The Search For the Perfect Writing Tool

I’m beginning to contemplate a larger writing project.  Although I am reluctant to think of it as a novel just yet.  I want to warm up to it slowly.  “Writing project” will do for now.

Head games with myself aside, I’m always looking for good writing tools on the Internet.  I have purchased so-called novel writing software in the past.  It would have been better if I had less expectation that this software would somehow creatively endow me.  They don’t work that way.  I found I often got bogged down in how these programs organised and prepared the novel writing process, good as that preparation might have been.  I never seemed to get to grips with the actual writing…

My requirements for writing software are now more limited and realistic.  Ideally, I want a writing environment where I can collect and organize my thoughts, in a helter skelter way and in a manner that can lead to better organization without giving me too many excuses to dither around not actually writing.  I’ve come up with several candidates which I’ll mention further below.

First though are a couple of very useful tools I’ve found for surfing the Web researching background information or tracking down the wierd and wonderful.  (All of the software mentioned below, by the way, is freeware or open-source.  To my knowledge, there’s no adware or other malware included in them.)

Quintura Search is an intuitive and appealing way to search the Web.  Choose one of many search engines, put in your search terms and it provides a map of the results on one side with some itemized finds on the other.  By map, I mean a graphical display like a cloud of related words and concepts related to your original terms, with the size of the words related to how sigificant the associations may be.  You may go down a side route or three exploring some of these notions, but you can always work your way back to where you started.  And you can save the whole exercise if you should want to return to it.  I use this a lot.

But then say you find a Web page with information you want to save.  There are programs out there, including free ones, that will record all the information on a Web site, including many pages you’re not even looking at.  That’s more than I need.  The best solution I’ve found is Local Website Archive (LWA). It’s free for personal use.

I use Maxthon as a browser which is Internet Explorer based, although LWA seems to support many other browsers including Mozilla Firefox and Opera 8.  Once LWA is installed, any page can be saved to it with a right click and by choosing from the menu.  LWA organizes the saved material in whatever categories you wish, in an outline-like hierarchy.  Then at your leisure, offline if you choose, you can review what you’ve found.  I’ve found this quite useful.

Another category of software is used for collecting ideas, notes, or producing an outline.  Such a program, although with some uses like LWA, is Evernote, another free program.  It’s called an “intuitive note management application,” where you can save all kinds of notes, diagrams, photos, parts or all of web pages, etc.  It is similar to LWA in that you can save entire web pages to it, but I found it unwieldy for that.  I think it’s better for shorter items.  It is supposed to have a great search function, although I can’t vouch for it, not having used it enough.  But it certainly has potential.

Moving to other note or data management and outline software, there’s The Literary Machine.  There are two versions, an older freeware one, and the more recent program you have to purchase.  This is an idea and text database which looks very intriguing.  Unfortunately, after trying for some time to get used to the idiosyncratic way it’s put together, I found it too bothersome.  As one commentator noted, it seems to be most useful once you have a large number of notes and ideas.  Before I got to that point, I gave up in frustration.  But others with more patience may find it suits them.

Closer to a more traditional outliner is Keynote, an open-source project, which is a tabbed notebook/outliner.  One file can hold as many notes as you like.  Each note can be put in outline hierarchy, making it easy to structure chapters or scenes.  And for those top-secret missions, you can encrypt your data with the built-in Blowfish or Idea algorithms, so even buildings full of Cray supercomputers will start to smoke before breaking into your to-do list.

Similarly, there is QuickPlot, which is like a very no-frills version of Keynote.  Drag and drop notes to organize your writing in an outline hierarchy.  (Incidentally, at that same website where you can now find QuickPlot, there are also useful links to other writing aids, with a focus on screenwriting.)

Miss all those index cards with your notes that you could sort and arrange to your heart’s content?  There’s Text Block Writer, a virtual index card manipulator.  This is getting closer to the way I work, so this may be a promising way to organise myself.

There’s at least one writer on the Web I’ve come across (and I apologize for not keeping the url) who swears by putting together lists to solve writing problems.  For instance, one example she uses is: You’re writing a scene with a character coming into a coffee shop.  To help flesh this out, write a quick list of 20 or 30 aspects of a coffee bar that involve the senses.  Use some to write the scene, and now you’ve got a list that might be useful again in some other scene.  To keep all these lists straight, there’s Slimlist. (Actually you could use Keynote or many others to do much the same.)

Now all this is fine, but I still haven’t found the overall environment for writing I was hoping for.  I can’t just straight sit down with Word or a pen and paper and start writing my opus.  Oh no.

Better than that is RoughDraft.  This is a great freeware word processor for writers which saves all its files in Rich Text Format (.rtf).  It keeps all the file information available at one side as you write.  Each file can have an attached note to explain what it is.  For those who write screenplays or plays, it has automatic formatting.

Another full fledged word processor is yWriter put together by a science fiction author.  It’s structured on the idea of breaking each novel into chapters, breaking each chapter into one or more scenes, and giving each scene a goal, some conflict and an outcome.  It has more features than I can go into here, but it looks very promising.

My latest find, and the one I’m leaning towards as a work environment, is Papel (which is Spanish and Portugese for ‘paper’).  It seems basically to be a simple word processor, but with writing-related icons and its own desktop.  You can write chapters, scenes, dialogue ideas, snippets of ideas, then iconize each one and organize them visually on the desktop.  For instance you might have in one spot Chapter One and around it you put various scenes, notes and dialogue that will pertain to that chapter.  This appeals to me, so we will see how it works out.

Finally, let me offer a site to allow a break from the occasional barren patches of one’s imagination: Rob’s Amazing Poem Generator.  Here you can enter the address of any Website and get computer generated poetry of the first order based on the text found therein.  I entered the url of this post.  Here is a small fragment from a larger ode:

beginning to help flesh this
needs to help flesh this is
a project

Note (September 30, 2006):  Since a fair number of people are still reading this and may come upon it from a search engine…  Another post — — also has some suggestions for freeware or open source programs that may be of interest.

Note (December 30, 2006): Michael O’Donnell, the author of Papel, apparently moved or chose to take himself and his project offline, so the program can be difficult to find since his websites are no longer functional.  The current link has three choices: the first is the original site which is no more, but the other two mirrors should allow you to download this fine program.

Note (August 8, 2007):  Here is another post along the same lines as this.

Note (December 26, 2011): I’ve provided an updated review of this post called “Arriving at My Perfect Writing Tools.”


Explore posts in the same categories: Internet, Writing

18 Comments on “The Search For the Perfect Writing Tool”

  1. bloglily Says:

    This is great news, Mike — not to mention great links! I’m eager to hear more about this project. And I’m already having fun exploring these tools. Can you at least say a few things about time period/place/genre? Not to be pushy or nosey, but inquiring minds want to know!

  2. fencer Says:

    Well, I don’t want to let too much air out of the inner tube of my inspiration, but I can say this:

    It is science fiction. At some indeterminate time in the future, but still where our present and near future is part of the archeology of that time. I see city states, some in loose federations, much fewer people, and a frail economy based on space flight within the solar system and the rare and necessary resources that the freighters bring back to earth. Something to do with the phrase, “When my ship comes in.” (Historical British parallel, for some germ of a social/family structure). There’s a story of a youngster with some kind of revenge/mystery to solve motif, and a larger story of First Contact… Got some good speculative and interesting science to incorporate into the story. Lots and lots to still figure out.

    Please tell me if any of those writers’ aids end up being of use to you, and how… be very interested to know. Or if you know of any others that might be good… May the inner tube of your inspiration be always full!

  3. bloglily Says:

    This sounds great. I read a lot of science fiction as a child. I especially loved Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury. I like this world you’ve set up, the shipping motif, the frail economy. I’m so glad to hear you’re on your way.

    As for inner tubes, I’m with you. Talking about writing is not writing. Possibly too much talking about it releases too much of your inspiration.

    A little bit, though, is so helpful!

    I’ll let you know if I get anyplace interesting with the writers’ aids. Over in my neighborhood, I’m trying to GIVE people the many writers’ aids I haven’t been using. (You wouldn’t, for example, be interested in some nice, cool, paperclips? Not the normal kind, but really, really big ones, the kind a giant would use. I love them, but don’t need sixty of them.)

    The virtual writers’ aids at least have the appealing feature of not taking up space, except on your hard drive.

    have a good writing day. Cheers! BL

  4. fencer Says:

    Hey, Lily, I read you were giving away some wonderful stuff there… But sorry, no giant paperclips for me. Although, you may have read about that guy who traded up on the internet from one red (normal-sized) paperclip to get a house… took him 14 trades. You’ve got a lot of economic potential stored away there!

  5. sputnki Says:

    Hi Fencer, I read with great interest your entry on writing aids. Although I consider myself a ‘photographer’ rather than a ‘writer’, I’ve always been keen to put words to paper. Especially if they expand on a story set up by photograph.

    Any software that help dredge the creative muck from my subconscious is of interest!

    You mentioned experimenting with the ‘gumoil’ process. I googled it and must say it sounds very interesting! There is a part of me that misses fooling with chemicals and watching the ghosts come out of the paper.

    I’ve always been a fan of sci-fi and your mini-outline above truly sounds like a promising story!


  6. qazse Says:

    dittos on the above – from what I know of you, you are certainly up to the task of writing an excellent book of any sort or genre.

    Again, another well researched and presented article. Thank you for your time and effort.

    Papel looks like something I could use.

    The poem generator gave me , “maternity bras for Breakfast” – what more can I say.
    Great line, great breakfast.


  7. fencer Says:

    Hi Doug,

    I thought you wrote well giving context to your photos.

    You may have had better luck, but I found that information on gumoil was pretty limited on the internet. You pretty well have to buy Karl Koenig’s book on the process, which is worth it, if expensive. I made a little write-up of my experience with the process in one post here.

    That’s great there’s so many sci-fi fans. As an adult I got away from sci-fi, but I’m returning to the genre now (especially since I want to write in it), looking for the good stuff. Any recent recommendations?



    Hi Herb,

    Thanks for your confidence… Papel does look like a good idea to me too.

    I’m not sure about that breakfast… although it certainly does get your attention.


  8. sputnki Says:

    Well I’ve gone through some of your software picks in more detail. Very impressive! Keynote is running 24×7 now and I like the looks of the ywriter and Papel.

    As for ‘recent’ sci-fi, I’m afraid I’m a bit in the dark about the ‘modern’ writers. I grew up with Heinlein et al. But I like (in no particular order) David Brin, Charles Sheffield, Orson Scott Card, Frank Herbert and Douglas Adams. Some of them are still alive, so I guess they touch on modern! I always rather liked the Niven/Pournelle get togethers and Gordon R. Dickson I’ve always enjoyed, especially the more recent stuff.

    I’m out of touch with the really recent crowd, although I always found Isaac Asimov’s magazine (is that still around?) a great source of more recent writers. At least it was when I subscribed in the 80’s!


  9. fencer Says:

    Yes, I’ve read Brin and Card and liked them. I liked some of the Dune stuff. I read that Mars series by Kim Robinson (?): Red Mars, Green Mars. Of course there’s William Gibson and that whole cyberpunk subgenre. I like some of it… There’s an awful lot out there. Oh, Philip K. Dick, but that’s going old again.


  10. carlos Says:

    None of these programs are Mac compatible. Too bad.

  11. fencer Says:

    Hi carlos,

    Thanks for the Mac specific software note. Copywrite has a limited, free version according to the website.

  12. […] A useful straightforward word processor is RoughDraft (mentioned previously here).  I am told it will run off a thumb drive but I haven’t tried it yet. […]

  13. Michael Says:

    I came across this while looking up sites featuring Papel, which I wrote, and my thanks for your positive comments.

    Papel has been greatly improved recently, and allows you to do all sorts of things like compile and rearrange chapters, scenes, etc. Many writers have spent time helping me improve it, and many translators adding languages to the application.

    It’s unrestricted Freeware, and does more than it at first apears to do, so if you’re a writer then do give it a try and let me know your thoughts.

    You can find it on SnapFiles, where there are a few reviews, though fo older versions. I’ll be updating the website soon, but the Help file tells you everything you’ll need to know.

    PS. Whilst PC only, it runs on a stick.

  14. Shang Lee Says:

    Have you by any chance tried the journal?

  15. fencer Says:

    Hi Shang Lee,

    No, I haven’t tried that. Try to stay away from ones that cost money, since there’s a lot of useful aids that are free (as all are above).


  16. Manuel Says:

    Hello. I just discovered this blog today hunting around for some freeware novel writing software (since yWriter, although pretty useful, is a bit buggy). I’ve downloaded a couple of the programs you mentioned above and will check them out soon. Thanks for the post!

  17. fencer Says:

    Hi Manuel,

    I hope you’ve found some of the related posts to this one… put in “writing free software” or some such on the blog search engine on the Home page (or click on the masthead above to get to Home) and you’ll find some of the others.

    Glad you found it of interest!


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