Building an office for writing – software

I think my tally for the last eighteen years runs to twenty three or four books. The last seven have been started and developed in Scrivener. The ones before that were written entirely in Microsoft Word. Most of that time I’ve used a Mac, with a couple of excursions into Windows in the late Nineties, when the Mac was too flaky to be relied upon, and a couple of years ago with the release of Office 2010 for Windows, with a much-improved version of Word.

I then backtracked and returned to the Mac for one reason only: the release of Scrivener 2, a fantastic piece of software that remains the benchmark for creative story development on a computer. I’m now returning to Windows for good because it’s clear that, for my kind of writing at least, the Mac is a distinctly inferior platform.

If you’re a self-publisher generating ebooks directly from Scrivener – something it can do very well – these considerations probably won’t apply to you. I have a different workflow. I must deliver a Word file then deal with subsequent revisions in Word too. No ifs or buts. No ‘please can’t you take  a text file instead’. Word is the lingua franca of publishing and there’s no point in fighting against that fact.

Or reason to either, at least on Windows, since Word 2010 is an excellent piece of software and its replacement, Word 2013, available as a free beta, even better.

Three different processes occur in the production of a book.

Story development

The collection of ideas, characters, locations, thematic threads and a narrative. Usually I will assemble some of these before I start writing, and add and delete to them as the book develops.


Turning the diverse collection of ideas above into prose.


Going back over a manuscript produced in step two and trying to improve it.

Scrivener is fantastic at the first. You can gather character and location notes, juggle scenes and chapters in index cards and produce a fully-fledged notebook alongside your growing novel if you want. I know people who use Scrivener for this alone.

Writing? Scrivener’s very good at that too, and offers lots of excellent tools for annotating and managing the growing number of scenes in a project.

Revision? Here things start to fall down for me, not through any fault of the software. Its clever snapshot feature lets you backup a scene before setting loose on it. But as I’ve explained already… as a published author I have to deliver in Word. So by this stage I’m in Word anyway – and it makes no sense to try to import an edited Word file from the publisher back into Scrivener for revision. It’s too much trouble for too little reward.

How’s Office 2013 at these three tasks?

Story development isn’t something for Word. That’s a job for OneNote, one of the great overlooked apps of our time. OneNote comes free with every edition of Microsoft Office and is essentially a very clever notebook app. A typical OneNote notebook for a project would look much like this for me.


You can clip things from the web, insert images and text, make notes, outlines, detailed or brief, and link entries to specific parts of a Word file. I set up different tabs for elements such as characters and locations, keep a book diary, write down possible titles and jot down other ephemera as I go along. You can do just the same thing in Scrivener. The difference is that OneNote stores your material in the cloud. I can see and edit and add to my notes on a desktop or laptop, an iPad, iPhone, Windows Phone or Android. If I’m at a location I can snap pictures and send them straight to the relevant OneNote notebook, or tap down an idea on my phone on a bus. I like working like this. Travel frees the mind sometimes.

Writing? Word 2013 is turning into an amazing piece of software. It’s quick, clean, unobtrusive, and adept at handling chapters and scenes. Take a look at the screenshot below.

full page

Just as in Scrivener you can break down a project into chapters and scenes, in Word using heading styles. Drag one of those headings in the navigation pane to a different location and the text follows. Right click on it and you can get a word count for the section alone. You can’t do some of the fancier things you’ll find in Scrivener, such as blocking out specific elements in the narrative to focus on one alone. But you can make comments in the sidebar for synopses.

Probably eighty per cent of the common tasks I perform in Scrivener can be done in Word 2013 if I hunt around. For a massive project such as the first book of The Killing it would have to be Scrivener. I can’t imagine handling something of that length or complexity in anything else. But that was an unusual project. Most books I write are half that length and nowhere near as complex. I’ve not found the need to use Scrivener’s Collection feature since. It’s important with all software to focus on the parts you need and ignore the rest. With such a powerful tool as Scrivener even more so.

Revision? It’s an utter delight in Word 2013. Gone are the ugly, intrusive colours and marks of earlier versions. Here we have something called ‘simple markup’ which is just what it says. Turn it on and you get a red mark in the margin where something has changed.


Click on that red line and you can see the change.


All of this is handled through a simple review ribbon which can be hidden away when you want to see nothing but your words.


The cloud

There’s one other major consideration that’s shaped this review of my working methods. More and more now I find myself wanting to work on the road. I don’t have time to sync files and notes manually. I want that done automatically for me. Office 2013 now works very well with Microsoft’s online storage offering Skydrive (five gb for free if I recall correctly). You save your files there – Word or OneNote — and they sync automatically to whatever PC, Mac or tablet you happen to be using.

I love this. It’s a touch more complex with Scrivener however. Word documents are just a single file. Scrivener files, as Windows users know, are actually folders containing a huge number of smaller files representing scenes, revisions and other stuff. If one of those sub-files disappears or gets out of sync you can hit problems, which is why it’s always a good idea to back up Scrivener thoroughly.

I’ve never hit much of an issue syncing Scrivener to Dropbox. But Skydrive seems to work differently and it definitely doesn’t work so well with Scrivener files. Sometimes they’d work fine with Mac Scrivener but not so well with the Windows version. On occasion I’d find scenes empty and would have to return to the backup. This isn’t a fault with Scrivener. It seems implicit in the way Skydrive works. Fine for single files. Not so good for complex multiple ones.

The goal

In an ideal world I’d work with as few pieces of software as possible. It would be wonderful if I could develop, write and revise an entire book in nothing but Word and OneNote. Is that possible? Ask me in a year. In the meantime I will keep Scrivener there as backup on Windows and reach for it if the project requires it. My one doubt is over how much I can replicate Scrivener’s story development tools inside OneNote. Only so much I know. I will have to find out how far I can go and whether that’s enough.

And the old iMac? Don’t worry. It’s found a good home. My son Tom Hewson has inherited it. He’s a musician and busy with a number of projects for which the Mac remains a very good solution, possibly the best. That, it seems to me, is the secret of using computers and software. Pick the right one for the job, choose the few tools you need, then focus on what matters most: the work in hand.

How much? Office 2013 is going to come with a number of pricing options, including subscription schemes. But the opening shot is likely to be a Home and Student edition for around the current price for Office 2010. That’s £86 on Amazon at the moment and now includes a free upgrade to 2013 when it’s release. And you get three installs for that. A bargain.

One last article tomorrow: what place does a printer have in this any more?

31 thoughts on “Building an office for writing – software

  1. I am now – unexpectedly – in the market for a new laptop and software (our house got burgled yesterday and my laptop was taken), so this series of articles is very timely for me.

  2. Thanks for sharing David, your insights on all this are always appreciated. Like you I tend to start in Scrivener and end up in Word and where to make that switch is something I haven’t quite figured. Not to be pedantic but Office Home and Student is not licensed for commercial use (such as book writing).

  3. Malcolm Coad

    Thanks very much for these posts – thought-provoking for a longtime and convinced Mac user, and especially informative about Word 2013 and OneNote. Like you, I’ve used Macs for professional writing and life in general since the days of the 512k Fat Mac (which I don’t remember costing anything like £3000, btw), and a few years forced to work on a Windows machine in the ’90s only convinced me that I would never use one again if I could avoid it. Macs have always felt like exactly what a good tool should be, a natural extension of yourself, while Windows was a clunky, truculent, obtuse beast you had to fight with to get anything done. Sitting down at the Mac produced genuine pleasure, the PC glum dread. Maybe things have changed since, but nothing I’ve seen has made me want to change for a second (I certainly don’t remember the flakiness you mention in the ´90s): not even the price differences (which are more relative than you say, I think – but that’s an issue in itself) nor the hardware and closed-platform issues you raise, which I have some sympathy with.

    But I couldn’t agree with you more about Word and publishers. In fact, this is what the Mac-PC thing finally boils down to for us, it seems to me. And, actually, not so much Word itself, but tracking. If you dislike the Mac version of Word (and don’t we all!) you can produce a perfectly decent Word-format document on any good Mac word processor from Pages to Mellel (though prudence still advises checking it in Word itself, which at a pinch you can do online – how many Mac writers have gritted their teeth and forked out for Office just to be be able to do this?). But no-one has yet cracked how to get these programmes to follow Word’s tracking adequately. I’d even be nervous doing this with the Mac version of Word.

    However, give up the Mac, now that things on the PC front have improved? I don’t think so. OneNote is great, the only reason why many people stay with Windows, if the forums are to be believed. But how much does it offer that DEVONthink Pro Office, for example, doesn’t? Scrivener on Windows – mmmm? Why would I give up Tinderbox, which offers the most extraordinary combination of in-depth visual planning, information collection, outlining and customisation available anywhere that I’m aware of – enormously helpful for plotting and planning? OmniOutliner, too – doubtless there are equivalents on the PC, but why bother? DEVONagent, the amazing web research browser tool, that runs seamlessly with DEVONthink – why would I want to lose that? And what about TextExpander, LaunchBar, etc, etc – all tools that save time and make the computer writing experience so much more fluid.

    And that’s only the writing. As you say, for music and graphics, which for me personally are concerns, and just routine life stuff, the Mac and its iOS counterparts are pretty unbeatable, even with the limitations you describe of the “closed” formats. Garageband, for example, which comes free with the Mac, and cheap for iOS, is a truly remarkable programme. Pages and Numbers may be basic compared with Word and Excel, but Keynote knocks Powerpoint off the map. I agree with you completely about the cloud, and work that way too, and iCloud is very basic, though more promising than you allow, I think. But with Dropbox, you don’t really need it.

    At the end of the day, though, a writer does end up back with the Word monopoly problem. From what you say, Word 2013 really does look very good, even mouth-watering (which I would never have imagined myself saying). It’s probably too much to hope for a Mac version that’s as good, Microsoft and those infuriating inter-corporate games being what they are (eg OneNote for iOS, but not for the Mac). The best answer for a Mac user may well be to use Crossover to run Word for Windows. This avoids the clunkiness of separate partitions (Boot Camp) and the resource-hog of a virtual machine (Parallels, VMFusion). If it works, then we’ll truly have the best of both worlds.

  4. Malcolm Coad

    By the way, there is a OneNote near-clone for the Mac. It’s the horribly named GrowlyNote (http://growlybird.com/GrowlyBird/Notes.html). It’s also free, whereas a standalone copy of OneNote will knock you back almost a hundred bucks. It’s new and still being developed, so lacks a couple of deeper features compared with OneNote, but looks promising.

  5. Spot on.
    I gave up on Apple in 1994 and returned in 2000 when OSX launched. I’m now going back to Windows because Office 2013 is by far and away the best suite on the market. OneNote seals the deal and it’s clear that Microsoft isn’t going to provide a Mac version any time soon.

  6. Malcolm Coad

    For info, Apple has a just put out an update for Pages that is said to improve compatibility with Word, especially tracking.

    • It’s still essentially the same app it was four years ago though. Hopelessly inadequate for anything I do and light years from the usefulness of Office 2013. As for using an unfinished OneNote clone that only works on one platform… I do this for a living. I can;t play those games.

      • Malcolm Coad

        I understand – I do to. But the info may be useful to others. I completely understand the attractions of the Word/OneNote combination. Ideal in many ways (though DEVONthink Pro is much more powerful than OneNote). But the Mac is so superior in pretty much every other way to Windows that I’ll be sticking with it, despite having to find a workround for that final stage with editors.

        Up to now keeping out of Word for as long as possible has been the objective. Maybe that can change now. But drop the Mac – a step far too far.

        Many congrats for the National Book Award nomination, btw! Hope the tie was bearable…

  7. I think it has been quite a while since Devonthink Pro has been updated though, yes? I’ve never tried OneNote. I only have Word 2010 because that’s all I’ve needed on my Windows machine; I still do everything else on the Mac, except for final revisions in Word 2010. And frankly I wouldn’t have gotten it (or my cheap Windows laptop) if David hadn’t pointed out its virtues compared to the Mac version.

    • I bought Devonthink. Over the years I’ve bought countless Mac apps partly because I wanted to encourage the developers. Very few have flourished and grown like Scrivener. Most tend to fall into being rarely updated or improved – including Apple’s own business apps sadly.
      I used Devonthink for a couple of books. But it’s very complex. Sometimes the Mac encourages complexity it seems to me. I’m not sure why. OneNote is dead simple in principle but can get complex if you want it (I don’t). And just being able to access everything on a phone or tablet without messing round with manual syncing or, worse, file translation issues is a real joy.

      The nearest thing I’ve seen on the Mac is Circus Ponies Notebook which has a companion app on the Ipad. But it’s not as simple imho.

      • Justin Williams

        David wrote: “The nearest thing I’ve seen on the Mac is Circus Ponies Notebook which has a companion app on the Ipad. But it’s not as simple imho.”

        And it has a bloody stupid name which immediately suggests a load of complexity.

        • It’s one of those app you buy thinking it’ll be incredibly useful. And then find you never use it. Especially the iPad version. But then I bought the iPad version of Final Draft for no good reason whatsoever. Now I’ve given the iPad to my wife so I won’t make any of these mistakes again.

          As a word-generating device an iPad seems to me even more useless than a Mac.

          Oh – and if you really want to get me going about info apps on the Mac mention Tinderbox. The one thing I haven’t bought, not just because it’s ridiculously expensive but also because it’s so wreathed in jargon and coolspeak I’ve no idea what the hell is going on.


          Some people swear by it and good for them. I’m clearly too stupid to understand what the hell’s going on.

          • justinhp

            I got an iPad 3 thinking it would help me be more productive on the move. Instead, I discovered it was an entertainment device and useless for anybody who actually needs technology to help them make a living. It doesn’t matter how many apps you’ve got, none of them can overcome the shortcomings of the hardware and the OS.

            For me, it’s junk and now languishes in a drawer. Lots of people seem to use them on the train, though – launching apps, looking at email, launching more apps, looking at pictures, reading emails they’ve already read, launching yet another app… you get the picture.

            Some people swear by iPads. I just swear at them.

  8. Malcolm Coad

    Well, experiences certainly differ, which all adds to life’s rich tapestry. I seem to be the pro-Mac diehard on the block, so here goes…

    - DEVONthink Pro Office was last updated at the end of October this year. They’re very active developers, so no problems there. I’m surprised David finds it “very complex”. I haven’t found it so at all, and I’m no geek. It does have various ways of setting up the interface, though all at the touch of a button, and what is grandly called a form of “artifical intelligence” to assign files to folders automatically by content if you want to, but this is icing on the cake (the latter actually works surprisingly well, if you ever use it). But none of this is complicated to use.

    - I agree about Circus Ponies Notebook. I also have it (bought in a bundle) but never use it. For me it goes overboard on the paper notebook metaphor and promises a lot more than it delivers (excessively cutesy, too). The name is because the company is called Circus Ponies. It’s actually called Notebook, I think, the staggering originality of which pretty much obliges them to stick the company name on the front, with less than happy results.

    - Aha, Tinderbox. My reaction was the same as David’s for years. I looked and loathed. The price is ridiculous, you have to pay again (a lot) every year for updates, much of the interface is clunky, there’s a cringe-making cockiness and cultishness about the website, etc, etc. But then I found I wanted an app that would let me plan both non-linearly on a canvas and in depth, and which wasn’t a mind-map (please, not a mind map!). Tinderbox does all this like nothing else, basically by allowing you to create notes that contain other notes and which can be arranged on a canvas or as an outline, or both at the same time – like record cards, but so much more. It has a learning-curve and can be fiddly, but at certain moments cuts it like nothing else. Weird, but true. I gave up paying for updates, though…

    - Sorry, guys, but it just ain’t true that the iPad isn’t a serious productive device, as millions will testify. Experiences vary, sure, but this assertion has about as much value as asserting that Macs are “useless” for serious writing (sorry, David). I, and very many others, find it a pleasure to work on. Yes, real work – serious writing, music making, graphics, the lot – and, yes, even using the onscreen keyboard. There are some things I’d rather do on it than on the computer, and I’ve never played a game or watched a movie on it. It’s part – secondary, sure, but a part – of my work set-up together with the Mac and MacBook Air, synching merrily through DropBox. There’s no Scrivener app yet, though it’s coming, but you can even work pretty nifty synchs of this with other apps, though I wouldn’t want to do it every day. And that’s without mentioning the non-writing uses that have made it an increasingly widespread work device: the thousands ordered by a certain high street bank for its staff (Barclays, actually, but I wouldn’t want to be caught using them to support an argument of mine), David Hockney and his drawings, or the school where my niece teaches issuing their staff with them for work. So don’t be swearing at mine, mate!

    I do agree with David about the stylus problem, though. There are some that are getting better, but it’s not cracked yet.

  9. Malcolm Coad

    PS In case anyone’s interested, there’s a cheaper (somewhat) Tinderbox sibling now called Twig (yes, I know…). Same URL as in David’s post.

  10. Pierre

    I understand the “final output must be Word” problem, but I don’t understand why there would be any editing there, with then a problem to get the intermediate result back into your writing device.

    Compare with .pdf output: It’s just an output format, nothing else.

    Especially for a fiction writer, there should be perhaps 20 or 50 chapter names = headings 1, which could be coded like £, and then perhaps – if any – many blank lines to divide the chapter into sub-chapters, and in your writing software, you’d do them as 2 blank lines in a row, or you code them with another special sign like $.

    After importing into Word, you run a very simple macro that transposes the £ and the $ into headings, and into blank lines, and you’re done.

    As for a non-fiction writer, it’s the same principle, except that his macro would transpose several levels of heading, where £1, £2, £3, etc. would be translated into Word headings of level 1, 2, 3, etc., and the same would be true for footnotes, citations, etc.: $F[text], or $Ftext] would transpose into a footnote, etx. – you’re free in your choices of codes, and then the Word macro would translate it correctly – a macro that would be written within 15 minutes at most, plus the “how to do Word macros to begin with” learning time, but you can find example macros in the web, and your respective publisher should be able to give you such a macro, too, in which you’d such replace the codes he’s put into it, with the codes you prefer, for each code-to-Word transposition there.

    But back to fiction writers: chapter headings of just ONE level, and perhaps blank lines for subdividing chapters: Where’s the problem then?

    I presume, of course, that the Word file will then be further processed by some software like InDesign, publisher-wise, so there is certainly no need for the author to make pagination within Word, as in the horrible pseudo-DTP days of the early Nineties – it’s only in this scenario that editing within the Word file were to be done by the author.

    So, where’s the underlying truth to the problem Mr. Hewson stated above. I’ve got an idea: Is it that his publisher dares to make edit his output Word files, then makes those third-party-edited Word files sent back to him, for further editing?

    Well, that would explain the usefulness of the red margin lines in Word 2013 for Mr. Hewson: Not for his own editing, but for indicating to him what his master-and-publisher has made messed with in his own text.

    But then, say so, and don’t pretend otherwise. This will give non-published writers wrong ideas on these matters.

    • You know sometimes I really wonder why I bother writing these things. I’ve approved this comment so people can see it but since it’s just downright rude, I don’t intend to respond. Except to say if you don’t understand writers revise their own work you clearly don’t understand much about writing at all.

      • Steve Zeoli

        Just to answer your question, I hope you continue to write your blog postings for those of us (the vast majority, I am confident to say), who absolutely appreciate that you share your knowledge and experience in this way. Thank you!

  11. This is a great post, David. I’ve always wondered what One Note did! I’ve used it to produce pdfs from webpages before, for my own use, but not much else. I’ll be off to have a play now. It’s also encouraging about Word 2013, which I’ve not bought yet. I might have to – it does sound good. I also use Scrivener for drafting but not editing, which I do like. It’s a great planning tool and, for some reason, it feels like the words go down quicker because you can fit more on a page. An illusion, I know. I use google drive and that doesn’t save the Scrivener files properly either. I end up compiling at the end of each writing session, which is an extra step I could do without.

    Anyway, thanks for writing this post. It is *incredibly* useful. Do not be disheartened by the other comment above. Pierre knows a lot about the tech but not about how writers work with editors. Keep on keeping on.

  12. Mr. Hewson, I’ve been following your blog and work for a few years now. I learn many things about writing from what you write here on your blog and in your book ‘Writing: A User Manual.’

    I’ve been using Scrivener on a Mac and actually learned how to properly use it for writing from your handy book on the subject (thanks!). I keep my notes about my work in progress in MacJournal, much like how you use OneNote. Keeping my MacJournal file on Google Drive didn’t work out well in the beginning, but I’ve managed to configure it so it can manage multi-filed folder bundles. Scrivener should work as well, and I’ll give that a go next.

    You’re doing something quite rare in my opinion in that you share the intricacies of your workflow with those of us who appreciate and respect what you have to say. This series in building a work environment for writing has been exceptional in that regard. Thank you again for such insightful posts on your craft.

  13. Malcolm Coad

    Rude – insulting, actually – and incomprehensible, what’s more. Hard to see what problem Pierre thinks he’s addressing exactly – this isn’t how things work with editors. Many thanks, David, for the posts, which are thought-provoking and helpful, and for taking time out of a busy writing life to provide them. Looking forward to hearing about how your new set-up works after it’s been running for a while.

  14. CTS

    A q and a comment: I’m sold on Windows Word being better than the Mac version. But how do you get the headings and subheds to appear in your navigation pane (and outline view, presumably) but not in the body of the text? (Most online tutorials assume a business context in which you’ll include those headings in the text: “Introduction,” “First quarter results,” etc.) I’ve played around with this on my Dell laptop but have not cracked the code.

    I want to like OneNote–it’s better than Evernote, IMHO–but it’s web-clipping renders pages awkwardly. (I use Eaglefiler, an info-collector for the Mac, which has the benefit of keeping all your documents and perfectly rendered clippings in one place, though admittedly you need another program for outlining, organization.) And although there is a third-party OneNote plug-in for Firefox, I can never get it to work, leaving me stuck with IE. Not the worst fate in the world, but irritating.

    • Dead easy. Use style headings. Heading 1, 2 etc. They will still be in the text but you can easily remove them or replace with numbers when the book’s done.

  15. Malcolm Coad

    Just to show I’m not a voice in the wilderness re Tinderbox, it’s worth mentioning that the Scrivener team are big fans of it, to the extent of considering it a kind of sister app. The two teams often run deals offering the other with a discount and the Scrivener team have posted interesting accounts in their newsletter about how they use Tinderbox both in developing Scrivener and in planning fiction writing.

    Nisus Writer is their favorite word processor, also – not Word, though it would be interesting to know what they think of the latest iteration.

    Btw, it’s significant that Scrivener was originally developed for the Mac, not for Windows, and the Mac is still the dev’s main inspiration. The Windows version was developed because of the clamour from Windows users who had seen the Mac version. Generally it has been a special characteristic of the Mac to inspire such tools for the so-called creative fields, professional and otherwise. How long has it taken Microsoft to come up with a version of Word that a writer can be truly enthusiastic about – decades? Hence the unwillingness of Mac users to abandon ship quite yet. Switching is still rather more our way than the other.

    It’s worth keeping such considerations in mind when considering whether the Mac is truly ‘useless’ for professional writing.

  16. Hi David,
    A couple years ago I tried using Onenote and I had challenges finding specific files. It turned into a kind of organizational mess. (the top tabs, for example, layer over each other and I couldn’t see the titles) and there was also an issue with search.
    Perhaps you are just using it in a more thoughtful manner, but I tend to free write first and organize later.
    Onenote will get you writing fast which is a plus, though. Now I use it mainly though to capture screen images on the web and as a quick calculator.

    I have found Directory Opus (a very excellent file management program) helps me view, back up and manage files. One can view nested files, view back up and main files in split frame. My files are mainly Word documents so I write word property meta data (such as “printed” or “revise”) which shows on the Opus “lister.”
    I am a beginning user of Scrivener. It seems like it will be very helpful for putting together writing elements (rather than all of those pieces being “somewhere” on the lister or in a file).
    PS. I’m enjoying reading your blog. :)

    • Oo… that sounds too complicated for me! OneNote is a lot easier than it used to be – Office 2013 is great for me. Glad you find the blog enjoyable.

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