05 Sep 2016
Back before computers appeared on every desktop, I wrote a fantasy story. I tapped it out on a manual typewriter during a Carolina summer. I was renting a room in a house whose family couldn’t afford air conditioning, so as I tap tap tap each page, it would be dotted with sweat. I spent all summer on that story, pushing through four drafts, and by the end I had about a hundred pages of what I must admit was a pretty bad story. But I had a feeling of accomplishment (and sore fingers) because that sweat-decorated stack of pages stood as visible evidence I was working.
Thank god those days are gone. Today we have a variety of writing tools to make the work of creating stories easier.
In fact, we have so many tools that it’s possible to get lost in the weeds of collecting and trying them out and discarding them in favor of the next new thing, so much that not much writing will ever get done.
Worse, you may be using a writing tool you don’t much like, not realizing that something simpler and better is out there.
So this will be a short overview of what’s out there with their strength and weaknesses.
1. Word (Microsoft)
If you work in an office, this is the king of the hill; a must-use whether you like it or not.
If you’re a writer, Microsoft Word is like buying the space shuttle and using it to drive to work. It’s huge, complicated; full of switches you have no idea how to use, and now that the latest version is available by subscription to the mother ship in Seattle, expensive.
I’ve used Microsoft for a long time. I’m writing this book on my Word 2007, and I’ll continue using it. But I will move on to another system before I pay a monthly fee to continue using it. I wouldn’t rent a typewriter; I’m not going to rent a word processor. Particularly when there’s no reason to.
But if you are using MS Word, or can get your hands on a copy you can keep, then maximize your experience with it by buying a book.
I admit: When I have a software question, I turn to IT Google. It’s simpler and faster to ask “how to write a formula in Excel” or “Draw box in Photoshop PS2” than to buy a book.
But I use Word to write books, design ads, edit other people’s manuscripts, and lay out books. It’s easier for me to pull out my copy of Que Publishing’s “Special Edition Using Microsoft Office Word 2007” by Faithe Wempen. It’s nearly 1,000 pages long, extensively and brilliantly indexed, and never failed to answer one of my tough questions (especially when Word capriciously changes one of my settings). For Word 2010 users, Wempen also wrote “Microsoft Word 2010 In Depth” for Que that at 900+ pages and promises to be just as useful. (Note: Neither Que nor Wempen knows I’m endorsing their books.)
2. Open Source Office Software
If you want something like MS Office or MS Word but don’t have the money, consider using an open source alternative.
What is open source? It’s software whose programming code is left open so that any programmers could edit it. They could improve it, remove bugs, add features, and release their version of anyone to use. The first open source competitor to MS Office was OpenOffice, released by Sun Microsystems in 2000. It has which has open source versions of MS Excel, Powerpoint, Access, and Visio. Its descendant, Apache OpenOffice, is still available today. A variant of OpenOffice, called LibreOffice, was released in 2010.
There are pluses and minuses to using open source software. The price is right (free!) and the features are similar to MS Office. On the other hand, if you just want the word processor, you still have to download the entire program.
3. Distraction-Free Word Processors
The disadvantages of MS Word and its open source competitors is that they are very feature-heavy programs. It takes time to learn how to use them. Even if you never need to create a mailing list, add footnotes, insert graphics into a document, or create your own macros, having them available can act as a psychic weight to a writer who just wants the electronic equivalent of a typewriter.
Enter the distraction-free alternatives. These are programs designed solely for writing and little more. They may have a plain background or a soothing picture of a forest in winter or seashore. They may click like typewriter keys or remain blissfully silent. There are free versions and pay versions, but they all share the same goal: to get you into a writing mood with little fuss or bother.
Write! (Win, free)
OmmWriter (Windows, Mac, iOS, $5.11+)
Typed (Mac, $29.99)
Writer (Chrome, free)
Hemingway Editor (Win, Mac, web, free-$9.99)
iA Writer (Mac, iOS, Android, $4.99-$19.99)
Q10 (Win, free)
Probably the best word processor designed for writers. Designed for authors, Scrivener from Literature and Latte lets you keep and arrange notes and scenes, make research materials (including graphic files) available a click away, and even create ebooks. It lets you organize your material using text, outline, and even index cards on a virtual corkboard. It even expends into full-screen mode like the distraction-free software above. In short, it works with you during the creation process, rather than fight you.
5. Internet Blockers
Probably the biggest drain on our time is the Internet, followed by smartphones. That’s why it’s imperative that you find a room of one’s own where you can work without distractions.
If you have to work on the same computer that accesses the Internet, and you find yourself checking your mail / Facebook / Twitter / RSS feed / Websites regularly, invest in ways to keep those distractions away. Do an online search in these areas:
1. Computer blocker. This isolates the entire computer from the Internet. One example is Freedom. In its original form, a one-time payment got you the program, which would block access for whatever time you set. To get around it before then, you have to reboot the computer.
Unfortunately, the company that makes Freedom switched to a subscription model that requires monthly payments. Good for the company, bad for you.
2. Browser-only blocker. This is an add-on that you can download, often for free, that allows you to block your access according to day, time, even specific websites (if you need to use Wikipedia for example). On Firefox, I use LeechBlock. Macs have software such as SelfControl, and Focus, as well as a blocker available on Safari.
3. A second computer. Get an older model and never, ever, connect it to the Internet. They’ll be cheaper and run faster (because they won’t have kludgy software and won’t need to constantly monitor the Internet) and you’ll only have your working files on it. If you’re just writing, an inexpensive netbook or minicomputer or a really dedicated machine such as an Alphasmart portable word processor might be exactly what you need.
An even more specialized machine, the Freewrite, is a luxury machine (about $500) that lets you upload your files to the cloud.
This is a mixed bag that combines a word processor, with an ebook storage and creation system. It’s not necessary unless you’re interested in plunging into making your own ebooks. It’s mentioned here simply to let you know it exists.