Writing Software and Tools


I’m having a heck of a time coming up with a post this week. So, here! Check out this Word Repetition Counter I made!

Screenshot that reads 'Word Repetition Counter. Do you use the same words over and over? Paste in some text and see which words you use the most.'

Click to see the actual tool!

Warning: I made it in JavaScript. I’m very new at JavaScript. If you break it, I won’t be surprised. Just tell me so I can fix it.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Paste in a part of your novel. (I usually do one chapter or scene at a time.)
  2. Click “See what words you use the most!”
  3. It’ll count how many times you use each word and put them in the “results” column. Click on each word to highlight it in the text.

Optionally, you can click “Remove Common Words” to remove words like the or a, or “Hide Words Only Used Once” to remove words you only used once, since… well, you’re obviously not using those words too many times, right?

How does this help?

It highlights specific words so you can see, visually, how often they appear and how close they are to each other.

Sometimes this is fine. Repetition isn’t always a problem. Sometimes the story is perfectly fine just the way it is, even if you used a somewhat distinct word seven times in 4,000 words.

Sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes you get stuck on a word and your character lurches five times on a page or absolutely everything in a room is brilliant. This kind of repetition can stand out if you use a word multiple times in a sentence, or in multiple consecutive sentences… but it can be harder to see if it’s spread out over a few paragraphs, or a page or two.

This tool is not pointing out “problems” that you need to “fix.” It’s just a tool to help identify when you might be getting stuck on a word.

Why did I make this?

When Justice Unending was being edited by Evernight Teen, this is something the editor did for me. Whenever I got stuck on a word–which was surprisingly often–she’d highlight every instance of it in MS Word.

And it was great! Sometimes I just didn’t see this stuff. “Her breath caught in her throat,” “she drew in a breath,” “her breath shook…” It all feels like I’m saying different things, until I use the word “breath” a dozen times in a 3,000-word chapter. Seeing it on paper, with color, helped me see when I was using a word a lot.

I don’t know what tool she used. (Maybe she did it manually. Ugh.) But I thought it was cool. And since I’ve been studying JavaScript, I decided to make my own program that did this automatically.

And here it is!

Tell me if you find it useful!

I really just made this so I could practice JavaScript. But if you use it, and if it’s useful, tell me! I’d love to know that something I made was useful.

And if you manage to break it, tell me.

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Let’s talk about Standard Manuscript Format!

(Wait, no! Come baaaaaack…)

OK, so it’s not the most exciting topic. But I was on Reddit’s r/Writing when I read a post where more than one person said it took them hours to format their manuscripts. And oh good golly, no! This might not take you five minutes, if you don’t know Word very well, but it’s fast. Super fast.

So let’s use Microsoft Word 2010 to put a story into Standard Manuscript Format. You can do this for novels and short stories.

Let’s get started!

What are we aiming for?

When we’re done, it’s going to look like this. If you’re confused at any step of this process, just try to duplicate this (or the first page of the Standard Manuscript Format link.)

SMF - Template.PNG

You’re going to:

  • Format the text of the story.
  • Create a title page that includes:
    • Your word count.
    • Your personal information.
    • Your title and byline.
  • Add a header to the top of every page.

Step #1: Double space your lines

  1. Select all of the text in your document (shortcut: Control+A).
  2. Go to the “Page Layout” tab.
  3. Hit the little box-with-an-arrow icon in the bottom right-hand corner of the “Paragraph” section.Screenshot of the Page Layout tab, showing the Paragraph section.
  4. Find the “Line Spacing” drop-down menu. Change it to “Double.”
  5. A screenshot of Word's Paragraph: Indents and Spacing tab.Hit “OK.”

Your text is now double-spaced. That’s 95% of the work right there. And while you’ve got all that text selected…

Step #2: Change the font

  1. Select all of the text in your document (shortcut: Control+A).
  2. Go to the “Home” tab.
  3. Change the font to Times New Roman. (Or Courier New, I guess. But Courier is gross.)
  4. Change the font size to 12pt.

SMF - Font

Now your font is standardized. That’s most of the work right there.

The next step is optional!

(Optional) Step #3: Change the italics to underlines

You only need to do this if you’re using Courier New font. And, as you can guess, I hate Courier, and very few places require it.

In novels, emphasis is usually shown with italics. But  Standard Manuscript Format suggests two different ways to handle emphasis: either with Times New Roman and italic font or Courier New and underlines.

The vast majority of places are perfectly fine with Times New Roman and italics. Check the submission guidelines of the place you’re submitting to. If they explicitly ask you to use underlines, follow the instructions in my previous post.

If they don’t mention it, skip this step.

Step #5: Check your margins

If you’ve never changed your margins, they’re probably fine. But let’s check.

  1. Click on the “Page Layout” tab.
  2. Hit the little box-with-an-arrow icon in the bottom right-hand corner of the “Page Setup” section.Screenshot of the Page Layout tab, showing the Page Setup section.
  3. Ensure that your Top, Bottom, Left, and Right margins are all set to 1″.
  4. Screenshot of the Page Setup section, showing all margins at 1".

    If they aren’t, set them to 1″. Then hit “OK.”

Step #6: Set up your title page

Now that your story is formatted, it’s time for the title page!

Step #6-A: Add your title and byline

  1. Put your cursor at the start of your file and hit return until you’re about 1/3 or 1/2 of the way down the page. It doesn’t have to be exact.
  2. Enter the title of this piece.
  3. On a new line, type: by YOUR NAME
  4. Select both of these lines.
  5. Center them (shortcut: Control+E).

Step #6-B: Add the word count

  1. Figure out how many words your story has. You can find this in two places:
    • Under the “Review” tab, in the far left (next to the Spelling button) is a small button with “ABC123” on it. That’s your word count button.SMF - Word Count 2
    • Word 2010 also keeps a running word count at the bottom of the file. You don’t have to open anything! Just look at the bottom of Word.SMF - Word Count
  2. At the top of the manuscript, add “#### words.”

Step #6-C: Add your name, address, phone number, and email address

One important note: Your personal information (and, by extension, your word count) are all SINGLE-SPACED. But you double-spaced this file back in step #1, right? Yeah. That’s why the last step in this section changes that.

  1. Put your cursor before your word count.
  2. Type in your name.
  3. After your name (but before the word count) hit tab until your word count is at the right edge of the page.
  4. On the next two (or so) lines, put your address in.
  5. On the next line, add your email address.
  6. On the next line, add your phone number.
  7. Select all of this new text.
  8. Go to the “Page Layout” tab.
  9. Hit the little box-with-an-arrow in the bottom right-hand corner of the “Paragraph” section.
  10. Find the “Line Spacing” drop-down menu. Change it to “Single.”

Step #7: Add a header

  1. Double click in the empty header area of your document. Word will open your header editor.
  2. Go to the “Insert” tab.
  3. Select “Page Number.”
  4. Choose Top of Page > Plain Number 3. This will add the page number to the top of your document, aligned right.Screenshot of the Insert tab and the Page Number section, showing Plain Number 3.
  5. Put your cursor in front of that page number.
  6. Type in your information: LAST NAME / NAME OF PIECE /

Now you’ll have a pretty header. It’ll appear on the top of all of your pages, complete with an accurate page number.

At this point, your story should look like the screenshot at the top of this page. You’re pretty much done! There’s just one last thing to do…

Step #8: Add the Ending

  1. Go to the last line of your story.
  2. On a new line, type: END
  3. Center it. (shortcut: Control:E)

Tada!

And, when in  doubt…

This probably looks like a lot of steps. And if you’re not super used to Microsoft Word, it might feel like a lot of work! But this is really, really easy.

If any of this IS confusing, just mimic the example at the top of this post or look at the Standard Manuscript Format guidelines.

Once you get the hang of it, this is fast! This is so easy, in fact, that I never write in Standard Manuscript Format. I find 10pt single-spaced Arial font to be soothing to look at, so that’s how I write my stories. I only format them when I’m done with them.

There are definitely a few other things you can standardize–this definitely isn’t everything. But most of the other stuff you can do is small, and it won’t get you into hot water. A manuscript that follows all of the above steps will be perfectly acceptable for submitting at most places.

Of course, that’s not a promise. This’ll work for most places. Most! Always check a place’s submission requirements before you submit! But for everything else? You’re done, and it only took you 5 minutes.

Way back in 2015, I wrote an article called “Fun Ways to Use Excel to Track Your Writing Process.” It’s been getting a lot of visits lately, so I thought it was time to do a new, improved, and updated version of it.

Let’s talk numbers! Writing numbers.

Tracking your daily word count is awesome.

I love knowing how much and how often I write.

Writing is so very, very slow. Sometimes the amount of work you’re doing is obvious–it’s pretty hard to not feel proud when you’re staring at 10 new chapters or 30,000 new words. But what about when you’re brainstorming, outlining, or editing? Or when you’re rewriting chapters? They can take tons of time, and most of it’s invisible. You could spend a whole season editing and come out feeling like you did absolutely nothing at all.

So I track my work. I keep track of every time I sit down at the computer, how many words I write, what kind of work I did, and how many hours I spent on it.

It sounds complicated, but it’s not. It takes me less than a minute. (Literally.) In exchange, I know:

  • How many words I wrote in a day, week, month, or year
  • How much time I spent doing writing-related tasks (and how much time was specifically spent writing, editing, or whatever.)
  • My average words per hour
  • The average amount of time it takes me to finish a novel or short story.

It’s fun. No, really! I promise!

So here’s what my current Excel tracker looks like.

If you checked out my 2015 post, you’ll notice that my current tracker’s a little different. let’s go through it!

Screenshot of an Excel spreadsheet with a month's worth of work recorded.

Click to see the full image. Yes, January was a lousy month for me.

It’s simple, but it works. Here’s what it tracks:

  1. Date: When I wrote.
  2. Title: The name of the piece.
  3. Chapter: I only use this field for novels. (It makes it easier to keep track of new and old word counts for the “Words Written” section.)
  4. Story Type: Short or Novel.
  5. Work Type: Can be anything. Usually this is writing, editing, or outlining. But I’ll talk more about that in a second.
  6. The “Words Written” Section: I enter the word count this piece or chapter had when I started (and “0” if it’s a new chapter or short story) and the number of words it had when I finished. Excel automatically calculates the number of new words.
  7. The “Time Spent” Section: This includes the time I started, the time I finished, and the number of minutes I spent writing. Excel automatically calculates my words per hour.

And I track everything. Absolutely everything.

I track everything I do that’s related to writing. Everything. I track:

  1. Writing
  2. Editing
  3. Outlining
  4. Worldbuilding (i.e., writing character profiles or theme files)
  5. Anything else I feel like tracking. For example, in January of this year, I logged a bunch of stuff under the super-unclear term “Analysis.” I was reading the first draft of my novel and taking notes about what to change. I wrote several thousand words of notes, so I recorded them.

If I’m working on my story, I track it. If I stop to outline a story for a couple of weeks, I’m not “doing nothing,” so I don’t record it as such. Everything counts. It’s all work, and it’s all helping me prepare to write a novel.

That’s great, but why do I do all this?

Let’s get one thing straight: I’m not doing this so I can stick to some arbitrary words-a-day habit. (Heck, I don’t even think “write 1,000 words a day” literally means “you must write 1,000 new story-related words a day.”) My goal is to know how often I work on my projects and to measure how much work I’m doing.

I know exactly how I’m using my writing time, when I’m being productive, and when I’m slacking off.

This is especially fun after you’ve done it for a year. I’ve been tracking my writing for nearly two years now, and I now know all sorts of stuff–how long I usually take to write a novel, for example, or when my biggest lulls in activity are.

I don’t know if I’ve ever made major decisions or changes based on this data, but it’s been invaluable in learning and refining my writing process.

Now that you’re (hopefully) convinced, I’d like to tell you about pivot tables!

COME BACK. I PROMISE IT’S INTERESTING.

Once you have all this cool data in Excel, its easy-peasy to make some cool tables that help you see your data. Here are some of the pivot tables I’ve used:

Number of Words by Month

Screenshot of my word tracker, showing the number of words written per month.

This fun one takes the number of new words I wrote, the type of content, and the type of story, and organizes them by month. This lets me see how much work I did each month and what kind of work it was.

Number of Words by Month and Title

Screenshot showing the number of words I wrote, by month and title.

This is similar to the above graph, but it organizes them by title. This way, I can see what projects I worked on each month and how much work I did for each.

Number of Words by Week

Screenshot of my word tracker showing the number of words produced by week.

And, of course, you don’t have to track anything by month. This is the same as the “number of words by month” graph, above, except it breaks it down by week.

There’s no limit to the type of data you can track and the ways you can display it. If you’re interested in learning more about how you write, give it a shot! You might learn something interesting about yourself.

If you’ve been writing anything for any period of time, you’ve probably heard about Scrivener, a piece of software for writers. And if you’ve never used it before, you’re probably wondering what the big deal is. Is it going to change your life? Is it a godsend that every author on earth would love to have? Do you neeeeeeeeeed it?

The answer is no.

Shoot. I should probably write more than that, huh?

I bought Scrivener a year ago, when the HYPE TRAIN finally caught up with me. And now that I’ve used it for a couple of projects, I have… ambivalent feelings for it.

But when I was wondering what to write about this morning, I got an email about an SCBWI Scrivener class, and Reddit’s /r/Writing (I know, I know…) upvoted a post about how Scrivener is on sale again. So I guess the universe wants me to talk about my experience with Scrivener!

Let’s do it!

What Does Scrivener Do, Exactly?

Scrivener is a writing tool. It lets you keep everything you need for a writing project in a single place. It has way more features than I can list, but let’s go through a few. You can:

  • Create a folder for each chapter and a file for each scene in your story.
  • Freely drag-and-drop those scenes wherever you want them.
  • Import files, images, and other resources and file them in your story reference files.
  • Use its Corkboard to create a notecard for every scene (or whatever) and move them around.
  • Use its Outliner mode to create outlines.
  • Enter a full-screen mode that blacks out everything else on your desktop.
  • Keep track of your daily word counts and your progress toward your final word count.
  • Export your novel, which combines all your chapters and scenes into one single manuscript.

So, yes. Scrivener does a lot of really cool things. And its long list of features–along with the fact that everyone seems to raaaaaave about it–made me think that this might be something that revolutionizes how I write.

So, did it?

All those fancy-pantsy features can actually be distracting.

Do you know what happened the first time I tried to use Scrivener to write a novel? I couldn’t focus.

  • All my worldbuilding files and notes were right there, staring at me. I know you want your files close at hand, so you can find them without searching, but mentally, they felt too close to me. They were right there. They felt like clutter. They felt like other things I could do and write and play with, which were right there. Staring at me. It was bizarrely distracting.
  • I used my outline to create an empty scene for every scene I wanted to do in the book, and every time I sat down I just wrote the next scene. I thought this would be extremely organized and efficient–I had the whole story planned out, right? I just had to fill it in! But seeing how many scenes I had until the end of the book was weirdly demoralizing.
  • And full-screen mode, while nice, is just different enough from Word to trigger something in my brain. Despite its many customization options, I couldn’t make it look exactly like Word, and the discrepancies tickled the back of my brain.

Could I have gotten used to all of this? Sure.

But I’m a really habit-driven person. Changing my habits makes me slower, more distracted, and less efficient. And writing in a different format, in a different program, made it considerably harder to write.

Changing the way you write content, take notes, and outline can be disruptive unless it really has a purpose.

This sounds really obvious. But it took me a surprisingly long time to realize that trying to use Scrivener was actually making me less productive.

It was different. It wasn’t unambiguously better than my current systems, it was just different. And that difference was distracting.

So I did some soul-searching. What was the most perfect, most ideal situation when I wanted to write? What felt like a really soothing, really productive setting?

A screenshot of an empty file in Word.

Yeahhh. That’s the stuff.

Yep.

That’s our dear friend Microsoft Word. It has its flaws, sure. But I’ve used it for years, and all my preferred fonts and formatting are pre-loaded into it. And, better yet, there are no distractions–no other folders full of content, no notes hovering in the edge of my vision. Nothing. Just a great, vast, gaping emptiness, waiting for words.

(“But hey! Word is an expensive piece of software, too!” you might cry. “Scrivener is actually cheaper!” This is true! But I’m not saying Word is better for everyone. I’m saying it’s better for me, because I’m used to it.)

In fact, I have a whole system of organizing my notes, outlines, and drafts:

  • Notes that I intend to reference a few times before deleting are written in Word and filed in the folders with my stories.
  • My outlines and files for the worldbuilding and characters are in a free Wiki at Wikidot.
  • If ideas come to me when I’m at work, I use Google Docs or email the ideas to myself.

This is familiar to me. And comfortable. And easy. And, like I said above, I’m used to it. And if I change these without an obvious reason–like some sort of “Holy fudge, this tool does XYZ thing so much better I can’t imagine living without it” moment–it’s jarring and uncomfortable.

And eventually, I realized I was just making things harder for myself for no reason at all. Word worked great for me. Why was I trying to force myself to write somewhere else?

I still use Scrivener for some things. Sometimes. I just don’t need to.

I do use Scrivener sometimes. Just not all the time.

When I write novels, I write in Word and organize my content so that there’s one chapter per Word file. So that part of Scrivener’s pretty useful–I can write all my content in Word, import it into Scrivener when it’s done, and use Scrivener to combine them into a final draft.

And Scrivener can be pretty nice for keeping your notes in one place. While I still use my Wiki, I do sometimes create a new project and store all my notes in it.

But none of this is life-changing. I could combine all my Word files into one giant novel file without Scrivener’s help. I can set up my Wiki so all my notes for one project are grouped together, too. Neither of these are really worth the $40 price tag. This is especially true when you realize that there are tools out there that can do the same thing. yWriter has some similar (but simpler) features, for example, and it’s free.

So, basically: Scrivener can sometimes be useful, but it didn’t change my life.

Basically, you definitely don’t need a $40 piece of software to write. Scrivener does a lot of things, and it’s good at a quite a lot of them. But if you’re agonizing over whether you need to buy some expensive software, don’t. It’s cool, but you don’t need it to write.

I mean, it has a free trial. Give it a shot. See if you like it. But you might not, and that’s fine, too.

And if you already have systems for writing, editing, outlining, and note-taking that work for you? You might not even need Scrivener–not if what you have is working for you.

I LOVE DATA.

I also love writing. Consequentially, I really wanted to find a way to better track my writing progress. I wanted more than the “X words out of XX,XXX” tickers that you see on message boards or the chapter-level or novel-level targets that Scrivener gave you. I wanted to map my work daily, showing exactly how much work I was doing and what kind of work it was. I wanted data that I could slice, dice, and display in different formats.

I might be a little nuts.

So I kept a record of everything I wrote all year. When I first started tracking my work, I recorded everything I did in a very simple Excel file. But last week, something happened. Something magical. Something wonderful.

I discovered pivot tables. And now I’m going to show you what I used them for.

(It gets more exciting in a moment, I promise.)

Step #1: Record Every Time You Do Anything Related to Writing

This is the only step that took any work. I logged an entry in Excel every time I did anything related to writing–so, basically, any time I wrote, edited, or outlined something.

I tracked everything. I didn’t just track words I wrote for stories. I tracked words I wrote for query letters, synopses, and outlines. Basically, if I was being productive and it was related to a story, I recorded it.

Here’s what my tracker looks like:

Screenshot showing what stories I worked on by day.
(January was a horrible month for me, but whatever. You can see what I’m tracking.)

It’s pretty simple. I track:

  • The Date: When I worked on anything writing-related.
  • The title of what I worked on.
  • The type of product. This can be a novel, short story, outline, query, or synopsis.
  • The total word count. This is automatically generated from the next two fields–“New Word Count” and “Original Word Count.” If I started a chapter or story from scratch and wrote 2,000 words, that “2,000” would go in the “New Word Count” and 0 would go in the “Original Word Count.” If I later picked up that piece and added 1,000 words, I’d have “3,000” (the new final word count) in “New Word Count” and 2,000 in the “Original”… Which would allow me to track how many words I added or removed that day.
  • The type of work. I use four categories here: writing, editing, outlining, and administrative (which I use for queries and synopses.)
  • The total words worked. This is a quirky and possibly not useful field. I hate it when I do a really good job editing, remove 10,000 words from a novel… And this file shows my monthly word count as -10,000 words. That’s what shows up in the “total” field. And, as you can tell from February 5, sometimes that looks nasty. So I made this silly field, the “total words worked” field. It’s a duplicate of the “total” field, except everything is a positive number.

Phew!

Step #2: Use that PivotTable Magic!

Everything else is done automatically. Using the data you’re tracking in step #1, you can ask Excel to create a whole slew of beautiful tables. Like this one!

Screenshot showing everything I worked on by month in 2015.

(Yes, these are my real numbers. Yes, I had an incredibly bad start to the year, including an abysmal April. It got better, though!)

This beautiful table shows exactly how many words I wrote each month, broken up by what I worked on. The only real quirk is that I didn’t track how many words I wrote during my outlining period between April and June, so my actual total is a lot higher than the zeroes you see there.

All I had to do was:

  1. Create a new tab in Excel.
  2. Go to Insert > PivotTable
  3. Put “Date” in the Row Labels.
  4. Put “Work Type” and “Story Type” (in that order) in the “Column Labels.”
  5. Put “Total” in the “Values” section.
  6. Click the little arrow next to “Total,” select “Value Field Settings,” and set “Summarize value field by” to “Sum.”
  7. By default, it displayed all this data broken up by individual days. To get the month-by-month view, right click any day, select “Group,” then make sure it’s grouped by “Months.”

That’s it! Now it shows all the words I wrote this year, organized by the type of work I did and the type of product I created.

I have a different tab that shows this same data broken down by week. It’s glorious!

Step #3: Experiment with Different Data Sets!

There are all kinds of ways to display data! How about month-by-month breakdown of what projects you worked on? That’s another fun one!

Screenshot showing what products I worked on every month vs. the number of words I produced.

Isn’t that awesome?!

So data is awesome. Awesome. I could graph this stuff. I could look at it a zillion different ways. I’m addicted to numbers.

But I also find these numbers soothing. It shows me that I’m getting work done. It helps me see, in a very easy-to-read format, just how productive I’ve been this year.

Also, it looks really cool. What more could you want?