Looking for a more ambitious writing experience in an app: an exploration

Bryan Alexander 2024-02-26

For years I’ve written articles, interviews, chapters, and books using a combination of software tools.  Now I’m looking for something more advanced.

Currently my main writing application is Microsoft Word, as it is for many people. I also use Google Docs for short writing (chapter/article length), for collaboration, and for other sharing purposes. Over the past few years I’ve taken to drafting almost everything in Google Docs, as I habitually move between around three devices every day, noodling or frantically typing here and there, before exporting to Word for more serious editing and finishing.  (Those devices include a desktop computer (Mac Mini with externals), one or two laptops, and phone, depending on if I’m home or not.)

This setup is quite sufficient for almost all of my needs.  They handle the formatting I require.  They are reliable.  Word gives me some special functions, as do Google Docs. And obviously I can churn out thousands and thousands of words therein.  I’ve used them to produce four books and a bunch of other stuff.

Yet I want more.

strange keyboard

For one, those are generally linear tools.  Word and Docs offer a single, focused, vertical file for us.  I’d like to explore using non- or multi-linear editing, as we have in audio and video editing, plus some gaming and presentation tools.

I’d like some visualizations to help me rethink ideas and connections between them.  For years I used The Brain to organize references and thoughts, until it became too expensive. I use concept mapping and flowcharts for various projects.  It would be great to have another way of seeing my texts as I develop them.

Additionally, I’d like to integrate my research process into the writing process by methods other than tossing text into a linear file or hopping between pdfs, browser tabs, and stacks of books.  I do this in an entirely ad hoc way and the results can be comical, like when snowdrifts of open books build up around me.

I also want the software to give me feedback. I get feedback from humans but that’s a scarce resource. It would be great to see what a well designed bit of software makes of my words.

Overall, I’d like more tools for thinking, as Howard Rheingold famously described the idea, since I see writing as a form of thinking. And in general I want to see what developers are up to as they explore taking writing beyond the 20th century.

Some of what I’m looking for is available in individual apps. There are, for example, plenty of word cloud generators, into which you can paste in copied writing, which are good for a quick rethink of text. There are also lots of mind mapping tools in browser and app form. For AI, I can upload a chapter into Gemini or ChatGPT and ask for feedback.  In fact, this is what Edward O’Neill recommends:

I tend to use different apps for different processes. So I use a text editor for 'collecting' scraps or capturing in a random order. Outliners are good for…outlining. But I will also outline in a text editor & then expand. Then document-creation tools for…that. FWIW

— Learning Technology (@learningtech) February 12, 2024

I tend to use different apps for different processes. So I use a text editor for ‘collecting’ scraps or capturing in a random order. Outliners are good for…outlining. But I will also outline in a text editor & then expand. Then document-creation tools for…that.

This does work.  And maybe the best way forward for my quest is to build more and separate tools to perform some of these functions. But today, in this post, I’m interested in a singular, synthetic app focused on writing.

I’ve been quietly researching this for a while, actually back to the 1990s when I did all kinds of experiments with writing and hypertext (StorySpace!), virtual worlds (AlphaWorlds, before Second Life), web page creation and linking, and a lot more. Last week I posted about the quest on Twitter/X and got a bunch of good feedback.  Here I’ll share some suggestions and ideas, partly to get your feedback, but also as a useful list for this moment.  Maybe we’re in the early days of writing technology transformation.

NB: I haven’t fully learned all of the following tools yet.

NB2: for this post I’m not going to delve into the decades of research, development, and experimentation along these lines. I’m not going to recap the history of hypertext, Hypercard, etc.  If I did that this post would become a book. For now I want to cut to the chase and get practical, while also looking ahead.

Google Apps now have Gemini built in.  Fire up Sheets, Docs, and Slides and you might see prompts appear to assist you. For example, just now I opened up a new Google Doc and immediately saw this appear in the text field:

Google Doc blank page with AI helping tools

Mousing over the rightmost three options brought up more options.

I didn’t need help then, as I was writing this post, so I quickly wrote up some sentences about the topic. Then I clicked the Gemini icon glowing on the screen’s top right.  Gemini pounced:

Google Doc Gemini summary

It popped up a dialog box on the right, summarizing what I wrote (accurately).  It also offered a prompt, into which I asked: “What are some features of these applications that make them helpful for expanding my writing ability?”  Gemini quickly replied:

There are a number of features that can make writing applications helpful for expanding your writing ability. Some of these features include: Grammar and spell checking: These tools can help you identify and correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors. This can help you improve the accuracy and readability of your writing. Style and clarity: These tools can help you identify areas where your writing can be improved for clarity and style. They may suggest ways to make your writing more concise, engaging, and persuasive. Feedback and guidance: Some writing applications offer feedback and guidance on your writing. This can be helpful in identifying areas where you can improve your writing. Examples and templates: Some writing applications provide examples and templates that you can use to get started with your writing. This can be helpful if you are stuck on a particular topic or idea.

It is important to note that no single writing application is perfect. The best application for you will depend on your individual needs and preferences. If you are looking for an application to help you expand your writing ability, I recommend doing some research to find a few different options and trying them out to see which one you like best.

Gemini also added some questions for me:

What are some specific features of these writing applications that you find most helpful?

What are some of the most popular writing applications?

What are some other ways to expand my writing ability besides using writing applications?

Clicking on each of those yielded AI-generated answers. The second one’s answer actually recapitulated some items on this post.

So this is interesting for today’s purposes.  The summary was right and the questions weren’t bad.  Perhaps I should stick to Google Apps.

And yet.  Gemini makes mistakes.  You’ve probably seen various stories about this.  I can add a small one. Over in Sheets I’ve recorded my diet for several years.  Gemini took a look at my 2024 entries and said this:

Gemini summarizes my eating Google Sheet

It’s correct, except none of the meals involve meat or fish, since I’m notoriously a vegan.

Besides that problem, Google Docs keeps me in linear mode. It doesn’t offer any visualizations.  In short, it’s traditional word processing plus AI.

Lex strikes me as another writing tool with an AI advisor built in. In my experiments so far it’s easy to pour out words, then have Lex give you feedback. (By the way, many thanks to Lex creator Nathan Baschez for kindly discussing this with me on Twitter/X and email!)

Lex starts by giving you a simple text field to write in.  To the right of your works appear several icons, each offering help: revising your text or answering a question.  To test it out, I summarized this post, then asked for the AI for assistance:

Lex revising my question

That was a revision of my question, which wasn’t what I was after.  Accordingly I revised the question, and got a very different reply:


Hi! I’d be happy to help you with your request for recommendations on writing applications that offer nonlinear writing, integration of multiple sources, visualizations, and feedback. Here are a few options you might find useful:

  1. Scrivener: Scrivener is a popular writing tool that allows for nonlinear writing, as it lets you organize your work into sections and easily rearrange them. It also supports integration of multiple sources, visualizations through its Corkboard feature, and you can gather feedback by sharing your work for comments.
  2. Ulysses: Ulysses is another great choice for writers looking for a clutter-free writing environment that supports nonlinear It offers seamless integration with external sources, Markdown support for visualizations, and allows for easy sharing and collaboration for feedback.
  3. Notion: Notion is a versatile tool that combines note-taking, project management, and writing capabilities. It supports nonlinear writing through its flexible layout options, allows for integrating multiple sources with databases and links, offers visualizations with tables and Kanban boards, and enables feedback through commenting and collaboration features.
  4. Manuskript: If you’re looking for a writing tool specifically designed for fiction writers, Manuskript could be a good fit. It supports nonlinear writing with its story outline and character tools, allows for integrating research sources, offers visualizations like story timelines, and you can receive feedback from beta readers using its collaboration features.

These are just a few suggestions to consider based on your specific needs. I recommend exploring these options further to see which one aligns best with your writing process and preferences. Let me know if you need more information or have any other questions!

That’s actually helpful.

So Lex reminds me of Google Docs as a traditional writing tool plus AI.  It’s web-based at least; not sure if they’re developing a desktop/phone app.  It uses Google’s AI – not sure which version of Gemini is involved.

Notebook.LM is Steven Johnson‘s project.  So far it looks more focused on sources than on one’s own writing.  It lets you upload a pdf, a document from Google Drive, or to copy and paste text straight in. Those sources appear on a left menu. On the right you type in notes about each source.  AI can respond to your comments and offer some questions, for example:

NotebookLM sample screenshot

Quick screenshot of trying out NotebookLM. I inputted a couple of texts and jotted notes about them. It treated those notes as questions and tried to answer them.

It can also summarize and extract topics from your sources:

NotebookLM Scrivener on Scrivener

After I added a few sources, the notes field let me write independently of a document.  I typed in “I’d like to imagine a future writing application, one including visualization, nonlinear editing, and feedback.” Back came this reply:

NotebookLM on future writing apps

Which is pretty good.  However, the 7 citations only pointed to the texts I’d uploaded, rather than to external materials. So it really is a notebook.

My tentative assessment: NoteBookLM is an interesting tool for handling and thinking about research materials.  I think it’s browser-based.

Notion looks like a shared workspace, with tools to smooth productivity.  I think it is based on blocks or pages, and any bit of writing material can be one or included in one. Apparently you can build links among them.

Here’s a screenshot of some early noodling around:

Notion sample

To be honest, I’m not sure I’d use this. I do write notes, but also books.  I don’t see how this can scale up to longer lengths.

Obsidian This looks like a way of arranging text into many small documents, then building a visualization across them.  Those texts can be notes entered into the app.

Obsidian graph view sample

This can also be animated, which is fun.

I think you can organize a swarm of content into a “vault.”

It reminds me of Notion as a note-taking and -arranging app.

Scrivener This looks like the best candidate for my purposes so far.  It offers interesting ways of displaying, editing, and organizing one’s writing. There’s an outlining function and a corkboard for arranging thoughts as mini-index cards. Wikipedia adds that Scrivener lets you build hyperlinks between text chunks plus “the ability to assign multiple keywords (and other metadata) to parts of a text and to sort the parts by keyword (such as characters, locations, themes, narrative lines, etc.).”

It’s an app with a full screen interface, three vertical windows (binder, editor, inspector) and many options and displays.

Scrivener screenshot tutorial

What stops me from throwing myself into Scrivener is that it doesn’t seem to have an easy way for me to access files across multiple devices.  On a given day I write with at least two machines, if not four (desktop, laptop, phone, another laptop), so I need to reach and update a single document or archive reliably. However, the Scrivener support page is filled with warnings against ways of doing this.

Scrivener also doesn’t have any AI built in.  So far. I expect that’s an advantage for some folks.

I’m going to give it a trial.

Trello Robert McGuire suggests using this tool in a certain way:

I’m envisioning a card for any possible claim, argument or hypothesis, however small. Attach relevant articles, charts and images. Add notes. Add Links to google docs with drafts. And maybe the lists represent levels of conviction.

— Robert McGuire (@robertwmcguire) February 12, 2024

I’m envisioning a card for any possible claim, argument or hypothesis, however small. Attach relevant articles, charts and images. Add notes. Add Links to google docs with drafts. And maybe the lists represent levels of conviction.

Colin Madland cautions us, though, that this is a bit tricky:

I like this process, but it needs Trello to do something other than its specific design. All these things are what obsidian is designed to do AND Trello is web only AFAIK. Obsidian is local first with lots of cloud backup and sync possibilities

— Colin Madland 🇺🇦 (@colinmadland) February 12, 2024

I like this process, but it needs Trello to do something other than its specific design. All these things are what obsidian is designed to do AND Trello is web only AFAIK.

wikis Several folks suggested using a wiki, which has made sense to me for years.  Google Docs is, in many ways, the most widely used wiki platform in history, just lacking the formatting markup most wikis mandate.  I like being able to use multiple wikis as hypertext pieces and interlink them.

My biggest work along these lines is my vegan recipe collection in Google Docs: a series of pages (200 or so), each hyperlinked to sources, and all organized by a single menu Doc. This works really well for me.  To start preparing a dish I can keyword search from Google Drive or scroll through the menu page on any device. I can develop and refine each Doc from desktop and laptop as I research online and in books, and add results from kitchen experiments.  It’s easy to add images. There isn’t really much pressure for linearity here, besides the strict sequence an individual recipe’s directions impose.

But I haven’t found a wiki platform with the kinds of extra functions I’m thinking of yet: visualization, creative editing, AI assistance.  Is there one, or is Google Docs the best bet along these lines?

Let me pause the exploration here.  At this point readers might offer two arguments against the preceding exploration.

Some of you might say I should stop looking for such tools because all the results rely too much on computers, especially programs I can’t really control. They’d like me to focus more on human collaborators. Instead of turning to software for visualizations and feedback, I should ask folks what they think.

Others could deem the quest fruitless because the idea of a single app is flawed.  Writers have so many different needs, they could aver, that we are all best served by using multiple applications.  So I might write in Google Docs, say, then turn to apps.diagrams.net to sketch out some diagrams which influence the shape of the text, then fire up Miro to concept map the whole thing before dumping prose into ChatGPT for feedback.

To the first hypothetical objection, I’d reply that I do already exploit, er, turn to friends and colleagues for feedback for everything, from brainstorming to checking out drafts. There’s just a limit to how often I can do that without hiring professional editors. But I should be careful not to remove humans from the process entirely.  To the second, perhaps that’s correct, and no single app can do what I’m looking for.  Or not yet.

What do you all think, dear readers?  Is my quest doomed, or do you recommend one application based on your experience?  Is there another tool or practice we should consider?

(keyboard image by Guido Gloor Modjib; thanks to Nathan Baschez, Tom Green, Alexandria Lockett, Antonio Lopez, Robert McGuire, Greg McVerry, Colin Madland, Paul Martin, Anna Mills, Edward O’Neill, Tracy Pearson, Chris Rice, Mike Richwalsky, and Kevin P. Taylor for thoughts and feedback)