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Tech for Writers

Following on yesterday’s post about the writing software I use, I wanted to say a bit more about how I use tech as a writer.  I understand that everyone is different in terms of their process and what they’re comfortable with–some people don’t touch a computer until after they’ve finished a first draft in long-hand or on a typewriter, while others dictate and then transcribe their first drafts.

My own setup is pretty platform-agnostic–most of the tools that I use regularly can be run on Windows, Mac, or Linux (which is good, since I use all of those)–but if I were forced to only use one platform for writing forevermore, I would go Linux.  I am probably a special case in this regard because, my profession, I’m a techie, but I think that Linux has a lot of advantages over Mac or Windows, with price (free) foremost among them.  You don’t need much to run Linux.  My first Linux machine was a 4-5 year old (at the time) laptop which took about five minutes to boot into Windows XP, but which was up and running a word processor within about a minute of my pressing the power button, and although that machine is no longer quite so sprightly, I’m sure that if I were to dust it off and load a fresh OS install onto it, it would serve adequately.

Rather than proselytize any particular software here, though, I want to leave this as more of a general discussion of tech for writers.  What do writers need from their technology?  I would say there are three essential categories: writing (environments), research (tools), and backup/recovery.  Beyond that, there’s also ambiance, both the look and feel of the tools that you’re using (the software as well as the machine itself) and any background noise you may want (I usually like to write with music on, and some people swear by having a movie or TV on in the background, though I can’t see how they wouldn’t just get distracted).

I’ve already talked about the text editors I use to make a first draft, so I’ll skip that and move on to research.

The internet is both a writer’s greatest friend and biggest enemy.  On the one hand, Google and Wikipedia can tell you just about anything you need to know, while on the other hand, social media (and endlessly following links on Wikipedia) can shut down productivity very effectively.  I’m also lumping note-taking applications and personal wikis into the research section.  Yes, putting those thoughts down is part of writing, but you’re often putting those thoughts down to flesh out the world of a story for yourself so you can refer to it later.  Often, if I’ve neglected work on a story for which I do have extensive notes or a wiki, reading through that information feels like the initial research I may have done.

Did I say I wasn’t going to proselytize any software earlier?  Yes?  Well, this is where I break that promise.  Backups are the most important thing any computer-user can do, but that goes doubly for writers.  The question of hard drive failure is never “if,” it’s “when.”  In the past, I was a firm believer in Dropbox, and I still am, but I like to keep my options open.  While I don’t think Dropbox or Google are going away any time soon, I like to keep a backup that I control, too–preferably in a different location than my primary device.  To that end, I’ve started using BitTorrent Sync, which you can think of as a personal, NSA-proof (or at least -resistant) version of Dropbox/Drive/Skydrive/Sugarsync/whatever-cloud-backup-provider-you-like.  To start with, you set up Sync on at least two devices that you control.  Once you have it installed, you can select any directories that you want to sync between those machines and generate a key for each one.  When you put that key into your other machine and select a destination folder, those folders will link up and then sync their contents (this is a two-way sync by default, allowing you, for instance, to merge music collections on two machines).  Setup-wise, it’s not quite as simple as something like Dropbox, but it doesn’t hold the same risks, either (there’s no centralized password that ne’er-do-wells can steal and then use to ruin your life by way of deleting all your data).  Of course backing up to an external hard drive is also a good idea.

In the end, I’m not going to try to tell you what to do–writing (any art, really) is very personal, and that extends to your setup–I just know that it’s easy to get stuck in a certain way of working simply because you haven’t experimented with other options.


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