Writing software


I’ve had a couple of friends ask for advice on writing a book. I usually say that I’m not really the best person to ask, since I’m fairly new to the game. (OK, I’ve been writing non-fiction for over twenty years, but fiction is very, very different.)

If they press me, I say that I’ve found three things to be essential:

  • The support of your partner
  • A strong network of objective test readers
  • The best tools for the job

I’ll cover the first two briefly, though I may write about them at some point down the line.

Support of your partner

Make no mistake, writing a novel is a massive undertaking. The Well took me a year, from first tap at the keyboard until the Kindle edition was published on Amazon. All the while, I had my day job to attend to – a demanding marketing business. So, I was primarily writing at the weekends and in the evenings – which meant doing a lot less social stuff for a year. Without the support of Ruth, my wife, I couldn’t have done it.

A strong network of objective test readers

One thing you miss out on by not having a publisher is the input of an editor. Writing in isolation means that you can get fixated with ideas that could work so much better – if only you’d thought of it. I had around eight people read The Well, several of them more than once. Their input was invaluable – although sometimes brutal – but it really did make a big difference to the finished result. If you can’t learn to take criticism, you probably shouldn’t be writing – so better to get used to it early on. (In addition, I did pay for an editor/proofreader, who did a fantastic job – including undertaking some research I have to admit I was too lazy to do myself. Kudos, Claire Andrews.)

The best tools for the job

Most people are surprised when I tell them that The Well wasn’t written in Microsoft Word. Or Apple’s Pages. Or any other ‘normal’ word processor. It was written in what I think is quite simply the best piece of writing software available, bar none – Scrivener.

I work on a Mac, and as it happens, Scrivener is a Mac-only application (although the publisher of Scrivener, Literature and Latte, is releasing a Windows version in 2011).

For those used to Word, Scrivener can seem initially very alien. Word is very focused on formatting and layout – and, apart from its rather second-rate outlining tool – has very little to help a writer with the structure of his/her work.

But writing a novel requires very little in the way of layout tools – in fact, arguably nothing. Layout is a separate process, it’s not part of writing, it’s part of publishing. So Scrivener’s approach makes perfect sense.

What a writer of fiction needs is a place to store ideas, character notes, location notes, reference text and images, research, build structure, reorganise elements of the piece at will – and help you break down the work into elements that are easy to work with, such as chapters and scenes.

Scrivener does this – and it does it very well. I’m not going to go into massive depth about how it works – better to download the trial version or watch some of the video tutorials on the Literature and Latte website.

But for me, several aspects of Scrivener were invaluable. First and foremost was the way that Scrivener is non-linear. Your writing consists of components that you can view as a tree, an outline or even a corkboard. And, it’s hierarchical, so you can have a corkboard within a corkboard, for example. And you don’t have to create this stuff – most of it is automatically created for you as you create documents or folders (here’s flexibility: you can turn any document into a folder, too).

Editing a document in Scrivener

Editing a document in Scrivener - see how chapters and scenes are separate elements

The Well is a series of interwoven plots which follow a very tight timeline – all of the action takes place in less than a week. Scrivener allowed me to easily keep shuffling things around as I needed to, to keep them within the timeline. When I made a major change to the plot, accommodating that change was a piece of cake – you just couldn’t have done it within Word without getting totally lost.

Scrivener corkboards

Scrivener's corkboards allow you to shuffle your document around really easily

The second thing I couldn’t live without is the way that you can store character notes, location notes, references – whatever – all within the same project. No more switching from application to application, or referring to a Rolodex or pinboard on your office wall. And, when you find a key piece of research on the Web, all you need to do is drag and drop it into Scrivener. I remember stumbling across a picture of an antique fighting knife – I dropped it into Scrivener and it later became the reference for the weapon of choice for The Well’s supernatural antagonist. No hunting through bookmarks, folders on my hard drive or scrapbooks – the reference was there, where I needed it.

Research in Scrivener

Scrivener can hold all of your research within your writing project

It’s impossible to write a blog on everything that Scrivener does – you’d need to write a book. But it is the only piece of long-form writing software that I’d endorse or be enthusiastic about. It’s a bit of a learning curve, but only because we’re all used to word processors which are essentially layout tools and not writing tools – but once you ‘get it’ it’s entirely logical and very easy to work with.

What’s more, it’s very inexpensive – and the licence allows you to use it on more than one concurrent machine. Give it a go, you’ll be glad you did.

About Peter Labrow

Peter Labrow has worked as a copywriter, writing non-fiction, for around twenty years. His output includes copy for websites and brochures; for around a decade he wrote a regular column for IT Training magazine. He has published one non-fiction book about learning within the corporate environment. The Well, Peter’s first novel, is available on Kindle and in print from Amazon. View all posts by Peter Labrow

6 responses to “Writing software

  • Kathy

    I so agree with you about Scrivener. I’m too impatient to wait for the full Windows release, so I’m using the beta version right now. I haven’t had too many problems with bugs. But I love this program! I can’t wait for the Windows version to be finished.

    • Peter Labrow

      The operating system shouldn’t really matter as long as you can get hold of the applications you need – I used Windows for many years, it was Vista that tipped me over the edge. Window 7 is much improved, though. In any event, it’s great to see Scrivener on Windows – it will enable what I think is the greatest available creative writing application to reach a wider audience.

  • Lone Monkey

    Couldn’t agree more, Peter. I switched to a Mac primarily so I could take advantage of all that Scrivener has to offer. Good luck with the book!

  • Rebecca Treadway

    There is one called Story Book, I test ran it and works on Mac/Windows. I don’t use it tho’, I keep it old school 😀

    • Peter Labrow

      I’l take a look out for that. It took me a few goes to get into Scrivener, because it ‘requires learning’ – whereas Word doesn’t. But honestly, the effort pays off. I’m currently working on the second novel – while planning novels three to five – and it’s a great way to organise plot, ideas, structure, research and so on while you take snips at the writing in a non-linear way. It changes the way you work.

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