Friday, 4 July 2008

Software I use

Just occasionally I get asked various things about the technicalities of writing and what software I use. Unsurprisingly, I do the final editing of anything in Word, which seems to have become the universal format for documents. But for what it’s worth – and it isn’t a lot – let me tell you about a couple of favourites for writing.

The first of these is the flawed-but-when-it-works-absolutely-wonderful Dragon Naturally Speaking speech recognition program by Nuance software. Once you have trained the software, you put on the microphone and click the little icon on the desktop and then speak away. And after an initial pause your words start to appear on the screen with the barest minimum of delay. I’d say the accuracy is around 95%, maybe 98%. Or at least for me. I have a fairly deep voice and speak standard English: for higher frequency voices and people with pronounced accents I don’t know what the rate would be. But it gives me the ability to input text as fast as the best typist and allows me to keep going for several hours if I need to.

It is not perfect: for some obscure reason it really doesn’t like the word 'because'; it is resource intensive and for me only works well with 3 Gb of RAM and even here I try to close down most other background programs. But it’s the only way I can manage to do a blog at the end of a long and wearying week. One curiosity is that unlike dictating to a human, the most satisfactory results are to be had by speaking in a slow, deliberate, monotone. So if you are writing something thrilling you have to not reveal the excitement in your voice or the computer will get confused. Weird! Anyway I recommend it, but I’m hoping that the next version will be better.

A second software package is probably less well-known and one that I have only just acquired. It is a program called PageFour by the splendidly named Bad Wolf Software. Let me simply repeat how it describes itself: “PageFour is a tabbed word processor and outliner for creative writers. Where other word processors were designed with the business user in mind, PageFour aims to meet the needs of a different class of writer. It does not improve your prose or make you a better writer – only you can do that, but PageFour does make your job just that little bit easier.”

That’s pretty much it. It’s a fairly basic and pared down word processor coupled with a fine outlining/card file element. So if I’m writing a book and I want to access information on a place or a person I shift the mouse over a mini-directory in the corner and call up the relevant note. This database type of thing is of course something that Word manifestly fails to do. The PageFour program is not terribly expensive and if you’re thinking about writing a novel you could do far worse. There is a programme for the Mac called Scrivener which does pretty much the same thing, but in a slightly more stylish fashion. The problem is, these wonderful tools notwithstanding, at the end of the day you still have to get down and write.

Now a word of warning. Our elder son and his dear wife are due to have their first baby very soon. When the event happens we will head on up to see them, and as a result, dear reader, this blog may hang fire for several days. We have also got some holiday occurring at some point and – trusting soul that I am – I am not going to announce the dates on the blog. So over the next six weeks or so this blog may be slightly interrupted and posting your comments may be delayed. Never mind: all being well I will be back.

Have a good week.