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.
One feature that really impresses in JNW is the margin comments, and it is easy to see why a proprietary file format was necessary, simply to implement this as a feature. It is extremely powerful and useful to be able to simply add notes to your text without interrupting your flow. For that alone JNW is a recommended tool to try.
The other major feature is outlining, and to some extent how useful this is depends how you write. If you do use outlining to develop your narraive then JNW supports this directly through the sidebar drawer which slides out, illustrating the structure of your work.
As you add text into the structure, the main window colour-codes it so that you can see the outline in the text as well as in the side-drawer.
On selecting File | New | Project, a dialogue box pops up asking you to define the various aspects of your work. Initially this includes owner information and details of the formatting, but the second tab reveals the set-up of the structure for this type of document. There is a default setting, but broadly JNW expects you to predefine the structure of your work.
The default suggestion is for Book, Part, Chapter and Text Block, which may suit many writers, but it is also possible to insert new layers into the project, so you might choose Title, Part, Act, Scene and Beat, if that is your preference. It is extremely flexible but it does imply some sort of underlying structure is selected, even if it’s just Book and Text Blocks.
Other tabs set up the standards for font settings for each of thestructure elements and things like paragraph lead-in and indent spacing. Once these are set, they apply across all elements f that type so you don;t have to worry about them.
Once you get into writing there is a different rhythm. Alt-Command-1 inserts a new text block and you can type to your hearts content. Alt-Control-2 inserts the next highest structure element, in this case a Chapter, which is then reflected both in the text and in the outline shown in the drawer.
The forward and back buttons then allow you to navigate quickly back and forth that structure in the way that you might in a web browser.
It is then very easy to develop a hierarchy to your work, allowing you to see that structure both in the text and in the outline shown in the drawer. To some writers, who think in structural terms and want to see that structure explicitly as they work, this is a huge boon. But those who want to extemporise and don’t necessarily know where their work is taking them may find this intrusive and off-putting. It really is down to the way you work.
Jer is clearly a very structured person who developed this software to support the way he works, and this shows in the integrity of the concept and the thoroughness of the implementation. It hangs together well and works as a tool for writing. There are some excellent easy-to-read instructions on how to use it, though once you see how it works, it’s all fairly intuitive.
This is a fantastic piece of software that really supports a structured approach. If that is the way that you work too, then Jer’s Novel Writer is something you should definitely take a look at.
There are a couple features of JNW that I forgot to mention, which can be seen in the drawer in the screenshot above. These are the Database and Notes facilities which are accessed through the side-drawer and the full-screen edit.
The Database allows you to select words in you text and then create database entries against them which include a description, full name, an image which you associate with that item and a full description. These are then displayed in the side-drawer when you click on the name and can be edited at the time. To be honest I found this less useful as it’s neither a fully fledged database nor a simple notes area. The categories are quite useful (an item can belong to one or more categories) but it is fairly limited.
The Notes facility is what you would think, which is notes attached to a project rather than associated with a particular piece of writing. It can be organised into pages, though why you would need to do this isn’t especially clear.
Finally the full screen edit is rather good as unlike most full-screen edits you can see and make margin notes. This gives JNW the edge when it comes to full-screen editing.