! Even better, I don’t have to think about capturing this information any more. It just happens, each night, while I sleep. What’s more, it doesn’t matter where I write. I can sit down at my iMac, pull open Google Docs and start typing away. Or, I can be in my office at lunch, pull out my Chromebook, and continue on what I’d started. My process captures all of it.

Next time I’ll talk about the processes I’ve created for automatically capturing a bunch of quantified-self data (also known as “personal analytics”) and how a summary and progress report of that information is emailed to me each night (and also, to Evernote, of course.)

Notes

  1. I am working on a process to automate this right now, but it is incomplete as yet.
  2. More on this in the next installment of this series.
  3. Okay, there is a kind of major caveat here: I did have to spend time writing the code to perform the automation. But that was a one-time thing, and I estimate that the time it took me to write the code will be more than made up for in the time I ultimately save collecting the data that I get out of the process.
  4. Again, I’ll talk more about this next time around.
  5. Why adjust? Let’s say I wrote 500 words on File A yesterday. Today, I decided that what I wrote was awful, delete 400 words but added 200 new words. My word count system will count that as 200 words–just the newly added stuff.
  6. I found an excellent public domain JavaScript implementation of diff here, which I modified slightly for my own purposes.

6 thoughts on “Post-Paperless Automation, Case Study #1: My Writing Process

  1. I love both Scrivener AND Gdocs (or Drive, or whatever it’s calling itself this week. Poor schizophrenic Google.)

    Scrivener’s organization makes it my choice for drafting. One click open and easy searching through each “document” is unbeatable.

    That being said, I’ve wished aloud on every shooting star and disfigured clover I could find that it had the everywhere-ability of Gdocs.

    All my pinfic, flashfic, and short stories get written in gdocs. It’s so easy to invite friends (in comment-only mode) and get feedback line-by-line.

    My writing group discovered that a 10k story with five critiquers worth of commentary basically grinds gdocs to a messy halt, though. It gets pretty slow even with a 3k chunk of story and that many comments.

    I like the plan you’ve got here. It’s absolutely true that being able to fire up my short story from wherever means I’m more likely to get it done, and Gdocs is a pretty powerful free tool.

    One question I’ve got on the paperless … I’ve found that as much as I hate killing trees, I do a much better job on both revision and edit passes if I’ve got actual paper. It’s like I spot more of the errors. Do you have a plan for that section, or have you gotten to the point where you don’t notice a difference between screen and paper reading?

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