Note 1: This article was first published in 2004 when writing software was a lot less evolved than it is today. However, Microsoft Word has also improved over the years; Word 2007 and 2010 are a lot easier to work with than older versions.
Note 2: I actually do agree with those who comment that Word is not user-friendly; I use Word because I've learnt how to use it well. You can too.
Have you seen the advertisements for all the writing software that is being developed? I must admit, I was intrigued – after all there’s not much more to the process of writing than an individual’s level of planning or plotting, the actual work of putting words on the page, and then editing them.
What are the software developers offering that your standard word processing package doesn’t? There is more than one answer to that question, but here’s one that may surprise you: “not much”.
What Are the BENEFITS of Writing Software?
Beginner writers, who will benefit from the “how to” element that the writing software offers, will gain much more from purchasing a package than more advanced writers will. The software can assist with areas such as plot planning, “rules” that need to be learnt (before they can be broken), and maintaining structure.
Publishers like standard formulae that are proven in the marketplace. However, like everything, a formula for a book will eventually reach saturation point and publishers will turn to the next in line.
Writing software may also help writers who’ve worked on a number of books and, after numerous rejections, are struggling to find where they may have gone “wrong”.
I spoke to four Australian writers who use writing software. Their favourite features included:
~ an outline format for planning their stories,
~ organization tools allowing better control to ensure no notes were forgotten,
~ keywords linking different areas,
~ one program had a character generator
~ another autotypes the character names
What are the DRAWBACKS of Writing Software?
These writers also noted, however, that the software is expensive for what you can get out of it. Some of the features are restrictive, forcing users to conform to the program’s limitations, although one computer-savvy writer was able to extend the use of a program feature that was frustrating him.
Forgetting the Point of Being a Writer
Some of the other writers at the function (and this is a point I agreed strongly with) were a little wary of losing their originality and restricting their own input as a creator.
Not Using the Program You've Purchased
Advanced writers may also find the instructive nature of some writing software irritating. Many of the reasons given for investing in the software were for the organization and planning capabilities, rather than a need for instruction in the writing craft. By not using the tuition element of the software you’re paying full price for half the technology. If you’re considering software for this reason, have you determined whether your word processing package can be used to organise your work instead?
What Are the ALTERNATIVES to Writing Software?
I use MS Word for many of the points raised by the writers I spoke to:
~ I outline my novels, link the outline to my notes, which in turn are linked to the manuscript in progress,
~ My character names are autotyped for me,
~ I can track and connect characters, events, and parallel plotlines, and organise the order of events according to a timeline,
~ I can see how each storyline will develop, and determine what effect it will have on the novel as a whole,
~ Everything fits – I never lose my notes (with a scanner I can even add the note I scrawled while waiting for the bus),
~ I have in-depth character and location descriptions at my fingertips and can reference the description I’ve actually used earlier in the manuscript at the click of a mouse…
…all achieved using software I already have on my PC.
Once you’ve purchased new writing software, you will have to learn to use it in order to benefit from it. Many of the packages are developed to look and feel similar to software you’ve already learnt to use in a Windows or Mac environment. Some, however, require their own dictionaries to understand just their terminology, let alone the program.
Remember, too, that you still have to type and format your work using your word processing software. Wouldn’t it benefit you, and save you money, if you learnt to use the software you’ve already got? It’s like owning a car that you only drive in second gear. Would you really buy another car with more features, rather than learn how to change the gears in the car you’ve got?
Copyright © Elsa Neal, 2004.