360XQ Day 21: My failed flings with writing software

 Writing software should make a writer's life easier...right?

Writing software should make a writer's life easier...right?

I’ve tried, again and again, to find the perfect match. The one who can really hear my words and understand my struggles. It always leads to the same place: a broken heart, teary eyes, and an expired software license.

See, once I’m done writing my plays on paper, there are a lot of programs out there with which to type them up. Each option has strengths and weaknesses—and sure, it ultimately comes down to your personal preference. Sort of.

On the one hand, just use what works for you.

On the other hand, just because you’re used to one program, that doesn’t mean it’s your best option. Sometimes a couple hours learning a new method saves you hundreds of hours later on.

Currently, I am in the midst of overhauling my entire system, which I'll talk about soon.

Sometimes a couple hours learning a new method saves you hundreds of hours later on.

Today, however, I’d like to talk about my failed relationships. All the programs I no longer use, because for one reason or another, they drove me insane.

Final Draft

I’ve been told it’s the indispensable industry standard. I’ve been told that if you’re really going to write screenplays, this is the only option. I’ve been told that if you don’t use it, no one will take you seriously.

Lies. Lies. Lies.

The industry standard?

This is a snappy way of saying they have a monopoly. When a system becomes ubiquitous, and no one cares to rock the boat, a standard is set. The standard gets comfortable, fails to innovate, and ramps up its prices.

That can’t last forever.

Fortunately, with the rise of disruptive tech startups, we’re seeing more establishments challenged. If something can be done better, we should embrace that. We should encourage that. We all benefit from that.

The standard gets comfortable, fails to innovate, and ramps up its prices. That can’t last forever.

Some people love Final Draft. I don’t. I don’t find its interface helpful enough to justify its exorbitant price tag, and it’s cumbersome to customize to my liking.

And at the end of the day? It’s Word with a few shortcuts built in. Which brings us to…

Microsoft Word

Another gold standard, hm? Yeah. So was Internet Explorer.

In my opinion, Word is not intuitive in its interface or pleasant to use. More to our point, it’s not set up to write scripts for performance. Now, you can set it up to do so if you’d like…

Here’s my issue: it’s designed to be too flexible. It wants to be all things to all people. Which means, for a playwright, there’s all these menus and options that just get in the way.

The sushi problem

The writing software problem is like the sushi problem.

Where would you rather go for sushi? 1. A small, family-run restaurant with an impressive two-page menu, or 2. A giant chain that also serves hamburgers, pasta, and gumbo?

I’d go with #1.

The writing software problem is like the sushi problem.

Focus and specialization is a good thing. I get so distracted with programs like Word, trying to figure out how to format things for my very specific endgame, that I waste time and don’t focus on what matters most: the writing. The myriad options just muddle the quality of the one thing I'm here for.

(Also, again: overpriced.)

Other contenders

I experimented with Celtx, Montage, Apple’s Pages, and Scrivener. Some of these might work for you. They did not work for me.

There are various reasons why I finally had to break up with each one, which I’ll detail below. However, with the exception of Scrivener, it boils down to one glaring issue that they all have in common.

Focus and specialization is a good thing.

Celtx

A solid (and free) screenwriting and film-planning machine that was invaluable in grad school. It has a lot of great tools for managing the shooting and production of your film, including collaboration abilities.

That said, I found it less than optimal for stage plays. Also, I don’t make use of all its tools, because I’m just focused on writing. 

Montage

Montage seemed like a great option, as it offered a lot of the same bells as Final Draft, including the ability to import and export in FD format, but at a fraction of the price.

Finally, I also found this to be too complicated for my tastes. Plus, there was no mobile or cross-platform support.

Apple Pages

I rocked this for a while, and here’s why:

  1. It came free with my Mac.
  2. It’s available on iPad, iPhone, and on the web. I could use it anywhere, and it synced perfectly.
  3. I was able to create preset styles, with keyboard shortcuts, to fairly quickly and somewhat easily craft a play that looks exactly the way I want.

I had a lot of control. Still, it has the same problem as Word. It’s a word processor. It’s not designed for writing plays. I can’t, for instance, easily break down my play into scenes. It was serviceable, but not ideal.

But then came the biggest problem of all. The problem inherent in every single one of these programs. The problem that sank the boat.

The deathblow: proprietary file formats

Each of these programs uses its own special type of file. Which means that if I want to use a different program, it probably means hours and hours of copying, pasting, and re-formatting every word of every script.

In my case, I wasn’t even trying to switch programs. I was okay with using Pages. That is, until they updated it. The update rendered all my old files worthless. I couldn’t open them.

It’s a word processor. It’s not designed for writing plays.

I was able to find a work-around where I used a very old version of Pages that I could open the files with.

Then? I used another, slightly-less-old version, to open those files.

Then? I could finally import them into the latest version. But the formatting got screwed up. And I’d wasted hours. And if I hadn’t had the older programs? My files would have been completely dead.

After this, I decided it was time for a change.

I thought: why can’t there be a universal format I can use? Why can’t I avoid dependency on one writing program (that could become totally extinct)? Why can’t I find a simpler system with more flexibility? Why doesn’t this exist?

Well. Now, I have found, it does. It exists.

Next up

I’ll review the new approach I’m using to type and format my plays. And why you should consider it, too.

Wait, what about Scrivener?

Okay, honestly, this is an impressive program. It’s a powerhouse with many options, and has a lot of import/export abilities.

For me, I just found it overwhelming. I wanted something simpler. You might disagree. You might love Scrivener.

But you know what they say: you don’t choose who you love. You can choose, however, to have really long-winded opinions about writing software and put it on your blog.

UncategorizedChad Eschman