Tot and Writing Again

For a few days now I’ve been messing around with Tot, the new app from The Iconfactory. Smarter minds than mine have put it through its paces if you want a more traditional review. The short explanation is: Tot is a scratchpad for Mac and iOS with seven notes. It’s Stickies only way better.

I wasn’t looking for a new scratchpad app. I’ve never really used sticky notes, be they digital or physical, to great effect. Tot is not here to solve problems I have. And yet I am drawn to it. I want to use it. That feels huge.

Almost everything I write these days, I write on paper. Since I’ve been publishing so little, I rarely write digitally unless it’s work-related (emails, documentation, spreadsheets, etc.). This is due, in part, to a breakdown of my workflow. Putting a new app through its paces turns out to be the perfect opportunity to try to refine, and really re-establish, my digital writing habit.

When I was writing a lot, I wrote almost everything in Ulysses. I still love it, but I find myself less inclined to fire it up to do some leisure writing. The years-long corpus in there makes me second guess the inclination to use it as a scratchpad. This, of course, is all in my head; a blank sheet in Ulysses is no different than an empty note in Tot. It just doesn’t feel the same. Tot feels friendlier, less imposing. I’m writing in it right now.

I’ve tried so many apps for just jotting things down over the years. Drafts works to a degree, but I don’t like using the Mac app.1 NVAlt never fully clicked with me, though the concept has always had a certain allure; we’ll see if the forthcoming nvUltra is a good fit. Agenda, well I don’t actually understand how to use Agenda. Apple’s own Notes app is far too busy for me to fully commit to; it solves none of my problems and instead creates new ones. When I open BBEdit there will always be loads of untitled documents with scattered bits of text, but I’ve never found a great way to actually organize that system in a meaningul way.

Vesper probably came the closest to a notes app I enjoyed using every day. Of course it had no Mac app and lacked some basic comforts, but its simplicity was part of the draw. It’s one of the only tagging systems I’ve ever actually committed to. When Vesper shut down, I transferred my notes, tags and all, to Ulysses, but I never ended up using it the same way. I just stopped taking those kinds of notes. In a way, Tot hearkens back to Vesper. As simple as possible, beautifully executed.

I use a great deal of paper. There are nights when I sit down before bed to write a page in my planner. I may switch over to write for a bit in a Field Notes memo book before, if there’s anything left in my mind, opening a larger notebook to fill a page or two. Across the different books, I’ll repeat myself. I’ll mention that I had written a similar thought in one of the other books.

None of this is efficient or even particularly useful; it’s rarely productive. What can I say? I like to write. Not in the sense that I like to be published (I do) or that it brings me joy to compose a coherent thought (it does). I’ve found that sometimes, most of the time, I actually just like to write.

I like to write with pencils and pens and different colored inks. I take notes at the movies. Over a beer, I may take out a pen to get down a funny thing a friend said. In meetings, sometimes, I will rest a notebook on my laptop (probably open to a note-taking app) to jot down a few important points. Writing is just something I do a lot.

I used to like writing digitally, but life has changed for me. Maybe I write less on a computer because I stopped having fun doing it. A new notebook is a small investment that adds a little jolt of happiness into my life. Changing the ink in my pen is a cheap excuse to actually sit down and commit something to the page. Perhaps on a computer what’s been missing has been just a little extra delight.

Tot is a fun app that has already made me rethink how I write. On both Mac and iOS, it is a great place to focus on just your words. The sync is rock solid thus far, and on both platforms it feels completely stable.

Here’s something unique I haven’t heard much made about: Tot syncs cursor position and text selection. If you’re working on a long note on your Mac, launching that same note on your iPhone will open it at the same spot. If text is selected on iPhone, it is also selected on Mac. I haven’t seen this in any other text editor, but it’s instantly useful for me. I wrote this piece in Tot across two dots, switching from Mac to iPhone continuously as my schedule allowed. Having it always launch right where I left off is huge.

A few stray thoughts:

  • Tot on iOS is called Tot Pocket, but I just call it Tot because the two versions have feature parity save for one thing: you can’t change the Markdown font on iOS
  • Speaking of Markdown, I am fine with the stripped down version Tot uses, but I hate underscores and prefer emphasizing text with single asterisks
  • For some reason the iOS documentation leaves out the fact that Tot can be automated through the same URL scheme available on the Mac. I’m thinking up some shortcuts for lists I plan to keep in Tot
  • Folks are well on their way to adding more automation to Tot on the Mac
  • The dock icons on the Mac are gorgeous and I wish iOS allowed automatic icon switching to match
  • I’d like fot the Quick Keys palette to offer regular characters like a hyphen or an ampersat, since I actually use them, but I realize I can just access them from the keyboard

Tot is free on the Mac and costs $20 on iOS. That’s the cost of a few notebooks and less than a box of Blackwings. Other apps are cheaper, but so what? Using Tot is a joy. It has made a space for itself in my life and, in turn, I have made the time to write. What is that worth?

  1. I could go on and on about why this is the case, but I fear I’d come off too harsh on a developer who is clearly more at home on iOS. ↩︎