Open Source Writing

I will acknowledge at the beginning that articles such as this one can be viewed as a distraction from, or evasion of, “real” writing. And God knows I have several projects I should be working on instead. But I find the tools writers use to be a fascinating subject (and I’m not the only one). Moreover, the focus of this piece—using open source tools to do your work—strikes me as especially timely in light of recent concerns about the intersection of commercialization, privacy and technology. I think most writers should find something of interest below.

This article, then, will provide a brief evaluation of a number of open source programs designed for writers. The one prerequisite for inclusion here is that such programs run on Linux. While I do much of my work on a Mac (which remains, in many ways, the “creative” platform), Linux has become increasingly important in terms of autonomy, freedom from commercial exploitation and privacy (Tim Cook’s protestations notwithstanding). The OS is in the process of becoming quite a decent platform for writers, as well.

My dual-monitor Linux desktop, showing various open source apps.
My dual-monitor Linux desktop, showing various open source apps.

 

 

 

 

I’ll mention a few commercial writers’ programs up front, just for contrast. One of the problems with proprietary software is clearly demonstrated by the recent decision of Ulysses to employ a subscription model. I regard this form of pricing as a kind of extortion: pay us a monthly fee, or else. Unfortunately, this model has become more prevalent in recent years. Blame Adobe, the company that started it all. Microsoft isn’t helping, either.

Another potential problem with proprietary software involves security and privacy. Not every software maker is as transparent as it could or should be, and there are times when you should be very cautious as a consequence. For example, I was initially  impressed by the program Write!, which I’ve mentioned more than once on this site. But the program’s developers have not offered any public transparency concerning their location and personnel (both are potential issues), and the program itself still requires you to log in order to use it, which is both unnecessary and quite dubious from a privacy and security standpoint. I no longer use this software and can’t recommend it.

Not every proprietary program is potentially hazardous or exploitative to use, though—Scrivener is generally exemplary in its pricing, customer relations and overall quality. As I noted in my recent review of Scrivener 3, the program looks as though it will run fine under Wine on Linux, and I will be happy to buy a license to use it there, as well as on my Mac. But Scrivener is arguably an exception. You’re likely to encounter pitfalls of one sort or another with much commercial software, not least an endless, too-frequent “upgrade” cycle. Free and open source software is another paradigm altogether.

OK, then. Let’s start our survey with LibreOffice Writer, an extremely capable word processor that in my opinion renders Microsoft Word unnecessary for the majority of writers. Yes, Word remains the publishing “standard” for both books and periodicals. But Writer is so adept at producing compatible .doc and .docx files that Word really isn’t necessary in this context. Writer’s Track Changes feature operates seamlessly with Word’s, at least in my experience, and formatting for novels, short fiction and poetry is straightforward enough that compatibility issues are a thing of the past. It wouldn’t hurt you to have Word available for some unforeseen contingency but as a writer you really don’t need it. And Writer is available on Mac and Windows, as well as Linux (the same is true for all of the software mentioned below).

What’s more, Writer can be customized for particular needs. There is a terrific plugin called Organon which turns Writer into a Scrivener-like tool for novelists which can organize your work by chapter, scene or section and also give you a place to store notes on characters, locations, etc.

Here's a novel first draft in LibreOffice Writer. The Organon plugin enables the book to be conveniently organized by chapter.
Here’s the first draft of a novel in LibreOffice Writer. The Organon plugin enables the book to be conveniently organized by chapter.
Organon's Organizer feature provides storage for synopses, character/location notes, images and more.
Organon’s Organizer feature provides storage for synopses, character/location notes, images and more.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For shorter work, look no further than Graeme Gott’s excellent FocusWriter. This is a very attractive distraction-free writing program that can handle switching between individual scenes or chapters and also offers basic tools like daily goals and the ability to save to .rtf and .odt formats. FocusWriter deserves a review of its own, which I’ll try to provide at some point.

The following three programs try to do what Scrivener does so well: provide an environment conducive to longer creative work, especially novels. None of them can yet equal Scrivener but they are surprisingly capable in their different ways.

Bibisco (I have no idea what this name means, but it sounds nice, like biscuits and cookies) is open source software from Andrea Feccomandi in Italy which is aimed at novelists. It is very much oriented toward planners rather than “pantsers” (as in “seat-of-the-pants” writing born of experience and instinct). The program asks you to define your characters and their desires in quite extensive detail before you begin writing, although of course you can choose to ignore this. Such extensive preparatory organization will suit many people; it doesn’t match the way I work (though I do appreciate having a section to define characters in briefer detail). Other sections are devoted to narrative strands and locations and the program does a decent job of exporting to .pdf and .rtf formats, though some after-export tweaking may be necessary.

Bibisco: various scenes in a short story draft.
Bibisco: various scenes in a short story draft.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibisco is Java-based and comes with its own runtime. It is the least attractive of the three programs we’re discussing here, in my opinion, and also the most rigid—there is no full-screen option, for example, let alone a distraction-free environment. The main editing/writing window is rather small and can’t be resized. Nevertheless, if you can work within the software’s current constraints it does offer all the basics that planning a long work of fiction requires. Many people seem to like it and I think it does show some definite promise.

Bibisco's editing/writing area, with chapters/scenes shown on the side.
Bibisco’s editing/writing area, with chapters/scenes shown on the side.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Manuskript and Plume Creator are more to my taste, both in the way they work and in their appearance. Both of these applications also come from Europe and were developed by Olivier Keshavjee (Manuskript) and Cyril Jacquet (Plume Creator).

Let’s check Plume Creator first. The application is organized logically, with the editing/writing space prominent in the center and various tools located in panels to either side. The right panel can be hidden entirely and there is a distraction-free full-screen mode available. Many other tools in various stages of development are also available—for example, there is a “Workbench” view you can overlay on the main interface in which you can provide synopses, notes, POV and status for various scenes. Workbench is somewhat akin to the Organizer view in Writer’s Organon plugin.

There is also a separate, standalone Notes area—Plume Creator is in development and many features are still being sorted out. Despite this, the program seems quite stable and it offers a great deal of flexibility in how you arrange things.

The Plume Creator interface, with tools to either side of the writing workspace.

 

 

 

 

 

The program offers an attractive dark theme as an alternative to the light theme shown above, and as already noted there is a distraction-free mode. This lets you shift from scene to scene while still in full-screen view: quite handy.

Plume Creator lets you move from scene to scene while in distraction-free mode.
Plume Creator lets you move from scene to scene while in distraction-free mode.

 

 

 

 

 

BTW, that red highlight on the 4,052 word count is to let me know that the story’s draft exceeds its target of 4,000 words. Again, quite handy. Plume Creator does an excellent job of autosaving your work and a credible job of exporting to .pdf and .odt (minor tweaking may be required). Given that this software has yet to reach version 1.0, it is quite impressive—I like it a lot.

But my favorite of the three open source Scrivener-inspired programs we’re examining here is Manuskript.

Like Plume Creator, Manuskript is logically organized with the writing area centered between two side tool panels. In this case, the left panel can disappear entirely while the right panel can be minimized. There is an excellent full-screen, distraction-free mode (borrowed from FocusWriter) which can be customized.

The Manuskript interface, Note the diverse information in the Metadata panel at right.
The Manuskript interface. Note the diverse information in the Metadata panel at right.

 

 

 

 

 

Manuskript, again like Plume Creator, is still working toward version 1.0. But the program seems very stable and I feel pretty confident my work is safe while using it (likewise with Plume Creator). I prefer Manuskript for its somewhat more intuitive organizational scheme and its somewhat greater flexibility; the program just “feels right” to me and I also think it looks more attractive than the other two.

A customized distraction-free theme in Manuskript. The bottom status bar with word count appears on mouseover.
A customized distraction-free theme in Manuskript. The bottom status bar with word count appears on mouseover.

 

 

 

 

 

Where Manuskript does fall down somewhat is in its exporting performance; both Bibisco and Plume Creator do a better job at present. Manuskript uses Pandoc to export (or “compile,” as Scrivener does) to a wide range of formats, including .epub, .odt, .docx, .pdf and even LaTeX. But there seems to be some sort of mismatch with Pandoc when exporting from Manuskript’s graphical interface. I’ve discovered a workaround of sorts on a Manuskript GitHub page: simply export to plain .txt format, then use Pandoc on the command line, like so:

pandoc -s -o myprj-output.odt myprj-export.txt

where “myprj” is the name of your Manuskript project. This will give you a LibreOffice Open Document file that at least separates your scenes properly. A more direct solution is to simply copy-and-paste finished scenes from Manuskript into LibreOffice Writer. I feel confident the developer will improve the export function in future versions of the program.

And there you have it: a (relatively) brief overview of today’s most popular open source creative writing tools. Since all of these programs are available for both Windows and Mac you can easily try any of them that pique your interest. With luck, you’ll find a writing app that helps improve your workflow, provides some added privacy/security (as long as you download the software from the developers’ sites linked above) and saves you a bit of money in the process.

 

Scrivener 3 Review

This is a somewhat belated review of Scrivener 3, which was released (for Mac only) last November. Scrivener is the dominant app for novelists and other long-form writers (not counting Word, which is still the publishing industry standard), and this latest update—which was years in the making—brings some important changes.

First, the program’s interface has been significantly improved. Scrivener simply looks better; it seems more modern and up-to-date. This is important, since competitors like Ulysses have long had an aesthetic advantage. Better-looking software seems more inviting and easier to use (even if it’s not), so Scrivener’s visual update is important. And Scrivener 3 is more inviting and easier to use (click the images below to enlarge).

Scrivener 3's 2-binder-page-view, with navigation panel, editor, synopsis and notes. Image: Literature & Latte.
Scrivener 3’s 2-binder-page-view, with navigation panel, editor, synopsis and notes. Image: Literature & Latte.

 

 

 

 

 

 

As you might expect, this Swiss Army knife of writing programs has a lot of changes under the hood as well. Here are some of the more important ones:

  • The Compile function has been updated to be more flexible (although I’ve never had a problem with the previous version).
  • “Styles” have been improved (this will be important chiefly to those who self-publish).
  • Index cards can now be viewed on colored threads to differentiate them; this is more like a plot outline than anything Scrivener has offered before.
  • Outlining in general has been enhanced.
  • Up to four documents can be viewed in the main window using “Copyholders” features.
  • You can now see draft and session progress bars in the toolbar.
  • The new “Dialogue Focus” can highlight all the dialog in your text.
  • Scrivener’s codebase has been updated for 64-bit, making the program faster and more stable.
Scrivener 3 view showing navigation panel, outline and editor. Image: Literature & Latte.
Scrivener 3 view showing navigation panel, outline and editor. Image: Literature & Latte.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Scrivener’s visual update is important (there’s even a spiffy new logo). But how does it feel to work with the new version?

The new Scrivener logo. Source: Literature & Latte.
The new Scrivener logo. Source: Literature & Latte.

 

 

 

 

 

Quite nice, actually. Scrivener has always had the ability to focus on just your words (it’s called “Composition Mode”), and this view is slicker and more useful than ever. It’s customizable, and it lets you access the Scrivener toolbar by moving your mouse to the top of the screen and access a word count and other helpful features by moving your mouse to the bottom. Plus, Composition Mode is very attractive at its default setting (which you can modify to your heart’s content).

Scrivener's Composition mode at its default setting. Image: Thomas Pletcher.
Scrivener’s Composition mode at its default setting. Image: Thomas Pletcher.

 

 

 

 

 

The chief complaint I’ve heard about Scrivener over the years concerns its complexity—there are so many tools available that the program can seem quite daunting, especially to newcomers. I think version 3 mitigates this to some extent with its compelling visual makeover. And in point of fact, you’re not required to use all the tools Scrivener provides. You can set up the program to simply work with chapters or scenes and forgo all the extras if this seems more appealing. This will give you a work environment much like Ulysses, but without that program’s unfortunate monthly subscription fee.

Actually, I suspect that for most professional writers Scrivener’s chief competitor is Word. Word contains its own universe of tools and options, but many people are accustomed to using it simply to outline and write. Scrivener can be used in similar fashion, but it provides a significantly more attractive environment for writing (and it exports to Word flawlessly when you’re ready to submit your work).

If you have Scrivener 2, an upgrade to version 3 costs $25. If you’re purchasing Scrivener for the first time, you’ll pay $45. In both cases, this is money very well spent.

Scrivener is cross-platform and version 3 for Windows is due sometime later this year. If you buy the current Windows version now ($45) the upgrade to version 3 will be free.

A couple of final notes. First, Scrivener 3 is not backward-compatible with the previous version, but this turns out not to be much of a problem—the program thoughtfully creates a backup in the old file format when it converts your work to version 3. You can go back and forth between the two versions, in other words. Second, there is a beta version of version 3 available for Windows now. I’m delighted to report that it works fine in Wine on my Linux system (and presumably on Windows itself as well). Scrivener originally had a Linux beta available, but as a small company Literature & Latte decided to suspend Linux development and focus on Mac and Windows (and iOS) instead. I commend them for taking pains to make sure Scrivener 3 can still be run on Linux, through Wine compatibility.

Scrivener 3 is an important upgrade and writers at every level should benefit from its improvements.

Should Fiction Get Its Facts Straight?

This may be an aesthetic question, or perhaps it’s a question of craft. Maybe it’s both. Put simply, the question is: how important is it for a fiction writer to get the facts straight—particularly the technical facts?

As someone now writing fiction who has previously worked in technology, I probably have a special interest in the question. For me, flubbing a bit of technical description brings the narrative to a crashing halt. It also undermines the writer’s credibility to some degree, depending on the writer’s overall talent and the power of his or her narrative. (The same would be true, I believe, if a writer botched the terminology or tools of medicine or law.)

Granted, writers have a built-in license to modify anything in the interest of the story, so I should be clear: I’m speaking about inadvertent mistakes when describing technology in the course of the narrative.

Fortune Smiles—an exceptional collection with a few technical bobbles.
An exceptional collection with a few technical bobbles.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I should also note that I’m not referring to the kind of genre fiction where facts already seem secondary. For example, I’m not speaking of a fantasy novel like The Book of Joan, where technology in general is lazily glossed over—the author doesn’t regard specifics or plausibility as important and her readers likely don’t, either.

The writer who raised this question of technical accuracy for me most recently is instead an extremely talented generalist, who has won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. I’m speaking of Adam Johnson, and specifically of the story “Dark Meadow” from the National Book Award-winning collection Fortune Smiles.

“Dark Meadow” is a compelling and disturbing tale of a pedophile (“made,” not “born”; his own abuse as a child contributed to his sexual development) who is trying hard to purge his urges. The narrator (who was nicknamed “Dark Meadow” by his molester) works out of his home as a kind of jack-of-all-trades computer technician; people hire him to repair, troubleshoot and secure their systems. But in the meantime Dark Meadow himself has disconnected the internet in his own house, and is whittling down his collection of child pornography photos to almost nothing—he crops pictures so that only a pair of eyes, a hand, or some other non-sexual detail is all that remains. And before the story has finished he will dismantle his computer completely and destroy its hard drive.

The technical errors in Dark Meadow’s narrative could be viewed as minor—for one thing, a solid majority of readers probably won’t be aware of them at all. And even for those who are, the errors ultimately don’t wreck the story; Johnson’s work is too well-wrought in every other respect for that. Still, the errors are troubling.

Here’s an example: “I stopped using Tor, eDonkey and Fetch.” These are three different kinds of technology that don’t plausibly fit together for a child pornagraphy addict. Tor, which provides a degree of online anonymity, yes; though Tails would have been a more appropriate choice. eDonkey and Fetch, no. eDonkey is a file-sharing network but would have been risky to use; Fetch is an old Mac FTP client (though it’s since been updated) that dates all the way back to the 80s and would have been riskier still. Plus, the name itself seems dated. Several lines later, Dark Meadow references his “Fetch Dropbox,” conflating the FTP program with the popular online storage service. (You can set up Fetch to link to Dropbox, which I suppose is what Johnson means here. But Dropbox is not particularly secure either, unless you provide your own encryption.)

As I said, these are small errors. But, with a writer of Johnson’s stature, they bother me. “Dark Meadow” was published in Tin House in issue 60 (Summer 2014); apparently no one at the literary magazine had the technical chops to question these usages. And when the story was incorporated into the Fortune Smiles collection published the following year by Random House, no one there seemed to offer any suggestions, either. Did Johnson himself ask for technical guidance at any point? He’s based at Stanford, so nearby expertise is certainly plentiful.

To answer my own question, then: yes, writers should get their facts straight. And given the ubiquitous role technology plays in life today, that goes double for tech references.

Can AI Save Us?

In absolute terms, humanity hasn’t been around very long at all. From our own perspective, though, evolution seems to be taking an eternity. As a species, we remain profoundly stupid.

We haven’t learned to share, or to work toward our common interests. We befoul our own nest. We continue to develop weapons which threaten annihilation. With every small step forward made by an Einstein, a Beethoven, a Tolstoy, the species as a whole has trouble following. We lurch toward progress, then rapidly retreat again—witness the 2016 U. S. election.

Superintelligence, by Nick Bostrom (Oxford University Press, 2014). Is it the answer, or the end?
Superintelligence, by Nick Bostrom (Oxford University Press, 2014). Is it the answer, or the end?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Do we need somebody—or something—smarter to step in and take charge? AI may fit the bill, especially artificial intelligence of the “superintelligence” variety discussed in Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom’s thought-provoking book of the same name.

But of course, as with all things human, the answer is not so straightforward. You may have read that scientific and tech luminaries such as Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have sounded warnings about the potential dangers of artificial intelligence technology. Indeed, Musk calls AI an “existential threat” to human civilization and has co-founded OpenAI, a non-profit, open-source AI research company, to try to foster collaboration in developing “friendly AI” as a result.

Bostrom sounds an alarm in Superintelligence, as well. The concern is that research into and continued development of AI might lead to an “intelligence explosion” that would create an entity or entities so much smarter than us that we would become redundant and dispensable. Bostrom has coined the term “Singleton” to designate such an all-controlling superintelligence. A “bad” Singleton would be the end of us.

However, a vein of optimism runs through Superintelligence, too. Bostrom believes, or would like to believe, that humanity has a potential “cosmic endowment” which could be realized through a benign superintelligence. He acknowledges that the odds would seem to be against this, and likens humanity and superintelligence to a child with an undetonated bomb in its hands. The core problem is one of control: how do we create a superintelligence that will not jettison humanity but rather work to enhance it?

We must, Bostrom says, “hold on to our humanity … maintain our groundedness, common sense, and good-humored decency even in the teeth of this most unnatural and inhuman problem. We need to bring all our human resourcefulness to bear on its solution.” This is, Bostrom maintains, “the essential task of our age.”

At a moment in history when bellicosity and benightedness are ascendant, this is a very tall order indeed. Yet contemplating Bostrom’s suggested cosmic endowment is a worthwhile exercise in staving off despair. One must hope there remain enough intelligent and altruistic people at work in the field of AI (and in every other important field) to make envisioning a better future viable.

Ulysses Runs Aground

One of my first posts on this site was in praise of Ulysses, the very stylish and capable writers’ text editor I used to write my 50,000-word novella during last fall’s NaNoWriMo. I continue to admire and enjoy this software but I’m about to stop using it. The reason? Ulysses is switching to a subscription-only model.

I oppose such a model on philosophical grounds, which I’ll try to outline below. I also think this switch will prove to be a failing business model for Ulysses, unless there are more dilettante/hobbyist writers out there than anyone previously realized. In fact I hope this model does fail, and Ulysses returns to the standard software practice of buy once, then pay for occasional significant updates.

Ulysses is moving in the wrong direction.
Ulysses is moving in the wrong direction. Icon © Ulysses GmbH & Co.

Adobe was the conspicuous pioneer in subscription software and the model has apparently worked for them. The big difference here, though, is that Adobe is the industry standard for designers everywhere. (Since I’m not a designer, I promptly stopped using Photoshop and other Adobe products and was able to replace the functionality I needed with no difficulty.) The equivalent standard for writers, at least where submission for publication is concerned, is Microsoft Word. And Word still offers the ability to purchase the software, instead of subscribing to it. There is no standard software for the process of writing. If there were to be such software, Scrivener would probably be the most likely candidate.

Ulysses actually suits the way I write better than Scrivener does, but so do many of its rivals, some of which also offer cross-platform capability (Ulysses is Apple only). And Scrivener itself can be a marvelous writing tool when pared down to its composition mode. The program is not as “pretty” as Ulysses but it does far more. Scrivener is essential for its excellent templates and for its comprehensive export capabilities. You can use it to write fluidly, reorganize and revise in fine detail, and then prepare a flawless manuscript for submission. No other software, including Ulysses, can do all of that nearly so well.

iA Writer, Sublime Text (properly configured) and the up-and-coming Write! all provide attractive, customizable writing environments with a left-hand sidebar for project navigation and organization (Write! just recently introduced a local sidebar and is already working to improve it). Update, 4/9/18: I no longer use Write! software and can’t recommend it. See this article for more information. Any of these programs can substitute for Ulysses during the first draft process, with Scrivener coming into play after the first draft is complete. (The software I’m using to write this post, Byword, would also qualify if it would just add a navigational sidebar.) What’s more, all of these programs employ traditional files and folders to organize your work. Ulysses, in contrast, hides your work deep in a largely inaccessible database, though you can deliberately create external files and folders if you wish. Some people think this system provides advantages; I don’t.

Here are a few reasons why a I think a subscription model for Ulysses is a really bad idea:

  • The cost for the end user becomes disproportionate. Let’s say you paid $45 to purchase Ulysses. Suddenly, you’re asked to pay $40 per year to continue using it. (Granted, existing users pay “only” $30 per year.) Now, this isn’t cost-prohibitive per se. Ulysses is excellent software and many people would argue it’s worth the added cost. But suppose you also buy Scrivener for $45 and then pay for two upgrades at $30 each over a 10-year period. That’s $105 over 10 years for what is arguably the one truly indispensable writers’ program, vs $300-$400 for Ulysses. Ulysses is not worth that cost differential; I think its developers are being a bit greedy here.
  • Suppose every bit of software you use regularly suddenly demanded that you subscribe in order to continue using it. Apart from the significant added cost, it would drive you crazy to keep track of all the required payments. The historical purchase-once, pay-to-upgrade model for software makes far more sense.
  • Ulysses is writing software. Its developers argue they need the extra subscription money in order to deliver “continuous improvements”. Writing software does not need continuous improvements—indeed, constant change for the sake of some supposed “improvement” would actually be detrimental. Once a writing program offers a flexible and pleasing interface, basic editing features and word count and the ability to navigate and modify project file structures, anything beyond is extraneous at best. I don’t use many of the extra features Ulysses already offers.

So, unless or until Ulysses comes to its senses, I’ll be using iA Writer and Sublime Text, among other programs, for short fiction and poetry and Scrivener for long-form work and revisions.

Poetry and Programming

When I worked as a web developer, Sublime Text came out of nowhere (Australia, actually) to become enormously popular. I understand it remains popular still, though I believe the newer program Atom has also gained a lot of adherents. One of the best things about Sublime Text, though, in addition to its name, is its flexibility—flexibility that extends to making the program a suitable environment for writers.

Sublime Text as a programming editor.
Sublime Text as a programming editor.

For years, I’ve heard stories about writers adopting Sublime Text in place of some other software. Indeed, the Sublime Text site now bills the program as “a sophisticated text editor for code, markup and prose.” Having used Sublime Text as a developer, I decided to give it a go as a writer. It works remarkably well. For shorter forms of writing, especially poetry, it is superb.

Sublime Text: programming and poetry for $70.
Sublime Text: programming and poetry for $70.

The “minimap” feature (which the recently reviewed Write! app also uses) is very helpful in longer narratives, as it lets you visualize where a current line fits into the larger story. Update, 4/9/18: I no longer use Write! software and can’t recommend it. See this article for more information. For my money, though (speaking of which, Sublime Text retails for $70—this gives you a license to use the software on all your computers, regardless of whether they’re running Windows, macOS or Linux), the program’s real killer feature is its exceptionally configurable layout.

Sublime Text for writers—comparing three versions of a poem side-by-side.
Sublime Text for writers: comparing three versions of a poem side-by-side.

I like to compare multiple versions of my work as I move toward a final draft, and Sublime Text’s vertical columns feature (you can have as many as four columns) lets me view multiple versions side-by-side. This is especially useful for poetry, since it provides a direct line-by-line comparison.

Sublime Text’s programming heritage remains evident in some ways, but writers should not feel unduly intimidated by this. For example, you need to configure preferences via individual files, and you also need to add a few plugins to make Sublime Text a solid environment for writing.

You can install the necessary plugins via the program’s Package Control feature. Only four are really needed: Markdown Editing, Pandoc (which lets you export your Sublime Text work to Microsoft Word), Side Bar (a better replacement for the default sidebar) and Word Count.

If setting up Sublime Text seems a bit too hands-on, then there are plenty of other solid writing apps out there, including the aforementioned Write! But if you like the idea of customizing your writing environment, and the capability of directly comparing multiple versions of your work appeals to you, you’ll find Sublime Text very satisfying. You may even find it sublime.

A Focus On Writing

Update, 4/9/18: I no longer use Write! software and can’t recommend it. See this article for more information.

Update, 8/17/17: Write! has now added a local navigation panel and is actively working on expanding its functionality. This is a big step forward for the program’s productivity.

Sometimes I wonder which category has grown fastest: the number of people aspiring to write in one form or another, the number of MFA or independent writing programs designed to serve them, or the number of writing applications created to address their every need—particularly their need to focus.

Ever since WriteRoom began the focused writing craze many years ago, its imitators and progeny have expanded exponentially. From direct copies like JDarkRoom and PyRoom to Markdown-enabled programs like Byword and iA Writer to full-scale writing environments such as Scrivener (and even Microsoft Word), virtually every writing software program available today offers a full-screen, “distraction-free” mode to aid writers’ ability to concentrate. Many take this a step further by enabling one to focus on individual paragraphs or sentences.

However, just as with MFA programs (and writers themselves), these programs diverge significantly in their overall capabilities. Some (Scrivener, Storyist, Ulysses) aim to fill the many diverse roles involved in creating longer works, including research, note-taking, formating and so on. Others seem intent on streamlining and doing one or two things well, and these latter programs tend to specialize in creating an aesthetically pleasing environment in which one can concentrate and be productive.

Write!, one of the newest programs tailored for writers.
Write!, one of the newest programs tailored for writers.

Write!, a program I had been aware of but not yet tried, is in this mode, but with some distinctive new twists of its own. Last week, a member of its marketing team reached out to inquire whether I’d consider doing a review. Intrigued, I decided to investigate further. I saw enough promise in the program to purchase a license and give it a test drive. A quick overview follows below.

Let’s start with what is immediately obvious: Write! is a beautifully designed piece of software. On purely aesthetic grounds, it rivals anything else in its field and surpasses most of its competitors. If you’re looking for a program that will get out of your way and let you focus on drafting your story, this is as good as anything out there. It’s also much more capable than the WriteRoom-style editors.

This is the light theme. The Write! cloud panel is at left, the text Minimap at right.
This is the light theme. The Write! cloud panel is at left, the text Minimap at right.

Write! began life as a Windows program; subsequent versions were quickly released for macOS and Linux. Since I write on Mac and Linux, this cross-platform compatibility is a big plus. The program looks and behaves the same on both platforms, as it should. (And it’s easily the best-looking writing program on Linux.) It also syncs your work seamlessly between platforms, thanks to its own, built-in cloud integration (which costs $4.95 per year, starting one year after the purchase date). The program itself costs $14.95. Rather than a traditional license, Write! sets up an account for you—you need to set up this account before you can download the software. There is no trial version, but you can cancel your account and get a refund within the first seven days, should you so choose.

The program is under very rapid development and the developers are quite responsive to users’ suggestions. For example, the program originally defaulted to saving documents in the cloud; there is now an option to save locally. I’m told that, very soon, there will be a localized version of the Cloud panel, which will make the program much more flexible in terms of organizing your work.

This is the dark theme. The Write! cloud panel is at left, the text Minimap at right.
This is the dark theme. The Write! cloud panel is at left, the text Minimap at right.

Write! is a text editor that supports Markdown, Wiki and Textile syntax. It can export to any of those formats, as well as to .docx, .odt, plain text (.txt), PDF or HTML. A unique feature of the software, visible in both of the above screenshots, is a pure prose take on the Sublime Text coding editor’s “Minimap,” running down from the upper right corner. This bird’s-eye view of your text shows you where you are in your document and you can use the map to navigate up and down.

Here’s a quick rundown of the program’s other features:

  • Tabs and writing sessions—you can save groups of tabs as a session and return to it later.
  • Thanks to Write’s built-in cloud storage, you can create links to your documents for sharing with others (NB: Write! uses AWS and 256-bit encryption for cloud storage).
  • Again thanks to cloud storage, there is an unlimited undo feature. Not that most of us would need that (I hope), but it is a unique feature nonetheless!
  • Productivity counters, which you can tweak.
  • Native spell-checking (in multiple languages!), plus online access (via links to your browser) to a thesaurus, Google lookups, translations and Wikipedia.

And here are the quirks and drawbacks, some of which the developers are already working on:

  • Proprietary cloud storage, as opposed to Dropbox or Google Drive. There are advantages to this, as noted, but you’ll need to determine whether it works for you.
  • Limited functionality with local files (this will soon be remedied, according to the developers).
  • Limited import capabilities (though export capabilities are quite strong).
  • Limited functionality for longer works. Documents can only be combined manually, which would make for extra work in something as long as a novel.
  • Style restrictions. The built-in styles are gorgeous, but you’ll need to export your work and reformat it to industry standards before submitting.

To summarize: Write! is a relatively new entrant in the highly competitive field of distraction-free text editors and it is already quite strong. The program has a great look and feel, and new features and functionality are being added regularly. If you’re okay with the caveats cited above (some of which are already being addressed) then you’ll find this program provides a satisfying and productive writing environment.

Writing & Technology

Mathew Kirschenbaum’s Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing (Belknap/Harvard University Press, 2016) will delight a certain kind of readership: those who, like myself, are interested not only in what a writer has to say but in the tools the writer employs to say it. Readers who are keenly interested in both literature and technology are undoubtedly a minority but I’d wager there are more of us around than you might think. Certainly word processing itself has been around long enough, and become mainstream enough, to warrant a history of its development.

Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing
A fascinating study of writers and the technologies they employ.

Kirschenbaum, an English professor at the University of Maryland, does a fine job of describing how writers came to terms with (or chose not to come to terms with) word processing technology. In fact, as the author points out, word processing is just another point on the spectrum of writers’ methodologies. It did not replace longhand, nor did it completely replace the typewriter. Writers are a versatile lot.

Here are a few examples: George R. R. Martin, whose series Song of Ice and Fire became HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” writes with an antique word processing program called WordStar, using a DOS-era computer which is not connected to the Internet. (Philip Roth also used a DOS machine, in his case with WordPerfect.) Joyce Carol Oates, an incredibly prolific writer, sticks to longhand (and a typewriter).

At first, the ease and fluidity promised by word processing (for those writers who chose to embrace it) were thought to threaten literary quality. It was felt the machine and its software would wind up doing too much of the writer’s work. Some early adopters even tried to conceal their use of word processing because of the perceived stigma. The writer Gish Jen describes fellow students at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop working at mainframe terminals and then deliberately “doctoring” their printouts—adding annotations by hand, rumpling the corners—before sending their work out for consideration. “Real writers,” their instructors said, used pencils or typewriters. Yet for Jen the personal computer (in her case an early Apple) overcame such prejudices. “Computers coaxed out of me an expansiveness the typewriter never did,” she said. “What came out … was not further from the human heart; it was closer. It was looser, freer, more spontaneous—more democratic, too.”

Kirschenbaum’s history runs the gamut from do-it-yourself personal computer kits to early Kaypros and Osbornes to the latest “artisanal” software tools like Scrivener. He nominates Len Deighton‘s Bomber as the first published (in 1970) novel written with a word processor, the IBM MT/ST. The book is nicely written, with an appealing tongue-in-cheek humor. If you’re at all interested in how writing gets put together, this is highly recommended.

Can Facebook Save the World?

I won’t try to cover the absurd press conference conducted by our so-called President yesterday, as it’s already been done quite effectively (Steven Colbert stands out here). Laughter is a natural response, and many progressives take heart from the fact that every such fiasco undermines Trump further.

But I don’t share this optimism. Even if Trump fails to last a full term, as many pundits are predicting, we’re still left with Pence and an amoral Republican Congress intent on undermining every bit of social progress the country has made in decades.

Well, the pendulum will swing back, others say. And to that I respond, so what? Let’s say we manage to elect a Democratic President and control the Senate again in 2020. We will still be left with the ignorant, misguided and/or malevolent citizens who voted Trump into office last year. So how much lasting progress can really be made? The pendulum is swinging more slowly now, and the clock is winding down.

The country’s two-party system, with its electoral college and other quaint artifacts, is broken beyond repair. Universal suffrage is no cure when half the electorate is uninformed and unqualified by temperament, education and upbringing to make rational decisions. (The Republicans have done their best to increase this pool of unqualified voters through effective gerrymandering.)

All of which brings me to a surprising statement made by Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, yesterday: “progress now requires humanity coming together not just as cities or nations, but also as a global community.”

Facebook
Can Facebook help create global harmony? Logo © Facebook.

This is absolutely true. Both climate change and nuclear weapons, to cite just two examples, are terrifying threats that only a global response can meet effectively. But how do we get there? Somehow I think Facebook alone is not the answer. But maybe it can help, if it does more to curtail the ignorance promulgated on its network and more to help people break out of their tight little groups and constant posting as an end in itself to take part in organizing change in the real world.

Zuckerberg has raised a very important issue and I admire him for speaking out in today’s nationalistic, close-minded environment. How do people of intelligence and good will come together to make genuine progress? That is the question more of us need to address today, regardless of national boundaries or Trump’s latest tweet.

Keep Control of Your Life

I voiced concern, in a recent post, that progressive Americans were exhibiting a strange passivity as the inauguration of Donald J. Trump approaches. This reluctance to engage with the profound transformation confronting the nation is understandable on one level—it’s painful. Yet resistance across a broad spectrum of American life is essential if the very worst is to be avoided. Mass surveillance is one of these areas. You can take a stand and help reduce its impact.

ProtonMail is free encrypted email.
ProtonMail is free encrypted email.

The NSA and other agencies have amassed enormous power in recent years and that power is likely to be more aggressively displayed after January 20. Too many people have displayed a resigned helplessness in the face of this sinister development for too long. American citizens are entitled to lead private lives. Don’t think, “If I’ve done nothing wrong, I have nothing to worry about.” You have plenty to worry about—we all do.

If you’re on Facebook, that part of your life is an open book, obviously. (Corporate power is on the verge of expanding exponentially as well.) If you send and receive your email as plain text or HTML, you can assume every word of every message you’ve ever sent or received is available to government investigators, along with any photos or other attachments in your email. Unless you take basic precautions, every website you visit can be listed against your name, along with the location you viewed it from and the date and time of the viewing.

Do you want everything you do online filed away in a government database? No? Then start taking some basic steps to resist mass surveillance. Do it now, before Trump takes office.

Email: You can encrypt your present email account using OpenPGP but this takes a degree of technical know-how. It’s a very solid solution, though, and if you’re game to try this article does a fine job of guiding you through the process. I use Enigmail on Thunderbird myself, but you can select other options, as the article makes clear.

If you’d like to choose a simpler path then open a free email account with ProtonMail, based in Switzerland and encrypted by default. Use it to email your friends, even if they don’t have a ProtonMail account. You can give them a passphrase so they can receive your encrypted email anyway. ProtonMail is encrypted end-to-end and on the server. The system is designed so that ProtonMail itself has no access to your data, and thus cannot turn it over to third parties like the NSA (plus, Swiss laws on privacy are much, much tougher than they are here).

Update, 5/12/18: this article provides a fine general overview of how encryption works.

Messaging: Use Signal, from Open Whisper Systems.

Browsing: If you must use a mainstream browser, use Firefox. It is open source and inherently more secure than the others. You can add to your security by using some key add-ons, such as uBlock Origin and Privacy Badger. If you want to be really secure, though, use Tor Browser.

Update, 3/5/18: If you decide to use Tor to explore the Dark Net, though—a completely different proposition from granting yourself some extra privacy on the web—you need to be careful, as this article makes clear.

The Tor Browser protects against surveillance.
The Tor Browser protects against surveillance.

These are the bare rudiments. If you care about keeping your life your own, do some research. The Surveillance Self-Defense project of the Electronic Frontier Foundation is a good place to start.

In order to resist the worst of what the Trump administration has in store, start by opting out of mass surveillance and encourage your friends to do the same. The more citizens who do this, the less likely we are to enter truly Orwellian territory under Trump.