Computer Tips For Writers

by Mark Stavar

Many writers know little or nothing about the technology that supports them. Here are a few computer tips for writers for you to consider when looking at computers and writing software.

Computer Tip For Writers #1

When choosing hardware, think of what you will be using the system for. Is mobility important? Then you will be looking at a laptop or a notebook. If you want maximum "bang for buck" then you will probably want a desktop system.

Do you want a Mac or a Windows system? Or even Linux? (Why not? I do.)

Do you have a particular piece of software that you really want to use that runs on only one platform?

Do you have to collaborate with someone who only uses a particular system? All things you should at least consider.

If you only want to write, use email and surf the Web, then any reasonable, economy priced system will meet your needs. If, however, you are planning on editing the movie that you have written and shot, or rendering a 3D animation, then you'll quickly find it is time to move up to the big end of Hardware Town!

Computer Tip For Writers #2

For writing we all obviously want a word processor. But which one? Again, your choice should be most strongly influenced by your requirements.


If you primarily write short-form works, then simple programs like WordPad or AbiWord will more than meet your needs. They give you basic formatting, font selection, import and export to a variety of different formats, search and replace and spellchecking. What more do you need?

Office Suite

For those with more advanced requirements, the next step up is probably the Office applications suite. The best known of these is probably Microsoft Office, with OpenOffice a close second. These are full-blown document production systems that blur the line between word processing and desktop publishing.

MS Office is a commercial product and runs on Windows and the Mac. Openoffice is free, open source, and runs on Windows and Mac, as well as Linux, Solaris, and a variety of other operating systems. Openoffice is also compatible with MS Office, reading and writing the Microsoft document formats. (Unfortunately, Microsoft does not feel the need to reciprocate.)

Specialised Applications

If you are going to be doing a lot of writing for stage or screen then you might do well to look at some dedicated script writing software. For scripts, more than any other form, formatting is crucial. How well you know and adhere to accepted script format reflects directly on your professionalism as a writer.

These applications simplify your life by taking care of the formatting issues, character name lists, etc. When writing under the white heat of inspiration, the last thing you want to do is stop and count tabs and spaces to make sure your names line up correctly.

Once again, you have options here, in terms of cost and features. For the novice screenwriter, you could look at Celtx. It handles screenplay format, runs on Windows, Mac and Linux, and it's free. It is also still under heavy development with new features being added constantly.

For the professional, there is Movie Magic Screenwriter, Final Draft, and Sophocles (and possibly even some others). These are the programs used by writers and production companies alike. They can be expensive, but demo versions are available for you to try out. Which one you choose is really a matter of personal choice; find one that fits the way that you like to work. You will probably find that over time you will make use of more than one, if for no other reason than to have a new toy to inspire you to write again.

Writing Tip For Writers #3
Work Practices

Part of being a good writer includes managing your work. Developing some sound, consistent work practices will go a long way to doing that.

Manage Your Material

When working on multiple projects, with research, notes, source material, drafts, etc., things can quickly become very messy. As early in the piece as is possible, develop a scheme for managing your projects and stick with it. And keep it simple -- that will make it easier to keep with it. For example:

  • Have separate folders for your work and the supporting research material.
  • For a novel, have a consistent naming and/or numbering scheme for chapters.
  • Allow for multiple versions of each file as you revise.

Thus you could end up with a layout that looks something like this:

A possible outline for a novel.

An alternative approach might look like this:

An alternate outline for a novel.

The specifics of the approach don't really matter. Find whatever works for you and stick you it; you'll be glad you did. Consistency and discipline are the key.

Computer Tip For Writers #4

Make sure all your important work is backed up. This point can't be stressed strongly enough. For critical work, have more than one copy, stored in more than one place.

And make sure that your backups actually work. Too many times people have gone to restore information from backups only to find that their backups were corrupt anyway.

Another form of backup you could take advantage of is to get a public email account (Gmail, Yahoo or Hotmail), and mail copies of your works in progress to yourself. It is not a perfect solution on its own (You must have internet connectivity for a start.), but you can have a high level of confidence that they are going to be taking a lot of trouble to backuptheir systems. 

Remember media is not eternal. Flash sticks, CD's and DVD's get dropped, scratched, lost, and deteriorate. So change your backup medium from time to time, use a variety of schemes, and check that they are working.

Writing Tip For Writers #5

Whether we like it or not, security is an issue with computers. Microsoft cop a lot of flack for their security holes, but they are not alone. All software has security holes and bugs. Why? Because software is developed by people. But taking a few simple measures will go a long way to a securing and relatively peaceful computing life. Here are four:

  1. Keep your operating systems and software updated with all the security patches.
  2. Use virus scanning software and keep it up-to-date. As a starting point, AVG has a good free offering for personal use.
  3. Install a software or hardware firewall between your computer/network and the Net to keep out intruders.
  4. On Windows systems, avoid using Internet Explorer for Web surfing, and Outlook for email. They are just too prone to security breaches. The most popular alternatives are Firefox and Thunderbird respectively (though Gmail is a sound alternative in terms of mail).


Remember, computers are the tools, you are the master. As any trades-person will tell you, two important points to remember:

  1. Choose the right tools for the job.
  2. Take good care of your tools, and they will take good care of you.

©2007 Mark Stavar (no longer online) Used by permission.

Note added by Audrey January 2009:  

Apple's Pages can give Word a run for its money. Read this review of Apple's Pages.

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