How Technology Has Made Me a Better Writer

Megan Norris Jones

Megan Norris Jones

When I began writing my first manuscript, I opened a Word document and started typing. Scenes grew into a couple of chapters, but I never made it very far. There were a lot of problems with my initial process (unfocused idea, overly simplistic plot, no clear direction), but a major stumbling block lay not in the writing itself but in the platform I was using. Writing a story in Microsoft Word is a linear process. You start at the beginning of the document and write through to the end. Some amazing writers do just that, so Word is ideal writing software for them. But not me. I write by scenes, and Word doesn’t offer an easy way to divide text into manageable scenes or to easily switch their order, never mind keep up with all the versions of those scenes that I write in the course of my revision process.

I knew the software was a problem, but I didn’t know what to do about it. After all, word processing had already made writing so much better than the days when authors wrote everything out by hand or, eventually, by typewriter. When I wanted to cut and paste, I did not reach for scissors and glue. My elders insisted I should be grateful. But, still, it wasn’t working.

Not until the life-altering day when I downloaded a free trial of the writing software Scrivener. It was a revelation.

I sketched out scene ideas and shuffled them into order on a virtual corkboard. Then with a couple of clicks, those scene ideas transformed into an outline. I read my manuscript scene by scene, or as chapters, or complete from beginning to end. If I had a great idea for a scene in the third act, I easily typed out the idea and dropped the scene into the sequence where it belonged. If I changed my mind later, I moved it to a new spot, or shunted it into the “deleted scenes” folder. I wrote a new version of that scene, changing key elements, but still saved the original with that scene’s file to reference or revert to later.

All my research fit easily into the research folder saved within my single Scrivener project, with easy import of websites and images. Scrivener provided character- and setting-development templates, totally customizable, or I could come up with whatever templates of my own I wanted to use. If I wanted to share my manuscript, I exported it to a variety of file types, including multiple e-book formats, which made it supereasy to send to friends for feedback.

I spent some time working through the provided tutorial just to discover everything Scrivener can do and gladly paid the $45 dollars when my free trial ended. My writing took off at a spectacularly nonlinear and productive pace, and I finally finished that first manuscript and began sketching scenes for the next.
But along the way, a strange thing happened. Scrivener changed my writing life in amazing ways. So of course I ran straight to my writers’ group to share the good news, certain that everyone would jump on board once they heard about this most wondrous of inventions. But they didn’t. It’s been years now, and I’m the only WriteOwl who uses Scrivener. Why, dear friends and esteemed fellow writers? Why, oh, why?

I’m opening the floor for explanations. The writer whose life has been changed by a computer program wants to understand you. Is your writing process so different from my own? How do you write? What works for you?

11 responses to “How Technology Has Made Me a Better Writer

  1. When I first started using writing software, Scrivener was only available for the Mac. So I opted for the free PC software called yWriter (http://www.spacejock.com/yWriter5.html). While Scrivener later came out with a PC version, a big chunk of my novel was already in yWriter and I didn’t want to have to start over with Scrivener. I did try the free trial of the PC Scrivener, but it had a learning curve that I wasn’t willing to invest in at the time. After all, I had already put in the hours learning how to use yWriter. (FYI – K.M. Weiland has a great tutorial on how to use it. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ti5HNVVIV1w) One day I’ll give Scrivener a fair shot, but, for now I love yWriter. It does everything I need it to do (scene and chapter organization, character notes, etc.), and then some (timeline building, draft tracking, progress reports, etc.).

    • Megan Norris Jones

      You know, I actually started researching writing software when someone from our group (you? Alicia?) recommended yWriter. Free software to solve my writing problems? Sign me up. Then I discovered it was only available for PCs, and I use a Mac. But it got me thinking about possibilities beyond Word, and that’s when I discovered Scrivener. Maybe one day we can bridge the Mac/PC divide. But now that I have two manuscripts, countless other projects, and everything I do for this blog set up in Scrivener, there’s no way I’d switch to yWriter, even if they did offer a Mac version, so I suppose I can’t fault you for sticking with yWriter once you were so heavily invested. But, still, when you finish this manuscript, you should totally try it =)

      • I am interested in learning more about how you save research in Scrivener. That’s not something I think yWriter allows me to do (or maybe I just don’t know how to do it.)

        • Megan Norris Jones

          Every Scrivener project you create comes with a couple of basic folders. One of these is “Research.” Within that folder, you can use the “import” function to import websites and other documents. For the websites, you just choose the “import Web page” option, and it will save a copy of the Web page you are currently looking at, or you can manually input an address. It will also import documents you have saved to your computer so you can keep everything in the single project and easily accessible. It’s a great function that makes me turn to Scrivener for lots of different kinds of projects, from researching agents and editors (because I can save whatever info I come across online in their respective folders) to organizational plans for my new house.

  2. I’m a note/scenecards and Word person–not because I necessarily think it’s what works best, but because there’s no program learning curve. I just have a folder for each project, with sub-folders for plot outline, background, first draft, etc., and save scenes as separately named files.

    I tried yWriter, but realized right away that it would take a chunk of time to learn how to use it, and the actual block where you were supposed to enter text really bothered me. It was an aesthetic thing.

    Question: Does Scrivener just give you a cropped down area to write in? I need to see a lot of screen.

    • Can’t answer your question about Scrivener, obviously, but I get what you mean about needing to see a lot of the page where you’re typing. I have a big desktop monitor and a full-sized keyboard and mouse that I plug my laptop into on a daily basis because I can’t write on a laptop for long periods of time. My eyes are getting too old for that. When I write with my big monitor, I also zoom the page size to 150 percent. Often, I do the writing part in Word and then dump what I’ve written into yWriter. Sometimes I craft it directly into yWriter. Just depends on what I’m working on.

    • Megan Norris Jones

      I’ve seen the layout you’re talking about for yWriter, and I agree that it’s small. Scrivener is flexible, but all the options are larger than the yWriter writing space. You can enter “composition mode,” which is a big white space in the middle of the screen with black (or a customizable picture of your choice) on either side. That’s for when you want to avoid distraction. Or you can use the regular mode which shows your project folders on the left side. Or you can add the “inspector,” which includes more options on the right side. Or you can look at two different scenes simultaneously in parallel boxes, either side-by-side (my preference) or split horizontally. I tend to write with lots of stuff on the screen: folders, inspector, and two scenes, but sometimes I need to clear my mind, and then I go for composition mode. But any of the options provide a larger writing space than what I’ve seen with yWriter.

      • You did convince me to download the free trial version of Scrivener and I’ll give it a try–though it will probably take me the whole 30 days just to get through the tutorial.

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