Underlining the writing software situation

Passionless is the only word I can really use to describe how I've felt about writing this week. This happens from time to time and - while being a bit annoying - it's usually temporary. It's strange because I wrote a new song this week; something that usually does not coincide with a writing dry spell..

.. and what about all this nonsense to do with writing software recently?

I had an epiphany point during the week when I tweeted (with fear) that perhaps I was spending so much time assessing the various software packages as a means of not actually getting down to it and working on my writing. I guess I should cut myself at least a little slack, given that we are flat out at work preparing for the launch of OpSource Cloud.

So let's leave song writing and potential writer's block for now and at least document the results of my software frustration. I pose the following question about software designed to assist in the writing process - is it possible to find the perfect writing companion, or is it too subjective and hence an unachievable dream?

1) What type of writing?
Let's specify some usage criteria first of all - people have many usages of this kind of software, which can alter their preferences; script writing, screenplays, novels, academic and business technical are just a couple of usage examples.

In my own selfish case we're talking short story and novel construction - so my praise and gripes are based on that assumption about use.

2) How do you construct what you write?
We all have our own preferred ways of working whether it is a free flow, outlineless brain dump through to the opposite; a novel broken into an outline with parts, chapters and scenes - possibly to the extremes of phase drafting.

3) Visualisation

How do you prefer to visualise what you are writing?

I like three basic forms:

  1. A part/chapter/scene breakdown - in some sort of tree structure
  2. A storyboard; usually represented by some kind of card story board or cork board.
  3. A fullscreen, no distractions text editor - for which I can globally (and quickly) set the default font.

So  what's good and what are the problems?


I'll start with Scrivener because it's damn good - in fact it fulfils all of the three desires above.
However it has one huge problem for me in that it's Mac only. Yes I use a Mac when I'm writing in my little recording studio at home but the rest of the time; the bus, sitting in a cafe, out at my parent's house, anywhere not home! .. I'm likely to be using either Windows or Linux - usually on my netbook (these days I'm very happily tapping away on my Samsung NC10).

I should nod to the fact that using WriteRoom for iPhone + writeroom.ws a user can write remotely on their iPhone and then sync it back to Scrivener on their Mac later. If they have an iPhone.

Writer's Cafe

On to my biggest love/hate relationship within writing software. Writer's Cafe nearly satisfies all three of my basic writing software wants. It's a seriously feature rich application AND is 100% cross platform
(Windows, Mac, Linux) and can be run from a USB key. Fantastic? .. NO!

It's got some bloody awful flaws.

  • If you conceal your Storylines (the plot line kind of view) completely - there's no way of getting it back without resetting the entire display to its defaults (losing all of your fonts and layout etc).
  • The fullscreen editor isn't! .. and the scrollbars never work properly on small screens like a netbook. So you are left unable to scroll down to the work you wish to edit.
  • The way in which chapters and scenes are added is beyond confusing - sometimes you are trying to add a new scene and a chapter appears, sometimes vice versa.
  • Dragging and dropping chapter and scene cards in the Outline view causes random other chapters to appear when all you are trying to do is re-arrange what exists without creating new stuff! Undoubtedly this is due to user ignorance - but - as a software developer who specialises in User Interaction and usability, I find it reveals the shot gun feature addition that has happened with this software to the significant detriment of usability.

Writer's Cafe almost makes me cry - if they just made a simpler version, less icing and more decent cake please. A true fullscreen, distractionless editor (such as WriteRoom/Darkroom or the fantastic fullscreen
editor in Scrivener) and card/scene organisation that is uncomplicated and does not require re-reading the manual thirty times, it would be the perfect writing companion.

Scrivener Fullscreen 1:

Scrivener Fullscreen 2:


yWriter is primarily for the Windows user and has the simplicity thing done perfectly. It's SO easy to use. You can get it running on Linux by using Mono (although I gave up trying after the first attempt - too much hassle). I'd really like a ".deb" or a ".zip" with a runnable application please.. but hang on a second, unlike Scrivener and Writer's Cafe, this software is free and there's a lot to be said for that. So no matter what the outcome, I say hat's off to the developer and a thank you for yWriter.

For project structure, locations and characters etc. yWriter has much to offer, just as much as Scrivener and Writer's Cafe in terms of those core story writing needs. Its big flaw? .. no full screen editor of any kind. If the producer was to integrate it with the DarkRoom editor it would be darn near perfect.

DarkRoom / WriteRoom Editor:

That's all that I'm going to go into, some others worth checking out are below which have different slants and StoryMill, I think I blogged previously, was my first foray into writing software on the Mac - not as good as Scrivener due to Scrivener's fantastic fullscreen editor but great organisational features and really simple to use. CeltX is more about screenplays and scriptwriting. Liquid Story Binder appears to be feature rich but I have not given it any time due to being Windows only.

    • Celtx (with online publishing features - http://celtx.com/)
    • StoryMill (Mac only - http://www.marinersoftware.com)
    • Liquid Story Binder (Windows only - http://www.blackobelisksoftware.com/)

Is there a conclusion?

The sad answer to that question is no!

I have no solution;

  • I *want* to use Scrivener on my netbook (maybe I should Hackintosh it)
  • I want Writer's Cafe to be simpler to use and have a fullscreen editor that is actually fullscreen and has sane scene/chapter organisation
  • I want yWriter to be accessibly cross-platform and have a fullscreen editor. I'm serious about the suggestion of integration with DarkRoom, that could really work.

I use different ones in different situations. I'm on my netbook now, so when I finish this blog post I'm going to Alt-Tab back to DarkRoom to continue writing.

Later, I'll use Beyond Compare (wonderful bit of software) on XP on the netbook to sync between the its drive and the memory stick that I work directly to from the Mac and finally paste the results into Scrivener. It's a hassle but it kind of works and is my most productive method at the moment.