My ideal writing machine

by , under writing

Note that I’m not saying “The ideal writing machine”. This is what I want for my own writing.

I’m almost writing again after months of back-related brain-melt that made it hard to concentrate because my body claimed most of my mental CPU. This is a thought experiment to set up my perfect environment, thinking what features of a word processor would make it an ideal writing machine. For me. I write fiction (stories, novels and roleplaying writeups): non-fiction probably has other needs. If you-the-reader want other features, don’t hesitate to dream them up yourself!

For the record: at the moment I write in Kate and edit/format in LibreOffice.

1. Writing

Starting with a blank page, writing the opening sentence. Producing great swathes of wordage. Finishing a chapter, opening a new chapter. I want the first draft to look as plain as possible, that’s why I use a text editor rather than a word processor. It’s not the window decorations, I hardly see those. I’ve tried “writers’ editors” like FocusWriter, which hides the whole interface, but found out that it’s not distraction as such that keeps me from writing. (Also, I see that FocusWriter has an option to write on a textured background; now that would impede me. I want a plain white or, better still, almost-white background and black text.) In fact I can’t do without distraction– if I listen to people who say that distraction is bad and try to write on a machine that has only WordPerfect 4.2 and no games or internet connection, I either get a bad case of blank-page syndrome and lock up completely or find distraction elsewhere. I think I work best when I have something to push against, something to ignore wilfully. That’s why I can write in a cafe, or on a train, usually better than at home where there’s nothing to shut out (and also people who need me in the middle of a sentence, and things around me that beg to be done; it’s rude to shut people out when they need me, and things tend to nag so). As for games, I use mindless repetitive games as a thinking machine, much like thinking while cycling or swimming.

So, the interface doesn’t get in the way much as long as it doesn’t force me to do counterintuitive things. There’s not much in this phase that makes the process easier, though I can think of a few delicacies:

a. Word count

The ability to count the whole file, the whole chapter if the chapter isn’t a file of its own, the current session’s total. It would be nice to have a running word count in the status bar, perhaps resettable so I could count either the cumulative total or all the wordage from this moment, or from this line/heading.

b. Styles

Not only an editing issue. I’d like to be able to say “a heading is followed by FirstParagraph; FirstParagraph is a kind of paragraph; every paragraph is followed by RunningText”. Unless I say otherwise, of course: I want to have the power to put in subheadings (followed by FirstParagraph because they’re a kind of heading) and scene-break markers (followed by FirstParagraph because that’s the first paragraph of the next scene). I’d like to have invisible headings to give scenes a name. I might want span styles so I can style each character’s words with an invisible marking to make them stand out later on the edit, or I might not want those until the editing phase. Knowing myself, I’ll probably be too lazy to do any marking, but I want to be able to do it.

c. Spellchecking

I do emphatically not want spellchecking while typing. The wiggly red lines drive me crazy. I do want the writing machine to make a list of all the words it doesn’t know (“know” as in “find in the relevant aspell dictionary”) and where it found them, so I can go over the list later and tell it for each word “this is a word and it should be in the dictionary” or “no, spell it this way whenever you encounter it” or “this is a typo and I meant that” or “this is a proper name, put it on list A” or “this is a technical/setting-related term, put it on list B” or “this is a word in language X, add it to the X dictionary if it’s not in there already and use the X dictionary for all words I mark so”. Or even “ignore this word now/forever”, but I think the above catches most cases: it’s mostly foreign words, names and technical terms that I make spellcheckers ignore. I don’t want to have to do this while writing, but I do want to do it. Existing spellcheckers are good at “spell it this way now”, “spell it this way everywhere” and “this is a word and it should be in the dictionary” but not so good at proper names and technical or setting-related terms.

Grammar checking, on the other hand, is something I do with my brain, not with a machine. Humans are much better at that.

d. Annotation

I do most of my annotation while editing, but it’s a good thing to be able to annotate while writing too. That way, #CHECK THIS# or #NAME placeholders don’t stay in the text, well, forever, and checking facts or finding out a name doesn’t hold up the writing unless I want it to.

Roundup: what I want for writing first drafts, and perhaps for first-pass editing, is a draft mode. Minimal formatting –I want to be able to see the difference between headings and text, and between text and quotations, and between speech and thinking or telepathy. I’d like to be able to set my preferred font for writing –this is where FocusWriter fails, or at least the version I tried. At the moment I like DejaVu Sans to write large amounts of plain text in but that can change without notice. (Also, changing the font I’m writing in may help against writer’s block.) I don’t need fancy formatting, but if I want something nevertheless it’s okay if that’s a mouseclick or two away. I prefer to keep my hands on the keyboard as much as possible, so there should be configurable keyboard shortcuts or at least sensible defaults. I’m used to ^c for copy, ^x for cut, ^v for paste, Shift-arrows for select, things like that.

2. Editing

This is the messy phase of editing that entails moving whole chapters, ripping the text apart and littering the virtual cutting-floor with things that may or may not end up in a chapter again, calling Airath Moryn and Moryn Airath, preferably without having them both called Airath at some point and being unable to tell them apart, expunging a character without a trace, making two characters into one without letting her have the first one’s red hair in Chapter 3 and the other’s brown hair in Chapter 12.

The most important thing here is that I need to see what I’m doing. Annotations are good for that, and some kind of outlining tool though I am and have always been very bad at outlining. The relevant tools:

a. Outlining tools

The invisible headings for scenes come into their own now. If I haven’t added them while writing (and yes, I probably forgot most of the time) I can add them now and have them put on a list automatically. There might be a way to link this to a database and/or spreadsheet of people and their ages, places and their features.

b. Annotations

“This belongs in chapter 6 really”, “find out how long sheep are pregnant!” “the miller’s son should have flour on his clothes”. Pointers for research. Different annotations than the ones I made while writing the first draft, so ideally in a different category so I can find one sort or the other depending on what I’m doing. At a pinch a different colour will do too, preferably without having to change my own identity. The nicest place to have this type of annotations is in a (wide) margin, associated with a paragraph but floating free, as if I’m writing on a page of manuscript.

c. Consolidation

As I usually write each chapter in a document of its own –easier to stay focused, to keep my place– this is the phase in which I throw them all together. A master document, basically only a list of files that can be expanded to show the actual text of those files, is an excellent tool for that because the effect of putting a chapter in a different place is immediately visible. Also, it’s a way to keep front matter and appendices separate, but that’s a later phase. Editing one file inside the master document and saving it should give a choice of whether to update the original or to save it in a different file.

d. Connections

Typically the rough-editing phase is when I’m most interested in the exact details of who is where, when, with whom. I’d like a way to find all occurrences of a character (or anything else that’s easy to define) and mark them somehow, so I don’t have to do the same search over and over again. See (a) above: store the information somewhere.

Cross-references within the text, possibly references to other things (like a history text or a gazetteer). All of this is for the writer, not for the reader.

e. Styles

This is where I geek out about styles completely. Not all of it is related to the rough-editing phase but it has to go somewhere.

I’d like to switch from draft mode to something more formatted and back at this phase, in the master document and in the individual chapter documents, without having to import a set of styles on top of the previous set every time. If a mode doesn’t have a style that the other one does, just leave it unformatted or set it to some default and mark it, so I can fix it if I want.

The “draft mode”, “editing mode”, “presentation mode” and “submission mode” stylesheets have the same styles –with the same name– but a different appearance, like having different CSS for the same HTML for use on different platforms. Adding a style to one should give the opportunity (not the obligation) to also add it to the others.

I want a base type for every category of style; I’ve had enough trouble with styles based on other styles, all based on each other –sometimes cyclically– that I’ve given up on styles in a document more than once, or just gone with the defaults. Ideally, there’s some Platonic “heading” that all headings inherit from –not from each other!– and some Platonic “body text” that all body text inherits from, and when I change one heading from DejaVu to Lucida or from bold to bold-italic they don’t all go unless I tell it “global” or “change base type” or whatever. I can imagine a checkbox in the style editor to make it global or not. And I want to be able to save the Platonic stylesheet somewhere safe so I can start over when (not “if”) I mess it up. Note that the Platonic styles never appear in any document, they’re just there as archetypes.

I want my styles to know their place: what can come before and after them. A FirstParagraph follows a heading or a scene break, and it’s followed by RunningText (the default) or a scene break or a page/chapter break or a heading other than Heading 1, because Heading 1 can only follow a chapter break (well, or the beginning of the section or the document I suppose).

I’d like to be able to override all of this any time I like –perhaps even say I want to override it always– but when I’m typing or moving stuff around it should all fall into place if I’ve defined my styles properly.

3. Polishing

This is the phase where the text is more or less complete and in some semblance of the right order. It’s perfectly possible that Phase 2 and Phase 3 will alternate, even with bouts of Phase 1, but that’s all right, the tools should be able to cope with that. It’s where I act on my earlier annotations and add new ones like “blushing again?” and “check if he had long hair earlier” and “clunky!!” It’s where I choose between two correct but different spellings of a word and search-and-replace the one I didn’t choose. It’s where I decide that Airath (formerly Moryn) should be called Perain because everybody else and their dog’s name starts with A as well. It’s where I want to see all the dialog highlighting I did when I was blocked for a bit, to see if Perain (formerly Airath (formerly Moryn)) really talks so much. It’s where I’m starting to want beta readers, rather than alpha readers who get each chapter as it comes into being and help me work out the plot when it seems hopelessly stuck.

It’s hard to think of specific tools for this phase, but I can imagine a few:

a. Change tracking

If there’s change tracking at all, it was also useful in the previous phase, but now it’s about the details, tweaking. I know that I’m prone to tweaking back and forth so it’s sometimes good to see my earlier version and know that it was really better, without having to invent that particular wheel again.

b. Word count

Either to keep the thing within bounds, or to gloat about ruthless editing. In the latter case it’s nice to have something telling me “deleted X words, added Y words, net result of this session +Z/-Z words”. This is also a form of change tracking, I suppose.

c. Punctuation

Now, and not earlier, I want a function to tell me if I have started every sentence with a capital letter, ended every sentence with a full stop (or a question mark or an exclamation mark), typed a space after every full stop or equivalent, and closed all my quotes and parentheses.

4. Presentation

Now I have a file (master document with expanded contents, ideally) containing my novel or whatever else I’ve written. In the master document there’s room for front matter: title page, copyright notice, dedications, a really bad poem, whatever; and also for a cover picture, so I can make it into “what I want my ebook to look like” or “what I want to export for print on demand”.

The presentation-mode stylesheet should hide all annotations, invisible headings, cross-references and highlighting. It should protect widows and orphans, keep headings with the following paragraph, avoid starting a page with a scene break, and start chapters on a new page (and in the case of print, on a new right-hand page). It should have page numbers, and perhaps headers that change per chapter.

5. Submission

Perhaps, if and when I can get up the courage, I’ll submit to publishers again, though the landscape appears to have changed considerably since I was there last. This needs a different stylesheet again with whatever publishers or agents want by that time; perhaps a different one for every occasion.


    • Irina

      I’m playing with plume-creator now and I like it a lot — what there is of it, because it’s far from finished but the maker gives it to the world anyway, promising updates as soon as they’re ready. In fact it looks like he’s cooperating with Ken McConnell to make his ideal writing machine! Will blog, with screenshots, asap. Thanks for the pointer!


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