Writing Software and Tools

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Writers, like many artisans, love to talk about the tools and techniques of their trade. Honing and tweaking their systems becomes a near-obsession in itself.

I asked a number of writers their opinions on what they use and received no shortage of information. The tools used roughly fall into three buckets, reflecting the larger workflow process from mind-to-notes-to-draft-to-refine:

  1. Organizing and Capturing Research and Idea Synthesis
  2. Committing Words to Paper
  3. Editing. Rewriting, Revising

List of Organizing Tools

  • Sectioned Notebook / Binder
  • Index cards / Whiteboard & Sticky notes
  • Smartphone camera to take a picture of your hen-scratch and napkin sketches.
  • Hierarchy of folders with files on your computer. There is no one ‘right’ way to do this, but needs to make sense to your sense of organization.
  • Evernote, a cloud-based note-taking software that is available for download on nearly all mobile devices for free. Capture text and images wherever you are, tag them and organize them in a virtual notebook. The storage costs are based on how much you use within a month. For text-notes, a free account is often sufficient.
  • Microsoft OneNote (with OneDrive), similar to Evernote, is free to download on most devices. You have the option to store the notebooks on your own computer or in OneDrive’s (formerly SkyDrive) web-based storage. The killer feature for OneNote is Microsoft Office integration and stellar handwriting recognition.
  • Scriviner, a full-blown writing suite that mixes both the notebook and card-sorting metaphors in an intuitive way. It is well-suited for organizing large writing projects or as a warehouse for all your writing needs. Not only is it great at planning, but it integrates writing and editing phases as well. There is a learning curve, but those that like it, like it a lot.
  • yWriter, similar to Scriviner, but at a much lower price tag (free). It’s not as polished, but is well-supported. Did I mention it was free?

List of Writing Tools

  • Pen & Paper
  • Plain Text, because sometimes it’s best not to worry about formatting and about getting the words out of your braincase
  • Markdown, because sometimes a little bit of formatting is required in plain text. If you write for the web and haven’t looked at Markdown yet, you should.
  • Microsoft Word, the ‘go-to’ standard for almost everyone. It’s everywhere and it works. It has outlining, layout, styles, grammar and spell checking. Many plugins are available to extend its functionality. Microsoft has recently moved to a subscription-based licensing model that includes the entire Office suite and a slew of other features. Compared to other offerings, it’s not cheap. There is some confusing FUD as to which edition is required to be legally licensed for commercial use. I’m currently awaiting confirmation from my Microsoft contact and will update this post.
    UPDATE: The license agreements for Home and Student editions of Office and Office 365 specifically prohibit ‘commercial, non-profit, or revenue-generating activities’. Ya hafta go Pro.
  • LibreOffice / OpenOffice, very similar to Microsoft Office, these are reminiscent of earlier versions of Office. Even though OpenOffice still exists and is actively developed, LibreOffice is considered its spiritual successor. It’s Open Source and free to use. The biggest challenge is in document fidelity with Microsoft Office documents. If you work primarily in this tool and keep your formatting simple, you’ll be fine.
  • Google Docs, part of Google’s web-based suite, offers a complete and free-to-use document processing experience with plenty of add-ins to extend functionality. Documents are stored in Google’s own format in their cloud service but can be exported as Microsoft-compatible downloadable documents. As with LibreOffice, there are some document fidelity issues to contend with if you’re using tools outside of the Googleverse.

List of Editing Tools

  • Words-to-Kill‘ list & Thesausus
  • Microsoft Word’s built-in grammar tools and your brain
  • Free/Cheap Web-based tools: ProWritingAidHemmingwayGrammarly,AfterTheDeadline. These are great tools to assist in identifying common writing errors: readability, passive voice, adverbs. They are quick-and-dirty, first-pass editing tools but no real substitute for greymatter. Your mileage may vary.
  • Desktop tools: Scriviner, yWriter, StyleWriterAutoCrit. These are more robust and often more expensive tools, but can do a great job. The same caveat as above applies.

I dare not make any attempt to determine the ‘best’ set of tools to use. There are many factors including: access, budget, learning styles, comfort and personal preference.

Many thanks to Matt, Anthea, Anisa, Cameron, Charles, Ray, Donald, Delores, Tim, SMDavis and BCHickey for weighing-in thoughtfully on the topic.

Write on, folks!

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