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What do you want in a writing tool?

| 21 Comments

I've been asked to relay the following question to y'all writers:

What would you want in the ultimate writer tool?

In the context in which that was asked, "tool" specifically referred to software. So the main thrust of the question is: imagine a computer program that would be as helpful to you-as-a-writer as possible. What would its capabilities and features and means of interaction be? What could it do that the tool(s) you currently use can't do?

But if you have thoughts about non-software writing tools (I just know the word "Moleskine" is going to figure prominently in some people's answers), feel free to post those as well.

Feel free to specify imaginary and/or impossible-with-current tech features. (I, for example, would like a truly useful grammar-checker, but I suspect that will require strong AI.)

But I'm particularly interested in hearing about features that could actually be implemented in the real world.

But if you have no idea what can and can't be done with computers, don't let that stop you.

Think about it at all sorts of levels, from spelling and punctuation to paragraphing and formatting, from characters and settings and plots to themes, from wordcount and automatic standard manuscript formatting to keyboard shortcuts, from speech recognition to chips in your head, from research assistance to automatic character name generation, from accidental-plagiarism detection to ability to add footnotes. And definitely don't limit yourself to things I just listed. Go wild.

If you decide to answer in your own journal rather than here, please post a trackback or a comment with a link to your entry.

21 Comments

Ooh, the writing killer app!

I write only on my iBook, fyi. Using MS Word for Mac. No Moleskine for me.

Let's see. I'd like it to have a standard SMF format (double spaced, courier, 12 pt) (and yes, I like looking at SMF). I can't get my Mac to do this, even by customizing my formats. I'd like it not to auto-correct my em dashes (man, I hate having to go back and put in a double hyphen!). I would like it to automatically save continuously.

Here's the main thing. Keeping track of files, drafts, notes. So I have a folder on my desktop for each novel I'm working on, plus a folder called "Unfinished Stories." And in each one of these is such a jumble of stuff--files with cryptic names, files of jumbled notes, cuts, scraps of dialogue, stuff saved for later. I hate it when I know I've written something down and then can't find it.

Maybe if the writer could set some kind of filing rubric, and then be required to create and save files according to it?

And then, of course, it must come up with plots, characters, and settings according to a preset list of preferences...


I'm not really a writer any more, but here are a few things:

The big one is instant-boot; on a Palm, I turn it on, and it's on, with everything exactly as it was when I turned it off. I want that for my PC. (This ought to be doable with some kind of flash memory cache, etc.) If I just want to work for five minutes, it's pretty annoying that the machine takes five minutes to boot.

I could imagine some kinds of statistics/reports that would be interesting to generate, and might not require strong AI. For example, when Neil Simon was writing his first play, someone told him that it was a good idea for all of his characters to meet each other at least once. Might be interesting to generate a report of which characters occur together, which characters have the most "screen time", etc.

In software development, there are tools that check whether you're following "best practice", but you still have to use your knowledge and intuition to actually decide when to believe them. The same is likely to be true of any automated suggestions for creative writing.

I can think of tools that might be useful for writing metered and rhymed verse -- for a given word, give me a list of rhymes and slant rhymes, give me a list of synonyms arranged by metrical feet (e.g. here are all the iambic synonyms, here are the trochaic synonyms, etc.), plus color coding for stressed/unstressed syllables, validation of common forms, etc. These would all have to be optional, of course -- I never want to see an animated paperclip saying "It looks like you're writing a Petrarchan sonnet. Would you like assistance with....".


Formatting lockdowns: freeze line breaks and/or page breaks in a document, with individual or global thaw. This would allow more portability of documents in native format without converting to pdf.

Font controls: show fonts used, show characters used within a font, easy font replacements, font grouping (not font families), search/replace by font and by font group.

Formatting assistance: widow/orphan blocks, copyfitting of selected text to specified dimensions/lines/pages, "no page break" tagging of items that shouldn't break across pages, "no page break after" tagging of items such as section headings, move to nearest top or bottom of page for reflow of text above/below tables/figures, table formatting, table copyfitting, smart control over indents/hanging indents.

Correction action lists: portable and readable action lists of search/replace sorts of items, so people can distribute and use standardized corrections or warnings (no double spaces, curly quotes, no double tabs, no double dashes, missing periods, space before comma/period) -- a basic version of preflighting.

Contextual search and replace. Things like change all double spaces to single spaces, except within a block of 3 or more spaces.

Unicode support.

Clear control over margins, header/footer settings, tab settings, etc. (Users have terrible trouble handling many of these things, because the interface is opaque.) Be able to pull up the formatting/styles/design specs for a document in a simple readable way, change the specs, set the specs, distribute specs.

Don't treat the document as a holy unit. Merge/split documents. Allow active automatic vs. manual update linking of sub-documents, and allow active links to be converted to permanent placements. Ability to apply changes across multiple documents.

Multiple layers of undo. Multiple clipboards. Version control with clear access to notes on versions. Access control for read/write for individuals and groups.

Privacy marking and optional on-line backups: a user should be able to say for any document or group of documents: this should only be stored locally, or this should be encrypted when locally stored, or this should be backed up on-line in the clear, or this should be backed up on-line encrypted. If I'm writing a long blog post that isn't finished yet, I may want an on-line backup and not care about privacy. If I'm dealing with customer credit card data, it may be illegal and/or stupid for me to allow an on-line backup.

Index tagging, where you can select a string and apply an index entry to that string. For example, then I can say that this paragraph should be indexed as "index, creation".

Respect the user. For any rule, allow the user to set whether the rule is unbreakable, a default, or inapplicable. For any change, allow the user to decide whether the change should simply be applied universally or whether each instance of the change should be shown for approval. For any set of interacting rules, allow the user to set the priorities. And allow the user to see all the rules, all the settings, all the options, if they want -- categories of commands and settings are great when you're looking for a single setting, and a nightmare when you need to quickly review 50 settings.


I use a Moleskine to write first drafts in longhand (a cliche I know, but they are nice notebooks), then type them up into Google Docs.

Google Docs has everything I need, tagging, online access/storage/backup, export to rtf and Word, spell check etc. And its free. I've found that the more fancy features a word processor has, the more it gets in the way of my writing.

The other text editor is WriteRoom on OSX, full screen, minimal but perfectly usable.


I'm not a professional writer (nor have aspirations to be), so I am probably not in the market for a piece of software, but I do a fair amount of writing of one kind and another. The main thing I would want in a program is reliability. I would very happily learn to work with whatever nonsense the program had as long as my documents weren't fucked up every few weeks. I spend a lot of time unfucking documents, and it's not really splendiferous.

Other than that, I like a good fountain pen with Osmiroid brand green ink, yellow legal-size pads, and a nice strong leaning board, possibly with an attached penwiper. My Osmiroid pens have great nibs, but are set up for cartridges, which I don't like, and the standard converters don't fit them. I want the pen to either take ink directly from the bottle (I'm currently using a Pelikan which has nice action on that and a nice big barrel so I don't have to refill every two days) or have a converter that works properly without either breaking after six months or forcing me to get inky fingers twice a week. Also, I like saying "Osmiroid", plus there's the whole story of the factory converting to make bombing sights during the War. So, my ultimate writer's tool would have a great name and a cool if somewhat inaccurate history. Oh, and shiny. Perhaps that's helpful.

Thanks,
-V.

P.S. If the pen had an mp3 player, that would be nice, too, as long as it didn't mess with the balance. Also, a pony.


instant-on is longstanding. long list of gripes with computers functioning how the hardware manufacturers need them to. i can just pick up a slip of paper and focus on it to write a poem, but i can't stop the computer from offering me other things to do while i try to write. "whenever you're ready to stop writing, you can switch to doing your taxes."

i would want 3 modes -- make, edit, proof.

make: i push a key and the menus go away, the margins and paginations vanish, the syntax-checking turns off, the curly quotes stop curling, and i have complete control of all the colors, shapes, and lines on the screen. it's like opening a favorite writing journal, including the typeface changing to something friendly (from a variety of screen-only composition fonts that came with). best case would be being able to write on the screen and have the handwriting be recognized without my scrawl being removed. unrecognized words would be treated as objects i could line through and change without the computer needing to tell me it didn't know what the old word was.

edit: form oriented. i can talk to the screen to change the margins and spacing. maybe talk with my fingers on a touch screen, talk with my voice. the thing i most miss from typewriters is the physical setting of margins. to my thinking, precision is something you get through sticky grid stops, not numerical precision. i want to be able to say "annoying-changing-fixed" about a visual feature of my formatting without ever thinking about a number or serious action that is outside the text i'm working on.

proof: very fussy editing and layout tools. like pro pagination software. the stuff that michael wants might be here or in edit. the main thing would be a sidebar or lower area where word and syntax alternatives were available for anything i clicked. for instance, a live thesaurus. click word while reading. categorical "senses of word" options in left pane of lower window. click categorical choice and see more options in next pane over. the point is this is a markup and fix mode. chicago stylebook, very good dictionary and thesaurus, integrated without losing the original organizing ideas.

all those tools might be available elsewhere, not sure. another thing i want is zero startup time on creative apps. first thing the app puts up, if i want it, is a blackout mask that hides the other apps while the app loads, or maybe it opens the last document in a very basic mode while it loads the rest of its regular interface in the background. when i have an idea for either function or form i want to work it immediately. very often it's a visual sense that will be wrecked by a splash screen or continuing to look at the computer's ordinary desktop.

recently i had to scrub the desktop of everything because it was getting in the way when i wrote. i want that functionality back a little bit but i can't get it because i can't hide the unimportant while writing. full screen apps don't solve this problem because they still take time to load and they're so visually similar in menu layout and colors and everything to other apps.

my preferred compose mode is a few specific tools for html markup and glossary terms along the left margin, in very soft colors, and the rest a blank page until i'm done writing. or this gizmo, an umm alphasmart 3000 which then dumps into the computer for editing. but it has too few characters on the screen and i can't touch it to select words or phrases to fix. cursor keys are a little silly.

i think that's it. given a long talk with people in person i could motor through a few thousand more...


Two things:

One, the ability to group documents (i.e. chapters) in an intuitive, non-headache-inducing way that takes care of things like page numbers and such by itself.

Two, the ability to build a wiki directly from a document or series of documents--to open a small window, say, in which character descriptions, settings, interactions could be recorded easily without fussing with other programs.


Editable/non-editable should be a style, like italics. For example, I want to write 10 paragraphs of a user guide, put "comment here" after each paragraph, and allow users to edit the comment areas without mucking up the non-editable paragraphs. (And I want this as a linear text tool, not layers of comments to poke through.) I want to create an html page structure with headings and various pieces locked down, and then allow the business owner to maintain the announcements area of the web page.

I really want that make/edit/proof tool that hibiscus described in comment 6. That's beautifully laid out.

Most of the writing tools I have used are barely adequate for one person to work on one document. A few add some nice features for multiple people or multiple documents, but those are often afterthoughts layered on top of a single conception of how documents come to exist. Nothing out there feels like it's been reconceptualized as a truly flexible tool for developing written communication.


Automated refactoring for fiction.


What Dave said:

One, the ability to group documents (i.e. chapters) in an intuitive, non-headache-inducing way that takes care of things like page numbers and such by itself.

YES.


Save in four different places at once easily. Like I want essay x to go in the essay file, the winter 07 file, the work about blogging file, and the get your act together and work on this one right away file.

Find all those random notes easily.

I love the three modes idea: create, revise, polish.

A quick, easy way to mark feet and stress. Right now I use color coding. By hand is still way easier.

a syllable counter.

I know meter is often in the ear of the listener, but I'd like to check what I think the feet and beats of the line are against what the computer thinks.

A rhyming dictionary.


I'm a novel writer; I use Word by default, partly because I've done all the work of setting up templates, setting up linked docs, etc.

I'd kill for an instantly opening computer/program. I like the write/edit/polish mode idea. Personally, I would not use a thesaurus, but would use a dictionary if it were one i trusted. That's the only item I'd want to consult immediately and not wait for internet access.

Someday soon I'd like to switch to a Tablet PC, so software supporting that platform would be great.

One of the issues about submitting novel work that practically every agent/editor has a different list of formatting requirements. I'd like to have a way to quickly reformat text to meet them. For example, if the text is simply saved as text, and then when printing you have the option to set certain variables (like margin, font, whether the first page should start halfway down, where author name/title/page# should be placed). Maybe we could add a 4th mode: "publishing".

(Caveat: even when writing/editing, I want to know where I am in the doc--what chapter, page number, etc., so there would need to be some default presentation chosen, to calculate page numbering while working.)

Re organizing multiple docs (such as book chapters). Some reasons we don't put entire books in a single file in word is because (1) size impacts how long it takes the doc to open, (2) if we corrupt the file, we lose everything instead of just part, (3) we don't want to spend all of our time scrolling. I'd like not to have to think about files at all. I'd like to open a book and see some kind of toc with links to book sections. If the software wants to save the book in chunks to speed processing time or insulate content, fine, whatever, I just don't need to know about it.

Automatic contents list, with optional outline form (could jump to scenes within chapters or track any type of chunk).

Outlining tools would be great, especially integrated into the actual book text. For example, I'd like to see a chapter summary (or scene, however the work is chunked), linked to the actual chapter/scene/whatever. I'd like to be able to view the summary level or the actual text level, maybe have more than two levels. Currently, I use separate outlining software (SuperNotecard); I like its ability to organize cards hierarchically and also easily move them around. It would be great to have both tasks in the same app.

Pie in the sky:

I've seen software that can automatically generate a document summary. This would be cool!

High powered search features. Would love to type in a character or place name and get back a snippet of wherever it appears.

A feature that can extract and list every character name in the document. Makes it easy to check for misspellings, accidental renamings, confusing juxtapositions (Katarina and Kate don't belong in the same novel unless they're the same person). Even better there was a link to charcter profiles in the text. You're writing or editing, you can click on a name to jump to the profile. This could be automated by simply enabling only for text strings matching an existing profile.

Actually, the above could be used by anyone needing to store extraneous material, such as research or reference data. You're writing about metalsmithing, and you've put some info in under "melting points". In the text, you can click on the phrase "melting point" and get a window displaying that data. This could be a great way to access research without having to remember where you stored that file. With some good search algorithms this could be pretty powerful, it might not require you to remember a key phrase, but rather will simply do a search on the clicked on phrase (maybe automatically grabbing the word before and after, too). Note, the clickability shouldn't be intrusive to the text, I think it would be ok if you could double click on a word and if a profile exists it displays it, otherwise not.

Statistical data. If i have chapters designated, how many words are in each? How many times do I use the word "I" or the phrase "if all goes well" in a chunk of text? Currently I hack Word's spellcheck to get frequency data. Other stats, which you can get in Word only if you set things right to get readability data, would be nice. For example, what's the average number of words in a sentence, number of sentences in a 'graph. Better to be able to see and/or jump to the really long outliers. Percentage dialogue.

Maybe also the ability to mark certain points in the book and see where they fall as the book develops. There are lots of novel structuring "techniques", such as the 3-act, etc. I, for example, would like to mark the point where the body is found, where the protagonist reaches her lowest point, etc., and be able to see a report showing where these are--maybe on a graph. This doesn't need to be highly defined. Simply the ability to mark a spot, give it a name, and then see a report about it would be great.

Also, a pink pony.


Writers will give you lists of their desired "point" features but my wish list is both general and
specific.

1. An easily configurable interface
You set of features are not necessarily my set of features, and the same is true of how one gets
access to them. How about an "invocation map" that is used to build the interface whent he tool
invokes, and how about these "maps" starting invocation so I can have multiple configurations for
difference jobs/purposes, and even exchange them with other writers? (Hmm, the idea of multiple
desktops seems to have a place here too).

2. Easy Functional Extensibility
If it doesn't have the functionality I need or I don't like the way it works, I should be able to
easily add and integrate in a "plugin" that will seemlessly extend the tool. This is what the
Mozilla group is doing fairly well with Firefox.

3. Easily programable/process friendly
Most individual productivity tools are GUI cockpits that make it nearly impossible to integrate
their functionality into process flow and automation, and that hampers evolution within the
profession. The programatic APIs for these tools are good but too technically demanding for
most technical writers.

4. XLM-Based
The internal currency should be XML, with conversion engines for reading/writing other formats.
In an ideal world, they will go away so why not start now to think about XML capture.

Don't do these things and you'll almost certainly end up with just another more or less
Word/FrameMaker clone.


Writers will give you lists of their desired "point" features but my wish list is both general and
specific.

1. An easily configurable interface
You set of features are not necessarily my set of features, and the same is true of how one gets
access to them. How about an "invocation map" that is used to build the interface whent he tool
invokes, and how about these "maps" starting invocation so I can have multiple configurations for
difference jobs/purposes, and even exchange them with other writers? (Hmm, the idea of multiple
desktops seems to have a place here too).

2. Easy Functional Extensibility
If it doesn't have the functionality I need or I don't like the way it works, I should be able to
easily add and integrate in a "plugin" that will seemlessly extend the tool. This is what the
Mozilla group is doing fairly well with Firefox.

3. Easily programable/process friendly
Most individual productivity tools are GUI cockpits that make it nearly impossible to integrate
their functionality into process flow and automation, and that hampers evolution within the
profession. The programatic APIs for these tools are good but too technically demanding for
most technical writers.

4. XLM-Based
The internal currency should be XML, with conversion engines for reading/writing other formats.
In an ideal world, they will go away so why not start now to think about XML capture.

Don't do these things and you'll almost certainly end up with just another more or less
Word/FrameMaker clone.


1. Trivial expansion back and forth between outline and text form, with the ability to fill in arbitrary points in outline (e.g. completely fill in chapter 10 while chapter 5 is a stub)

2. "Small window" mode where *only* a paragraph (configurable) is visible, forcing the writer to move forward without editing.

3. A second vote for a character/placename list, with a link to search-and-replace when you realize that K'a'TH'e'r'ine just isn't cutting it.

4. Duplicate saves: that is, the first time I save, it goes to A, the second to A2, the third to A3, the fourth to A, and so on. That way, God willing, when the bomb drops, I have some prayer that maybe two versions back is valid. This again should be configurable by time period -- perhaps it's better to change which file you save to per hour rather than per save.

5. "Shut the hell up" mode in which no formatting whatsoever is done, required, or prompted for. Let me type like a demon. Do not thoughtfully flag my spelling errors, suggest that my lists should be bulleted, or force me to select the style of a heading. I want to be able to dump in massive amounts of text first, format later. (I'm thinking now of the evils of (A) Word and (B) Structured FrameMaker.)

6. Built-in progress meter that tracks and saves words-per-day, for the anal-retentive among us. (Who, me?)

7. Support for comments/notes-to-self that can be configured to be invisible when printed. ("Query: were corsets worn at this period? Could the wearer remove them herself?")


I like to write in my Moleskine with a fine-point ink pen. It's really good for poetry, musings, etc.

For dedicated, longer works I use a computer. Having an instant-on feature would be wonderful, but I'm guessing that the OP is talking about SW not HW, and instant-on is mostly HW.

At the risk of branding myself as a "format painter", I would love to have something that's a cross between FrameMaker and UltraEdit/Emacs. FM has tons of organizational and compositional power; I can pretty much set up a traditional book in it. Unfortunately, its text-editing and customization capabilities are lacking.

Besides the existing FM capabilities, I want:
- direct links to Visio/Photoshop, etc.
- editing (not compositional) bookmarks so I can hop back and forth in a file and between open files
- vastly improved find/replace; be able to find/replace any text or object by regular expression; treat paragraph, character, and other tags as objects whose contents and attributes can be searched and replaced.
- multiple undo/redo with history.
- collapse text
- rational dialog boxes and property panes, unlike the weird ones FM uses
- macro/scripting language, ideally based on some sort of DOM, object-oriented and using an existing language's syntax
- interface to source control systems


Most of the featuers I would like have been thought of and implemented--unfortunately, they are scattered all over the tool space. The list goes from the practical to wishful thinking.
* Visual outlining. Remember StorySpace? The tool never quite worked for me for technical writing (it's great for stories and just pure fun), but a simplified version for outlining tech docs would be awesome.
* Yellow stickies for things to do that I can attach to the document. Acrobat's feature works pretty well for me.
* Book capability like FrameMaker, but not batch oriented.
* Styles like FrameMaker, not like Word.
* Multiple views onto my document (concurrently) so that I can see the visual structure, the outline, the annotations, the code, and preview and edit in all of them.
* Create good, human readable HTML.
* Allow to import any format on the planet and allow to create good exports in common formats.
* Painless way to: put in hyperlinks, cross-references, index links, tocs on multiple levels, boiler plate pages, images.
* Speech recognition capability. Dragon works but is not good enough--I still type faster. I don't mind training myself to the tool as long as I get 98% recognition.
* Smart switching between multiple languages in same document--especially for spell-checking.
* OCR for handwritten notes to turn them into formatted text.
* Print all my virtual yellow stickies onto a stack of physical stickies that I can stick around my display. Whenever I'm done with a physical sticky and crumple it up and toss it, the virtual sticky gets automatically updated--and vice versa.
* Drawing tool specialized for annotating images with callouts. Allow me to point on an image feature and create a numbered callout automatically, then let me enter text and create list from my entries. Make it look good, too, and allow to use style sheet to specify look of callouts.
* Built in tool for simple screen capture and simple line drawings/diagrams; use for drafts and don't require using complex tools for simple stuff.
* Turn my document outline into a doc plan outline.
* Select a section and send it out for review or email it directly.
* Versioning.
* Buglist attached to the document. If a bug is filed against the document, I can open the document and request a list of bugs filed against it. (Same feature used for reviewer comments.)



It must be responsive. When I type text, it must appear immediately. If the program hesitates so that a background process can figure out whether to "flow" the text to the next line, I must not notice. If another program is running in the background and hogs the CPU, the writer tool halts that other program.

To allow me to trigger actions, favor a keyboard interface over a GUI interface. Cursor-movement keys are accessible from the main keyboard; don't make me reach for some far-away arrow keys.

Infrastructure for the Tool: a revision control system. When I realize in the afternoon that everything I wrote today is horrid, I want to be able to revert to yesterday. Even if I didn't think to save a copy. Like "Undo", but with granularity of "when I thought to save". Also, I want a CLI to get revision metadata even if I'm not running the Tool. E.g., if I'm in my bash shell, I want to find out when I most recently edited my doc without having to start up some tool.

Infrastructure for the Tool: search function that is aware of the revision control system. A few weeks ago, I decided to remove the character "Deirdre" from my story. When did I do that?

Function: dictionary lookup of selected word. I just typed the word "continual" and can't remember what it means. Did I want "continuous" instead? A quick lookup function would be good. While you're at it, I'd also like synonym lookup, wordnet lookup, and Google web search--but these functions don't need to be so quick.

Embedded scripting language more secure than VB and less muddled than elisp.


Oh yes, totally agree about the versioning control--its not just for software. My directories are littered with "recent edits", "really old edits", "latest and greatest" "PNWA submission", etc. Would love to be able to go back to a certain date. Would also like to be able to name a version--like a release branch, maybe. For example, I'd want to go back to the version that was sent out to such and such editor. Don't know whether the "check in" should be automatic every time the file is closed, or if it needs to be a specific action done by the user (first is ideal, second might be more practical space-wise).


I was wondering if members of this forum had seen Scrivener - but only for Macs. It is a knockout application. So if you use a Mac you can look at it at:

http://www.literatureandlatte.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=715

I have been using the vertical splits to see my story, research, notes, and chapter outline all at once. It's excellent. You do have to read the tutorial stuff to get the most out of it and the forums are also very helpful.

Scrivener is at beta v5 at the moment and will go v1 in the next few weeks for less than $40. You can download the beta version. It is rock solid and all your files will be read by Scrivener v1. This is the real thing. If you own a Mac it is worth a look. No paint by numbers at all. Just pure writing, but with everything you need in front of you while you write. The full screen mode is really worth a look. I do not have anything to do with the developer but I have been following the application since its Gold version (which can also be downloaded and is free). I have found the forums to be very helpful and have made the odd contribution. The developer, Keith Blount, works from England and has a fantastic attitude to users contributing to the development process.

Keith describes Scrivener as being designed for use by writers of all kinds. Scrivener, he says, is a virtual writing studio that integrates the processes of outlining, storyboarding, research and writing. It's a notebook. It's an outliner. It's a cork notice-board. It's a ring-binder. It's a place to store and cross-reference your research. It's a basic word processor. From first idea to first draft: Edit. Outline. Storyboard.

Keith is a master of understatement!

Others have said they think it is the best Mac 'writing' application they have ever used. I agree with them.


scrivener is a wow. i'll try it with the next thing i start.

it has been released, btw, and it has versioning control.


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