Posts Tagged Software

Tools for Writing 6 – yWriter

We’ll be looking at a PC tool in this part of the series, and it’s one that is squarely aimed at the structured approach.  yWriter is produced by Spacejock Software, and as you can probably tell from the developer’s moniker, is designed and built by an SF writer, Simon Haynes.  Like some other tools that have been reviewed here. yWriter is free to download, but unlike some of the others it is actively being developed and supported.  There is an active user community and there are even video walk-throughs to watch on the website.  There is an opportunity to donate if you find the software useful.

yWriter Main Screen

The opening screen (shown right) provides an insight into yWriter. You see the main project window with chapters arranged in the left pane and the description associated with those chapters in the panel below.  The main panel has a number of tabs showing Scenes, Project Notes, Characters, Locations and Items.  Clicking on a chapter in the side-panel shows the scenes, etc. for that chapter in the main panel.

yWriter aims to structure your work into chapters which then comprise multiple scenes.  Clicking on a scene shows a preview of that scene in the bottom of the main panel, along with Characters, Description, Locations, Items, Scene Notes and Goals for that scene.

Writers working on multiple projects, or writers with large and complex works will know that it is sometimes hard to keep track of all the information associated with their work-in-progress and yWriter aims to address this by giving you ample opportunity to document what you are doing and build structure around your work. Read the rest of this entry »

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Tools for Writing 5 – FreeMind

As part of my series on tools for writing, I wanted to take a look at, not only tools for drafting and editing your work, but also tools to help you plan what you write and structure your thoughts.

In this post we’ll be looking at FreeMind, a mind-mapping tool which allows you to organise and structure your ideas.  FreeMind runs on a variety of platforms and is an Open Source project, so it is entirely free.  Don’t be put off by the fact that this is not a commercial product – it is well-supported, under continuous development and is downloaded about 6,000 times a day – so it’s a very popular product.  I have used it for years and found it to be very reliable.  You will need Java runtime on your machine to run it, though, but that is also free and many people will already have it installed.

Basic Mind Map (click to expand)

When you first open FreeMind, this is the screen with which you are presented (this is on a Mac, on Windows it adopts the Microsoft look and feel).  There is a menu, a toolbar with usual Save, Print, Copy Paste etc with a vertical toolbar with lots of small icons.

In the centre of the screen is an oval with the word “New Mindmap” in it.  If you type at this point it will replace these words with a title of your choosing, usually the subject of this particular map.

If you are familiar with the techniques of mind-mapping then you are going to be right at home, but if you haven’t used this technique are are unfamiliar with it then I would suggest you read the Wikipedia entry on Mind-Mapping, which is agnostic of any tool, or get hold of Tony Buzan’s book Mind Mapping: Kickstart your creativity and transform your life.  The claim may be hyperbole but it is an interesting book.

As a very quick introduction for the uninitiated, mind mapping allows you to connect thoughts and ideas to a central concept and then connect and re-organise those ideas in a non-linear manner allowing increasing levels of detail.  It’s like an ever-expanding tree of ideas, notes, concepts, reminders and thoughts, specifically arranged around a central concept. Read the rest of this entry »

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Tools for Writing 4 – Scrivener

This time in Tools for Writing, I’ll be looking at another Mac product, Scrivener from Literature and Latte.

This is not freeware and costs USD $39.95 at the time of writing, but it’s still within the budget of most writers and it has advantages over the products we have been reviewing like RoughDraft 3 and Jer’s Novel Writer, in that it is both supported and subject to further development.  Scrivener is available on a 30 day trial as a download from the website, so you can try it before you decide whether to buy.

Main Window (click to enlarge)

The initial interface presented by Scrivener is relatively simple, showing a rich text editing window together with a structure pane to the left.  The name of the item being edited is shown above the editing pane together with forward and back button so that you can skip back and forth between items like a browser.

There is a button bar across the top with view and search options and a status bar at the bottom which controls the viewing scale and shows the word-count and target.  This simple interface hides a great deal of functionality, preventing Scrivener from appearing daunting to the novice.

As blocks of text are created in the tool they appear on the left in the outline.  How you structure these is up to you, but you can create folders and sub-folders, text files and sub-text files within that structure, allowing you to break up your work into chapters, scenes or whatever makes sense to you.  Rearranging your work is then simply a mater of dragging and dropping in the side-bar. Read the rest of this entry »

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Tools for Writing 3 – Jer’s Novel Writer


Click to Enlarge

For this post in my series of posts on writing tools, I’m going to have a look at a free tool for the Mac OS-X platform called Jer’s Novel Writer.

The application presents itself with a simple, rich text edit window without formatting menus or clutter.  It is focused very much on writing and the minimalist approach reflects this. There is a margin on the left hand side and prominent forward and back button on the toolbar.  More of these later.

Much like Roughdraft 3 for the PC, Jer’s Novel Writer is unsupported in that the development of the product has ceased but the product is fully functional.  This says more, perhaps, about the ability to make a living from developing your own software than about the quality of the product, which is excellent and stable.

I said in the introduction to this article that the software was free, and it is, but there is an annoying nag feature which will pester you to register every time you start a new project.  GIven that Jer no longer develops the project, it is irritating and you wonder whether he might not simply have removed that one ‘feature’, but it is free and for that reason it can be tollerated.

I’ve had a couple of comments about the risks of using unsupported software, and the point is fairly made.  There is a risk that an operating system update or patch may make the software unworkable, which is worth thinking about, but at the same time the risk is fairly limited and eminently testable.  A quick search on the internet will tell you whether the software runs on your machine and you are free to use it or not.

In contrast, try buying a copy of Microsoft Word and getting any kind of personal support.   Unless a general patch is issued for your problem you have no chance that it will be fixed.  If you do a risk assessment based on the relative stability of the products, you will have a good idea of which represents the greater risk.

Having said that, there is an additional risk of using JNW (as we’ll refer to it from now on) which is that it has its own file format.  I discussed this in a previous post: Before You Hit Save, and here we see that one advantage of an open file format is that you do not risk having your work locked into a file from which you cannot retrieve it.  Having said that, JNW does allow you to export to text, RTF, MS Word or XHTML formats.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Tools for Writing 2 – RoughDraft 3.0

In my last post I went into some detail as to why Microsoft Word was not the best tool for creating long works of fiction, not because it was bad software, but because it wasn’t designed for that purpose.  In this post I am going to offer you an alternative piece of software which is designed for exactly this task and has the added benefit of being free to use.

The software is called RoughDraft 3.0 and is produced by Richard Salsbury who is himself a writer.  You can download the software and check out Richard’s writing on his website here.  Unfortunately, Richard is no longer developing the software, but apparently it runs under Windows Vista and Windows 7, and personally I have found it to be extremely reliable.

As you can see, it is running here under Windows XP Pro.  If you have a Mac you can, apparently, run it under Wine or as I do, under a Windows OS in VMware Fusion.  I will, by the way, be looking at writing tools for the Mac platform too, later in this series of posts.

Across the top you get the usual windows menu button bar which may be displayed stacked, as shown here, or as one long menu to maximise vertical screen space.  You can also turn these off and use shortcut keys or menu options.  Below these is the main editing window, shown here with five files open, with a tab for each one, and the current file highlighted.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Tools for Writing 1

Recently I have been trying out a new piece of writing software and, in due course, I’m going to write a review of it, but first the obvious question.  Why not use Microsoft Word?

The answer to that question is not simply answered by saying that MS Office is expensive compared to alternatives (unless it’s bought for you by your company) and that it can be unstable (as evidenced by the periodic swearing on the internet when a .doc file becomes corrupted).

This last one is contentious.  People will say that it wasn’t Word’s fault, but rather some other software; a driver, an operating system issue, some malware infection.  They say you should do backups, save copies, be more careful.  They may be right, but it’s no comfort to the person who just lost a piece of writing that they cannot easily reproduce.  Ah, they will say, but you configure auto-save, and that backs it up for you.

Well, yes, and no.  I could wear body armour all the time in case I trip and hurt myself, but I don’t because I don’t expect to fall over.  Nor do I expect a word processor to corrupt my work.  I shouldn’t need to automatically back up every two minutes in case that happens.  It shouldn’t happen.  In contrast I used a different piece of software to write 150,000 word novel editing multiple versions over a five year period.  It never crashed once.

MS Word is a general purpose word processor aimed at the business user.  It’s an excellent tool if you want to write a letter, compile a report, knock up a CV, make some notes or write a business proposal.  If you are writing a report and it goes over 20,000 words you are not being sufficiently concise.  If you have a CV of over 2,000 words you are going to be asked to shorten it.  These are not long documents, and MS Word handles them well enough.

On top of being a capable word processor, MS Word adds in additional functionality.  It supports table structures, language changes, structural elements, tables of contents, embedded spreadsheets, preconfigured styles and hundreds of other features.  It is almost a desktop publishing platform.  It integrates with other software and collaborates with SharePoint and Office platforms.  It’s a corporate communications platform.  Indeed, the product has become so overwhelming rich in functionality that by the time Word 2003 was released, Microsoft were hiding features from the user to reduce the impression of complexity.

These features aren’t much use to a fiction writer, though.  What writers mainly want is text, and lots of it.  One font is enough, in the same size, with bold and italic.  Maybe another for titles or emphasis, but that’s it.  We want to configure line-spacing as single, 1.5 or double.

Then we want the ability to handle large volumes of text.  A business report might be 5,000 words.  Your dissertation may be 20,000 words.  But if you’re writing a novel you want to be able to easily handle over 200,000 words.  This is an order of magnitude greater in size, but in computing terms we are talking about a file that is less that 2Mb in size – not exactly taxing.

What happens when you’re typing in Word and it autosaves a 200,000 word document?

If you’re lucky, it stops responding for a while and then bursts back into life, streaming the characters you were typing while it autosaved onto the screen like a ghostly typist.  If you’re not lucky, it crashes.  If you have live spell-check activated, it stalls when that engages too, and when it grammar checks, should you be foolish enough to have that enabled.  Insert something at the beginning of the document and the entire thing may repaginate.

Of course, you can turn these features off in the Options screen, but if you do, it’s off.  You no longer have autosave or live spell-check.  You can trigger spell-check manually, but make sure you save first because it may just crash.  As documents get larger, the lag becomes more of a problem.  It’s not because of the hardware – we’re talking about a 2Mb file here – it’s the way it works.

Many writers break their work up into chunks.  For me, chapters works quite well.  Have you tried working on nine different files at once in Word?  How about thirty?  There’s no way to know what’s saved and what’s not, which document is which, and where you are in the stack of files.  The titles on the icons get compressed to the point of unreadability and the desktop is a mess of open windows.  Then autosave kicks in, resulting in a potential multi-file pile-up of epic proportions.

Let’s assume we persevere.  Open up twenty files, each containing a chapter and rename the character we previously called Jim to Charles wherever it is used in those twenty files.   This is exactly the sort of thing a writer is wont to do.

Search across multiple files?  No.  We have to go through them one by one.  Ah, say the Windows enthusiasts, you can use Windows Desktop Search for that, or Google Desktop Search, or something similar.  But there’s a problem with that.  We only want to change the name Jim to Charles in the current version of thirty files that we’re working on.  We have twelve other earlier drafts, each with their own set of files, saved on the hard drive and we want to leave those alone.  A desktop search finds every instance in every file and it’s down to us to find which ones need changing.  Another nightmare.

The truth is that MS Word simply isn’t intended for writing novel length work.  It’s not that it’s bad software – it’s very good software, as evidenced by the millions of users who use it for business and domestic tasks worldwide, but it’s not intended for writing books.  It is simply not the right tool for the job.

Luckily there are a number of tools which do this job very well indeed.  Many of them are priced for a budget pocket or free to use, which is a bonus, and all of them are aimed at writers.  Over the next few weeks I will take a look at some of them in the context of Tools for Writing.  Hopefully you’ll find one that’s sympathetic to what you’re trying to do.


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