We’ve come a long way from pen and paper. A long way. In fact, with modern technology, we have more options for writing than any one person can reasonably use. With so many writing options, how can you decide?
You could be like me; always trying something new. In the past year, I’ve used four different writing programs. Four! Why would I even do that?
One reason is curiosity. I’m interested in how other writers and software developers approach the problems many of the ‘standard’ writing tools present. Aside from the opportunity to try some cool programs, I have learned one very important point.
Start with the basics.
It doesn’t get much more basic than Word. Microsoft’s word processor and page layout tool, Word has been with all of us for a long time. For good reason too. Word is a perfectly adequate word processor.
Using style-based formatting to create different ‘sets’ of text, Word makes simple formatting easy. Style principles are common now and using them when writing has always made sense to organize chapters and sections within a larger piece. Word is well suited and adapted to helping us write without too much fuss.
But Word, at its core, is a formatting and editing tool. You can take a completed manuscript through the editing process with Word. Once the content is perfected, Word can also give your manuscript the final touches it needs prior to publishing. That includes PDF export to accommodate your printing needs.
Writing With Word
Open up a Word Doc for the first time and you’ll see a pleasantly blank screen.
Okay, not that blank. In fact, there are dozens of buttons, tabs, controls, and options to adjust. With so many controls, it’s easy to get sidetracked in layout or to tinker with the design, rather than focusing on writing. And with no stripped-down focus mode, the risk of distraction is ever present.
[Note – Microsoft is introducing a Focus View, and some may already have access to it, depending on their version and updates]
Writing, once you’ve got your features set up to your liking, is just fine with Word. I find the speed of characters displaying to be quick enough that it keeps pace with my typing, but not jumbled or distracting. One feature I would love to see is a ‘typewriter’ mode that binds my cursor to the middle of the screen.
Editing Your File
If Word is lackluster as a writing tool, it’s superior as an editor. Yes, if you’re using the desktop version of Word, you must literally share the file. Archaic. But the upside is the delightful ‘Track Changes’ tool under the Review menu.
Track Changes create a column on the right side of the document, organizing and listing any edits. This includes deleting or adding text, updating any existing text, new formatting, and provides the opportunity for in document notation.
The notes (called ‘Comments’) allow you and your editors/proofreaders to make changes and have a conversation within the document, making nothing permanent. The file will be a true living document, and the flow of ideas can run back and forth until you settle on phrasing, organization, and other elements of the design of the manuscript. If you like a change or have acted on a comment, they can be ‘Accepted’ to remove them from the running list of Track Changes and keep the interface nice and clean.
Other writing tools have document sharing and editing options, but Word wins out for clarity and simplicity.
Laying Out your book
Finally, the manuscript is done and edited. Now you can start playing with all those options Word offers in their ribbon. If you’re creating a novel with limited graphics, Word is perfect for your book’s layout. Anything involving a lot of graphics, charts, or tables and think about a dedicated layout tool like InDesign.
But for a text-first tool, Word has versatile options easy to use. Often the first thing an author needs to do is adjust page size. Word handles that nicely with the ‘Layout’ menu to set the page size for the entire document. While they do pre-load common page sizes, the standard Trade 6 x 9 is not included. So you would need to create a custom size, also easy to do in the Layout menu.
Along with the critical layout and design tools, Word can manipulate the content on the page. Breaks (both Page and Section) give you control over the positioning of content, and images can be placed in line with text, behind the text, or nested with the text through Word’s ‘Picture’ menu.
As an open-source replacement for the entire Microsoft Office suite, Libre Office offers a terrific word processor. They call it ‘Writer’ but the tool is closer to a true page layout program. Aside from providing the same functions as a complete Office suite, Libre Office beats out Microsoft in a few important ways for authors.
Writing with Libre Writer
Like Word, Writer lacks a typewriter mode (pinning the cursor to the center of the screen) which to me is a huge turnoff. But that’s just me.
Otherwise, Libre Writer’s focus mode is good for distraction-free writing. And like Word, the actual writing is smooth and quick. In fact, I found fewer ‘pauses’ while using Libre Writer versus Word; those moments when the text would stop appearing and seconds later a dozen characters will burst onto the screen.
The point of separation between Word and Writer (excluding the cost) lies in the editing options. Foremost, Writer includes a ‘book view,’ functionality long missing from Word.
As you work through the layout of your book, seeing the file in a true Book View can prevent many headaches.
The controls and navigation will differ so it may put a user familiar with MS Word off by the learning curve when using Libre Writer. But again, they’ve done a great job of being intuitive in the design. For simple layouts that Word is well suited to handle, Libre Writer is as good or better.
Exporting Better Files
Okay, so if you’ve struggled with exporting a PDF from Word and you don’t have access to advanced page layout, Libre Writer is what you need. The PDF export option includes image compression settings and PDF file version options. By offering just a few additional options, Libre improves the exporting experience and helps make certain your PDF is ready for printing.
But wait, there’s more!
Libre Writer can export to EPUB too. I’ve only experimented with this feature twice. But both instances produced an EPUB file uploaded to Lulu perfectly. My tests used some very simple files, so there may be more to consider when using Writer to create an ebook, but the functionality is there. That’s more than Word offers.
Scrivener is a writing-focused tool developed by Literature & Latte. Rather than offering an all-in-one writing and layout tool, Scrivener is laser-focused on research, storyboarding, and writing. Using a ‘Binder’ to contain all elements in one easily navigable location, Scrivener sets a high standard for writing software.
Many common features (page sizing, margins, font control) are present and allow you to play with some layouts, but the real power of Scrivener is in organizing your ideas and generating the initial content. The utility Scrivener offers, coupled with the clean, no-nonsense writer will appeal to writers of all sorts.
As an added benefit, the software stores your files through a Dropbox link, meaning you can work on your content across multiple machines, and even with an iOS app on your iPhone or iPad. What Scrivener lacks in versatility, it makes up for in utility.
Focus On Writing
Scrivener is for writing. Period. Sit down, limber up your fingers, and let the words pour out. And after only a short time using the tool, you’ll realize why Scrivener excels at this. After some initial setup to produce a template and the font/style you’ll use, you can dive into writing.
The shift in focus is obvious with Scrivener’s session goals, allowing you to plan a word count target for your writing sessions. Goals are a great way to stay on task.
A surprisingly helpful and seemingly small feature is the “Typewriter View.” When this option is selected, the cursor and the line of text you’re typing reposition to the middle of the screen as you type.
Unlike MS Word, which shifts down the page as you type, Scrivener doesn’t care about pages. And with the Typewriter View, it maintains the balance of text and white space on the screen as you work. It may seem like a little thing, but once you’ve used it, you’ll see how helpful it is to keep your eyes on the same level while typing. Typewriter View helps me stay focused while I write. And I’m left feeling less strain on my eyes after prolonged writing adventures.
The focus mode is perhaps the best I’ve ever used. Not that creating a focus view for writing is all that difficult, but coupling Scrivener’s typewriter view with a clean focus mode and smooth scrolling as I type and you’ve got a winner.
Scrivener brings with it one more compelling reason to use it as your primary word processor. Organization.
Before I encountered Scrivener, I would create a file folder on my desktop, then generate a multitude of Word files and save them in this folder. Or more recently, I will do the same in my Google Drive with multiple documents in a single folder.
This included at least one file for the main body of the work, an outline, a timeline, and research files. Often the number of individual research files would exceed twenty. For a non-fiction piece, this would compromise source material, reference links, and a file with quotes copied in and sourced.
For fiction, I would create a character worksheet for every main character. I’d also need a shortlist of info for secondary characters. And research about the location(s) based on the setting of the story. Finally, I would need theme and character trait research documents.
By the time I finished a piece, the folder for that manuscript would be massive and often needlessly confusing.
Scrivener does away with this. When you work in Scrivener, you’re not writing a single file, you’re working within a project. They call the project a “binder” and envisioning it this way can help clarify how it works. Your project is essentially a three-ring binder, and you’ve got dividers and labeled sections, with the various pieces stored in the correct locations. The goal here is ease of use.
We manage the binder with a column on the left. They nest all the content into easily organized folders. We can customize everything here. Design folders to suit your needs. Create templates to organize your research into coherent and easily referenced files. Add images, video, audio, and text files you think may be useful in writing your manuscript.
Once you learn the ins and outs of Scrivener, you’ll find that creating custom folders and templates helps to keep your background work quickly accessible. Writing a scene with a secondary character you thought up a month ago? Forgot how you imagined them appearing? No worries, just expand the Character folder, click on the Character Sketch template you created. Then click back to the scene you were writing and carry on!
Having important and useful information that close to hand not only saves time and gets you back to writing more quickly, but it also fosters good research and crafting habits. Your work will enjoy consistency in the earlier drafts, aiding in the editing process later.
Scrivener offers one more cool way to organize and prepare your writing. It’s called the “corkboard” and it allows authors to organize different pieces within the binder, to begin piecing together the manuscript. The most useful feature of the corkboard is the ability to add a synopsis to each element. You can write a short description or piece of reminder text for each scene or section, then organize the corkboard to your liking.
Once you’ve prepared the manuscript, you’ll need to compile it into a single file and select the file type to export. This, like most features of Scrivener, is relatively easy and painless. The “Compile” command provides some options about formatting and file type, but I find it easiest to export as a basic DOCX file and work in MS Word to perform the layout and design.
And therein lies the one flaw with Scrivener. If you’re an independent author and you’re publishing yourself, you will need another program to do the page layout. That could mean using Word or moving on to more complex layouts using InDesign or Affinity Publisher. No matter how you do it, if you write with Scrivener you’ll need to plan on preparing the file with another program.
Last but not least, we have Evernote, a handy note-taking and organizational tool. You probably won’t be composing a complete novel within Evernote, but you can easily write on the go and export to standard file types. You’ll have the security of cloud storage so your Evernote files will be secure and accessible.
The real power of Evernote is its versatility. If you are already an Evernote user, you’ll know how handy it can be to have an App capable of organizing your calendar, holding your notes, reminding you to go to the grocery store after work, and so much more. Evernote is a one-stop, cross-platform, multi-purpose productivity tool.
Productivity On The Go
Evernote is not the best for just writing. Yes, it’s helpful for catching notes on the run (using mobile) and syncing to your devices. The same thing goes for formatting. Evernote is not a formatting tool.
The bottom line? Evernote is a great tool for note-taking and organizing, but not ideal for layout or storyboarding.
Which is fine. There’s a huge list of word processing and layout tools you can use, even beyond the three mainstays listed above.
What Evernote offers above all else is simple, clean, and well-organized note-taking outside of any word processor. I take notes all the time. Either on my phone with Evernote or with pen and paper. There’s nothing flashy about Evernote. It just makes it easy to take notes and to set up alerts so I remember to reference those notes later.
Evernote is meant to be a catch-all for your notes, and it does so in a way very conscious of what a “note” is in modern terms. Today a note can be anything from a piece of text to an image, a video to an audio file, and includes any imaginable combination of these. Information is multimedia, and Evernote is a tool for capturing and organizing all this data.
The design stresses simplicity. There are notebooks (a collection of notes) and there are notes. Each note can be home to a variety of media, and can easily be edited and annotated as necessary to add information to an existing note. Here’s a quick look at the home layout (using a MacBook and the Evernote App).
Let’s break down the Evernote main screen. On the far left is the navigation. Shortcuts are preset by users. So you can see I’ve added Blog Content here so I can quickly find notes I’ve stored in this notebook. It takes a bit of getting used to, but if you zoom in, you’ll see the icon to the left of the text showing Blog Content is a notebook. Looking below the Shortcuts, you’ll see Recent Notes (notice here the icon is different), showing the five most recently edited notes. Below that we have the individual content, with Notes, Notebooks, Tags, Atlas, and Trash.
The Notebooks tab is useful too, allowing you to see your notebooks based on the titles you assign, and then dig deeper to see the individual notes. The layout may remind you of Microsoft Outlook, the popular email aggregator. The reason it seems would be that this layout works well. Moving from left to right, we focus in on the content. The sidebar on the far left serves as a macro view of your content, focusing on more options one layer to the right.
The note pane includes a basic word processor, with some options for font, sizing, and the expected modifiers like bold, italics, and underline. Bullet and numbered lists can be added easily as well (and are simple to nest in the same way MS Word handles this action). Justification in the standard form is present too, most useful for centering important or divider text.
One little feature I like for the text options in the note pane is the CheckBox. You can make a to-do list and check the completed tasks as you move through them. As a visual way to assign yourself tasks, the CheckBox is awesome, yet simple. You’ll after a short time working in Evernote that “awesome yet simple” is basically their motto.
Evernote goes beyond the basics of note-taking with some handy utility functions. For a fiction writer, you might find the regular note-taking tools more than enough. Here are the key utility functions of Evernote I found.
- Reminders – The best element for someone in the trenches of writing a manuscript is the Reminder function. Make a task list, include the needed information to achieve your goals for each task and set reminders. Now you’ll be prompted when it’s time to write, or when something is overdue, or when you want an email to remind you to come back to a specific note. Another tool that, on the surface, seems very simple. But the elegant implementation makes the reminders non-intrusive and directs you back to Evernote, making note-taking and note review more and more of a habit.
- Annotation – For a more heavily researched piece, the annotation options are tremendous. You can type up notes, then generate an annotated PDF, which can easily be passed off for review, printed out so you have the information at hand while writing, or even saved within Evernote as an attachment or new note altogether. Annotation is a pretty specific tool, and probably won’t apply for many writers, but having the option is nice and may be crucial for some to facilitate working on projects with multiple contributors.
Note: The annotation feature is only accessible through paid versions of Evernote. The free to use version offers a 30 day trial for paid features.
- Tags – I mentioned tagging earlier. Each note has the option to add tags – keywords and phrases – you can use to locate the content as needed. Mostly, I’ve been organizing notes within notebooks, making it relatively easy to find notes. But I’ve also been taking a minute here and there to tag those notes. If you need on-the-fly note-taking, adding tags might not be for you. But if you think you’ll be coming back to these notes later. Weeks, months, maybe even years later, adding tags is a wise move. By tagging my notes now, I can come back to locate something through a keyword search, even if I’ve long since forgotten the context the note was in, or the notebook I saved it into.
Add some apps
Beyond the built-in tools like reminders and tags, Evernote offers utility through its own App Center.
Visiting their suite of apps, all tailored to function with Evernote, can be overwhelming. There is a wide range of tools to add to your Evernote experience, including bundles to help guide you to specific tools you might need for business, productivity, or photography, for example.
- PopClip is an expanded “right-click” tool, with all the standard copy/cut/paste options for highlighted or selected text, adding expanded choices, including a direct to Evernote link. This I found very useful for grabbing quotes from an article without fully breaking the flow reading. Aside from that, I didn’t find it especially useful, but the ability to remove intermediary steps is one of Evernote’s overall goals. The PopClip app and Evernote extension do cut out some clicking and moving around. I don’t know if I will continue to use the PopClip app, but for writers working on heavily research-based content, it may be worth a try.
- Postbox is a simple email application that ports emails directly into Evernote. Serving the same function as PopClip, Postbox removes the need to copy and paste email content into Evernote and sends it directly with the click of a button. Again, we see Evernote’s tools working to remove steps for users. I didn’t find this app very useful, though, for a writer receiving feedback via email, it could prove important.
- The last thing I will mention about Evernote regarding utility is the web extension Web Clipper. This tool places an Evernote button (the little elephant head icon) on your browser, and gives you the ability to “clip” the page your on into an Evernote note. This includes cutting a screenshot (either full screen or a mouse dragged rectangle), select specific text, or pull in the entire webpage. This tool is quite useful for compiling data found online and adding to existing notes. In particular, clipping an image to add to a note serves a variety of purposes and is something I find myself doing with Mac’s built-in clipping tool anyway. Again, Evernote is finding ways to cut down on the steps and get your information over to Evernote.
On top of the handiness of the note-taking, and the utility offered while minimizing the work put into grabbing notes, Evernote uses cloud technology to store all your information online. Two benefits of this will jump out to the writer in all of us: 1) no worries about losing data because of a computer malfunction; 2) wireless syncing with other devices.
The latter is perhaps my favorite part of Evernote, and one reason I tested the software originally. To work on a project, the mobility is helpful. I take notes on my phone multiple times a day, often noting interesting material to read later or jotting down an idea before it escapes. The ability to move seamlessly from mobile note-taking to using those notes on my laptop or PC is invaluable. And because its cloud-based, I could even login on a different machine if need be.
Evernote features easy sharing too (there’s a “Share” button right on the upper corner of each note). This is handy as it provides easy collaboration, something many authors need during the editing and revising process.
Beyond The Screen
Talking about writing tools naturally leads us to examine a variety of technology solutions. Software can only take us so far. The ideas and the words have to come from each of us.
I’m not trying to get all philosophical. The software (or hardware) you employ to write only matters so much. If you’ve been writing using Mac Pages for years and this tool serves you well, keep using it!
That’s what finding the right writing tools is all about. Build comfort in your writing habits and be open to new tools as you discover them. You’ll find you write more and (hopefully) that you enjoy writing more.
Paul is the Senior Copywriter at Lulu, writing weekly blog posts and helping guide content for the company’s marketing. When he’s not deeply entrenched in the publishing and print-on-demand world, he likes to hike the scenic North Carolina landscape, read, sample the fanciest micro-brewed beer, and collect fountain pens. Paul is a dog person, but considers himself cat tolerant.