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New Apps & Tools For More Efficient Writing

For the past week, the entire MacStories team and I have been focusing on finalizing our coverage of Mountain Lion, which, according to recent speculation, may be coming out next Wednesday, July 25th. As you may have noticed, we have been posting less frequently on the site, but we wanted to get our coverage just right, and I think we’ve managed to come up with a good plan. More details soon.

In the meantime, I’d like to share some links of apps and tools I have been using to research, write, and edit my review of Mountain Lion. As a general tip, make sure to check out our Reviews section, as several of the apps we have reviewed recently have a spot on my iPhone or iPad Springboard. But I’ve also discovered some new gems that, while working on the review, have helped me organize all my material more efficiently.

Scrivener. Per Dave Caolo’s recommendation, I decided to give Scrivener a try as a desktop app for writing and researching articles, and I’m glad I did. I’m still a novice – Scrivener is very complex and feature-rich – but here’s a few things that immediately enhanced my workflow: possibility to organize ideas and drafts as outlines, text, or visual notes; support for file attachments and OPML; document references for webpages; split-mode for comparing “snapshots” of document copies without creating duplicates of a file. I have been using Scrivener to compare various edits of my review, and I love it. An iPad app is coming, and I also got this book to learn my ropes around the app. Even better: Scrivener can sync to Dropbox, so I can make additions using the app I prefer. For iOS integration, I’ve been testing an app called Index Card, though I’m still not entirely sold on its implementation of the cork board.

Marked. To preview Scrivener’s contents (written in Markdown), I use Marked. Its exporting features are fantastic, and I have been using the outline navigator to get a better sense of my review’s structure. If you write on a Mac, you need Marked.

Keyboard Maestro Markdown Library. I only found out about this collection of macros this week, when I was looking for ways to automate link insertion in my article with Markdown. It turns out, the Keyboard Maestro Markdown Library contains macros for links, formatting, lists, and even images. I have tweaked them to better suit our site’s requirements (for instance, I have added captions to my image macro, and article titles to the link one using this tip), and, in total, I’m pretty sure they have already helped me save minutes I would have spent copying & pasting HTML instead. Amazingly useful. More on why I love Keyboard Maestro here.

OmniOutliner and CarbonFin Outliner. I have recommended these two apps in the past, but they’re worth a second mention. For my review, I created an outline on my iPhone months ago and started adding new ideas and notes from there. On iOS, I like Outliner because it supports Dropbox and has a simpler interface than OmniOutliner for adding notes and indenting elements. But on the Mac, I rely on The Omni Group’s app because it’s got the best support for keyboard shortcuts and notes – which are both essential to my workflow.

NoMoreiTunes. I had to look up several iTunes applications in the past week, and this Safari extension did the trick (read: it doesn’t launch iTunes when Safari opens an iTunes link).

Markdown Service Tools. Because sometimes I want to use my Mac’s contextual menu to quickly generate HTML off some Markdown.

Macdrifter’s Dictionary Macro. Mountain Lion features a new three-finger single-tap action for Dictionary lookups and file previews, but some apps don’t recognize this gesture. If you use Keyboard Maestro, this is a nice way to forward any selected word to Dictionary.

Evernote. While my writing happened in Scrivener, all other research material that didn’t strictly belong to the article went into Evernote. With it, I use a combination of other apps and hacks that make it easy to save URLs, images, and just about anything. I use EverWebClipper to quickly beam URLs into Evernote from Mobile Safari; lately, I’ve also been playing with EverClip, which doesn’t feature a bookmarklet but can run in the background (“listening” for every new copied file) for 10 minutes. It’s sort of like Pastebot, but for Evernote, which is nice. To automate the process of saving links while on my Mac, I use a couple of AppleScripts put together by our Don Southard, which are obviously configured to work with Keyboard Maestro.

Captio. Indispensable utility to quickly save new tasks into my OmniFocus database.

iFiles. Following GoodReader’s somewhat unexpected removal of its iCloud-based file storage, iFiles came out with a similar functionality, and it works pretty well. iFiles hasn’t received a major update in months – apparently, the developer is working on a 2.0 version – but this iCloud integration is interesting, and works as you’d expect from an iOS file manager.

Last, IFTTT. If I’m not writing, I’m typically distracted by Internet while I browse around looking for interesting stuff. To make sure I can focus on writing without missing out on cool links, I have set up IFTTT to backup favorite tweets and starred Google Reader items to my Evernote and as a text file in my Dropbox. This way, if these services go down or will someday cease to support these functionalities, I’ll still have a complete archive of everything I had saved.

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