Writing Advice #50: Recommended Gear

I recently wrote a series of BLogs on technology for writers and figured it would make sense to summarize the most important bits here in the Writing Advice section. You can go read the originals, or just skim here.

I live in the Apple ecosystem, so some of this may not apply to you. But it’s what works for me:

Desktop Hardware

My iMac and monitor set-upI use two monitors, the one built into my iMac and a Dell I bought for cheap online. If you can swing it/have the room, consider a two-monitor setup. You’ll find it lets you spread your work out and organize it more logically.

I use an ancient MacAlly iKey keyboard that is no longer manufactured. Even if they did make them, I wouldn’t necessarily suggest you buy one — keyboards are very personal. My advice to you: Find a keyboard that you love, that feels right under your fingertips. Go to stores and try them out. Don’t just type “This is a test of a keyboard.” Stand there for a while and pound out a few paragraphs. You’re going to spend a lot of time on this sucker — make it worth your while. (Even if you use a laptop, you can still get an external keyboard to use when at home. Depending on how much you like or loathe your laptop’s keyboard, this might be a worthwhile investment.)

Ditto for your mouse. I use Apple’s Magic Mouse, which is much maligned in the tech world, but I love it. YMMV.

Oh, and always use some kind of wrist support. You don’t want to blow your tendons out and have carpal tunnel syndrome.

Desktop Software

scrivener_iconMy composition environment of choice is Scrivener. Ten million features, but even if you only use six of them, they’ll be the six that change — and maybe save — your life. At $45, it’s a steal.

pages-iconI use Pages (free with purchase of an Apple computer) in lieu of monsters like Word. It has most of the functionality of Word (and can save to and open .doc files) without the bloat.

Mobile Hardware

I use an iPad Air 2. I know most people prefer a laptop, but I like the lightness and slender profile of the iPad. If you’re going to use an iPad for your out-of-house writing needs (or, hell, any tablet), invest in a separate keyboard. Typing on glass is fine for emails, but for anything long-form, you gotta have the real deal. I use an Apple Bluetooth Keyboard, but as with the suggestion on desktop keyboards, find one you love.

When you’re traveling, you need to stay juiced up. I use a Phonesuit battery to top off my gadgets when I’m not near an outlet, and I have an XtremeMac InCharge Home power adapter so that I can charge two devices with one outlet. Consider your needs before you head out to the coffee shop for a writing session and make sure you have some kind of power solution in your bag.

Mobile Software

Textilus (Microsoft Word Office Edition, PDF Notes and Scrivener)PagesWith Scrivener for the iPad still nowhere in sight, I rely on Textilus for editing and composing on-the-go. I also use Pages on the iPad when compatibility with Scrivener isn’t an issue. Textilus costs only $5.99, but there’s a free version to try out. And Pages is free with the purchase of an iDevice.

Backup

A good backup plan is crucial for writers. Yeah, I know, you’re thinking, “I’ve never lost anything!” Guess what? That means you will.

There are a lot of backup solutions out there — too many for me to advise you specifically — but here are some general rules to follow:

1) Backup locally to a hard drive in your house or place of work. Have this happen automatically at least every hour.

2) Also, backup to a remote location. This can be a cloud-based service such as Backblaze, Carbonite, Crashplan, or some other one. But do it. You need an off-site backup in case something wipes out your computer and your on-site backup.

3) A backup that requires you to do something each time — push a button, plug in a drive — is no backup at all. You will forget. And the time you forget is the time your hard drive will decide to die, losing that chapter you just wrote. Your systems need to work automatically, without intervention from you. The best backup is the one you never think about…until you need it.

Now’s the time of year for gifts, so maybe surprise yourself with a new toy and get to writing!

For the Tech of It: Software (Mobile)

After stepping through the hardware I use at home and while out, as well as the software I use at home, it’s time to wrap things up with a look at mobile software.

PagesFor the most part, the apps I use while traveling are designed to extend or mimic my desktop experience as much as possible. So, for example, I use the Pages app on my iPad for the same reasons I use it on my desktop. No need to get into that.1

One thing about mobile writing, of course, is that you want to easily and almost unthinkingly sync what you’ve done on the iPad with what you have on your computer. This used to involve a lot of manual shuttling around of different files using various cables, but with the use of services like Dropbox2 and Box, it’s become much, much easier. As long as you remember to save the file in the right place on your computer — and as long as you have Internet access on your iPad — you should have access to the latest version everywhere. Imagine your file as a field you can look at through many windows in your house. The computer is one window, the iPad another. Same field, different ways to see it.

On my iMac, my main writing is done in Scrivener. Sadly, there is no Scrivener for the iPad…yet. And there is no app on the iPad that can read Scrivener’s native file format.

Fortunately, there’s a workaround, and it’s not a bad one.

Scrivener can export your manuscript as a series of documents, with each chapter or scene as its own file. You stash these files in your Dropbox or Box and point an iOS app to it. Now you can open each chapter or scene separately or create new ones. Then, when you return to Scrivener, you just have it re-absorb those files into its structure once more, and you’re up-to-date. So, all you need on the iOS device is an app that can read the exported format.

You can export from Scrivener as plain text, Word, or RTF (rich text format). Word is useless to me because I’m not about to buy rent Office from Microsoft just to work on my iPad. Pages can open and save to Word, but doesn’t (currently) interface with Dropbox or Box.

There are a slew of iOS apps that read and save plain text, but I’m not interested in plain text. I like to see my formatting as I write, so I need something that can read and save RTF and work with my chosen cloud storage system.

Textilus (Microsoft Word Office Edition, PDF Notes and Scrivener)For a long time, there was nothing, and I had to make do with plain text (and then do the formatting later — ugh), but then I discovered Textilus.3

Textilus is, as best I can tell, the only iOS app that supports opening and creatingTextilus screenshot RTF documents, as well as opening from and saving to a cloud service like Dropbox. It can connect to your cloud service so that you can dip into that folder of Scrivener exports, allowing you to edit or create new Scrivener subdocuments on-the-go, which are then later synced back in. (Luckily, Scrivener allows you to automatically sync your documents on open and close, so as long as you remember to close your document on your Mac before you work on your iPad, you’re always in sync.)

Textilus has a bunch of other features — graphics importing, HTML compliance, etc. — but as with Scrivener, I use it for the basics.

In truth, the app is pretty darn great except that its syncing to the cloud is a little less clear than it could be. You have to really study the documentation for a couple of minutes and then take a tiny leap of faith…but it does work. If I had one request for the Textilus folks, it would be to fix the way you connect to Dropbox and Box…but I believe iOS 8 — due in a month or so — has system-wide support for such things, so the work would be moot. We’ll see in the fall.

Textilus Dropbox interfaceOf course, at some point there’ll be Scrivener for iOS. And I’ll most likely use it. But for the past couple of years, Textilus has been an excellent workaround. The app is updated regularly, with new features added on a frequent basis. And tech support has been generally helpful when I’ve needed it.

The combination of a cloud service and Textilus makes up about 90% of what I do on my iPad, writing-wise. But there are a few other apps I couldn’t live without:

NoteSuite - Notes, To-do Lists & PDF Annotation NotebookNoteSuite: As I mentioned before, Notesuite for iPadNoteSuite is an imperfect solution to my note-taking, note-keeping, note-storing needs, but it’s the only one — at present — that comes close to meeting those needs. I use the iPad version to sync with my iMac so that all of my notes can be in two places at once. The iPad app can do pretty much everything the Mac one can, including importing entire web pages of research.

Keynote: I probably should have mentioned this in the BLog on desktop software, but I neglected to. Mea culpa. I use Keynote to create presentations for my school visits. I don’t do horribly complicated presentations, but Keynote is certainly capable of doing so, if I were to decide to. I can make and edit presentations on my iMac or on my iPad or across the two of them. When I’m at a venue, I just plug in my iPad to the projector, and we’re off! (I always travel with my own Lightning-to-VGA adapter, as well as a VGA cable. You can never assume a venue will have the right cabling and adapters.)

A slideshow in Keynote for iPad.

A slideshow in Keynote for iPad.

If the projector is close at hand (or if the A/V set up allows), I can run the presentation right off my iPad. Which is great because I can look down and use the presenter display to see the next slide or my notes. But if the iPad has to be at a distance from me, I can still control the presentation by using Keynote on my iPhone. It’s the same app, so I can still see the next slide or my notes while also controlling the presentation. Pretty cool!

Controlling a Keynote presentation with Keynote for iPhone

Controlling a Keynote presentation with Keynote for iPhone

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The last little bit of mobile software I use is called Pomodoro TimerPomodoro Timer. Which, you may know, is Italian for tomato. I use Pomodoro on my iPhone, which is why it’s listed under mobile software, but I use it wherever and whenever I’m working.

Quite simply, Pomodoro is designed to time your work sessions for maximum efficiency. It relates to something called the Pomodoro Technique. I won’t go into the details — you can click the link for ’em — but basically, the Pomodoro Technique has you work for 25 minutes, then take a 5 minute break, repeating this cycle for a couple of hours until you take a longer break…and then starting over again. For me, it’s terrifically productive, whether I’m writing, editing, revising, or proofing, and I use it constantly.

So, that’s a look at the mobile software I use to write. Anything cool I’m missing? Anything amazing you guys out there are using that I should try out?



  1. There’s also Pages for iPhone, which works just like the iPad and desktop version, but on a screen that — frankly — is too small for me. Still, it’s helpful when you’re on the run and need to check something or make a small edit quickly.
  2. That’s a referral link, BTW.
  3. There’s also a free tryout version of Textilus here.

For the Tech of it: Software (Desktop)

I use a lot of software, but very little of it is specifically aimed at my writing. I use Photoshop Elements and iMovie and Hype and Numbers on a semi-regular basis, for example, but not to create fiction. So I’m going to limit myself to those apps that I use specifically for writing when on my iMac. There are surprisingly few.

scrivener_iconScrivener: This is the big one, the app where most of my work gets done. If you’ve spent more than two or three minutes chatting with an author about “process” in the past few years, you’ve probably already heard about Scrivener. Originally developed as a Mac-only app by a guy who wanted a program to help him with his own novel, Scrivener now boasts a Windows version as well and has grown into a must-have for most authors’ toolkits.

Truthfully, I use probably 10% of Scrivener’s capabilities, and the same is, I suspect, true of most other authors. The thing is, we’re probably all using a different 10%. The program has a near infinity of features, including character sheets, multiple methods of organization, an index card board, linking within documents, inline annotation, a bewildering number of compiling/exporting options, templates for different kinds of publications, and probably — somewhere in a submenu — a feature that deletes porn from your hard drive before the NSA can find it.

All that said, I basically use Scrivener as a word processor, with a few crucial differences. For one thing, its compiling options made it incredibly simple for me to produce the files needed for my ebook, Unsoul’d.

FullscreenBut I don’t publish ebooks on my own all that often. Scrivener is most useful to me for its excellent “Compose mode,” which you can see to the right. (Click for a bigger version.) It’s sort of an amped-up full-screen mode, with controls to let you widen or narrow the “page” and blow up the text to whatever size you like. (You can also have a floating note pad on the screen at the same time, which is helpful, since you can’t see anything else while in Compose.)

Also useful is Scrivener’s organizational capacities. Take a look at the image to the left. That’s the document for Game, and Scrivener was helpful in a couple of ways. In the main pane, you can see that there are two documents open, with the screen bisected horizontally. This makes it easy to, say, refer to one chapter while working on another, without needing to flip back and forth or swap windows.

Fullscreen-1At the same time, look to the left of the screen. Unlike in a word processor, Scrivener lets you assign each chapter and scene to its own subdocument, organized as you please. Want to move a scene from later in the book to earlier? Cool — no need to cut-and-paste. Just drag it to the proper place in the hierarchy.

Best of all, you can color-code chapters and scenes, which I did for Game. Each POV character got his/her own color, so that as I worked, I could glance over and think, “Oh, it’s been a long time since we checked in with Connie. I should fix that.” Or “While this scene is happening, what’s going on with Billy? Let me find his latest scene…” For a novel of even modest organizational complexity, Scrivener is a godsend. For something like The Book That Will Kill Me, it forestalled my frustrated suicide attempts on a daily basis.

Scrivener also has the Snapshot feature, which lets you freeze all or part(s) of your document so that you can keep working and then — if you realize you’ve gone off the rails — easily roll back to where you were before. Nice.

pages-iconPages: Scrivener is great for writing and revising, but at some point, you have to hand the file over, and publishers don’t accept Scrivener documents. They want Word files because that’s what they’re set up to handle. Fortunately, Scrivener can compile your document and export it in Word format, so that’s fine.

But editors tend to send your Word file back to you, with comments and ideas embedded via Word’s Track Changes feature. And when the time comes for copyediting, your copyeditor will send a Word doc that is positively bleeding with Track Changes. You’ll need to go through and offer your own comments and accept or reject changes as is appropriate. Aha! So, you need Word after all, eh?

Game_MS_CEtoEdAuNope! Pages, Apple’s word processor, offers compatibility with Track Changes and can both open and save Word files. Plus, it’s a lot cheaper than Word, less buggy, and not nearly as bloated with features you’ll never us.1

I’ve been running a Microsoft-free computer for more than ten years. So, basically for my entire writing career. I’ve never used Word and I can’t imagine why I’d have to.

I also use Pages for shorter works — like short stories and essays — that don’t need the firepower Scrivener brings to the table.

notesuite_iconNoteSuite: One of the biggest problems I face is organizing notes, ideas, and research. Ideally, I need a system that allows me to enter my own notes as well as to quickly grab information from the web. It needs a hierarchical system of organization, good search, and support for rich text (since I often take notes with bold or italics and need to be able to paste them into Scrivener or Pages). Last but not least, to be truly indispensable, it needs to sync between my iMac, my iPad, and my iPhone.

NoteSuite comes closer than anything else I’ve tried. In fact, it’s so close that it’s frustrating. It has clients for the Mac and iPad. While there’s no iPhone client, it does have a feature whereby you can email notes to its database, so that’s a decent workaround. It supports RTF, has folders and a great search function.

Unfortunately, it feels only partly complete. Things that are bog-standard on other apps just don’t work properly. You can’t drag-and-drop notes into folders, for example — you have to use a clumsy assignment dialog box. No drag-and-drop for text, either. Selection of text is wonky, too.

And that great email-a-note-to-your-database feature? Well, it’s glitchy as all hell, and despite notesuite_windowrepeated attempts to get NoteSuite’s tech support to look into it, I’m no closer to a solution.

Still, it’s at least close to what I need, and moving all of my notes into another program seems daunting right now. So I’m sticking with NoteSuite for now, hoping that iOS 8 in the fall will encourage some developer to add a couple of the functions I need to a pre-existing app.

And if you know of an app that meets my requirements, let me know in the comments! I’ve spent a lot of time looking, but I can’t look everywhere.

Next time: Mobile hardware. Being an author in a coffee shop no longer requires a laptop.



  1. To be sure, Pages is also missing some features you might want, but Apple is pretty good about adding stuff in as time goes by…and I can’t think of a single missing feature that rises above the level of annoyance to the level of mission-killer.