Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Is Writing Software for You?

Sharon Wildwind

In the past week, three people have asked me if they should get a software program to help them with their writing. And if so, what program do I recommend? Here’s how I answer the first question:

Do you already have a system that works for you?

I don’t care if it’s colored index cards, a 3-ring binder, or jury-rigging an existing computer programs such as Excel or Powerpoint. If you have a system that you already like, there’s no need to change.

However, if you’re having trouble remembering details, or ideas slip away, or you long to have a record of what you’ve already written, dedicated software may be an answer. I’ve written seven mysteries using a writing software program, and I’m convinced I’m a better writer for it. Having said that, I also admit I’ve had hair-tearing days dealing with the program’s eccentricities.

Do I need one is the easier of the two question. Which one do I need is a lot harder to answer.

Except recently, thanks to Keith and David in Cornwall, England answering that question got a lot easier. Keith and David produce a writing software program for MacIntosh computers. However, they want people to comparison shop, so on their web site they've posted the most comprehensive list I’ve ever seen of writing programs for both Windows and MacIntosh environments. If you click on the link above, you can get a quick idea of all of the major programs that are out there, with links to the companies that produce them.

If you are a Mac user, and are considering a program that wasn’t created specifically for MacIntosh computers, find out if the Mac version is a full-featured or a stripped-down program. Some companies produce and update a full program for Windows environment, but only a stripped-down version (with infrequent updates) for the Mac.

The decision to use a writing program is a meeting of three elements: the writer’s need for a program; their computer’s ability to provide the hardware required by the program; and a whole lot of time test driving programs before choosing one.

Are you willing to take time to experiment? I recommend a three-step process:

1) Find out what’s out there. See the list I recommended above.

2) Scan all of the programs and divide them into two lists: first list—the ones that don’t immediate appeal to you or that you can’t use because it requires a kind of computer that you don’t have; and second list—the ones you want to test drive.

For the programs on that second list, I recommend spending a minimum of 10 to 30 hours per program before deciding which one you want to buy. The more time you spend with the demo, the more likely that the program you select will meet your needs.

Start by going to a program’s web site. How easy it is to navigate around the site? Is it a sales only site, or do they offer additional features, such as a newsletter, tip sheet, or tutorial?

Pay particular attention to Technical Support and Contact Us links. If you run into problems later, what kind of technical help is available? A list of Frequently Asked Questions or a forum where users help one another is not good technical support. You need to be able to contact a real, live person when you run into problems. You also need to know upfront if there a charge for talking to that real, live person.

Many sites have guided tours. Take that tour.

Down load a demo and play with it. A simple rule is no demo, no sale. You need hands-on experience to know if a program is right for you. Here’s the process I use to evaluate a demonstration copy.

The first thing I do is try to create a new character from scratch.
Did the terms in the program match the terms I use or will I have to learn a new vocabulary?
Was the set-up for the character profile easy to use?
Did the process feel like filing out my income tax or did the character come alive for me as I filled in information?
Can I cross-check characters, such as looking at several character descriptions at once to see if too many of my characters are ending up with black hair and green eyes?
Do I like the printed format? If not, can I change it?

The second step is to plug in a character I’ve already created.
How much of a hassle was it to convert an existing character to the format required by the program?
Did I learn anything new about my character by seeing her or him in the new format?

Third, I create a scene from scratch.
How does the program record demographics—date, day, time, weather, moon phase, location—or whatever picky details I use to establish my framework for a scene?
How does the program track why this scene is important? Among the huge list of ways available to track a scene—goals, motivations, disasters, tension level, plot arc, hero’s journey, density, on and on—which ones does this program use? Are they the same ones I use and, if not, can I reconfigure the system to fit what I need?
How easy is it to number and/or name this scene, so I can find it again?
Can I link it other scenes in some way; for example, is there a way to find all the scenes in which Jarod appears or all the scenes related to the sub-plot of Marcie’s aunt?
Is there a way to track the tension or the story arc of the entire story?
How much time would I spend defining the parameters of the scene, versus writing the scene itself?

Fourth, I spend time determining how easy it is to understand the program’s organization.
How easy is it to make backups? How much space does each backup take?
Is there a spell-checker? A thesaurus?
Are there some kind of files such as family trees, maps, diagrams, photographs, audio and video recordings that this program can’t handle. In other words will I be keeping a lot or a little of this information somewhere else rather than in my writing program? In the heat of writing, having to leave my writing program to look at a photo or check a map gets to be a drag.
Can I write scenes or chapters in the writing software program or do I need a separate word processing program? How smooth is information transfer between the writing software and my word processing program?
Can I change fonts? Use underline, bold, and italics? Use different colors to highlight material?
What’s the printing format like? Can I print single- and double-sided? Can I print part of a section or must I print the entire section each time? How graphic-intensive is the printing and how much ink will I use on photos, borders, etc.?

The final and most important questions are
Did the program do no harm to my writing?
Did I have a wonderful time using it?


Lonnie Cruse said...

Personally I like the colored 3 X 5 cards. Works well for me. Great post!

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Another amazing post, Sharon. I suspect many who thought writing software might help will find the amount of homework you recommend intimidating, but I'm sure you're right on target about what has to be done to get the results you want. Me, I'm still flying seat of the pants--can't imagine constructing a character in advance. For me, they come alive when they start talking to me.

Anonymous said...

The nice thing about a good writing software program is that is allows you to change things easily as you do create on the go. If something in my character's background or values changes, I can update on the fly, without even leaving the chapter I'm working on.

The create a character was meant as an exercise to use in test-driving the programs.