The mechanics of writing… I’m not asking for much

Writers desk with a view in our attic
Writers desk with a view in our attic (Photo credit: Mika Marttila)

First, let me ask a question… if you’re a writer, what software do you use to do your writing?

The days of sitting down at a typewriter to pound out a draft are thankfully long gone (I don’t even want to hear from you people who prefer to do things that way!) For many, many years, I’ve written everything in a modern version of the “old fashioned” method. I use digital solutions but otherwise my basic method for everything from recording research and notes to the writing itself is kind of old school. I use a word processor for the writing, keep my notes in a spreadsheet and any research documents and images saved in a folder.

The great thing about that system is that it’s straightforward and easy for writing. I just open up the document, scroll to the end and start typing. If I need to reference a note, or add one, I open up the spreadsheet and navigate to the appropriate tab or field. It’s easy.

The downside of that system is that it can be a challenge to find something in the document, and making changes or move text. Word has a pretty good global find/replace function, but it’s also pretty limited.

Since I’m in the middle of a fairly complex novel, with lots of moving parts, characters and interconnecting plot pieces, I decided to start looking at more sophisticated options. The good news is there are a lot of them out there. The bad news is, every single one of them functions like some weird Tinker-Toy experiment. They all require that you write in chunks, predetermining where your scene and chapter breaks are. Some are better than others about writing and tagging on the fly, but overall, they seem to put more focus on the mechanics of writing than on the creative part, or the actual writing itself.

Sorry, this just isn’t how I work. What’s more, it’s not how most of the successful fiction writers I know work. Nor is it how most of the really successful fiction writers I truly admire say they work. All of those people… they all write more like I do. They may mind map, scribble notes, outline a few things, and do other organizational fun stuff, but when it comes to actually writing the story, they want to just write. Period. Sometimes they’ll add chapters while they’re at it, and sometimes they’ll drop them in later. But none of them want to be writing in little blocks where they have to break their creative process into scenes and chapters.

So… none of the existing programs do what I really want. What does that leave me? Change the entire way I work to fit within the mold of some program? Or stick with the tried and true methods I’ve been using and deal with the cumbersome aspects?

Why can’t someone devise a program that allows the writer to truly customize it to their work style?

What do I want?

I want a fairly straightforward word processing application – where I can just start typing. It should have a spell checker, thesaurus, and dictionary built in.

Ideally, I should be able to add chapters and subheads on the fly, either as I’m writing, or at some later date. Those chapters and subheads should be indexable, searchable and easily moved if I need to rearrange text.

Even more ideally I should be able to add tags or notes that are searchable. They don’t need to appear inline with the text, but they should be somewhere that I can see them if I choose. They must be searchable, and I’d like it if they could also be linked to a reference item. I should be able to tag a chapter with character names, POV, locations, time/date, or anything else I can come up with. Then I should be able to see a list of tags, and select a tag for it to show me all locations in the main document where that tag appears.

The ability to have a list of characters, locations, and other reference items that are linked to by content tags would be great. That way, if I need to recall when Susie Something had last talked to John Doe, it would take a few clicks of the mouse instead of scrolling through umpteen pages of text, or doing a “find” and hoping I used his name in that passage.

And since we’re in pipe-dream territory, it should be cloud based so it’s “portable”.

Things I’ve looked at: Liquid Story Binder, Scrivener, Write Now, and YWriter all seemed interesting, plus there’s a mind-boggling list of others that range from interesting, powerful tools to useless gimmicks.

So, if you’re a writer… what are your tools of choice?

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