What I Use

November 11th, 2010 | daybook

I get asked this more than you’d think. A lot of people are under the impression that there’s a magic set of kit for being a writer, just as some people believe that there’s a degree you need to study for to become a writer. So, in the interests of having an URL to point to, here’s what I actually use to make words happen.

Computer 1 is a Lenovo Thinkpad X61 running Windows XP. It’s slowly dying, and I am either a) too cheap to buy myself a new machine or b) too terrified of having to load up a whole new machine. Pick one. I’ll very probably buy a new Thinkpad in the near future. This is the main machine that never leaves the desk.

Computer 2 is an Asus Eee netbook that lives in my bag.

Other Device is an iPhone 3GS. It lives in one inside pocket of my leather coat. In the other inside pocket is an old Nokia foldaway bluetooth keyboard. On the days when I don’t want to lug the netbook to the pub or wherever, I can still write short bursts of text or longish emails just with the kit in my pockets.

I use the Chrome browser on both computers, because it’s very fast and the browser syncs across both machines. That means that I always have my bookmarks regardless of the machine I’m on, which is important. Also, I always have single-button access to Google Reader (which also syncs to my iPhone via the Reeder app).

I write in OpenOffice, on both machines. It’s a bit clunky in places — adding page numbers should be a fuck of a lot easier — but it does the job just fine. I save all work in .rtf format: every word processor can read .rtf.

(If I’m writing film or tv, I work in Final Draft — industry standard, inextricably linked into workflow systems at a great many production houses and studios. If you want to, for example, tell a cable network to throw away their entire workflow structure because you think open source screenwriting software is cool, be my guest, but also be prepared to be called a twat.)

I often write rough drafts in Notepad, and then copy the text over into OpenOffice, which forces me to rewrite and polish.

I occasionally use Google Documents for short stuff on the fly, but I often find the word processing to be a bit herky-jerky.

I also work extensively in notebooks. I use Moleskines and Field Notes. I write with ultra fine point Sharpies, or good propelling pencils, or, sometimes, a Tuff-Writer pen I was given, because it’s actually a bloody nice pen. Be aware that I fetishise nicely designed goods, and the same results can be achieved with a Bic and a notebook bought for fifty pence from the Post Office.

And that’s really it. Which a lot of people express a sort of confused disappointment about: that there’s no special piece of software for making words happen. I don’t have a specialised template for writing comics. I write a couple of small macros for things like font changing or laying down the term (no dialogue). (I think it was Steve Gerber who taught me not to fear the macro.)

I mean, there are special pieces of software for making words happen, and friends of mine sing the praises of things like Scrivener. But I’m all for keeping it simple. The fewer things there are between my fingers hitting keys and words appearing on screen, the better it is for me.

Of course, the act of writing on a computer involves more than the software you use to write with.

Organising your other materials has importance. I use del.icio.us for storing most of my links, which regular readers know propagate back to this site as a dailyish collation. Project-specific links, and scans and snapshots, go into Evernote. Both services live as push-button operations on my browser, and I also have the desktop version of Evernote running to load local files into.

Back-ups. Oh, my god. Burning your stuff to CD or DVD is not good enough. Trust me on that. Things go wrong. Understand that Storage Will Always Fail. Always. I have a ruggedised, manly and capacious 32GB USB memory stick that can withstand fire, water, gunshots and the hairy arseteeth of Cthulhu itself — but my daughter decided she wanted to liberate one of my bags for her use, took the stick out of it and put it ’somewhere safe.’ It has never been seen again. Storage Will Always Fail.

Dropbox is your friend. 2GB of storage for free, a frankly superb little piece of software that syncs your stuff off into the cloud as easily and simply and clearly as possible. I know writers, artists and tv producers who swear by Dropbox, and so do I. I have Dropbox on both computers. If you have a smart phone of the iOS or Android type, you can also have an Dropbox instance on your phone, a fact that’s saved my arse more than once.

I also auto-sync Computer 1 hourly to Jungle Disk. Very cheap, very good. My media library lives on another storage service, Zumodrive, that lives both in the cloud and on my machine as a z:/ drive. (The Zumodrive application also lives on Computer 2.)

Also, I do all mail through Gmail. Which means that a copy of every document I send off lives in the Gmail cloud.

And every five minutes or so, a Western Digital 1TB MyBook copies everything on Computer 1’s desktop.

Paranoid? Yes. Covered? Yes.

I think that’s it.