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Writing basics: Choosing software for writing

28 February, 2008
Can software help you as a writer? Only you can answer this, based on how you work and what you want the software to do. Have a look at some potentially helpful software created for writers.
  • Robin Mizell (scroll down to her 18 Feb 08 blog) lists submission-tracking software.
  • Rita identifies free software to help you keep track of story ideas, organise fictional structures, locate agents and publishers, etc. There’s even a program that lets your blog/website visitors see how you’ve progressed on your grand opus, in terms of how many words you’ve written so far. Great, if you like a bit of pressure!
  • A New York Times article (thanks, Rita) describes programs that can free you from the confines of Microsoft Word.
If you decide that some writer-support software looks helpful, how do you go about selecting the right one for you?
  • Decide what you need. First, consider if the kind of program you’re interested in will actually help. Does it look as if it will save you some time? Reduce your stress? Help you get more organised?Some programs simply swallow huge amounts of time by making busywork when you could be writing. A program that requires you to insert plot elements into boxes may not work for you if you’re not a ‘box by box’ ideas person.Clarify what you want a program to do. Clarifying your needs first can save you from getting bamboozled by seductive advertising hype. On a recent visit to a kitchen appliance super-shop, a sales rep made me feel as if I might as well join the Flintstones if I did not immediately buy a $AU2, 000 steam oven. I didn’t even know what a steam oven was. Back home, I thought through what I needed for my style of cooking–and what cooking frills I could do without, thanks very much. At the top of my do-without list was a steam oven.

    Once you’ve worked out your needs, examine the available software and make a shortlist of which ones have the features you want.

  • Test drive. If possible, test-drive each program on your shortlist.Put aside sufficient time to become familiar with each program and learn what it will and won’t let you do.Set up a realistic trial, using the same material each time so that you are comparing apples with apples.

    Experiment with a few complicated or difficult tasks. Check out the features that that you haven’t used before–they may suggest more efficient ways of working.

    And always check the help section to ensure it is adequate.

    You may be surprised with the results of your testing. Some programs that look great may not support the way you work and think. And some may be user-unfriendly. I recently trialed a program where the most frequently used function seemed to be missing. I finally located it via the program’s help forum, where other confused users were asking where to find it. Can you imagine these software designers creating a car? They’d stick the boring but important ignition in the backseat to get more space up front for their favourite gee-whiz features.

  • Don’t choose on price alone. A free or cheap program may meet your needs exactly, especially if all you want are the basics. Why pay for all the bells and whistles if you don’t need and won’t use them? But some free or cheap programs won’t have the important features you need to do your work. Always consider your future needs as well. Will the program keep pace with you, or is it limited?
  • Be prepared to bail out. Once you have the program that suits you best, put aside sufficient time to learn it properly.Hold off on changing completely to the new program until you are comfortable with it. If you find it’s not what you want, you can bail out without having invested too much of your time and work. If you’re not happy with the program, don’t keep it or try to change the way you write to fit in with it.  Writing is hard enough without having to fight unsatisfactory software as well.
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