A word about book writing software

For those who act on the need to dump words into something resembling a book, they’ll be pen-to-paper purists or the type that I am: write it all out on a computer. Certainly, there are other options, but why in the hell would anyone type out a book using Dropbox and a smartphone? What I want to talk about is the software needed to hold this collection of words, ideas, references and other miscellaneous information. While writing a recent book, I ran the gamut of different applications, platforms and approaches. I’ll tell you where I ended up.

And, ended up has too much finality to it; I don’t know what I’ll use next, but I’ll tell you where I am.

The genus of my book started as a simple outline in a text file. This file would grow day-by-day into something more, then into a title and two chapters, and then into a very large file of simple text (the first chapter is the largest). I knew I had something, but the feeling of actually being able to make a book was more than a dream.

For a while, I flirted with Markdown, and more specifically markdown with various different editors on macOS such as Ulysses. I started to structure each text file by chapters and built front and back matter, but the issue of making all this feel more cohesive was ever-present. I was also starting to see that formatting options did not align with actually outputting a book. Yes, I actually had enough text to think about really making something that looked like a book.

While still on macOS, my next attempt was iA Writer. This minimalist writing tool would still use Markdown but provided a distraction-free environment. I liked it, but I still yearned for something that would give me more power over formatting. What if I wanted to put fancy images at the front of a chapter? What about a table of contents anyway? I knew one Microsoft program could do this.

So I turned to the 300lb monster: Microsoft Word. The application is perhaps not as well-known for book writing, but some people swear by it as a tool. For a brief shining moment, I placed all my unformatted text into one of the many freely available Word templates that purport to give you book-level formatting. I swear I tried to make it work, but Word is, alas, not the right tool for this job. Don’t let anyone tell you differently. Stick to your reports and printed envelopes folks.

I’m really getting nowhere, I thought. it was time to get more serious. Around this time I had been switching to Windows and found that Literature and Latte were building feature-parity with Scrivener 3 on Windows and macOS platforms. During this, they were offering a freely available beta of the program. I jumped at the chance to a more serious book-writing tool (they also offer a 30-day trial of the program). And, wow, was I blown away. I could format things the way I wanted. All chapter images, or, rather images. The program supports a number of various publishing formats and really everything book-related. It took a bit to get up to speed on Scrivener’s approach to writing, but once I got the hang of it, I could export entire copies or just single chapters for beta readers. Publishing was a breeze.

So, that’s where I am now. Scrivener. If you’re looking to write a book, I’ll save you a few hours and say go straight to Scrivener and start there.