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What is Writing Software?

Queen Esther's Color Guard - Copyright © 2012 Steve Lautenschlager.  An orange lilly on my front porch.

What is writing software?

The simple answer is that writing software provides enhanced support for writers in all phases of the writing process with an extra emphasis on the creating phase. Writing software minimizes distractions, enhances creativity, facilitates organization and improves productivity.

The counterpart of writing software is what I call publishing software. Typically, the term publishing software is used to describe programs like Microsoft Publisher which support creation of flyers, greeting cards, announcements, etc., whereas programs like Microsoft Word are typically called word processing software.

When I use the term publishing software I'm using it in a broader sense than simply Microsoft Publisher. For me, publishing software includes Microsoft Publisher but also word processing programs because of their heavy bias toward typography and print layout.

Word processing software is best used in the publishing phase when a writer is finalizing the appearance of his or her work for submission or for print.

The world's first WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) word processor was created in 1974 at Xerox PARC, the Palo Alto, California research center founded by XEROX. That software program was called Bravo.

We have come a long way in the last four decades, but the basic word processor is surprisingly similar to its earliest incarnations.

Word processors like WordPerfect, Microsoft Word, Open Office and others remain focused on typography and presentation.

The principle purpose of publishing software is to make your document look good on the printed page and on the screen.

This can be beneficial for the writer--it's inspiring to see your words appearing immediately as if they are already in print.

However, over time we have come to realize that there is more to the creative process than typography. Many writers find typography to be more distracting than helpful during the creating phase of writing. So much so, that some of them create their first draft in long hand and only use computers for editing--writers like J.K. Rowling, who says:

Normally I do a first draft using pen and paper, and then do my first edit when I type it onto my computer.

and Jackie Collins who writes in longhand and then edits after an assistant types her hand written draft.

There are as many ways of writing as there are writers.

While some prefer longhand, others can sit down with their laptop and write a complete first draft straight through in Microsoft Word.

Still other writers, including myself, write thousands of words in free write simply to figure out what we think. Then we refer back to various pieces while creating our drafts, sometimes two or three versions at the same time.

My writing style is the primary reason I love the concept of writing software, and I know I'm not alone.

I need tools which allow me to organize hundreds of different pieces and ultimately join them in an easy way.

Publishing software does not serve me well during the creating phase.

First, it has too many distractions. It's too easy to find myself worrying about heading styles and paragraph spacing.

It is possible to avoid the styling elements, but sometimes they demand your attention anyway. You know this if you have ever typed something in Microsoft Word and seen it spontaneously change into something else. A couple of dashes, for example, at the start of a line convert to a full horizontal rule. Good luck figuring out how to get rid of that.

If you've used Microsoft Word, then you know this experience.

When creating in publishing software one must remain especially conscious of the different writing phases. The publishing phase comes only at the end after the final draft has been produced. Otherwise a writer can spill countless hours into the bottomless pit of useless frustration. Avoiding such distractions is important.

Another down side of the modern word processor is that, even though it is a WYSIWYG interface that's all you get. Although you may specify a line of text as a section heading, you get no additional advantage from that other than the appearance of the text. Specifically, you can't easily reorder sections. You are largely stuck with cut and paste. And you can't easily apply completely new styling independent of the content--similar to the way HTML and CSS work together in web pages, for example.

Yes, in theory, some of the word processors, like MS Word can apply different themes and I'm sure some people are quite expert at getting all the moving parts set up just right to support this, but for the average writer it's a pain in the ass. I'd rather herd cats or push square pegs through round holes.

In spite of the drawbacks, publishing software serves a valuable purpose and, for many, is an acceptable writing tool. Yet, word processors are made for the masses just as Swiss army knives are created for every contingency.

In spite of the general purpose utility, a surgeon would never perform heart surgery with a Swiss army knife.

Instead, the surgeon would use a scalpel which, having only one blade, is still more expensive than the average Swiss army knife.

The scalpel is designed for one very specific purpose. It is notable for what is does not do as much as for what it does do.

For a surgeon, having a corkscrew attached to his scalpel is a drawback, not a benefit. He would pay more for the scalpel without the corkscrew because the corkscrew just gets in his way.

Similarly, creative writing is different from writing a short report or an email message. Different tasks benefit from different tools. Woodcarving, cutting firewood and brain surgery all require sharp blades, but no one would suggest the same tool should be used for all three. Chainsaws and axes for brain surgery? I think they made a movie about that!

Most people think writing is writing is writing, but there are many types of writing and several phases of the writing process. I've mentioned two phases: creating and publishing, but there are others.

For a little more clarity, here are the main writing phases in a typical chronological order:

  • Brainstorming
  • Researching
  • Free writing
  • Planning
  • Creating
  • Revising
  • Editing
  • Preparing
  • Publishing

The purpose of writing software is to provide enhanced support for one or more of these phases.

Word processors, unlike writing software, are strongly biased toward the publishing phase. These programs allow you to type content and move it around, but offer little specific help for other phases.

Writing software programs vary greatly in the type of support they offer for the different writing phases. Some are better for brainstorming. Some offer assistance with organization. Some are research tools and many writing software programs are designed to support the creating phase where distraction-free environments are favorite features for many writers.

The writing phases listed above are not a required blueprint for writing a story or a book. Different writers will spend more time on some phases than others depending on their writing style. And sometimes the phases are merged, mixed or interleaved. It isn't always easy to tell where one begins and another ends.

Writers who spend more time in the earlier phases will benefit more from writing software since publishing software does an excellent job of the later phases.

With its emphasis on the earlier writing phases, writing software tends to provide four standard classes of features which offer some dramatic benefits for these phases.

Those four feature classes are:

  1. features which minimize distractions
  2. features which enhance creativity
  3. features which facilitate easy organization
  4. features which improve and manage productivity

Writing Software Minimizes Distractions

Why do writers want to minimize distractions?

If an ice cream truck or a marching band happened to pass outside a writer's house, it is likely the writer would have difficulty continuing to write creatively.

Distractions can destroy inspiration and kill productivity. We've already talked about the distraction of formatting tools in publishing software, for example.

Writing software usually provides a full screen mode to hide all other icons, backgrounds or visual distractions on a computer screen. This is a favorite feature for many writers.

Writing Software Enhances Creativity

When it comes to enhancing creativity, sometimes writers talk about their favorite pen or a special chair they use for writing. These are testaments to the importance of mood and ambiance for the writer. These help the writer to get in the zone or find the right mood to be creative.

Some writing softwares allow the writer to choose different colors, change backgrounds, alter the layout or turn on typewriter sounds to evoke the right mood.

Writing Software Gets You Organized

The third feature of good writing software is that it helps to organize the writing process by managing multiple files, notes, free writes and revisions.

Some programs allow writers to partition stories into small pieces which can be reordered as needed and merged for the final product. Depending on the writer and the work, those pieces could be sections, chapters or individual scenes.

Writing Software Helps You Manage Your Productivity

Finally, writers benefit from statistics, metrics and targets to help them set goals and track their progress. The simplest metric is word count. Word count should always be readily available for all parts of a writing project.

Writing software may also support word targets or alerts to let a writer know when they have written a certain number of words or for a certain amount of time.

Readability is another metric which can help a writer determine whether their writing might be overly complex.

These are all useful tools for the committed writer.

In writing software the features most useful during the earlier phases tend to be featured prominently while less important features will be hidden or removed completely.

This feature set tends to be reversed in publishing software where formatting and typography are easily accessible.

In the end, writing software is rarely a complete replacement for publishing software.

Most writers will still find both types of software useful depending on the phase of their project. Just because a surgeon uses scalpels at the hospital doesn't mean he should take them camping. A Swiss army knife is a better tool around the campfire.

I advocate both writing software and publishing software. The two purposes are somewhat mutually exclusive.

Most professionals in any career use more than one tool to perform their job. So should you. I recommend you own a writing software program in addition to your standard word processor.

I use Microsoft Word as my publishing software. I'm happy with it for what it does.

For writing software, I use PieceWorx Writing Studio.

Good luck and happy writing!

If this article helped you or if you believe some additional information would help other writers, please leave a comment below!