The Write Technology

People are going nuts during NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month).  Millions of pages of horse shit are being produced, and from the steaming ashes of that mess, a work or two of incredible brilliance just might materialize.  One of the problems people are encountering with the rubbish produced from NaNoWriMo is that it’s a jumbled mess.  I think there are very few people who actually sit and write a book from beginning to end, going from page to page in exactly the order in which the finished piece will be.  This chart I just made up represents the number of people who actually do this:

Chart

As you can see, next to no one writes like that, so why are you opening a document and typing, hitting return a bunch of times when you change scenes?  That’s effing stupid, and you need to stop.

There is a lot to be said about distraction-free writing.  If you have trouble staying focused, you should explore some distraction-free writing software where all you can do is enter text, and you can’t see your taskbar to notice that 598 people you don’t really know have commented on your Facebook pictures of your cat’s hairball collection.  Lifehacker did an awesome job polling its readers to find the five best distraction-free writing programs, so I’m not going to even bother compiling them here.  Just check out their post.  Alternatively, you can just write on paper, or in an Alpha Smart so you can’t play Solitaire or get distracted by your tasteful torrent collection.

Once you’ve got some spectacularly terrible word vomit that you want to save for whatever reason, don’t just put it in a document and think you’ll know what filename “ChapterXX” means later on.  What will save your unorganized writing brain is a hierarchy.  You might not ever outline before you start writing, but once you have that junk out in plain sight, you can sort it and have it make sense visually.

Here is some of the best software I’ve found to help you organize your writing.  There are about three shit tons of programs out there aimed at writing. I’ve thrown out all the trashware that tries to actually help you write a novel by asking you questions and forcing you to run through mazes to somehow arrive at story. Writing can’t be forced, so stay away from anything that promises to help you do so, especially if they want money for it.

These are not exhaustive reviews. I just want to let you know what’s out there, and I figure when you see what’s available, you’ll recognize which is the best solution for you.

OneNote

Windows Only | Microsoft (Bundled with Office, Stand-alone is $70, web version is FREE)

http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/onenote/

OneNote is an electronic notebook.  You have files called (surprise) notebooks.  Notebooks have tabs called sections on the top and pages on the right side.  If you don’t see the genius in this already, you’re crazy.  Just look at this:

image

You only have to open OneNote.  All your chapters, notes, outlines, and anything else is all there.  No clicking around opening other files—it’s all in one program in one window.  You can click anywhere on the page and start typing.  You can sync it with Office’s online portal and access it anywhere, or use Dropbox to sync it across multiple computers.  It’s painfully simple to use. I have a notebook for a series of books, a section for each book, and a page for each chapter.  You could do book-chapter-scene if that makes more sense for you.

PROS

  • Most intuitive hierarchy software out there.  If you can understand a tabbed notebook, you know how to use this already.
  • Adding new chapters, scenes, outlines, mind maps, notes, whatever is easier in OneNote than any other software. I don’t know why it requires more steps or is slightly complicated in other programs.
  • You can just send notes to Word and it’s all formatted and ready to go.

CONS

  • Combining pages is a pain.
  • You have to install an add-on for word count.  This is such a necessary feature for writers that it should be built-in. Find it here.

**There is a similar program available for free (Windows and Mac) called Evernote.  I’m not the biggest fan of it, but if you’re in love with the notebook idea, it’s another option.

Liquid Story Binder

Windows Only | Black Obelisk Software | $45 (they often sell it half off though)

http://www.blackobelisksoftware.com/

Liquid Story Binder is software for writers specifically.  It has crazy options for organizing your data.  I can give you a screenshot here, but check out their site for more possibilities.

image

I’ve actually been using LSB for a year now.  I’ve realized in that time that it probably has too many options for me.  I use only a fraction of its features, but I do love the ones I use.  No other program lets you customize as much.  There is a very steep learning curve.  Read the tutorials and click through the example book included in the program, and it will start to make sense. I am often tempted by other programs, but LSB has everything I need under one roof: files organized in a hierarchy, full-screen typing mode, word count with total project target, timeline, and easy export features whether by single chapter or the entire project.

PROS

  • Built-in distraction-free writing by using full-screen mode.
  • Word count with history logging is amazing for NaNoWriMo.  The project goals are also really good for helping you track progress on word count.
  • The “Build Manuscript” feature is a fast way to get one file with all of your chapters.
  • Word repetition tool comes in handy. So does the timeline tool!

CONS

  • I use the Listing tool as a “table of contents.” Often when I add a new chapter, it disappears the next time I open LSB and I have to add that chapter to the Listing.  It never disappears again, but I’ve forgotten about small chapters I wrote until I see them in the File Listing tool (confusing—this is different from a Listing).
  • Huge learning curve, but once you get it, it’s effing incredible.

 

Scrivener

Windows-Mac | Literature & Latte | $45 (PC version is in free public beta mode. Final version to be released early 2011)

Mac: http://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.php

PC: http://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivenerforwindows/

People rave about this program like it’s Photoshop for writing. I don’t quite understand the hysteria over the “corkboard view,” but we all get off on something quirky, and it is a great tool.

image

Scrivener offers many of the same features as Liquid Story Binder in a somewhat cleaner, more linear fashion.  The tree view to the left is intuitive, and you can figure out the basics of the program just by clicking around.  It’s best to read the included tutorial to gain a full understanding of Scrivener’s features, however (tutorial pictured above).  It is nice that the program is finally cross-platform, as it was only available for Mac for the longest time (and it’s not cool that OneNote and Liquid Story Binder are PC-only).

I just started playing with Scrivener since they got the PC version, so I can’t give a lot of feedback, but I can tell right away it’s good enough to make it in my list here.

PROS

  • Easy interface with a surprising amount of features available. Has a somewhat notebook feel which makes it appealing like OneNote.
  • The celebrated corkboard view is an efficient way to sort scenes or chapters, for you freaks that write out of order and don’t know how anything fits in your story.

CONS

  • No timeline feature, though I suppose you could make one as a table…
  • The right navigation window can’t be hidden, so if you don’t use those features, you’re stuck in that three-pane mode.
  • Limited customization, so if you don’t like the way something looks/behaves, you’re stuck with it.

 

yWriter

Windows-Linux | Spacejock Software | FREE

http://www.spacejock.com/yWriter5.html

It’s sad there aren’t many good free options out there. yWriter isn’t on my list just as a free alternative—it’s legitimately good software and competes with the paid big boys above.

image

While it might not appear as simple as Scrivener, I found yWriter to be easiest to learn after OneNote.  You create a project, then chapters, then scenes.  I’m a one-scene-per-chapter kind of guy, but this still works for me.  yWriter has project word count targets, import/export functionality, and a full-screen editing mode.  You have the option of adding lots of notes to scenes such as characters, locations, and items used. There’s some neat reporting built in to see how often those characters, locations and items are used and when.

PROS

  • Lots of basic features in an easy-to-use format. No real learning curve like with Liquid Story Binder and Scrivener.
  • Word count and other reporting is very handy.
  • It’s flipping free! Amazing for what you get!

CONS

  • Not the prettiest interface, but it’s still very organized.
  • No timeline feature.

 

CONCLUSION

Here’s a quick ranking of each of the featured programs:

Ease of Use Features
1 OneNote Liquid Story Binder
2 yWriter Scrivener
3 Scrivener yWriter
4 Liquid Story Binder OneNote

Note how each column is the reverse of the other. Let that simmer on your brain a bit.

Your own writing style will determine what is best for you.  In fact, what works best for you might simply be a blank text file. No software will help you write, but there are some great ways to help you organize the mess that leaks from your brain.

If you don’t like any of the above, feel free to do more research on other programs.  I’ll even point you to some more options:

Windows

PageFour

RoughDraft

Storybook

Mac OS X

StoryMill

Ulysses

Jer’s Novel Writer

11 Comments The Write Technology

  1. Kayla

    I can’t believe I didn’t see this until now. I laughed my ass off at the opening paragraph. You are hilarity! :)

    Reply
    1. D.S.C.

      I figure if it either needs to be useful or funny, but better if both! Thanks for reminding me I have a blog that I’ve neglected for months. I’ll think up some fun crap to post!

      Reply
  2. Sam

    Hey, I have a question.. I am a poet working on my manuscript and have been looking for a good writing software. A lot of them are more for screen plays etc., and offer far more features than a poet needs. If you know, can you email me any information about poetry software, or if any of the above software works well with poetry? I hear LSB actually works well but it doesn’t seem so… thanks so much, and great guide

    Reply
    1. D.S.C.

      Hey Sam,

      Sorry for the delayed response! I don’t think there is any software specifically geared toward poetry that I would ever recommend paying for. However, I think you could make creative use of other tools. I don’t do much poetry, but I think your needs would probably be the following:

      Ease/freedom in writing in any structure
      Ability to easily arrange pieces
      Search capabilities
      Word selection (diction) tools

      I think Liquid Story Binder is probably overkill for a poet, unless you are already using it for your manuscript. I would probably use OneNote or Evernote for this kind of work. You could organize your notebooks by theme, stage (completed works, drafts, published pieces, etc) and then each section or page could be a new poem. Both OneNote and Evernote have excellent search capabilities, so you can easily find things you’ve written when you only remember a few words. You can also sort/arrange multiple poems, which is tedious work in normal word processing software.

      I imagine you want help with diction while writing. I don’t know of any software that has a robust set of tools built in (dictionary/thesaurus/rhyming dictionary). It seems we still have to rely on online sources for this. One useful tool is WordWeb, which is an application that allows easy word lookup and the thesaurus is fairly decent.
      Windows: http://wordweb.info/
      Mac: http://www.wordwebsoftware.com/mac/

      If you are already using Liquid Story Binder for other projects, it could definitely be used for poetry with the Builder or File List tools. I use those for chapters, but they could be for different poetry pieces. The search in LSB is a little slow, but it will still work for finding phrases and can even do global find/replace across a project.

      Hope that helps!

      Reply
  3. Matt

    Just to let you know… you can hide the right pane in Scrivener by clicking on the big blue info button just above it. You can also hide the binder on the left. Also, if you don’t care much for the corkboard, you can always use Outliner view.

    Scrivener is my app of choice, mainly because you can work how you want to work. The flexibility is there. That said, I’ve taken a look at yWriter and, despite the ugly interface, you can’t knock what it offers for free.

    Reply
    1. D.S.C.

      Thanks for the tip, Matt. I discovered this once I started using Scrivener full-time, but I’ve never got around to updating this post.
      I agree that it’s great how much is possible with yWriter for free. Its developer needs a pat on the back and a drink!

      Reply
  4. Catherine

    You can always donate to the YWriter developer. He descreetly suggests this on the “Why Free” link.

    http://www.spacejock.com.au/WhyFree.html

    From my understanding, OneNote was never intended as a novel WRITING program, but as information organisational tool. As such, it’s a great aid for keeping all those background details, such as characters, locations, Ideas, etc, thereby preventing silly mistakes such as changing the colour of someone’s eyes!

    Reply
  5. Heidi

    I’ve read a review that says LSB is a pain when you get ready to export the novel. Do you have a comment? I really like the way it looks and am not worried about learning how to use it.

    Reply
    1. D.S.C.

      Hi Heidi,

      Sorry for the late response! I’ve been meaning to update this post since it keeps showing up in search terms and it’s a bit outdated now. I think exporting is equally frustrating in LSB and Scrivener. They both present so many options, it’s overwhelming. A few experiments will get you what you want though. My only caution (which I’ll mention in an updated post), is that LSB might not have as long of a future. The last update was from February 2011, so you’d be using software that is two years old. I don’t know if the developer just gave up after Scrivener came to Windows or what, but it does concern me.

      One more program you might want to check out is Celtx: http://www.celtx.com. They seemed to focus on screenplay writing when I did the initial review, but it’s really much more developed now and is less than half as much as Scrivener, with the bonus of web and mobile options. That said, I have switched fully to Scrivener, but I’ll expand on that when I update my review.

      Reply

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