‘Stickies’ – A Prewriting Tool for Writers

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro

I’m visual when it comes to verbal. With topics that are complex and new, I automatically doodle before actually sitting down at my computer to write sentences and paragraphs. With paper and pencil, I map out the relationships between and among ideas or units of thought. I usually begin with a word that rises to the surface of my mind. I write it down on whatever’s handy. Backs of envelopes or scraps of paper are the usual. I add another word that I associate with the first and position it in a way that reveals their logical relationship.

I add small rectangles around the words and connect them with lines and arrows to suggest causal links, or I use circles that overlap or contain smaller circles to show various set relationships. I continue to construct the picture by dropping in idea words and sketching in their logical connection to the parts and the whole. Some words surface but don’t seem to fit anywhere at the moment so I plop them on the side. Later, I work them into the evolving picture or erase them if they don’t seem to fit in anywhere. As you can imagine, with paper and pencil this means a lot of erasing and redrawing.

Stickies3My 32-inch desktop screen with Stickies.

In grad school, I found a huge blackboard at a thrift shop a couple blocks away from my apartment. I lugged it back to my small room and screwed it into one of the walls. It filled nearly the entire wall. I was in doodle heaven. This became my thinking pad. I could quickly sketch idea maps with chalk and revise with an eraser as I went along. I could step back at any time to see the whole picture, and step in to futz with the parts. When it was complete, I sat down with my typewriter (no personal computers back then) and wrote the paper.  

This is the process I used to create order out of chaos. It is a way to give abstract ideas concrete form, and as concrete objects I can manipulate them as though they were building materials such as lumber and bricks or lego blocks, with my hands and eyes. The result is a two-dimensional picture or model of the idea and writing becomes the process of translating the visual into sentences and paragraphs.

I later learned that this process comes under the heading of visual thinking, and a useful general definition can be found in Wikipedia and a more detailed one that’s geared to education on the Visual Thinking site at Vanderbilt University. Because this is my natural and preferred approach to prewriting, which is the planning phase that precedes the actual drafting with paper and pencil or word processor, I’ve always been interested in related procedures, publications, and applications.

In my grad courses, I naturally took to systems thinking and flowcharts. A symbolic visual approach for branching processes, inputs, feedback, outputs, and decision points  was very useful for analyzing discrete organizations or productions, but it was too linear and inflexible for the kind of writing that attracted me, which begins with chaos and attempts to make sense of it. For this, I needed a tool that didn’t dictate how I could and could not work. In other words, I couldn’t be hampered with rules and limitations and quirky work-arounds that distracted from the task at hand — thinking. The ideal tool would need to be nearly transparent, intuitive, reflecting my mindstate as it’s evolving.

As a writing teacher, I’ve learned about and covered various visual thinking gimmicks and encouraged their use in some cases. They’re often called graphic organizers and fall under the heading of brainstorming skills, and they include webs, concept maps, and mind maps. (See the Vanderbilt site as well as Inspiration Software’s Teaching and Learning with Graphic Organizers site.) However, if students don’t pick up on it quickly, I don’t see the point in devoting more time to drive home the procedures or require them in prewriting. For many if not most students, it is simply another stumbling block in the writing process, one of many others that they need to overcome before reaching the actual task of writing. Like topic and sentence outlines of yore, graphic organizers are useful but ultimately expendable in the increasingly crowded prewriting repertoire. It could prove very useful in planning and organizing a paper, but there simply isn’t enough time in the writing process to require its use.

This spring, I’m teaching a new online course, technical writing. I haven’t had much time to develop it. However, I know that certain parts have to be in place before the first day of instruction, and one of those is infrastructure. As long as the foundation is scalable and the initial resources and features are complete, I can add to the course as the semester progresses.

For planning the infrastructure and basic webpages, I decided to search the web for a post-it type app or utility that is as freeform and intuitive as possible in allowing me to work the way I want to gather, arrange, and visualize the key parts of the course on my desktop computer screen. Because I do a lot of work with layouts and graphics, I have a dual monitor setup: a 32-inch mainscreen and a 27-inch sidekick. Plenty of surface to spread out the post-its.

Since I didn’t expect to find anything I could use, I was surprised that I hit paydirt in a matter of minutes. It’s called Stickies, and it’s a product of Zhorn Software. It has a five-star rating from the CNET editors (“Stickies: CNET Editors’ Review,” 11.7.08). Also see Erez Zukerman’s rave review, “Zhorn Software’s Free Stickies: Still Awesome After All These Years” (PCWorld, 6.5.11), and Stickynote Software’s tutorial (6.8.11). However, I didn’t read these articles until after I started using it.

Stickies is intuitive. For me, it means I don’t need to read the manual. I set it up and go to work. The download and setup were quick and simple. (I run a 64-bit Windows 8 OS.) No problems. I have the icon in my hidden apps in the bottom right corner. One click, and I’m there. A double click on the icon and the sticky appears. I place the cursor in it and type a note. I can move it anywhere on the screen.  I can lay one on top of the other. I can run other apps over or under the stickies. I can “hide” all of them with a click and “unhide” them with another. I can click and drag the right edge wider or narrower. The bottom of the note expands as I add text. I can save and store them.

I’ve been using Stickies for only a couple of days, but already it’s my most used app. I’m also using it for throw-away notes such as URLs and titles that I need for just a few moments. A click and they’re deleted.

As you can see from the links I’ve provided above, Stickies has many other sophisticated features. I’ll explore them in the coming days and weeks. For now, Stickies does everything I want it to do, and does it incredibly well.

I’m not sure if I’m using Stickies for its intended purposes, but it’s just what I need for the prewriting phase of my writing process. It’s like writing notes on 3×5 cards and spreading them out on a large table. You can then move them around and group them in different ways, add and delete cards, etc. In this way, you can see the whole and how the parts fit into it. You can also see the areas that need to be developed or cut back. However, the big difference is that you can do all of this on your computer, with the ease that digital technology brings to every task.

In fact, I use the little stickies as mini composing windows, and when it’s time to put the preliminary draft together, I can simply copy and paste the text into the draft. Writing then becomes a matter of adding transitions between sections.

If you tend to work the way I do and if you haven’t found a satisfactory means or medium for planning and organizing complex writing projects on your computer, you might want to download and try Stickies. BTW, did I mention that it’s completely free? No nagging pop-ups pleading for donations or urging purchase of an upgraded version.

8 Responses

  1. Great idea.scaffolding of ideas is a great way of enhancing flow and consistency of ideas.


    • Hi, Norbert. Thanks for the comment. Yes, especially useful when working with ideas that don’t seem to fit into familiar patterns of development because I have no idea where I’m going with them. -Jim

  2. Thanks so much for sharing your experience, and also for the Vanderbilt links.! I have been looking for something like that for a long time. As instructor in “University Study Skills” at a community college I am considering to plan some exercises ‘your way’ with my students. Most of them have a note/netbook.
    Ben Oehler, Cyprus

    • Hi, Ben. Thanks for the comment. I often wish study skills were a required college course. The idea of creating a holistic mental model of abstract ideas seems alien to many students who are usually bewildered by the task of creating meaning out of strings of text. If they could first “see” the idea, then writing as a means to translate the visual to verbal, or the whole to linear, wouldn’t seem as daunting. -Jim

  3. Jim, you described your use of the built-in Notes application for Apple mobile devices – see iPhone 4 – Redefining Mobility in Education https://etcjournal.com/2011/07/20/9324/ . And if I remember correctly, you once mentioned that you also have an Android tablet, which also has an built-in Notes app.

    Then, you also highlight text in your Diigo bookmarks in http://www.diigo.com/profile/jimetc . This potentially enables you to add a sticky annotation to each highlight, and/or a general annotation for any web page. And you can keep these notes private, or share them with a group like http://groups.diigo.com/group/etcjournal (or if you pay for a premium account, with all Diigo users).

    So it’d be most interesting to read what you think of the respective (dis)advantages of the Stickies, of Apple and Android Notes, and perhaps also on how you combine these with the webpage-related Diigo annotations, if you have time.

    • Hi, Claude. Thanks for the tip. I’m only now using Diigo as a tool to quickly gather sources in my searches for idea construction material, and I hadn’t thought of adding iPhone/iPad/Android notes to the saves. I love the notepad in iPhone and use it regularly to draft ideas. I seem to do my best initial thinking in my breaks away from my computer at nearby coffee shops. I then email the notes to myself and stick them into MS Word for further development. All these apps and mobile devices are changing the writing/composing process and expanding the very nature of thinking, planning, designing, exploring, etc. -Jim

  4. Yes. I like stickies too! When I purchased my new pc last year, and downloaded a google version in the google toolbar. It works great for my daily reminders and notes when researching!!! I didn’t know others found it useful too!

    • Hi, Bradley. Thanks for the tip. I didn’t know there was a Google version, too. You might want to write about it for our first paper, i.e., if you haven’t already selected another app. Sure beats all the paper stickies that I had — and still have — around the edges of my screens. -Jim

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