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. 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 Literatureandlatte.com (the guys behind Scrivener).