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Tools for Writing 3 – Jer’s Novel Writer

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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.

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Before You Hit Save

If you’re a writer, does the format of the document you save your work into matter? What you’re reading now is HTML, but do you care? Before you see the HTML tags, the browser has stripped them out and replaced them with document formatting, so what difference does it make?

Well, it matters as soon as you share it with someone else.  You might think that sharing a document with someone else is simply a matter of giving them what you’ve created, but as will will see, that is oversimplifying the problem.

When a document is exchanged, there is an underlying assumption that the recipient will be able to open the document, access the contents and render them in a way that is acceptable to both sender and recipient. This becomes more challenging when you introduce different platforms for reading the document – is it a PC document or was it created on a Mac, or even on a Linux machine? Will they access it via mobile phone or on an iPad, for instance? All these factors can change the format and the content of any document you share.

If you don’t believe me, try changing your email client to one that only reads plain text. Any emphasis added the sender in bold or italics, by altering the size or colour of the font or the inclusion of tables or embedded objects in the message will be completely lost. Your choices are upper and lower case characters, hence the development of emoticons 🙂 and conventions for *emphasis* .

Fiction writers tend to use very little in the way of formatting when you consider what is available. They may change font, add bold or italics for emphasis and change line-spacing. They probably use centred text for titles and left-justified for the body of the text. These are not demanding or challenging requirements and have been available in word processors since they were invented.

Why, then, do you need a heavyweight word processor like Microsoft Word, Open Office Write, or Apple iWork Pages to create basic documents? These tools have enormous functionality and are verging on desktop publishing in their scope. If you’re writing non-fiction then it makes sense, as the ability to insert tables, generate a table of contents or an index, embed spreadsheets or include images in the text are all things you are likely to want to do, but for fiction?

Writers who create both fiction and non-fiction may feel they want to stick with a tool that’s familiar, since swapping around brings its own problems, but fiction writers simply don’t need all that extra functionality – they’re not going to use it and having it there is a distraction and an opportunity to introduce unwanted variability into your work. Do you really need a separate font, or slightly different margins for each chapter? Does it help to have a six-point line space before a paragraph in one chapter and a twelve-point one in the next? Worrying about these things is a displacement activity and a distraction from the task at hand, which is writing.

The other thing that writers tend to do is to write whenever they can; in their lunch-break, on the bus, when they wake up early or after everyone else has gone to bed. Many would describe it as a compulsion. What happens, though, when you change from the version of Microsoft Office you have at work to the one you have at home, or when you switch from Microsoft Works to Open Office Write, or when you go from PC to Mac.

Then we run into real problems.

In order to contain all the additional functionality, each of these packages have taken the format in which the document is stored and made it their own. Word uses .doc, while OpenOffice uses .odt. Microsoft Works has it’s own format (compatible with neither of the above). Furthermore, as these products develop they change that format, so that the .doc you used in Word 2000 is not the same as in Word 2003, and is .docx in Word 2007 where you will be invited to convert your old documents to take advantage of the new functions. Indeed, there is often a warning that documents which do not conform to the new standard may lose data or formatting if they are not saved in the new format.

For many individual users, the change in document format that comes with upgraded software is pain without gain. They do not want, need or use the additional functionality and the change in format simply means an additional cost, a waste of time and the opportunity for something else to go wrong.

How, then, do you avoid this pain? How do you ensure that you can open your documents, send them to others in a format they can read, and have all the facilities you need without the pain of document incompatibility or legacy conversion? Plain text won’t do the job and almost any commercial product wants you to adopt their document format as your personal standard.

You could use HTML. After all, it is about as ubiquitous as they come and well-supported on most platforms. The problem with HTML, though, is that when you create a new document, it adds in the header and footer tags to each individual document (I’m referring to the HTML, BODY, etc. tags that start and end each HTML document). When you come to merge the documents together, you end up with nested or duplicate tags that make a mess of your document, and so far I haven’t found a tool that will readily merge a whole bunch of html documents together into a single cohesive document.

There is an answer, though, that was originally provided by Microsoft in 1987 to address exactly these issues. The latest version of this standard was published in March 2008 and it is supported by almost every word processing tool you can name.
Rich Text Format (.rtf) was created to allow the transfer of documents between systems. The file format is directly readable by humans (i.e. it’s not a binary format) and it supports all the elements that a writer of fiction could require.

Although it is a format proprietary to Microsoft (and controlled by them) it is implemented so widely that a file created in one package is normally completely portable to another package, making it the de facto standard for simple document portability. It can be read and written natively by MS Word, Open Office, Word Perfect and a host of other packages and it is supported on Macs and PCs.

I have used .rtf for many years as the native format for my writing because it doesn’t then matter where you work. You can write in your break at work, on the train, before breakfast, on a Mac or a PC – wherever. As long as you save in Rich Text Format you can always read the file.  In short, it is the most neutral format for storing your writing.

Of course, writing on different machines gives you another problem, that of syncing your work between computers, but that is also solvable as long as you have saved your work in a platform-neutral format, such as .rtf.  So as you start a new project, consider what you’re gaining and losing by using a document format that is unique to a single product or a single platform.

You might want to consider changing the document type to RTF before you hit the save button.



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.

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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.