Friday, January 12, 2018

The essential tech tools of the writer

A reader recently asked me to consider the “essential technical platform” of the twenty-first century writer. I have plenty to say about this. 

First of all, I have a long-term perspective to give you. When I first started dabbling with writing fiction in 1984, “high-tech” for most writers consisted of an IBM Selectric typewriter. (Yes, Apple came out with the first Macintosh that year; but good luck affording one at $1,995—almost $5,000 in today’s dollars. And I was a high school kid in 1984; I wasn’t going to buy a Macintosh.)

I made the shift to writing digitally in the mid-1990s, with Microsoft Word. In 1995, Microsoft Word represented a great leap forward. But Microsoft Word is really not the optimal tool for the writer in 2018. 

So what do you need? Or what should you have? Here’s a brief rundown:


Scrivener: Microsoft Word, like Apple Pages, Google Docs, and other basic word processing software, is perfectly adequate for writing short texts of a few thousand words. 

For a longer text, you’re going to want to have Scrivener. 

Why? Scrivener supports non-linear writing. This software package, which currently costs less than $50, enables you to break up a long text into sections, skip around, and rearrange things. Scrivener also includes robust, built-in planning tools, which you can use for outlining in advance (if you’re a plotter), or outlining in reverse (if you’re a discovery writer).

Yes, you can accomplish all the same tasks in Word. But Scrivener makes them much, much easier.

I was a long-term holdout on Scrivener (I only purchased it last September); but since acquiring it and ascending Scrivener’s modest learning curve, I could never go back to using Word for long-form writing. 



Dropbox: Almost all of us write on multiple devices nowadays. (Yesterday I spent three hours in the passenger seat of a car, and I outlined a short story on my iPhone.) 

For many years, I used my email to reconcile texts that I’d created on my various devices. I’d email myself fragmentary documents in MS Word or Apple Pages, then copy and paste them to a master file. 

Very tedious and prone to error...

Dropbox creates a share drive that spans all of your devices, so you can have one file for each project. This is so much more efficient, and it enables you to effectively utilize snippets of writing time, wherever you happen to be. 

Unless you do all of your writing on a single computer, get Dropbox.



Dragon Dictate: Some writers like dictation more than others. To be sure, if you want to effectively utilize dictation, you’re going to have to resign yourself to a learning curve.

Some writers never learn to comfortably use dictation for writing fiction. But almost everyone can learn to use dictation for writing basic, nonfiction texts (such as blog posts).

Dictation not only gives you speed, it also saves your hands and wrists over time. Once you get used to the process, speaking a text becomes much easier than writing a text.

In my experience, dictation, like typing, is a skill that can be mastered by anyone—if you are willing to put in the time.

In my case, at least, the adoption of dictation software has not meant throwing away my keyboard. I shift back and forth between the two, depending on my mood, and the level of fatigue in my hands, wrists, and fingers.

*      *      *

I am unabashedly conservative and traditionalist. There is much about the harebrained 21st-century that I would cheerfully scrap and reset to what it was in 1985.

But even I am not sentimental for typewriter ribbons and correction fluid. The twenty-first century, despite its many flaws, has given writers an arsenal of powerful tools. Use them to your advantage.