Category Archives: Writing software

Writing with Evernote

I’ve written before about being a big fan of Scrivener. As writing software goes, especially for long projects such as novels, it takes some beating.

Currently, for me, there’s one fly in the Scrivener ointment – the lack of an iPad version. Although I don’t want to write entire projects on my iPad, when I’m out and about without my laptop I do want to write, make notes, add to my research, edit and review. (In an ideal world, this wouldn’t be just on my iPad either – sometimes I only have my iPhone with me.)

This got me thinking about what I really need from writing software – and setting aside the fact that I’ll later need to have the manuscript reviewed, edited and proofed by someone else. If it needs to be exported into Word at some point, so be it. (I’m not allergic to Word; I use it daily for copywriting. This makes sense since it’s what my clients and my proofreader use. But I find that it’s next to hopeless for long documents. Why? It forces you to work and think in a linear way. It has no mechanism to easily reshuffle chapters and scenes. And, the bigger your document, the slower it gets. I could go on…)

I decided that, when it boils down to it, a writer needs surprisingly little of the word processing power. Here’s my personal bottom line:

  • Non-linear document structure – a way to break the project down into manageable chunks which can be easily reorganised.
  • Word count.
  • Basic formatting (bold, italic).
  • Easy and robust synchronisation with other devices – computers, tablets and phones.
  • The ability to incorporate research, including images, video and audio – plus links to Web pages.

That’s about all I need. Sure, there are lots of things I’d really like – but I’m trying to identify my most needed word processing elements.

This led me to an interesting conclusion. Most writing software just doesn’t suit my needs or workflow. Google Docs, Word and Pages may be the most-used writing software, but they’re the first to be struck off my list – since they’re linear and can’t readily incorporate research into the same document.

Good old Scrivener does everything I need (and more) but document replication between different devices relies (currently) on clunky workarounds using Dropbox to transfer files and then using an entirely different editing application on the iPad. It works, but it isn’t pretty.

There is one contender, though. It’s a surprising one: Evernote.

I’ve been using Evernote for ages – for its intended purpose, to take notes. It’s very useful – there are versions for PC, OS X and iOS, Windows Phone 7, Android, BlackBerry and even WebOS. Not enough? Well – perhaps you work on Linux occasionally. In that case, there’s a Web interface to fall back on. Everything you type gets replicated automatically to the cloud and is quickly available on any other device. It’s built for a multi-device world – and one where your data can live anywhere.

This is powerful stuff. You can work on your laptop – and then go review on your iPad. Got ten minutes to kill? Review your manuscript on your phone. Stuck somewhere where there’s no Mac? Fire up a Windows or Linux PC and just login to your Evernote account. You can work online or offline – and replicate when you can connect to the Internet.

Editing the same document on different platforms, with Evernote

Evernote for OS X, Windows, iPad and iPhone – all in sync

So, that’s replication taken care of very neatly. What about non-linear document structure?

Evernote can handle this, but it’s not quite a hit clear out of the ballpark. Evernote breaks things down into shorter documents, true, but it doesn’t give a lot of control over how these are organised. Within Evernote, you create ‘notebooks’ – which then contain individual ‘notes’. So, these could either be the projects and chapters, or chapters and scenes, depending on how you work. It’s adequate – although nowhere near as functional as either Scrivener or Storyist (with their visual corkboards) but way better than Word.

Currently, there isn’t a live word count in all versions of Evernote, but they’re working on it. There isn’t any word count in the iOS version, although there is in the Windows and OS X apps. This isn’t ideal, but it’s workable.

Basic formatting is present and correct – there’s not much, but there’s everything you need: bold, italic, underline, paragraph indents, strikethrough and bullets.

Incorporating research and notes is part of what Evernote ‘just does’. Evernote documents can incorporate video, images and audio. You just fire up the camera or microphone on your iPad or Mac and that’s it – take photos or make audio notes right from within Evernote. You can also drag and drop images or add website URLs.

Again, Scrivener’s ability to incorporate research wins because of its organisational finesse – but there’s more than enough here to get by. And anything you add on one device automatically appears on your others. Evernote even has a widget for your browser – to make it easy to clip Web pages straight into your notebooks without even launching Evernote itself.

Adding rich media does become an issue – once you’re incorporating lots of images, audio and video into your notebooks, you’ll quickly move beyond the space that’s offered by a free Evernote account. But you can upgrade to a premium account for £4 a month, so you’re hardly being stiffed.

There are lots of compromises. Word and Pages run rings around Evernote in terms of layout ability. Scrivener and Storyist are built with the writer in mind and have lots of features to help manage large projects. Evernote is more workmanlike than slick – and at some point you will have to get your creative gem out of Evernote and into a file format your editor or proofreader uses. I’ve found that you do need to check over exported text for formatting errors or special characters that aren’t properly converted.

But it’s the workflow and replication where Evernote shines. It just works. You edit on one device, pick up another and carry on where you left off. It’s liberating. It makes switching between Mac and iPad (or PC and Android tablet) as simple as it gets.

There’s another advantage. Right now, I’m an Apple user – but that might not last forever. So knowing that I can move to another platform – or even just use a different one temporarily – is a bonus.

For novel-writing, I’m pretty tied to Scrivener for a multitude of reasons – and the team behind Scrivener is thankfully working on an iPad version, though that’s some way off. Scrivener for Mac and iPad, with easy file synchronisation – perhaps via iCloud – would be ideal. But for other projects, I’m very tempted by Evernote’s workflow.

Using Scrivener to create e-books

I was reading an excellent blog today by writer and Scrivener user David Hewson about Why Apple and publishing don’t mix. In fact, it was David’s enthusiasm for Scrivener which first tempted me to try it – and, before I move on, David’s blog is one of the best ‘blogs on writing’ out there.

David had spotted something I’d missed in Scrivener 2 – the fact that it can output directly to a range of e-book formats.

This had me immediately excited. When I published The Well, I created the Kindle and ePub files by coding the XHTML/XML directly. I just wasn’t happy with the output of the various tools available.

I did enlist the help of Mobipocket Creator and Sigil along the way. Both have strengths, but you still need to do some manual tweaking of the XHTML/XML at the very least. But they are yet another step in the publishing process. Because there isn’t one e-book standard, I’ve had to create files from InDesign (PDF for print) and a Kindle file for Amazon along with an ePub for Adobe Digital Editions and other platforms which support that format. It was complex and time-consuming, hence the excitement when I spotted the export facilities from Scrivener on David’s blog. I commented on David’s blog and about an hour later got a tweet from David (a different David) at Scrivener:

“ScrivenerApp: @labrow Noticed your response to @david_hewson (thanks!) post. This video will probably help your quest. Cheers, DJ.”

Rather than repeat the contents of the video, I’m embedding it here for you to watch.

The video is a revelation. I’d expected Scrivener’s support for e-book export to be perhaps basic, but far from it – it’s a very comprehensive and well-executed export workflow. In fact, I’d say it’s so good that even if you wrote using another tool, it would make sense to use Scrivener for e-book creation anyway. Of course, why would you do that when Scrivener is – hands down – the best long-form text creation tool available.

This is incredibly useful for me and, I suspect, for other writers. On a practical level, I now don’t have to mess about creating and editing multiple file formats – I just need to export my manuscript from Scrivener in the correct format. My hard disc is awash with different versions of The Well, created either by hand, using an additional tool, or both.

In fact, for someone whose aim really is to (at some point) publish entirely electronically, Scrivener is almost the only tool I need. I say almost, as I still need to output copies for my editor/proofreader, who works on a PC using Word – but I’m looking at ways of getting around that, too.

I can’t tell you how much this discovery has made my day. My thanks to the observant David Hewson and my hat is well and truly off to the good people at Scrivener.

(The above just shows how much the Scrivener team care about their customers. Can you imagine the Microsoft Word team getting in touch with a writer after reading something on another writer’s blog? No, me neither.)

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.