Make Your PC Work for You
By: Gary S. Kearney
Most writers are information junkies, so they need a way to keep track of all the information that they accumulate in the process of writing. If you use a computer to write, and most of us do these days, there are some techniques and some software available to help organize all the clutter and to cut that paper monster down to size.
Organize Your Hard Disk:
The most important thing that you can do is to organize the files on your hard disk in a way that makes sense to you. An idea that works for most people is to create a Writing folder in your MyDocuments folder. Then put other folders in it to hold particular projects or types of information. It's just like those outlines we all had to make in school. There's no right or wrong way, just whatever works for you. Here's an example of how I've done it:
There are a couple of things to notice here, note that I have included a shortcut or link to refer to a document in another location to save space. It's like putting a sticky note in a folder to tell people that a document can be found in a different place. This can be very useful when you want a particular reference to show up in two or more places. You can create as many links as you want, and they all refer to the original document. That way you won't have to look up all the copies if you want to change something. Just fix the original, and all the links will still point to the correct document. It's also a good idea to make a dated backup of the original, especially if you're not sure about the changes. Use the SaveAs command to create a backup before you make changes, then you would have NOTE.TXT as your linked document with NOTE-2003-05-30. BAK, NOTE-2003-05-16.BAK, etc. as the backups. With the size of modern hard disks it's usually worth the trouble to keep such files, and you can always delete them later or compress them and archive them.
With an organization like the one I've outlined, you can keep your files organized without buying any new software. It's also easy to do keyword or filename searches with the Windows Search. Set the search to only look at the folder that you're interested in, and it will be lightning quick.
I've concentrated on Windows, but any modern OS (Operating System) will let you do similar things. Save information as plain text files, so you can open as many text files as you want, and use the clipboard to cut and paste between them to create new documents based on your notes. Your word processor will probably let you open multiple files and paste between them as well. Some even offer version control to deal with multiple backups. Depending on the type of article, you may want to include references to the original that you copied your clips from. You can use long file names on most systems, so use as much space as you need to make the name meaningful. The folder is considered part of the name too, so there's usually no need to duplicate that in the file name itself.
The biggest problem with the information on a hard disk is that it can disappear instantly. I've had years of work go away without a trace and had my life saved by backup copies. I use a two tier system where I make automatic copies of things that change a lot to a Zip Disk, and make archive copies of things that rarely change to CD-ROM. For a couple of hundred dollars that's a lot of peace of mind.
The tools supplied with the operating system work fairly well once you become familiar with them, but as usual people resent the limitations that they run up against, so they create software to extend and improve the OS. There are advanced clipboard utilities that let you capture and organize multiple selections, freeform database managers for organizing information in multiple formats, and PIMs (Personal Information Managers) such as MS Outlook designed to keep track of addresses and documents.
These types of software tend to overlap as each developer adds features to make their software more useful. Depending on your work habits you may want several or find that one particular tool that you are familiar with is better.
Clipboard software is probably the most useful addition for a writer. It allows you to select several items from various sources and then copy them to one document. It's possible to do this with the regular clipboard and an open document for receiving and organizing the clips, but it's more convenient for research to grab the clips and then worry about pasting and organizing them later. Unfortunately, these programs may conflict or have problems with others such as MS Word and other programs that grab the clipboard for their own use. In defense of Word, I should say that it does this to provide some of the same services that clipboard utilities do.
ClipMate:http://www.thornsoft.com/ $24.95 download, $29.95 on CD
ClipMate works alongside the regular Windows Clipboard and remembers every piece of data (both text and graphics) that you cut or copy. Once your data is saved in ClipMate, you can select an item to automatically place it back on the Clipboard or directly into an application. Within ClipMate you can view, print, edit, reformat, convert to upper/lower case, search, rename, and reorder clipped Items. Screen Capture functions supplement the windows screen capture by adding region and object capture capability, and of course, you can save, export, e-mail, and print your screen captures. You can even encrypt sensitive data.
You can create an unlimited number of collections to store your data, and you have full control over them so that your collections fit your personal work process. For example, you can use your "InBox" as a catch-all and create "Safe" collections for topics like Tips & Tricks, Frequently Used Letter Closings, Clip Art, Hot Internet Web Pages, Project Research, or whatever you wish. Even if you decide to do nothing special with your clips - you'll always have the last 1000 clips at you disposal, ready to paste wherever you need them.
I have used ClipMate for several years and find it almost indispensable. I used it to go to the Internet and get the URL and prices shown above, then I copied two paragraphs from the Help file, and finally pasted them all into this document. With a little editing, the section was finished. This is the program to buy, if you only get one.
Keytext is more of a Windows automation program, but it can also be used to select and organize text clips. It is a little more difficult to use than Clipmate, but if you are interested in the automation features, then it might be a better choice. They also offer a program called Traytext for $15.00. It is a predecessor to the current program, and I used it for years before switching to Clipmate.
Clipboard Magic:http://www.cyber-matrix.com/clipmag.htm Freeware.
This is a completely free alternative which provides much of same basic functionality without some of the bells and whistles.
A very simple clip manager, but it's free. A good choice for people who want to keep things simple.
Database and PIM (Personal Information Manager) Solutions:
It's a little difficult to explain what this class of software does. The basic idea is to put information of many different types, particularly text information, into a box that can keep it organized and can find things for you. The programs here were designed from different points of view and take different approaches to the problem.
Info Select:http://www.miclog.com/ $149.95 Available as download or on CD
Info Select is an award-winning Personal Information Manager that helps you manage all your daily random information and organize all your Internet data. You can find any data in an instant, no matter where or how you enter it. You can store all your valuable notes, ideas, e-mail addresses, contacts, plans, numbers, web page addresses, configuration notes, and slips of paper flying around your desk
Instead of jotting down notes, ideas, lists, etc. on paper, in your word processor, in a database, or in a structured PIM, you put all your random facts and data in Info Select. With the powerful search feature you'll discover new relationships among your information, and you can easily find, join, summarize, duplicate, and organize your information. Track information as if you had a photographic memory!
This program will not replace a word processor and reports don't always work the way you expect. It does have extensive facilities for importing and exporting information. You can create all kinds of links, move information easily, and convert back and forth between various formats and views. I also use it as my main e-mail reader. You may be able to print manuscripts, but I prefer to use a word processor or page layout program for that by exporting or cutting and pasting from items created in Info Select.
The basic view is an outline similar to the Windows Explorer with lots of options to handle almost any kind of information in any form including structured information. The contents of a selection are shown in a separate window. It is expensive, but also very powerful.
I've used Info Select for more than ten years, and I'd be almost lost without it. For writing, I usually create an outline and populate it with the various text items and research clips to fill it out. I can then collapse the outline to produce a single document as I've done with this one. This program does take a while to learn since there are so many different ways of doing things, and it may take a while to figure out how to make it work best for you. It also has a clip facility like the clipboard managers, but that doesn't seem to work very well for me, so I generally use ClipMate for that purpose.
AskSam: $149.95 SurfSaver: $29.95 http://www.asksam.com/
This program lies somewhere between Info Select and classical structured databases. It is designed more with a business environment in mind and is better at producing reports and doing more sophisticated searches and queries. It is flexible enough to deal with many kinds of information but is more aimed at text than Info Select. You can import many kinds of files, and there is a free reader that you can send with your files to allow other people to read them.
I have used this program in the past and found it useful for some applications. It is ideal for producing certain kinds of technical documents and for organizing those documents. SurfSaver is separate program for collecting and organizing information from the Internet. It allows downloading and copying to your own computer with indexing and sorting by keywords to make information retrieval easy.
TreePad:http://www.treepad.com/ Freeware or other versions for $29.95 - $89.95
Tree Pad uses an outline format similar to Info Select, and it comes in different versions with a free version which you can try to see if it will meet your needs. You can upgrade to one of the other versions when you decide that you need the extra features or when you have the money. The advanced versions offer direct translation to HTML and creation of Web sites. There is also a free viewer you can use to send your databases to other people. This is my recommendation for beginners. Using it will give you an idea of what you can do with this type of program. If you later decide that you need more features, you can chose one of the other options.
ATNotes: http://www.pcworld.com/downloads/file_description/0,fid,17660,00.asp Freeware
If you are one of those people who puts sticky notes everywhere, here's a free virtual alternative. ATnotes is a freeware program which creates Post-it like notes on the Windows desktop. You can set single or repeated alarms for each note with visual and audio alarm signal. They can be placed anywhere on your desktop, as well as resized. You can even send notes to other computers in a local network. Choose any font, background color, text color and border color for your notes. If you just had the shocking vision of a desktop as cluttered as your desk, breathe a sigh of relief; notes can also be hidden until manually activated or until a specified date/time. You can also get an overview of all current notes in the note list and search for notes containing specified text. I've used this program, and it does pretty much what you expect without any fuss.
The Palm Desktop that comes with Palm and Handspring PDAs also has all the features of a PIM, but it's more designed for address and calendar information than text. It will work fine for smaller amounts, and you do have the advantage of carrying your notes with you wherever you go. I do know a couple of people who use the desktop even without the PDA.
Microsoft Outlook (Not Outlook Express) is part of their office suite. If you have it, it can provide most of the free form information services that you might need. It is a little more cumbersome and difficult to adapt to your personal style. As with many other MS products, it tries to take over and the customization features tend to restrict you rather than providing true choices. I wouldn't buy it, but if you have it you can certainly try it to see if it will meet your needs, and of course it is well integrated into the other programs in the MS Office suite.
Information is useless if you can't find it when you need it. Even though it will take some work it's worthwhile to develop an organization to deal with the information that you use and to develop the habits that make that organization work. Software can help, but you are the only one who knows what you want, so you will have to make some effort. Don't be afraid to experiment it's the best way to learn.
My favorite sources are PCWorldhttp://www.pcworld.com/ and ZDNet http://www.zdnet.com/ for software and reviews. You can also search in their archives for articles and tips on computer use. Tucows . http://www.tucows.com/ is a super shareware site. Google http://www.google.com/ is also a wonderful way to search for help and software, but you tend to get a lot of extraneous results, and there is no screening or rating, so even after you find something you need to do more research.
One final thought: hard disks do fail, lightning does strike, please make backup copies.
Here are the website Gary recommended in his Sunday Q&A talk about PC file organization:
Mary, web editor
Web page for setting up your file system: http://www.paulsadowski.com/sadowski/c_file_system.htm
Another Web page with some good advice and some examples for setting up your file system: http://www.aarp.org/computers-howto/Articles/a2002-07-17-folders.html
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