Popular wisdom has it that there are two types of writers: plotters, who write backstories for their characters and painstakingly plan every turn in the narrative; and pantsers, who fly by the seats of their eponymous trousers. Read this list, and you’ll probably have a good idea as to what type of writer I am. Okay, smart alecs out there, I accept your point: making a list in the first place is a dead giveaway…
Writing can be a lonely job, sitting in front of that high resolution screen, trying to squeeze elegant sentences out of an unwilling cortex. The apps we use are our toys, imaginary friends who help us get the job done. A bit like the Tooth Fairy, really, but with binary code and passwords.
So read on for a list of my digital accomplices:
Literature and Latte‘s Scrivener is the Swiss Army Knife of writing programs. It is cheap, reliable and, like a chameleon, supremely adaptable.
Want to focus on your writing, without distraction? Turn on composition mode and all you’ll see is your text, full screen, against a spartan backdrop. Want to restructure that pesky chapter? Switch to corkboard view and drag those index cards around until the sequence of the scenes makes perfect sense. Reluctant to tinker with your text, though you’re not quite happy with it? Take a snapshot to preserve your latest draft, then go to town on those paragraphs! Need to check your research notes? Easy, as Scrivener lets you save those within your project file. Going on the road? Scrivener syncs fast and reliably with the iOS versions for your mobile devices. Using Windows? There’s a Scrivener version for you. Ready to publish? Scrivener will export your text in a variety of formats (including EPUB, Mobi and PDF).
I am a software junkie and I have tried several writing apps, but none has been as powerful, reliable or satisfying as Scrivener.
Some of its advanced features can be tricky to master (I still struggle with file export settings at times), but Gwen Hernandez has written a great Scrivener for Dummies manual; and David Hewson his informative and stimulating Writing a Novel with Scrivener.
I brainstorm the scene: which characters appear? Who has the point of view? What happened when we last saw him or her? Where is the scene set? What needs to happen? What surprises could I throw in?
I then answer those questions on the Scapple board in note form. I can easily move notes around and group them. Clusters of ideas start to build up around certain nodes. Unproductive nodes are ditched.
Fleshing out scenes in Scapple has helped me realise that maybe a storyline is too thin; that the point of view should reside with another character; that the scene could start later, or end earlier; that it maybe needs a more compelling setting. Good stuff.
Aeon Timeline 2
Aeon Timeline 2 is ‘visual timeline software’ that is brilliant for plot development.
How does this work? You plot events associated with your story on a timeline. You decide the scale of the timeline (from centuries to minutes) and you can zoom in and out. Every plot event can be associated with a place, one or more characters, and a story arc. Events can have ancestors and dependencies (the software also supports project management).
Setting up your story timeline requires a significant time commitment, but it may save you from embarrassing inconsistencies or holes in your plot, which might have required lengthy rewrites. Aeon Timeline is also great for developing and checking your characters’ backstories (How old was Kurt when he met Emma?). You can filter your entries for a visual overview of which places, characters or story arcs are over- or under-utilised in your story. So ditch Uncle Ronny before you go to print if he only rates three lines in chapter four. Another useful feature is that you can attach a file (such as a newspaper clipping) to a timeline entry.
My sole disappointment is that I only discovered this mesmerising program in February 2017, when the plot and chronology of my first novel were already bedded down [gnashes teeth]. I am now using it to plan a novella.
A humble website, but it’s fast and informative. I keep it open in the background as I write. See http://www.thesaurus.com
A freemium online text editor. The free account lets you store your preferences and tailor PWA algorithms to your writing style but imposes a word limit. The paid account removes the 2,000–word cap and lets you download a desktop version.
PWA analyses your text fast and in depth. Its suite of reports deals with parameters such as style, grammar, repetition, sentence length and pronoun use. The ‘diction’ report provides a useful consistency check for British vs American spelling. I have learned to work through these individual reports one at a time. It helps you focus on a single issue (and the combo report can seem overwhelming).
Best feature: the PWA desktop app now syncs with Scrivener. You can open your Scrivener file using PWA, edit your text using the PWA reports, save and close. Next time you open your Scrivener file, your edits will be there. Note of caution (just to be safe—I have never encountered any problems): close your Scrivener master file before opening your text in PWA to avoid corruption.
The Hemingway editor app provides a less bruising, but also less comprehensive online alternative.
A writer is also a project manager; and those projects extend well beyond the writing itself, especially if you are self–publishing. So how to keep track of all those tasks?
Cultured Code’s Things is my task manager of choice. It is elegant, versatile and powerful. It is easy to navigate and can cope with all the detail you can throw at it, but gets out of the way if you just want an uncluttered project view. You can create sub-headings in a project view, or peel off multiple pages and have them all open at once. Checklists. Templates. Multiple tags. Scheduling. Keyboard shortcuts. Bliss! Syncs in real time and the mobile apps are even more compelling than the desktop app.
OneNote for Mac has steadily improved, to the extent that it is now an attractive writing and note-taking tool and a solid repository for research materials. It syncs faster and more reliably than before in my experience; and I like its colourful interface and adaptability.
I use OneNote as a scratchpad for quickly working up a blog post or other short pieces of writing. Like Scapple, OneNote can be used as a freeform text editor. Using hyperlinks across notes is a powerful feature for organising your ideas and notes. I also love its web capture tool.
I use TechSmith’s Snagit mainly for taking and editing screenshots. All screenshots in this post were produced using Snagit. I love its scrolling capture, which makes it easy to define the area you want to grab before you click on the icon.
Snagit is a powerful and versatile tool––and I use only a fraction of its functionality. Good documentation and great tutorials encourage users to explore more features.
And, just for the record: I have no affiliation with any of these software companies.
Thank you for reading this post—I hope you got something out of it!