Recently I received an email from a lawyer friend who has to prepare a journal article at work. She quickly announced to me that she now realizes she HATES writing academic papers. She asked me how I write and wanted some tips. As much of a mac geek as I am, I rarely think software can solve my problem, however, writing is a distinct exception. The software we use for writing influences how we engage with the process. Thus, in this blog entry I talk about my writing philosophy and the software I use to work with that philosophy.
The biggest mistakes I see in terms of writing is the widespread use of Microsoft word for writing. Microsoft word is NOT a writing program; it’s a word-processing program (and a good one at that). What many people don’t realize is that word processing and writing are fundamentally different activities. Word processing requires worrying about figure captions and appropriately-linked references as well as margins and the way the words actually fall on the page. Writing, on the other hand doesn’t require thinking about any of these things. Rather, it requires one to focus exclusively on the text. Thus, when using Microsoft Word for writing one is continually distracted by these superfluous attributes of a document and instead of focusing on the TEXT. Software in the end is a tool to arrive at a means. With Microsoft Word, one is impeded by the tool and is forced to focus on the text through the tool rather than being aided by the tool to focus on the text.
Another problem with writing with Microsoft word is it doesn’t facilitate collecting or processing disparate information, thoughts and ideas. Writing is fundamentally a creative process and creation only comes through chaos. To create the writer must combine in a compelling and readable way: ideas he has in his head, reference material he has read, and data or other supporting material. Combining these different pieces of information does not happen in an orderly linear process. Rather one must write a small piece here and a small piece there and rearrange and combine these small pieces of text into a coherent narrative and flow. Writer’s block often comes from being too closely linked to the linearity of a process and the inability to break out small pieces of text to work on and move with ideas.
One piece of software that I have found invaluable in improving the way I write is Scrivener. Scrivener is not a word processor but rather a writing management tool. It allows the writer to break his or her writing down into ‘scrivenings’ which can be easily coded, tagged and rearranged. As a result, scrivener helps you see what ideas you’re working with and which ones are less-well developed. It helps the writer focus on one piece of text at a time rather than staring at a large Microsoft Word document. I have met several Microsoft Word users who say they just jot down little bits of text here and there when they’re working on a document. I used to work this way as well but I often found these bits distracting because it was impossible to focus on a single piece of text without being distracted by the unfinished bits. With Scrivener it’s easy to zoom into a given ‘scrivening’ to work exclusively on a single piece of text. One can zoom not only with a full screen view (which has a far better functionality then Microsoft Word’s) but also can hide other text really easily. Scrivener also has something called the scratch pad which you can use to write something down which is not yet associated with a given writing project. I won’t wax poetic here about all the things you can do with Scrivener since this is done in a screencast or here far better than I could ever do.
The second piece of software I use for writing on a regular basis is MacJournal. I used to think the two were repetitive and that I didn’t need both. But sometimes I write for a blog or simply to journal some ideas rather than for a specific writing project. In these cases, I find Scrivener too heavy and constraining. I also find the full screen view in Mac Journal very relaxing.