It's time to break up with your word processor

by simon on February 7, 2008

Brian Clark at Copyblogger has issued another of his headline challenges and I’m taking the bait. (I need the links…)

Last time I came up with “Ten things readers crave in bed” as part of the Cosmo headline challenge. This time Brian’s gone for metrosexual men’s magazines, a format I’m even less familiar with than Cosmo.

Undaunted, however, I’ve decided to modify the “It’s time to break up with your boss” headline, and turn our attention to software for writers. So, with no further ado…

It’s time to break up with your word processor

Do you use a normal word processor for writing? Do you even (gulp) … use Microsoft Word?

Now, I have Word on my Mac. I use it all the time, because my copywriting clients all have Word too, and they like to use functions such as track changes. They tend to work in corporations and have little choice over the software they use. So, Word it is.

But I wouldn’t use Word, or any other standard word processor, for blogging or creative writing, script writing or even jotting down notes and thoughts.

(I don’t actually think it would be physically possible to write poetry in Word. Somehow I think it would be like matter and anti-matter colliding and the universe would implode. Please don’t try it).

There are, however, lots of great alternatives out there. Unfortunately for you, my knowledge of them is limited to what’s available for the Mac. There are some PC offerings in here too though, just to keep you all reading…

(None of these are affiliate links and I’m not getting any rewards, kickbacks or favours from any of these software developers).

Final Draft

I’m no expert on the inner working of Hollywood, but from I’ve heard, you could write the greatest film script in history and no one would even look at it if you got the formatting wrong. They seem to be obsessed with text in Courier 12 point and the correct tab settings, for some reason.

Which is where specialist script writing software comes in handy.

Final Draft is designed specifically for script writing and takes the headache out of all that formatting and so on. As the blurb says:

Use your creative energy to focus on the content; let Final Draft take care of the style. Final Draft is the number-one selling word processor specifically designed for writing movie scripts, television episodics and stage plays.

It’s much more expensive than most of the other options here, but if screen writing is your thing, then it’s almost certainly worth investigating.

There’s also a Final Draft AV version designed for dealing with all that two-column stuff used in TV voiceovers, commercials, corporate training videos and the like. Or can buy the two together as one package.

Final Draft screen shot

Story crafting software – leading you by the hand

There are quite a few novel and film script writing packages out there for both Mac and Windows. These are far more than just word processors or enhanced text editors. They are designed to help guide you through the story crafting process.

Perhaps the best known among these is Dramatica (PC and Mac).
There are reviews and links to a host of other similar packages here, all of them for PC only as far as I can tell.

I’ve never used any of these packages, and to be honest, I’d be a little suspicious. Maybe I’m being excessively cynical here. But I feel they could get in the way of the writing process. I’m sure many professional novelists would treat them with scorn. Others may swear by them. If you have any views or experience with these packages, please let us all know in the comments.

One large factor against these packages is the price – which tends to run into hundreds of dollars (Dramatica is $269.95). As you’ll see below, there are software packages out there specifically designed as writing environments which are much more modestly priced.

Scrivener – an ideal writing environment

Scrivener (Mac only) is my favourite writing tool. This is the one I tested and bought (along with Devon Think, below). This, to me, is the ideal writing environment.

It’s just for writing and nothing else. It’s designed for longer forms of writing too – like novels, factual books, dissertations, and so on.

It has the wonderful full screen mode which allows you to remove all distractions from your writing. I use it with black background and green text which is very restful for tired eyes. (It also reminds me of the old Amstrad word processor I owned back in the day. But now I’m showing my age).

The corkboard function is a marvel. It imitates the old 6 inch by 4 inch card index method for creating the structure of a book (For example, you create a different card for every scene in a chapter or even whole novel and move them around to create the right shape and order of things.) From the blurb:

The cork notice-board is one of the writer’s most familiar tools. Before Scrivener, though, the index cards were not connected to anything (other than ideas, of course); any changes to the order on the corkboard would have to be replicated manually in the draft. In Scrivener, every document is attached to a virtual index card onto which you can jot a synopsis. Use the corkboard to shuffle these index cards around – which is instantly reflected in the structure of your draft.

ScrivenerScreenSnapz002.jpg

 

Scrivener is designed for managing large writing projects. It is particularly suited to writers who don’t always think in a linear fashion – who don’t always start at the beginning and end at the end. It also suits those who like outlining, or who don’t necessarily like outlining but like to be able to see the structure of their work as it grows and to be able to re-organise that structure easily.

ScrivenerScreenSnapz001.jpg

Scrivener can also format screenplays. It can hold and handle your research. It has a keywords function that helps you keep track of ideas, places and people. The outliner function helps with the structuring. It makes it simple to format the finished work for export and printing. And it costs only $40. Which is a bargain for what is an entire writing environment.

Avenir – get focused on the creative process

Avenir (Mac only) is one of several packages here designed specifically for writers. From the blurb:

Avenir is a new kind of software for writers. Part word processor, part database, completely focused on the creative process. Whether you are brainstorming for your first short story or putting the finishing touches on your latest best-seller Avenir provides the tools you need to manage the creative process from inception to publication.

PreviewScreenSnapz001.jpg

I did try it out once, but opted for Scrivener instead, but I think it’s a pretty close run thing. I think the corkboard in Scrivener is what swung it for me. But if you are checking out one, try to other as well to see which suits you best. They are both available as free demos. Avenir costs $29.95.

WriteRoom- a ‘spartan utopia’

WriteRoom was hailed by the New York Times as “the ultimate spartan writing utopia.”

What it gives you is the wonderful full-screen mode which I mentioned under the Scrivener section above. Its goal is distraction free writing.

For people who enjoy the simplicity of a typewriter, but live in the digital world. WriteRoom is a full-screen writing environment. Unlike the cluttered word processors you’re used to, WriteRoom is just about you and your text.

WriteRoom costs $24.95, which seems reasonable to me. I don’t have it or need it because I use Scrivenir, which achieves this function and so much more.

Think – cut the clutter from your screen

Think (Mac only) isn’t designed specifically for writers. But it could help you achieve ‘distraction free writing’ while sticking with your familiar word processor or text editor. What is does is blank out the rest of your screen, leaving only one application visible – be it your word processor, browser, whatever. Gone are the dock, with it’s bouncing icons, and the desktop with its pics and files and reminders of things to do:

Let’s limit our attention to one application — any application — at any time. Let’s make it easy to change focus when we have to. Let’s allow ourselves to bring other apps up quickly if we need them, but put them out of sight again just as quickly.

Let’s rediscover how to focus, and get back to thinking.

Think is easy to recommend to Mac uses, too, because of the highly attractive price: it’s free.

DEVONThink – your second brain

DEVONThink is so powerful and versatile, it could be used as virtually your entire working environment. If you’re an ‘information worker’ (which I think includes journalists, bloggers, researchers, writers of all types) and you own a Mac, then you owe it to yourself to at least check out Devon Think.

It’s a personal database, which makes it the ideal place for storing your research. You can use it to write and create documents. It’s a web browser. It’s a digital filling cabinet and, as the blurb says, your “second brain”:

Use it as your document repository, your filing cabinet, your email archive, or your project organizer; DEVONthink can do it all. You can even collect and organize data from the web for your own use, enrich it with sound and movie files from your hard drive, and then export the finished product as a website or to an Apple Pages document to print, should you so desire. Or copy the content to your iPod! The possibilities are only as limited as your imagination.

That blurb probably gave you the hint that this, too, is Mac only.

Mars Edit – for easier blogging

For blogging, I use Mars Edit (Mac only). It costs just shy of $30, and is worth every cent.

In many ways you don’t need any additional tools for blogging, because you can use the test entry fields in your blog platform of choice (such as WordPress, Blogger etc).

There are advantages to having a dedicated writing environment, however. You can work offline if necessary (although these days, who’s ever offline?) More importantly, Mars edit is stable and a satisfying place to work, whereas the text entry sections of WordPress are a little quirky for my taste.

If you’re interested in all Mars Edit can do, I recommend this comprehensive review:

An app like this must have the ability to offer all you want and need to publish your weblog according to the way you have it set-up. It must work seamlessly with over a dozen popular content management systems, and offer an interface for each one in a clean, simple fashion so as not to get in your way, slow you down or distract you while you’re writing. And this is where MarsEdit excels.

Alternatives to Mars edit include Ecto and Qumana, both available for PC and Mac. If you know of any others which you can recommend, please mention them in the comments.

One word of caution I would like to insert here: never use Word for any kind of writing which is going to be used online. In my experience, Word is capable of completely borking the formatting of anything it comes in contact with. Importing text from Word into a Content Management System or blogging platform is a recipe for disaster.

If you know of any great writing software I’ve missed, particularly for PC users whom I’ve sorely neglected here, then please feel free to mention it in the comments. (If you include more than 2 links it’ll get held for moderation, and might get lost in the ether).

If you enjoyed this post, please consider helping me promote it through whatever social media you use (Digg, StumbleUpon etc). Or link to it from your own blog. Or make a comment. Or tell people about it, in person or by email. Thanks for your help.

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