The mechanics of writing concerns the construction of a narrative, the way we assemble words into sentences and sentences into paragraphs and paragraphs into chapters and chapters into a complete story. Its a collection of skills, things we’ve been learning since we were young enough to read, but which require a writer years to master and perfect. It is an art that requires both boundless creativity and inscrutable perfection to create something meaningful and worthwhile. But just as a painter requires a canvas, brushes and paint, so does a writer require their own tools, mechanical and separate from the art of writing, yet no less essential in their own right.
As I was beginning to conceptualize my novel in October, I was also evaluating what tools I would use to write. As I was writing in November during NaNoWriMo I went through an array of options, trying to find the best one to suit my needs and my expectations. The options seemed limitless. From something as simply as pen and paper (which I’ve actually used quite often the last three months) to writing programs and cloud services, there’s a vast array of options for the prospective writer. My searches online were disappointing; most ended up being ‘testimonials’ in forums that were actually thinly veiled shills for this product or that. As such, I’m writing this blogpost, both as a recounting of my journey in writing and the tools I used and as an aide to anyone else who might be trying to evaluate what works best of them.
To start, I had certain requirements I expected of my preferred writing solution. First, it had to be mobile in some way, be it an actual mobile device or simply able to be accessed via the internet; however, I also wanted something I did not need to be online to use. Second, I was looking for something that did more than provide a blank page to write on. Since I was conceptualizing a group of novels in a series, I was also looking for something that would provide structural tools to share details between those novels and facilitate a story arch that covered three to four manuscripts Third, it should be sophisticated without being overly complex.
When I started to write, I had planned on purchasing a ChromeBook, primarily due to their inexpensive nature. I had discarded the idea of getting something like an iPad or Android Tablet, primarily because the form factor was too small. I wanted something akin to a normal keyboard and display. In the end, I purchased a Windows laptop, which ultimately also influenced my final choice for a writing tool as well. Given all this criteria, here are the tools that I used, what I found useful in them, and what I may not have liked about them.
Google Docs (or Google Drive)
When I first started to write, I decided to use Google Docs, although it is now called Google Drive. It might have been a relatively standard text editor, but the ability to access it from any PC, anywhere, was an added plus. I wrote most of my first fifty-thousand words using Google Docs. The simplicity of the interface and utilities allowed me to focus on pouring words onto paper and avoid distractions, which made participating in NaNoWriMo much easier. It was simple and straightforward, so for someone looking for that, it would be perfect in its own right.
However, the lack of a truly offline option was something of a detriment; you could save a version to your PC, but the process was not intuitive and then moving it back up to Google Docs could have been much easier. More importantly, I noticed a definite slowdown as I put more words into my document. I could have split what I was writing into several documents and offset the speed issue with a more complex document management plan, but the lack of something that would facilitate this eventually pushed me away from Google Docs.
I next used Yarny, which has a simplicity and a number of useful features that I truly loved. Yarny is built around individual documents, called ‘snippets’. These can be your actual writing, character sheets, research documents or anything else you’d care to make them. Yarny provides three categories you can use to organize your snippets: People, Places, and Things. In Google Docs, I had separate documents for both my characters and my synopsis of events and was required to either open multiple tabs in my browser or open and close documents regularly. In contrast, the snippets in Yarny are easy and quick to access, letting you review your notes, quickly and easily, and then get back to your writing. Additionally, Yarny has seamless integration with Publification.com, allowing you to push your manuscript directly to a e-publishing resource. Finally, Yarny is available as an app on iOS (and perhaps Android) so it has a very wonderful mobile interface, although it is less full-featured than the browser version.
Unfortunately, Yarny is only available online. That meant that using it exclusively would have required a continual connection to the internet. More importantly to me, Yarny prides itself on being a very basic and uncluttered text editor. It only supports three fonts and has no text formatting, instead using manually added markup language to create italics and bold text, which is only displayed when you print your document. While I loved the versatility of the snippets and the possibilities they represented, the lack of an offline component and the overly basic nature of the text editing made this an insufficient option for me.
I next briefly tried Scriptito, a website/browser tool which is very similar to a number of writing programs available. It incorporates a more fully-featured text editor and has research and character functionality as well. It also marries peer-based reviews into the same interface, very much like Scribophile, although it is significantly less robust in both the critiquing tools and the breadth of the community. Overall, it is a good option as an all-in-one, jack-of-all trades option, doing well at many things, while not necessarily being the best at any one thing.
This versatility unfortunately leads to a certain generality of its features. It tries to do too many things, but none of them truly stand out. As a member of Scribophile, I have no need for a second (and in numerous ways inferior) review community feature. The online-only component is also a severe downside for anyone without an internet connection. My greatest complaint though was the privacy tools they provided when sharing your manuscript for review.
It appears the review tool shares the file publicly and openly, without requiring formal membership on Scriptito. This presents a conflict with traditional publication; if the file is publicly visible, it could be therefore considered published and may prevent a conventional publishing house from accepting your manuscript, in part or in total. This might work well for authors who routinely self-publish, but if you work with any publisher, this would be a definite show-stopper.
In the end, I chose WriteWay as my writing tool of choice. At its core, WriteWay is a manuscript editor, allowing you to section your manuscript into Act, Chapters and scenes and then move them around, should you wish to re-arrange your narrative. It features a sophisticated character templating system and an extensive research module that allows you to store images, ideas and potential new story ideas. Best of all, it makes accessing all of these functions incredibly easy by allowing the individual modules to open in separate interface windows. This is true of a number of similar programs and those who have participated in NaNoWriMo wil know that WriteWay and Scrivener are both sponsor companies of the event. In many ways, WriteWay and Srivener are very similar, sharing a number of the same features. I liked WriteWay’s features better, for a number of reasons.
Some of the features that I really liked most were the Galley preview feature and the ability to export my research and characters to a new novel. To explain, a galley is an editing format that prints the manuscript into two separated columns in landscape mode, much like you would see if you were to remove a page from a paperback novel. This is a standard format for editing and critiquing and given that I am a member of the Central Oklahoma Writers guild, having the ability to print my manuscripts in such a fashion for group critique is invaluable.
With the purchase of my laptop and the desire to access the files on both my home PC and my laptop and therefore make my manuscript mobile, I needed to find an elegant, effortless way to move my data from one PC to another. My resolution was to use Dropbox. I configured WriteWay on both machines to save their files directly into the Dropbox utility. I simply work on my novel and save it. When next I open WriteWay on the other machine, it updates itself from the saved file that was transferred via Dropbox. This makes my novel both mobile and cloud-based AND able to be work on offline, provided I have ensured both machines are synced recently. So far, it has worked amazingly well, providing me with all of the functionality and mobility that I’ve been looking for.
In the end, the best tool for writing is whatever tool which makes your writing easiest. What works bets for me may not be the best tool available, specifically for others. Participants in NaNoWriMo are given a number of free trials for different software and services and I wholeheartedly recommend taking advantage of these opportunities, as I did. Each of the tools I used -except for Google Drive- is a sponsor of NaNoWriMo and therefore both deserves your time looking into them and will provide you with a discounted price should you choose to purchase one. Hopefully what i have shared may be of some assistance to others and will assist in their research into the myriad writing software options available.