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Writing in the Palm of Your Hand
2005, Q1 (July 03, 2007)
By James Horswill

Editor’s Note: The following article originally appeared in the October 2004 issue of TechTalk, the newsletter of the Twin Cities Chapter of STC, and appears here at the suggestion of its Executive Editor, Tom Niles. See http://www.stctc.org/news/newsletter.htm for the current and archived issues of this newsletter.

Readers of Gulliver's Travels will remember that when Gulliver visited Lilliput, its diminutive inhabitants suspected that his pocket watch was his god because "he seldom did anything without consulting it." They observed, "He called it his oracle, and said it pointed out the Time for every Action of his life."

If I were shipwrecked on the shores of Lilliput, the inhabitants would undoubtedly assume that my Palm PDA was my god, and for the same reason. It is my oracle; I seldom do anything without consulting it.

I keep the obvious information there: my appointments, phone numbers, To Do list, etc. I also find many less obvious uses for it. For example, I'm an amateur astronomer, and I have a variety of applications that keep me abreast of what is going on in the sky. I can tell you the positions of Jupiter's four "Galilean" satellites at any time of the day or nightand I do. This makes me unpopular at parties.

My Palm is much more portable than my laptop, and I find it especially useful when I'm writing. Of course, most people would find the stylus much too slow for word processing, but keyboards are available that aren't much bigger than the Palm itself. Be careful, however. Some of these mini-keyboards reduce bulk by eliminating one row of keys. This means that the other keys have to do triple duty. Typing some characters can mean hitting several keys simultaneously, or in sequence. Still, these keyboards aren't much bulkier than the cigarette cases that George Sanders offered suavely to elegant leading ladies in 1940s movies.

Unfortunately, the Memo application that's included with the Palm is of little value as a word processor because documents can only be comprised of 4,096 characters, or roughly 600-700 words. It also accommodates only limited formatting. The Documents to Go application that comes bundled with some Palms is an excellent alternative. Using it, I can write and edit, check spelling, do word counts, and even compose and edit tables. That's rightI can edit tables on the Palm. I can also transfer what I've written to and from Microsoft Word on my desktop computer without losing formatting. Of course, the Palm's small screen doesn't allow me to see more than fifty words or so at a time, but that's workable, and a small price to pay for portability.

I usually spend a lot of time thinking about a piece before I sit down and begin writing. I do a lot of this thinking while engaged in other activities. If I'm at the supermarket and an idea occurs to me, I'll make a quick note about it on my Palm. If I think of something during a meeting, I'll make another note. If they ever release a waterproof Palm, I'll probably write notes in the shower.

When writing quick notes like these, I don't want to take the time to pull out my keyboard, so I just use the stylus. Unfortunately, writing notes this way can be a tedious process, so my entries are apt to be terse. Later, when I try to organize these notes into reasoned discourse, I'm often confronted with an inchoate messdisorganized, cryptic, and out of context. I can spend several minutes just trying to figure out what I meant by a note that says, "Fuzzy."

Using an outlining program makes it much easier to write notes that will make sense when I refer to them later. When I enter them into an outline, each is in a context. For example, while I was thinking about writing this article, I decided to discuss formatting in Documents to Go. If I'd written a note that just said, "Formatting," however, I might well have been puzzled when I read it later. By putting the note in an outline under the heading, "Documents to Go," however, I quickly remembered what the note meant.

Many outliners are available for the Palm, but my favorite is ThoughtManager, from Hands High Software. It makes it easy to create headings on the fly, and you can drag text from one heading to another, just as you could if you were using the outliner in MS Word. You can use legal, numeric, alphabetic, Roman and mixed numbering, or define your own system. You can also expand or collapse headings and format an outline with checkboxes. This makes ThoughtManager equally useful for outlining the Great American Novel, or creating a grocery list.

Many writers rely heavily on reference books, and PDA's can be helpful here as well. Newer Palms can accept Secure Digital (SD) cards, thereby increasing storage by 64 MB or more. That means you have room for dictionaries, thesauruses, even an encyclopedia.

Currently, my Palm houses Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Thesaurus, Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, and the Concise Encyclopedia Britannica. It also contains the New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, the Penguin Dictionary of American English Usage and Style, and the complete works of Shakespeare.

All of these references are available from Palm Digital Media. The dictionary and the thesaurus are particularly useful. It's the work of a moment to find the definition or synonyms of a word. Some of the other references are poorly formatted for electronic searches, however. The electronic version of Bartlett's is a particularly egregious case. The index of cross-references is missing, making it virtually impossible to find all of the quotations about "snow," for example.

My only experience is with the Palm, but similar programs are available for other PDA's. You probably won't want to do all of your writing on your PDA — I certainly don't — but having a word processor with you at all times is a boon to any writer. And now that I have an unabridged dictionary in my pocket, I can give you the definition of "preerythrocytic" at the drop of a hat. So stay away from me at parties — or don't wear a hat. End of article.

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