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How To Find the Perfect Writing App: An Idiosyncratic Quest from Typewriter to Scrivener

usb-typewriter-5Now that I’m in the production stage with Wolf Code, I finally took a moment to re-evaluate my “workflow,” as a number of writers call the process by which we fashion words into stories. I’m not talking about the creative side to writing, but the physical side. Thirty plus years ago, a writer would answer this question by pointing to his typewriter, but today is a different world.

I remember learning to type on my mother’s manual model, but when I got my own, it was electric with a built-in whiteout ribbon. My writing progressed in college under the amber-glow of my Smith Corona word processor’s screen. When I finally transitioned to a computer, it was a Gateway machine with Windows, and I learned Word, which served me for several years until I finally jumped into Mac’s ecosystem, where I eagerly adopted Pages.

Pages_Icon_iOS_7Over the past two years, writing my first novel, I enjoyed syncing Pages between my computer and my iPad; I enjoyed the flexibility of planning the main document on the computer, then turning to the tablet for portability (I am writing this while sitting in the car waiting for someone.), and finally returning to the computer when I needed more serious formatting and editing. The first iterations of iOS Pages were great, but then later versions lost features and never got “smart” punctuation (quotation marks, apostrophes, and dashes), so I was cutting and pasting these when I wrote on the iPad.

The real kicker came when I needed to format the entire novel for print. Even Pages on my Mac did not have certain needed features: mirror margins, page numbers on the “outside” margin, and alternating headers for left and right pages. So I reluctantly turned to Word and completed these. Once I made these changes in Word, I could not take the file back to Pages (such movement introduces a myriad of mysterious and annoying formatting issues), where I like the “Save as ePub” feature. My version of Word only offers save to HTML; I then use iCalibre to convert the file to Mobi and ePub. The short story is all that movement created more work and ate more time than it should have, and I grew dissatisfied.

Drawing from my experiences with NaNoWriMo and web searches for “best writing app,” I explored several programs, notably Ulysses, Story Mill, Storyist, and Scrivener. Choices here are personal, and may be idiosyncratic, so I do not intend this brief account to be a final judgement of these different programs. All of these conveniently offer trial versions, and I applaud that offer since the writing process involves many complicated elements, and it helps immensely that you can “test drive”—I would encourage you to do so before you lay down any money, considering the expense.

storyistSince I had read many articles praising the flexibility of Scrivener, I checked it first, but also quickly jumped into Ulysses. Having started with these two, I found Story Mill too stripped down—but others may like its simplicity and its timeline feature. I found Storyist to be a serious contender since it looked like Pages, yet with the formatting options I needed. Also, it has an iOS version offering a clear sync with the iPad. I finally turned away thinking I needed a greater change and even more flexibility—price was also a factor.

ulysses_ipad_icon-100582852-galleryThat left Ulysses and Scrivener. Ulysses, like Storyist, has versions both for Mac and iPad, and definitely fit the bill for change, and when I read Scrivener’s developer got his idea for his program while using an earlier version of Ulysses, I gave it serious consideration, especially since I may like its “look” the best, except for Markdown. I know, I know, it’s ubiquitous, and I should have no problem with it—but that’s it. I want something else in my writing program than what is in my WordPress, etc.

ScrivenerHowever, when I read through all of Scrivener’s long, thorough tutorial and discovered all it could do and how I could tailor it as I grew into it, I knew that I wanted to try this one. (I also discovered a sale that sweetened the deal—make sure you check the NaNoWriMo discount if nothing else.) But there is (still, despite many promises and developments) no corresponding iOS app. {UPDATE, August 2016: Literature & Latte this summer released a Scrivener App. It now replaces the alternatives listed below. See my review.} As an alternative Scrivener has introduced the possibility of syncing through Dropbox with rich-text (rtf) editors. These are a step up from text (txt), allowing for formatting to come along with the texts.

Rtf is a simple format that is much more universal than doc(x) and pages files. Remember the annoying step from doc to docx, and the recent one to the new pages format. Rtf would have bridged those gaps. Early versions of iOS Pages had rtf, but the current version doesn’t. Though I considered writing in Pages and then cutting and pasting later, I decided to look elsewhere.

textilusRtf editors only slowly came to the App Store, and the leading one has been Textilus, which actively advertises its syncing capabilities with Scrivener. That doesn’t mean you can open Scrivenver projects and see notecards on a cork board (Index Card does that—though you cannot transfer pictures.), but it does mean you can open individual files in your master document and type away to your pleasure. Textilus comes with some other welcomed features: a wonderful keyboard with customizable keys (for smart punctuation!), the ability to add TrueText fonts, and a PDF editor.

I’ve started the syncing process with Dropbox (who offers a free 2GB for starters)—it seems to work well, but I will not bet it’s flawless. I’ll offer more feedback once this “workflow” has proven itself. (I read other authors who grew tired of it.) I have enjoyed writing this entry in Textilus; I wanted an alternative to the editor within WordPress.

The search for the “perfect” word processor may be endless, but this arrangement seems to have addressed my recent concerns. Of course, I might dream either of a large smartboard and perfect voice recognition or an immersive-reality program in my IR/VR glasses that also uses voice recognition—both would increase the opportunities to stand and walk while writing, another perennial issue for writers (I think of Hemingway's special desk.)—ah, but that’s another concern, and this post has gotten too long. I wish you well with the quest to find what works for you!

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