Odds and ends

Sometimes I have things to say about writing and technology that don’t warrant an article of their own. Some snippets of such ideas are below.

Newsletters

I’ve looked at some useful online resources for writers, but I neglected to mention any email newsletters. For example, Hope Clark’s FundsForWriters (http://fundsforwriters.com) is a bare necessity for anybody who can even drag a pen across a page.

There are a handful of curiosities not explicitly linked to the craft of writing that nonetheless several of my writer friends heartily recommend. The first is World Wide Words (www.worldwidewords.org), which looks the origins of interesting words and phrases. For anybody who works with words it’s simply compulsive reading. The second and third are similar in that they present snippets from factual books that can often serve as inspiration for plots or characters, especially for historical fiction. One is Delancy Place (www.delanceyplace.com), while the second is Brain Pickings (www.brainpickings.org).

brainpickings

Needless to say, all these email newsletters are free of charge so you’ve little to lose. Do check to ensure they aren’t filtered into your Spam mailbox by accident, though.

Keyboards

I spent some time looking at the boring but necessary area of keyboards. One tip suggested to me since is that keyboards with a hard and unrelenting feel, or keyboards that are used on a very hard surface such as a glass-topped desk, can be made to provide a softer response by slipping a mouse mat or two below them. Use a mat that’s fabric and sponge, rather than hard vinyl. Double-up the mat(s) for an even softer feel. Of course, an old and frayed mouse mat will do the job just fine.

It’s been suggested to me that when buying a keyboard you should be careful not to buy a US model, as can happen if you’re looking at the lower-end of the market. These work fine on British computers, of course, and are mostly the same as British keyboards in terms of layout although have a different main currency symbol ($ instead of £), and swap the @ and inverted comma keyboard locations. A few other symbols are in different places too, but they’re ones most of us use rarely.

Social media

I looked at creating an online presence through social media like Facebook, in order to at least get your name out there, but ideally to sell your creative wares.

Since that point there’s been a backlash within the creative community. Quite a few people have suggested that, in reality, any work a writer puts into Facebook or Twitter is wasted unless they’ve already got a huge following, or are likely to get one quickly (that is, they’re a celebrity). Building a following from humble beginnings is virtually impossible, even if you pay for promotional spots.

“You can keep Facebook for what it was meant for,” says industry expert Michael Alvear, who has detailed his sad findings at http://goo.gl/apLk8t: “Meaningful, informative and entertaining connections with family, friends and acquaintances.”

What about newer social media like “long-form” blogging platform Medium (https://medium.com) or clipping and sharing site Pinterest (https://uk.pinterest.com)? It can be very hard to ignore hot sites that those in-the-know keep talking about.

An uncomfortable truth is becoming evident, which is that all such sites expect you to create their content in return for – well, in return for zilch. It’s like working as a barman, keeping punters engaged, but without getting paid or even getting the briefest sip of the whisky. It can certainly be fulfilling writing a 2,000-word blog piece at Medium.com and making contact with people, but then again so can busking on a street corner. But at least singing on a street corner could earn you loose change.

The cheapest writing setup

Way back in one of my very first columns I looked at how to create a computing setup that’s perfect for writing needs. An interesting question was asked of me recently: What’s the best choice for the least amount of money?

An answer was provided in that initial column, where I advised you to beg, borrow or steal a second-hand computer and pay nothing.

However, what if you insist on buying brand-spanking new?

Although it marks me out as aggressively modern, I’m still carrying the flag for Google’s Chromebook revolution. These are the extremely cheap laptops typically costing as little as £150-£200. There are some caveats when using them, as I explained in issue #160 when I looked in-depth at these little miracles. The biggest is that you need to be always online for them to work properly. Still, they provide a lot for the money, including that all-important long battery life. As for the best one to get, well, there seems to be a new model of Chromebook every month, each better than the last, and it’s a fiercely competitive marketplace. Look at sites like www.pcadvisor.co.uk, which regularly review the best in the UK marketplace.

But what about the corollary? What if you’re prepared to splash cash for the best? The Apple’s Retina MacBook Pros are the Rolls Royce of the computing scene, although if you insist on Windows then Dell’s XPS 12, 13 and 15 range – the numbers refer to the screen size – are the Bentley of the Microsoft world. Nowadays when buying a Mac or PC you need to be sure to get a model with 16GB of RAM, or upgrade to such upon purchase. This will mean your computer’s as usable in the year 2020 as it is now.

Old is gold

I looked at how to access files created years ago with word processors long since forgotten, or on hardware that has become a historical footnote.

One thing I didn’t suggest – but which reader David Troughton emailed me about – is to simply jump onto eBay to buy the old word processor. Usually they’re considered little more than junk by their owners and are therefore extremely cheap. In David’s case his workhorse until around 10 years ago was the Smith Corona PWP 6000, a fascinating proto-PC that had a glass screen built into the printer unit.

old word processor

David tracked one down from an American eBayer and while the cost of getting it to the UK pushed the price up beyond the $60 asking price, he reports additional benefits. Not only can he access his old floppy files but he also received a huge nostalgia blast. In fact, David says he’s switched at least partially to writing once again on his “new” PWP 6000, eschewing his laptop for all but the more complicated tasks. After all, the PWP 6000 can’t access Facebook or Twitter, so is completely free of distractions. David adds that the tiny little screen really helps him focus and he just loves the feel of the clunky keyboard. Ink cartridges are apparently available for pennies on eBay and after a little Googling he discovered he could transfer files to his PC using the conversion software provided by Smith Corona on the utility disk that originally came with the device.

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