Litlets

January 21, 2011

Software for Writers Review: FocusWriter

The rising interest among writers in “distraction-free workspaces” is a bit of a fad and a delusion. Focus comes from the writer, not the software. However, I’ve long been looking for a stable, free text editor that provides a running word count and timed writing. FocusWriter fits the bill nicely.

FocusWriter is a free, open source word processing application, with versions available for Windows, Mac and Linux. I composed this review using the PortableApps version of FocusWriter for Windows. I have not reviewed the non-portable version, or the Mac or Linux versions. It’s possible the PortableApps version has more limitations than the others.

Pros:

  • Can save documents as text or Rich Text Format (RTF). While this isn’t a wide variety, these two formats are very portable.
  • Customizable menu bar, so you can include only the items you most often use.
  • Easy to create new themes (color and font schemes) for the interface.
  • Live document statistics avoid the necessity of running a word count anytime you want to know where you are.
  • Session management for working with groups of related documents.
  • Daily goals can be set for word count or writing time.
  • Spell checking included, and can be live or not.
  • Free and open source.

Cons:

  • Can open only text or RTF file types. Ability to import more file types would be handy.
  • I’d rather the menu bar and status bar not hide themselves. (Really, how much of a distraction is the menu bar? Do writers typically put off writing by playing with the “Save As” command?) I’d like to check my word count at a glance, without moving the mouse. I don’t see any way to change this in Preferences.
  • Project management would be a useful addition. Unless I’m missing something, a document must be open to be part of a session.
  • Theme creation is slightly unintuitive, in that “background” and “foreground” do not refer to the page and the text, but to the frame and the page. The terminology could be clearer.

Summary

FocusWriter is a simple but flexible tool, capable of being used either as a text editor or simple word processor. By design, it lacks the advanced capabilities of more sophisticated applications, but based on my initial experience with it, FocusWriter bids fair to become my tool of choice for slamming out a first draft — especially during NaNoWriMo.

February 16, 2009

Software for Writers Review: Q10 – Updated

Update:

  • The QuickText function is now working for me. I don’t know what I was doing wrong before.
  • Only timed writing has an audio cue. Wordcount-targeted writing has only visual cues.
  • I haven’t tried the spellchecker again. That’s a feature I’m too cocky to use very often, anyway.

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Introduction

Q10, a free, full-screen text editor, is similar in concept to TextRoom, which I previously reviewed. TextRoom, I found, has its share of problems. Q10 has a few shortcomings, but it easily wins any comparison with TextRoom.

Q10 is available at http://www.baara.com/q10/. I installed the PortableApp version on a thumb drive, and that’s the version I’m using to write this review.

Pros

  • The status bar (at the bottom of the screen) shows a running wordcount total.
  • Q10 includes modes for targeted writing, either by wordcount or by time limit.
  • Q10 saves files in a plain text format, so they can be opened by any text editor.
  • The background color, foreground color and fonts for both the work area and the status bar are configureable. (I’ve set mine to a blue background with white text, for nostalgia’s sake.)
  • You can set the character encoding to UTF-8 or ANSI, and you can set the line-endings to match your platform: Windows, UNIX or Mac.
  • Paragraphs beginning with two dots (..) are considered notes, and do not figure in the word count.
  • Q10 includes a QuickText feature for commonly-used words and phrases (but see below).
  • Q10 includes a spellchecker (but see below).
  • Autocorrection is included and customizable.
  • Q10 has a small footprint.
  • It’s free!

Cons

  • Although it’s free, it’s not Open Source.
  • Q10 is available only for Windows.
  • The documentation consists of one pop-up window listing keyboard shortcuts.
  • If you want audio cues when you reach your writing target, you have to put up with a typewriter sound effect. It would be nice if that sound effect could be disabled separately.
  • I haven’t been able to get the QuickText feature to work.
  • Running the spellchecker crashed the application (but only when I asked it to “change all”).

Summary

Q10 has pretty much everything I was hoping for in this type of text editor. Its defects, for me, are in the nature of annoyances. If it lacks many features of such applications as NoteTab or Notepad++, that’s by design. What it’s meant to do, it does well, a bit of bugginess aside. I expect to use Q10 quite a lot.

January 18, 2009

Software for Writers Review: StorYBook

StorYBook is free, open-source software for novelists. (Other writers too, supposedly, but I think that’s a stretch.)

There are novelists who outline their plots, write biographies of all their major characters, and create many maps, diagrams and charts before typing, “Chapter 1. Scubby Malone rubbed his unshaven chin…” StorYBook is for them. It is not for me.

If you want to write fiction in a more structured way than I do, this might be just what you’re looking for. It looks like it would be very good at organizing chronology, characters, settings and subplots (“strands”). I’m a geek, and I’ve created spreadsheets and templated documents to do that for me. Even so, it sometimes takes me a few minutes to find out how old the main character would be in 1977, for instance, or whether his mother was in rehab when he got beaten up after school. (Is it obvious I write comedies?)

StorYBook constrains narrative thought into a modular format, which could be good or bad, depending on the novel and the novelist. From my limited tinkering, it seems rigid. For instance, when creating a new scene, you have to specify a date. Even the requirement to specify a character’s gender might be an annoyance if you’re writing speculative fiction. Male/Female could be too many choices for the Aeeoia (who are sapient ameboids), too few for the Khekhlee (who need seven), and too fixed for the Aglogline (who switch genders every few years).

The pros and cons below are based on about forty-five minutes of testing, and when I say there’s no way to do X or Y in StorYBook, it could mean only that I didn’t find the way.

Pro:

  • Open Source and free (GPL license)
  • Cross-platform: works on Windows, Mac or Linux
  • Interface is relatively uncluttered
  • Organizes chronology, characters, locations and plot strands
  • Provides a variety of reports and views
  • Reports can be exported to various formats
  • Scenes can be imported from text files
  • Drag-and-drop to move scenes, add a character to a scene, etc.

Con:

  • Many parts of the interface are not immediately clear: the button icons are often enigmatic, and it’s not obvious up front how Projects, Parts, Strands, Chapters and Scenes all fit together
  • No local help: must be connected to the internet
  • No way to export a manuscript (only reports)
  • No way to import larger components than scenes
  • Too rigidly structured for some writing styles

December 6, 2008

Software for Writers Review: TextRoom

TextRoom 0.2.5 is, judging by the numbering, a beta version, and many of its shortcomings undoubtedly stem from that. According to the software’s wiki (http://code.google.com/p/textroom/), TextRoom is “simple open-source full-screen rich text editor for writers.” Basic formatting is enabled: font, font size, italic, underline and bold. TextRoom is available for Windows and Linux at http://code.google.com/p/textroom/downloads/list.

Cons:

  • The interface is unintuitive.
  • The help documentation consists of one pop-up window keyboard listing shortcuts. I cannot find any further documentation, either in the program itself or online.
  • There is no visual indication of selected text.
  • There seems to be no way to change the default document font; it must be changed for each document. Default foreground/background colors can be changed (I have mine set to a nostalgic blue background/white foreground scheme), and the default font for the status bar can be changed.
  • Formatting is glitchy. For example, I often have to press the prescribed keyboard shortcut twice to turn on bold, italic or underline.
  • Documents are saved in HTML 4 (strict) format, though the default extension is TXR. No other options are provided.
  • For the timed writing mode, it is not clear what units of time are being used. I tried setting it for “2” and starting the timed mode, but after three minutes I could not tell that anything had happened.
  • Saving documents has a bug that made me lose one version of this review because it was saved as an empty document.

Pros:

  • The statusbar (at the bottom of the screen) shows a running wordcount total.
  • There are modes for targeted writing, either by wordcount or by time limit, and a deadline feature.
  • One nice feature of the wiki is a list of alternatives to TextRoom.
  • The interface and feature set are deliberately kept simple so that writers, who are TextRoom’s target users, can focus on one thing: writing.

Overall impression:
I find two features of TextRoom useful: the running word count (something I would like to see standard in word processing software), and the targeted modes for writing exercises. However, the bug in saving documents is impossible for me to overlook, and I will not be using the current version of TextRoom. I will keep an eye on future releases, though.

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