Writing Software for Writers

This is especially for writers of big things. If you write small things, like blog posts or short articles, your best tool is probably a text editor you like and a way to handle markdown language. Chances are you use a word processor like MS Word or LibreOffice, and that is both overkill and problematic for other reasons, but if it floats your boat, happy sailing. But really, the simpler the better for basic writing and composition and file management. If you have an editor or publisher that requires that you only exchange documents in Word format, you can shoot your text file with markdown into a Word document format easily, or just copy and paste into your word processor and fiddle.

(And yes, a “text editor” and a “word processor” are not the same thing.)

But if you have larger documents, such as a book, to work on, then you may have additional problems that require somewhat heroic solutions. For example, you will need to manage sections of text in a large setting, moving things around, and leaving large undone sections, and finally settling on a format for headings, chapters, parts, sections, etc. after trying out various alternative structures.

You will want to do this effectively, without the necessary fiddling taking too much time, or ruining your project if something goes wrong. Try moving a dozen different sections around in an 80,000 word document file. Not easy. Or, if you divide your document into many small files, how do you keep them in order? There are ways, but most of the ways are clunky and some may be unreliable.

If you use Windows (I don’t) or a Mac (I do sometimes) then you should check out Scrivener. You may have heard about it before, and we have discussed it here. But you may not know that there is a new version and it has some cool features added to all the other cool features it already had.

The most important feature of Scrivener is that it has a tree that holds, as its branches, what amount to individual text files (with formatting and all, don’t worry about that) which you can freely move around. The tree can have multiple hierarchical levels, in case you want a large scale structure that is complex, like multiple books each with several parts containing multiple chapters each with one or more than one scene. No problem.

Imagine the best outlining program you’ve ever used. Now, improve it so it is better than that. Then blend it with an excellent word processing system so you can do all your writing in it.

Then, add features. There are all sorts of features that allow you to track things, like how far along the various chapters or sections are, or which chapters hold which subplots, etc. Color coding. Tags. Places to take notes. Metadata, metadata, metadata. A recent addition is a “linguistic focus” which allows you to chose a particular construct such as “nouns” or “verbs” or dialog (stuff in quotation marks) and make it all highlighted in a particular subdocument.

People will tell you that the index card and cork board feature is the coolest. It is cool, but I like the other stuff better, and rarely use the index cards on the cork board feature myself. But it is cool.

The only thing negative about all these features is that there are so many of them that there will be a period of distraction as you figure out which way to have fun using them.

Unfortunately for me, I like to work in Linux, and my main computer is, these days, a home built Linux box that blows the nearby iMac out of the water on speed and such. I still use the iMac to write, and I’ve stripped most of the other functionality away from that computer, to make that work better. So, when I’m using Scrivener, I’m not getting notices from twitter or Facebook or other distractions. But I’d love to have Scrivener on Linux.

If you are a Linux user and like Scrivener let them know that you’d buy Scrivener for Linux if if was avaialable! There was a beta version of Scrivener for Linux for a while, but it stopped being developed, then stopped being maintained, and now it is dead.

In an effort to have something like Scrivener on my Linux machine, I searched around for alternatives. I did not find THE answer, but I found some things of interest.

I looked at Kit Scenarist, but it was freemium which I will not go near. I like OpenSource projects the best, but if they don’t exist and there is a reasonable paid alternative, I’ll pay (like Scrivener, it has a modest price tag, and is worth it) . Bibisco is an entirely web based thing. I don’t want my writing on somebody’s web cloud.

yWriter looks interesting and you should look into it (here). It isn’t really available for Linux, but is said to work on Mono, which I take to be like Wine. So, I didn’t bother, but I’m noting it here in case you want to.

oStorybook is java based and violated a key rule I maintain. When software is installed on my computer, there has to be a way to start it up, like telling me the name of the software, or putting it on the menu or something. I think Java based software is often like this. Anyway, I didn’t like its old fashioned menus and I’m not sure how well maintained it is.

Writers Cafe is fun to look at and could be perfect for some writers. It is like yWrite in that it is a set of solutions someone thought would be good. I tried several of the tools and found that some did not work so well. It cost money (but to try is free) and isn’t quite up to it, in my opinion, but it is worth a look just to see for yourself.

Plume Creator is apparently loved by many, and is actually in many Linux distros. I played around with it for a while. I didn’t like the menu system (disappearing menus are not my thing at all) and the interface is a bit quirky and not intuitive. But I think it does have some good features and I recommend looking at it closely.

The best of the lot seems to be Manuskript. It is in Beta form but seems to work well. It is essentially a Scrivener clone, more or less, and works in a similar way with many features. In terms of overall slickness and oomph, Manuskript is maybe one tenth or one fifth of Scrivener (in my subjective opinion) but is heading in that direction. And, if your main goal is simply to have a hierarchy of scenes and chapters and such that you can move around in a word processor, then you are there. I don’t like the way the in line spell checker works but it does exist and it does work. This software is good enough that I will use it for a project (already started) and I do have hope for it.

Using Scrivener on Linux the Other Way.

There is of course a way to use Scrivener on Linux, if you have a Mac laying around, and I do this for some projects. Scrivener has a mode that allows for storing the sub documents in your projects as text files that you can access directly and edit with a text editor. If you keep these in Dropbox, you can use emacs (or whatever) on Linux to do your writing and such, and Scrivener on the Mac to organize the larger document. Sounds clunky, is dangerous, but it actually works pretty well for certain projects.

Scrivener can look like this.
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One thought on “Writing Software for Writers

  1. Hi Greg! I’m Andrea Feccomandi, the author of bibisco.

    Great article, but I just want to point out that bibisco is build with web technologies (HTML5, Javascript), but is a DESKTOP application, not a web application.

    Indeed to run bibisco you have to download it from website.

    Have a good day!

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