Use the Right Tools

For me, the process of developing ideas — say for a story, or a whole novel — has a few phases.

  1. Generation and Capture
  2. Organisation and Development
  3. Refinement and Formalisation

I use different apps for those stages because there’s no single app that suits the way I want to work throughout. I think that to plan a book, you need three tools: a notebook/sketchpad/collage app, a mind-mapping app, and an outliner. Depending on the sort of stuff you write, you might also need a timeline tool, but that’s a special case and it doesn’t apply to me (but check out Aeon Timeline if you do need it).

Here’s the process I followed when writing Middleshade Road.

I use a freeform notes or sketching app like GoodNotes for idea capture because it’s immediate and unconstrained. I don’t want to make nodes and connections; it would hamper my ability to be creative because of the implicit requirement for premature structure. I equally don’t want to use a writing tool here because I’d just end up with the uninspiring and false ordering of text, unable to let ideas be sparked from multiple places. Ideas don’t tend to appear in straight lines.

For organisation and development of those ideas, I recreate my rough notes — sometimes omitting things or adding things as I transcribe — into a more structured idea-association tool like MindNode. It lets me impose or decipher an order and an overall framework now that I’ve got the basic pieces to play with. A freeform tool here wouldn’t help me in my main task of creating order and insight. A writing tool would be prematurely linear and pre-emptively ordered, as well as being onerous in a different way for editing.

For refinement and formalisation, I use a writing or text-editing tool like Ulysses. I have my structure and nominal ordering from my organisational phase, and can then focus my attention on each item with a view to expanding upon it, safe in the knowledge that at this point it’s probably in a good place overall. This is also the precursor to actually starting the creative work itself, which means that the writing tool is a natural place for this step. I can oscillate between these two stages — plan-refinement and the actual writing — as needed while I work.

It’s the worst false economy I can imagine to force myself to use suboptimal tools for my thinking and planning work, just because I can reuse them at more than one stage. The very minor busywork of transcribing ideas between tools is far, far, far less of a cost than the constant, accumulating annoyance of trying to think well and create effectively using tools that don’t fit your current mode of thinking. (Transcribing in my case is also only necessary from GoodNotes to MindNode, because MindNode does both mind mapping and outlining, and can export Markdown to Ulysses directly, ready for simple formatting cleanup.)

You should absolutely use multiple tools when one would technically do. You should absolutely prioritise effective creativity, and efficient facilitation of thought, over some notional and irrelevant benefit of having fewer tools. A sketch isn’t a mind map, and a mind map isn’t a linear outline, and an outline isn’t a novel. When the shape of the information changes, that’s your cue that you should be checking for the optimal tool to fit your way of working.

Re-typing and transcribing doesn’t matter. Duplication of data doesn’t matter. Busywork doesn’t matter. Those are all temporary, transient, minor inconveniences, and they only become necessary once you’ve already had the satisfaction of making real progress. Conversely, friction does matter. Stress does matter. Annoyance while working does matter. Constant papercuts of suboptimality do matter, because they will lengthen every creative session and they’ll deplete the resources you need in order to think well.

The quality of your creative process is everything, and your time has value. Don’t sabotage yourself with an overdeveloped sense of economy or aesthetic minimalism.

Use your tools, because that’s all they are: a means to get your work done.