Software for Writers: ProWritingAid

If you add together all my published work — academic, popular press, fiction — I’ve got something like 1.5 million words in print.  To provide some perspective on this, I wrote my doctoral thesis (1985) with WordPerfect 1.3, and my first published short story with whatever version of MS Word that was floating around in 1990. 

Over the years I’ve tried all kinds of software to help with keeping my research, storylines, characters and timelines organized. Theoretically Scrivener does this, and for a long time I tried to get it to work for me. I gave up on that about four years ago (and explained why, here).  At various times I have tried LibreOffice, Mellel and Ulysses, all of which have loyal users for good reasons, but none of which work for me. There are dozens of other software packages, all of which do the same stuff with differing degrees of complexity and features. You can read about them here, here, and dozens of other places.

In the end I always come back to Microsoft Word as a word processor. Whether I’m writing a technical report with footnotes, tables and cross-references, or a novel that tops out at 300,000 words, it does the job. But it’s not enough. As an academic linguist and as a historical novelist I deal with research of all kinds, and keeping it organized is a ongoing challenge. My approach isn’t perfect, but it’s functional. I use

  • Evernote to organize and backup documents, web clippings, images and other bits and pieces collected for research;
  • Zotero to organize books and articles in pdf format;
  • Calibre to organize ebooks.

What I have never been able to find is software that does some basic analysis on style.  Grammarly is an online program a lot of people like, but it doesn’t work for me as a creative writer. I do not want to be scolded about passive constructions; when I use a passive, I am perfectly aware of that, and I use it for a reason.  However, I do want to know if I use ‘very’ three times in a paragraph. 

 

What I’ve been looking for: software that provides a list of adverbs in my manuscript, and allows me to go right to the little buggers so I can deal with them. Reports on repeated words and phrases would also be very welcome.  But of course, this is too good to be true. SmartEdit — which is free — is Windows only. Even if I went to the trouble of installing Parallels and buying a Windows version of MS Office, it wouldn’t work (according to the FAQ page on the website). 

This brings me to ProWritingAid, which is both an on-line and a desktop application and is available for Windows and Mac.  I spent an hour experimenting, and I can say now that maybe — just maybe — it will do what I need it to do. I imported a chunk of Where the Light Enters and let ProWritingAid go to town on it. The resulting report was eight pdf pages long and included analysis of everything including

  • Style
  • Grammar
  • Overused
  • Readability
  • Cliches
  • Sticky
  • Diction
  • All Repeats
  • Echoes
  • Sentence
  • Dialogue
  • Consistency
  • Pacing
  • Pronoun
  • Alliteration

Maybe sixty percent of the analysis is of no real use to me at all; as is the case at Grammarly, the people at ProWritingAid want to tell me about the passive. They are also fond of sentences like this one: “Avoid using prepositions such as “with” as the last word in a sentence.”  Apparently you can fine tune the analysis to exclude such observations while leaving the very useful observations intact. 

Now I’m trying to decide if it’s worth $40 a year to use this software. Anybody have experience with ProWritingAid? 

 

scroll bars?

I had a comment from someone who says that the vertical and horizontal scroll bars have stopped working for her. Is anybody else experiencing this? And if so, what kind of screen are you reading from?

scrivener and letting go

scrivener-logo-300x300Scrivener is software developed specifically for writers. I started using it in 2007 (that is, when it first launched), and I’ve upgraded as the software evolved. I’ve stuck with it so long because it does some important things really beautifully.

There’s no better way to gather and organize the kind of complex research material that I use writing historical fiction. If you’ve read any of my Sara Donati novels, you may have a sense of how much I get into, from Jamaica sugar trains to 18th century refining furnaces to battlefields outside New Orleans and commercial greenhouses in 1880s New Jersey. So this I have always loved about Scrivener, the fact that I can keep a lot of diverse material close at hand and look through it without leaving the manuscript aside.

However. I’ve written five+ novels starting out with Scrivener and about a quarter of the way through, I’ve had to give up and transfer over to Word. And here’s the reason.

Scrivener prides itself on being flexible enough to meet the idiosyncratic needs of every writer. To achieve this end, there is a  ‘compile’ process. I say to Scrivener, Hey, I need to print out chapters 1 through 20 in draft form to pass on to a reader. Could you pull that together, simple page numbers, chapter numbers, etc?

In theory this is simple. In fact, it is probably simple in most cases. But in my case it’s not, and despite  more than five years of trying to get an upper hand on the compile process, I now declare myself defeated.

On the surface it seems straight forward. I have

(1) front material including title page, character lists, timelines, map legends (not the map itself), author’s note, dedication, epigraph

(2) a prologue

(3) 50+ chapters divided into Part I, Part II, Part III

The page numbering needs to start after the title page, and stop before the Prologue. Then start up again with ‘1’ at  the prologue, and continue, not showing up on the “Part I” “Part II” pages. The chapters need to be numbered, but not the prologue.

There is a lot of documentation to help the writer set up the compile process to get what s/he needs, and I have read it all. I have also bought a ‘dummies’ type guide and read that, and I’ve spent a lot of time reading on the user forum. But no matter what I do, I can never get the manuscript to print out in plain draft form (that is, no fancy formatting) with the numbering handled correctly.

I tell myself, eh so what. So you’ll have to do a little extra work when you export the draft. But what happens is, I get completely distracted by the process of numbering pages and chapters, and I get derailed for at least one day. Sometimes more. That is, Scrivener is supposed to make the writing process more streamlined, but in my case, it’s disruptive.

No doubt a lot of people will tell me that I’m being computer illiterate or phobic, but anybody who knows me knows that I am very comfortable with all kinds of software and web machinations. I’m not dumb. I can handle Photoshop and InDesign and a lot of other not-simple software programs with a decent level of proficiency. I did in fact post on the user forum about this larger issue. I did so very carefully and politely, but I got no constructive responses. At this point I should point out that Scrivener is not free. The mac version costs $45, and while there is a huge and active forum, it’s staffed by volunteers who have lives beyond helping hapless writers number pages.

If you search you’ll see that Scrivener has a great reputation. I have come across only one review that mentions the issues that frustrate me:

So Scrivener stops supporting publisher workflow once you have submitted the manuscript. And arguably it stops an hour before then, because figuring out how to modify the output format generated by the Scrivener “Compile” menu option is a black art … I found it easier to slurp the resulting Word document into LibreOffice for final tidying up and reformatting before I submitted it. Scrivener doesn’t support Word’s paragraph style mechanism as far as I can tell; it simply emits styled text. So it’s output isn’t a direct product you can feed into an unattended turnkey pre-press package: you’ll still have to pay someone to drive InDesign for you. [emphasis added]

So I have to leave Scrivener behind. I’m not happy about it, but I just cannot spend anymore time fiddling with the complexities of the compile process.  It seems to me that the software developer has lost sight of a writer’s larger goals and is too enamored of  technology for technology’s sake, but I can’t follow that lead.

If you have software you use that you like that allows you to write and keep track of your research at the same time AND you work on a mac, please tell me about it. I’ll have to do some serious window shopping and trying-out before I decide how to proceed and how much time I’m willing to put into the learning curve. Thoughts? And be nice.

 

 

 

An open letter to Steve Jobs

Dear Steve,

You should understand first of all: I have no intention of filing for divorce. We’ve been together too long to even contemplate the horrific alternatives. However, I do think we need to see a counselor. Someone who can help us communicate, because I’m feeling ignored and disregarded.

In your current incarnation, you sit on my lap pretty much all day long. There’s a lot of heat between us, but you do your best to keep things cool while I’m working. Together we have written (over the years): one doctoral dissertation, a couple dozen academic articles, two full length academic books, numerous class plans, evaluations, recommendations; newspaper editorials and magazine articles and letters to the editor; short stories; seven novels currently in print (more than a million words, please note); two more forthcoming. You were with me every step of the way when I wrote Homestead, which won the PEN/Hemingway award. You are the keeper of my family history, my banking records, my daughter’s childhood memories, all my music, my entire calendar and all my contacts. If I had to estimate, I would guess that I have written or received a million emails in the last ten years.

You are indispensible. I am very happy to admit that. We make an excellent team. But recently I note you are distracted. Or should I say, more distracted than usual.

I am technically monogomous, but you are not and have never been. For many years this arrangement worked very well. On the rare occasion I had to call you at work, your assistants answered promptly and made sure that you understood what was needed. We functioned so well together that we never had the little hiccups that send other couples for advice. I have a neighbor who has had a partnership with a Windows computer for a long time, but even now I still hear her screaming obscenities in her frustration and anger.

You’ve come a long way, and I appreciate the effort that has gone into the advances. But your new little i-friends are so demanding you don’t have time for your loyal, long-time relationships. And it shows. For example: for three weeks now I have been calling you at work and talking to people at the technical assistance office.

By the way, the telephone number to call for technical assistance is well and truly hidden. I can’t believe you’d stoop to such tactics to avoid my calls.

I have spent at least three hours on hold. While I am on hold, there is the most horrendous music. You force me to listen to 80s big hair bands, and to add insult to injury, the quality of transmission is very poor. It fades in and out, full of static. Having to listen to this hold music is more than most people can bear.

I can’t believe you’d stoop to such tactics to get me off the phone once I’ve found the number.

That first call I spoke to a young man who was helpful, but curt. Very well, I understand you are busy. I explained the problem thus: Please tell Steve that the plug that inserts into my PowerBook G4 is frayed and breaking, and could he please bring me a new one on his way home? Specifically, I am talking about the end of the cord that plugs into the computer. The young man went away; I waited another twenty minutes listening to that horrendous noise you call easy listening. He came back, and at that moment we were cut off. I hoped he would call me back, or complete the work order on his own. A week later I gave up this childish idea and called again. Again I waited at least a half hour, and again (it’s painful to recall this) I was subjected to torture by Van Halen and Nirvana. The young woman who finally came on the line looked up the record of my earlier call, finished writing down whatever it was she needed to pass on to you, and promised that I would have the replacement part within a few days. All my doubts about our relationship disappeared this morning when I found the box propped against my door. You do still care! I opened it immediately, and stood there, shocked. You sent me the wrong cord/plug. I asked for the part that plugs into the computer, and you sent me the part that plugs into the wall.

Your new little i-friends are so demanding you don’t have any time for your loyal, long-time friends.

On the website there was no place to record this mistake or ask for a solution. With trembling hands I dialed the support number again. That was at about 3:30pm today. After a half hour on hold (nails on a blackboard? child’s play) I spoke to a polite young man who looked at the history of this problem and told me that the new part had been dispatched. Yes, I said. I received it this morning. It is the wrong part. You received the power cord? I received the power cord, but what I need is the other end of the cord. The end that plugs into the computer, that is what I need. After five minutes of discussion about the difference between the plug that fits into the computer and the plug that fits into the wall socket, he declared himself prepared to send me to dispatch where the problem could be rectified. I pointed out that dispatch had sent the part they had been told (erroneously) to send. Really, it made no sense to transfer me to dispatch. Could I speak to a supervisor? Please?

I was on hold for twenty minutes, waiting for dispatch. Finally I was connected to Jay, who was not from dispatch at all. He works in one of the Texas offices as a parts specialist. Jay was very helpful and polite. He promised to send me the right plug immediately. He did need my credit card number, in case I didn’t send the old part back. (And why would I want to hold onto a fraying, overheated plug?

I can’t believe you’d use such a weak excuse to get my credit card number. I can’t believe you NEED my credit card number. I have bought at least a dozen computers over the last fifteen years, as well as every other kind of hardware and a rich selection of software — and, most relevant of all: I have bought the extended Apple Care protection for every computer. Including your current incarnation, with the fraying plug-that-goes-into-the-computer. Steve, love of my technical life, you should know my credit card number by heart.)

It is now 4:41 and I just got off the phone with Jay. I hope you understand that I open this discussion out of affection, respect and appreciation. It is not my intention to hurt you, but please. Can we please have a return to the days when you didn’t keep me waiting for hours at a time? When I didn’t feel like one in a harem of a thousand? Your little i-friends are very cute, but do they write award-winning novels? Or novels of any kind at all. When people say to me that you only have twelve percent of your market, I always respond the same way: you can say the same of Mercedes-Benz. You are excellent, but you are also drifting away from me.

Would you like to make an appointment with a counselor, or should I?

Your affectionate partner Rosina Lippi