You know, there’s a non-zero probability that I would’ve actually enjoyed being an economist

I spent a not-insignificant period of time today assigning project codes to all of the stories and novels that I’ve worked on in the past two years, and then going through my spreadsheet and assigning a project code to each day (since for the past two years I’ve been keeping notes on what I work on each day). Using those project codes, I’m now able to estimate (with a middling degree of accuracy) how many days I worked on something, how many hours I spent on it, and how many words I wrote during the drafting and revision process.

And while I was doing this, I couldn’t help but think…this is not only fascinating, it’s also pretty fun. Ever since I was a lad, I haven’t found it at all difficult to get lost in spreadsheets for hours.

When I was in college, I majored in Economics. That was partly because Economics is a really easy major, but it was also partly because I was (and am) interested in the social sciences. And, of course, I worked as an economist (or at least an economist-type person) for the World Bank for several years. There was a time in my life when I very seriously considered trying to get a PhD in Economics.

I’m not sad that I’ve given up on that. It was always a very vague and inchoate dream. But I do think there is a part of me that could’ve had a very successful career doing some kind of economics-related work.

I think the problem was that I was just never particularly interested in public policy. If you’re a certain kind of person with a certain kind of politics and you grow up in a certain kind of city (i.e. Washington, DC) you kind of assume that public policy should be your natural focus. But, as a subject matter, it was never quite right for me. The essence of public policy is an interest in minutiae: fishing quotas and graduation rates and negative income taxes and district boundaries and all the rest of that stuff. It’s not that I can’t be interested in small things, it’s just that everything in the public policy world felt a bit too fine-grained for me.

However, that doesn’t mean that some other area of economics wouldn’t have been interesting, particularly the more research-based side of it.


On the other hand, I’m not sure that being an economist would’ve been very different from being a writer. It still would’ve meant a lifetime of being by myself, alone, behind a desk.

Honestly, if I wasn’t going to be a writer, I’d much rather be something active and implementation-oriented: a (certain kind of) civil servant or manager or business development guy. Something where you’re: a) dealing with other people; and b) actually constructing or making or doing something concrete that actually exists in the world in touchable form.

Five software programs that’ve improved my productivity and given me peace of mind

This is what your scrivener screen can look like, if you are a power user (which I am not).
This is what your scrivener screen can look like, if you are a power user (which I am not).

I’ve always scoffed at writers who blogged about the software tools they use. Mostly because that stuff doesn’t really matter at all. And I continue to stand by that. None of these tools makes you into a better writer.

In fact, most technological advances haven’t improved the writing. Jane Austen wrote her manuscripts in pen and they’re still unsurpassed.

But…technology does make your life easier. It makes writing more pleasant and less aggravating. And that’s worthwhile too. Not everything has to be so grimly focused on “But does it improve the writing?” If it improves your happiness and productivity, then that’s a good enough reason to use something.

Freedom – I can’t overstate how useful I find this program to be. Almost 90% of my writing is done while it’s enabled. It’s a program that disables the internet for the amount of time you specify. Really, all it does is put thirty seconds of work between you and the internet. If you want to use the internet (before the time is elapsed), you can just restart your computer. But those thirty seconds are enough! I won’t say that I don’t spend some of my writing time staring at the wall or checking my twitter feed on my iPad. But, by and large, it’s really cut down on the amount of time-wasting I used to do. It’s also trained me in the correct habits. Sometimes I forget to set it and I’ll have written for an hour and a half before I realize that I actually do have access to the internet.

Microsoft Excel – It would be a misnomer to say that I have a “submissions spreadsheet.” Really, I have a spreadsheet that I use to track everything in my life that’s important to me (including my submissions). It started out as a simple submissions tracker and over the last nine years I’ve added more and more functionality to it. The core of the sheet has become my Daily Log: a place where I record my writing output (both in terms of minutes and words), the number of hours I’ve spent reading, my TV-watching time, the number of calories that I ate, and my social media activity, and also includes short notes on what I worked on and what other things I did on that day (in addition to a few other fields). But there are other important sheets to. I have a log of every book I’ve read for the last three years (which includes capsule reviews of each book). And there are ancillary sheets: one on which I tabulate various statistics re: my life, one for my finances, one to track novel and nonfiction queries, one for MFA applications, etc. I am sure that there are dedicated software packages for life-tracking, but I really don’t think that any of them have the flexibility of Excel and portability of Excel.

Dropbox In March of 2009, I suffered a hard disk failure that wiped out three months of work. Since then, I’ve used Dropbox. There’s really only one way to use it. Just move everything in your My Documents folder to your Dropbox folder. And from then on, just treat your Dropbox folder like your My Documents. I’ve actually gone even further and put my entire iTunes library in there, because I am tired of having to reconstruct it from CDs and backup discs, but that might be going a bit too year. Yes, I do spend $99 a year to get an extra 100gb of Dropbox space. It’s totally worth it. If you have multiple computers, Dropbox also keeps the files in sync (which is really the only way that a person can use more than one computer). This has the added benefit of turning your computers into de facto backup drives for each other. It is still worth making a physical backup (on a backup drive) every once in awhile, since it is possible for Dropbox to spaz out and delete the files on your computers (happened to me once, because I did something stupid–was able to pretty easily restore the files using the Dropbox web interface, but still…)

Scrivener Yes, I’ve become one of them. I’m not saying that Scrivener is the greatest thing ever, but it is useful. For those who aren’t in the know, Scrivener is a word-processor that is specifically designed for writing long documents–screenplays, novels, reports, etc. I’ve used it to write two projects now, and I have to say that it is really useful to be able to see the structure of your whole work at a glance and to be able to move things around as needed. Furthermore, I can tell you that doing all the reformatting that was necessary to put This Beautiful Fever into the approved form for submission to contests, publishers, and agents was a nightmare, and I think that Scrivener does all that work for you in a much more efficient way. Scrivener also has a number of outlining tools that I haven’t made as much use of, since I don’t do much outlining, but I think that they’re probably pretty useful to some people, maybe.

The thing about transitioning from one software package (Word) to another (Scrivener) is that it’s never perfect. There’s always that one feature that’s missing. Scrivener is missing a lot of features that I use in Word. The formatting and page layout options aren’t as detailed. The interface isn’t as clean. Doing stuff like alphabetizing data or inserting charts is harder. It’s not easy to make stuff pretty in Scrivener.

But it’s exactly those features which make Word such a disaster. The formatting system that underlies Word is fine for short documents, but in a longer document (even one as simple as a novel), it eventually gets completely snarled up and starts causing weird problems.

I still use Word for most word-processing (including writing short stories). But for novels and longer stories, Scrivener is pretty darn good.

Evernote – Been using it for ages. It’s just a good way to jot stuff down. The main benefit is the easy synchronization between computers and mobile devices (my iPod / iPad). It’s where I put all my random ideas, story notes, lists, etc.