Writers and Computers

Writers and Computers

Writing is not a high maintenance IT activity.  In the days when it required just a pencil and a lined A4 pad, it was probably the cheapest pastime ever and, even now in the computer age, it’s pretty inexpensive because we writers use home machines which we would probably have bought anyway.

I write novels, short stories and flash, plus occasional articles, but I do not intend to recommend any ‘novel writing applications’, or any other kind of so-called writers’ software.  The only applications I use for my writing are Microsoft Office (albeit the Professional version), Firefox, Dropbox and Evernote… and WordPress, of course. For years I have typed everything on to a series of cheap desktop computers and Dell laptops and, although I have recently acquired an iPad and a Samsung Galaxy smart phone, I could’ve managed without them very well.

What I Do Do…

I won’t bore you by writing about the obvious things.  Yes, I do have a firewall and antivirus installed, I bookmark my internet research in Favourites, I back up my work, and I remove my memory sticks and external hard drive ‘safely’.  Readers may also be fully aware of the very common-place tools below.  If so, fine… and, if you’re using them in other ways, and more efficiently, please let me know.

I Keep Hold of My External Floppy Disc Drive

Yes, really.  A lot of my stuff is stored on floppy discs.  When I insert my external floppy disc drive into a usb port and insert a floppy into it, I can read all my old stories.  (Gosh, did I really write such rubbish?)  But that external floppy drive is only good while our computers continue to have usb ports.  Storage devices have changed rapidly over the years and will continue to do so.  As the years go by, I expect to transfer all my files on to newer and different storage devices which haven’t been invented at the time of writing.

I Save Into Cloud Storage

Cloud storage – saving ordinary files on to the internet – is where it’s all at right now and, in the sort of quantities we writers need, it’s free – unlike memory sticks and external hard drives.  Some time ago I downloaded and installed Dropbox (https://www.dropbox.com/) on to my laptop, my iPad and my smart phone.  To save files into it, I double click the Dropbox icon on my desktop (instead of My Documents) and save in exactly the way as for a Windows file.  As it synchronises with all other devices on which Dropbox is installed and with the web version, I can also retrieve and update these files on other PCs via the internet, and view – but not edit – files on the iPad and smart phone – because I don’t have Microsoft Office installed on them.  (If I had a Windows tablet or phone, no problem.)  I can also use it to store data generated on the iPad (and smart phone files, if I could be bothered to write them using my phone keypad); this is a real bonus as these devices don’t support hardware storage.  I regard the cloud as another back up; if the hard drive on my laptop were to be wiped NOW, I would lose everything saved on to it, but I could pick up my Dropbox files – unharmed – on any other computer.


I Use Autocorrect To Type Using a Sort of Shorthand

I type in a sort of shorthand.  If my mc was called Esmeralda, inputting E-s-m-e-r-a-l-d-a every few minutes would drive me to distraction.  I would instead create an Autocorrect entry for EsmeraIda – something like esz – like this:

I’d click on Office button, then on Word Options (at the bottom of the Office button menu).  On the Word Options menu, I’d select Proofing then Autocorrect options.

I’d insert esz in the Replace window and Esmeralda in the With window (as shown), then click on Add and OK.  Now to use Autocorrect in my text:  I’d type esz and then tap the spacebar and – lo and behold – esz would transform itself into Esmeralda in my Word document.

Actually, rather than going round the houses through Office button and Word Options every time, I’d add Autocorrect to the Quick Access Toolbar (the toolbar at the very top of Word.

I’d left click on the arrow to the far right of the Quick Access Toolbar above.  I’d select  More Commands from the drop-down list, whereupon the Customise tab of the Word Options menu would appear:

I’d select All Commands (from Choose commands from window), and, having scrolled down a little, select AutoCorrect Options in the un-named menu below.  I’d click on Add and then on OK.  An Autocorrect icon would then appear in my Quick Access Toolbar.

I would also set up Autocorrect entries for Esmeralda’s and any other words I typed frequently, as well as contractions which I use all the time – words like he’ll (helll), she’ll (shelll), I’m (I’m), must’ve (mustve), should’ve (shouldve).  I avoid Autocorrect changing words when I don’t intend it by using letter combinations which don’t occur in English, such as triple letters.

I Use Find and Replace (In Word)… for Many Different Things

The Find and Replace buttons, at top right of your toolbar in Word, are two of the menu options everyone knows about (because they always used to be included in computer literacy classes when we used to have such things).  They have many uses in writing.

Change Names of Characters, Place Names and Other Words

If I change a character’s name, a place name or some other detail, I would type the old word in the Find what window and the new word in the Replace with window, then – if I was feeling brave – click on Replace All.

Find and Replace Menu in Word

For a simple name-change, I probably would click on Replace All, although I would take care to proofread carefully afterwards, for glitches, such as instances where I had mis-spelled Esmeralda, which Word would not pick up.  Some replacements are not so easy, though.  I once changed a young adult novel I had written in the third person to first person pov by applying Find and Replace one chapter at a time.  I had to change not just the mc’s name, but he, his, him, they and their; for this, I clicked on Find Next and Replace rather than Replace All.  Even though it occasionally brought up some unexpected and very funny results, I got quite good at it after twenty chapters!

Be aware that the Find and Replace menu can be extended by clicking on the More button, to search for whole words only and to match case, which prevents Word converting your replaced words into full capitals where the old word starts with an initial capital.  In fact, the Find and Replace menu has many, many options… providing hours of pleasure for geeks like me!

Edit Spacing After Full Stops

Being a Brit, two spaces after a full stop looks right to me, but American editors generally prefer one space.  To convert, type a full stop followed by two spaces in the Find what window and a full stop followed by one space in the Replace with window, then go through your text clicking on Find Next and Replace.

Find Reps

The Find and Replace button is helpful in checking for reps.  Selecting the Find button (on the toolbar), I type those words which I know are my downfall (such as Now) in the Find What window and click on Find Next.  I make changes where necessary on the main body of the text, then click on Find Next again.

Find Adverbs

It is also possible to use the Find button to seek out the dreaded adverbs by inputting ly in the Find What window and then selecting Find Next.  (I do click on the More button to ensure that the Find Whole Words Only box is unchecked first.)  Although in English most adverbs end in ly, there are still some that don’t, and unfortunately no method exists for dealing with these other than proof-reading.


I Calculate Word Count Using a Sum Function

I have, in the past, created a spreadsheet like the one in the example below, to calculate the running total for novels, chapter by chapter.  I input the word count for each chapter in appropriate cells.  At the bottom of that column, I type the function =sum(.  I drag my mouse up the column until I reach the cell containing the word count for Chapter 1, type ) and then press the enter key.  I would then see the total so far.

Spreadsheet on Excel for a Novel Word Count

(I must, however, point out that my novels do contain more than three chapters!)  I would use this spreadsheet again if I were writing a novel to a specific limit, but I stopped because chasing the word count became an obsession.  I was sacrificing good passages just to get a particular chapter ‘down’ to my self-imposed limit of two thousand.


The reason I installed Microsoft Office Professional (£299.99), not Microsoft Office Home and Business (£189.99), is Access, which is the industry standard for databases (apart from the custom-built ones in government departments and the NHS).  Although it’s more complex than other Microsoft applications, once you get the hang of it, it runs like a well-oiled machine.  Microsoft (and other organisations) offer many free Access tutorials on the internet… or, if you prefer, email me for the worksheets I give to my students.

Recording Submissions

My subs database contains six related tables (Mags, Stories, Comps, Submissions).  The Mags table includes my notes about particular mags, including minimum and maximum word lengths, and known literary preferences.  When I enter a new sub, Access stores and organises the new information together with all the old information.  I can view subs in date order and magazines in alphabetical order and query the database to find… amongst other things… acceptances and rejections, magazines requesting stories of specific word lengths, where a particular story (of mine) had been subbed to previously and which other stories (of mine) had been subbed to a particular mag.

If you would like a copy of my database to use to record your own subs, please email me.

Collecting and Organising Information about Novel Characters

I possess a flat (one table) database on which I have recorded important information about characters for my current (at the moment, stalled) novel.  Its fields include FirstName, Surname, AlternateSurname, AgeatJanuary1980 (when the novel was set), Haircolour, Eyecolour, likes and dislikes… and many other details about characters.  At times, this database has been invaluable – for instance, when, in the midst of a chapter, I need to check a character’s eye colour – but it’s difficult disciplining myself to break the flow of writing to enter these details.


The free note-taking app, Evernote, is the electronic version of a traditional writers’ notebook.  I use it to record anything interesting I happen to see.  Although I have it installed on my laptop, iPad and smart phone, I find myself inputting notes mostly on the smart phone keypad, as that goes everywhere with me, whereas the other two devices don’t.  Notes in Evernote on one device synchronise with all other devices on which I have installed Evernote, and through a web version, on any other computer.

Evernote allows me to organise information into folders and also to ‘tag’ it, so content is easily searchable.  The Web Clipper allows me to grab parts of web pages and Skitch to record information using annotations, shapes and sketches.  For information on how to download, install and use Evernote, go to http://evernote.com/  The Microsoft alternative, OneNote, is available on all versions of Microsoft Office, but Evernote is better.


6 thoughts on “Writers and Computers

  1. I couldn’t live without Autocorrect. Every time you have a new computer or have something done to the old one, the Autocorrect entries fall off, though.

  2. That was interesting and helpful. I’m a Mac person, so not all applied, and last year I started using InDesign for print preparation. I hadn’t thought to use Dropbox as a safety net. I use a memory stick for very important files and back up everything on a separate hard disc – but not often enough. I’ve never learned to type so two spaces after a full stop looks odd to me.

  3. Glad you found it helpful, Hilary. Anything you’d like to add about writing using a Mac?

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