Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Tools and Tips For the Writing Process

This post will be different than all but one of my previous posts. I thought I would share some tips I've learned about the writing process.

Everyone who writes on a regular basis must figure out a process that works for them. I've seen several hundred recommendations about "how" to write on the Internet and in books, but each author can only speak for himself. For instance, Hemingway is said to prefer writing while standing; no thanks. Mark Twain is said to write while in a reclined position in bed; I would fall asleep in ten minutes. Etcetera, etcetera.

Besides, most writers mentioned in quotes wrote with pen and paper; we live in an electronic world now.

With this in mind, here are some things that work for me.

Time of Day For Writing

I write best in the morning when my mind is uncluttered by "day crap." I wrote most of my first novel, CANALS, between the hours of 5:30 and 8:00 a.m. Afternoon is OK if I shut out the world. (I discuss how I do this in this post.) I write poorly in the evening and envy those who can. I'm simply amazed by people who can write while watching TV or chatting on Twitter.

Scrivener for Windows

I now write with Scrivener for Windows. It's a great writing program. The only thing it lacks that other programs like it have is a graphic timeline for each character in your novel. There's probably some way to get at that information easily with features like "Key Words," but I haven't figured it out yet.

I did a lot of research while writing THE MIGHTY T. The setting for the novel is Modesto, where I live, and surrounding areas, including the Hetch Hetchy section of the Yosemite National Park. I wanted streets and locations, etc., to be as realistic as possible to appeal to local readers, whom I expect to buy my book in droves. (Most of my local citizens apparently missed that memo.)

Said research was organized as printouts stuffed into file folders, bookmarks in Firefox, or downloads stored on the hard drive. Toward the end of writing the first draft, and later when editing, finding specific information was time consuming because I had to first remember where it was cataloged. Additionally, I work on two computers!

You can place all of your research in Scrivener regardless of the format. Web pages can be dragged into the Research Tab for later review (provided you have an Internet connection). Photos and documents on your computer can be linked to. Even PDFs can be placed in the Research Tab. Everything is in one place.

My Scrivener files sit in my DropBox folder so they're available for viewing (but not editing) on my iPad and editing on my old Acer (see below).

When creating text, I write best on an uncluttered screen. I don't want to see a menu or notes or anything. Scrivener allows you to do that with their Full Screen mode and you can set it up so the text you're writing stays in the middle of the screen, like a typewriter. Very cool for creating new text.

Scrivener for Windows is currently in beta and is free. The functions I use most work fine, but I'm looking forward to it's official release. It'll only cost about forty bucks—a bargain. The Mac version is at 2.0, so it's fully functional. I would love to switch platforms; anyone want to donate a Mac?

Full reviews of Scrivener abound on the Internet. I've just scratched the surface here.

iPad, iA Writer, and the clean writing environment.

I learned to concentrate in a busy environment when studying for grueling state board exams. I could sit at a cafe inside a busy mall while memorizing the origin and distribution of cranial nerves and the signs and symptoms of, as well as the differential diagnosis for, benign intercranial hypertension.

My old Acer notebook computer served me well for six years, but the battery lasts only ninety minutes now and I've somehow damaged the "V" key; all words with a "V" have to be retyped.

Now I do a lot of writing on an iPad. I bought the iA Writer app for ninety-nine cents and an Apple wireless keyboard (NOT ninety-nine cents). Writer saves files in .txt format so documents can be imported into any word processor or writing program, including Scrivener. You have spell checking because it's native to Apple's iOS, but there's no formatting whatsoever. Which leads me to...

I prefer to write in what I like to call "retro" fashion. Writer uses a monospace font and I write with Courier in Scrivener; reminds me of a typewriter. I set up the iPad to display in reversed mode: black and white are reversed. This lets me type white text onto a black background. Writing like this is easy on my eyes and allows the iPad's already great battery to last even longer. The Apple keyboard has a great feel. My only complaint about it is, it's "Delete" key acts like the "Backspace" key on a PC keyboard; very strange and hard to get used to.

Writer syncs with your DropBox account so your files are available on any device you have connected to DropBox. I don't completely trust cloud computing, though, so I also email my files to myself from inside Writer. When I write or edit on my desktop, I save the files to a portable hard drive every day. EVERY DAY. Lastly, when you back up your iPad to iTunes, you can access all your Writer files and save them to your computer if DropBox is down.


OmmWriter is a cool writing app similar to Writer in that it uses a simple, clean interface. I use it occasionally on my desktop, but not often because Scrivener's full screen works the same and has a built-in spell checker. I haven't broken my addiction to on-the-fly spell checking. The OmmWriter app became available in the App Store yesterday, May 30. It lacks file sync with DropBox but lets you email your file to yourself and, of course, you have access to your files through iTunes.

What OmmWriter, desktop or app, has that Writer and Scrivener don't is a sound track designed to help you focus and be creative. I've used it once or twice with the Acer, and with headphones, and I must admit the music really helps me concentrate. Try it out for free on your PC or Mac and see if it helps your writing. It's $4.99 for the iPad. iPad app has spell checking, because it's built in iOS.

MicroSoft Word. I'll still use Word because Smashwords requires files in Word's old .doc format. It's a great program, no doubt, especially when used in Full Screen mode so you don't get distracted by all the menu options. I no longer use it when writing drafts because I'm tempted to fuss over whether a word should be italicized or not, or bring up the thesaurus to see if I can find a different word (there's ALWAYS a different word). Those activities are for edits.

What else? I found a pair of headphones on Amazon that fit snuggly into my ears and block most ambient noise. They're made for the iPhone but of course will work with any device with a standard headphone jack. It was less that $20 and sounds better than my Bose ear buds that cost $70. My Bose QuietComfort II headphones are the best at silencing the world but they're so big that I rarely use them; I feel self conscious wearing them, like I'm trying to be antisocial. Plus the large case doesn't fit in my small briefcase.

I hope you found something useful here.

If you have tips or tricks you've found useful for your writing or studying, please feel free to share, if you have the time.


  1. Good tips. I'm going to have to try scrivener one of these days.

    One thing I do to keep from getting distracted by the internet while allowing myself to use the internet for research is to have a writing browser. It automatically launches with tabs for dictionary.com, thesaurus, and wikipedia. I keep my other browser closed while I write.

  2. Your browser idea sounds great for editing; everything at your fingertips.

  3. I have scrivener but I am lost. I recently went from Windows Office and I couldn't figure out Scrivener. I am using Pages because it's closer to windows. Sigh. Hopefully I'll "get" Scrivener one day. It seems very nifty.

  4. Did you watch the brief on-line video? It explains the basic uses.

    When I installed it, I took an hour or so and went through the tutorial; it was well worth it. If you try to use all the features at first, it can be daunting. To me, having all my chapters and scenes organized in the binder on the left is priceless.

  5. Haven't heard about most of those, but OH> MY GOD. Do you know that you've just given me the best news this year???? Scrivener is free and for windows. :O :O :O I have been waiting so long... Thank you, thank you, thank you!
    And I definitely agree that the writing process is unique to every writer. I am usually a night bird, but I've noticed, surprisingly, I too, write better in mornings. Well said, about the day crap. ;) Also, reminds me of Julia Cameron's morning pages. Worth the read. :)

  6. Just downloaded the Beta for Scrivener and there is a learning curve to get to all the really nice features. All in all I see it as being a usful tool. (I too have piles of notes, tons of bookmarks and have a hell of a time keeping track of it all.) Let's see, which folder did I drop the scrivener notes into?

  7. Watch a training video or two. They really help. All the research junk can be dragged (drug?) into the Research Tab near the bottom of the Binder on the left, which you can organize like any Windows files; make subfolders, drag and drop the files into other folders, etc. It's worth taking an hour or two to learn.