Programs That Help Writers Write

When I was a kid and writing stories in my room, the implements I used were as important as the words I wrote. Remember, this was back in the day of the typewriter, and despite having begged my parents for one every year for Christmas, I was stuck doing it longhand for quite a while.

I was always trying new pens and new notebooks, maybe thinking the perfect combination would result in me becoming a better writer, but I suspect it had as much to do with aesthetics than anything else. When a fellow student, who also fancied herself a writer, started using a quill and ink, I tried it, too. I never spilled it on the bed or carpet, but my writing hand was constantly marked with green or red ink (black was too ordinary). Yes, I was a weird kid. 😉

I eventually got that typewriter, but it lasted only as long as the ribbon, which quickly wore through from overuse. For those of you who don’t remember or never knew, an inked cloth ribbon on spools would run back and forth as you typed, and mine became so worn, it had holes in it. I was afraid to ask for a replacement, and my parents never offered to get one. This was back in the day when one had to drive to a store to buy things. I had no car, buses were nearly non-existent in the suburbs, and I had no idea where to buy new ribbon even if I’d managed to convince my folks to take me somewhere. I went back to pen and paper.

My first computer, way back in the early 90s, was a welcome relief. The first word processor was WordPerfect, which eventually became associated with the legal profession. We writers got Word, and oh how I love it. I’m currently using v2010, and I see no reason to upgrade to the latest release yet. I see they’re working on v2016. I probably won’t get that for a while, either. I really, really like v2010, and I’ve installed it on Windows systems up to 8.1 with no problem.

But Word wasn’t enough. Complex plots and lots of characters suggested I had to find a way to keep track of things as I created. I used the post-it system for a long time; they were all over my desk and around the edges of my big-ass CRT monitor. Remember those things? HUGE, but they offered lots of space to keep notes. When I changed to flat screen monitors, I lost a lot of note real estate, and it became harder than ever to keep track of those little slips of paper.

This system had become unwieldy. I couldn’t find what I was looking for half the time, which slowed me down, not to mention annoying me to the point where I didn’t write as much. So I started looking into programs specifically created to help writers write.

I began with Scrivener, the Big Mother monster program of them all. I downloaded the free trial and opened it. My mind short-circuited. Oh, this wasn’t good! My mind, I mean, not Scrivener.

The learning curve on this sucker is steep. I wanted something intuitive, something I could dive into within minutes and start using. Scrivener was not it. The thought of taking a day or two off to learn my way around was unattractive, so I put it aside and went back to the post-its for a while.

Next up: Liquid Story Binder. It’s like Scrivener in that it offers you tons of options and features, but it seemed more accessible to me. Still, by the time I finished entering all the notes and photos and whatnot, I felt like I’d already written the book, so why bother?

Nope! I needed something more simple. I tried Evernote. This is a free download, was instantly understood, and kept good track of characters, chapters, scenes, etc. I’ve been using it for a couple years now, and I have no complaints whatsoever. It even saves in the cloud so you can install it on more than one computer and access your notes everywhere.

You’d think that would be the end of it, right? But no! With my latest couple of WIPs, I realized I wanted the ability to view chapters/scenes as index cards and be able to drag and drop them to change their order. I wanted to see the structure of the book on a timeline, and the free version of Evernote didn’t offer that.

So I downloaded yWriter, which is also free. This software was created by a writer, so he is familiar with our needs. Also, it is continually being improved (though probably not as often as the programmer would like; he has a life, too). It offers a storyboarding feature I like, as this gives me a visual of what is happening in the book with any character at any time. Of course, this means you do have to fill in the date and time of each scene, but how hard can that be? The program also offers a nice visual of chapters and scenes, with description of each in a separate window. That I really like.

Note: I do not write in the program. You can, but I use Word. I like Word. But yWriter is helping me stay focused and organized. Since I am basically a pantser striving to get better at outlining in order to stay on track and maintain forward momentum, I use the program to summarize chapters and scenes a couple steps ahead of where I am. In other words, right now I’m starting chapter 3, and in yWriter, the outline, including scenes, is up to chapter 5. This gives me a clear direction to follow without blunting my creativity or stomping on those occasional wild flights of the unexpected writers love so much.

yWriter has one drawback so far: it does not save to a cloud so you can’t access it from any computer. It does let you choose the backup directory, but Dropbox didn’t show up on the list; that would have solved the access problem. 😦

Still, I generally write on one laptop only these days–the small portable one I can carry around with ease–so I don’t see it as a huge problem.

In summation: I like yWriter. I did have to install it twice to get it to function properly (no idea; perhaps it had to do with Windows 8.1 or a 64-bit OS), but it’s worked fine ever since. The program is user-friendly, lets me see exactly where I’m going, keeps me on track, gives me room to go off on a tangent (I simply revise or add that scene), gives me a visual storyboard to track my characters’ actions, and it’s FREE. It’s not as complex as Scrivener or Liquid Story Binder, nor is it as limiting as Evernote. It offers just the right amount of detail, as far as I’m concerned.

It gets my recommendation as a useful piece of software for authors. If you give it a try, let me know what you think.




About Fenraven

Fenraven happily lives in south Florida, where it is really hot most of the year. Find him on Twitter, Google +, and Facebook by searching on 'fenraven'.
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15 Responses to Programs That Help Writers Write

  1. Helena Stone says:

    What a post. I wouldn’t have thought such a informative post would send me through a range of emotions but there you have it.
    First of all there’s all the memories your talk about the typewriter awakened. Both my parents were teachers and used typewriters a lot. The sounds of keys being hammered was often my lullaby at night. I remember the first time I got a ‘toy’ typewriter as a present and can’t remember a time we didn’t have at least one in the house. But, while I always had access to a typewriter I preferred to do my writing with a pen in gorgeous notebooks instead.
    You have no idea how happy it makes me I’m not the only one who got Scrivener only to glance at it and give up on using it. I’d watched about 30 minutes of the tutorial when I realised I didn’t remember anything it had tried to tell me. And that was the end of that.
    I may have to look at yWriter one of these days. Up until now I’ve been working with pens and notebooks (yes, still haven’t lost that particular affection) but I’ve got a feeling it won’t work as I go on.
    And finally – and I remind you today is my birthday 🙂 – your post made me feel old. It’s hard to believe there’s at least one generation without any idea what a typewriter is and unfamiliar with that warning ‘ding’ just before you run out of paper.

    Thanks for a fascinating post.

    • I don’t remember what happened to that first typewriter. I suspect it got junked or left behind when I moved out. I do know I got a replacement, and I used it off and on up to the time when I got that first computer. I donated the typewriter to an acquaintance who suffered a stroke, hoping it would help him keep in touch with his wife and family.

      The writing callus on the middle finger of my right hand has finally gone away. It took years to disappear.

  2. I always hated typing. Wanted a typewriter that could spell. When I worked on my first word processor, I was elated – it dinged if I spelled a word wrong. Of course, it had the same problem spell check does in that it didn’t know the difference between to, two, and too, etc. Just like Word does. I remember finding I had typed tot he instead of to the in the manual I was typing for the Marine Corps.

    • My next experiment will be with programs that turn speech into words. I like the idea of “talking” my book, but I’m not sure any program will be good enough to catch the nuances, and I may end up wasting a lot of time correcting all the stuff it got wrong.

      I won’t be doing this anytime soon, but some day, my hands may not want to be used for typing anymore. Spoken word will be essential then.

  3. Oh, the memories! I wanted a quill soooo bad, but the best I got was a HUGE white feather ballpoint pen. It came with a weighed stand and it was my pen of choice for years. My dad had a small, portable typewriter (in a little suitcase) and it used one of those spooled, cloth ribbons – half red/half black. I remember how they would wear through. We’d make a special trip to an office supply downtown to get replacements. He used to let me put it on. I loved winding it around the little pins and dropping it on the spindle. Then seeing the dark black ink on the paper, which meant success! I wanted a typewriter of my own, but never got more than a toy, like Helena. I learned to type in school on an IBM Selectric. Thirty of those suckers taking off at once for a timed writing was a sound I’ll never hear again except in my mind. “Ready? Set. Go!” (Do sounds become extinct?) Then, at work, we got a word processing typewriter. You would type into it but it spooled your work. When you hit CR (=carriage return, remember?) it would print out everything you typed. I hated it. I wanted to see the letters AS I typed. In my prime, I typed easily 120 wmp with zero errors. Computers totally destroyed that. With them came the ability to easily correct mistakes without waiting for liquid correction fluid to dry on multiple copies (with different colored correction fluid for the different colored paper) and then trying to realign everything when you put the copies back in… Suddenly sloppy typing had no consequences. My first computer had a 40MB hard drive. LOL! You probably have photos bigger than that now. Today I use Scrivener and I love it. It’s actually based on the index card principle and you can even design what you want the index cards to look like – heh. I think everyone overthinks it. I find it to be totally intuitive. I did take the tutorial, and while it said to allow an hour, I took eight. I wanted to know it inside and out. After using it to write the novel, I took the tutorial again, which was cool because I understood things way better. I know several people who just use it to keep track of their character and scene settings – one place to store all their research. To me that’s like buying a car and only using it for the radio, but, whatever works for you… In the end, you have to compile and do final edits in Word anyway.

    • I was once timed at some ridiculously high WPM count while taking a typing test. They even wondered aloud if I should be sent to some big contest somewhere. But they didn’t find me a job, so I remained unimpressed with them and unemployed. I type very fast on the keyboard, but only in spurts. Sustained typing hurts my wrists after a while.

  4. I often wonder if I can even type 40 wpm now. Hmmm… Now I’m curious. Must be a Mavis Beacon type free app out there to try.

  5. Yeah. Me too. Ask Helena – she’s seen me in Google docs. I blame you.

  6. Dreamer9177 says:

    I remember the days of notebooks and typewriters. I always preferred writing by hand until computers came along, I always despised making that critical error halfway down the page with the typewriter and having to struggle with White-Out to make it look presentable.

  7. A.M.B. says:

    I was a similar kind of kid. I loved trying out new notebooks and pens (still do–I’m very picky about pens!). As for writing, I just use Word. I’m too impatient to learn a new system.

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