Boswell for Mac OS X - A Writer's Companion: Part Three

Last time we looked at a product called Boswell for Mac, a writer's tool for organizing thoughts, notes, and other components that go to make a document. This week we will look at the new Mac OS X version, just released.

Boswell is a system. To do any complicated task effectively, you have to have a system. This is eminently so for writing. Whether that system be a sophisticated solution or a stack of legal pads, it's still a system. Even a wall full of PostIt Notes is a system. The trouble with a system is that it's inherently at odds with a free-ranging creative mind that will not be placed into a neat slot. Software is notoriously systematic in this context. Yet the most creative mind cannot go it alone, if only for the simple reason that the mind can entertain just one thought at a time (though some minds are quite good at multitasking).

What if there were a system out there that had enough rules to keep order in things, yet enough flexibility to step out of the way of the flow of creative juices? This is difficult enough with legal pads, PostIt Notes, binders, and whatever else, but software in the last analysis is about total rigidity. It's one or the other; there is no middle ground. All computing reduces to logical ones and zeros. Nevertheless, it's possible for the software to handle the busywork, what it does best, while leaving the creative aspects to the user. That's Boswell in a nutshell.

Like any software, the user has to initially learn how Boswell works as an application. Once that happens, though, Boswell can be the able assistant it was designed to be, because the user is in control, and has the tools to make creativity happen. Those tools include the Notebooks and Journal windows, plus the archiving and search tools, all of which are integrated seamlessly. In my previous articles, we installed Boswell together, and walked through how it works. You may have installed Boswell then. A new Boswell X demo is now available. Keep that Boswell flow diagram printed and handy too, at least as you come up to speed.

Install the Boswell X application into the Applications folder. Now double-click your favorite Boswell library, and the correct version of Boswell will launch automatically! This really came as a pleasant surprise, as I already had the Mac OS version installed, working, and configured to be started automatically when I double-clicked a Boswell library alias. For my own convenience, I had already created an alias to my most-used Boswell library and placed it in the Apple Menu Items folder. This alias now calls the native OS X version of Boswell, and I didn't so much as lift a finger to make that work. Of course you can always open any Boswell library manually, using File, Open from the Boswell program menu.

Boswell is the kind of program that you need at your fingertips. It needs to be there to capture that moment of brilliance before it's gone. Add the alias for your favorite Boswell library to your Login Items system preference. Start it hidden if you prefer. Either way, it's always idling in the Dock, ready to go on a click's notice. If you happen to open a second Boswell library or the same library a second time, then a harmless error message will pop up, and the already-open library will come to the foreground.

This first OS X version does not yet implement my wish list of features, some of which I shared with you previously. In particular, there is no Ctrl-Click support for contextual menus. There is some urgency for implementing this particular feature, because OS X does not support that wonderful option in Mac OS called Balloon Help, and Boswell for Mac OS really uses it well. So something has to take its place. For now, the workaround is to train on the earlier version in the Classic environment. The Boswell database is identical, and couldn't care less which engine you used.

There is an upgraded Boswell tutorial, replete with Boswell X screenshots. The venerable Nickel Tour overview is also updated for OS X. I recommend working through both of these, starting with the latter.

With this new version, Boswell also comes with a longer list of suggested uses. It's an impressive list. I particularly like the very first one, where Boswell can help focus those hazy Monday mornings. The key to such flexibility is a certain discipline to input all of your notes, memos, and what-not into Boswell before they vanish from memory (or before Housekeeping sweeps the PostIt Notes off your desk). Part of this is deciding how you plan to use Boswell in the first place. Usually it will be occasioned by a specific project, a term paper for example. Once you get the hang of it for that, then more general uses will present themselves naturally. In all cases, there is that constant discipline of inputting data into Boswell, greatly simplified by Boswell's tools.

For anyone who has used a database such as Oracle or MySQL, Boswell will seem somewhat disconnected at first. This is intentional. Boswell is designed to handle thoughts, notes, articles, chapters, recipes, for that matter. Life is like that. Life isn't neatly compartmentalized, much as some would try to make it so. Boswell works with that. Later on, you actually have a chance of finding that proverbial needle in a haystack.

Boswell's file structure is important. Make a new folder called Boswell Data in your Home/Documents folder. Place a copy of the pre-configured Boswell_Library folder into it, which will give you a nice starter database. The Mac OS version of Boswell installs the database into the application folder. That may be okay for Mac OS, but not in OS X. If you installed that earlier version, then you'll find its database in /Applications (Mac OS 9)/Boswell_Folder. Don't worry about moving the database. Boswell can open it from wherever you locate it, in principle even across a network, simply by using its alias.

It's possible and sometimes advisable to have multiple Boswell databases. Boswell installs a default database which includes some Boswell help information, so is rather handy for reference as you go. You don't want to rename or fool with the file structure, or else you'll break it. In case you find it desirable to have multiple databases, the file structure would be something like the following:

Boswell Database File Structure Example

To make a new database, duplicate the parent Boswell_Library folder (top of screenshot) and rename the new folder appropriately. This way, you start with an existing database, which is much easier to modify from a template than to build from scratch. At your own risk, you could rename the alias for the database, but frankly I would just leave it alone. In all cases, always access the database of interest by double-clicking its respective alias rather than the actual database file.

Boswell isn't for everyone. But if you do any amount of serious writing or planning, then it may well be your ticket. Boswell is the closest thing to creative freedom I personally have ever seen in software. It does not constrain you to the straightjacket of strict rules that other packages necessarily must. What you want to do with computing is take the computer itself out of the loop. And that includes the software. Think about a speech or sermon. Ultimately you came not to hear the speaker but the message. The speaker is the medium. And so it is with computing. The hardware and software form the medium between your creative genius and a finished product.

It's probably not a coincidence that Boswell is a Mac-only program. Apple has always strived to work with creativity, and, as it were, place the computer ever more into the background, allowing creativity to thrive. Take Boswell for a spin yourself and see how it goes. And be creative. Ciao.