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Posted by Cassius
May 16, 2011 at 10:53 PM


Occasionally there are posts here asking about software designed for writing either nonfiction or fiction.  My son writes both and I finally was able to corner him and ask what he uses:

MS Word (on both the MAC and PC) and NOTHING ELSE, except, perhaps, some notes on paper.  He said that using special software requires learning new commands and operations, which slows down the writing process. 

He creates a separate Word file for an outline of the document (book, article, etc.) and for each character or topic, as needed.  (I assume he ALT-TABs between them.)  He said that publishers require each chapter to be a separate file, in his case a separate Word file.  He also said that each publisher has its own codes that it requires an author to use to indicate special formatting, such as italics.  He adds these codes last, but to make this process easier, he uses Word’s WISIWIG formatting as he writes, and often will enter a special symbol just before specially formatted entries so he can find them easily using the FIND function. (He searches for his symbol and then enters the appropriate publisher’s code(s).

I’m not sure, but expect that if he had to include a large bibliography, he still would use Word.


Posted by Hugh
May 17, 2011 at 11:05 AM


An interesting and unresolvable issue - except on the basis of “horses for courses”, “diff’rent strokes for diff’rent folks”, “each to his own”, I suspect.

One can happily waste an immense amount of time finding, learning and testing book-writing software, when one should be writing. This is a hybrid sub-species of the Crimp and Procrastination viruses, with added bragging rights: “I use X, so I can call myself an author!” And all the while there could be a very obvious answer to the quest staring one in the face: Microsoft Word.

For me, versions of MS Word from a few years back seemed to be hugely bloated but nevertheless deficient as outliners, couldn’t smoothly enable re-arrangement of chunks, didn’t hold research as well as writing, lacked desirable long-form writing features such as custom meta-data and, worst of all, sometimes choked unpredictably on longer documents. There used to be several guides on the Internet to help one strip down Word for long-form writing, which essentially meant abandoning most of its features. And even then one feared a crash that would destroy one’s work.

The version of Word I now use occasionally is 2004 for the Mac, which is still a bit of a pig. But I’m told that the latest version for the Mac is much better, and the latest version for Windows is very good (although of course there remain desirable things it can’t do). And of course, Word does have one feature which as far as I know is better than anything comparable in similar applications, and that is “Track Changes”. That feature, plus the insistence of publishers on receiving manuscripts in .doc or docx formats make Word almost indispensable for editing and polishing of books and similar projects, in my view.

Future versions of Word will probably incorporate some of the features that its upstart rivals in the book-writing field already have. Of course those could make it even more bloated. But I think it will still be worthwhile for authors and would-bes to keep a close eye on it to see if MS can come up with a real winner for them.



Posted by Cassius
May 17, 2011 at 12:27 PM


With respect to long form writing, that doesn’t seem to be a problem for my son, as in the novel he is writing (over 400 pages) he still has to have a separate file for each chapter.

The advantage of a single pane outliner in allowing one to move things around I fully agree with.  As I said, I once used GrandView for everything.  (I subsequently used NoteMap until it permanently lost a large chunk of text.  Now, I occasionally use Inspiration.)

As to Word bloat, I don’t know what version of Word my son uses (I’m still using 2000), but I expect that he just ignores what he doesn’t need or want.

The nonfiction book my son authored was on producing video games.  He actually was the lead author.  The second author was more of a reference for information my son didn’t know—my son would meet with him weekly with an outline of questions in hand to garner information that my son didn’t already know.  So there was relatively little research in the academic sense.  (My son had been in charge of the development of a $35 million video game until the “Crash” caused his company to lose its financial support.)


Posted by MadaboutDana
May 17, 2011 at 12:31 PM


As a copywriter (and translator), I’m sympathetic to the KISS argument: you just want to get words down, you don’t want to faff about with lots of complex commands, structures etc.

But I do find it’s good to be able to scatter words around so you can gather them together again afterwards. Which is what led to my interest in outliners in the first place - you can have lots of fragments in an outliner, but you can restrict the ones you work with and/or move them about into more coherent groups as you start to isolate the main traits of a specific concept.

Which means that increasingly, I’ve looked for outliners or similar software that use columns or other side-by-side metaphors, so you can easily compare stuff, move it around, delete/expand it etc. But columns are also rather restrictive.

Word, for me, just doesn’t hack it: it’s the last link in the chain, the final output engine - if indeed I use it at all.

For shorter stuff, I generally use TreeSheets (http://www.treesheets.com) - especially now that the Wonderful Wouter has added folding - or OpenOffice Sheet (which is far more powerful than Excel when used as a word processor). Both programs allow you to drag stuff around all over the page.

Increasingly I also use stuff on my brand spanking new iPad, and the two things I use most often are Numbers (which I’ve already eulogised elsewhere) and OmniOutliner (which has just been released for iPad). I’ve also experimented with Circus Ponies Notebook on iPad, but it’s still hampered by a number of minor but annoying stability issues. I also occasionally use Pages, which has many of the same strengths as Numbers (but doesn’t allow you to run multiple worksheets simultaneously, which is where Numbers definitely wins out). The main benefit of both Numbers and Pages is the ease with which you can create text boxes, then drag them around on the page - the Word text-box approach is horribly clunky by comparison.

Once I’ve got something together I’m happy with, I’ll import it into Word - if I really have to. For the last couple of creative projects, however, I’ve exported my ideas directly out of Numbers (to PDF) for forwarding to the client. In fact I also posted the end-results for the last one up on iWork.com, which was an interesting departure.

I confess that I do use a keyboard with my iPad, so you could argue that I’d be better off with a MacBook running the full versions of Numbers and/or OmniOutliner. And I wouldn’t entirely disagree… except that as a creative writer, it’s enormously useful to be able to drop what you’re doing and jot down a brilliant idea that’s suddenly occurred to you, and that’s where the iPad wins out - instant on, instant off. Come to think of it, it’s what I used to do on my ancient Packard-Bell handheld PC (still running, although it’s now over 10 years old). I actually preferred Pocket Word (basically equivalent to Windows Write) to the full version of Word, because it’s much faster and simpler (and a couple of small MS plugins give you wordcounts and spelling).

My other favourite on the PC is The Guide, which is one of the simplest, neatest two-pane outliners of all.

But I’m a sucker for new software (you may have noticed!), and I use plenty of others like Smereka TreeProjects, Zim, UV-Outliner, NoteCase, AM-Notebook and EssentialPIM, depending on what I feel like and what structures the project takes on. EssentialPIM, for example, has unrivalled support for HTML export - it’s spectacularly good for storing/outputting the results of previous work, especially translations.

All of them do have this in common, however: they’re relatively simple, and don’t rely on complex tagging/categorisation/linking/filtering to work fast and well. Until the ultimate semantic application has emerged, such simplicity - coupled with a reasonably competent search function - is (for me) the best option. Things like tags, categories, filters etc. are nice (I love them in ListPro), but can also act as a constraint.

Writing vs. info management - it’s a really tricky balancing act!


Posted by Stephen Zeoli
May 17, 2011 at 01:50 PM


Exceptionally interesting topic!

As Hugh says, different strokes for different folks. But I’ll take that one step further in that I use different software solutions depending on what I am working on. I lead a dual computer life. In my day job I mostly write shorter pieces—catalog copy, press releases—using a Windows (XP) PC. Here I often find the clean and simple interface of the plain-text editor NoteTab is the best choice. It has fewer distracting features, and since most of my copy is meant to go into a design application like InDesign, it is better to use plain text. I don’t need to track changes in most cases. Sometimes I do need to do some brainstorming or structuring before hand, and I’ll do that in Brainstorm or NoteMap. I don’t need to do much if any research for these projects, other than extracting information from author bios, or book proposals from these authors. I organize that information in OneNote and/or PersonalBrain (I really should pick one or the other of these two excellent programs, but they each have different strengths). I don’t suppose any of these applications would technically be called “software for authors.” Once the Windows version of Scrivener is out of beta, I’ll give that a try. I suspect, however, it is more application than I need for this work.

In my free time, I do more fun and, hopefully, creative work, using a MacBook. This work tends to be longer and require genuine research. In this venue, Scrivener is invaluable. The research that I grab from the web goes first into Yojimbo, just because it is easy. Depending on the complexity of the writing, I may use Tinderbox as a place to brainstorm, plan and initially structure the work before bringing it all into Scrivener, where I usually find myself deleting and adding material as my thoughts on the project change.

I’m grateful for these tools. But, if I didn’t have them, only had Word, I’d find a way to make that work. I’ve probably written this before, but I got through college using an old Royal manual typewriter and Corrasable Bond paper. If someone had given me a computer with no software on it but NoteTab, I would have been ecstatic. The difference between a typewriter and even the simplest of software editors is like the difference between monks hand-copying books, and Gutenberg’s printing press. By comparison, it is a much greater leap than NoteTab to Word, by miles!



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