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:
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.
Windows Only | Microsoft (Bundled with Office, Stand-alone is $70, web version is FREE)
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:
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.
- 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.
- 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)
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.
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.
- 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!
- 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.
Windows-Mac | Literature & Latte | $45 (PC version is in free public beta mode. Final version to be released early 2011)
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
Windows-Linux | Spacejock Software | FREE
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.
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.
- 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!
- Not the prettiest interface, but it’s still very organized.
- No timeline feature.
Here’s a quick ranking of each of the featured programs:
|Ease of Use||Features|
|1||OneNote||Liquid Story Binder|
|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:
Mac OS X