One of the things that comes out strongly when talking to any veteran quester is the need to keep a questing journal. Writing down intuitions, visions, dreams, ideas – even a basic summary of the day’s activities – appears to have two concrete results. Firstly it tells the mind that you are taking its promptings seriously and the mind typically responds by throwing out more and better. Secondly it provides a comprehensive record of your questing material which can be consulted and cross-referenced. Which brings us to journal software. One of the problems with a written journal is precisely the difficulty in retrieving relevant entries. Even if you know approximately when you wrote the entry with the information you now wish to retrieve, it can still be difficult and time-consuming to track down exactly the piece you need. With a software journal, however, proper categorisation and text indexing means that you jump straight to the relevant entry in seconds.
It is here, with great shame, that I have to confess that I do not practice what I’ve just preached. My own journaling is entirely sporadic and my writing schedule almost as non-existent as my discipline. Despite this I have still managed to accumulate battered folders full of ideas for stories, correspondence, notes for research and fragments of dreams. None of it is properly catalogued or even filed.
One of my New Year’s resolutions therefore was to start doing some consistent journal writing. Although probably just an excuse to put off actually doing any writing, I decided that if I was going to start serious journaling I would investigate and acquire some proper software with which to do it. Taking my procrastination to an extreme, I then decided to code the journal software myself. To explain why and to suggest two alternatives, I offer the following review of journal software.
Omea + Journal Plug-in
I first came across Omea (written by JetBrains) when I was searching for a good RSS reader. In fact Omea (a contraction of “omnia mea”, all my things) is rather more than that. Aiming to live up to its name it attempts to collate in a single application all the things that you might need from a software application. To this end the free – that’s totally, no catches, free – Omea Reader allows you to subscribe to RSS feeds and newsgroups and to bookmark webpages. All the resulting items of information are indexed (in a very similar fashion to Google desktop for those of you who are familiar with that) and stored within Omea where they can be categorised and retrieved using some standard but powerful techniques. The $49 Omea Pro additionally sucks your emails and Outlook tasks into itself and subjects these to the same useful organisation.
So, for example, searching for the word “alchemist” across all the rss articles, newsgroup items and bookmarked web pages is achieved immediately and easily from a single point. Similarly if I was doing some research on, say, Quantum Physics, as I came across useful webpages, rss articles or newsgroup discussions, I could categorise them and then later when I came to write the article I could view together all the items which had the “Quantum Physics” category attached.
However, one striking omission was the lack of a free-form notes entry resource. As I use Omea anyway for my rss and newsgroup subscriptions, I decided to have a crack at writing a plug-in that gave the notes/journal entry facility. The benefit I saw of holding notes within the Omea environment was that you don’t have lots of half-page Word documents lying around in different directories on your computer. And I know that I’m flogging this one to death but the beauty of the Omea environment means that you can quickly leverage off existing features like text indexing and categorisation to give you some very powerful organisational ability for all your ideas, notes, dreams or whatever.
Anyway the plug-in has been developed and is downloadable from this website (use the Downloads link from the main menu) but you first need to download and install Omea itself (latest version of the free Omea Reader here: http://www.jetbrains.com/omea/download/reader.html ).
One other resource that Omea tracks which I haven’t mentioned so far is Contacts. One of the nice touches of Omea (and my plug-in) is that you can link contacts to resources and thus later retrieve them by the same way. So if I am using the plug-in to records dreams, I can specify who appeared in the dream and later search for all dreams that a particular person appeared in.
The downsides to this approach (my plug-in that is, I hasten to add, not Omea itself) are that (1) the functionality is still fairly limited and (2) there is not yet a backup/export routine for notes added, and (3) it was never designed specifically for journal writing.
Clearly I’m biased to start with (otherwise I wouldn’t have invested the time and effort to develop a plug-in), but I find the Omea environment is inviting and a pleasure to use (the same developers also produce some code development tools and their expertise with designing interfaces is obvious) and once someone writes a mind-map plug-in, it really will be a single repository for me that contains “all my things”.
LifeJournal, costing $39.95, by Chronicles Software is the grandmother of journal writing software. It’s a mature, highly stable offering which focuses totally on journal writing. The first thing that impressed me about LifeJournal was not the software itself but the community/support for writers that has grown up around it. I first came across the software many years ago and, as a result of downloading the demo version of the software, have been receiving their newsletters ever since. These are usually excellent, containing great tips for journal writers and even if you don’t use the software I would strongly recommend doing the same and subscribing to the newsletter.
While the software is friendly, easy to use and effective, the interface is definitely beginning to tire and the functionality hasn’t grown much beyond the basics of adding rich text notes and a mood graph. Thus there is no rss facility (or newsgroups or webpages – although web links can be embedded in the notes) and this makes it less useful for the information-gathering/article preparation side of things.
For the dedicated journal writer, though, it is superb with inspirational quotes, block-busting prompts and the aforementioned “writers community” wrapping it all.
XML Journal System
Although I did a search on Google for “journal software”, I actually came across this whilst searching for code components to include in my own plug-in. If I was Matt Sturm, the author of XML Journal System ($24.95 from Sturm Studios), the second thing I would do would be to re-jig my website and make it rank better on the search engines (the first thing I would do would be to change the name of the software).
Like Omea (and unlike LifeJournal) the whole feel of this software reflects its very modern coding architecture. However, even more so then Omea, XJS (as it’s known) leverages this architecture to provide an amazing amount of functionality in the form of plug-ins that come with the basic software.
First things first. XJS is more like LifeJournal in that it is a dedicated journal writing piece of software. Again like LifeJournal it includes a “mood meter” and like all the packages reviewed it has word searching and hierarchical categorisation as standard. However it also includes: scan-to-journal, voice, video, word processing, diagramming, and handwritting support straight out of the box.
Three more features that are extremely valuable are: the ability to synchronise with a Pocket PC PDA (or multiple other PCs), the ability to push entries directly out to a blog, and the ability to create a “super”-entry (a “story”) with multiple entries linked underneath it.
Oh, did I mention XJS has a built-in Personal Information Manager? Whew!
So apart from the instantly forgettable name and the stealth marketing strategy are there any downsides to the seemingly unstoppable XJS. Well, yes. There are.
Firstly, as I’ve mentioned, it is designed primarily as a journal writer so the interface is not geared up for multiple sources of information like Omea’s. Also, although it contains an RSS plug-in, it doesn’t (that I can find – please correct me if anyone knows different) support newsgroups or web page bookmarks. Even the RSS plug-in works in an odd way. Instead of automatically downloading articles from your selected feeds, you have to jump into the feeds and then add the articles which interest you to your journal entry. Thus the journal entry acts as a container into which you can put all the other types of information. Weirdly although you can create contacts (as part of the Personal Information Manager) you don’t appear to be able to link the contacts to the journal entries.
But even allowing for the fact that this is software for journal entries rather than “everything”, there is something terribly wrong with the ergonomics of the interface. In fact the whole feel of the program is fairly austere but I’d forgive it that if they sorted out the weird quirks of navigation. When I first started playing with this software I kept thinking that I was hitting bugs as I found I couldn’t do what I wanted – then it would turn out that in fact I just wasn’t navigating the software correctly. Now, as it’s my business, I’d like to think I know something about working my way around software applications but this had me stumped several times and I’d be amazed if a more non-technical user wasn’t completely bewildered (Test: try attaching a new Mood called “psychically hoppin’” to a journal entry).
Here’s some more examples: the attachments and stories functions are held under the “Tools” menu on the very top of the window, XJS on the Go is accessed from the “File” menu in the same place while some of the other plug-in functions are held on a secondary toolbar underneath the above menu options, and still more of them are held behind a mode button on a tertiary toolbar and the Mood function sits by itself, again hidden behind a button labelled “Extensions” on the same tertiary toolbar. Oh and the PIM and feedreader are launched from tiny icons on the bottom-left of the screen in what seems to be yet another toolbar. Confused? I was.
The only other minor bother that I’d have is that I appeared to hit a few genuine bugs (although it’s hard to tell) which makes me fret that maybe with all the functionality that’s been crammed in there, the quality control might not be up to scratch.
However, if Matt sorted out the interface and the stability, this would be one truly awesome piece of journal writing software and I’ll be keeping an eye on his site to see how it progresses.