Monday, November 23, 2009

Writing Tools

I've got nothing against Microsoft Word. I use it almost every day, and it's really good at doing what it's supposed to do - make documents that look professional enough for a business context without needing all the overhead of a full-bore layout program. Sure, that wasn't how it started: back in the days of wordstar (and CUTTING EDGE ascii art) the big deal was that we could write these things on a computer, and edit our writing rather than re-writing everything. I grew up as this transition was taking place, and it's still pretty miraculous to me. As much as I enjoy writing things by hand, I can't imagine going back to needing to do so for everything.

I mention all this because software has evolved with time. As we got used to this idea of writing on computers, the software came to reflect more than just the need to write. Writing was easy, after all, so why not start adding useful things like formatting, indexes, styles and so on. The actual writing is all well and good, but anyone can do that, right? The computer can make your writing look better (and in the case of things like spell-checkers, might actually make it better).

It's a little cynical, sure, but it's been a good thing overall. Yes, programs like Word allow for people to create layout abominations to raise up on the altar of Comic Sans, but it also means that Joe guy can make a layout that's good enough with very little time, skill, or knowledge. The impact on layout is very like that of sophisticated photography software: the folks who could only do a few tricks get overshadowed by software, but the people with real talent end up really standing out.

The problem with this is that the actual writing tends to get lost in the wash. Not to say it's impossible to write in something like Word, but there's a lot of noise to deal with. All the options and buttons are there on the screen, begging to be used, and that's bad enough, but the real danger is more sinister. When you write something and lay out out at the same time (which is what you can accidentally end up doing in word) then it tends to feel done, and that's incredibly dangerous. Editing and rewriting are critical important to any kind of quality writing, but when you have something your brain thinks is a finished product, it's easy to gloss over it, or hesitate to make a change because it will throw off the pagination.

This was a big problem for me, and I tried a bunch of tricks to try to deal with it. My Word interface is incredibly minimal, and I prepared equally minimalistic stylesheets to keep the text looking raw. It worked ok, but it was occasionally a pain, especially when Word decided to explode in helpfulness all over whatever I was writing.

I found relief in the form of writing software. Not Word Processing or Text Editing, but honest-to-God writing software, programs designed with the actual act of writing in mind. The first I came across was Writeroom, and it changed a lot of how I do things. See, Writeroom and a number of programs like it are fullscreen text editors - they were designed to remove all the distractions that come from working on a computer, like pop up windows, chat and mail notifications and so on. You fire it up and your whole screen goes black, except for your little green cursor. Yes, you are effectively using software to make your too-expensive computer look and feel like an old CRT Apple IIe, but as counter-intuitive as that is, it works REALLY well. Those distractions (and the temptations that come with them, to just check a website or the like) are absolute killers, and being able to shut them out let me really focus.

Since then, a number of similar programs have come out, including Darkroom (which may have predated Writeroom, I don't recall), Writemonkey and Q10. These had their own small gimmicks, and they all had the advantage of working on Windows, so I tended to view them as roughly interchangeable. But my poking around also revealed that there was a whole category of programs dedicated to writing novels or other long-form works.

This is a weird category because there are a number of really robust and interesting options available for apple, but there are almost no comparable programs available for windows. The closest I've seen is people who have adapted Microsoft OneNote to writing, and while they do so to good effect, it's definitely a case of making use of the tools available.

On the OSX side there were programs like Ulysses, Copywrite, Storymill and my favorite, Scrivener[1]. There are fine distinctions between the features of these programs, but the basics are the same. You create a collection of documents (which might be documents or media or whatever) which you can organize and edit as you see fit. Sounds simple enough, but it means that you can do things like keep your research notes, character thoughts, random ideas and your actual writing together in the same place, where it's easy to edit, hide or shift around whatever parts you need in a way that suits your writing style. There's very little in the way of formatting - headers, bold and italic, though footnotes tend to get good support - and the bells and whistles are much more about things that make writing easier, like offering a fullscreen mode.

All these functions sit on top of a database, rather than a collection of documents, which offers a lot of benefits. Most notably, you just don't worry about saving your work - it just happens. The database architecture means that you can also do robust version control, and while that may sound unnecessarily technical, it's incredibly handy to realize you can save your work like you would a video game and, if you end up with the writer's equivalent of a TPK, you can revert to the save without disrupting your current 'game'.

The upshot of this is that I started writing on the mac unless I absolutely had no choice. Now, "no choice" comes up more often than you'd think, especially if you're collaborating with others, since you need to use the software that everyone has. This got exacerbated when I picked up a netbook - I love it, but it runs windows, so Scrivener was not an option. So I went back to where I started and grabbed a full screen editor (as it turns out, they're very well-suited to netbook use).

I started using Writemonkey for the most frivolous of reasons: One of its options turns on typing sounds as you write. Actual typing sounds - you can choose between an old style typewriter, an old IBM keyboard or a bunch of other options. I'm an absolute sucker for that sort of thing, but it turns out to have been a good decision. WM was rock solid. It supports markdown for minimal formatting, it exported without problems, and it did everything I asked of it, but it was still a choice I went to out of necessity rather than any real desire.

That changed with the latest release of Writemonkey, as it added "Focus". It's a little rough to explain, but the idea is this: imagine you're writing a very long doc, and you are looking through it and realize you need to expand on one section. In WM, you can highlight that section, hit f6, and the rest of the document vanishes while you work on that one section. When you're done, just hit f6 and you swap back to seeing everything, but with your new writing now tidily in place.

Now, maybe it's just me, but I find it very easy to get a little bit overwhelmed by very long documents. This ability to just zero in on a specific section and work on it without giving any thought to the rest of the document is an absolute godsend. There are some other nice implicit uses for it - it helps with writing off an outline for example - but the bottom line is that it offers the same sort of advantage that the full screen editor does, the ability to focus on the writing without distraction.

Now, hold my hand in the fire, and I'll acknowledge that Scrivener is still my first love. I paid money for it, and it's got many more features, but it's not entirely without warts. I've heard of problems syncing the DB with dropbox, and that makes me kind of nervous. Plus, the one downside of the whole database model is that I need to export anything if I want to share it. But despite these small things, Scrivener is still the single best program I've used for organizing and writing a project, but when it comes to just writing, Writemonkey may actually be my favorite. The simplicity of it (it's just editing a text file) makes it much easier to just jump into writing something.

The good news is I never really need to choose. Circumstance tends to dictate whether I'm going to be on a Mac or Windows box at at given moment, and I now have a tool for each one which I am absolutely delighted to use to write.

1 - For the absolute best list of writing programs for both windows and mac, check out the link page at (the guys behind Scrivener).


  1. A vast amount of my quarter of a million published words -- gaming, tech, etc, real published stuff -- was written in a green and black term window with pico. Now I've gotten awesome and upgraded to nano, but on the mac I am all about writeroom.

    I cannot seriously write anything in Word. It has way too many blinky lights. If I'm trapped on Windows I will generally whip out notepad++ (although at work I am highly considering installing writemonkey) and write in something clean, simple and minimalistic.

    Believe it or not Scrivener has too many blinking lights for me. I have tried writing in its windows several times and I have always ended up writing something in writeroom and then importing it into scrivener. I need an interface that has /nothing/. My brain has been trained that green on black == working time, anything else is other stuff.

    I believe Word 5.2 was the penultimate release of the software and anything after that added bloat.

  2. OK, you've sold me on Writemonkey.

    I'd love to see you follow this up with a post on organizing various types of notes cohesively. I've been using Evernote since I got my iPhone, and it's really handy but very limited - I wouldn't want to put tons and tons of text into it, but it's great for lists that require occasional editing.

    Even a post on integrating your writing projects with Dropbox would be cool. I've got it, but I still haven't configured it yet.

  3. I'm always interested to see you write about writing, Rob, not the least of which because we clearly go about the process very differently. I suspect some of it may be the writing-intensive legal background, but I write everything in Word and have no problems with it whatsoever. That "focus" thing you talk about sounds like torture to me. Which just goes to prove how personal the process of writing is in general.

  4. First, Emily, Scrivener has a full-screen writing mode that can be configured to be almost identical to writeroom.

    Second, Rob, have you looked at the new Ommwriter beta? It's interesting... I've heard it described as WriteRoom if it were designed by Brian Eno.

    Also, technically, Scrivener does NOT use a database for storage. If you control-click (right-click) on a .scriv file, and choose "Show Package Contents," you'll find a series of rich text files that correspond to each "section" of your document.

  5. @chris I actually just downloaded Omnwriter today after a comment on twitter. No opinion yet, but I'm curious to try it out.

    And huh - I'd never actually dug into the folder guts, except on an export, I'd just assumed database by the behavior. Hmm. May have to think about what that means.

  6. Scrivener has switched my writing to the Mac and there's no going back. So I use Writeroom (mainly because since it was free on MacHeist last week) although I find Scrivener good enough so far, the black page is actually more intimidating. I like starting with regular Scrivener, and if I need to push out the distractions, I can go into full screen mode once I have my momentum started with a few words.

    Unfortunately, my work set up is dual monitor, and I have my chat and twitter windows on the small, laptop monitor, and the main screen is the 30". Scrivener (and Writeroom and likely others) only blackens the main screen, not any additional monitors, so it doesn't help keep my computer distraction free.

    However, I have to say, hearing about the typewriter and other sound options in Writemonkey makes me yearn for something like that on the Mac. But the Focus really takes the cake and sounds like a great feature.

    For Scrivener, I'm not sure what problems you heard of, but I have only run into one, and it's avoidable and not something you can make happen by accident.

    I have Dropbox on three computers - my work Mac laptop, my home PC, and home Mac laptop. I have the Scrivener files directly in my drop box, so they open and save right there (incidentally, I love working at home and seeing Windows tell me that anywhere from 2 to 30+ files have updated in my drop box as I work on Scrivener).

    The only problem I've run into is if I leave the file open at work and try to open it at home. Nothing bad happened. Scrivener warned me that the file is opened elsewhere, so I canceled the attempt. I've just made it part of my workflow to close any Scrivener files when I leave. Scrivener + Dropbox are an amazing combo. I don't know what happens if you try to bilocate a file, I suspect that when you return to the remote opened file, there's a risk of the data reverting at best, or corruption at worst. But you always get the warning, so if you forget, you aren't in danger of causing problems.

    What's also great is that I can read the files on the PC - the Scrivener file is a directory of RTF and TXT files (with some XML files managing it all). So although I can't use Scrivener on it, the data is completely accessible without a special export.

  7. Everything I've ever written for an RPG product, which amounts to hundreds of thousands of words, has been on Word. I also wrote my whole novel on Word, too. I've tried using other software but it weirds me out. I played around with Scrivener but I think it was designed for somebody who isn't me, since it intimidated me to start playing around with geegaws and sorting files.

    It's interesting that you mention the whole long document thing, too. When I wrote my novel, I had the whole thing in one file as I wrote. My editor hates the whole one file = one chapter thing, which probably influenced me, too, but I think I just got started on all of this in a very different way from some other writers.

  8. Doing layout may be my protector, here. I don't regard Word as producing end-state files, so there's no point in worrying about how the text looks while I'm writing in it. How it looks gets determined later, in layout. :)

  9. I just wanted to thank you for introducing me to WriteMonkey. I unconsciously lost whole chunks of yesterday to plain writing, which is something I haven't really done since my 8088.

    I had to use the timer to remind myself to interact with the world. And that's a very good thing.

  10. Ever since my buddy introduced me to TextEdit for the mac I've mostly avoided Word, and use Indesign for the layout. These writing programs sound cool though, being able to blank out distractions and just write would certainly be a boon. I'm going to give Writemonkey a try.

  11. I've been doing more writing since being introduced to WriteMonkey than I have in a long time.

    Thanks, Rob.

  12. Damn you, Mac bastards! You get all the really cool programs.

  13. That said, Writemonkey is totally PC friendly. :)

  14. There was a time, before all these fancy programs, that I set up a 486 running Linux with no graphical interface and Emacs. No network connection, just a floppy disk. (Sadly, a pre-USB computer.) I also had a dedicated space just for writing, on a different floor from my "office" and the evil networked computer. It was pretty effective, but I had to give it up when my son was born nearly ten years ago.

    I still use Emacs for all my writing... it doesn't always work exactly as I'd like, but it runs on every platform and doesn't require a graphical interface.

    I use Emacs for a lot of reasons... similar to Fred, I learned layout as a separate task (Xerox Ventura Publisher in the late 80's) and I wanted pure plain text. Ever since VP, I've preferred text-code markups, so adapting to something like Markdown and then using a post-processor to produce whatever formats I want is just the way my mind works now days.

    But another big thing is that I also write code for a living. I don't want to learn different keyboard shortcuts and ways of thinking about documents for different tasks, different OS's, local files versus files on a remote system, etc. For all of its cumbersome bits, it lets me put the details of "how to use the editor" behind me and just write... whether it's code, a roleplaying game article, a novel, or a shopping list.

    Obviously, it's not for everyone... and it's taken me years of use, and learning a little Lisp, to adapt my configuration to all the different tasks I put it to. And I'm still discovering features I didn't know it had.

    I need to go learn about Org-mode... it looks like some of its organizational features would work well for fiction and roleplaying writing.

  15. *smacks head*

    Writemonkey is PC? Doh.

    I may try it. If only for a lark. Word works for me, but I'm happy to try out some new and exciting tools...

    Thanks, Fred!

    -- c.

  16. Rob, do you do your game-writing in Scrivener? Are there any tricks re tables and such I should beware? I just bought a Macbook and downloaded Scrivener over the weekend, so I'm all n00b-y.

  17. Tables in Scrivener have so far been made easy by not needing to do them as tables. Most of the time when I've needed to do tables, the styleguide has just called for tabs, so they can run it through their own style engine. I admit that if I had to do a fancy one, I'd probably offload that snippit of work to word.

    Of course, now I feel like experimenting.


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