It’s fall. Everyone’s back at their desks, and signs of the November->January holiday madness are still faint enough to ignore. So in other words, we’re all on the brink of overwhelm. If, like me, you are juggling writing projects with other work, you want to feel you’ve got the materials you need, wherever you happen to find yourself when the time opens up to work on your writing projects.
Lately, I have found a few tools that really help keep overwhelm at bay, particularly in collaborative environments.
Tracking Shared Projects
To keep track of shared projects (in my world, that usually involves 2-5 people), I used to make a table in Word of the topics and tasks within each topic that were to be managed. The parties involved each received a copy by email, and wrote back happy emails about how organized we all were. That part usually went pretty well. Then the ugly part began when it came time to update it, and keep track of version numbers, and revision dates, and who had received an emailed copy of the latest version, and on and on. It became a minefield, not a helpful tool. So many accurate and true things in that table could become wrong and out of date, so quickly.
Now for shared projects I encourage my book coaching clients and other project collaborators to use Trello. It’s a web-based tool, free for basic use, for listing items and adding comments, files, checklists, calendared deadlines, images and other media, and more. A page, known as a Board, in Trello’s default format, which is easily edited, shows three vertical lists headed To Do, Doing, and Done. One oddity: You can’t delete items from Trello, but you can archive them so they aren’t on your screen.
Search is nice and fast. It works on devices with a web connection – which includes computers, tablets, smartphones, and so on. And it’s always up to date. When people add their two cents, or a new task, or check a box in a checklist, everybody involved will know about it the next time they visit the Trello board. The ugly part from the old days of tables build in Word just pretty much disappears.
Floating Research Library
It’s true what they all say about Evernote: You really won’t need to keep those scraps of paper any more. It’s amazing to me how readily I adapted from “Where the $%^& did I put that stick-it with that book title / idea for subplot / phone number / song fragment?” to “Oh yeah, I’ll just look in Evernote. I bet I put it there.” Like Trello, Evernote’s search is super-fast and thorough. Also as with Trello, you can make categories and sub-items, here called Notebooks and Notes, subject to annotation, media attachments, live URL links, etc. For me, Evernote is my great reference library in the sky. Nothing is too small to put up there.
I’ve been at meetings with only my phone, yet equipped to answer questions, back up my assertions, illustrate ideas, and keep the ball rolling because I’ve got Evernote on my phone. And when you come across that brilliant idea or crucial piece of info while you’re out and about, you can email it to your Evernote library with your special dedicated email address (that you remembered to stick into your smartphone’s contacts directory, of course). It works on most devices. Unlike Trello, the Evernote software is not web-based – you download an app, free for basic use, from the company’s website and it resides on your device, while sharing the contents of your library with other devices you authorize. There’s a username/password gate to pass through, securing access to your stuff.
I feel a little tacky admitting this, but you know what? Facebook can be a useful collaboration tool. Protect your privacy, of course, as you would with anything at all posted there, but within bounds, a Closed or Secret Facebook group can become a terrific tool for shared projects. Keep one another up to date, ask questions, post calendared events, share files and links. The biggest downside? You have to go on Facebook to access the good stuff your colleagues are sharing with you inside your walled garden. Time sucks lurk just outside the garden wall.
Again, it’s free of charge, web-based, and platform-independent. A web connection is all you need. We BACCA members rely on such a group for keeping in touch between meetings.
The interface is unbeautiful, old, and clunky, admittedly, and privacy is, uh, dubious, but inviting people to meetings, setting aside the time for them, linking to an agenda document, and other such administrative tasks can be handled pretty well from within Google Calendar. By the way, you can invite people who don’t have a gmail address. It’s web-based, platform independent and free of charge.
When I have the chance to get some writing work done, I’m not always at my home office with access to the files stored on the server there. I switched a while back from Dropbox to Sync, as the place to keep drafts of works in progress. Truth be told, I prefer to use it only for temporary storage. (That’s probably my 60s-era bad attitude showing up, as it is wont to do these days.) Like the other products mentioned here, it is free for basic use. Sync says it uses encryption and otherwise is better at protecting my privacy than the competition.
Backup Is On You
With Trello and Evernote and Facebook and Google Calendar and everything else web-based, backing up your data is your job – not theirs. Procedures and file formats differ, so be sure to find out the ways to save copies from the cloud down to something local under your control. Then – and this is important – slot the time into your regular routine actually to DO those backups. It’s the old umbrella-toting-rainstorm-averting theory – if you make backups you’ll probably never need them. So make them.
Yeah, not so much. I recommend assuming, at a minimum, that what you put up in the Cloud is or may be subject to anonymous data-mining. In addition, personally, I wouldn’t use any of these tools to store usernames and passwords, Social Security and other such valuable identifying numbers, large address books and contacts directories, valuable intellectual property, and confidential documents. Sync’s website includes a blog post itemizing some of the more egregious privacy policies out there.
The Monster in the Shadows
Okay, I admit it. Not covered here is a recommendation for the tool that facilitates easy collaboration on an actual document. That’s because I’m still looking for something better than Track Changes in Word. Please understand, by that I mean I really really really want to find something better. I have been known to wail, curse, stamp my feet, sigh, and otherwise demonstrate my utter frustration with that inadequate, inelegant, outdated tool. One that I’ve read interesting things about is called Draft. Here’s its info page about version tracking and revisions.
PS – In the day since this blogpost went up, I’ve come across a few more things on this topic. Two colleagues and fellow BACCA-ites chimed in: Bethany Joy Carlson mentioned Google Docs as a useful alternative to Word for some purposes (although I’ve also seen negative reviews of it for security concerns, for example), and C E Cameron is checking out Scrivener (as I am). And then I recalled having seen mention of Poetica for online document collaboration. And then I realized that Jane Friedman’s recent blog post about alternatives to Word may have been the place I learned about Poetica.
What do you think? Do these and other tools help you keep the overwhelm at a manageable distance? Please tell us in the Comments below.
— A M Carley writes fiction and nonfiction, is a founding member of BACCA, and is CEO of Chenille Books which provides editing and coaching services to authors.