The other day I was out with some writers having a drink and we began talking about writing software. Most writers I know are stuck in a grudging relationship to Microsoft Word as the best Word processor. One writer I know who has been homeless from time to time over the years uses Google Docs, mainly because it the Web application both resembles Word in terms of features but also because Google keeps his documents stored and safe on the Web, or as they say now, “in the cloud.”
I have long been frustrated with Microsoft Word, and yet my attempts to adopt a different program have always failed because there is some feature in Word, such as Word’s outline feature, that programs such as Apple’s Pages haven’t been able to match. Even Word Perfect lags in features. And yet Word had seen very little in the way of advancement in the last ten years. Word 2000 is not that different from Word 2010 except for the facelift of the ribbon. The basic metaphor of Microsoft Word is dreadfully familiar: a sheet of blank paper on which you type. You can apply various electrical-typewriters checks on this writing such as spell check, the always nearly useless grammar check, or use the built-in toolbox of third-rate desktop publishing tools. Under the hood, Word has pretty good text search tools, document structure tools, and excellent revision tracking and collaboration features. However, Word is essentially a Swiss Army knife of writing and document tools. A writer can get by perfectly well with these tools in order to producing copy, but over the years I have found pieces of software that do just about every phase of the writing process more efficiently. Ten years after Word 2000, it is completely possible to skip MS Word all together. I still use Word to compose manuscripts — but by the time I move to a manuscript phase I am pretty close to a polishing and finalizing my draft phase and the bulk of conceptual writing work has been done.
So in talking to my friends I realized I had a very odd relationship to the software and the writing process. Why fumble with Word’s clunky outline feature when you can use a smooth and efficient outline tool such as OmiOultiner?
I use a specialized piece of software for each step. I may have an idea and I’ll jot a note on my phone in EverNote. Later, I will open EverNote on my desktop computer and transfer the information to a tag-based, database driven text processor that I use both to capture and organize incoming ideas but also to assign and track tasks. When I begin to draft a manuscript, I will use the initial note as the kernel for a mindmap in FreeMind. I will export the MindMap as an outline (.opml) to use in OmniOutline. In OmniOutline I will revise the outline and then use the outline as the frame to draft the manuscript in Microsoft Word. I might also use DragonDictate to add additional first-draft text during the composition of the manuscript. I retain the outline frame as I revise the document in Word so that I can rapidly shuffle and find sections of the document. Now that the Mac OS has TimeMachine, I rely on my operating system to retain back up versions. When I approach a final draft, I remove the outline and revise in Word. I also use an additional grammar check. Each one seems to do something well that the others cannot. At the stage when I consider the manuscript final, I either publish using a blog tool or submit the manuscript and track the submission using a database.
Here are my steps:
- Capture idea in a note tool using Evernote.
- Transfer note to task management tool using Journler.
- Define a writing project by creating a folder so that I can recover documents if necessary using TimeMachine.
- Create a mindmap from the note using FreeMind.
- Create an outline from the mindmap using OmniOutliner.
- Create a document structure using the outline in Microsoft Word.
- Check the document using additional grammar checkers such as Grammarian Pro.
- If publishing the document, publish using WordPress.
- If submitting the document, use a database to track the submission such as Bento.
As I explained these steps to my writer friends, they seem confused and then shook their heads. “I just use Word,” one writer said. So I thought I’d share my list of tools and their function mapped to the writing process. I am also always on the look out for additional writing tools. What do you use?
When an idea occurs to you, you have a bit of time to do a freewrite, or you see something that you want to record, there is software that will do just this. For example, you are in a coffee shop and overhear a piece of conversation, you can write a note in Evernote. EverNote will synchronize your note with your data on their Web site.
Other software: The PC also has Microsoft OneNote that now comes with a mobile client. Google offers Google Notebook.
Requirements: The software here should allow for the easy input of an idea either as text, audio, drawing, or photo. It should support a client on your mobile device as well as your desktop. It should synchronize data across platforms. An ideal system also supports tagging or dynamic ways of organizing the information such as tags. I could imagine that this software would work well with the task management tool (bel0w) but haven’t found software that works both for just throwing notes into a bucket, and one that allows me to organize the bucket.
A capability of the idea capture tool should be able to convert speech to text. However at the moment this requires a dedicated piece of software. That is you speak or read something and it is converted into text.
PC/MAC: Dragon Naturally Speaking
Requirements: This software has improved a great deal in the last five years. It requires a microphone and training of the software, but can produce reasonable results. That is, there is an error rate that always produces a degree of error in your text, but you can input text by speaking which is different than typing — for instance — if you are “writing” a story, you can just “tell the story” and it will get captured (with a fair number of odd typos.)
Brainstorming – Mindmap
A mindmap is a cognitive tool from the writing process movement. You have an idea, put it in a circle, and then that idea spurs more ideas that you connect to the first one and so on
PC/MAC: FreeMind (Java)
Requirements: The ideal piece of software will allow you not only to create the mindmap, but to easily revise the map, and export the map as an outline in the outline format (.ompl). The mindmap tool will also support the mindmap fileformat (.mm). Apps for both the iOS and Android support the format and you can share the files with your desktop client.
Brainstorming – Outline
An outline provides an abstraction of your piece of writing either for planning or revision. You can use an outline to see the macro-structure of a story, novel, or essay.
Requirements: The ideal software will allow the easy manipulation of the list, import the output of your mindmap, and allow you to export to an format that supports word styles.
This is essentially a personal blog tool that allows you to enter structured text entries without regard to their location in a file system. These text entries can be used to track tasks, expand ideas captured in your capture tool. For instance, think of how iTunes organizes songs. You can view the same song through different categories. For example, a song may be found by Album > Song Title, or by Genre > Song Title.
Requirements: This software has a database backend, and allows for the text entries to be tagged, and the front end provides an interface that is structured in some way by the tags. I’ve used WordPress installed on my desktop server, but have found that a stand alone piece of software works much better.
Eventually you will need a tool that is about the composition of words, paragraphs, and tools. Most decent Word processors include a built in dictionary and reference set. The also allow for you to have an interface that focuses primarily on the words being written. In addition, the wordprocessor should allow for some meta-structuring to the document such as an outline.
PC/Mac: Microsoft Word
Requirements: I have tried over the years to get away from MS Word and nothing offers the feature depth of Word. Word does just about everything except in depth text processing (which isn’t available as far as I can tell from any text processor) pretty okay. Pages for the Mac OS is pretty to look at but fails to deliver on even the core features contained in Ms Word. Features I find essential in Word are the built-in dictionary and reference set, the search and replace functions, outline, track changes, and the wide compatibility with different file formats.
I should also note that I think wordprocessors completely miss the boat. They do not process words at all. They are instead at best document processors. A true word processor would provide a tool set of lexical tools and focus on the composition and control over the text in the document. Wordprocessors are notoriously feature poor in this area. They do not even contain basic lexical tools such as a concordance.
A document storage system stores versions of the documentation and allows you to recover past version or retrieve current versions. It allows you to do with this with a text search (like a search engine).
PC: Windows OS 7
Mac: Mac OS 10.5 or greater.
Requirements: I use the Mac OS. With Timemachine and the file system I have access to my files and can find them either by organization or by search. If I need to recover an older version I just open TimeMachine, navigate to “the past” and recover the file.
A publishing platform takes the text, presents, and pushes it out to the Word Wide Web in a format that be accesses and shared by users. The content is stored in a database, combined with a template, and posted in an accessible location. Ideally it allows for interaction in a variety of ways. Users can comment or even mark up copy and leave notes on the text or they can share by re-posting to their own blogs or social media spaces.
I track my submissions using a very simple database program called Bento. I have tried to use full-featured databases such as Access or FileMaker which was kind of overkill, or something as simple as an Excel spreadsheet which worked okay but was difficult enough to enter new information that I didn’t get around to it. With Bento I can quickly enter my information and not think about it unless I have a question.
Requirements: The database and form presentation should be quick to set up, not require a great deal of messing around with table relationships, and should allow for reports or exporting the information easily to an application that can analyze the data.