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

Last week 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 work through a practical example.

As noted previously, Boswell is a Mac OS application. An OS X version is in the works, which is why this product made it into this column. I believe it's worth waiting for, and practicing on the Mac OS version will have you up to speed for the real thing, as it were, when it hits the streets.

If you worked through last week's article or Boswell's Nickel Tour, then you are familiar with some Boswell concepts. Perhaps the key one is the journal entry, because that's where you actually do your work. Think of it as the kitchen counter, if you will. Boswell's notebooks collectively make up the database archive, which is akin to the pantry where you store stuff, with the one difference that you don't actually remove anything from this archive. Instead, you refer to something and optionally copy it for use elsewhere, namely in a journal entry. In this respect, it's very much a digital library. Next, there are the clues, not unlike the labels on your spice jars. In Boswell, clues are editable, and an integral part of preparing to later find stuff easily. Finally, there are the import and export tools, also available from the menu bar.

Suppose you have to prepare a term paper on the general subject of current events. You might well choose an aspect of the war with Iraq for it, presently raging. Open up Boswell and create a new journal entry, using the New Entry button in the Journal window. Entitle it Iraq War Term Paper or something similar. In the Comments field, the long box in the middle of the new entry, type in a synopsis of what the assignment is, Term paper for World History class, say. In the body, below, start by writing the actual assignment as given, something like Write a 2,000 word essay on a current events topic of your choice. Be prepared to defend it before the class. Next, jot down below it certain details such as the name of the class and professor, and the date due. We'll use this entry as our springboard for the rest of the document, as you can predict already.

Before we get overly involved with playing around, take a look at the Journal window, and notice three little icons. The two Entry tools, which resemble little hammers, act on active entries, one tool for all entries in the journal, and the other for the entry in front. You'll reach for these two tools fairly often. The Recent tool, which vaguely resembles a set of stairs, selects from the last 32 journal entries viewed. These three tools are also available in the Notebook window, and work the same way.

Once you have a bit of content built, press and hold either entry tool, and click Versionize. This will permanently save your work in the *RECENT notebook, while leaving it available for editing in the journal. As you make further changes, continue to use Versionize. If you need to revert back to an earlier entry, you can move to the Notebook window, find and open an earlier version of this entry, and either Clone the whole thing into a new journal entry or copy/paste relevant information from it into your journal entry. As you get better at this, you can also create new notebooks on the fly and archive to them as well.

Next, you'll need some original material for your paper. Handy to our topic are the opening speeches of the two leaders, George Bush and Saddam Hussein. Even if you never quote them directly, they'll certainly add some context to your work. It's always good to go to original sources. Copy/paste the text of each into the body of a new journal entry, copy the title into the Title field, and at least the page link into the comments field. Remember, any worthy document has a good bibliography. Archive when ready.

Next, you'll need a collection of news articles, say, of which there is an abundance on this topic from all kinds of sources. A beauty of Boswell is that you can collect all you like, archive them, then know that they are there if you ever need to refer to them. And you'll have more than half a chance of actually finding what you're looking for. As you gather material, realize that all news, no matter how objective and sincere, is always colored to some extent by the reporter. That's how life is. That's why culture and good upbringing are important. So you'll want to sift your sources for verity, and select from a wider spectrum of sources. Then you can step back and ask what the truth of the matter really is. Put your reflections in - where else? - a fresh journal entry or two.

You may have some articles or other materials on hand already. Use the Import feature - File, Import... - to import one or all of the text files in any folder. Boswell checks only the current folder, not any subfolders. If you hit paydirt and find yourself importing barrels of files, you can't stop it. Just wait it out, auto-archive them to *RECENT, then use the Delete tool in the Notebooks window (with *RECENT and the relevant entries selected) to finish the job. Note that Boswell actually checks file for text content. It doesn't rely on the file name. Very slick.

Once you have some articles, probably your main source of material, you'll also want to consider commentaries and editorials from a few pundits who live and breathe your subject matter. Once again, pick several, including an enemy or two, as your goal is to ascertain the truth of the matter. Even enemies speak the truth once in a while. As before, archive each of these, perhaps in a new notebook called Editorials or something similar. Remember to copy/paste your links, for the sake of your bibliography.

Your first journal entry contained the actual thesis question to be investigated, plus your goals for the paper. Think of it as a roadmap. You'll be tweaking this as you go, and will want to have it up for the duration of the paper. Versionize it regularly.

The additional notes you jot down as you go will form many of the building blocks of your final paper. That is why a good title, links, clues, and the like are so important. While you can seemingly do many things at once, and some people do have an uncanny ability to juggle mental tasks, the fact of the matter is that you can only do one thing at a time, though you may indeed be able to switch back and forth with lightning speed. Jot down that thought before it flees. You may never use it, but if you don't jot it, you'll almost certainly lose it.

As you've had time to delve into some material, make some notes, and revise your specific goals, the paper will show definite signs of taking form. It's time to merge them into a document. This won't happen in one sitting. Your document will lend itself to natural divisions, probably chapters or sections. Create a journal entry for each section, and cut and paste source material, notes, and other items as required. The idea here is to have enough sections to make the document manageable, but not so many that your table of contents ends up being a book itself. Versionize these entries as before. Now make them sequential by typing in appropriate section numbers in the Tag field. The numbers can simply be integers, or they can be something like 3.1.2 to signify smaller sections. Keep it simple, though. You can always break up a larger section later. Create a new notebook for the finished product. Archive the sections into it as you go. Now open and sort the notebook by tag. Tweak things as you need to. Finally, export a single unformatted text document by selecting Export Notebook from Boswell's File menu. For more guidelines on building a document, see the Boswell FAQ on this topic.

Well, you probably get the picture by now. There are some technical particulars of Boswell that can help you work better. Let's take a look at some.

Boswell installs with a starter library. It's in a folder called Boswell_Library inside the main program folder. I suggest you leave it untouched, copy the whole thing to your Documents folder, make the original folder read-only (Cmd-I, Locked), and work from the copy. This is a good thing for a couple of reasons. Not only do you start with a template that has some good Boswell information thrown in, you're also working from a copy, which you can mess up all you like. I managed to break my first attempt at this within a couple of days. Of course I was just trying things and testing the limits of stupidity, and found them. It's nice to know you have a read-only original to fall back on. I'll assume you learned from my mistakes and will be working from the database copy.

It's possible to have multiple databases, particularly where you want absolutely no crosstalk between projects. You can rename the database folders and aliases appropriately. Just be consistent, and also leave the inner files and folders named as-is. That said, Boswell is designed to work integrally with one large database. Think of its database as a library. Ideally you want to be able to find any book you're looking for in one library, regardless of subject. The physical limitations of brick-and-mortar libraries don't exist in the digital domain. In the end, the computer is your servant. Use it as you see fit. Whether you have one or several Boswell databases, make sure you keep intact the files and folders that make up a database. Otherwise you're out of business.

While we're at it, let's talk about location of the database. Regardless of the wonderful add-ons made for it, Mac OS is a single-user operating system. Personal documents can go anywhere, even into an application folder. Not so OS X. Being unix at its core, OS X is inherently a multi-user operating system. Personal documents can go anywhere you like, so long as they're inside your Home folder somewhere, usually in the Documents folder. I made my copy of the Boswell_Library folder in Home/Documents, and I recommend that you do too. If you plan multiple Boswell databases, then make a parent folder called Home/Documents/Boswell Data, and keep your copied and renamed Boswell_Library folders there.

A beautiful feature of Boswell is its Show Clipboard window. Though I have been using the clipboard aggressively for years and generally keep a running account in my head of what's where, I still find it nice to actually see what the clipboard contains, live. It's cute to watch it change as you copy something new into it. When you run into writer's block, you can play with this and free your mind. Boswell works with formatted or unformatted text, so copying and pasting from, say, a web page is painless. Graphics are another story, though.

By the way, those apparently random notes you jotted earlier can serve as inspiration when you suffer writer's block, which you will. More than that, the very act of writing one may stimulate those creative juices to flow. Barring that, there's always Starbuck's, at least in these parts.

What about formatting? That really isn't Boswell's business. Your goal with Boswell is to create written content. Export a compiled document at the end, and format this plain text document with any word processor. Want a good, free one? Try AbiWord, a nice X Window-based word processor. Check out Setting Up XDarwin On Mac OS X for details.

By now you're dying to ask me if I wrote this article in Boswell. No, I didn't. I have a template for Critical Mass articles together with a few editing tricks, and it's a system that works for me. But that may change. Because I write specifically for the web, I frequently check my work in a browser window. One article isn't a complicated thing, so it doesn't make sense to break it up into several journal entries. On the other hand, I have been asked to consider compiling selected articles into a tome someday. Boswell would be an excellent tool for that. I would import each article as a journal entry and go from there, mixing, matching, and editing to my heart's content.

To be a keeper for me, Boswell needs to be a native OS X application. I am using this time with the Mac OS version to come up to speed with it. Like most forthcoming releases, Boswell for OS X will be ready Real Soon Now. When it comes, I anticipate a few shortcomings of Mac OS to have been worked out in it. For example, I expect Boswell X to select entries automatically on the first click, and generally reduce the overall click count. I also expect extensive use of Ctrl-Click menus in the OS X environment. Boswell is well-suited for this. As well, I think that OS X could facilitate drag-and-drop archiving. I suppose I'll find out with you in a very few weeks. And when we do, we'll revisit the matter with a Part Three. See you then.