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.


  1. #1 by Jamie Felon on December 25, 2011 - 1:03 am

    @ Greg: “I have recently started using google docs”

    I use google documents too, because the future is storing everything on the “cloud”. Laptops will be equipped

    with 3G technology, so you can use the Internet anywhere you go. Generally speaking I use open office and

    google documents (using Google documents as a backup just to be safe)

  2. #2 by Greg on October 12, 2011 - 12:45 pm

    I have recently started using Google docs. It really is a fantastic option as it has some many functions and all your data is stored online. Also you can access your work from any computer anywhere in the world.

    One feature I love is to be able to view my documents revision history and roll back to any version. Also if you do any collaborating you can give others access to your document in real time.

    if you are looking for an alternative to ms word I recommend you check it out!

  3. #3 by Mike on July 4, 2011 - 9:23 am

    Don’t get me wrong, some people manage to use MS Word successfully to write novels and don’t seem bothered by the problems I highlighted. It could be down to the way I use it, after all. That is rather the point, though. We don’t want to have to change the way we write to suite the tool, we want the tool to adapt to the way we write.

    There is a product that works the way you are describing. It’s not free (but not particularly expensive either) and it does have a slight learning curve with it. It’s called Scrivener and it’s reviewed in detail here. Actually the review doesn’t cover all of it, and the product has been updated since the last review. I am currently using Scrivener to write Strangeness & Charm and I have it structured into folders which I have called chapters. Each scene is a text item in a folder and I can re-order them, or switch them between chapters, or insert new material or split a scene into two scenes, at will. It’s extremely flexible while allowing me to maintain an overview of my work as I write.

    At this time I know of no product more capable and flexible for writing a novel length work. Everyone I know who’s tried it, loves it, and wouldn’t go back to what they had before. The Windows version is now in public beta, so Windows users will soon be able to enjoy using Scrivener too:

  4. #4 by Peekaboo on July 4, 2011 - 12:43 am

    I’ve tried various writing programs before, including yWriter which rather impressed me. But I always ended up falling back to MS Word for my draft and plain text files for my notes.

    The problem I have is that none of the software I messed with is flexible enough. yWriter is great if you’ve figured out exactly what chapters and scenes you’ll have, and what will happen in each, and you like to focus on one scene at a time to the exclusion of all else. But I like to scroll back and forth between scenes, and I re-delineate my scenes all the time. Having to click around or cut and paste to re-organise the structure is quite jarring. Even having to click “previous” and “next” buttons to shift between scenes can be enough to throw me out of a creative mood.

    Hence I fell back to Word. I have one file for the entire novel, with subheaders for chapters and scenes and a navigation pane permanently open so I can hop between sections quickly. I haven’t experienced any lag yet, though I’m only at 40k words. It probably also helps that I haven’t done any fancy formatting apart from the abovementioned headers. Perhaps when my novel is longer I’ll start to experience your frustration, but I imagine if that happens I can always split it up into 3 files (one for each Act).

    If anyone knows of a good writer’s program that lets you structure your novel how you like without any fuss, I’d love to hear of it. (Especially if it’s free!) But after trying out over a dozen of them, I’m starting to think such a program doesn’t exist.

  5. #5 by Simon Smith on April 13, 2011 - 11:32 am

    “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..”

    I think the millions of users don’t actually get the choice of what software to use. It’s become the defacto choice for businesses, especially if they are a Microsoft “shop” and it will always be that way until there is a real alternative. I don’t see one in the near to mid future.

    I’ve never considered writing books with MS Word before, as you say it’s fine for mid-sized business documents. It’s piqued my interest in looking at other authoring software that is freely available and simple, as I am a very rare user of the MS Word and find even the latest versions overly complicated for knocking up a letter or invoice.

  6. #6 by punctuation checker on February 23, 2011 - 1:11 am

    Good thing If you are thinking money wise. Why not form a group and purchase a software. Of course you will pick the best quality that enable the sharing licensed you’ve had for the group use. And to save money.

  7. #7 by buckley on June 4, 2010 - 8:37 pm

    microsoft word is the type of software that microsoft has invented to run in its own little universe (which is why it has its own extensions no other programs will open, its own fonts, and its own incredibly annoying presents, all of which are difficult to change for the person who wants to just open the program and type.) i use microsoft works, because i’m too poor and uninterested to buy the office suite. i have a project that’s up to 60,000 words now and it’s autosaving quickly, but lord only knows what’ll happen in the next 60,000.

    what program do you use?

  8. #8 by Drug Crazed Dropkick on June 4, 2010 - 10:17 am

    It’s a bit of a pain. I refuse to use it for personal use because of the hell I had trying to activate it, as such, I’ve gone to OpenOffice. I like it, and it can save in .doc format if need be (And finally they decided to include .odt formats in Office 2007)

    Of course, the argument could be to write in the good old .txt, but there’s a part of me that just thinks that it doesn’t feel…right.

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