Six Colors
Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Six Colors Staff

What We Use: Writing tools

By Dan Moren and Jason Snell

What I Use is a recurring column where we detail the tools we use to get something done, whether it’s make tea or write novels. This month, we cover writing tools.

Dan’s writing tools

Given that my primary job is as a writer, you probably won’t be surprised to find that I spend most of my days editing podcasts—whoops, I meant writing, of course.

But because I do so many different types of writing, I have a slew of different tools depending on the task at hand. When it comes to writing apps, we’re spoiled for choice on OS X (which remains where I do most of my work; I’ve yet to become an iOS convert in this regard).

For Six Colors, I actually write most of my posts in Red Sweater Software’s MarsEdit. (Full disclosure: developer Daniel Jalkut is a longtime friend.) I’ve used MarsEdit on and off for many years; back in my early days at the MacUser blog, it was our app of choice, but thanks to being incompatible with our content management system at Macworld, I drifted away from it for many years. But it works superbly with the Movable Type system that we use at Six Colors, and its handling of Markdown, the ability to easily preview what I’m writing, and support for the custom fields that we use make it an invaluable tool.

When it comes to my weekly Macworld column, I turn to trusty old BBEdit, which is the app in which I’ve written most of my work for Macworld over my long association with the publication. There’s probably no other tool that deserves the epithet “venerable” as much as Bare Bones Software’s text editor, which has been in continuous development since we had our first Bush administration. I’m sure Jason will wax rhapsodic about BBEdit’s many features, so I’ll leave it at the fact that I appreciate the app doesn’t get in my way when I just want to start putting down words.

Finally, there’s fiction writing. For a long time I wrote everything in big AppleWorks documents—ah, those were the days…sort of—but many years ago I switched to Literature & Latte’s Scrivener and I’ve never looked back. Scrivener’s one of those programs that seems to have bells upon whistles upon bells, and yet I scrape only a fraction of the surface. I like being able to organize my various chapters into separate documents, add easy inline comments, and occasionally set daily word count goals. My favorite feature has always been the ease with which Scrivener lets me export my work into any format, whether it be Microsoft Word, PDF, ePub, or even a Kindle-compatible ebook. An iOS version of Scrivener has long been in development, and when it eventually appears, it might be enough to convince me to do more writing on my iPad.

I also use a variety of ancillary apps for note-taking and planning. I’ve long jotted down my ideas in Simplenote, but more recently with the changes to Apple’s built-in Notes app, I’ve found myself relying on that instead. (I tried to become an Evernote convert for a while, but it just never really took.) I’ve done some plotting and diagramming in, weirdly enough, Keynote, which has just the right balance of great-looking tools and the kind of obsessive attention to detail that I enjoy fiddling around with when I should be working.

Honestly, I’ll write in pretty much any app I can find. (I still remember the white-on-blue aesthetic of the DOS word processor I used to type away in when I had to go to my dad’s work with him.) The important part isn’t the tools that you use, but getting the words down in the first place.

Jason’s writing tools

As Dan wrote, I’ve used BBEdit so long that I’ve probably waxed rhapsodically about it a dozen times. I use BBEdit for the bulk of the words I write, whether it’s for Six Colors or Macworld or iMore. It feels like home to me. I write using the Markdown mark-up language, and BBEdit’s got some tools that make that better, but I don’t use them too often. What I love most about BBEdit is its support for grep, or pattern-matching search and replace features. It takes some time to learn the syntax, though BBEdit’s manual contains a great primer, but my investment of learning grep has been paid back a hundredfold in saved time in massaging the text in documents.

When I write longer pieces, most notably novels (which I have fallen down on in recent years—I’m currently grinding slowly away at rewriting the third novel manuscript I wrote), I also rely on Scrivener. I tried a lot of different long-form writing apps back in the day, and Scrivener is the only one I didn’t abandon after a day or two. What I like most about it is that it’s both an outlining tool and a writing tool. Every item of my novel outline is itself a sub-document that contains the text of that chapter. Previously I was using BBEdit and OmniOutliner, and while that worked fine, Scrivener is better all around.

As I’ve written and discussed numerous times, I’m using the iPad for writing a whole lot more. Right now my writing tool of choice on iOS is 1Writer, a Markdown editor with support for Dropbox and iCloud Drive, HTML preview and export, and a JavaScript-based macro language. I will also occasionally write in Microsoft Word—gasp!—which is excellent on iOS. Right now I’m writing in Google Docs for iOS, because Dan and I collaborate on this newsletter. It was recently updated to support the iPad Pro, which is good, but it still doesn’t support Split View or enough keyboard shortcuts for me to enjoy using it. I use it only when absolutely necessary.

Finally, an admission. Sometimes I write short pieces for Six Colors in the web browser window. This is usually a mistake, because browsers aren’t very reliable and if you write in the browser you risk a catastrophic loss of your text. I obsessively type command-A, command-C when I’m writing in the browser, selecting all my text and copying it to the clipboard just in case of disaster. I really should stop. Don’t try this at home, kids.


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