Get with the (writing) program - PC Retail

Get with the (writing) program

Writers don't need software. A pen and paper will do. But the right software can go a long way.
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As you may well know by now, November is National Novel Writing Month - or NaNoWriMo - which means you may find more customers than normal professing a fondness for creative writing.

While a lot of the programs targeted at would-be novelists are either free or downloadable, it's worth knowing what's out there if you want to impress.

As with our previous feature on writing hardware, this guide features only a small selection of products, simply because there aren't enough hours in the day to cover the full spectrum that's available.

I'm wary of any product that offers to help writers come up with ideas. Ideas are easy - it's writing them down that's hard. So for me, the best products either help streamline the writing process, or help with organising, outlining or editing.

WRITING, OUTLINING AND INSPIRATION

Word

Often the first and the last Word in word processing software for many people. The new ribbon which first came with Office 2007 may have frustrated long-time Word users but it still remains the one program everything else tries to be compatible with. Its Track Changes facility can be useful for editing or receiving critiques from friends.

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Excel
How you get on with Excel as a writing tool will depend on your fondness for spreadsheets generally. Personally, I've used it for outlining, keeping track of writing progress (yes, even using formulae), and keeping character notes.

OpenOffice
A worthy opponent to Office and it's free. If you haven't got the budget for Word, don't worry. OpenOffice will do the job, just with fewer bells and whistles.

Dragon NaturallySpeaking

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Word output doesn't always require typing. Dragon NaturallySpeaking is voice recognition software that lets you get words on the screen just by talking. DNS is on version 11.5 now and is much more sophisticated than early versions. You do have to do some training to get it up and running, but once you've done that it's surprisingly straightforward. It does take a little while to get used to speaking out punctuation, but that comes with time.

It's a particularly useful tool for writers with disabilities or for those who suffer from RSI. I tend to use it when my wrists are hurting but I know I've got to get more words out somehow.

ESCAPE TO THE CLOUD

Google Docs

Maybe you're all fed up of hearing about the cloud, but at times it comes in handy. If I'm temporarily using another computer I don't always want to bother with downloading my file, or may not want to risk accidentally leaving it somewhere. With Google Docs I simply log in, write a scene or two, then retrieve it from the web when I get home.

It can be used for longer projects too, of course. However I've sometimes found it doesn't copy over formatting perfectly to other programs, so I tend to use it for scenes, notes and short stories.

The spreadsheet element of it is useful too, especially as other users often share ones that have worked for them. You can also use it for file back-ups. Pretty nifty.

Yarny

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Whilst we're in the cloud... This seems to be the biggest area of growth for novel-writing software, with apps that have often been created for novelists by novelists. It's worth trying a few just to see which one has the right toolset for you.

As well a main writing pane and areas for saving character and place information, Yarny enables writers to jot down random snippets that they can catergorise and come back to later.

LitLift.com
Another cloud product, but LitLift is all about planning - there is no room for directly writing your book here. Instead you can create multiple books, add characters, settings and items to it, and even add elements that you don't have books for yet. Simple and easy to use.

BACK TO EARTH

Scrivener
I have long been jealous of Mac users, who until recently held sole claim to being able to use Scrivener, the all-singing all-dancing writing program you didn't know you needed. It is currently in Beta on Windows, but goes on sale on November 7th. However, NaNoWriMo participants will be able to purchase it with 50 per cent off the normal price once they've verified their novel at the end of the event.

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It focuses as much on the ability to organise and restructure elements of what you're writing as on the actual word processing part of the software.

You can break your writing into scenes and chapters and then reorder them later on by just dragging and dropping files. You can outline on index cards that sit alongside your main documents. There are sections for writing about characters and places. And you can customise all of this depending on your needs.

yWriter

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yWriter is a free word processor for PC that's not entirely disimilar to Scrivener on the surface. It was designed by SF novelist Simon Haynes with creative writing in mind, and as such you can break writing projects into different files, there are places to jot down information about characters, locations and goals and did I say it's free?

Writer's Cafe 2
WC2 is a suite of writing software including planning tools, writing prompts, name generator, scrapbook and more, available on Windows, Mac and Linux.

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Perhaps the most useful element is Storylines - essentially a virtual corkboard where you can pin index cards on different plotlines and swap them about as you restructure the story or outline. Invaluable for writers with complicated sub-plots or multiple point-of-view characters.

BACK UP, BACK UP, BACK UP!
If you (or your customers) are going to write anything this month, make sure you back it up properly on a regular basis. There is no excuse for forgetting when there are so many easy ways to do it, including:

USB sticks
Emailing yourself
Google Docs
Any number of super amazing cloud services
Burning to disc and putting in a fire-proof safe
Print-outs
Dropbox (which is also a easy way to work on the same file from multiple computers).

Good luck!

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