Tools of the (writing) trade
aka How I Am Utterly Rubbish At Organising My Work and Need Professional Help
Everyone has their favourite writing tools – pens, iPhones, dictation apps, all sorts. I have used yellow legal pads for my story notes ever since my friend Susie told me that Jackie Collins used them, because I really am that easily influenced.
If, like me, you are utterly rubbish at organisation, there is a temptation to keep trying new things, in case this time it really is The One – the system that finally organises your life and your files and your endless scrappy notes, leaving you free to WORK.
But what actually invariably happens is that you end up with projects spread over several different apps, plus the paper notebooks and scraps of paper that you still can’t live without but which you leave in pockets and in various handbags, until your story/article/novel is turned into a kind of broken, text-based Humpty Dumpty that can never be put back together again.
I have tried loads of over the years, but here are my five favourites (including the one that I eventually went back to and stayed with):
Scrivener (Mac/PC, $45)
Scrivener is clever. It can file your main draft, your background notes, research documents, images, everything. It keeps them in clever filing systems with tab menus and you can customise your set up endlessly. Text is stored in chapter files behind notecards on a virtual pinboard, which you can click and drag around to your heart’s content. Want to know if your characters are evenly spread through the right sections of your story? Scrivener can show you exactly which places Joe Bloggs turns up and whether there’s too much of him in chapter seven and not enough in the epilogue. Want to see how several chapters run together? Scrivener can turn any selected sections of your project into ‘scrivenings’ – a stitched together chunk of text that you can read and edit as a whole.
This adaptability is, in my case at least, Scrivener’s blessing and also its curse. I found myself losing entire evenings fiddling with its settings and reading through user manuals with a bemused expression on my face. There are entire books written about how to get the best from Scrivener. It was only after I finally figured out how to ignore most of it that it became a genuinely useful tool – the pinboard system in particular is a work of design genius.
Text Edit (default Mac ‘notepad’, free)
The complete opposite of Scrivener, Text Edit is utterly basic and great for distraction free writing. It comes preinstalled on most MacBooks (it utilises Apple technology but is actual an open source project). Text Edit is really lightweight in usage so will never interfere with anything else that’s running at the same time, whilst also having all the basic word processing abilities. The only reason I don’t use Text Edit more often is that it doesn’t have a built in word counter (in theory you can add code into the terminal setup of your Mac to give it this option, but I did that and it still didn’t work – if anyone knows where I’m going wrong please holler!)
Super Notecard (all platforms – free for basic use, $25pa for full system)
I am totally going to namedrop, here – SuperNoteCard was recommended to me by none other than Mr Father Ted himself, Graham Linehan. I was wittering on Twitter one day about my inability to organise work, when the god-like genius popped up and replied ‘SuperNoteCard’s your man’. Obviously I heard it in a Dougal voice, because who wouldn’t? Anyway, Mr L’s argument was that it is far less complicated than Scrivener but still has the notecard ‘drag and drop’ facility. It really is very clever and I do occasionally use it for storyboarding. I’ve only ever used the free version, but you can pay a $25 annual subscription to get more bells and whistles. Take a tour of SuperNoteCard here
iA Writer – (iOS, Mac, Android – £14.99)
Taking text editing minimalism to its extreme, iA Writer has no preferences whatsoever. All you get is a blank page with your text in the middle. The only real option you have with iA Writer is ‘focus mode’, which fades out everything except the sentence you are currently writing. What it does have that other writing apps don’t is a running estimate of how long your text would take to read out – useful if you’re writing speeches or workshops. I do still have iA Writer on my mac (I was bought it by my ex in an attempt to get my arse into gear), but I never really gelled with it – there’s minimal and then there’s minimal, and iA Writer was a step too far for me. I do feel that it’s also rather expensive for such a simplistic system. Click here for latest version on the iTunes store.
But which system did I start with, abandon briefly (for Scrivener) then come crawling back to like a sorry dog who pissed on the rug but really wants to be allowed back in front of the fire? Ladies and gentlemen, the one we all know and love…
Evernote might not have the pinboard capabilities of Scrivener or SuperNoteCard, but it makes up for it with its sheer portability. I started using it many years ago when it was first released and loved it, but then I got distracted for a while by the heavyweight cleverness of Scrivener. Thing is, back then I worked almost entirely from home and always from the same laptop. But with the development of iPad and iPhone technology (yes I am an unashamed Apple Whore, so sue me) came the ability to make notes on the go, and Scrivener can’t do that. Evernote can.
These days I work from a coffeeshop at least one morning a week, like a lot of other freelancers. And as they will almost certainly attest, the most awkward thing about Costa-based working is going for a wee. You have to pick your seating very carefully if you want to be able to trust the staff to keep an eye on your kit whilst you’re having a piddle. The only other option is to take it with you every time, and who the eff wants to take a piss with a sodding Macbook Pro on their lap?? But I had no choice, because Scrivener only worked on the laptop. Evernote works on everything. I have it installed on all my devices and it syncs between them at the press of a button.
Using Evernote means that I can use my iPad with a little bluetooth keyboard and just pop the lot into my handbag when I feel the call of the ladies room. Then when I’m done writing I sync it up and – huzzah – open the laptop back home and my morning’s work is sitting waiting for me. Yes, Evernote also has notebooks and filing and other clever gubbins, but the fact that I can edit an article on my phone whilst sat in traffic and then get home and send it off from my laptop is a work of genius that the other systems can only dream of. Team Evernote forever!
So, what writing system do you prefer? Do you still stick to pen and paper, and if so how the hell do you keep track of it all? Let me know!