Software for Writers

I love software for writers.  My computer is full of such programs. I’ve tried outliners, storyboards and character designers. So how do I actually write? I do first drafts longhand in spiral bound notebooks, the seventy-page kind Wal-Mart sells for a dime apiece during their back-to-school sale every fall. Then I type my work into Word, and keep notes and charts in Excel.

[5/20/17: I wrote this article in July 2011, for my RWA chapter newsletter. By June 2013 I had switched all my writing, from novels to blog posts to book reviews and articles, to Scrivener, which, for me at least, covers all the bases. Yesterday (May 2017) a reader kindly informed me that the original link for Storybook now leads to a nasty site in Japanese. I’ve removed that link–really, you don’t want to go there–and replaced it with a current link. I also checked the others, all of which still lead to good sites for writing software. I hope you find something useful here.]

But Temptation dropped into my email box last week, with the subject line Writer’s Blocks 4 is Here! Rewritten from the ground up for Windows 7, it promised, along with all sorts of new and/or improved features. I knew I was doomed. I closed the email, but I didn’t delete it. In fact I flagged it. I knew I’d come back.

Writer’s Blocks is one of the latest in a long string of programs I have tried, and usually abandoned, in the pursuit of some magical writing aid. Maybe that mysterious program that enables some writers’ computers to turn out several books a year. Haven’t found that one yet.

One of the earliest I tried was something called IdeaFisher. It was, as I recall, something of a cross between a thesaurus and a brainstorming program. I’ve long since lost track of both the software (which probably came on a 5.25 inch floppy disk and ran on Windows 3.0) and the manual, so I looked it up on Google. Somewhat to my surprise, the old IdeaFisher has been resurrected and rewritten as ThoughtOffice, with an add-on called Muse for novel writing.

Another early foray into writing software was a disk called Software DreamPack for Writers. That one came on a CD, and I found it in a box of old software. The contents consisted mostly of trial versions of software programs, both shareware and commercial, all dated 1998. I used a few of the programs, including a couple of games I played for years, but I think the only one I bought a commercial version of was Action Outline, an excellent outliner, still going strong, although I haven’t used it in quite a while.

Character Pro used the enneagram method to assist in character development, although at the time I wouldn’t have known an enneagram if I’d tripped over one. I’ve since been introduced to them in various workshops, by people who really make the system pay, but I find I’m not one of them. Character Pro has evolved (thanks to the charmingly named Typing Chimp Software) into a broader program called Character Writer. Darn, now this research is leading me into temptation–Character Writer looks interesting.

Many writers swear by WriteWayPro, which was designed by a writer and written by her programmer-husband. The program combines an outliner and a word processor, with areas for research, character development, etc. I tried it for a while, but I couldn’t get used to some features of the word processor.  (A similar program called Scrivener is very popular among Mac users. A beta version for Windows is available, with the full version due in August 2011.)

When Randy Ingermanson released a software version of his Snowflake Method of novel writing, I popped for a copy at the introductory price. Haven’t used it much yet, it’s kind of a start-from-the-beginning tool (for me–no telling how it might work for you), and I’m half-way through my current project. The price has gone up since the introductory offer, but you can cut it down considerably by buying a copy of Ingermanson’s Writing Fiction for Dummies. And while you’re nosing around the site, you can read the non-computerized version of the snowflake method and subscribe to his free Advanced Fiction Writing Ezine.

Writer’s Blocks, now in version 4, has been around since 1994. It’s essentially a story-boarding program, although it does include a word processor. A couple of years ago I treated myself to version 3, and used it extensively in writing Paper Hearts. Although I continued to write in Word, I found the visual aspect very useful, putting up a block for each scene, with location, characters, and a line of action, and color-coding the blocks by the point of view character, which gave me an instant sense of the POV balance, and the outline view produced an excellent summary for use in the dreaded task of writing a synopsis. I also found the learning curve a bit steep, some of the commands less than intuitive, and the help files not always helpful. There were a few programming glitches that annoyed me, too (although as someone who knows nothing at all about programming, I hesitate to criticize).

Needless to say, I downloaded the trial version of Writer’s Blocks 4 (even as an upgrade, the program’s not cheap, and I want to look at it before I buy). It looks gorgeous, all Windows 7 and ribbon commands, and the glitches that annoyed me seem to have been worked out. The learning curve hasn’t flattened, and it took me half an hour to figure out a couple of new features, even with the 155-page PDF manual. But I can spread out a lot of blocks on my very large monitor. I used version 3 when I was starting to work on Bathtub Jinn, although I’m not sure how much of that made it into the manuscript. Now that I’ve got half the book written, maybe I’ll put the first eleven chapters into blocks and really see what I’ve got. Oh, dear, where’s my credit card?

On the other hand, I’ve recently run across a free program called Storybook, which looks like a slightly different angle on the story-board format.  I may have to take a longer look at that before I pop for the Writer’s Blocks upgrade.  And then there’s that soon-to-be-released Scrivener for Windows.  Oh, my!

Software is an amazingly subjective area. What works brilliantly for one writer (or engineer, or graphic artist) may be a total flop for another. Looking over some of the programs I’ve tried over the years makes me think that the story board, the computerized index card, may be the approach that works for me. If something else works for you, there’s a lot to choose from. Write on!

Kay Hudson continues to search for the illusive magic program that actually writes novels.  She blogs about writing, and whatever crosses her mind during her daily commute, at kayhudson.com.

8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. The Background Story
    Jan 16, 2012 @ 21:48:19

    Kay Hudson continues to search for the illusive magic program that actually writes novels.
    –If you ever find one, please notify me. 🙂

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    Reply

  2. Henry Kessler
    Oct 25, 2013 @ 01:08:23

    Unfortunately, Storybook seems to have vanished from the Internet. If you know where to find this little trinket, would be nice to know.

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  3. Genyo
    Jun 23, 2014 @ 13:05:31

    Is there a reason you left out Ywriter? I use it all the time and enjoy it very much. It’s also free.

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    • Kay Hudson
      Jun 23, 2014 @ 14:54:20

      No reason except that I’d never run across it. I looked at the web site, and it looks like rather like Scrivener, probably not as complex. I’m glad it’s working for you.

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      Reply

  4. David
    Oct 28, 2015 @ 15:14:12

    These aren’t really writing programs per se, but they’re great (open source, meaning free) for organizing your thoughts – I use them a lot for a *ton* of different things, from researching to writing. In order, from simple to complicated, they are: FreeMind, FreePlane, and DocEar.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

    • Kay Hudson
      Oct 28, 2015 @ 15:32:09

      Since I wrote this (and I’m not at all sure when that was!) I’ve become a total Scrivener fan. It seems to do just about everything I used to have separate programs for, from outlining and storyboarding to writing, plus compiling to Word, PDF, and ebook formats. Not everyone loves it, but I do. (There IS a learning curve.)

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply

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