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Back to School: Writing tools, part II


TUAW's going Back to School! We'll be bringing you tips and reviews for students, parents and teachers right up until the bell rings.

Continuing the Back-to-School "sub-mini-series" on writing tools, this second post covers some great tools for compiling all of your thoughts, ideas and research into cohesive, structured documents. If you've never explored this category of applications, you might be surprised what the available options can do to improve your writing efficiency and lower the general anxiety involved with writing 10-page reports or lengthy creative writing assignments. I'll highlight a few cool ways to get those notes and floating thoughts from your notepad and your brain onto papers with large A's on them. Read on ...

When I say "structured writing tools," I'm referring to applications which include the functionality necessary to organize and manipulate many ideas and "chunks" of information into a finished and well-organized piece. Many of these applications are geared toward writing novels and screenplays, but I find them extremely capable of putting together any piece which requires information organization. These do tend to cost a little more, but in many cases the available features are worth some additional expenditure.

Jer's Novel Writer

Jer's Novel Writer is a very cool program with a ton of features. The first feature you notice when you open it is the margin notes. It has multiple versions of these notes for different types of annotations and references. You can use them for reminders to yourself, references, et cetera. They're lost when you export, so they're not an option for providing additional information to the end reader. They are perfect, though, for notes that shouldn't be seen by the reader anyway.

Another great feature is the one which makes Jer's fit into the "structured writing" category: maneuverable text blocks. As you type, you define blocks of text which don't necessarily need to be "sections," but rather any shift in concept or topic. Within the editor, the blocks are indicated by alternating background colors (user-definable, like much of the interface), but in the drawer of the window they become an automatically-generated outline. The outline is a hierarchy of Books, Parts, Sections and Blocks which you can drag around to reorder the flow of the piece. Yes, you can accomplish the same thing with a little copy/paste in a word processor, but in a piece of any significant length, the outline view is far easier to work with.

Almost all of the applications in this category include full-screen editing, and Jer's Novel Writer is no exception. Its myriad features also include a Database tab in the drawer for tracking elements such as People, Places, Things or any category you define. In addition to the margin notes, there's an additional Notes tab in the drawer which allows titled notes to be added and sorted as you write. Features such as bookmarking within documents and auto-save functionality round out a very complete feature set.

I'll admit that Jer's interface isn't quite as visually polished as some of the other apps I'll mention, but it's very well-planned and easy to navigate (there are a ton of keyboard shortcuts, for those of that bent). The pricing scheme is also a point of interest: it's priced at $30USD, but the author (Jerry Seeger) is willing to haggle. Take a look at the entry in his forums for more details.


Ulysses is a big player in this category, and has been mentioned here before. It's designed first and foremost for structure, organization and writing flow, but allows for a wide variety of output options with an abundance of formatting options. With the educational discount, the full version will cost you €39.99 (about $58USD) and the "Core" version (feature comparison) runs €25.99 (approx. $38USD). Both versions have a 30-day demo available.

Ulysses incorporates a system based on "tags" which allow you to write in a format similar to Markdown. You can specify how the final output will treat all of the tags you define, providing full control of text styles "in post," as opposed to being concerned with such things while pouring out words and ideas. The interface is self-contained, with all of the various components (including notes, project settings, outline view and more) visible simultaneously.

Like Jer's Novel Writer, it builds an outline on the fly which is easily reordered as you add documents (which function as sections, chapters or parts). It features a split editor, allowing you to work on two areas of a document simultaneously, or reference previous parts of the document without losing your spot. The split view only works on the current document; you can't load different documents into each half. Overall, Ulysses is a simple concept with a lot of flexibility and power. I believe it was also an inspiration for the next application, Scrivener.


Scrivener ($34.99USD) is my personal favorite among the available writing tools. It's been mentioned on TUAW before, as well as many other blogs and even in the New York Times Magazine. It's entirely possible that it won't fit your writing style or specific needs, but it's certainly worth a look. The disclaimer on this is that Scrivener is a tool for writing, not necessarily the best option for publishing printed pieces. In fact, its original purpose was writing and formatting screenplays and scripts, and it contains several features for that specific purpose. It has grown, however, to be a tool for writers of all ilk, and can export formats which are easily imported into programs better suited for layout and formatting.

Scrivener's features are a bit too numerous to cover in full, but its major functions are easy to pick out. The best part of the interface, for me, is the corkboard view. You can build your document using virtual index cards which can be stacked and reordered on the corkboard. Index cards represent sections, and can include titles and summaries, excerpts, notes or synopses. The entire document structure is then available in the Binder sidebar as an outline, and there's an additional outline view which replaces the corkboard for focused organization within a section.

Elements in the Binder can be folders, stacks, or documents as you see fit for organization. These come in to play when you compile the project for output, at which point you can define what's included for each type (title, metadata, synopses, notes and/or text). It's possible to edit sections of the document as a cohesive unit by selecting multiple pages, index cards, etc. and using the "Edit Scrivenings" feature, which opens them all in a continuous view with alternating background colors, similar to the main view in Jer's Novel Writer.

Scrivener can collect notes on each page as well as project-wide. You can also link external files as references and create inline "Scrivener Links" between documents and notes (wiki style). The Research folder for each project can contain text, web archives, images, audio and video. The split-view editor in Scrivener, unlike Ulysses, can load two different documents, or a document and a reference item. If the reference item you load is a QuickTime-format movie or audio file, you can play it in the alternate editor window and control playback with keyboard shortcuts, making transcription and reference an easy task. Scrivener has an abundance of shortcut keys, and you can navigate just about every single element and feature with them.

Of course, there's the (now-standard) full-screen editing mode, and Scrivener's has palettes with the essential tools from the main interface. You can also use input methods to edit individual elements of the project in TextMate or WriteRoom (covered next time). Scrivener also has auto-save features, inline annotations which can be excluded from the final output, a floating scratch pad for clipping from other applications ... the list goes on. Versioning is a cinch, with "Snapshots" of projects or individual documents as well as a Subversion-compatible file format. I'll stop there with the features, but I highly recommend checking Scrivener out.

It should also be noted that several of Scrivener's standout features are available in other, more specialized applications. They're not always cost effective, but could be a good solution if you already have a preferred writing platform but are intrigued by some of the possibilities. For example, supernotecard ($29USD) can provide the index card concept and work alongside any word processor. Storyist ($59USD), another specialized writing application for novelists and screenwriters, also does a great job with the notecard idea. Transcriva ($19.99USD) is great for transcription and can be especially handy if you record audio notes and lectures. With a little scripting, your QuickTime player can be a good tool for that as well. Writers with creative writing needs should also take a look at StoryMill ($44.95USD), which includes extensive character and plot management tools.

Watch for the next (and final) installment where we'll take a look at some barebones editing options, as well as some utilities which can add some muscle to any of these choices.

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