Improve Your Writing With TextSoap

Along with PaperEdit, I'm using TextSoap, as a proofreading tool. Not the editor itself, but it's ability to combine RegEx with text highlighting and capitalization to call out words and phrases for improvement.

My original "cleaner" had a list of common words I wanted to avoid, such as "just" and "that." I've made several enhancements to look for past tense words, prepositions and others. These are in separate "cleaners" I can call on as needed. Or I can chain them together in a single pass.

For example, I've added \b(been|has been|being|to be|was)\b to call out specific past tense words.

There is also a check for words ending in "ed," which is usually past tense. Of course, Ted isn't past tense, so it's not foolproof.
\b(was \w+ed\b)

Same goes for adverbs and "ly." Again, Lily isn't an adverb, so you have to take the good with the bad.

I've also created a list of prepositions, just to see how often they get used.

On their own, these words and phrases aren't bad. They may be exactly what the article or story needs. But, if they're excessive and the entire page changes color, it's time to think about what I'm doing and saying. These types of checks are low hanging fruit, but it's a good place to start. They are easy corrections that lead to bigger and better changes overall.

The goal isn't to let the computer apply arbitrary rules to govern how a sentence is formed or how to write an article. It's about patterns and excess. A colorful page is great for a coloring book, not for an article I intend to publish. It also means my message is probably muddled.

The great thing about TextSoap, I can add as many of these as I like. It can either be a predetermined list, or with some simple RegEx, powerful highlighters.

These tools don't stifle creativity, they come into play when the writing is complete. They are a guide. I can ignore what I see or act on it. I see it as another example of the versatility of TextSoap.

At this point, it's a useful experiment.

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Improve Your Writing With PaperEdit

When it comes to revising your first draft, whether it be blog article or book chapter, the task can be daunting. Of course, there are tools like spellcheck and grammar check in macOS that are great, but what about other problems like, weak phrases, long sentences, passive voice, hyperbole, and other wording to clean up.

While it’s no substitute for manually proofreading, tools like PaperEdit can help you focus your editing efforts on these specific areas.

PaperEdit allows you to load or paste text, then highlights sentences that could be improved. As mentioned it will highlight passive voice, long sentences, recycled starting words, and repeated words.

At a glance you can see where to focus. You can then cycle through each highlighted passage to see if you agree.

I find this a great first step in the revision process. If there’s a rainbow of color, it’s time to make some serious edits. That’s not a bad thing because I know where to look. I can focus on those changes before tackling the document as a whole.

After those corrections, it’s time to look at the whole document. Even if PaperEdit gives the all clear, manual proofreading is still part of the process.

Some people frown on proofing tools. I disagree. Relying on them as your only revision practice is a bad idea, but there’s nothing wrong with getting the low hanging fruit. I like the highlights, and the ability to see problematic areas at a glance.

PaperEdit is a recent addition, but I’ve gone over several articles and like the results. Plus, it’s always good to start with the basics because fixing those problems has a noticeable domino effect. It makes you rethink what you’re trying to convey.

A downloadable demo is available, although you need to scroll through the Blog section to find it. The demo isn’t the latest, but easily shows off the features. I found it valuable enough to head to the App Store for the full version.

If you want a solid first step in revision, PaperEdit is a good choice. It can also open Scrivener projects, so you don’t have to copy and paste.

You can find more about PaperEdit at Novellus Software.

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How I Use Scrivener for Journaling

Despite the "dear diary" image the word journaling may conjure, it's an extremely beneficial tool and process. It's something I have been doing with Scrivener for years.

Travel writers keep a journal of the places they visit, sites they see, people they meet. Scientists keep a journal a of their experiments, the results, and discoveries. Why not do the same thing for the journey of life?

The "journal" can take many forms and isn't always written.

Some people meditate to clear their minds or to focus on specific ideas.
Some use yoga for the same purpose.
Others listen to music and step away from tasks and chores for an hour. This allows their mind to explore and wander to new ideas.
Others take time to write gratitude and affirmations.
Some keep track of goals, activities, or events.

For me the journal and the process of writing in it serves several purposes.

At times it's a way to warm up for article writing.
If I need to focus on a topic, I write down extraneous ideas so I don't forget them.
It's a way to brainstorm. To write down everything that comes to mind about a topic to see how they fit together.
Other times it's a chronicle of the next steps I need to take in a project.
On most days it's a reflection of events, feelings, good ideas, opportunities to do better, and a general clearing house.

Because of the way Scrivener works, it's the perfect vehicle for this type of writing. As mentioned before, I have a folder for each month of the year. In each folder is a file for each day of the month I write something. And within that file is anything and everything I think is important at the time.

It's a free flow of ideas, thoughts, feelings, projects, and anything that springs to mind. Any idea that comes to mind is jotted down. There is no spell checking, no grammar checking, no revising, no deleting, no stopping to go "That's a stupid idea." The goal is to write down as much as possible as fast as possible.

Going through this process on a daily basis for several years has taught me many things. Using this "quiet time" I'm able to write down and chain together dozens of ideas in ways that still surprises me. Ideas flow together without me realizing. I see common threads and themes.

For example, I keep writing about Idea X, so maybe I should act on that. Or after writing about a certain topic, another one springs to mind and they are related in a way that didn't seem obvious to me before. I was able to add links to the chain in a natural and organic way.

If the same frustration keep rearing it's head, I need to figure out how to deal with it. What's at the root of that frustration? What's at the root of that action that generates the reaction?

When thinking about an article topic, many new ideas spring out. In many cases what appeared to be a somewhat bland topic, reveals itself to be far more complex with lots of avenues to explore.

What I have learned is that when you allow yourself to express whatever ideas you have without trying to justify them, all sorts of things take root.

For example, what's wrong with writing down anything and everything related to a business idea you have. You're not trying to convince anyone. You're not asking for money. You're writing down how awesome the idea is, your expectations, where you believe it will lead, how things will turn out, how you feel about those outcomes.

Same goes for a story idea. You're not trying to sell the idea. You're not trying to publish anything. You're mapping out how great those characters are and how fantastic this adventure is going to be. Let the stream of consciousness whisk you along and see where it goes.

Additionally, no one has to ever hear or criticize these ideas. Others aren't privy to hear what you're grateful for unless that's your choice. No one needs to see your life affirmations unless you share them.

Two years ago, I found a list of "writing prompts." Fifty two in fact, one for each week of the year. The goal was to take the prompt and write whatever came to mind. There was no "right" nor did you need to stick to the topic. It was an exercise to get you thinking and writing. I put those in Scrivener, each prompt in a document, and filled them out on Sunday. Some were serious, some were for fun. But, by sitting down and writing down whatever came to mind, without trying to think too hard about it, correct mistakes, or even try to stay on task, not only did I enjoy those topics, I noted all sorts of interest ideas. It was a fantastic learning period. Writing about someone who had a positive influence on me was very engaging.

Yes, it does feel a little awkward when you first get started, staring at that blank screen not knowing where to begin. You may have to start with, "Today I did …" Or use a fun writing prompt. You may have to write a few thousand words of junk until you get comfortable with the process. However, with practice, ideas will literally leap to the fore. They will connect without you trying. You will have more to write about than you have time.

Yet another advantage is an "inventory" of the year. As we ended 2020, I'm sure people were taking stock of what they did and what they wanted to do.

"2020 was so shitty because of Covid! There was nothing good about that year!"

True, but I disagree as well.

I wouldn't be surprised if many people had to think long and hard about what they did throughout the year. What good things did they do? What goals did they check off the list? What did they accomplish despite the adversities? What should they look to do for 2021?

With a journal, those questions can be easy to answer. Keep a list of goals, Check those off. Write about the things you want to do. Write about the things you want to learn. Write down all the great things you did. Write down all the things you plan to change. Write down how you expect 2021 to play out. As we know, all the world's a stage. Make it your story.

There are a myriad of journal apps to choose from. The biggest thing people are looking for is a way to protect those thoughts and ideas. As mentioned, I use Scrivener with a password protected DMG file. No need to use a specific app or document format. Everything in the volume is protected. This has served me well for 5 years.

Whichever route you take, I find the journal invaluable. It's fun, educational, motivational, inspirational, and extremely satisfying. Regardless of platform, regardless of tool, take the time to write. Write down goals, thoughts, ideas, aspirations. In many cases, you'll see the plan develop and you can follow it to fruition.

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How I Use Scrivener

Scrivener was one of the first, if not the first app I purchased for the Mac. When researching writing tools, Scrivener ranks at the top of the list. And for good reason. It's a complete writing environment that changes the way you approach text, pages, documents, and the writing process as a whole.

In my previous life before the Mac, like so many others, I used and was a fan of Microsoft Word. I thought Word 2.0 was quite amazing after all those years of Wordperfect and it's "reveal codes." Word 2003 was an impressive evolution and allowed us to install more fonts than we could ever use. The 2007 version brought a ton of new features, but were they really about writing?

That was also my last Word version. The UI and push toward desktop publishing features didn't work for me. When the Mac opportunity presented itself, I jumped at the chance to use Scrivener.

For the way I work, I have 3 projects – Blogs, Journal, Work.

I have a blog project for 2018, 2019, 2020 and soon there will be one for 2021. In fact, they go back to 2011. Those were written before Scrivener, in OneNote actually, but everything has been imported so they can all be referenced with ease. The way Scrivener works, I can jump to any previous article and topic.

My largest project is for journal writing. Each month is a folder. Each monthly folder has an entry for the current day of the month. Using this, I can go back through an entire year's worth of ideas, projects, and goals.

There is a third project for all things related to Work. This is a relatively small project, but contains useful information. Before sending an email, even to a small group of people, it's written in Scrivener first. Any Slack message of substance gets mapped out here.

The great thing about Scrivener is it's flexibility. My journal project has decent structure and hierarchy. I have folders and groups. For the blogs, it's just a list. Both work equally well in Scrivener. For those who want to be strict in how their documents flow, Scrivener handles that. For those who want more freeform, Scrivener handles that as well. It's not a fight, or conforming to a specific process. There are multiple ways of achieving your end document.

For example, when working on a blog article, I take my TaskPaper outline and paste it into the Notes field. The Synopsis field is a quick overview so I stay on track.

To show the flexibility, I could just as easily paste my TaskPaper notes into a new document and switch between the two. Or split the screen to show both documents at the same time. Or create a document in the Research folder. Or make an outline in Scrivener and not use TaskPaper at all. There is no rigid structure I have to follow to make Scrivener work for me.

Using my outline, I write the first draft, getting all my ideas down. Next, is editing, and this is where Scrivener really shines. In many cases I will use the Snapshot feature, to take a backup of the document. I can now ruthlessly or recklessly edit, cut, add, and move things around. I take as many snapshots as I like.

If I like what I've done, well and good. If not, I can select a snapshot and roll it back. There is no need to worry about holding down Undo or restoring a saved copy, Scrivener handles all that.

One of the big fears with editing is the idea of losing a great idea. A lot of work went into that paragraph, it's a shame to throw it away. Well, that doesn't have to happen with Scrivener. Text can be added to Notes. It can be added to the Comments. It can be a new document. Or a document in a folder of ideas for later. Perhaps into the Research folder? Because of the way Scrivener works, all of those are possible. How you edit, store and work with documents is up to you.

When finished, the document is pasted into WordPress or MWeb. There are no control codes or weird formatting markers, just the text. That means it's ready to go in whatever publishing tool I choose next.

For compatibility, Scrivener uses the RTF format. Those RTF are bundled in a single .scriv file. It's akin to a zip file, but contains all the information, meta data, folders and documents. That makes backup and transport very easy.

While RTF doesn't have password protection, there's an easy workaround. I use an encrypted DMG volume to store Scrivener files. When I mount the volume (through an Alfred workflow), I enter the password and go about my work.

When the volume is dismounted (also using Alfred), the contents are synched to Dropbox. This shares my file between my work and home machine. This was more important last year, but I can still work on documents between both machines and through a secure process.

In the 5 years I've been working with Scrivener, I've written several thousand pages worth of text. It allows me to shape my text any way I see fit. I can jump between documents with ease. I can move things around without fear. I can make aggressive edits and always know there is a safe way back to the first draft. I feel completely at ease with how it functions and feel anyone who puts words on the screen needs to have a look at Scrivener.

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Improve your writing with TextSoap

While getting ready for 2020, it occurred to me I can use TextSoap’s regex engine to improve my writing by finding and highlighting common and overused words. There are 3 steps to the process:

  • Use the “If Text Matches” action with a list of words I want to highlight
  • Format the foreground and background colors of the text
  • Set problem words to capitals so they stand out

After checking a couple of websites, I created this short list of words to focus on.

\b(and|or|for example|but|just|other|more|new|good|best|many|first|able|basically|interesting|honestly|literally|very|really|quite|seems|had|even|that|seriously|to be honest|ridiculous|know)\b

From there I used the Set Text Color, Set Background Color filters, followed by the Convert to Uppercase action.

When finished, the “cleaner” can run inside Scrivener itself, so I don’t have to leave my main app to get feedback.

It’s a simple formatter, but I think this will have a powerful impact.


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