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Mobile Writing (Capture) Tools

February 16, 2020

I've struggled in the last few years to use my phone for anything productive. Compared to sitting at my laptop, with vim or emacs bindings available, or organizing my brain with Org-mode, using my phone for any input feels like a waste of time, except for selecting a song on Spotify or consuming emails or articles.

But that can't be the way - surely there are people who are more than happy with getting things done on a phone. I decided to look into it - this post covers tools that ended up in my current writing stack.

Some personal context for what I'll cover:

  • I enjoy the principles of Getting Things Done by David Allen, so am mostly focused on tools that support Capture.

GTD in a nutshell: rather than interrupting the current task, Capture the thought in an Inbox, and continue Executing. Later, review your Inboxes.

  • I'm heavily invested in Emacs, and that influenced my search and this post.

  • Things I'm targetting with my writing:

    • Blog posts
    • Stories, Poems
    • Comics
    • Video Games
    • Journal
  • I'm on iOS on mobile and Linux on the desktop, and can't speak much to other OSs at this point.

I think of writing as thinking aloud - write first, ask questions later. I want to be able to just spill at any point, and nothing should stand in my way. So how do you spill?

The Tools

Beorg - Mobile Org-mode support

Beorg is a mobile app that can sync with your emacs Org-mode directory, pulling agenda views and allowing for full editing of your files. It also supports capture (and capture-templates) for immediately adding items on the go - note that this includes a share-sheet for adding anything else to your Org inbox across your iPhone. The app is free, but has one-time paid upgrades available.

Some resources:

Beorg unlocked me in a large way - being able to find and review notes on the subway was a big win. The capture button is the must-have feature and the reason I got it in the first place, but Beorg even supports a lispy scripting language, and has a REPL!

I've integrated my Org directory with Dropbox, and use the Beorg Dropbox integration to keep things in sync.

MindNode - for structured, mobile brain-dumps

One thing I enjoy about Org-mode is the way you can easily nest thoughts and tangents - writing is a flow, and it's important to capture but not get lost in the meandering mind. Can that be done on mobile?

MindNode is the closest I've found so far. It's an app for visual brainstorming - it lets you write mind-maps. You start with one node, and can add subnodes, then subnodes to those, all the way down. Each node can be text, and can have attachments. It's all displayed in a balanced graph, with nice colors and UX for writing, editing, and adding more.

I found the interface quite reasonable for thinking aloud. To get more familiar with it, I started by creating at least one mindnode per day - this post was actually the result of one of these daily mindnodes.

I started out trying to get to a "Published Blog Post", capturing all the things necessary to get the blog back in order. This style of adding things to lists helped me enumerate the issues without getting stuck on any. You can see I wandered into the never ending rabbit hole of Blog Engines, but finally managed to reach the "Content" node.

I was able to embed this through MindNode as well - they offer hosting and provided an iframe UI. Though, as I'm writing this and poking into it, it looks like they may be shutting down the my.mindnode service that provided it. They also just switched to a subscription model.

To the next tool!

Drafts

Drafts is an app focused on getting you writing immediately. It defaults to being opened in an empty page, with a blinking cursor ready for input. It is intended to be used for quick capture and drafting out thoughts and ideas.

Drafts' actions model supports a variety of integrations, and the actions themselves are quite editable. I was able to add a custom Dropbox action that uploads and appends my drafts to a drafts-journal.txt file in dropbox, along with a timestamp.

Drafts also supports some better text editing functions, like moving forward/backword per-word (vim or emacs-ish!). I don't often use those features, as often the writing is forward-only and that kind of editing would be better applied to maintaining/editing a doc. Still though, I can tell they're in my mind-space.

I'm sure I could be getting more out of Drafts - it's quite feature-full!

Similar to MindNode, I'd recommend building the habit with at least a Draft per day. Even just a silly poem is worth it!

From here, it's just processing the input

Once you're capturing your thoughts, what do you do with it all?

I wish I had a better answer here - the best advice is probably to drive toward finishing things. I still get caught up thinking about where files should live if they're in-flight. Do I want to edit content in Org-mode or a blog-ready markdown file?

In the case of this post, I outlined in MindNode, waited 3 months, then got up and wrote it start to finish in an hour, all markdown. No Org-mode or editing process necessary. Maybe I'd benefit from one?

The thing to be aware of: capture tools and solid processes are good, but can also be overwhelming - soon you'll have created more work than you know what to do with.

It's important to be free when processing your inboxes - delete things often! If your tools are good and the idea is important, it'll come back. The point is to maintain focus, not do 100 extra noise-tasks.

Russell Matney

Russell Matney

Writing, Stories, Software, Indie Games

 

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