01 March 2011

Writing Tools

photo by Eric Schaller
I'm teaching a course called "Writing and the Creative Process" right now, and one of the things I would like to offer the students is a list of tools I've found actually helpful when writing -- computer programs and reference books, mostly. I thought it might be fun to open up the conversation and get some recommendations from people other than me, since my own practice is peculiar to, well, me.

So, a question for you, O Denizens of the Internets: What have been the most helpful tools for you when writing? (And "writing" doesn't just mean you're a professional novelist whose last few books were sold to Hollywood. We all write things in our lives, whether business letters or shopping lists of secret poems we never show anybody. Everybody is qualified to answer this question who wants to!)

I'll put my own essential items below the fold...

In some ways, no specific tool is essential to writing -- I've written perfectly well with an old pencil on pieces of scrap paper, and I've written terribly with expensive hi-tech gadgetry. But there are a few tools that have made me happy and, I think, generally increased my productivity.

Dropbox, for instance, has been really useful for me because I inevitably forget to email important documents to myself and then get to work and discover important things have been left on the wrong computer. With Dropbox, I've got access to every document on my primary computer, and because I figured out how to make it all invisibly update*, I don't even have to remember to send stuff to myself anymore.

For actual writing, though, I rely on two programs primarily: Bean and Scrivener.

Bean I use for things that only require a single file, don't need much research, etc. -- most short stories, columns, interviews, etc. It's really just a text editor, but one with some basic word processing options. What I especially like is the interface, which in full-screen mode reduces distractions considerably. Here's a screenshot:

Which, you can see, really is the whole screen:

Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity.

Scrivener also has a nice full-screen mode, and I use it a lot, but I find Scrivener's many options cumbersome for just plain ol' writing. When something requires shifting between various files, then I use Scrivener. I also use it to organize things -- for instance, thought I usually write my Sandman Meditations columns in Bean, I have a Scrivener project that collects them all, which makes it really easy to go through them. Or, I've been working on a novel-like-thing for almost ten years now, and everything about it has changed over that time except its title, and I have a Scrivener project that collects every version and every note, making the whole near-decade of mess and false starts feel somehow manageable and less like a colossal waste of time, so perhaps in another ten years I'll be able to finish it. For academic writing, Scrivener is a godsend -- I'm working on an essay right now that involves research from all sorts of articles I have as PDFs or HTML or text files (and even a video), and I can keep it all together in Scrivener, immediately accessible while I'm writing. I've even used Scrivener for non-writing organizations -- when I was teaching 5 totally different high school classes a few years ago, I kept all the lesson plans in Scrivener.

I still use Microsoft Word occasionally (the 2004 version, which seems to me the last time Word was actually functional -- I use the latest one on a PC in my office at work, because that's what the University installs, and I loathe it). Mostly, I just use Word when I need to pay attention to formatting, because I've used the program so much over the years that I know its formatting system best.

When I occasionally write a screenplay, I use an old, clunky, buggy version of Final Draft. (I haven't tried Scrivener 2.0 for scripts yet, though I'll probably give it a shot.) I've used the free screenwriting program Celtx, and have done some work in their premium Studio site for a production company I've been working with. Though I like everything about Celtx except for one thing, the one thing is a deal breaker for me when it comes to writing a screenplay: Celtx does not have a WYSIWYG editor that includes accurate page breaks, and I'm too conditioned to write scripts by pages that if I can't see exactly where the page breaks are when I write, I can't write a script. (In Celtx, you can see page breaks by shifting to a different, uneditable view.) I have no love for Final Draft, to put it mildly, but I could write a script more easily on a manual typewriter than on Celtx because I'm so reliant on seeing pages. If you don't absolutely need to see the pages as you write, Celtx is pretty great.

Reference Books
I love reference books. I seem especially to be addicted to paperbacks with the word Oxford in the title (and Oxford's Very Short Introductions are like heroin to me). But most of them are just around for procrastination browsing. If I need a quick definition of a word, I use the (Oxford American) dictionary on my computer, and if I really need to dig into a word's complexities, I use the online OED that I have access to via the University. (I think I let them totally exploit me as a worker partly because even as an adjunct faculty member I have access to databases such as JSTOR, Project Muse, and the online OED, which for me are really much more satisfying than a retirement account, health insurance, or a decent wage.)

The reference books I open most frequently are two: The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage and the 1946 edition of Roget's International Thesaurus published by Thomas Y. Crowell Company.

The first's utility should be obvious -- just click on that link, which goes to a complete online version on Google Books.

The second, though, might seem a bit strange. Why an out-of-date thesaurus?

Blame Stephen Sondheim. Somewhere -- and I have no idea where -- I heard him say he uses a thesaurus from about 1948, because thesauri that are much older don't have enough words in them, and thesauri that are much younger either have too many words or not enough of the useful ones. I have found this to be true.

It's easily my favorite reference book. Not only is it full of great words (and just the right amount of them!), there are also quotations on the bottom of the pages showing some words in use. And the physicality of the book is tremendously pleasant -- solid, with strong pages and binding, but not especially heavy.

There are other books I like quite a bit, but don't consider essential. For instance, I'm very fond of Chapman's Thesaurus of American Slang -- dictionaries of slang are common enough (I think I've got three or four), but a thesaurus of slang is, I find, even more useful. And an awful lot of fun to read.

I also like Patterns of English by Paul Roberts, a book that seems to have been forgotten by the world. I don't use it so much for writing as teaching, because though it has, in its details, been superceded by more complex and thorough linguistic studies (e.g. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language), I've never found anything that better helps students (and me!) understand the basic elements of English and ways of using and combining those elements. And though, being a book from 1956, some of the examples used represent occasional prejudices of the era, there are also passages that feel downright postmodern, such as this paragraph from Chapter 36: "Gender":
We might be tempted to say that we learned to use he-him to refer to male beings, she-her for female beings, and it for things that could not be classified as male or female. But this gets the story backwards. We did not first receive instruction in biology and then proceed to use the pronouns accordingly. Instead we began to use the pronouns as we heard other people use them, and this use of the pronouns helped us to sort the world into "males," "females," and "things in neither grouping."
For anybody like me, who lived through traditional parts-of-speech grammar drills during elementary school, Roberts's approach is a revelation, and will help you see the language in some different ways, which is really important, I think, for a writer's flexibility. Contemporary linguistics can be, I find, confusing in its many definitions, but Roberts is pretty clear once you grasp his basic terminology, and it's a terminology that is far more practical than the traditional approach, which is confusing because it's so inadequate to the complexities of the language.

It's important to cultivate at least one addiction, or else you may suffer the hubris of unencumbered free will. For me, it's coffee. And though, because addicted, I will drink the foulest swill if nothing else is available, my coffee of choice is the dark roast from Cafe Monte Alto, a local company. Generally consumed in a mug made by Becca van Fleet, since my previous favorite mug-maker, Rick Elkin, is now primarily a jeweler (drinking coffee out of jewelry is difficult). I love my old Elkin mugs, but Becca's mugs have a unique sensuousness to them, and a pleasantly sensual experience is especially helpful during the first writing session of the day, when all you really want to do is slack off and watch mindless things on YouTube...

*On a Mac, all you have to do is put everything you want updated into the central Dropbox folder, create an alias, and put the alias into the usual place. So, for instance, I have a folder called "Working" that I keep most of the important stuff in, and it's got all sorts of subfolders and sub-subfolders (e.g. "Fiction", "Nonfiction", "School"). It lives on the desktop for easy access. To back it all up, and have access to it all via the Dropbox website, I put the whole Working folder into the Dropbox folder, created an alias of the Working folder, and put the alias on the desktop. Now, whenever I add anything to the Working folder's alias, it is actually added to the original in the Dropbox folder, where it is backed up. (I back up Scrivener projects slightly differently, using this technique.)


  1. MS Word, BaGel Radio, and dog walks.

  2. I use a Sheaffer Agio fountain pen in black, a Colibri Gemini fine point rollerball pen in red (I also have green and blue ink for it if I want but so far I haven't), Pantone ruled spiral notebooks in a variety of sizes, and I use Word just for typing up the manuscripts. It's the latest version and I despise its wee beady eyes.

    I also have academic access to JSTOR, the OED, Project Muse etc. JSTOR is fantastic and I go to it the way some folks go to Wikipedia. We've a variety of dictionaries at home; the one closest to my desk is a paperback Webster's Collegiate and in the living room is a monstrous old American Heritage. Beyond that I tend to go to the OED. We have a thesaurus, I'm sure, but I don't use it.

    Coffee's good, but at home it's more often a glass of red. I miss cigarettes.

  3. I need a pile of notepaper, a whiteboard to stick and rearrange the notes, a good pen, a pillow in my back, lots of tea, a good-natured computer and the "Storylines" software from Writer's Cafe. But now there is a Scrivener for Windows, I will use that.

  4. Life experience, an observant eye, and attitude.

    Oh yeah, Scrivener is pretty cool, too. And a pen and a notebook comes in handy at times.

  5. "I think I let them totally exploit me as a worker partly because even as an adjunct faculty member I have access to databases such as JSTOR, Project Muse, and the online OED, which for me are really much more satisfying than a retirement account, health insurance, or a decent wage."

    Can we use that in our marketing material? :-)

    Brian from MUSE, who relies on (g)vim and coffee

  6. Here is a source for Sondheim's thesaurus. About halfway down.

  7. A Mont Blanc Lilas Pirouette fountain pen with purple ink, a Faber-Castell Grip Plus pencil, Oxford Black 'n Red spiral bound A4 notebooks, Scrivener, my librarian training in finding information, a big pink, blue and white Limoges cup and saucer for coffee. The dog to walk and talk to when I'm stuck. The bath - a great place for thinking out plots.

  8. I wonder why you make aliases when using dropbox because the tool shows up both on the top menubar and in the side toolbar.

    I love all your suggestions, I'm going to check to see if my library has an OED subscription.

    Thanks so much!

  9. I wonder why you make aliases when using dropbox because the tool shows up both on the top menubar and in the side toolbar.

    What kept me initially from using Dropbox was that it seemed to require you to have two copies of everything you wanted to backup -- one wherever you normally put it, and then another in the Dropbox folder. I really didn't want to have to have multiple copies of things on my harddrive, so I didn't use Dropbox. Then it occurred to me to try using aliases so that I could keep everything where I wanted it without having to copy everything. I tried it, and it worked. (Tobias Buckell, who is more computer savvy than I, seems to have come up with the same solution. He explains it better, though.) I could certainly have just used the Dropbox folder as the same thing as the Desktop folder, but I am very much a creature of habit, and didn't want to have to do that, especially where there are things in the Desktop folder that I wasn't backing up via Dropbox. So aliases seemed like the easiest solution, though I'm sure there are other ways of configuring things, and I expect Dropbox will develop more such ways as they grow.

  10. I'm curious about your listing of Bean, whilst specifically touting the benefits of its full screen mode.

    For a full screen writing app, I prefer to use WriteRoom from HogBay Software. In full screen mode (the default) it has no menus or window chrome at all. Plus it is highly configurable.

    That said, Bean is a great piece of software.

  11. I hadn't heard of WriteRoom before, but just checked it out. It's great, but I actually like having some of the stuff up at the top of the screen that Bean put there, and Bean is also free, which is a particularly nice feature.

  12. A back scratcher, smokes, coffee, Harold Budd, and a calm blue day in winter.


  13. I also love using Scrivener. It really helps me organize everything. I use the notecards and the color-coding incessantly. It's let me go from over 50 notebooks to my laptop and an organized binder. I adore the snapshots function because it allows me to compare former versions.

    The other thing I use is a large binder to put print outs of maps, family trees, outlines of the work, character sheets, place sheets, and images. I have all of this in Scrivener but I find that having it flipable can help me because I can reference other chapters on scrivener while looking at images or detail sheets. This allows me to write chapters and scenes that tie together really well regardless of their placement in the series/book/short story.

  14. A daily schedule. No exceptions except for illness, funerals, and family crises. OK, Christmas too, if that's what you celebrate.

  15. A laptop (because of its portability), the internet (reference source), and that rarest of commodities: uninterrupted time.
    --Eric S.

  16. Either a 27" MAC screen or dual window's monitors, and a scanner. I have to do a tremendous amount of research when ever I write, much of it in APA format. I also frequently develop technical training and will use powerpoint with multi-media.

    I will put the main paper I am writing on one screen and the my research on the other, this allows me to keep an uncluttered main writing screen while being able to quickly flip to my research. If I have to quote anything, all I have to do is cut/paste - much easier than typing.

  17. I don't have any interesting writing tools to add here except one: Google Earth. With it around, there are increasingly fewer excuses for getting location details wrong. And the street views are just ridiculously rich with detail. Am addicted.