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Software and Systems Writers Use

Software and Systems Writers Use-slide0
Stella Riley

Writers write. But what do they use? Three writers fill us in on their software and systems.

Writer’s Round Table
Stella Riley

What do you write on? Laptop? Desktop? Mac? Windows?

MELISSA: I use my HP laptop to write the first drafts. That way I can take it anywhere. Then the work begins and I use the desktop for edits. Both computers use the Windows program. William keeps telling me I need to switch to Mac. J

RUSTY: Everything I’m going to answer to this interview is going to be boring. It’s hard to believe that I was a world-class engineer in my field (amination of polyoxyethers), since when it comes to the digital age I’m a dinosaur. Must have been those early habits, such as using a slide rule all through college.

Other “I walked 20 miles in the snow to school, uphill both ways” moments from my formative years:

  • The computer at school took up the entire basement of one of the buildings, and had about 1/100,000 of the computing power of your cell phone. You submitted your job on punch cards, then waited for turnaround so you could debug your program. I most frequently programmed in ALGOL.
  • Lab calculations required more accuracy than you could get from a slide rule. So we signed up for a one-hour slot to use one of the Wang terminals to do calculations.
  • The lab where I worked summers had a mechanical calculator that would multiply and divide. Weighed about 60 lbs. You punched in the first number, turned a crank, punched in the second number, turned the crank again. And you had to do everything twice because it sometimes made mistakes.
  • When I was a junior, the first HP hand-held calculator came out. $700 price tag. A lot of money in those days. The rich kids had them; I continued with my slide rule.

And so . . . I use a desktop computer with Windows.

WILLIAM: Strictly Mac these days. iMac for the office, Macbook Air for coffee houses and travel!

What program do you write on? Why? What are its downfalls?

MELISSA: I’m still stuck on Microsoft word, mainly because it’s the most familiar and I don’t like change.

RUSTY: I also use Word. Once you have logged a few hundred thousand hours in a program, changing requires a lot more incentive than I have. I even hate to update versions.

WILLIAM: Scrivener. It keeps everything neat and organized all in one file. I even use it for business reports these days. The only drawback (and it is a minor one) is the Scrivener file can become very large, depending on what you have in it.

Are you a plotter? Do you use a program to plot? Index cards?

MELISSA: I do very little plotting. It tends to shut my creative side down completely. Once an idea hits, I love the suspense of finding out what is going to happen next as I go along. I do use index cards to keep the details about my characters and important dates organized and at arm’s reach.

RUSTY: I have only the vaguest idea of where a novel is going. I may get a couple of chapters from the end and still not know how it’s going to turn out. My fundamental writing practice is: 1) know my characters extremely well, 2) put them in challenging situations, and 3) let them figure out how to get out of it. They continually surprise me, and so far they’ve never gotten stumped.

When I have to keep track of things, I generally use Excel. Again, 32 years as an engineer has conditioned me. So calendars, etc. go there.

WILLIAM: 50/50. I am learning a program called ‘Scapple” from the people who made Scrivener. It’s like a giant White Board on the computer!

How many other writing programs or plotting programs have you tried?

MELISSA: Several. I've used Liqued Storybinder in the past and have tried to get used to Scrivener . I really like all the cool functions these programs have to offer, but find myself procrastinating when it comes to actually learning how to set everything up to start. When I sit down, I want to write.

RUSTY: I guess I’m going to learn Scrivener, on Will’s recommendation.

WILLIAM: A better question would be what I DIDN’T try! Over the years, I have tried almost every kind of writing software out there. So far, Scrivener is the Ultimate (at least for me!)

Which would you classify as your second favorite program?

MELISSA: When I get the time, I will learn Scrivener. The possibilities are endless and the program makes publishing your own work a lot easier from what I’ve heard.

WILLIAM: There is a slick little Mac Only program called STORYIST. It has a lot of features that I liked, but not quite enough for the way I write.

RUSTY: I’d write in Excel if I could figure out how.

Are there any other programs or software that you use to help you with your writing process?

MELISSA: No. I’m pretty content with what I already have. But “Scapple” sounds like one worth trying. Thanks, William!

RUSTY: I have a kick-ass editor. Does that count?

WILLIAM: Not really, no. Everything goes into one neat file, and helps keep me organized!

Are there any other tools that you use that you’d like to share with us?

Writers on Writing and GenresMELISSA: Does a spiral notebook and pen count? J Sometimes writing the old fashion way helps get the ball rolling again for me.

WILLIAM: Books. Old-fashioned, I know, but I keep a dictionary, a thesaurus, and “Elements of Style” at my desk.

RUSTY: Me too. Books. Two different thesauruses (thesauri?), dictionary, atlas, detailed maps of where my story is taking place. A copy of Le Morte d’Arthur is always handy, plus a couple of other Arthurian staples. And a rhyming dictionary.

The one thing I never do and would never, ever consider doing again is writing with a pen in a spiral notebook.

STELLA: There is an author who wrote a tutorial Dummy type of book about Scrivener. She also teaches online classes. I plan to take one. I have Scrivener, but I can’t handle not knowing how to use a large portion of it. I’m using the trial version of Scapple and plan to buy it. I like it. And it is supposed to import into Scrivener, yet one more thing to learn and explore!

Not to make this sound like a Scrivener commercial, Rusty, but the class starts in a week. Here’s the cool thing about Scrivener for me. It can be used on several different machines and you don’t have to buy multiple licenses to do that. The other cool thing? It backs up your work like every two seconds. The downside, is that the online storage I back up to can’t handle the every two second thing, so I have to use Dropbox for Scrivener. I’m working out a system to overcome that though. By the way, the same licensing liberties apply to Scapple, which was created by the Scrivener people.

I think once you are done writing and in the editing phases though, Microsoft Word is the best way to go because of the Track Changes feature. It doesn’t seem to translate well when importing and exporting during the edits stages.

If you ever write in Excel, Rusty, I suspect you will irritate quite a few people. Starting with your first draft readers!