The Word Processing app, in all its DOS-graphics glory.
The Word Processing app, in all its DOS-graphics glory. (Image courtesy WinWorldPC.)

A few weeks ago, whilst burrowing down the rabbit-hole of Teh Interwebs, I came across a website that offers abandonware — i.e., software that used to be available commercially but is now so old, and the publisher now long gone, such that it sits out there in some sort of licensing limbo.

A particular title (the awkwardly named “Better Working Eight in One,” later renamed to the still-awkward “Spinnaker Eight in One”) caught my eye. In the mid 1990s, that program was my go-to software suite. Running from the MS-DOS prompt, this application contained a word processor, a spreadsheet, a FileMaker-like database, an address book and even a simple tool for creating business charts.

Me being me, I installed DOSbox and actually got the darn thing working on my Windows 10 laptop. I reveled in the nostalgia for a while. But the experience led me to reflect on just how much my administrative approach to writing has changed over the last two decades.

When I was in high school, in the early 1990s, I wrote school papers and even some creative short stories on one of four devices:

  • My beloved Commodore 64C and GeoWrite
  • My 1940s-era Royal KMM manual typewriter
  • My not-at-all-beloved Packard Bell 486sx PC
  • My curious Brother WP-3400 typewriter-slash-word-processor thingamabob

Creative writing on those devices went something like this: I’d sketch ideas out on paper, with a pencil. When I was satisfied with my notes, I’d move to the device and then I was off to the races. To the extent that I self-edited, it usually involved printing something and tweaking it with standard proofreaders’ marks.

By the time I got to college, I had used some student loan funds to buy a beefy, bleeding-edge PC (with a Pentium processor, no less!) and worked mostly in Windows 95 and, occasionally, in OS/2 Warp. I didn’t do much creative writing at that point; I used Microsoft Word 6.0 — an under-appreciated powerhouse — for coursework and life continued.

When I drafted editorials and columns for the Western Herald, I just wrote in Word or NewsEdit Pro and didn’t do a ton of prep work. Later, for my blogging, I outlined in WordPress and then filled in the outline with narrative.

Yet when I got back into the creative-writing groove a few years ago, it took me a while to settle on the “how I do this” question of writing. I evolved through several phases:

  1. Preliminary sketching with pencil-upon-Moleskine, then outline in OneNote (sometimes, at considerable length) and then write in Word. I’d keep both apps open and use the OneNote page to highlight edit notes, reminders or research. This method had the advantage of simplicity, insofar as I already owned both applications. However, my notes remained disconnected from my writing, so I really did need to have two separate programs open simultaneously.
  2. Do everything in Scrivener. When I purchased a license for Scrivener for Windows, I thought I was in hog heaven. And, to a degree, I was — I still write frequently with the program. I like how Scrivener keeps all my notes in one place and allows for extensive outlining and statusing. The downside, though, is that although Scrivener saves projects in Rich Text Format files, a larger project isn’t just “a file.” It’s a collection of files and folders, with internal RTF docs named numerically. So sharing a chapter with someone, for example, requires exports from Scrivener. For me, a Scrivener-only writing flow consists of making character and plot notes (down to detailed scene synopses) using the program’s rich featureset. Then, when I have my notes/planning done, I just start writing, using the customizable drop-downs to manage progress. It works well, but now that I publish as well as write, I realize that WYSIWYG documents are a nightmare to prepare for a commercial-press run.
  3. Do everything in one plain-text file. I use WriteMonkey increasingly often. I can activate full-screen mode (amber-on-black text) and write without distractions. The tool supports a board-style plug-in so I can keep basic notes, but the real meat comes from using Markdown in plain text. With Markdown, I don’t have to worry about formatting problems across platforms (like migration to EPUB or layout in Adobe InDesign). It just works. And in WriteMonkey, I can comment out sections (e.g., a synopsis or work-in-progress notes) and, on export, omit those commented sections entirely. It’s a happy medium between minimalist “pantsing” and maximalist “plan in excruciating detail” approaches to creative writing. This copy flow obviously doesn’t require WM; I also use Emacs, Q10 and Visual Studio Code. But WM has a richer set of additional tools for exporting files according to specific CSS templates, as well as countdown timers. And, not insignificantly, plain-text files work really, really well with repository tools like Git and Subversion.

I don’t think there’s a “One Weird Trick” approach to building a writer’s toolkit that will work for everyone. The ways I’ve written in the past don’t work for me today, and today’s method may not work for me a year from now. What’s important is that your infrastructure blend into the background; you should use it, without being aware that it’s there. And when it doesn’t work, change it up. But, beware: It’s seductively simple to get drawn into a morass of continuous tweaking such that you never really manage to get any writing done.

How I’ve Written: A Voyage of Exploration
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