Monday, July 07, 2008

Writing tools: word-processors

As an utter distraction from my unending quest to solve my problems with writing dialogue, point-of-view, and action, I experiment with new word processors. I know that the tools are the least important part of writing well, but writing is such an uphill battle for me that I'm constantly looking for tools that will make it even the barest bit easier, both to write and to organize what I write. So I'll occasionally fiddle around with different word processors.

I've got a lot of software options, but they tend to lock you to a specific piece of hardware. And none of them are cross-platform. But here's what I've played with:
  • AbiWord: small, easy to use, and even available as a PortableApp for PC, so you can run it on a thumb drive. Really, it's pretty well-featured for its small size. Nice auto save, which leaves your working file intact; it saves backups as often as you specify, as often as every minute, with a different file extension (one you specify) in the same directory as your working file. Nice if you crash, and also nice if you change something you want to restore. But otherwise not really a noticeable improvement over any other decent word processor.
  • OpenOfffice.org word processor: a complete replacement for MS Word. Much better coded than the M$oft behemoth, it's smaller on disk and uses much less RAM. Also available as a PortableApp.
  • Dark Room: this is the PC version of Mac's WriteRoom, and it's the software word processor I use most often. It's a full-screen text-only word processor, and I mean text-only. No formatting, just pure ASCII. Your only save format is .txt. But it also autosaves frequently. You can make the background and text colors whatever you want, and it's got nice font options. And, since it doesn't let you use italics, it helps me curtail my excessive italicizing. If only it disallowed 75% of semicolons and dashes, it would really improve my writing. It's a single executable file, so it can be run as a portable app as well, but your computer needs to be running the MS .Net framework. A version that runs on AIR is in the works, but not available yet.
These are all decent, and the portable apps are nice -- you don't leave anything behind on any public computer you're using. On the down side, none of them work on a Mac, and they require that I've got my flash drive with me whenever I want to write. More portable, and completely cross-platform, are the web-based word processors. I started using Writely a few years ago, and it's since been bought and turned into Google Docs. GoogleDocs is a nice toy, and only a web browser away from any computer you use. It saves frequently, it organizes nicely, and it's a friendly, familiar interface. Maybe better is Zoho Writer. Free, friendly, and a nicer interface than Google Docs. And Zoho's also got a bunch of other web-based apps: notes, personal wikis, organizers, and other cool toys (I'm in their private beta for ZohoMail, though I rarely use it). I'm using Zoho for my current work, and I haven't seen any problems yet. And because I pay foolish amounts of attention to metrics, I like that it gives me a word count.

My most portable software is TakeNote for my old Palm IIIxe. It's much simpler than Documents To Go, and it came free with my GoType keyboard. It's very basic -- you type, and the words appear on the screen. It saves when you close the document, with no autosave, but I've never had it crash. It's a bit labor intensive to get the text out of the Palm Pilot, though. I need to sync it, during which it automatically converts to a .txt file in a directory of my choosing, which I then need to open and paste into a document online or in a word processor. But as a word processor it's a kind of convenient, because I've always got the Palm and my folding keyboard with me. No computer or wi-fi required. I even take it with on the bike; it's always in the bottom of my cycling backpack. It's not necessarily for serious writing, but it's great for notes or for when I really have to get something down. And, did I mention the cheap? You can get a Palm III for twenty bucks at Fry's, and you can pick up keyboards without dropping much cash -- the GoType is twenty bucks (with software!) on Amazon, and the folding Palm keyboard is ten or twelve.

So these are my word-processing options for writing. I've seen a lot of software billed as specifically for writers, but I've never tried any. It seems like all of the functions they promise, like outlining and note-taking, are just as easy to do with any standard word processor. I might give some of them a try some day, when I start having the actual problems they purport to solve.

On a related note, I'm having some organizational problems with my texts. I've generally got a few docs going for a project: a rough outline, a pile of notes, and the actual text, at the minimum. And at the moment, I've got a short story and a longer work in progress, and a pile of notes for another project. Switching between an online word processor and a software-based word processor isn't hard, but it seems like I spend too much time keeping all the docs synchronized. Adding the Palm to the equation doesn't help....

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You know they make portable apps for Mac, right? The Free Open Source Software Mac User Group has its own PA suite at http://www.freesmug.org/portableapps/ . You can carry your docs on a flash drive and use Abiword or Openoffice in Mac or PC on the same flash drive to open them.

Good luck with the writing!