Sunday, June 19, 2011

Writers tools - content v. medium

Earlier this year, I started a series of posts on writers' tools. My theme up to now has been looking at desirable outcomes (things you might be trying to achieve) and picking a suitable tool for the job.

This series is woefully incomplete, and I'll try to peck away at it from time to time, but I want to take a few diversions into some other topics around the use of tools.

I'll start with some clarification the use of the word "tool" itself.

When you talk about tools, you might think of things like MS Word, or Scrivener, or Snowflake Pro. My posts up to now have not been about these, but about conceptual tools. Things like flowcharts, timelines, character sheets.

In other words, I've been concentrating on the content - arranging ideas to reveal insights. But the medium is important too, because that is how you expose your content to view.

First off, let's look at some of the media you might use to contain your conceptual tools. Most of these are computerised, but not all.
  • Word processors, such as MS Word. Great for manipulating text, including lists and tables.
  • Spreadsheets, such as MS Excel.
  • Specialised diagramming tools, such as MS Visio.
  • Pen & paper.
  • More specialised physical media such as index cards, Post-It notes, whiteboards.
  • Specific writing systems, such as Scrivener.
  • Your own head - don't overlook the manipulations you do mentally without necessarily committing anything to a more durable form.

Yet again, my advice is simple: choose the right tool for the job, using whatever measure of "right" makes sense to you.

In the rest of this post, I'll touch on some of these measures of "rightness" that you might want to consider.

Can the medium carry the content?

This is clearly important, for example you'd be daft to try drawing a complex diagram using something with no diagramming capability.

This consideration is especially important for the computerised tools. General purpose office tools such as Word and Excel have their obvious strengths - manipulating text and numbers for example - but they can be pressed into service in many less obvious ways.

MS Word can produce tables and diagrams, so if you are most comfortable with Word then you might use it more extensively for these purposes. Word's paradigm is the written page. You can have as many pages as you want in a document, but there are practical limits on how wide you can go so I find it works best with tables of only a few columns. However, for small tables I find it offers much more user-friendly flexibility than Excel.

MS Excel has tables at its heart. It is much more two-dimensional than Word, so is easier to use for large tables. I also use it for simple diagrams, those that are little more than boxes of colours or text placed against one or two axes.

Here is an example of a timeline with dependencies:

It might not look much like a diagram, but for cases like this you can strip out the pictorial fluff and what you have left is the essential core of the conceptual tool.

If you want sophisticated diagramming capability, you might want to consider a specialised tool such as Visio.

I have no experience with specialised writing software. Maybe someone can help out in the comments. I understand that they usually contain a number of tailor-made tools, such as outlines, scene lists, and character sheets. All I'll suggest is look at what conceptual tools they offer, and think about how you want to employ them.

Is it the right strength for the job?

Are you trying to crack a nut with a sledgehammer? Or trying to steer a yacht with a teaspoon?

Think about the size of task you are trying to accomplish. The same conceptual tool might require different approaches depending on how much information you are trying to capture.

For example, think about a logic diagram used to untangle plot dependencies. If you are only trying to order a handful of events, you might do this in your head. That's fine. Just remember that you are still employing a conceptual tool to assist you.

If you have a more complex scenario, then maybe pen and paper would do. Or you might order the events in a list in MS Word with notes about the dependencies.

But if you are trying to order the events of a whole novel, then maybe you need something more industrial strength to help you out.

If you need to lay out a complex timeline with many threads and dependencies, then you might even consider project management software - designed to achieve exactly that.

Does it fit with your way of working?

This last consideration is all about you. What works for you? Do you enjoy the discipline of having everything in one electronic repository? Are you OK with a folder full of Word documents? Do you keep everything straight in your head? Do you prefer the feel of pen on paper?

If you are a highly structured top-down thinker, then maybe a writing tool like Snowflake Pro will work for you. If you are a dedicated pantser then trying to use a tool like this might put you off ever writing again.

There's no right or wrong way to work. The only right answer is to do what works for you. Whatever you choose, the most important thing is that you feel comfortable with it.

A final thought...

This series is called "Writers toolkit" for a reason. A carpenter or plumber doesn't carry just one tool around, so why should you? There's no reason not to make use of a collection of tools, as long as they work effectively together, and together they work for you.


  1. Well put. i think the majority of writing related advice tends towards a more basic '9 times out of ten this is the tool you'll need' approach and don't bother getting into when to use it, when not to, possible ramifications, possible alternatives... Writing is quite a subtle, complicated thing that isn't going to be solved by a hammer.

  2. Exactly, Mood. And the danger is that when all you've got is a hammer, every problem starts looking like a nail.

  3. I'm pretty much the antithesis of the "toolkit" approach you espouse here, Ian. I do use Scrivener, though, but only for the novel I'm working on. For the most part, I do take notes and write up character studies. And for the novel I did write a basic outline. But on the whole, I write organically and without the aid of flow charts, flash cards, or diagrams.

    I'm very unorthodox in that sense. Or perhaps the right term is "unorganized." :) But it's what works for me, so I'm sticking to it for now. When I write, it's best when I don't get too caught up in the little details--the minutiae of the plot--focusing more instead on the emotional and thematic connections between my characters and scenes.

    You're right in that each of us has to find what's best for our own selves and do what we can with that. Since I'm not a visually artistic person, color-coded charts and such are not my thing.

    But it's cool that it's yours. I wish I could be that way, actually. I think it would make things easier, especially when it comes to writing novels.

  4. Well David, if you do character studies and even a basic outline, you have a toolkit. Minimalist, maybe, but it works for you.

    That's the central theme of these posts - don't stress about what other people are doing, do what works for you.

  5. This is what I call a highly organized post. I use excel on a regural basis and Word when I write. I guess I've never given much thought to the other tools since it involves me learning how to use new software. You seem to be in touch with..ah technical stuff. So tell me if you've heard of this? Don't laugh. There's a software out there that you can download into your pc. It enables you to talk and it'll write for you.

  6. Hello Laila, Word and Excel are my electronic tools of choice too, plus good old pen & paper. I don't use dedicated writing tools, but I mentioned them because I know a lot of folks are huge fans. These posts are more about what you do with those tools and about making informed choices.

    Yes, I've heard of that kind of software. Again, never used it and heard mixed views on it. Have you used software like that or are you trying to find out more about it? Try Googling "dictation software" and see what comes up. But I'd recommend finding some independent reviews before laying out any money because this area is still very immature.

  7. Fascinating post. I'm with mooderino - sometimes the simplest tools are the best. I use pen, paper, and Word. Anything else just frustrates me!

    Ellie Garratt

  8. I use MS word mostly. Oh, and Excel in the non-electronic version. Yup, my desk is littered in hand drawn flowcharts and notes. You know how writing things down reemphasizes them to you brain? It takes longer to pen things out, therefore more time to process and internalize them. Other than that, I've trained my brain to be exceedingly organized. My pillow is my storyboard.

    Really interesting to learn about some of the other mediums/methods people utilize. Great post!

  9. Hey, Ellie, I generally go with the simplest tool that will do the job well. That's why I haven't delved into "proper" writing software yet. That spills over into other areas for me too.

    For example some folks can't plan a shopping trip without delving into MS Project but I used to manage large software projects perfectly well with very simple plans in Visio.

    Crystal, sounds like you're also in the "keep it simple" camp. But it also sounds like you employ some neat conceptual tools using pen & paper. That is much more what this series is about.

  10. I've only recently graduated from pen and paper to Microsoft Office, so I don't see software anywhere in my near future, either. My only other 'tools' are writing books that overflow my hall bookshelf.

  11. Cinette, I don't think I'd cope without MS Word. All that editing and rewriting by hand? No thanks! But as for the rest, I need the freedom of a blank canvas to organise my thoughts so I'm in no hurry to try out the more advanced stuff either.

  12. Wow am I late to the party!

    I write in OpenOffice, but my editing is all done on my ratty old clipboard with a pencil. I print out a scene double spaced, and have at it.

    I do use mind maps and the like for initial idea capture though. It's pretty cool stuff. I also have a simpleNote account that is tied to my Android phone so I can capture ideas and get them into the cloud / mirrored back to my laptop easily.

    Still loving your writing tools series. Great job!


  13. Andrew, sometimes I print things off for editing too. Sometimes it's just easier in hard copy. I think it depends on how hard I'm having to think about it. Glad you're enjoying the series.


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