Computer Programs for Authors

Late yesterday, PG took a dip into the world of software created for the purpose of helping authors do their work.

He claims no expertise or knowledge of any of these programs, although he tried out Scrivener on an experimental basis several years ago.

To the best of PG’s knowledge, most authors use plain vanilla word processing programs for their writing. In the US, for all intents and purposes, that means Microsoft Word.

(Let the more mature among us pause for a moment of silence in remembrance of WordPerfect – The real WordPerfect, not the sad and hollow shell of its former self still sold by Corel.)

After his quick scamper through cyberspace, PG found the following story creation programs, listed in no particular order.

Scrivener

Dabble

Plottr

SmartEdit

Quoll Writer

Campfire Blaze

PG would be interested in comments by anyone who has used one or more of these programs and suggestions of others that PG has missed. PG did not include the several software programs that are focused on the particular needs of scriptwriters.

One of the inherent problems with creating software for authors to write stories and books is that (1) the market for such software is not particularly large and (2) virtually everyone in the target market is already quite familiar with word processing software, namely (today) MS Word or Word for Mac.

PG hasn’t forgotten Pages from Apple but is under the (perhaps mistaken) impression that most authors with Macs use Word.

Feel free to share thoughts, experiences, ideas, additional programs, etc.

48 thoughts on “Computer Programs for Authors”

  1. I too would be interested in comments from users, because I too use a standard word processor for this stuff. A bit of thought is required to keep your files orderly, but this isn’t rocket science. Unlike PG, I am a fan of Word Perfect even in its modern form. It still has Reveal Codes, which you can take from my cold, dead hand.

  2. I’ve found Scrivener invaluable. It’s easy to add and rearrange scenes; to look at all scenes that contain a particular character or setting; to keep research materials and inspiration images handy. (I could do a great deal more with it if I took the trouble to learn how.) I back up the project to, and export individual document files to, a Dropbox folder.

  3. Scrivener is utter bliss. After many years of using Word I discovered Scrivener and it achieves everything I need to write a novel with. One feature alone makes the $49 price worthwhile. Close it down. Open it up. You are back to the same line you left it.

  4. I use Scrivener for everything – up until the final pass before uploading, when I need features from Word for headers and footers and the Table of Contents. Once through Word, I can’t go back, and the stuff IN Word takes a lot of time, so I need to be very sure I’m almost finished. Then the final pdf is ready for uploading.

    Otherwise Word does its hidden things – and they are unpredictable and irreversible.

    I need to upgrade to Scrivener 3 – which I’ve already paid for several years ago – but won’t do it in the middle of a novel (I have some sense). My biggest fear is that one of my critical software components will stop working on my older Macbook (2015) because several of them don’t allow me to upgrade the system software. I may be worried about nothing, but with my extremely limited brain, I can’t take the chance now that I’m within a couple of chapters of the end.

    But Scrivener is the most amazing program – handling thousands of files and millions of words with aplomb.

    • BTW, I suffered no particular problems transitioning even my series bible to the 3.0 version, which I just did last week. You’ll want to go thru the “Guide” it comes with to see/relearn all the current features, but nothing was screwed up or lost in the process. And, like everything, the sooner you bite that bullet, the sooner it’s behind you. 🙂

      • Thanks, Karen. In my case, though, any change will take time, and I’m barely managing to write my mainstream epic as it is. Every day that I don’t write may mean several catching up again.

        I can’t risk it right now. And I see no need to, as Scrivener2 is working fine and isn’t giving me any trouble.

        I’m considering changing to 3 after I’ve created a usable final pdf for both ebook and print version for Book 2, just like I did with Book 1 – and certainly before starting Book 3 immediately after publishing 2. I’d say the exact same thing even if I had someone doing it for me – people underestimate how little energy some of us have, and what that means in practical terms.

        I’ll do as you say and go through the Guide – but not yet. And marketing needs to get a big chunk of my time first – the slow kind of writing I do is low on public rewards, and sales would help.

    • You should be OK with the upgrade (and you can continue to run both versions). My upgrade experience was seamless, but I’m running Scrivener on a newer Windows machine.

  5. From a professional editor to all authors serious about publishing: Please, please, PLEASE (on knees begging) pony up for Word. I don’t care what you write your draft in, but when it’s ready to go out the door — to editor, proofreader, agent, publisher, aggregator — copy your material into Word, save and “Save As” a few times so the file is convinced you mean it, then do any revisions in the returned file IN WORD. The entire electronic publishing chain is set up with Word as a baseline, and no matter what marketing people say, no matter what tech people say, the other-than-Word programs do not play well with Word. There are always invisible gremlins. They may show up at the first step, e.g., the document explodes when the editor is working with it. When you get it back, you may not be able to see their work, or it might explode on you, too. (Note that this happens even between Mac and PC versions of Word, though nowhere near as often or as bad as occurs with other products.) Even if the editing process goes without surprises, chances are high the unfortunate proofreader, designer, or formatter down the chain may have something incomprehensible happen, causing them to waste time and possibly your dollars undoing and redoing whatever out-of-the-blue thing occurred. So, please, please, PLEASE use Word!

    • I do use Word – after the whole thing is almost ready – because Word gives me a few necessary features for my formatting. I can’t get those in Scrivener because it is not a word processor (though I understand version 3 is a lot closer to one).

      But I have long distrusted what Word does, from experience. My beta reader is fine with the pdfs coming from Scrivener; after that, it’s all me working – and I’m not ever trading files with anyone, her included. ‘Getting it back’ doesn’t happen with my kind of indie who does it all.

      Excellent work can be created by most authors willing to put in the time and the effort. Some of us indies don’t play well with others. You can only judge by the final product. You’re welcome to examine mine – I suggest the Look Inside of the print version because it has the formatting you can’t really put into an ebook.

  6. I’m on Mac and I use Google Docs for any and all long-form writing (including my novels) and research. I haven’t used Word in years. But all my editors do. So I can easily export to .docx and I can see all their Track Changes just fine.

    Oh, and for creating/formatting ebooks, I do it in HTML using BBEdit and Sigil (to .epub). For paper, I use InDesign.

  7. I tried Scrivener once. Never again. I have friends who love it but it just doesn’t suit the way I write at all. I’m working on a big and quite complicated non-fiction project right now but Word is fine. By the time I come to write the first complete draft, I work on a single long document, dividing into chaptersas I go. I’m about half way through right now. In an odd sort of way I have it all in my head before I begin, and make useful connections and adjustments as I go. I also surround myself with pictures, documents etc but I certainly don’t want those anywhere near my computer screen.

  8. I’ve now used Scrivener for approaching a decade and 11 novels (latest release is 3.0). My nerd brain loves the potential of absolute metadata/keyword/etc. control, but my more experienced persona has trimmed it down to more basic stuff that fits what I’ve decided I actually use productively. There, in that sweet spot, I find it invaluable.

    I also keep a separate “series bible” for each series in Scrivener as a place to store and control all the bits and pieces in any created world — equally invaluable.

    The automatic backups to Dropbox and elsewhere and extreme portability are also a plus.

    I do agree that you need to master Word (I already had) to do a decent job producing the print edition, and I’ve created a standard recipe for how I take my completed and final Scrivener manuscript and transition it into healthy and robust Word (and eBook) versions. Once that transition is made, I no longer return to the Scrivener version (except to copy it as the basic setup for the next book). All edits for typos, etc., post that point are done at the Word and eBook levels.

    I do share PG’s nostalgia for WP as the first of the great widespread word processors (I’d been making do with EMACS professionally before that point), but I think it had to hit you at just the right age and career point (much like Atlas Shrugged when you’re a teenager working summers in your father’s business). The legal profession used it much longer than the business world which went straight to Word once it was mature enough. (Easier for them to put up with the non-robust complexities, since the big businesses had IT departments to help out, and they were mostly Microsoft Office focused. Individuals who didn’t have experience with Word professionally were/are left to suffer.)

    In fact, as I remember, the legal profession went to word processing first, and thus ended up with WP. They were/are in no hurry to leave, because who would teach them Word? The publishing profession went to it later and reluctantly (from paper and back office specialists), and thus ended up with Word by the default of timing. The business world has tried everything, and ends up with Word for robustness and support reasons, without caring much about all the complexities that the publishing world forced into the software.

  9. By the way, I always switch off all of Word’s grammar suggestions. (I definitely know better.) I don’t even let it spell check as I go. I do that when I have a reasonable draft. I do allow it to autocorrect my habitual typing errors, but that’s all. Track changes is very useful for conversations with my editor and for my trad published work it has to be a Word document.

  10. IMHO, the original WordPerfect was toast-worthy.

    MS Word is all right and it does everything I need it to do. (I also use a text program, Notepad, to create a reverse outline as I go when I’m writing a novel or a series. Keeps me from losing little details and keeps me from having to scroll back through the document.)

    Because I allow the characters to tell the story that they, not I, are living, I don’t worry a lot (or at all) about plotting, twists, moving/shifting scenes, etc. ad nauseam. I just write things as they happen while the characters and I are racing through the fictional world. So far that’s worked for over 200 short stories and 66 novels, some of which are stand-alone and many of which are in one of several different series in the western, SF, action-adventure or detective/PI genres.

  11. Another vote for Scrivener. It’s stable, it’s simple to move chapters & scenes around, & it’s affordable without filling my hard drive with bloated software that must be ransomed annually. I like seeing where I’ve gotten to & when I’ve hit my word count for a session.

  12. +1 on Scrivener. I would use it just for how it lets you organize chapters and move stuff around, that is the Word-killer feature for me. Scrivener exports to Word and a ton of other formats, and you can programmatically change the formatting when you export via the Compile feature, that’s its next biggest strength. However, I do agree with Carolyn, if you are working with editors agents, etc., Word is the default format for sharing, so you need to be able to export to Word. It’s probably best to have a copy of Word and double-check the formatting after exporting.

    Another great thing about Scrivener is the mobile app that lets you work (via a Dropbox sync) on your phone or tablet. I’ve probably written half of my current book on my phone, whenever I get spare time. It’s been revolutionary not to be tethered to a laptop.

    One other program I think is critical for self-published authors is a book formatting program called Vellum. I paid $250 for the lifetime version shortly after it came out and imo it was worth every penny. It imports a Word file (or now it can import Scrivener files directly!) then has a bunch of nice templates that you can fine-tune how you want. It generates all the formats you’ll need (Kindle, Apple, Kobo, generic epub, pdf) and the exported formatting is exactly as it looks in Vellum.

    • I fine-tune the Sigil EPUB version “by hand” (with scripts) so that I have complete control. Wouldn’t mind a better way, however…

      Alas, it’s still Apple-only. I refuse to own a whole Apple machine & environment for one lousy application…. Instead of having to maintain my tech learning in Sigil/EPUB setup, I’d have to learn a whole new hardware and OS.

      Sigh…

      Can’t even run on an iPad – MacOS only.

      • Hi Karen. I do the Sigil > .epub thing (on Mac). But I’ve been on Mac since 1988 so it’s a no-brainer for me.

        What most people don’t understand is that ebooks are basically HTML pages. Every Part, Chapter, Scene, What-Have-You has a Head and a Body. Then it’s pure HTML tagging around the text from there (along with the CSS styling). And fine-tuning by hand is my preferred way. It’s perfect for control freaks and OCDers like me. And maybe you, I’m guessing. 😉

  13. TO ALL THE SCRIVENER FANS:
    I’ve heard all the raves and gave it a shot a couple of times. My complaint is a very simple one: it doesn’t have autocorrect. Does it? Have I missed something? Because nothing makes up for that inconvenience.

    I will be glad to learn if I am wrong.

  14. I absolutely love OneNote. I’m not typically one to brag on a Microsoft product, but this thing is amazing.

    I’m not talking about the free version that comes with Windows 10, rather, the free one Microsoft started offering that’s a full-fledged version that was/is part of Office.

    It’s actually *kind* of like Scrivener, though, for non-writers, it’s far more useful. For one thing, it integrates seamlessly with Word, which is easily the best word processor ever made, as well as having capturing capabilities with web browsers, the ability to capture and clip pictures, notes, lists, et al.

    I use the tool for everything from sharing shopping lists with my wife, to assisting with novel writing, to keeping notes about EVERYTHING – whether it’s about computer repair, a personal diary, or how to install Nginx on a server. (True story). It’s got endless capability to expand (new notebooks, new pages, new tabs. And, it’s compatible with everything (phones, tablets, all kinds of computers). It doesn’t have any of the issues saving to the cloud like other tools like Scrivener have.

    If I’m out and about, I can snap a picture, and send it to OneNote. Whether the picture is of a cool house or a tree, monument, or clothes in a store, or a passage of text. Then, I can take it out of OneNote, and drop it into Word (or Scivener, if I so choose).

    My life, much less just my writing life, would be a LOT less organized without a tool such as OneNote at my disposal.

    I don’t mention this as a one-stop-shop for writers, or a replacement for Scrivener. Honestly, I find Word a far better word processor than Scrivener, but I do like that tool as well. But OneNote in addition to another tool or two is all you’d ever need. And yes, I’ve used Evernote in the past, in OneNote is far, far more intuitive, to say nothing of prevalent everywhere.

    • I like OneNote, too, as a general repository for all-purpose info collection. Like all knowledge handlers, it suffers from a (real world) inability to automatically keep its content up to date. Alas, nothing can automate that. (I wish…) No sooner do I tuck a bit of “ooh! useful to know!” stuff away, than it becomes outdated, if not also broken-linked.

      Scrivener’s strength, by contrast, is its specialization as a repository for the newly-written word, with all the stuff you need to support creation. Since it doesn’t have to manage (updated) real world info, it’s perfect for its task.

      Where Evernote shines is as a repository for static information: images, recipes, snippets of data, and so forth.

      • I don’t know if we can ding a program for not being able to do something that no application can do. 😉

        Scrivener’s got many strengths – I just don’t think Word processing is one of them. 😉 To each their own of course, and I imagine everyone should use what works best for them. I mean, some great authors never moved off of the good ol’ typewriter. However, I think one fundamental need for any application (including Word processors) is that the interface should not get in the way of the actual work.

        Scrivener, having come from the Mac world, tends to be designed with that OS and typing patterns in mind. So, for someone like myself, who has never used a Mac for more than a total of 20 hours in my entire life – it’s very cumbersome.

        I still like Scrivener for organizing information. But no matter how many times I’ve tried to actual write with it, I just found I was losing productivity vs. what I was comfortable with. Ultimately, I did start to put a lot of things in Scrivener, but I probably could have written a novel in the time that it took me “learn” Scrivener. Which is kind of crazy.

        The same problem is true for many people when it comes to Evernote. It’s just not that easy to get started with and to use, and it’s fundamentally designed with a smart phone, in mind and and not the desktop, which makes it efficient for many uses, though it can’t really compare with OneNote.

  15. I’ve poked at Scrivener, haven’t tried the new release of it. Where I couldn’t get the old version to cooperate was (of all things) default font. Whatever it defaulted to on my Windows system was both ugly and difficult for me to read – san serif, IIRC. And whatever I did, it wouldn’t change. Except if I manually highlighted a paragraph and changed the font. I couldn’t write in what they had. I eventually gave up, and went back to Word. and gave up on Scrivener, too as they kept not delivering an update to the Windows version.

    Has that been fixed?

  16. I’m a great fan of Scrivener. I’ve been using it for years on my Mac at home. It suits the way that I work and write. One the reasons I like it is that you can customize it to suit your writing needs. I do use Word, but only when I send the final draft to my editors for copyediting and proofreading.

    At work, before I had retired, I was a Word power user. I was very happy when OneNote was released. It made my job easier as I can put all my research into OneNote and organize it the way that I pleased. I have OneNote installed on my Mac, but I never use it since I use Scrivener for practically everything.

    I do admit I don’t miss wrestling with Word. It tries to be helpful, sometimes to helpful.

  17. Microsoft Project is designed for managing large construction projects. It works very well for doing the same for a book project. Critical paths, forward and backwards dependencies, scene durations, auto dating of scenes based on durations, use of resources(characters) in scenes, reordering of scenes at will, bundling scenes into chapters, linkage of Word to each event, visual mapping of everything.

    Add schedules for writing text for events, bundling work packages for execution, and statusing the project.

    It makes no pretense of being useful for books. But, a book is just another project, and it does those very well.

  18. I agree that WordPerfect was a wonderful word processor. I miss it still, though had to give it up when I went from pc to Mac about 7 or 8 years ago. And because everybody in the publishing world wanted things in Word, I learned how to use it. Took me a long time, but I now like it very much. Pages is fine, but I can format a ms a lot faster and more efficiently in Word. I’ve looked at Scrivener and a couple of others, but I’ve developed my own system of working and I can’t see anything that works as well as what I’ve come up with for the way I work. I’ve always been “well-organized” and a 30-year career as an accountant honed that. I only use Spell-check when I’ve finished a document, because a lot of the time it’s useless. It likes to check business documents, not fiction.

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