The best writing tools

This blog is mostly about pretty high minded things, but it can’t hurt occasionally to deviate into the practical.

I make my living as a commercial writer. I’m old enough to remember typewriters, and though I had one at college I hated using it. Correcting mistakes (and I made a lot of mistakes) was just too cumbersome and the results unpleasant. I looked into computers as a possible way forward, but it was another five years or so before PC-based word processors began to be available in a useful and affordable form. But when they were, that changed everything for me.

I discovered Microsoft Word. It was a DOS program, white characters reversed out of a dark screen, and menus that worked well with a mouse. At the office (an ad agency) we were forced to use Word Perfect, but I always preferred Word, and its market triumph when it moved to the graphic environment of Windows only vindicated my preference.

I looked at alternatives: AmiPro, Star Suite (which became OpenOffice) but nothing threatened my allegiance to Word, until Microsoft launched Office 2007 with the notorious ribbon. It wasn’t the ribbon itself that put me off, though as a power user familiar with Word’s menus I didn’t find it particularly helpful. But I use styles all the time for formatting, and for reasons best known to itself Word 2007 buggered up style management.

OpenOffice seemed the obvious alternative, but there was much I didn’t like about it. Its interface design was ugly, and simple but important functions like a word count were buried in menus (you could with some effort customise the interface to make things better, but back then it took quite a lot of work). Its compatibility with MS Office documents was far from perfect, and because I need to exchange documents with clients using Word, this seemed a show stopper.

Reluctantly I persisted with Word. Then two or three years ago, having been taken over by the unsympathetic Oracle Corporation, most of those working on the OpenOffice project went to a new project, LibreOffice. Things began to move fast enough to rekindle my interest, while in Microsoft land with each new iteration Word just seemed to get worse, less flexible, and often harder to use.

LibreOffice became my tool of choice, particularly its writing module, which is the component I use all the time.

I’m writing this in the upcoming 4.2 release. It has fully incorporated and begun to refine the “sidebar” from the now discontinued IBM Symphony (itself a fork of OpenOffice). The toolbars in Symphony were an incoherent and inflexible mess. In LibreOffice the sidebar shows Microsoft how the ribbon should have been done. What’s more, because it’s placed at the side of the window it makes much better use of the widescreen aspect ratios of most modern monitors.

MS Office compatibility still isn’t perfect: page headers and text boxes particularly can cause problems, so I keep a copy of MS Office to check and refine these elements when I need to share a document with a client using the docx format. But I never do the initial work in Office. It’s too clunky. I can’t see myself ever buying another MS Office licence, and LibreOffice rather wonderfully is free (you can always make a donation).

LibreOffice Writer is in many ways superior to MS Word. You can configure almost everything about the way it looks, the colours, the icons, and the visible toolbars. There is still a full screen view so you can work without any visual distraction on your text (something Microsoft abandoned for no apparent reason with the advent of the ribbon). Style and template handling is simple and effective, and there’s a very useful navigator feature which gives you an overview of the different elements in a document (headings etc) and lets you move easily between them (Word 2013 has finally caught up with this feature).

Here’s a quick guide to the customisation I like to apply. Not all of these elements will be possible in versions earlier than 4.2 (though most of them will). You can download it from www.libreoffice.org, though at the time of writing you’ll need to go to www.libreoffice.org/download/pre-releases/ to find version 4.2 (I’ve found the release candidate to be stable, though the final version should be available soon).

  • In the View menu, uncheck the Ruler, Text boundaries and Field Shadings. In the toolbars uncheck the “Formatting” toolbar (it’s largely replicated in the sidebar, while other toolbars will appear automatically in the sidebar when you’re working on a picture etc). Enable the Sidebar.
  • You’ll be left with the standard toolbar at the top of the screen. I usually edit this (right click in the toolbar and choose “Customise”) to reflect the way I actually work. For instance I use keyboard shortcuts to cut and paste, so there’s no point in having those functions in the toolbar.
  • From the Tools menu go to Options, then select View. Under icon size and style choose “small” and “Sifr” (finally LibreOffice has a modern icon set, though it could still do with some refinement on the sidebar). 
  • Still in the Options menu select Personalisation, then Own Theme. You’ll be taken to the Firefox themes webpage. Find one you like (I’m using one called Abstract Black), go to its page and copy the web address, then paste it into the box in LibreOffice. Click OK … 
  • Still in the Options menu select Appearance. Choose an Application background you like (I use Grey 7). Also deselect Object boundaries, (unless you want to see a line around them). 
  • Still in the Options menu under Language settings/Writing Aids, disable grammar checking. Like all grammar checkers its views of your sentences are often debatable to say the least, and I find it more irritating than helpful. Then look at English Sentence Checking for some useful options about word spacing, quotation marks and apostrophes. Choose the options that suit you. 
  • Finally under the Options/LibreOffice Writer/Basic Fonts menu you can change the default fonts for your documents. I used Charter BT at 10.5 for body text and Zapf Humanist at 14 for headers. 

You can also set default fonts effectively using templates. You manage these from the File/New/Templates menu, which allows you to import templates you may already have created, and set one of them as a default. I use a customised standard template to set fonts, line and paragraph spacing. I have other custom templates for letters and commercial copy with different headers and page elements.

Other programs, platforms and thoughts
LibreOffice Writer is my preferred tool for most of the documents I need to create. It is a good cross-platform solution that runs on Windows, Apple OSX and Linux and if you use its native Open Document Format you should find perfect fidelity across those platforms.

Sadly ODF is not really supported on Android (or iOS as far as I know). On my Android tablet I’ve found by far the best writing tool is Mobisystems’ OfficeSuite Pro, which can now display ODF files, but doesn’t let you edit them (although you can always copy any text into a new document and then edit in docx format). I hope this situation changes soon, but for the moment I have to save my LibreOffice work in the docx format so I can edit while away from my desk.

Most of the recent development in MS Office has been about enabling collaborative document creation via the cloud. This is largely irrelevant to the way I work, and it’s also the emphasis of Google Docs. I found the latter fine for very basic text creation, but too limited to be anything but frustrating in everyday use.

On the other hand there’s Literature and Latte’s Scrivener. I use it for creative writing, because I find it helpful to use a different software environment from my commercial work, and it’s a fantastic tool. It de-emphasises formatting to help you concentrate on text creation, with a number of features to help you gather and manage your research materials, as well as tools to help you keep the overall structure of long documents visible and flexible. You can achieve most of this in LibreOffice too but Scrivener keeps things tidy and always at hand. Once you’re happy with your text you can “compile” it for final formatting in a word processor, or indeed for direct export to e-publishing formats. It’s inexpensive and well worth the outlay if you’re producing long or complex multipart texts.

It’s also cross-platform, available on Apple OSX, Windows, and with a beta version for Linux. You can find out more at http://literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.php

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