Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Tools of the Trade

The absolute best word processor you can use for writing is __________!
You can fill in the above blank.
What works for one person, doesn’t necessarily work for another. Some word processors are optimized for one type of writing; other word processors are optimized for another type of writing. There are some word processors that do very well for short documents and very strong page formatting, ideal for creating a personalized card or brochure for printing. There are others that do well for writing very long streams of text that work for generating ebooks. But, neither can really do the job of the other very well.
Microsoft Word is an excellent all-around writing program. I had an older copy which, after subsequent computer and operating system upgrades, became increasingly uncooperative. With a limited budget and finding the need for a word processor that could handle the size of the documents I was creating, I decided to pass on the cost of upgrading Word and went seeking for a writing program that would serve my needs.
And search I did!
On the command line were those old Unix relics, Pine and vi/vim. If you like pain, there is Emacs. Emacs is best suited for program writing over creative writing. I liked using vim (“vi improved”) with syntax mode on. I still frequently use vim for programming, creating web pages, and tweaking ePub files.
Obviously, these command line programs were not written for writing massive tomes. They were created for writing programs and short notes or emails. Using one of these to write a novel is akin to handing a hammer and chisel to someone and telling him to dig a tunnel through a mountain.
Moving on up to the desktop level programs, I tried about a dozen writing applications, up to and including OpenOffice, Nisus Writer Pro and a few others.
I even gave Google Docs a good try, but I couldn't use it unless I had an internet connection.
I eventually found applications that worked for me. Are they perfect? Not even close, but they get the job done. If any were perfect, they would have been listed in that first line above. Still, I always came across one thing or another that I didn't care for when looking at each program.
In the end, I chose Mellel for my creative writing.
Mellel was written specifically to handle extremely large documents, such as a complete novel. It also saves to a format that is easily human readable. I had used programs where the company either went out of business or changed their file format. When the program became incompatable because of operating system changes, the previously generated files would become unusable. To protect my work, I wanted a program that would save to a format from which I could easily recover my writing. Add to the fact that Mellel is also very cheap (relative to other writing applications of equivalent caliber) at $40, it became the clear winner for my choice of writing program. One of the ways I feel Mellel fails me is it doesn’t save directly to the ePub format. (Rumor has it the programming team is working on it.)
I also use Apple’s TextEdit quite a lot. Brain-dead simple to use and good basic editing capabilities make it an excellent choice for basic writing. I use it when I’m writing short essays such as this one. I did try it for writing when I began having the above mentioned problems with Word, but the TextEdit version at that time also couldn’t handle the long documents. One of the things I really like about the version of TextEdit that is included with Mac OS X Lion is the automatic spelling correction done by the OS while I’m writing. It gets 99% of the typo errors that invariably crop up while typing quickly.
Sadly, I have yet for it to generate one of those gems that one finds on damnyouautocorrect.com. I keep hoping…
Last, I use Apple’s Pages for generating ePub files. It’s the only program I have that generates an ePub file acceptable to both the iOS devices and Barnes & Noble’s Nook. I haven’t put Pages through its paces, so I really can’t comment on how well it does. It is Apple’s answer to Microsoft Word. Like Word, it seems best suited for business-style document creation.
I rely on spell checking a lot. Whether an error was due to a typo or simply because I didn't know the proper spelling of the word, it's good that there is something there to catch it. There are times it can get in the way when writing fiction because I'm using made up names. I occasionally remind myself at a later date to locate the user dictionary file and remove any oddball thing I added to it while writing a given story. When using spell checking, it is important to remind yourself that it doesn't always catch everything. Such as “They’re”, “Their”, and “There” or “Loose” vs. “Lose”. You do have to be on top of yourself and read through what you've written to avoid stupid mistakes like those.
I use Grammarian to spot check my grammar. I don't rely on it too heavily; I'm more interested in catching any really gross grammatical errors than generating an absolutely perfect document.

The Ideal Writing Application Should…
  • …Be optimized for writing a book. Books have a definitive structure to them. When opening a document, I should be able to specify it is a book, and then check off what pieces I’ll need or want. Title Page, Copyright notice, Table of Contents, and Chapters, etc. It should then create the collection of pieces I need, of which I can select and begin writing. When I save, this collection of document pieces should be placed into a collective container and stored as one object. The application, Scrivener, comes close to doing this, but only in displaying the files while the program is running. The program should know to keep these in order when being output for printing or generating an ePub file. Indeed, what I just described is pretty much the structure of an ePub file: the various sections or chapters are all separate files stored together in a zip archive file with the file suffix “.epub ” added to the name.
  • …Be able to handle over a thousand pages of text without choking or bogging down on me.
  • …Have a native format to save to where I can still extract my work should something go horribly wrong with the application.
  • …Have a simple graphic window where I can easily define the structure of the page layout. Select the page size whether it is absolute (5"x7") or a predefined format (A5, Digest, Pocket Book, etc.) and set the margins graphically with the option to fine tune them with exact values. Additional to this, it should recognize that the first page in a document (chapter) could allow for starting the text with a lower offset from the top margin on the page. (Okay, I can do this manually just by punching a few extra lines at the beginning of a chapter. It would be nice if the program could recognize this and just do it for me.) (Yeah, some writers are lazy.)
  • …In addition to setting the page setup, create an easy system for footnoting and headers. Set page number locations intelligently. This is the one place where I feel Mellel really fails in that when I tell it to give me page numbers, it can’t just place them at the upper or lower corners that I specify. This really isn’t needed for ePub files when creating ebooks, but when going for print, I want to be able to easily tell the program, “set the page numbers on the lower/upper corners” or “center the page numbers at the top/bottom of the page.” Digging through the documentation pretty much yields nothing on how to get the program to do this easily.
  • …And of course, my primary need: save to an ePub file! While I can create an ePub file with my current toolset, the result is a kludge at best.

Digital publishing has created an entirely new way of creating a book for a writer. Instead of writing for printing on paper, an author can now generate the text for an ebook and push this up directly for distribution online.
To date, no word processing program is optimized for creating digital books. Right now, they are mostly targeted towards creating business letters and reports for printing onto paper via the office printer.
To create an ePub file acceptable for digital book readers, the author either has to turn to very expensive page layout programs, hire a contractor who is skilled with working with those very expensive page layout programs, or do as I do and work with a bunch of separate programs to get a fairly acceptable file.
Considering how many thousands of people out there who are aspiring writers hoping to jump onto the digital publishing bandwagon, one would think there would be a pretty good market for a writing application optimized for creating an ebook.
I'd be one of the first in line to give it a try!