Just Another Writing Book – Chapter 2 – Tools

The Old Fashioned Way courtesy Wikimedia Foundation
The Old Fashioned Way courtesy Wikimedia Foundation

Everyone has their favourite tools. Some are so enamoured of their particular tool that you can never get them to stop talking about it…

My personal opinion is you should use what works for you. This could be, well, anything. That said, going electronic has a lot of advantages, because all the publishers want electronic submissions now. Unless you have someone to type up your writing on a computer for free – like Lord Dunsany did.

In my personal opinion, electronic is probably the best option – but if writing with something else and typing it up later works for you, do it.

Yee Olde Fashioned Method

Lord Dunsany, aka Baron Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett Dunsany, is repute to have written everything using a quill pen up to his death in 1957 (you can download his works from Project Gutenberg). That was considered somewhat odd – but he was a British Peer, and they are supposed to be odd. It probably helped that Lady Beatrice, his wife, typed all his works for publication.

But for some people this may be the way to go. One problem writers often have is “getting into the work” and using period tools might help with inspiration.

Or it just may be more comfortable. I paint – not well, but it is something I like doing. I’m old fashioned, rather than work with a touch screen, I use water colours or acrylics. To me it feels more real, than using a touch screen to do something electronic.

What matters, is whether or not the tool works for you. If a quill pen fires you up, use one.


Don’t laugh. One writer told me that he wrote his first novel while serving a jail sentence using a pencil. You can buy The First Dragoneer from Amazon. M. R. Mathias has since written a lot more stuff, though I understand he’s given up on pencils.

Ink Wells and Ball Points

When I started school, we still had ink wells on our desks. No, I’m not quite that old – the school I went to was rural, the original building dating to about 1870. I rather liked using a steel pen and inkwell. Steel pens are still available in most art supply stores.

Then there are fountain pens, and ball points, like the ubiquitous Bic pen, both of which are great for sketching. I haven’t seen fountain pens, but ball points are still readily available.

I personally wouldn’t recommend pens for writing tools (if you’d ever seen my penmanship you’d know why) but if either works for you, use it.


Harlan Ellison once claimed that the portable mechanical typewriter was the greatest writing tool ever. In some ways he is right. You don’t need power, you can set up anywhere, and they are light and easy to carry.

Electrics, while heavier, were far easier to use. The IBM Selectric was a beautiful beast.


Try buying one. Typewriters are out our production. Ribbons are impossible to find. Repairs? Typewriter repair is a lost art.

Even if you love using a typewriter, I really can’t recommend this. In fact, this technology should be avoided at all costs, since it’s effectively obsolete.

Stand Alone Word Processors

Stand alone Word Processors once made companies like Wang Laboratories a lot of money. The problem is that stand alone word processors were single purpose tools, and the Personal Computer, which was less expensive and more flexible killed them off.

Don’t use a stand alone word processor, even if someone gives one to you. Instead head over to Goodwill or the Salvation Army, and buy a cheap used computer. You can often pick one up for $25.00 in working order.

Personal Computers (not including Tablets and SmartPhones)

Now, we get into the fun stuff. All of the other technologies are, well, normal. Staid. Anything involving computers usually starts flame wars.

Also, you need to consider obsolescence. As someone whose switched computer operating systems multiple times, it’s a pain in the neck. Any change could mean that your stories/novels are NO LONGER READABLE! It is always a good idea to keep offsite backups, of your work, in easily readable formats. Tell the world how much you love the USB standard, and keep a USB that you update regularly with a friend or relative, just in case the house burns down…

Ranting over, most people who have computers with keyboards (desktops and laptops) use Microsoft Windows. I personally recommend using something Unix based, like Linux or Mac OSX, because both operating systems are more reliable.

Hardware reliability can be an issue as well. Most computers sold in stores are, well, garbage. E-Waste as one writer referred to them, because they aren’t designed to last.

Professional level hardware from Dell, HP, Lenovo, etc. is fairly well built. So is the hardware from Apple. Yes, it costs more, but if you are writing seriously you need something reliable.

Say you spend $500.00 on a computer that last you two years, or $1000.00 on a computer that lasts you four years. Which is a better buy? The $1000.00 computer, because with the cheaper computer, you have to transfer your stuff twice. That takes time, and, well, people make mistakes. My wife is still looking for a backup that she can’t find. She’s a singer-songwriter, and a bunch of her songs are missing…

One last point – screen size can be really important. My wife has reading glasses. She hates using them, and normally just increases the font size. Some writers I know love enormous screens. Like forty inches…

Not very portable.

You can get laptops with big screens – but they aren’t very portable either. My personal laptop, which I do all my writing on has a thirteen inch screen. I’ve found that size gives me the best combination of portability and screen size. Of course my issues won’t be your issues. I’m not allowed to lift anything that weighs over ten pounds – maybe your eyesight is problematic, and anything smaller than 40 inches isn’t readable to you. In other words, consider your situation carefully before buying.

My last point on screen size – do you really want to lug an eighteen inch screen laptop through an airport like O’Hare? I’ve done it, and it sucks. It really sucks. With laptops, the smallest screen size you can work with, is generally best.

But then we hit the other end of the Human-Computer interface, the keyboard!

Let me put it to you this way. You are going to spend how many hours pounding on the keyboard, and you want to buy the cheapest piece of junk possible. Do you see a problem with this?

Keyboard is where I’m willing to shell out the most money. Seriously. You want something that is comfortable (however you define comfortable), as environment proof as possible (spilled liquids invariably hit your keyboard), and you WANT TO HAVE A SPARE! I have a spare USB keyboard tucked away, that I can plug into my laptop or desktop computer if I need to, so I can keep on writing without interruption.

The keyboard is your most important connection to the computer. You are in direct contact with it, 100% of the time while writing. Buy one you like, it’ll pay for itself with increased productivity.

Then there’s general ergonomics. I write curled up on the couch. For me, that works. Sometimes I sit in a chair on the lawn, or on the deck.

Some people can only work in one place. They may have a special chair that they like. Or a special desk. Find out what works for you, and do it.

Then there’s interruptions. Until you’ve sold something, everyone will think you are “wasting your time” and probably insist on telling you this. They’ll think they are doing you a favour.

While telling them to drop dead is tempting, it could cause you problems. I’ve met writers who hid their writing – doing it on lunch at work, at the library, in coffee shops, on “fake dates”, etc. to avoid problems at home. This may be necessary. Think about it, how will your friends/family/etc. respond to you writing?

Odds are they’ll think you are crazy. If you remind them that writing as a hobby costs less than painting, quilting, fishing, hunting, music, etc. they will reply that at least their hobby is useful. Writing isn’t.

This can be rough. Really rough.

I’m not trying to scare you. If you think you want to write, I think you should write. I’m just warning you that writing isn’t one of the “approved” hobbies. They’d probably be happier if you took up beer tasting…

If you have problems, think them through. There’s nothing like getting a contract in the mail, to make them change their tune!

Personal Computer Operating Systems

You need a computer you understand, and can easily use. This doesn’t mean you have to know the insides of the computer, but that you need to know enough to use it effectively. Luckily computers are far easier to use now than they used to be.

Most computer users know how to use the computer, but haven’t got a clue what a computer does. Mac OS and Windows were supposed to take care of the details, letting the user be productive. Neither really succeeds, though they are definitely easier to use, than the older computer operating systems. I’d recommend Mac OSX over Windows, as it is slightly easier to use, and you get the excellent Apple hardware.

Linux is slightly better than OSX in a lot of ways, if not as easy to use (it is about equivalent to Windows), but buying a computer with Linux installed is difficult (though Linux Preloaded has a list you should check).

No matter what Operating System you choose, your aim is to have something that doesn’t require you to do anything other than write. If the system requires user maintenance, it gets in the way of your productivity. Any time spent messing with the computer is time wasted.

If you don’t know what to choose, look at your situation locally. It’s a bad idea to buy a Mac, if you aren’t within a reasonable drive of an Apple Store. It’s a bad idea to use Linux, if there isn’t someone locally you are on good terms with who can fix it.

Windows is the least trouble to find help with, but the most unreliable (in my opinion, based on MY experiences). Choose carefully. Talk to friends who write, local computer geeks, friends and family. Always assume that all of them are clueless – this may sound nasty, but unless you are a computer geek yourself, you don’t have any way to tell who knows what they are talking about, and who is lost.

Tablets and SmartPhones

For keyboardless devices, things are wildly different. While I refer to the devices as “keyboardless” all are capable of using Bluetooth keyboards, which are widely available, and relatively inexpensive.

While Windows is available in this market, it’s been a sales disaster. The most common Operating System used on Tablets and SmartPhones is Android, with Apple’s IOS coming a close second.

In many ways the keyboardless devices are far better designed than Desktop and Laptop computers. Most have DropBox (or an equivalent) integration built in, making backing up your work far easier. They also are far more portable.

Where they suffer is screen size. I ran into one writer who wrote a 60,000 word novel using a Bluetooth keyboard and his Apple iPhone 3GS. I don’t know how he managed to do it, using a screen that small would have driven me crazy (or at least crazier than I already am).

The larger screen on the iPad isn’t too bad. I have Apple’s Pages word processing program installed on my iPad, and use it regularly, even when I don’t have the bluetooth keyboard with me. I’ve found that typing on-screen isn’t hard, but I’ve never used it for anything longer than a thousand words. For that, I want a keyboard.

Yes, I do have a Bluetooth keyboard for my iPad. Problem is it’s a nuisance to transport. If’ I’m going to need a keyboard, I might as well just take my laptop for writing, and the iPad for reading.

Types of Computer Programs for Writing

There are three basic types of programs designed for use by writers. Each type (and I’m speaking in broad terms here) has advantages and disadvantages. There’s a wide ranging list on Wikipedia which is well worth checking.

Full Featured Word Processors

Minimalist Word Processors

Specialist Writing Software

Each has advantages, and may people use more than one type. I write most of my fiction using Specialist software, and do the final edits in a Full Featured Word Processor. I’m going to cover each type of software, and list some of the major brands that I know, along with comments.

Full Featured Word Processors

These programs include everything but the kitchen sink, and that would probably be included too if they could fit it in. Most of these are part of Integrated Office Suites.

Effectively the manufacturer tries to give you everything, so there is nothing else you could ever need. What ends up happening is you have a mess of menus for features you’ll never use, and don’t have a clue what they do. That’s why Microsoft developed “Personalized Menus” a while back, which only show the features you use. The first thing I did was turn “Personalized Menus” off, I hated it.

Still, the packages that are available are powerful, and can be very, very, useful. Many writers use Full Featured Word Processors successfully.


Because of the feature load, and complexity, they can run slow on older hardware. If you run into issues on your computer with being able to type faster than the program can handle, using a Full Featured Word Processor is probably not a good idea.

Some of the common ones are:

  1. Microsoft Word – part of the Microsoft Office package, it can also be bought separately. It is the most expensive Word Processor on the market. The biggest advantage is that it is so widely used, that if you run into problems, it is easy to get help. The main disadvantages are problems with formatting, problems handling large documents, and problems handling documents written using earlier versions of the software. These problems may have been fixed in later versions of the software, the last I personally used is Word 2007. Word is available for Windows and Mac OSX.
  2. OpenOffice Writer is part of the OpenOffice suite. It is Free Software (both Free as in Beer and Free as in Speech), supported by the Apache project. It can import all Microsoft Word formats, and has 90% of Word’s feature set. The main problem with Writer is that it’s native file format isn’t supported by all publishers, however Writer can export files in Microsoft Word formats. Writer is available for Linux, Windows, and Mac OSX. Note that Microsoft Word has an OpenOffice Writer import function.
  3. LibreOffice Writer is OpenOffice Writer from a different source. Yes, this is legal. I’m not going to cover the details here, that’s another subject. It has the same advantages and disadvantages as OpenOffice Writer, however the feature set is somewhat different. I prefer LibreOffice Writer because of it’s Word Perfect import capabilities.
  4. Pages is part of Apple’s iWork suite. It has some really neat features, like ePub export. If you are using a Mac, this is a good choice in many ways, but the native file format isn’t supported by any other package, and you’ll need to remember to export your files to DOC or DOCX (Microsoft) format.
  5. Calligra Words is part of the Calligra Office Suite. Calligra is only available at present on Linux, though previous versions had support for Windows and OSX.
  6. WordPerfect is one of the old standbys, which is still available, and being updated. My mother-in-law (the Poet Laureate of Cobalt Ontario) loves it, and refuses to use anything else. It is only available for Windows, though an earlier version did have Linux support.

There are others – you may already have your own favourite. If it works for you, use it. My only suggestion is that you always make sure that you have copies of your work in one of the standard file formats, preferably ODT (used by OpenOffice and LibreOffice, and which is an International Organization for Standardization standard) and DOC/DOCX (Microsoft’s file formats, which are supported by all of the other programs listed above).


The next post will finish this chapter, if the dogs decide I can write 🙂


Wayne Borean

Wednesday March 12, 2014



6 thoughts on “Just Another Writing Book – Chapter 2 – Tools

  1. I know what you mean about problems getting a word processsor to accept longer documents. When I started writing (Libre Office on Linux) I wrote each chapter as an individual file, then stitched them together in a ‘Master Document’. It was a pain in the butt. After I got through with that mess, i put the chapters together into one document, and come to find out, Libre Office can handle them, fine. And I’m talking about 3000 word chapters – almost150,000 word novels. That made editing them easier.

    I also found out that agents and publishers have specific requirements for submissions, and made a second set of the same novels that met those standards – double-spaced lines, non-variable letter size, 1″ borders all the way around. And that made it even easier to edit them (I see why the publishers like that), and changing them back to ‘formatted and variable width letters was relatively simple.

    To get around the problem of incompatability with what an agent or publisher could handle, Libre Office also has the capability of saving the files as a PDF. So, for me, LIbre Office is the choice. However, there is another factor. My spelling could be compared to a second grader, and I’d lose. Libre Office has automatic spell checking AND you can add a thesaurus to be able to quickly make sure that the word you’re using is the appropriate one. For me, these were factors to definitely take into account when I started writing.

    1. LibreOffice is a nice package. I use it a lot.

      The main thing though is to find something that works for you, and makes it easy to write. If you work with something that drives you crazy, you’ll probably stop writing.

      And yes, if an editor wants a document a certain way, you have to provide it that way. I’ve got one editor who insists on double spaces after periods. Since that’s what they want, that’s what they get!


      1. I doublespace after periods because that’s the way I was taught. Besides, I’ve got to give the editor SOMETHING to do. You wouldln’t believe the cleanup I’ve done on the books, and it’s STILL going on.

    1. Yes, and YWriter, and Papyrus, and Storymill, and WritersCafe…

      I’ll be covering them in the next segment, along with Bean, Writer, TextEdit, Abiword, and the “minimalist” appilcations. There really is a huge range of options.


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