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?