Writing Software

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I feel sure we have probably addressed this issue before but I need some input on writing software options. Being an old fashioned gal, I just use Microsoft Word to write my novels and tend to compile my research in manila folders, exercise books and on post it notes:) A friend of mine recently purchased Scrivener, however, and she is now totally sold on it as a fabulous writing tool. She loves how it helps manage research, set word limits and formats everything.

I am in the process of getting a new laptop as my old one has started having those glitches that suggest PC dementia is setting in and so, before my hard drive totally dies, I am looking into a new computer…which has started me thinking about upgrading my old fashioned research and writing methods for an easier, and frankly more efficient, software tool.

So my questions to you are:
  • Do you use a specific writing software package like Scrivener?
  • Do you use a Mac or PC with it (I use a PC but have recently switched everything else in the house to Mac…so I am also tossing up a Mac vs. PC laptop as well)
  • If you do – do you love it? What are the coolest features…and what doesn’t work so well (or drives you mad) about it?
  • Have you found it helps compile and store your research for the book? Or, do you find yourself using other (pen and paper) methods too?
  • Would you recommend the software package…and if not, why not?
  • How long did it take you to master using the program? (One thing I fear is I spend just as long working out how to use the software as I do writing the book!)
Thanks in anticipation for all your feedback and help!

21 thoughts on “Writing Software

  1. I use Scrivner for the PC, and love it. It is a tried and true standard for Mac users, but the PC version is still in Beta, which just means that they are letting us test it for free while they tweak the software before final release. Some may shy way from that, but I’ve been using it for a year and have not had a hitch. You just have to be careful to back up your work, which should be done whichever softwre you use.

    When released, it will cost $45. The Mac version is $50 I think.

    What I like about it is that you can keep all your reearch, outlines and drafts in one place on your computer. Even websites and photos.

    I found it much easier than working in Word and trying to manage huge files there. And, Scrivener exports to Rich Text Format, so you can open it in Word for formatting if you’re more comfortable with that.

  2. Methods of working and the tools used vary for each individual. Based upon conversations with others, I believe I am an outlier at the strange end of the spectrum.

    Before my career was sent offshore (leaving me desperately searching for a new way to survive, i.e. writing), I spent a lifetime working in information technology with the last 20 years being on the PC/Microsoft platform; therefore, I feel stuck with that platform because that is all I have.

    I occasionally experiment with various software tools, always looking for better ways of working, but my skills and experience keep bringing me back to this basic set (again, partly because it is what I have).

    Exploring ideas using mind maps.

    FTP Voyager
    FTP file transfer to my web sites.

    Microsoft Access
    For a few tricks involving data manipulation in a database.

    Microsoft Excel
    Tracking characters, character arcs, symbols, motifs, plot points and progression, scenes, and conflicts, and for mathematical explorations, such as population dynamics and energy conversions (part of the science fiction aspect of my stories).

    Microsoft FrontPage
    For creating and maintaining my web pages.

    Microsoft Visio
    Diagramming and mapping.

    Microsoft Word
    Actual typing of words, for the manuscript, writer’s notes, backstory documentation, information repositories, etc.

    Poser, DAZ Studio, Carrara
    CGI (computer-generated images) software for creating images of my characters to help visualize them, especially for situations such as the interactions between the Human protagonist and his Dragon. (This helps me picture how these two characters compare to each other in size so that my descriptions are reasonable.)

    Text-to-speech program that helps me proofread.

    For management of images I collect for use as visual references.

    Text editing software for doing a few tricks that Microsoft Word cannot do.

    This dependence upon technology has its risks. I make backups constantly, including keeping copies offsite. Moreover, a recent storm destroyed my civilization’s technological infrastructure leaving me without power for an extended period, reducing me to using pen and paper by candle light. Civilized people cannot survive without their civilization.

  3. Clare,
    I tried Scrivener. the best thing about it, like Dave says is it’s still in Beta for the PC, so you can try it on before you buy it.

    There is a learning curve. I found myself spending more time tinkering with it than writing, and I eventually went back to MS Word.

    If you have the time to invest it’s a wonderful tool, and I understand many authors use and love it.

  4. There’s a sign on a road in California that says, “Road is geologically unstable. May shift at any moment.” My stories are like that. I move scenes from location to location. In Word it was frustrating and aggravating. If I did individual files for each chapter, I ended up with a lot of files and often accidentally deleted one (we won’t even discuss the problems with master document). When I tried one long document, navigation was difficult when scenes shifted and I had trouble getting an overall view of the story. Which was why I tried out Scivener for Windows. I was instantly in love because it was a program made for me. I could see the whole story at a glance in the way it’s displayed, and moving scenes is well, easy. I was able to just jump in and start using it, though I did have some frustration because it was beta (there was a nasty bug that came out with one of the versions — didn’t save files like it was supposed to. So not happy. But that is a risk with betas).

    Research started out with index cards, because I wanted to try the way it was supposed to be correctly done. But index cards give me the heebie jeebies when there are too many, so I went to Word instead. I created one document per bibliographical entry for each topic (i.e., if I visited an encyclopedia for Rain Forest and Rainbow, two docs), and a new page for each set of keywords. Then I just copied the section I referenced in the story and pasted into the research section of Scrivener. I link it to the appropriate scene and give the link a name so I know what it refers to. A wonderful thing because all I could do was insert a comment that needed to be removed. The reason I keep the research in Word separately is because I’m building a research library. There may be opportunities to reuse research, and that’s hard when it’s entirely associated with one document.

    I avoid Excel like the plague. It makes sequential lists of details, three categories that are extremely bad for me. But then, aside from the research, I don’t keep any other files. No character lists, no outlines, no tracking details. If I have to track the detail on a spreadsheet, it comes out of the story.

  5. I have tried many packages in an effort to organize my writing as well. I tried the Beta Scrivener package but had a hard time using it to it’s potential. You will definately want to check this program out. I did end up using the Microsoft OneNote that came with the new version of Microsoft Office. It is not as powerful as Scrivener but is really easy to use. I use Word to write my chapters or scenes and organize it with OneNote. I can add Excel documents and web pages all on the same page. It even allows me to record audio in my project.


  6. Thanks for the input so far – really helpful! Anyone else have any experiences with scrivener or other packages?

  7. I’ve used Scrivener for a couple of years now, for several books and stories. As noted here, it’s tremendous for organization. And it’s equally helpful for outliners and “seat of the pants” writers, because both can use it to suit their tastes.

    The base level usage — index “cards” and drafting — is easy to learn, so you’ll be up and running with it in no time. From there you can start learning all the bells and whistles, like color coding and outline view and sending research from the Internet directly into your project, etc.

    Compiling a full doc is simple, but I also like printing out my outline w/synopses to get a bird’s eye view of a project. For those who require a lengthy synopsis for a proposal, and hate that part of the process, this program can be a godsend.

    One feature they’ve added is the name generator, and I use it all the time. It has a scale that allows you to set it for more “normal” sounding names or toward the wacky. I just tried it for the latter and got Emanuel Aspic-Tantara. He’s going in a book somewhere.

    Once you start using it, Clare, I think you’ll love it. The designer really thought this out from a writer’s POV.

  8. I’ve not used Scrivener, and perhaps I will try it one day, but I don’t see what is so great about specialized programs that you can’t already do with Microsoft Office?

    I have to do a LOT of research for what I write, but I find the job well in hand between Microsoft Word and Excel (and there’s OneNote if you want yet another program to use).

    For me, keeping things organized isn’t a matter of what type of program but how many documents. The more documents I create, the harder it is to keep a handle on things, so I now keep one file for the manuscript and one file for everything else–plot notes, research, etc.

    But everybody has to use the method/program that works best for their tastes.

    BK Jackson

  9. Clare, I’ve tried a few “writers” programs over the years, but I always seem to come back to MS Word. I will say that I’ve found storing all my work in the cloud using Dropbox is the best thing that’s come along for me.

  10. Timely post for me, Clare! After reading it, I just downloaded Scrivener for PC beta. For many years I’ve been happily using Prose Pro, an easy-to-use Word add-on program. However, my publisher had severe problems debugging my files last time, and a friend of mine who was using Prose-Pro started having file corruption, so I’m a bit wary of using it now. Looking forward to Scrivener.

  11. I use Scrivener for PC and I love it. In the end, I just convert my manuscript to Word to send to my editor.

    I love the side bar where I can flip easily from chapter to chapter and I love the right bar where I can write notes pertaining to the chapter.

    I don’t use it much to save research but it has a great feature for it. I even drag and drop photos into the program to remember what a car or place or person looks like.

    I have even found a way to make a table timeline in Scrivener. That’s really helpful.

  12. I’m so glad you had this post. I thought Scrivner was for writing plays/movies etc. I think I’ll look into it again.
    For laptops, it seems like the college kids are mostly choosing Macs.

  13. As a long time lurker here at The Zone, I felt I had to make my first post. I’m in the process of writing my first novel, (well converting a screenplay into a novel that I wrote several years ago), and I can say that Scrivner is a Godsend. Like others have said, you can “get lost” in all the features, but it also allows you to jump right into writing with built in templates for novels. Also, the ability to move scenes or entire chapters around at will is worth the price alone. Try that with MS WORD.
    For editing and revisions, Scrivner has a built in text to speech program. And no it is not as wonky as the one in kindle. There are male and female voices and different dialects to use. That means I can sit back and allow scrivner to read my prose so I can get a feel for tone, pacing and the voices for all the characters.
    In the export section, it can export to the kindle format. That means I can export to my kindle and read it just like a E-book I have purchased from amazon. Wonderful for that last little polish before sending out query letters. I can see what it would look like as a finished product. And it doesn’t matter what font or size you type in because in the export section you can change it to whatever you want. Sorry for such a long post and no I don’t work for Scrivner, but this program is light-years beyond Word. I should mention I am using a Mac and am not sure if all the features are available on a PC.
    David Hewson has an E-Book on how to write using Scrivner that is available on amazon. He seems to cover most of what authors would need using the program.

    Thanks for all the good advice from everyone. I always “check in” everyday to see what tidbits I can use in my own writing. May everyone’s future hold endless inspiration and fat royalty checks!

    Jim Burwell

  14. The problem with most of the software out there is the amount of options they provide. It gives you flexibility, but to really get the full use of the software, you have to spend a lot of time learning it. Sometimes it’s nice to retreat to the simple joys of pencil and paper, or a basic text editor.

  15. Thanks everyone – lots of food for thought. I am inclined to try scrivener for my next WIP and see how it goes! I will report back…

  16. OK, you guys have me curious. I may have to try Scrivener at some point–once I verify the features for the PC version. Thanks all.

    BK Jackson

  17. I do believe the features of Scrivener are different between PC and Mac. It was developed for Mac only and then ported over to PC.

  18. I use clay, with a standard cuneiform stylus. This is mainly because plaster gets all icky in the rain and is actually edible, therefore should be cultivated as a food source to stave off world hunger.

    Oh, wait, ignore that. I accidentally just posted the lines to the speech I was writing for Bono.

  19. Okay, I downloaded Scrivener beta yesterday, and I’m already a happy camper. I look down the left side, which is called the Binder, and I can see little icons indicating chapters, index cards, and everything else. Even empty placeholders. I love that the index card icons are shaped like cards. I can move them around at will, scratch in a few notes, and I won’t have cards lying all over the house when I’m done! (grin)

    Jim Burwell, glad you posted! Welcome officially to TKZ–keep coming back!

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