Some while ago I wrote a review of Scrivener as a Note Taking program. Some people liked it but there were some negative comments. So this set me thinking about the process of writing and the tools we use to aid that process. This is the process of writing which I am talking about, the tools will not make you a better writer, they will just make it easier to transfer your ideas into a document and to organise your thoughts in the first place.
A person who didn’t leave his name had this to say about the review :-
I have written seven novels and a memoir (all major imprints) and did it all with a nice pen and stacks of cheap composition notebooks. I wrote two of my books with a typewriter when I was younger, but gave it up as the technology got in my way. Tonight, I sit in a hotel in Oklahoma City and open an email that tells me I “MUST” read your blog post. I read it with a sense of bewilderment, as I do many of these “process” articles, because I fail to see how any of these fancy tools could ever help a person become a better writer. Writing is a creative pursuit, and as such requires the mind to be free of everything except that which involves your characters, your story, your dream world of creating fiction. All of those windows and outliners and tree notes that I see so often from young writers today take up enormous energy in – process.
God, give up thinking, discussing, arguing, writing, and putting so much effort into all the “cool” tools that can be used in the – process. Just write! Damn, a writer – writes!
Tonight, I allowed myself to be thrown off my rhythm by making the mistake of opening my email. Then I made the mistake of clicking on the link, and then I actually read this review of this tedious piece of processware called Scrivener, and then – seeing the passion you have for this – felt oddly compelled to write and offer my opinion. Why? I have no idea.
Let’s call this person Anonymous since he/she didn’t leave their name.
I think Anonymous missed the point slightly.
Why don’t we go back to using quill pens or why not use the Roman idea of scratching your thoughts into a layer of beeswax in a wooden tray with a bronze stylus? Why not? Because a good modern pen and good quality paper is easier to use. But then why not take this one step further and use something which is even easier to use, like a computer for instance?
Anonymous complained that he didn’t use a typewriter because he found that it got in the way of his writing. If I were forced to use a typewriter I think I would find it getting in the way too, but that is no reason to abandon all technology. The distraction free mode in Scrivener (try pressing F11) is about as close as one could come to the perfect writing environment where the technology doesn’t get in the way of the writing (in my opinion).
I do have some sympathy for one of the points Anonymous was trying to make. Some people get so caught up in the style of their documents, pretending to be typesetters and layout artists. They mess about with the font, the size of the text, the style and positioning of the headings, all the formatting which should be done as the very last step is seen as an integral part of the writing of the document and so the document becomes more about style than substance. The document does not need all that, it should be just as powerful if it is delivered in plain text without any of the polish. The polish can be added later, the document must be able to stand on its own because no amount of fancy formatting will make the content any better.
To write you need a good idea and enough intellect and eloquence to capture that idea and make it understandable to others. That is a given. But the process can be made a lot easier by the tools you use. Yes you can write a novel with nothing more than a pen and a notebook, but it is hard work. And if you develop a new idea for some section of your work which you have already written down then you have to either re-write the whole thing or get out the scissors and sellotape.
I have always found that a piece of writing takes on a life of its own and continues to develop during the writing process, new ideas come to mind, things change, and if that has repercussions for an earlier part of the work then so be it. The work is a lot easier to revise using a word processor than it is using a typewriter.
Having the right set of tools doesn’t make you a better writer, there is no substitute for inspiration and intellect. It just makes the writing process a whole lot easier.
But having the right tools to hand can also help in other ways. The note taking programs I have been reviewing in this blog can help to organise and develop ideas.
Many people think of a word processor as just a glorified typewriter. Indeed some word processors are just glorified typewriters, a tool for dumping your thoughts into a document, but just dumping your thoughts into a document from memory rarely produces any new insights.
The correct writing environment can help the thinking processes which produces good writing. It can help organise and re-organise thoughts in a way that produces new ways of looking at things and helps the ideas jump off the page and into the readers mind. If you ask someone who does research at what point they actually make their discoveries. Usually they say that it is not whilst collecting information in the lab, but during the organizing and writing up of their notes when ideas come together in ways that produce new insights.
Good thinking is hard work and so anything which aids this process is helpful.
Fundamental to the process of writing is the ability to organise the document into a meaningful structure. The tool usually used is the hierarchical outline, so in my opinion a word processor which does not do outlining is just a glorified typewriter.
Creating hierarchies (naming, categorising and organising) is very important for producing insights. Hierarchies are everywhere, almost any document divided into sections started out as an outline. Anonymous talked of Scrivener as “processware” which implies a linear process, I think it is just the opposite of “processware” instead it can be used to represent the relationships between ideas, people and events, and help to analyse the relationships and organise the whole thing into a structure that is meaningful to the writer and hopefully to the reader as well. Usually a clear and well thought out hierarchy leads to a well structured and understandable finished document.
All scrivener needs is a mind mapping tool and it would be perfect (in my opinion).
The most commonly used word processor is Microsoft Word and it is no surprise that has an excellent outlining mode. I hate to support the Microsoft hegemony but I must admit that Microsoft Word is a good word processor. But there are free and open source word processors out there (Open Office and Libre Office) so given the high price of Microsoft Word why hasn’t everyone switched to the free ones?
It’s because Open Office and Libre Office are just glorified typewriters.
I think the main reason for this is that neither Open Office or Libre Office have an outline mode, they do have something called Navigator which is a pathetic partial implementation of an outliner. Furthermore I think that if the designers of Open Office and Libre Office had implemented a good outlining mode then these tools would be much more widely used by writers, business people and academia, and they would challenge Microsoft Word for supremacy.
So … What are the best tools for writing and organising thoughts. Well … It just depends on what you want to do with it. These are all my personal very subjective opinions so feel free to disagree.
For writing, both fictional writing and academic writing the best program has to be Scrivener.
For organisation it just depends on what you want.
If you want something like a database of notes where the way the program works is already sorted out and you just have to learn how to use it then Ultra Recall is hard to beat but beware, don’t get slack on adding the metadata or it will become a disorganised mess very quickly.
If one the other hand you want a Wiki where you define how your notes will look and you define the structure of the notes (how they are arranged and connected) a bit like writing a website for your notes, and you can even define how the notes will behave (by writing a script in Python), then Connected Text is the program for you. It is more powerful than any of the other note taking programs reviewed but the learning curve is quite steep.
As an adjunct to an outliner or note taking program VUE as a mapping tool is very useful.