When I was a teen, the writing books I picked up admonished me to write longhand and edit from printouts. They pooh-poohed using a computer as not quite the same thing. And for a while, that style of writing worked for me: I wrote first drafts by hand, ran through my first revision as I typed them up, and then printed out manuscripts to edit from.
I understand what those writers were saying. There is a big difference between seeing printed words and seeing words on a screen, and you revise differently when you can’t copypaste or insert unlimited text.
But reading is different now too. For my PhD research, for work, and for leisure, I read from screens a lot more than I read from hard-copy books and magazines. I’m well versed in the interaction of text with computer technology.
More importantly, writing by hand has become harder for me. My bad arm complains, and my fingers go numb when I push my fine motor control by sitting with a pen for hours. Working from hard-copy manuscripts is great and all, but I don’t feel like it’s worth the literal pain.
So, these days, I’m much more likely to write on my computer from first draft to “final” (protip: it’s never final, just read by other people who make me stop) manuscript. And I’m super grateful for the seven apps that are now indispensable to my writing routine.
Here they are:
1. Microsoft Word
I know, I know. There are plenty of alternatives to this expensive corporation-ware, but none of them has all the qualities I’ve come to love.
I love that Word supports comments, so I can add my two cents to my own first drafts and my critique partners’ work. I love that its automatic back-ups save me hours of work when (not “if” *sigh* ) it or Windows crashes. I love that it can automatically convert my files to PDFs for other people to upload to e-readers.
There are too many other features to list — native thesaurus, clearly displayed word count, vertical page positioning, find and replace — but I especially love this version (2016) of Word because it has a bookmark feature that whisks me right back to where I was working the last time I opened the file. For someone like me who works every day on a document of 300+ pages, that’s a lifesaver. Particularly since scrolling on a mouse wheel really, really hurts my bad arm.
2. Google Chrome (+ the Internet)
Everybody has a favourite browser. Mine is Chrome.
As a writer, I often need to look online for information and images to flesh out my knowledge or inspire me past a sticking point. Chrome (coupled with Google search, of course) lets me do this quickly and easily. And, if I happen to be looking for something that I don’t want autocompleting in front of my friends, I can use an incognito tab. (You’d be surprised… or not… on what you end up looking up when you’re writing a story that involves crime and physical violence.)
Although I own a pretty good hard-copy thesaurus*, I find myself returning to thesaurus.com more often than cracking open my book. It’s just faster, more convenient, and more thorough: it offers way more options from way more sources. Besides, thesauruses don’t offer updated slang options; when I’m trying to put my finger on a word that gives the same impression as “asshole” but is a word my non-saying-asshole-type character might use, thesaurus.com is more likely to have my back, and Urban Dictionary might be able to fill in the blanks after that.
I definitely don’t use social media like Facebook or Twitter as part of my writing process, nuh-uh, nope, never, but in the instances when I might be tempted to usher it in, Chrome extensions like StayFocusd or Forest can make sure I stick to my guns.
This app changes the colour temperature of my screen to mimic the cycle of natural daylight. If I end up working after dark, it helps me not to keep myself up way past my bedtime or hurt my eyes with too much screen time.
4. Google Calendar
If the NSA ever puts me on a no-fly list based on my online accounts, it will be because I use Google Calendar to plot out crime-filled novel timelines.
Creating a separate story Google Calendar during the revision process lets me nail down when scenes happens and helps me spot logistical errors. For instance, in my current MS, one of my protagonists is an observant Jew — seeing her timeline alongside my own appointments and work schedule helps me spot places where I’ve accidentally had her break yom tov or kept quiet about important holidays that should be happening.
It also helps me figure out the logistics: it’s easy to jump the narrative ahead to “tomorrow” to preserve the pacing in the plot, but sometimes, that would make no sense. Somehow, seeing plot points on a calendar like the one I use every day jogs the part of my brain that interjects, “You can’t get across the city in thirty minutes!” or “That’s not enough time to do all those things!”
Of course, I could do all this by hand on a physical calendar, but Google Calendar lets me toggle the visibility of my writing timeline and colour-code it without issue. And if I ever need to, I can share it with a crit partner or colleague at the click of a mouse.
5. Google Drive
I used to use multiple cloud services (Dropbox, Box), and I have free OneDrive space because I’m a Windows user. But for a variety of reasons, Google Drive came out on top. Part of that is its integration with other things I’m committed to — my Android phone, my Google-partnered workplace.
But Google also has the right amount of space at the right price, and it hasn’t yet spat out a file for being too big. It makes backing up data and sharing files easy.
What can I say? I need some kind of quantitative task-driver to keep me going, and I wouldn’t get half my writing done without this app. It comes with Windows, and it keeps me butt-in-chair even when I don’t feel like it. Unlike just checking the clock, it pauses if I need to answer an urgent student email or Fiancé’s repeated questions about whether the pot on the stove is supposed to be on fire.
7. Microsoft OneNote
When I first got this note-taking app bundled with my student version of Microsoft Office, I didn’t see why I’d want to use it instead of Word. Word is hands-down better for writing long documents, and, as for note-taking, I’d already written my program’s equivalent of a Master’s thesis, using a mix of longhand and a Microsoft Word file to do my research. What could OneNote do that they couldn’t?
Well, first, it could display “lined paper” for me to write on with the stylus. So I used it just for that for a long time.
But then, when I started on my comps and doctoral dissertation, I found out how flexible it was. Not only could I make notes, but I could sort and tag them within a multilevel file hierarchy. I could click anywhere on the screen and start typing/paste a picture/include a link, and move it anywhere I wanted it. I could mix typed text with my own handwriting and drawings. Heck, I could embed pretty much anything my computer could create — a spreadsheet, audio recordings, video, screen clips, whatever. Best of all, it was all searchable.
These days, I use OneNote for just about every writing task that isn’t creating an MS. (For instance, I’m typing this blog entry with it right now!) It’s handy for revision notes, sorting through multiple short pieces, keeping passages I cut from previous drafts, brainstorming, drafting and organizing blog entries, storing research — the whole enchilada.
Added plus: it saves by itself, so I don’t have to remember, and I can use it offline or on without issues.
* As a side note, like many writers I know, I tend to use thesauruses not to sub in a synonym when I’ve decided I’m repeating myself too much repeating myself too much (haha, get it?). Instead, I usually look up synonyms when I’m trying to nail the word that’s on the tip of my tongue but refuses to reveal itself. The rest of the time, I’m using it as inspiration — my character isn’t “creeping” in this scene, but what are some related words? Does one of them suggest a description or metaphor that my narrator might use to convey the same feeling?