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Okay, so every 5 minutes I see a question uploaded to this site about writing software. What is writing software? Why don't you just plan on paper? I find it much easier to write out all of my muddled ideas in a big mind map than some ultimate sophisticated state-of-the-art godmode character organiser.

Everything can be done on paper. And I think its easier on paper too. Characters can be mapped out nicely, and you can draw big pictures of them to accompany the description. Also, why use computer world-map software when you could stick together 9 sheets of A3? :)

So, whats the obsession with 'writing software'? How is it useful over paper?

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    Well, this site is not a cross section of writers, most of whom would not know Stack Exchange from a hole in the ground. Many of the writers here seem to be software developers by trade. (I have not done a survey, but whenever I have checked someone's profile or other sites they belong to, programming predominates.) They are probably here because they use StackOverflow for their development work. And software developers use IDEs for programming, so it seems natural that they would want something similar for writing. Writers I know outside of this site pretty much all use Word. – user16226 Oct 8 '16 at 20:35
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    ::waves at @mbakeranalecta :: no programming here! a bit of HTML and CSS, but nothing more complex than that. The last program I wrote was in BASIC. It counted to 100 and stopped. I was so proud. – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Oct 8 '16 at 22:26
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    It is absolutely up to you. For me, Scrivener is superior to Word just about as Word is superior to pen and paper, and pan and paper are superior to stylus and clay tablet. It is not an "obsession", it's just a matter of picking the tool which is right to you. How long would it take you to perform a Find/Replace All operation on a stack of physical pages? How long would it take you to rearrange all your manuscript just to trace a single POV storyline (and then another, and then put it back in order of the whole story)? In Scrivener it takes seconds. Your choice entirely. – Lew Oct 9 '16 at 23:40
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This is the definition of "your mileage may vary."

Some people work better on paper; you are clearly one of them.

I was blocked for years until I found Scrivener, which for whatever reason helped get all my creative juices flowing again. Scrivener clicked with me.

Some people work better with absolutely bare environments. Some want all the bells and whistles. Some want LaTeX markup. Some people find mind-map software really useful and others find it overwhelming.

Writing software is only useful if you find it so. Different writers have different needs, so they will use different tools. Asking other people doing the same thing as you what they find useful is perfectly reasonable.


ETA To address @what's comment: Writing software can come with a lot of features which writers may find more useful and flexible than writing on paper. To wit:

  • Let's just start with typing. I can type a helluva lot faster and more neatly than I can hand-write anything.
  • Extensive search/replace capabilities
  • Tagging
  • Easy rearranging of large chunks of text
  • Easy copy-paste of large chunks of text
  • The ability to copy and save infinite variations of a page, scene, chapter etc. if you need to noodle on something
  • The ability to gather various media (web links, video, sound, images) in one project file rather than have them scattered in several programs
  • The ability to keep extensive research materials in one project file rather than have them scattered across files and programs
  • Mind-map features let you link and combine different elements in different ways to see how characters and plot bits interconnect
  • The ability to plot in a large flexible grid and move items and threads around easily instead of physically erasing and rewriting
  • Your answer does not really explain what is useful about writing software. – user5645 Oct 18 '16 at 9:07
  • @what Point taken; I've added a bulleted list describing some useful features. – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Oct 18 '16 at 9:49
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    Point given :-) – user5645 Oct 18 '16 at 9:53
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Writing by hand has been found to enhance creativity. For example, studies show that people who write by hand generate more ideas. An article in the New York times summarizes this and other research.

Now certainly people are different. The research findings cited above are averages, and there are of course people who are more creative when they use other methods of writing. So in the end, you will have to experiment and find out for yourself, what works best for you. Nevertheless, the average result indicates that the majority of people will probably benefit from writing by hand.

Another argument against writing at a computer is distraction. There is not much you can do with a pen and paper. Sure, you can draw or compose a shopping list, but doing so will not keep most people from writing their novel. Social media, on the other hand, email, YouTube, and computer games are so irresistible that many find it quite hard to get anything done on a computer at all. Many successfully published writers testify that they can only work if they do not have internet. But not having internet is not easy, if you write on a computer. As many discussions on the internet show, not using the internet is not quite so easy as just disconnecting your computer – because when you feel the urge to check your email, it is quickly plugged in again. All the software that monitors computer usage or blocks internet access is a witness to the strong distraction that the internet offers as well as the difficulty of staying away from it while working at a computer. It is much easier to not have access to a computer at all.

Finally, many people find that they can think better and have more ideas when they walk or move. While laptops have gotten smaller, nothing beats a paper notebook in light weight and "battery life". You can write several weeks worth of holidays in a thick notebook, while your laptop becomes useless after half a day of not having access to a power socket. You can take walks with a notebook relatively unencumbered, while having a backpack with your laptop weighing down your shoulders and making your back sweat may keep you from ambulatory writing.

So, it seems, as if for the majority of writers writing on paper should be the method of choice. It is more creative, less distracting, and more mobile than writing at a computer. Yet many writers do use computers, and more specifically writing software to write. Why?

The most important reason is that you don't have to type your text into a computer when you are finished. You could pay someone to type your illegible handwriting and then read it and correct mistakes, but that is maybe not an attractive thought to many.

The second most important reason is ease of correction. I'm not even going into that, it is so obvious and fundamental.

The third reason it that on a computer you can collect a whole of a lot more material that you need for writing than you can ever carry with you in a backback – from whole books, to movies, to images, to the whole information on the internet that is only a click away. What distracts some, is valuable input for others.

The fourth reason is that on a computer you can, if you want, view your text in a representation that resembles the final printed version. For some writers it is important to be able to write the "surface" of the text, too.

There are some more reasons, but they all go in the same direction: a computer makes the process of writing – from the initial idea to the printed book – easier.

But this does not explain the appeal of writing software, only of the computer. As it is, the pros and cons of writing on paper and writing on a computer are pretty much balanced: handwriting is more creative, while writing on a computer is more practical. And on a computer, you could still type into a regular text editor. So why use specialized software to write?

To tip the balance, of course. Much writing software tries to address the creative block that the computer represents. They offer a "distraction free" writing environment; and they offer tools to mindmap, develop characters, organize ideas, plot stories, and so on. Basically, writing software tries to bring the pen-and-paper experience into the computer.

Writing software is usually made by people who have experience writing and found the existing general purpose applications such as Microsoft Word at the same time lacking essential functionality and overwhelmig in superfluous functionality. So they try to create a tool that unifies all the needs a writer has into one application, and limits the functionality to what a writer needs – such as generating and organizing ideas, collecting research, outlining stories, writing and rewriting, formatting their texts, and publishing their works.

The problem then becomes that the process of writing is so complex and varied that it is difficult to cover all a writer's needs with one single application. As you can see from the many discussions online, most writers are not completely happy with the available software options, they want additional functionality, and keep trying out new apps and switching.

For myself, until recently I had found a workflow that gave me as much as possible of both worlds, the computer and handwriting:

  • I generated ideas, outlined, developed characters and so on paper.
  • I wrote the text on a computer.
  • During the writing phase (after the planning was done), every day I walked to where I wrote. (I did not write at home but usually in the university library, sometimes in a cafe, on the train, or outdoors.) On my half hour walk to my writing place I came up with ideas for the day's writing and noted them down in a paper notebook. At my computer I used these notes to write. When I was done for the day, I printed out the current text so I could reread and revise it on paper. I worked in these revisions into the electronic version on the next day as a "warm up" between arriving at my desk and writing something new.
  • I did not write in special writing software, but in something like Word.

About five years ago I switched to doing more of my process at the computer. I no longer use paper at all, but generate ideas, develop characters, and outline at the computer. I use Scrivener to write the text. The longer I work in this way, the less happy I am with it.

Scrivener, while a specialized writing app, does not fit my individual needs. It does not do writing the way I do it. I also dislike most of the other software solutions I have found for other aspects of writing. Generally I find that using the computer feels like an impediment in many ways. I often find that I cannot think clearly. Sometimes because the software that existes doesn't do what I want to do in the way I want to do it. Sometimes it seems to be the computer that makes my mind go blank. I want to go back to paper, at least partly, but at the same time I don't want to lose the advantage of easily writing, editing, and copy-pasting text – not just the novel itself, but all the outlining and development, too.

When I'm finished with my current project, I will reflect on my process and try to change my workflow and tools. What I need is a better integration of handwriting and notebook with typing and computer. I don't know yet, how that can be done.

I may have to develop my own writing software.

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    Really good answer and points. I wish I could have 2 accepts; Lauren's answer is also excellent – Daniel Cann Oct 18 '16 at 15:18
  • The article (I was intrigued) you sited, mostly states that handwriting is much better for education and memory development, and only speculates that it might help to induce more creative state of mind. And I would love to have a decent handwriting recognition interface for all the devices I use... I would just rather use it on screen :-) – Lew Oct 18 '16 at 19:17
  • @Lew "Children not only learn to read more quickly when they first learn to write by hand, but they also remain better able to generate ideas and retain information." Apparently the effect that handwriting has on creativity is long-lasting. – user5645 Oct 18 '16 at 20:14
  • That explains it. In my school kids were taught to wright with a steel nib pen and an inkwell. :-) I think we were allowed to switch to the fountain pen in 4th grade, and a ballpoint in 8th. Beat that, millenniums… and no, I did not go to Hogwarts. – Lew Oct 18 '16 at 20:23
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    @LaurenIpsum You don't know how spot on that recommendation is! I actually tried to work with a dictaphone about twenty years ago. Unfortunately I often walk where there are other people and their presence inhibits me and makes it impossible for me to freely speak my thoughts aloud. I often can't even use my mobile phone in the presence of other people. So that does not work for me. But it is a great idea for those who are either alone when they work or do not care who listens. – user5645 Oct 20 '16 at 7:06
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WriteMonkey for the absolute minimalist, you can change it to a black screen and pretend to be GRRM. Otherwise word is fine, Im still trying to figure out the appropriate font. For screenwriting I like Trelby, although many dont seem to be using it for unknown reason.

  • The question is asking what is useful about writing software, it does not ask for recommendations. Your question does not address the question. – user5645 Oct 18 '16 at 9:03
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I am in my last year majoring in software engineering in the university and the recommended courses in the following may be useful for writing software: program design language, data structure, discrete mathematics, operating system, compile technology, introduction of software engineering, unified modeling language, software system structure, software requirement, software project management, algorithm analysis, oriented object program design, database principle and implementation technology, the principle of compile, computer security.

  • The question is about software for writers, while your answer is about how to learn to write software. It does not really address the question. – user5645 Oct 18 '16 at 9:01

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