Many authors use writing software for their work. Such programs come in various types and pricings, serving different purposes depending on the writer’s needs.
For example, fiction authors might use programs for narrative or character development, as nonfiction authors might use programs to help them create indexes or references. Both fiction and nonfiction authors use writing software to help them keep notes or structure their text.
And let’s not forget writers who mostly work with online texts, and might also use software designed to assist with SEO, keywords, or readability.
Unless you’re really old school and use a typewriter, at the most basic level virtually all of us use a computer and a word processor. This counts as writing software, even if we take it for granted.
But as with every tool, although it can greatly help you get the job done…
…it can also hurt you if you misuse it.
I’ve been there.
I’ve used all kinds of writing software, and it took me years to learn which ones can help my writing and which ones can harm it. As it often happens, I learned the lesson the hard way.
But you can learn from my mistakes, if you keep reading. I’ll show you the pitfalls of using writing programs and how to avoid them. Sneak preview: It’s about identifying why you need writing software.
From your humble word processor to complex commercial programs that keep track of plotlines, software is there to make your life easier.
In its simplest manifestation, a word processor such as LibreOffice Writer helps you write faster, for free, and makes editing much easier. Just imagine all the time, paper, and ink you would’ve needed with typewriters. Next time you copy and paste a simple sentence—let alone a paragraph or more—think how much harder it would’ve been with a typewriter.
More complex writing software also serves the same purpose of making your life easier. If you feel overwhelmed keeping track of ideas, notes, or structures in a simple text file, dedicated software helps you visualize such elements in a more productive manner. For example, think of the open-source tool Manuskript.
Higher up on the complexity scale, we have programs that help authors develop their narrative ideas or their characters, such as the free Android app Narrative Nods—which I have in fact coded myself. They can also be invaluable in saving time, as they can help you see a connection you hadn’t quite realized.
So far so good. Writing software can make your life easier by increasing your productivity and saving you time.
But there are also things writing software can’t do, and that’s where the dangers lurk.
Imagine you’re standing in front of a wall, ready to hang a painting on it. You’re holding the painting in one hand and a hammer in the other. You’re so close, and yet so far, because something is missing.
And since the nail is missing, the hammer is useless. You could as well be holding a toothbrush or an orange.
The same goes for writing software. The way a hammer is amazingly useful if you have a nail, writing software is awesome if you have the writing equivalent.
And that’s something to use with this piece of software on.
If you have something great to write, a full-fledged word processor will make it far easier compared to the lowly Notepad. But if you’re staring at a blank page with nothing to write, it makes no difference having the latest and greatest in word processor technology.
The same is true for every kind of writing software. What good would a character development program do if you have no idea about what characters you want to include in your story?
Of course, in reality things are never black or white. It’s much more likely that you will find yourself somewhere in between: having some ideas, somehow being able to progress with them, and wondering whether writing software can help you do it faster or more efficiently.
That’s where the real pitfalls are.
In my many years of writing and trying all kinds of writing software, I discovered something interesting. Every time I tried to delegate brain work to software, I ended up wasting time instead. The program never produced something I was happy with, so I had to scrap it and just do it manually.
I can’t tell you how many different programs I’ve used that were supposed to help me create plots for my novels. Every single time, I ended up just ideating the whole thing in my head, with some side notes in a simple text file.
And so, based on my personal experience—which could be a minority report, so to speak—writing software cannot replace a brain in overdrive. In other words, your brain will always be better. It’s only a matter of speed in organizing, accessing, and deploying the information related to your writing.
Therefore, to avoid the pitfalls of writing software, identify the reason you think you need writing software in the first place.
If, for instance, you have realized you need something to help you visualize your ideas—such as a mind map program—then you’re on the right track: You’ve identified the issue, and you know what you need in order to make what you already have a little bit easier and faster to use.
Here is another example: Let’s assume you have finished the first draft of a book on social issues. The thing is, it contains many different topics and thematic elements, and you’re not quite sure whether the balance between these elements is appropriate. A program that allows you to create color-coded tags, outlines, and structures and then see them all stacked next to each other could help you by making it easier and faster to understand this balance.
On the other hand, such software can’t tell you how to write something. Writing software is a tool meant for a specific job, just like a sledgehammer, a screwdriver, or a hairbrush. You wouldn’t use a hairbrush to fix your car, nor a screwdriver to brush your hair—I hope, at least—and the same goes for writing software.
I’ve likely used this metaphor before, but it’s too good not to repeat. Slash, the guitar god, sounds better with an expensive Les Paul guitar and a Marshall amplifier compared to a generic $100 set. But my not owning expensive gear is not the reason I don’t sound like Slash.
It’s the same with writing software. If you have something great to say with your texts, a carefully selected program, chosen specifically to improve your efficiency in a certain area, can really help you. Your writing will be more efficient with a good word processor than what it would be with Notepad.
Conversely, if you aren’t sure what you have to express, there isn’t a program to help you with that. You need to figure out that part first.
The key takeaway is to treat writing software as what it really is: a tool for a job.
Chris Angelis has a PhD in English literature from the University of Tampere. Besides his academic research in Gothic/horror & science fiction literature, he is also a writer of literary fiction, and the owner of a literature blog, Home For Fiction. Furthermore, he develops programs focusing on literature, writing, and texts in general. Chris is a senior content editor for Craft Your Content.