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?

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