Software to Use When Writing

Note: This was written in 2014. I have since converted to using Scrivener.

Last week a friend mentioned that she’d heard the scrivener software praised in a writer’s workshop.  For anyone who doesn’t know, it is software that helps a writer organize, plan, and ultimately write their work whether it is fiction, a paper, an article or a thesis.  Therefore I decided to try it out, and as it has a generous non-consecutive 30 day trial period, I have ample opportunity to try it.   It also comes with a very well written interactive tutorial.
The tutorial is so well written that a manual is almost unnecessary.  Almost.

So having played around with the tutorial and seen its capabilities, what are the benefits of using scrivener?

  1. It has a sophisticated, powerful yet intuitive interface that is easy to learn.
  2. It’s adaptable so that you can add new meta-data, track characters, mood, points of view, sub-plots, whatever you want.
  3. All your materials, research, notes, drafts, etc are in one place and can be seen in a logically organized way.
  4. The work itself can be broken into small chunks, say chapters or even scenes.  This is an important advantage.  Keeping a 80,000 word novel in one gigantic file invites disaster, quite apart from the editing nightmares that that creates.
  5. It’s easy to attach notes and comments to text, sections, even research and supporting documents.
  6. Creating an outline is dead-easy.
  7. It has a nice corkboard from which you can see notes or an image for each document and section.
  8. It can output your work into several formats, including word, html, pdf, rtf, latex, open-office and a few ebook formats.   The work itself can be structured as a novel, essay, short story, screenplay and others.  This is where a true technical manual becomes very useful, since there are so many options.
  9. The user can save snapshots of their work so they don’t have to worry about loosing a previous version during a re-write.
  10. For those who care (say for NaNoWriMo), it can track your word-count.

It is a very impressive piece of software, and I have no qualms recommending it.  Features 4 and 8 are easily the most important to me.  All in all, if I were  looking for a new way to organize my work, I’d snap this up quickly and pay the very reasonable $40 (US) for the software.

The largest drawback to the software is that despite outputting to various formats, the result still needs to be cleaned up before sending to any publisher, agent, or even just a beta reader. Consequently, once it is given to other people, Scrivener won’t be very useful for further development of the project.

I’m not going to convert to using Scrivener at this time.  I have my own organizational system that works very well for me (which has the same drawback as Scrivener mentioned above).  What is that?  I use the Unix philosophy of smaller tools that complement each other.  These are the tools I am sticking with for now:

  1. Text editor: VIM.  I know; some of you may throw up your hands right now.  Yes, there is a fairly steep learning curve to use it, and it is only a text editor, not a word processor.  (More about that later.) However, hands never need to leave the keyboard; I rarely have to reach for the mouse, nor leave the home position.  No, I’m not a touch typist, although I’m close to it.  Each time I have to move a hand, I loose speed, accuracy and the flow of the writing.  Using VIM, that doesn’t happen very often and not at all when I’m writing the first draft.
  2. For output, I use LaTeX.  More screams of anguish from the crowd.  Yes, I have been a scientist, and have written software for fun.  However, MS Word and other similar WYSIWYGs can’t touch the output quality.  Sure the font control is a little awkward, but the power, quality and flexibility is so good that some commercial publishing houses (well, not for fiction that I’ve heard of) have used it.  The other advantages are:
    • I can use a WYSIWYG editor (LyX for example) if I want to. I don’t want to.
    • I can break up my document into just about any file structure that I like.
    • I don’t need to care whether I use hard-returns.  The MS Word imposed idea that a hard-return defines a paragraph is frankly — stupid.  I can put one sentence or one word on a line, whatever I want — I’m not dictated to by the software.  Blank lines define paragraph boundaries, but I can live with that.
    • It’s not a WYSIWIG (What you see is what you get) word processor which are sometimes called “what you see is all that you can get”.  Consequently, for example, I control the markup, not a piece of software that does things I didn’t expect.  Also, it understands the difference between an inter-word space and the inter-sentence space.  The issue of whether to use two spaces between sentences goes away.  I can add as many spaces as I like, and the resulting document has a single wider space after the period of the sentences, as it should. I can even turn that feature off, but why would I want to?
    • I can add comments to myself inside my writing, and they never appear in the final typeset document.  I can add parenthetical comments, footnotes, and other insertions  that can appear, but I can mark characters, moods, detail notes, research into the middle of the text, and it’s all invisible to the readers.

    The upshot is that when I write, I don’t have to worry about formatting.  I write the story, novel, whatever, using some markup I’ll admit, but I don’t have to worry about changing paragraph styles.  How difficult is typing
    % comment to myself
    \chapter{My Chapter’s Name}
    \footnote{Text of footnote}

    into the document?  Not.
  3. For output to others: Latex2rtf and then OpenOffice to clean it up and export to Word or RTF.  I haven’t encountered any difficulties with OpenOffice/Word incompatibilities.  Anyone with experience to the contrary? I’ve got a template that I use which I might make available here if anyone wants it.  This way the master version remains the text-only files that I have written using Vim.  I don’t have to manage multiple versions of the same thing.
  4. For backing up, I make a copy of the directory.  Simple.
  5. For outlining, character templates, word-counts, character-scene-plot inter-dependencies, I use a spreadsheet.  Sure, I could use dedicated software for some of those tasks, but so far, the spreadsheet works fine. (Note: 9 years later, even though I no longer use VIM/LaTeX, I still use a spreadsheet for this.)  I have templates for character descriptions, based in part on ideas gleaned from the excellent The Positive Trait Thesaurus and The Negative Trait Thesaurus.  I plan day-by-day plot action, yes, even for plot-lines that span more than 2 years.   That way, for example, I can track character’s travel, and ensure that it remains reasonable.   I also “spread-sheet” scenes against characters, so that I can ensure that every significant character and every scene contributes to at least 3 of:
    1. plot progression
    2. subplot progression
    3. significant character (protagonist, antagonist, close support character) development (as the reader sees him/her)
    4. significant character growth (as he/she actually changes)
    5. setting (world building, etc)
    6. mood
    (BTW, this does make my scenes and characters so interdependent that cutting almost any scene or character has serious ramifications to the story.) Yes, this can all be done on simple spread-sheets. I have even tracked lunar phases and climate.

It’s not perfect, but it works.   However, I’m still looking for:

  • a decent corkboard that can show text (structured preferably), images, snippets from a spreadsheet (could be output—not an actual mini-spreadsheet).  It really should be an application in a window that can manage multiple boards, not something that takes over the screen.  I’ve heard they exist for Macs and they exist online ( isn’t bad), but I’ve not found a good one for Windows.
  • a simple relationship diagram editor.  That way I can plan the character’s relationships (good, bad and neutral).

If you know of either of those, please let me know.

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