Sherry Simpson: Write or Die

Once upon a time, most writers used a quaint device called a “typewriter” to produce their work. (Here’s what it looks like, young people.) But that venerable tool has never been a necessity, even for modern writers. Most of Vladimir Nabokov’s novels began on 3-by-5 index cards. John Le Carre composed his books in longhand. Fortunately, they also had access to cutting-edge technology known as “wives” who typed their drafts.
I know of one contemporary poet whose refusal to use a typewriter hasn’t prevented him from producing more than 25 books and winning major awards. Maybe it helped. Responding to an appreciation of the notebook by poet Charles Simic, British writer Lee Rourke recently wrote that he prefers the thoughtful pace of longhand to the annoying tap of a keyboard.
It all comes down to your druthers, doesn’t it? I’ve half-filled dozens of notebooks fancy and plain with thoughts, passages, and ideas, but I can’t imagine composing anything longer than a poem without a computer and its lovely cut-and-paste, delete, and undo functions. Still, it never occurred to me until a few years ago that there’s a big difference between writing software and word processing. No offense to our overlord, Microsoft Word, or its open-source alternatives, but sometimes a writer just wants to write, not spend 20 minutes trying to turn off autoformat. Not to mention the exasperating need to open 10 different document windows to refer to sections I wrote 45 pages ago, or to store deleted but not dead passages.
Sadly, no program actually does the writing, no matter how much you beseech or bribe the Magical Computer Elves. God knows I’ve tried. But for some of us, software designed for creative writers offers a better way to do our work by including such features as character tracking, plot outlining, and more. Also, many writers don’t work in a linear fashion, as Keith Blount argues in “Removing the Stigma from ‘Writing Software.’ ” He asks, “Word processors enable us to produce good-looking documents—but do they encourage us to focus on the content?”
With scads of programs available, how do you find the right one for your style and budget? Investigating what other writers use is a good start, with the standard caveat that what works for one person might not work for you. For example, fantasy writer Michelle Sagara West describes her favorite tools in two posts here, and a National Novel Writing Month author lists useful programs here. This roundup of “25+ Pieces of Writing Software You Should Know About” includes many suggestions from commenters. Most offer free trials.
If you don’t like the choices, you can always create your own software. That’s what Keith Blount did with Scrivener, a Mac-based program so popular that he recently released a Windows version. I love Scrivener with a white-hot passion for many reasons. It’s stable, includes excellent tutorials and support, and is a bargain at $45 for Macs, $40 for Windows (less for students and educators).
More importantly, it’s flexible and powerful. It stores and organizes notes, outlines, multiple drafts, and immense amounts of research. Everything is instantly accessible while you’re writing. Use features you like, such as full-text writing, a virtual corkboard, or script formatting, and ignore what you don’t. The backup and autosave systems are reliable (though I’m not sure Scrivener has ever crashed on me), and it’s easy to export chapters into one word-processing document.
One reason I’m a fan of Blount is his practical, generous philosophy toward finding the best tool, even if it’s not his product. He links to numerous writing and word processing programs that he likes, including free alternatives.
Among those that he doesn’t mention is Storybook. This free, open-source software helps novelists organize and track plots and characters, as does Storyblue. Scripped is an on-line scriptwriting program that comes with a community. Aeon Timeline helps novelists track arcs and characters and synchronizes with Scrivener. Smatterings links to many focused apps, such as name generators and plot banks.
For stripped-down, sit-your-butt-down-and-start-writing programs, the website encourages a daily writing practice. If fear and shame motivate you as much as they do me, you’ll appreciate the negative reinforcement offered by Write or Die. Set the time limit for your session and choose among Gentle, Normal, and Kamikaze modes. Stop writing, and you’ll incur either a gentle reminder, an unpleasant noise, or the horror of seeing your words erase themselves. The web app is free; the $10 desktop app helps you avoid “the gigantic kitten of distraction that is our modern internet.”
But whether you write with crayons or a Cray computer, never forget the essential truth expressed in this review of minimalist writing apps: “When it comes right down to it, there’s one way to get your writing done: You write.”

2 thoughts on “Sherry Simpson: Write or Die”

  1. I never realized there were even other choices out there for writing on the computer. So many times during these last two years of the MFA program I found myself frustrated with Word for many of the reasons you cited. The outline "view" is clunky and unsatisfying, and a few times I did a hard copy note-card & cut up text combo going back and forth to multiple word documents. Not to mention confusion w/multiple drafts. I'm gonna sign up for some free trials. Thanks for the post Sherry!

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