Monday 3 August 2015

Three Ways Authors Can Get the Most Out of their Computers • Jonathan Emmett

I don't think I'd have made it as a professional author without a computer's help

A question children often ask me on school visits is “do you write with pen and paper or on a computer?”. I know there are some authors who swear by pen and paper, particularly for the first draft, and say that a computer would get between them and the story. For me it’s the other way around. I’m slightly dyslexic and doubt that I’d be able to make a living as a writer without a computer helping me to set down, shape and polish my stories.

I’ve just gone without my computer for a week, while a faulty hard-drive was replaced. This absence reminded me how much I’ve come to depend on my computer and prompted me to write this post.

Here are three ways authors can get the most out of their computers. My own computer is an Apple Mac, and I’ve included some detailed instructions for other Mac users, but these tips also apply to Windows PCs.

First and foremost …

1: Learn to touch-type

If you’re still pecking away at your keyboard with two fingers, you’re getting your ideas down on the page at a fraction of the rate you could be. Having been born in the dark ages, before computers were in every home, I taught myself to touch type on a mechanical typewriter using a Pitman typing book. These days, you can learn far more easily using typing-tutor software (you can find some recent reviews of some here. It’s never too late to learn. Touch-typing is an invaluable skill for anyone that uses a keyboard and I’ve never understood why it’s not routinely taught at an early age in UK schools.

Use ten not two! Touch typing is an invaluable skill for any author and it's never too late too learn.

2: Have your computer read aloud to you

It’s good practice for any writer to read their work aloud, but it’s essential for picture book authors as picture books are often read aloud to children by adults. Although I still read text aloud, I use my computer to do this most of the time. I'm not sure if this is linked to my dyslexia, but when I read something I've written aloud, my brain often glosses over errors and I read what I'd meant to type instead of what I've actually typed. However when I listen to the computer reading the same passage, the errors are immediately conspicuous.

Having your computer read aloud is particularly useful when writing rhyming texts. Reading aloud is the only way to check that a rhyming text scans well, but if you’ve written the text yourself, you will have preconceptions as to the rhythm of a line and which words need emphasis. Someone reading the text for the first time won't share these preconceptions so you want to make sure that a rhyming text will still read well without them. One way around this is to ask someone else to read your text back to you, but their patience may begin to wear thin if you keep asking them to re-read the same lines, with minor variations, again and again. And after a few readings they'll begin to develop preconceptions of their own. A computer has infinite patience and is incapable of forming such preconceptions. It will give consistently impartial readings with even rhythm and emphasis, putting in appropriate pauses for commas and other punctuation. Standard computer speech used to be very flat and American sounding, but has come on in leaps and bounds in recent years. Macs now come with a range of English Language voices pre-installed with yet more available as free downloads (go to System Preferences>Accessibility>Speech, click on "System Voice" and click on “customise” in the pull down menu to find them). You can find further instructions on how to use a Mac’s Text to Speech function here.

Macs can speak English in a variety of voices and accents, including Australian, Indian, Irish, Scottish and South African.

It’s worth taking the time to choose a voice you like and to adjust the speed. My favourite is “Serena”, who speaks with an English accent. You can use the player below to hear what she sounds like reading the opening lines of The Silver Serpent Cup. The software makes the occasional mistake, (its pronunciation of 'noisy' in the passage below is slightly out) and it can slip up with homonyms. However it can cope surprisingly well with made-up words and generally does a remarkably good job.
Today the town of Furryville’s a very noisy place,
Crammed with crowds of creatures getting ready for a race.
The air is filled with honking horns and engines revving up,
As racers take their places for THE SILVER SERPENT CUP.

3. Use software that suits the way you work

Most of the publishers I work with expect manuscripts to be sent to them as Microsoft Word files and when I first became a writer, I used to write directly into Word. However as the years have gone by, Word has become increasingly unwieldy to use, with half of its functions hidden away in a bewildering array of sub menus. There are now lots of cheaper applications available, some of which are far better suited to writing a book. About 9 years ago I started using Scrivener, an application designed specifically for authors. It provides a far cleaner, simpler interface than Word and allows authors to access and organise the myriad files, documents and web pages relating to their project through a single window instead of cluttering up the screen with half a dozen windows from various applications. And once you’ve finished a project, you can export it as a MS Word file to send to your publisher.

The Silver Serpent Cup in Scrivener. Scrivener allows you to open multiple text documents, pdfs, web pages and
images within a single application window. One of Ed Eaves' concept sketches is shown on the right.

I hope the tips above have proved useful. If you have any other computer tips for writers (perhaps you can tell Windows users how to get their computer reading aloud), please post them in the comments box below.

UPDATE 26 Sept 17 : Text to Speech Instructions and image for Tip 2 updated for Mac OS Sierra 

Jonathan Emmett's latest computer-assisted picture book is Fast and Furry Racers: The Silver Serpent Cup illustrated by Ed Eaves and published by Oxford University Press.

Find out more about Jonathan and his books at his Scribble Street web site or his blogYou can also follow Jonathan on facebook and twitter @scribblestreet.

See all of Jonathan's posts for Picture Book Den.


Jon Burgess Design said...

I would be lost without my computer that's for sure. I must try the reading aloud thing with the computer voice. The last time I tried it was years ago and it was very flat and dull (and American) However, I think I would get distracted by all the accents. Great fun though I bet! I love the music of accents.
I shall check out Scrivener as I hate Word with a passion, and am not crazy about Open Office. Though as my mac is an old mac pro running 10.5.8 (for complicated reasons) it probably won't run on my machine.
iPads are good to write on, I got a cheapish bluetooth keyboard and use an app called Writer, which is very basic and simple. It becomes like a small laptop. I put the iPad itself on a mini artists easel from an art shop online (£6) and away I go. . . sort of.

Julie Rowan-Zoch said...

I'm rather fond of slower two-fingered typing; more patience allows for a natural evolution of ideas for me, but then I'm aiming for a word count under 500! I'll be checking out the read-aloud suggestion for sure! Thanks.

Sandie said...

Thank you for sharing the wonderful tips. I have been using Word and I hate it. I hope Scrivener is writer friendly; hope to use it some day. I have been trained on a regular typewriter, so I know how to type. Again, thanks for the great share.

Jonathan Emmett said...

Scrivener requires 10.6 or above, so it might not be compatible with your Mac. The reading aloud thing is so useful to me, I started using it when the Mac's voice was still very flat and dull, but as I say in the post, that's no longer a problem.

By coincidence, author/illustrator Debbie Ridpath Ohi also published a blog post about computer-assisted writing on Monday ( and, like you, she likes to write on an iPad, because of its simplicity.

Moira Butterfield said...

Brilliant! Thank you so much. I have to admit that I type with one finger. One!!!! After decades. It's stupid (though I have to say I'm incredibly fast at one-fingered typing it isn't doing my hand any good). I'm going to take up your challenge to learn touch-typing. I've used Storyist, but not Scrivener, which sounds better. I'll give it a go I think.

Jonathan Emmett said...

Blimey, Moira, ONE finger! Given the number of books you've written, I imagine you'd be a strong contender for the highest published word per digit record. ;)

I hadn't heard of Storyist, but having just checked it out, I like the look of it. The fact that it works on iPhone and iPad as well as the Mac, seems like a big plus. Thanks for the recommendation.

Paeony Lewis said...

We were taught to touch type in the 6th form and used black manual typewriters - we developed strong little fingers! There was one electric typewriters and it was sooo exciting to be allowed to use this technological innovation! Right from when I left school the touch typing has been incredibly useful. Also, the RSA typewriting exams included how to lay out business letters, etc. Again, another useful skill.
However, although I tried to get my children to learn to touch type through fun software programs, they didn't have the inclination to persevere. I suspect touch typing is dying out, which is surprising.

Jonathan Emmett said...

Such a useful skill. I wish I'd been taught it at school, but they only taught the girls to type at my school, so I had to learn in my own time.

We bought a copy of "The Thumbs Typing Tutor" software and bribed our kids to learn to touch type over the summer holiday, just after each of them left primary school. We offered them prizes according to the words per minute they achieved by the end of the holiday. The faster they typed, the bigger the prize. It worked particularly well with my son, who won the top prize of a playstation game. It's just as well as his handwriting is terrible!

Paeony Lewis said...

The power of motivation - you have it sussed!

Helen Dineen said...

Really interesting article - I will definitely try the reading out loud idea as my husband gets tired of being asked to do it a lot! I've been using Word to date but interested by the other software out there too.

Jonathan Emmett said...

Thanks, Helen. The "Storyist" software that Moira recommended in the comments above also looks worth a try.

Unknown said...

I loved you article! I'm a geeky writer, and love Scrivener. Thank you for the great advice!