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Software to Help the Writer Within

Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
December 2009 Issue
October 22, 2009

Software to Help the Writer Within

Winter tends to drive me inside. I don’t mind the occasional cold winter day, but weeks of dense morning fog and damp drizzle are best enjoyed from a window. I find I write more during the winter months, sitting at my desk with mug (after mug) of hot tea with honey.

Apparently, I am not the only writer motivated by the shift in seasons. Each November is National Novel Writing Month, which celebrated its tenth anniversary this year. Known as “NaNoWriMo” (say it aloud, with a long “Oh” sound) by participants, what started as a challenge among friends in the Bay Area has become an international happening. The official Web site ( includes the history and rules for this great start to the writing season.

The Web is why NaNoWriMo has exploded in popularity. This is a non-profit, no entry-fee, event that allows everyone to potentially “win” — if you can write 50,000 words in a mere 30 days. Okay, there aren’t any serious prizes, but there is the pride you feel with a completed manuscript draft.

Though NaNoWriMo is concluding, you can read submissions and participate in discussions throughout the winter months. Plus, the same great volunteers give us Script Frenzy in April. The Script Frenzy site ( also features discussion forums and tools for screenwriters.

It was while reading the discussion forums on NaNoWriMo that I decided I would finally try specialized software to organize my writing projects. Admittedly, I was skeptical that software could improve my writing or make me more efficient. For years, I wrote on legal pads in longhand before typing the text in Word. The story was supposed to be independent of the tool used to write.

I was wrong. It turns out that software has changed my writing for the better.

With writing software, I find that my creative process is closer to what I try to teach my students. Yes, I admit that I had developed some bad habits that software corrected.

Even great fiction is researched. A modern crime novel that ignored advances in forensics would be quickly rejected. Historical fiction has to be accurate, too. Of course, non-fiction demands research and careful citations.

I used to take notes on loose-leaf paper, highlight important information and promptly misplace my notes. The writing forums suggested several options for research notes. Now, I put notes and any citation information in Bookends, software that organizes research. When I find an article online, I add it to Bookends, which then organizes the research by keywords. I could never remember how to format a bibliography, even though I teach college writing courses. Now when I write an academic paper or article, Bookends automatically adds a bibliography to the document.

Despite telling my students how important outlines are, I also admit to getting lazy with outlines. I resorted to note cards, but cards require a lot of floor space. Plus, a cat would walk across my cards, mixing up my plans. You can use a word processor or a dedicated application. I like OmniOutliner, but Microsoft OneNote is also good.

Once outlined, you still have to type the story, script or article. I found Scrivener earlier this year because the software publisher is a corporate sponsor of NaNoWriMo. My favorite feature is a “full-screen” mode that resembles ancient DOS word processors. Because I get distracted easily, having only my words on the screen seems to help me focus.

Many writers prefer Writer’s Café to Scrivener. It costs a bit more, but also has more features than other writing tools. Writer’s Café runs on both Windows and OS X, while Scrivener is limited to OS X.

Publishers, agents and studios want perfectly formatted manuscripts. It is hard to beat the aptly named “Final Draft” when formatting a screenplay, stage script or novel. For reasons I don’t quite understand, the Writers Guild of America is split with the West preferring Final Draft and the East officially endorsing Movie Magic.

If you do participate in Script Frenzy or NaNoWriMo in 2010, you’ll find that the right tools do make a difference when writing 50,000 words in a month. Every aspiring writer should at least try the specialized tools available. I’m glad I did.

Software for Writers

Bibliography and Reference Managers

These applications are specialized databases that can automatically add citations and bibliographies to articles or academic papers. You can access online libraries, including the Library of Congress and most university libraries, to copy information into the software.

EndNote ( The most popular bibliography software, EndNote supports most popular word processors on both Windows and OS X. It has a great library of templates for manuscript formats, all in Word format.
Bookends ( My personal favorite, Bookends is like iTunes for books. This program is Mac-only, unfortunately.
Zotero ( Free and EndNote compatible, Zotero runs within the Firefox browser on Windows, Linux or OS X. It is hard to beat the price.

Creative Writing Software

I know a writer who still uses a typewriter, but I’m more organized and productive with specialized software.

Final Draft ( Primarily for writing screenplays, Final Draft is has the ability to format novels, too. If you are serious about writing for stage or screen, you probably want Final Draft. It runs on Windows and OS X.
Mariner Writer’s Suite ( Contour, StoryMill and Montage help you outline, draft and format your creative masterpiece. Currently, there are Mac versions of all three and Contour for Windows is now available. These are okay and a lot cheaper than Final Draft.
Movie Magic and Dramatica ( Dramatica guides you through the development of an outline for a movie or novel. Movie Magic is similar to Final Draft, though the name implies it is only for screenplays. Both tools support Windows and OS X.
Scrivener ( I love Scrivener for everything, from academic papers to scripts. You can use Scrivener alone to write and format a manuscript, but it also supports exporting documents to Final Draft and Word if you need.
Writer’s Café ( An all-in-one application for writing everything from screenplays to novels. Supports Windows, Linux and OS X.
Celtx ( A free screenwriting application, Celtx is available for Windows, Linux and OS X. It is a great program, but it does not support Final Draft or Word files.


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