While I’m being negative about the advice that some writers give: I also think some of the writers consulted are giving universal advice based on the experience of writing one or two books. I’ve written not just several books but several kinds of book, and in my judgment they all called for different approaches. In some cases I have sought feedback early, in some cases only late in the game. I’ve used different tools for collecting and organizing research. A model of research, and the organizing of one’s research, that works perfectly for one project might not work at all for another. I would counsel flexibility in these matters.

What other advice would I give?

1) Don’t shirk the planning. Make a detailed outline of how you think the book should go — then make another, different one. Then one more. Always be aware that there’s more than one way to tell the story you need to tell. Be ready to move things around; think in modular terms.

2) Thinking in modular terms also helps you to break down the task into manageable component parts. “Writing a book” sounds intimidating, but a book is just the collective product of many days of writing a few dozen, or a few hundred, words. Dividing the project up into chunks allows you to have achievable goals. And anyway, it’s only once you have made all the modules and thought about them for a while that you can see how they fit together.

3) Every writer says this, but that’s because it’s true: write every day, emphasizing quantity rather than quality. You have to be willing to write stuff that you know isn’t any good, because you know that once you have crappy stuff out there you can turn it into better stuff. So just write. Consider: if you write roughly a page a day, even taking vacations and weekends off, you’ll have around 300 pages at the end of a year.

4) I think it’s generally agreed, by Those Who Know, that one of the best tools ever created for writers is Scrivener. And indeed, Scrivener is awesome. But no software or hardware tool is going to write your book for you, so don’t get too emotionally invested in such things, and don’t expect more than an application can deliver. The more important thing is to make sure that, whatever tool you use, you know its capabilities inside and out. Intimate knowledge of your software enables you to get the most out of it.

I haven’t switched to Scrivener, though I admire it, largely because I am absolutely devoted to the text editor BBEdit, which allows me to create Projects from multiple files, do search-and-replace across multiple files, “fold” sections of text, view in split screens, and so on and so on. I know this app thoroughly, which makes my use of it pretty seamless — and that’s what you want from any writing tool: for it to be as invisible and impalpable as possible. So whatever tools you decide to use, stick with them until you know them very well; you’re better off with a flawed or limited instrument that you can make sing than with a super-fancy one that makes your fingers stumble.

Unless you’re using Microsoft Word, of course: nothing can salvage that.

Text Patterns

June 8, 2011


  1. thanks alan… Good tips! i'm the midst of moving from word (ugh) to scrivener, and so far so good… I must say however that co-authoring in scrivener seems more tricky when you work with word devotees


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