Can Technology Improve Writer Productivity?

Originally Posted September 12, 2020 by Joe K.
Last Updated November 20, 2020

These days there’s an app for just about everything, and they go well beyond the realms of workplace productivity and mindless games. Calorie counting, matching screen lighting to natural lighting, meditation, and even limiting screen time usage have found their way into app form.

It stands to reason that authors can find a combination of tools to help them write better faster.

While practice and discipline have been my two personal best writing aids, I rely heavily upon various editing tools to supplement what I write in word processing programs. This has made my writing more accurate, beginning with the first draft, which means less time agonizing over revisions. I’ve also found tools that allow me to collaborate with other writers better, which has been fantastic for Beta Reading in particular.

No matter what your comfort level is with technology, there is a tool (or three or five) out there for you.

So, What’s the Best Program to Write a Book?

If you’re expecting me to say that you can drop an idea into a program and have it spit out a novel, you’ve watched Ex-Machina too many times.

There is no substitute for human creativity and consistently forcing yourself to sit down and crank out a few hundred words. Except, perhaps, a ghostwriter who forces themselves to sit down and crank out a novel on your behalf.

There isn’t a program out there to write your book for you. Most editing applications don’t automatically make the changes on your behalf because they are still far from perfect. I argue with my Grammarly plug-in over comma placement daily (I’d say one in fifty recommendations is questions, which is pretty darn good).

I know some programmers are convinced artificial intelligence will outpace humans in the creativity department. While it’s true that there is a formulaic aspect to every story—a.k.a. the hero’s journey or character arc at a minimum—I have to believe human creativity will always have its place.

Machine learning models are incredible at mathematical and procedural tasks, but they haven’t caught up to us yet in nuanced language skills.

Ad optimization and text swapping based on viewer persona for web-based content are ripe for an artificial intelligence takeover. Machines writing novels (or a gripping movie script) are harder for me to picture, despite developers claiming these feats will be realized within five years and improve what humans can produce. However, considering Hollywood’s insistence on recycling every movie at least three times, I can see them giving AI a go and the output being comparable (the bar is low).

Since the first attempts at novel writing went poorly, I’ll continue to hang onto hope that writers won’t become obsolete.

Apps vs. Software vs. Tools

Hang onto your hats. We’re going to get a bit technical.

Software is a mediator between a user and hardware. It’s a broad term that can mean anything in the realm of storing, organizing, or modifying computer data. It may or may not need user interaction. In other words, software can run on its own in the background, serving a function without us ever knowing about it.

An application is a package of functions that fits certain user requirements and serves a specific purpose. For example, Microsoft Word is a word processing application in the truest sense of the word. So is Plants vs. Zombies.

Applications are almost always software, but not all software is an application. The difference is whether or not a user interacts with the program to perform a specific set of tasks—this would be considered an application.

A tool tends to be focused on a single task. For example, a program that checks text against Chicago Manual Style grammar guidelines could be considered a tool. A stopwatch or a flashlight function on your phone are tools.

The truth is, these words are often used interchangeably, and the lines between them get blurry. For our purposes, we’ll refer to anything used for complex word processing tasks as “software” and programs that stick to a smaller range of functions, such as formatting text for eBook publication or a plug-in that reviews grammar, as “tools.”

Book Writing Software

As we mentioned before, “book writing software” will represent word processing documents in this article. They store text, format, spellcheck, offer light grammar edits, and can save files in multiple formats. This is where writers do the bulk of their writing and editing work.

Word

Microsoft Word is one of the most well-known word processing programs. It has been the industry standard in the publishing industry for ages, which forces writers to either work in Word or adopt a program that can reliably save documents to a Microsoft Word file type.

My chief issue with Word used to be that it was difficult to go through a revision process with the document. Sending a file back and forth created a document version hell that many of us have suffered through. One person’s latest version rarely, if ever, matched the other person’s latest version.

Office 365 has solved a lot of the clunkiness around team collaboration, making beta reading and the editing process much easier if everyone involved has the right type of account. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty solid.

The one residual gripe I have with Word is Mac compatibility. Some weird bugs persist around font and formatting when a file is opened, altered, and saved on a Mac versus the original PC version.

Google Documents

Google Documents is a free book writing software that has nearly all of the bells and whistles of Microsoft Word with the added benefit of being made for collaboration. Comments, revision tracking, and version control are all neatly packaged up in this program. Collaborators don’t need a Gmail account to access documents and revise them, which is a big plus.

Because Google Documents is cloud-based, it does require an internet connection (even with Offline mode, you’ll need to sync up with the cloud eventually). Many of us view this feature as a bonus. Hardware is more prone to failure than Google Drive, and I have thanked the stars for Google Documents after more than one epic hardware failure.

Documents over 20,000 characters can become sluggish, so you may need to break your novel into parts. Despite improvements, some formatting can be lost in translation when downloading a Google Document as a Word file. Depending on the editor you hire or are assigned via your publisher, you may be forced to work in both Google Documents and Microsoft Word.

Scrivener

Scrivener is adored by many writers for its writer-friendly features. This software allows you to create character biographies complete with photographs, write up scene features, and keep track of your scenes in an easy to read format. It makes plotting easier than a single, long-form word processing application, particularly if you don’t use the heading formatting features in Google Documents or Microsoft Word.

This application can be hard to learn, but YouTube offers many tutorials that will get you up to speed in no time. Just be sure to pay attention to when the YouTube video was published. Scrivener releases frequent updates, and some tips and tricks may be obsolete.

Once Scrivener is exported into another file format, it can be a nightmare to format. Not everything translates as expected. Their technical support team is great, and they’re responsive to feature requests—so this may not be a long term issue.

Like Google Documents, the odds are good you’ll still need to use Microsoft Word to work with an editor.

Open Office

Open Office is a free word processing tool that has nearly everything you’ll find in Word. As with the other book writing software listed in this summary, formats sometimes get lost in the Open Office to Word translation, and you’ll probably need access to a Word license to work with an editor. Change tracking and comments can be problematic when switching between the two programs.

There are a lot of other word processing options out there. Some are intentionally bare-boned to avoid any distractions, and others are made specifically for building a novel. Do your research and choose what works best for you.

Whatever application you choose, make sure that it converts into a Word document easily. Agents, publishers, and Kindle Direct Publishing (for your paperback if you’re going the self-publishing route) all require documents in the latest Word format.

Book Writing Tools

Book writing tools augment the work done by a word processor. Some of these tools are so robust that one can argue that they should be considered software, but we’ve classified them as “not word-processors” for this article's purpose.

Hemingway App

If you’re known for being overly loquacious or your writing trends to the very verbose, the Hemingway App is for you. The tool is fairly simple and focuses on making your writing concise. It includes a score for the reading grade level for your writing, passive voice indicators, and call outs when things veer toward the complex.

This book writing tool comes in handy if you have a direct character or receive feedback that your writing contains too much fluff.

AutoCrit

AutoCrit is one of the more robust book writing tools I’ve used. Loading a document and then running the summary report gives writers a quick overview of where they need to spend the most time revising their work. It reviews word choice, tense, homonyms, pacing, readability, grammar, and more.

Writers can select their genre to tailor feedback. The program evaluates pacing, word choice, and other factors against genre averages to give writers a score. That way, a literary fiction piece isn’t being held to the same standard as a cozy mystery. Different pacing and word choices are expected in each genre, and the tool adjusts accordingly.

This book writing tool does not automatically make revisions on your behalf. You’ll need to decide whether you enter the document and export it from AutoCrit (which risks formatting being stripped) or making the corrections in the source document. While this is clunky, it mirrors most other editing tools on this list.

AutoCrit is excellent for long fiction pieces, although it can take a long time to process anything over 25,000 words. You may need to process your novel in pieces. I recommend loading a chapter at a time and then loading the book into thirds to get a more comprehensive assessment of word repetition.

This tool is browser-based and will work on any laptop or PC.

ProWritingAid

ProWritingAid is similar to AutoCrit. Some authors favor one over the other, so read reviews comparing the two before making a purchase.

With this book writing tool, you’ll either upload or paste your document into a web browser and run a report to determine what to fix. Like AutoCrit, you’ll click through a variety of tabs and subtabs to uncover what specifically needs correcting. You’ll also need to decide whether you make changes directly online or in your source document.

I found AutoCrit more comprehensive and a little easier to use, although not everyone will share my opinion on the latter.

This tool is browser-based and will work on any laptop or PC.

Grammarly

Grammarly is like AutoCrit or ProWritingAid lite. You can’t choose genres to alter styles. You’ll get feedback using the Chicago Manual style, and that’s it. At this time, they can’t switch between style guides.

Grammarly’s Chrome extension is great. It works in various web tools such as Wix, Squarespace, or AuthorBuilder if you’re blogging, and Google Documents if you’re writing longer-form text. It will even check your emails as you’re drafting them in Gmail. It’s a light (and free) version of their more robust Premium application that is browser-based.

Grammarly is a great book writing tool for writers who don’t want to drive their editor up the wall but aren’t striving for near perfection before they work with an editor.

Grammarly Premium is browser-based and will work on any laptop or PC

Freedom

While most of the book writing tools mentioned up until this point have been writing aids, this tool offers writers who are prone to getting sucking into the social media spiral an enforced break. The tool locks you out of every application except those you deem necessary for writing.

If you develop a YouTube problem every time you open your word processing document, this is the tool for you. Use it on Androids, iPhones, Macs, or PCs.

Evernote

Many authors appreciate the note-taking abilities of Evernote. They keep their book ideas organized and build out character backstories and scenes that will never make it in their novel, so the ideas live somewhere.

Evernote is great for the author who has the best book ideas while trying to finish the novel with the deadline. Use it on Androids, iPhones, Macs, or PCs.

Milanote

If you thought Evernote sounded good, Milanote has visual capabilities for those of us who like to vision board our books. You can create characters and scenes with notes and photographs to further build out your story world.

Use it on Androids, iPhones, Macs, or PCs.

Vellum

This Mac-only program is one of the best ways to go when you need to format a book for publishing. Its sleek interface is easy to use and beautiful.

Thesaurus

For those of us who enjoy writing in groups because we can shout out a word and get a better replacement in return, the thesaurus website is a must have bookmark. Sometimes it’s perfectly appropriate to agonize over the proper word choice, and a good thesaurus is worth its weight in gold.

Finding the Write Combination

With all of the tools available to writers, there is a combination that will work for anyone. Decide whether your priority is the ease of use, collaboration, or special features (such as visual effects) and make your decision from there. The more comfortable you are writing, and the quicker you can check for errors, the more productive you will be.

Personally, Google Documents is where I enjoy writing. It allows me to share documents easily with friends and clients. The automatic backup makes it a no brainer with my ancient laptop.

I use the Grammarly Chrome extension for cursory grammar checks. I take the text from Google Docs and paste it into the Grammarly Premium application for a more thorough review. Then I download my edited Google Doc as a Word file. I use this process for anything from a blog post to a press release. I do this even when I work with an editor (who insists on using Word, by the way).

For novels, I use AutoCrit rather than Grammarly Premium before sending the Word document to my editor.

Taking these extra steps has cut my writing time in half. I hope you find a combination that does the same for you.

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