Monday, 3 August 2009

Reviewers Wanted!

Last night on Twitter's Litchat several people asked if there were any software programs which could help writers work and while I suspect that most are no more than expensive procrastination tools, I bet that there are a few which are useful.

The thing is, I just don't know which ones they are. I'm relatively non-technical: I write most of my work by hand, using a real pen and real paper, and then I "type" up my work into Microsoft Word using Dragon NaturallySpeaking and a couple of associated gadgets which I've reviewed here, but I don't use anything else to produce my work.

So if you use any specialist writing software, hardware or gadgets, then I'd be grateful if you'd consider writing a review of it for me, listing its good points along with its bad, and explaining just who you think might benefit from using it. Email your review to me at "HPRW at tesco dot net", and put "HPRW review" in the subject-line so I don't mistake you for spam (and while we're at it, I would welcome some more reviews of writing-related books if anyone feels so inclined).

38 comments:

Dan Holloway said...

Alas, my gadget is a bic crystal biro and moleskine notebook. I rather think anything other than Word, when Word/rtf are the formats in whcih agents require fulls (if they accept e-mail subs at all) is unhelpful. I have to say, the endless ads I see in magazines make me cringe as much as the vanity publishers.

Nonetheless, when it comes to nonifiction, I do know that EndNote is considered absolutely indispensible by everyone I know for organising references and, er, end notes.

Charlie Williams said...

To each his own, but I think any kind of software for prose fiction is just a crutch. Word or some other word-processing package maybe, but that's just a glorified type-writer. For me the joy of writing novels is that I don't need anything. No obstacles in my way besides the ones I create myself. In my head. I guess that can be pretty terrifying too.

Screenplays are different. It's such a specific document that you need something to handle the format while you get on with all the arty stuff. Final Draft, or whatever.

HelenMHunt said...

The only ones I'm aware of are Y-Writer and Scrivener (which I believe is Mac only). I'd be too terrified to use them though, so I'm the wrong person to ask!

j purdie said...

Is software for writing really worthwhile? I agree with Dan, anything other than Word would be redundant. However ... there are programs:

www.newnovelist.com/index.html

being one of them.

AnonCoward23 said...

LaTeX.

Amanda said...

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Jane Smith said...

And I would like to call your attention to the rudeness of comment-spam, Amanda. Please: if you'd like some sort of announcement here to advertise your event, at least have the courtesy to ask me first. My email address is on my blog's front page, and is easily found.

If you'd have sent me a little email introducing yourself and this event I'd have probably run a nice little article about it: as it is, you've put me right off. Don't do it again.

Jane Smith said...

Right, where was I? Ah, yes. Specialist software and stuff.

I agree with pretty much all of you: I doubt that most programs would be of any help to me. But I know that some writers, somewhere, use them, and would like to know more about them. I shall go and dig elsewhere. But I'll agree with Dan: some of the claims I've seen for these programs make me cringe. They can't turn a talentless oaf into a talented writer, but they must have something to offer to continue to make sales.

MichelleJ said...

Q10 (PC, open-source) and Scrivener (Mac, paid software) are awesome programs for writers with an internet addiction. Both black out the entire screen, essentially turning off the endless distractions that computers are loaded with. These really do turn your computer into a glorified typewriter. It's great for days when Twitter, instant messenger, and email are just too tempting.

Both also work only in plaintext, so it's much harder to get caught up in formatting.

I know Q10 saves the files in .txt format, which can be easily converted to Word (or just copy-pasted). I believe Scrivener works the same way.

These are essentially just specialized word-processing programs, though. Ultimately, they're good for turning off distractions.

Jane Smith said...

(By the way, am I the only one perplexed by AnonCoward23's comment? And if so, could anyone explain to me what is so significant about "LaTeX"? Is it something rude which I should delete, or is it me getting confused again? Thank you.)

Jane Smith said...

MichelleJ, I'm sure that if I fully understood your comment I'd be grateful for it. Do you want to write it up for me as a blog post?

catdownunder said...

There is software that helps you humans write? I thought it just helped you to put your writing on the page.
My paws are much clumsier than Jane's hands but I have not - yet - resorted to conversing with the Dragon. (S/he might accidentally sing my fur.)
I rather suspect the usefulness of these things depends on the way in which the writer works.
The Cat
(I'll add a human commment here. I actually do have a physical disability. I may resort to the Dragon one day but s/he has mixed reviews among some of my friends, acquaintances and colleagues and does not do well with specialist language or other languages.)

Jane Smith said...

Cat, the dragon is far better behaved now than she was in previous incarnations and once you're used to her, she's easy to use. If you have a disability which stops you typing then she's wonderful. Really.

j purdie said...

Sadly Jane LaTeX isn't anything perverted or disgusting, it's (I believe) a postscript based printing/output program originally from Tex on Linux, and, hence, highly unusable by most people. Popular amongst scientists I believe.

Jane Smith said...

Damn. I was hoping I had ANOTHER opportunity to get all outraged. Never mind. One's bound to be along sooner or later.

BuffySquirrel said...

I use WordPerfect. Anything else is just cat-vacuuming :D

catdownunder said...

One of these days Jane - when I get rich on my unwritten best selling novel?
I really fail to see how any programme (as opposed to a tool like the Dragon) can help anyone write. Even the use of a so-called "spell-checker" is fraught with difficulties. I have seen "grammar" suggestions which are - well, strange. (I am endeavouring to be polite here.) If anyone is advertising something which supposedly helps the writer put ideas on the page and edit them into language which, as Nicola Morgan would put it, has a "voice" then - it has to be a con job. Such things do not exist. Nothing is going to take the hard slog out of writing, especially good writing. There is no easy way to do it.
Using Dragon to put the ideas down is something entirely different. Dragon does not write for you. It's just a voice-pen. (Sorry Dragon I do not want to hurt your scaly feelings but you have to admit that is really your function.)
Anything claiming to be more than that in the creativity stakes would send my fur in all directions. I don't know EndNote but that sounds like a tool too - not some "I can do the writing for you" programme. Such things do not exist. Anything which claims to be that is not something I would spend money on.

Derek said...

LaTex is typesetting freeware. It has nothing to do with writing at all.

SleepyJohn said...

As catdownunder observes, many of the functions of a modern word processor are quite unnecessary for most writers, perhaps even dangerous. Do not be misled into thinking that a spellchecker checks spelling, for example. It does not. It has no idea what spelling is; it simply checks the screen to see if there are any shapes that it does not recognise from the list it holds. If it finds one, it will suggest another shape that it does recognise. Its great talent is turning badly spelt clear writing into perfectly spelt gobbledygook. Spell-checked documents are easy to spot, being full of phrases like 'the bough of the boat', 'these affect on spill chequers' and so on, a bit like a Google translation from Nepalese. And don't start me on grammar checkers, please! I turn all these things off and use my eyes.

It is important to decide what level of presentation you require - just words in the right order or a full-fledged, formatted PDF file that can be emailed straight to a print shop. A decent word processor will do both and everything in between, so when your masterpiece is finished you can choose what you like. You do not have to learn anything about the program beyond the level you need. But you do need to learn that. Part of the problem with computerised writing is the perception created by Windows that any idiot can do it without having to learn how. Not so. If you wanted to keep bees, you would learn how to do so first, wouldn't you? Word processing is no different.

When you have learnt, you will find it a most versatile tool that can produce anything from a shopping list to a print-ready book. The problem with specialist programs that may do some particular thing very well is the time they take to learn. You may find one useful if you write frequent movie scripts or textbooks, but for general writing a word processor is good; much better than a lump of stone and a chisel. I might elaborate on this in my blog some time (click my name).

Lacer said...

I use Writer's Cafe to store and organise notes, plot lines etc. and good old Word to actually type it in (although when I say 'good ole Word', I have the latest version now and it's horrible).

I'll send you a review of Writer's Cafe Jane.

Oh and I've also used New Novelist in the past and did not get on with it all, it was far too prescriptive.

Elen Caldecott said...

If you haven't seen 'write or die' yet, then I'd say it's well worth a look. It's a web-based app that really does stop the procrastination!

http://lab.drwicked.com/writeordie.html

DO NOT forget to save anything you write there!

BuffySquirrel said...

My father was thinking about buying MS Word, but worried about the number of features he wouldn't need.

You can turn them off, I said.

But I'll have PAID for them, he said.

I have no idea what kind of writer Word was created for--the business writer?--but it sure wasn't created with the fiction writer in mind. This is also true of WP, but I find it less annoying.

SleepyJohn said...

BuffySquirrel,
Your father should try OpenOffice, which is similar to Word but is free to download. Both, as you note, are mainly designed for husiness use, and have a mass of features of little or no interest to writers, but at least with OO you are not paying for them.

I use Textmaker, part of a suite made by a German company. It costs $79 for word processor, spreadsheet, presentations and a language to automate tasks, and it is much smaller, faster and simpler to use than either of the others. I would recommend it, and it has been highly reviewed on the net. Both Textmaker and OpenOffice export to PDF, which I understand Word does not.

SleepyJohn said...

PS BuffySquirrel,

You can download OpenOffice from www.openoffice.org and a free trial of Softmaker Office (containing Textmaker) from www.softmaker.com

Both have versions for Windows and for Linux. I only use the latter but assume that it works as well in Windows.

BuffySquirrel said...

Thanks, SleepyJohn. Unfortunately, my father has a Mac :D.

Derek said...

Buffy -- there are some versions of Open Office for Mac. See list of what's available here:

http://download.openoffice.org/other.html#en-US

Nicola Morgan said...

God, those freaky spammers, Jane. (And I thought Latex must be one too!)

I am about to say something unhelpful because I can't remember the name of the thing I want to mention, and also it isn't really important enough to write a review of. BUT ... it's a piece of free software that starts to make a horrible noise at you when you stop writing for more than a few seconds. You can choose between different horrible noises - like fingers on blackboards, or a baby crying, or nasty whistling, and the only way to stop the horrible noises is to WRITE.

Talking of which ...

Simon Kewin said...

When it comes to the actual writing, I don't use anything other than a straightforward word processor myself. I suppose I also occasionally use things like spreadsheets to keep track of what's happening in the various chapters too. But I'm not convinced you need dedicated writing software.

One thing I do use, though, is my own submission tracking software, which I find invaluable for keeping tabs on what I've submitted where. It's a pretty simple beast but does a useful job. Not sure if this is the sort of thing you mean?

Lest you think I'm spamming, I can assure you the software is completely free to download!

BuffySquirrel said...

Thanks, Derek.

BuffySquirrel said...

Thanks, Derek.

notenoughwords said...

I've used a couple of writing software packages in the past, and always found them wanting.

Then I found liquid story binder. At first I almost threw the thing in the bin - it has a steep learning curve. But once I got the hang of it, it has become a really useful tool.

It doesn't 'help you write', or make any suggestions about what you write. I think any program that claims to make you a better writer is feeding on the ignorance of newbie writers.

What it does do is help me organise and find all my pages of worldbuilding, character notes, outlines, plots, ideas and reminders.

It really is just a big box of index cards, with the added bonus that you can turn outlines into chapters, link characters, track common word usage (I have a problem with 'back') and make notes as you work.

You can then export the whole thing to an .rtf file.

I heartily recommend it, but only for 1. new projects, and 2. when you have a couple of days spare to get your head around it.

If someone would write a decent manual to go with it, I would be in heaven.

catdownunder said...

Nicola, when you do remember the name of that programme I can think of someone who might be able to use it! :-) (It's all right I am working - truly!)

Natalia Maldonado said...

Hi Jane, I use Scrivener and find it very useful for managing longer forms of writing. Aside from blacking out the screen to avoid distractions like MichelleJ mentioned, it allows you to divide your work into folders easily accessed along a sidebar on the left. I use it to organize my chapters, so if I've left off on page 137 in Chapter 8, the next time I open the document I don't have to scroll through those pages; I just click on the Chapter 8 tab. It also has a trash bin that stores unwanted chunks of writing, which I love because I don't believe in permanently deleting any writing, no matter how terrible it seems at the time. I've found a few treasures buried deep in my trash bin months after I threw them out.

In every other way, though, Scrivener is basically a word processor with a few extra tools thrown in (there's a "cork board" for notes and an outlining tool). I wouldn't say it helps you write so much as it helps you get organized. Whereas in Word, you may have multiple documents for outlines, notes, etc., Scrivener keeps them all in one file and window so you can switch easily between them. For shorter projects, I still use MS Word, though.

Calistro said...

I've written both my novels using free YWriter software and find it MUCH easier than constantly scrolling up and down in Word - it makes 100,000 words much more manageable, especially when it comes to swapping scenes around and working out which characters are in which scene. I'll try and write a review for you over the next couple of days if I have time.

Keefieboy said...

I use Scrivener. It doesn't make you write better, or anything, but it really does help you to organise and structure your work. The key thing for me is that you can attach a synopsis to any chunk of writing (you can also attach keywords, which may include characters, locations and anything else that you specify). Once you've done this, you can get an overview of your work, and drag and drop sections into any order you want.

Compatability is not an issue - you can output all or part of the work as RTF or other formats.

It also has a scriptwriting mode that does all the formatting for you. It is Mac-only, but if you've invested in a proper computer, you certainly won't regret the $30 or so that Scrivener costs.

Captain Black said...

I've found this discussion very interesting. Why? Because I'm actually an out-of-work software developer with a strong interest in writing. Don't worry, this isn't spam nor a sales pitch. I'm gathering ideas about writing related software and this posting has given me more food for thought.

If I may venture some observations...

* There are many word-processors and authors are likely to find (and stick to) their favourite. These are little more than typewriters, as far as they are concerned.

* DOC, PDF and RTF seem to be the only file formats accepted by the publishing industry.

* Spelling checkers and grammar checkers have very limited usefulness.

* There are many specialised software tools and add-ons that can assist authors, particularly those with physical disabilities.

* Software that claims to assist in the actual creation and thinking processes of writing (e.g. making you a better writer) are snake oil.

* Some software helps you to organise your work.

I'm very interested in the possibility of developing software that covers the last point. Software that can manage the creation, storage, organisation and inter-relationships between the artefacts that make up any story. Artefacts such as: characters, places, events, time lines, storyboards, scenes, chapters, notes, to-do lists, issues to resolve and probably many more.

I've only seen a couple of packages that attempt to do this, Y-Writer and WriteItNow for examples. Other authors seem to use a disparate collection of separate tools to achieve the same goals. If there was a single suite that could do this job, would you be interested? What makes you shout and curse at your current software? What do you wish it did that it doesn't do?

To re-iterate: this isn't a sales pitch. I'm thinking of developing some freeware along these lines. What do you think?

catdownunder said...

You know Captain Black it all sounds great - but, as a cat, I think I have to follow the line of 'use it or lose it' and rely on using my memory. A little paw print here and there helps but I think it might depend on how the writer writes. If you are the sort of writer who has each chapter mapped out before you start it might be very useful. If, like me, you dive straight in and test the depth then it might not get used at all. Of course my fur gets wet sometimes (I hate that - but you do dry off)and sometimes you hit the bottom very rapidly or you find yourself out of your depth - but I still cannot do depth soundings first.

Christophe said...

I use WriteItNow by Novel Writing Software, and am very happy with it. We all have unique creative process, and finding the right tool is a personal journey.

Benefits of WriteItNow:

- Chapters can easily be accessed and moved around
- Notes and ideas can be created on the fly and are easy to review
- Character names and attributes can be created and inventoried as inspiration strikes
- Events can be listed as the story unfold, and linked to characters
- Location can be identified to allow consistent narrative from one chapter to the next.
- Easy to use and inexpensive
- Can be exported in rtf, text, or html format for easy printing and emailing
- Has a timeline, when events have to be intricately timed
- Provide a submission tracker

In all, it has provided me a wealth of benefits over over MS Word. With Word, I had to navigate from page 25 to page 103 just to find a reference to a character in a given chapter. When the story grows it becomes cumbersome to navigate within the document. And I hate to see what a project would look like with post-it notes, scribble on paper napkins, random notes that are forgotten, etc.

I am very happy with WriteItNow.

Christophe