Software for creative writing

A surprising number of software developers are creative writers too and many have created apps that scratch an itch they felt that wasn’t served by the big names of Microsoft Word and LibreOffice. Below we take a look at five examples.

Papel

This free-of-charge Windows app has a slight learning curve that’s not helped by the lack of instructions when you first run it. However, it is in fact fairly simple to master, as you’ll discover after a few minutes of clicking around.

The app functions as both a document organiser and word processor but ensures both tasks are as simple as possible. To start a project you must right-click anywhere on the document and select New Papel. This is the first and only terminology you’ll need to learn, and Papels are individual components of your work. They appear as icons in the workspace and can be chapters or scenes, or character descriptions, or chunks of dialogue, or notes, and so on.  Once a papel has been created you can drag it around in order to visually arrange the structure of your work, and double-clicking any papel opens it for editing in Papel’s word processor. The tool kit here is mercifully simple – forget about niceties such as underlining misspelled words, although you can run a spellcheck pass later on – but there’s a handful of very cool features, such as usage figures that show how commonly you use particular words or phrases. A basic thesaurus is built-in too. Both are found on the Tools menu.

papel

A notable feature omission appears to be the ability to export your work to another word processor format, but you can print from within Papel.

There’s an elegant simplicity to this app that might appeal to some and there’s quite a lot of instruction available via the help menu if you can spare the time to work your way through.

Phraseology

At first glance this £2.49 app for the iPad is similar to the distraction-free word processors reviewed in last issue’s Technophobia. There are certainly no high-level word processor functions. You won’t even find, erm, a find text function, although the live spellchecking and autocorrect features built into the iPad still work. The intention is that you start writing without being bothered by a barrage of tools.

However, a thin strip at the left of the work area offers access to a handful of very useful features that only a creative writer could find useful. The first is a paragraph and sentence arranger. Once selected, this splits your writing into individual sentences or paragraphs (you tap between modes at the top of the screen), and you can then drag the sentences or paragraphs around to reorder them. Alternatively, you can opt to delete them. At the very least this allows you to see your text from a different and somewhat detached perspective.

phraseology

The Inspect button shows statistics about your piece – not just character and word counts, but various reading indexes such as Flesch Kincaid.

However, it’s the parts of speech highlighting tool that perhaps justifies the cost of this app. This simply colour-codes words according to whether they’re nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverts, pronouns, determiners, prepositions or conjunctions, and you choose any or all from that list. Considering that over-adjectiving is a common newbie writer sin, this is simply invaluable.

Atlantis Word Processor

This £24.51 software for PCs has a handful of writer-friendly tools built-in but at its core is the kind of word processor you’d expect to find in any office, albeit with a vintage look-and-feel consisting of menus and icons, rather than ribbon toolbars.

Writer-friendly features are evident as soon as you start typing because each key press is accompanied by a typewriter sound effect, and words considered misspelled are not only immediately underlined in red but accompanied by a comedy horn sound effect. Once the cursor reaches the end of a line a bell sounds. Those who stare at their fingers when typing will surely appreciate this kind of thing.

atlantis

Type a word and a list of suggestions will appear beneath, a feature the Atlantis creators call Power Type. Type abi, for example, and “ability” will appear instantly in a pop-out window. Hitting the Enter key will autotype it for you, making it quicker to type long or even short words. Power Type learns your most-used words over time and will also watch for words you’ve already used recently, popping up a warning window. Once again, however, the hunt-and-peck typists might consider it revolutionary.

Arguably the best feature of specific interest to creative writers is the Overused Words tool, which can be found on the Tools menu. This counts individual word usage, letting you jump to and from instances of the selected word, and also tells you if sentences are longer than a set word count.

There’s much to like in Atlantis and it’s the kind of app that some people will find indispensible. A 30-day fully functional trial version is available.

 SmartEdit

The apps reviewed so far in our mini-group test have all involved the creation of new work. Although SmartEdit (US$57 for PC; circa £38) includes a reasonably competent word processor component, its main boast is the ability to run an editorial pass through stuff you’ve already written. It’s not necessarily looking for errors, and it certainly can’t replace a human editor, but it checks for things that typically slip past the eyes of writers who are too close to their text to spot such things.

Using the app is a matter of loading your existing word processing file and then selecting from the list at the left of the screen what checks you want to perform. Clicking the Run Checks toolbar button will then scan the document (it took less than a minute to analyse a 70,000 word novel), and the results are shown under the document in the middle of the screen. Double-clicking any entry in the list takes you to that particular word, sentence or paragraph within the copy.

smartedit

The checks arguably fall into two categories: things worth examining, and things almost certainly requiring attention. The latter category includes such things as suspicious punctuation, redundancies, cliché usage, misused words, and repeated words or phrases. The former includes monitoring adverb usage, possible profanity, repeated words, words that start sentences, and more.

A result of the scan is that you’re forced to view your work from a different perspective, even if you’re not fixing problems, and in each case the only reasonable response is to think hard about what SmartEdit has identified and potentially apply a more creative fix. We didn’t come across a single instance where we felt the app was wasting our time.

It might be relatively expensive but of all the apps here SmartEdit struck us as the one most likely to make its users into better writers. Running any of your copy through its filters takes only minutes and really could lead to better prose. If you’d rather stick to using Microsoft Word, a plugin version of SmartEdit is available for that word processor, priced at $67 (circa £45).

Ulysses

A number of sci-fi and fantasy authors, amongst them George RR Martin and Vonda McIntyre, continue to use a decades-old word processor called WordStar. This is despite the fact it’s almost impossible to make it work on modern computers and even back then was a perfect example of how software could be arcane.

But this, say the authors concerned, is the appeal. WordStar doesn’t show your document in its final form, like Microsoft Word. Instead it shows an embryonic version, almost like a page from a typewriter. And while the software is hard to learn, climbing the initial learning curve means the user forms a bond after which the software repays loyalty with speed and precision.

ulysses

Although created only a year or two ago, Ulysses (£14.99 for the iPad) put us in mind of this mindset. You’ll have to learn about sheets, which is how the app refers to components of your creative work. You can add bold and italics but they’re added as markup, meaning they’re surrounded by asterisks or underscore characters. There are other complexities too, but the result is that you’re left to create in peace, without being able to think about how the final piece will look. The words take centre stage. Additionally, although there’s definitely a learning curve, once you’ve got the hang of it you’ll find it faster than using a “real” word processor.

Ulysses isn’t for everybody but it performs a curious rug-pull under the feet of those who believe word processors should be all about WYSIWYG.

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