So, if MS Word is good enough for me, does that mean I’m not a writer’s writer?

Or, Can Someone Tell Me What Dedicated Novelist Word-processing Programs Actually Do?

Thought about this after reading the following post and comments at Passive Voice about Scrivener, which sounds interesting from the impassioned testimonials and has a decent price point, but which I am nonetheless probably not going to buy because I already have a tool that works perfectly well for the task at hand.

Throughout the writing blogosphere, I see a lot of hate on MS Word like a couple of commenters left on the post above, and a lot of the complaints about Word come off sounding a bit…pretentious?  Holier than thou?  Anti-MS hipster hate?  I don’t know that that kind of animus drives anyone’s dislike of the program, but many of the comments come off that way to me, probably because there is nothing I have tried to do in MS Word that I couldn’t do, and do easily.

The post on Scrivener and the comments about its functionalities got me thinking, though, about how I use my word processing program and if any of these additional functions would benefit me. I don’t know that they wouldn’t if I bought a program like Scrivener and gave it an honest try. Trouble is, I have that If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it mentality. I have a usage system for Word that works for me, that has been developed over the last 10 or 12 years, that I am quite satisfied with.

Every time I see a discussion like this pop up, though, where pretty much every writer weighing in talks about how much Word sucks and how horribly limited it is for writers, makes me wonder what I’m doing that is so different from other writers that makes Word comfortable for me. Is it just that I have no imagination for what could be, because I am just the sort of person who looks at what is and rolls from there without wasting time on the speculative? Is it that I have taken an objectively crappy (or, at least, rudimentary and limited) tool and made a work-around its limitations that I am happy with? Is it that I cut my teeth writing on a computer with Word (and, by the way, hated WordPerfect when I had to try and use it at my dad’s office when I was already used to Word from the school computer lab), and Word has become the digital equivalent of Linus’s Blankie for me?  Or is Word, in fact, just fine for plenty of writers, and the selection bias in such contexts as a post about another program only makes it sound like 99% of writers hate Word? 

(Ha, look at that. I’m the 1% now?  Sweet.)

What I want to know, if any of you out there reading this post use word processing tools besides Word, is why? What are you doing that cannot be accomplished with the actual functionalities of Word? 

My working doc for a project is organized chaos. At the top is my actual story. Below it are notes, outlines, and scenes that I wrote in snippets of dialogue or description that will be integrated later. Sometimes there are mulitple versions of the same scene, and sometimes there are blantantly contradictory scenes where I wrote the snippet one way, changed a plot point, and then wrote it another way. Periodically I will go through and organize my scenes and notes into chronological order, since when I write them I’m usually in too much of a hurry to get the words down to bother finding their proper place. I just skip to the end of the doc or the section below where I’m working, bang them out, and then shuffle them around later. I have a pretty good mental map at all times of where particular scenes are (in “how does your mind process information” tests I’ve been told I have a strong spatial relations sense, which to me means that I often key my memory retention to “maps” of things like documents, or my kitchen, that make it easy for me to find something in the place where I left it based on its relation to other things in the vicinity), and so I don’t struggle to find a note or scene when I need it.  Worst case scenario I do a search for a word or phrase I know I used in that scene, like “knife” or “pillow” (common specific objects are often not referenced as much as you might think). Actually, no, worst case scenario is that I can’t remember a single word unique to that scene and have to read my notes and bare-bones scenes from the top down in order until I find the one I want. 

When I’m writing, I mark section breaks with hard return and ***, and at the end of a chapter I insert a page break and start the next page with a centered “Chapter 5” or whatever. I write single-spaced in 12-point Times New Roman, and the only textual formattings I allow are italics, ellipses spacing, supernumerals, N-/M-dash corrections, and smart quotes (which I know how to control with dummy letters…I will admit that having to do that is a bit obnoxious, but it can be done and it’s two extra keystokes to do it, and if the extra keys were really too onerous I could set up macro keys for the specific symbols of apostrophe, opening quotation marks, and closing quotation marks). If I have to move sections around, good ole Copy/Paste or Cut/Paste work just fine.  If I am feeling really paranoid about whether a scene will stick, I copy it into a separate doc and call it “scenes I have written past for Story X” and save it. That way I still have the original version if I need to refer back to it, but it’s not clogging up my working doc that went in a different direction.

I am sure that all this is a tortured kind of interplay between text and notes, and a terrible layout for anyone else to have to try and deciper. But it works for me. I am not sure I want the kind of fragmentation that seems to be the main selling point for “Writer’s writer software.”  Sure, I could have tabs for different chapters or sections or notes, but I have the same thing now just vertically speaking (not horizontally) and the added benefit of not forgetting something if I put it in a different section than where the piece later seems to go. If I read through my whole doc looking for something specific, it also reminds me of everything else I’ve written or considered. If I just go to the tab for “scene X” then I don’t get those reminders.

The one other use for dedicated writing progams is creating book layouts for print-on-demand. I have made a .pdf file for a POD book (some fanfiction I wrote and gave to my friends as a Christmas gift one year), and it was pretty easy to put together. A bit of a pain to make sure my formatting was consistent for chapter headings (in terms of centering, sizing, font, etc.) but not hard. When I had odd numbering (such as the Roman numerals paginating the front matter vs. the Arabic numerals for the text), I just created a different doc for that section and merged the two .pdfs. Took two seconds. Maybe that kind of document would be easier to create in a writing program that has fields for those things that can be auto-filled to uniform standards, but is saving myself an hour of hand-formatting worth the money to buy a program and the time involved in learning it? Maybe if I get to quit my day job and end up writing six novels a year those six hours will be more valuable to me than they are right now, but if that theoretical future usage is all I would be using the program for, then I’m not sold.

I”m not writing this to be contentious or to defend Word. As tools go, I agree it’s pretty basic–I just don’t feel like I need anything more than basic. So I am genuinely curious for those who don’t like Word and do like a dedicated “for writers” word processing program, what specific functionalities you need that Word does not have, and what specific benefits other programs have for you?



Filed under Ramblings, Writing

17 responses to “So, if MS Word is good enough for me, does that mean I’m not a writer’s writer?

  1. Thanks for sharing this information. I agree, I would like to see what others comment as well. I feel like the “writers” programs are just another marketing ploy to make more money. Word processing programs work great for me. Thanks again!

  2. Hi – I just popped over from Passive Voice to answer your question.

    First of all – if you have a system that works for you – then please don’t let someone else’s opinion mess you up. IMO there is no such thing as a ‘Writer’s Writer.’ It is a matter of using what you have to the best advantage, and it sounds like you have a system that works for you.

    I’ve used dozens of different programs since I bought my first computer – in the 80’s…I’ll only admit that because I want you too see my frame of reference. In our school we had electric typewriters…PCs hadn’t been invented yet.

    So for me, Word and Windows came much later – after I had used everything from printer mark up language on a CPM to Wordperfect for DOS. My first ‘love’ is Adobe Pagemaker -which was a very complicated desktop publishing program.

    I don’t have anything against Word – I’ve used so many different types of software that I can get it to do what I what it to do – for the most part. Where I have problems is with documents that are 20 to 30 years old that have been switched through generations of software. Everything from ProWrite 1 to Word 95. These programs left invisible coding behind things that create problems for Meatgrinder on Smashwords.

    I don’t have problems with anything I’ve written from start to finish in any version of Word. It’s the old stuff that has problems. I probably have a couple of CDWRs of these legacy files. Millions of words – hundreds of half-finished stories and bits of research copied from more sources that I can recall.

    In short – I’ve got no filing system for all this stuff. Therefore it is all useless.

    What I’m loving about Scrivener is the chance to sort all those fragments into categories and move them around as needed. I’m using it as a file cabinet – as a database, not a word processor. In fact, I’m not impressed with it as a word process. But it makes a GREAT filing system.

    I can make Windows do all this – by using folders and sub-folders, multiple windows of data open – I’ve been doing it this way for years. It is a bit cumbersome – and I’m a power user.

    Where scrivener shines is for people who aren’t comfortable with 6 or more programs open and running all at the same time. (I can use 2 monitors as well, it’s not a big deal for me.) They can have 1 program open, and all their stuff is in 1 click files.

    Does that help?

    • K.- Yes, that is a VERY lucid and enlightening answer! I can see the “filing cabinet” use being very appealing, as I sometimes find it obnoxious to have notes spread into 4 different doc’s if I, say, merge 2 stories into 1 and have to have my “Notes on X world” doc, the two story notes docs, and then the new combined story doc open all at once…and then have to figure out how to organize the two different threads into one doc. yes. The ability to have it all in one database instead sounds simpler!

      Thank you for taking the time to go through such a long answer of what problems you run into with Word and what you really use Scrivener for! Very helpful perspective, and it makes me feel better (eh, well, not that I was THAT worried about it) to know that at least some of the issues Word raises are, well, non-issues for me…

  3. A.Beth

    Word? Limited? What? If Word were limited… I’d be using something else — mostly because I get terribly annoyed at having to re-train it to my preferences each time I upgrade. I think that’s the main source of *my* Word-hate; once I have it kneeling and calling me Queen, it’s unfortunately the most useful word-processing program I’ve accessed. I say “unfortunately” because MicroSoft keeps putting out upgrades that I eventually have to get because I’ve ridden the horse, er, computer into the ground and want a new one. And then I have to go whipping a new Word into submission again.

    Count me in as someone who’s been beating Word for years (since it loaded onto my toaster Mac!) and who is pleased enough with how it works. When not having to break in a new version, anyway. Then, yes, the hatred.

    • Ha! hahahahahahahha Oh my God, YES, I hate upgrading! I am still crying over the passing of Word 2003, which is my all-time favorite. thus far, anyway. I am happy to say that 2010 is a huge improvement over 2007, which made me want to shoot myself, or my computer, or maybe just Gates. I only had to deal with it at work, since my home upgrade didn’t happen till 2010 existed…

      • I’m stuck with Vista – I’ve tried to upgrade to Windows 7, 6 times and it fails every time. I’m so frustrated by upgrades, looks like I’m in good company!

        “once I have it kneeling and calling me Queen,” – BEST one liner I’ve seen in months!

      • Frankly, I’ve been dissatisfied with the Look and Feel of Word since… Word 4. (Which AbiWord, an opensource application, copies rather well; if it didn’t have font-display issues on my Mac, I’d be working harder on putting it through its paces.)

        *sweeps a bow to K.A.Jordan* Thank you! (There’s a reason why one of my journal icons is “lego-me” with a book in one hand and a whip in the other…)

  4. Well, Scrivener does all that stuff you detail above, and then some. And it does it in a logical and consistent way. I’m sure that your system works for you, but it does really sound like a proto-Scrivener setup. The point being, Scrivener is saving many people the need to work out a complicated system of management for long documents with a lot of research attached.
    I think that every body uses Scrivener more or less in a different way, depending on how they approach their work. There is no one way to use it. I think this really pleases users, who find that it all comes a bit naturally.
    Anyway, almost all Scrivener love that I read is about how Scrivener has changed thier writing life, not about how rubbish Word is. Word is no rubbish. It is a lot more powerful as a word processor than Scrivener – and a lot of people will compile to Word when they have finished the writing management bit. Scrivener themselves know this, they are not trying to compete with Word.
    But, but, but. Word does not contain ANY process mangement tools worthy of the name. So you have to invent your own. And Scrivener contains some amazingly useful tools which can save a project from chaos and disaster. It won’t write your book for you any more than Word will, but it seems to help.

    • Good point, Ivan.
      Scrivener is a good addition to Word. A place to start the novel – and maybe print the novel to PDF or e-pub – but I can’ see it taking the place of Word.

      If Scrivener handled spreadsheets – it would have another layer of usefulness.

      • I don’t think Scrivener replaces your choice of finishing software, but of course that doesn’t have to be Word. It really depends on what your end product is. If you need the processing power of Word, compile to Word and go from there. I do that myself for outlines, proposals, novels etc. But you might want to compile for the Kindle. Or ebooks. For that you don’t need world. Or you might want to go to a layout program, or a coding program or something else. Or you might be perfectly happy with a variety of Scrivener output.
        My point is this – there are some things that Word does that Scrivener doesn’t do. But there are hundreds of things that Scrivener does that Word doesn’t do. So you should look to build (‘grow’) your writing in Scrivener until you ahve it complete, then export it for finishing.

  5. Thanks for weighing in, Ivan! A useful perspective, to consider Scrivener as a building space and then use another program as a finishing/exporting space.

    Also, I hope someone from their company sees this and pays you for that slogan, bc it’s as catchy as “there’s no wrong way to eat a reese’s!”–THERE’S NO ONE WAY TO USE SCRIVENER. brilliant.

    • For full disclosure, I’ve just started work on Scrivener for Dummies, so I have a vested interest. But my aim is to just point out how to use it if you want, not to evangelise for it!

  6. After checking out your 10 reasons to try scrivener, there are 2 that have a large appeal to me, the split screen and the word tracking function. it would be nice to have outline on one side so i can see it as i am writing vs having to scroll down to check and then back up. the word tracking would be nice for nano stats, since i’m having to manually adjust for words in my starting doc count that i have erased (like notes and outline segmetns i’ve gotten past)….

    still not sure i’ll try it, but i’m beginning to see some benefits that make more sense than “word sucks” 🙂

  7. Lily, I suspect it would change your writing life by taking the muddly mental stuff away and letting you concnetrate on the writing, but I’m not going to go on about it, I’ll leave it for you to make the decision (or not).

  8. The good thing is that you know it exists. In case you need it – you know it’s out there, and reasonably priced. Until then, you can always pick up the trial version when/if you desire to give it a try.

    It just happens to be what I need for the series I’m researching.

  9. Yes, now I know it’s out there and what it can do for me. If I run into a project my system can’t handle then I know where to look for another tool. 🙂

    Thanks again, y’all!

    And if anyone else still reading this discussion has more to share, bring it out!

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