Most of my writing about technology, I reserve for my day job. Today, a break from tradition, wherein I run down the software tools I use as a writer for the curious. Read for flavor.
Well, sure. It's what I know and am comfortable with, having used it since the Windows 3.1 days, and over time it has grown cleaner, more refined, less obtrusive, and more downright useful to me. (If it's not your tool, that's fine, but don't assume everyone who uses it, prefers it, likes it even, is a dolt.) Best new feature: contextual search-and-replace, which makes fixups on long documents far easier than it used to be. It is one of the few commercial pieces of software I use on a regular basis, apart from Microsoft Windows itself.
This is not an app by itself, but rather an app delivery system, and a tremendous time- and energy-saver. PortableApps lets you manage many popular applications on your PC in a self-contained way. If you want to try out an app, you install it from the PA menu; if you don't like it, you can delete it from the menu, or simply remove the folder it was installed in. Nothing is left behind.
Aside from reducing the amount of clutter that ends up on your PC, it makes apps transportable. You can copy or move all the apps managed by PA by just copying the entire PA folder to another machine, or to a USB drive.
I use this to manage just about every application in this list from this point down, which is why I mention it here.
For those who find the idea of shelling out a tithe to Microsoft irksome, there's always this splendid product. The Suite Formerly Known As OpenOffice was used as the codebase for this far better managed project, and each successive revision is a little more polished, a little faster, a little less ornery. It still chokes on some of my really outsized files imported from Word, but anything created anew in it will work fine. The price ($0) is right.
At the extreme opposite end of the word processing spectrum is this ultra-minimal writing tool, which serves up just enough word processing power to let you get your ideas down, and allows little to get in your way. I like using it to scribble down quick bursts-of-inspiration type manuscripts, which I later move into Word for heavier-duty work. That said, those of you with a morbid terror of the blank page shouldn't even think about using this app.
People are finally getting at least halfway savvy about passwords and security, and I am happy to report there is no shortage of good solutions to those problems. KeePass is the one I've settled on — it's an open source password manager that runs cross-platform (phones and desktop alike), integrates with browsers by way of a plug-in, and has yet to let me down. It isn't as smooth and streamlined as commercial solutions like 1Password and LastPass, but it has the inherent advantage of not being controlled by any one person, or being a service that could go out of business tomorrow. Well worth the effort to make part of your workflow.
We don't live in an ASCII world, and we haven't lived in one for a long time. Unicode is the way to go, although one of the drawbacks of any QWERTY keyboard is lack of support for anything beyond the basic A to Z. Unichars fixes that by rebranding a key on your keyboard (you choose) as a "compose" key. Tap it and you can combine multiple characters to create the character you need — e.g., " and O to create Ö, or ' and a to create á. The program also serves as a way to assign macro functions to keystrokes, so things like commonly typed email addresses can be assigned to key combinations.
I still use Dropbox, but I've been gradually weaning myself of it and replacing it with this program. BitTorrent Sync lets you perform seamless peer-to-peer syncing of files and folders between devices. Nothing ever gets copied to a server in the cloud, and the only space limitations are the physical limits of the devices you're using. The smartphone version syncs photos back to your desktop automatically, a feature that might well be worth paying for.
It's hard to downplay how useful the Windows clipboard is, but it's also impossible to deny how limited it is. Ditto saves the last hundred items copied to the clipboard and lets you rotate between them, save them to a file (this option is superlatively useful for screenshots), and perform a whole host of other actions. Easily the single most useful desktop application I run, apart from Unichars.
I lied. Irfanview is the most useful desktop application I run, if only because it consistently proves itself up to any challenge I throw at it. It's an image viewer, converter, editor, and cataloger, and while there are other programs that do any one of those things far more slickly, Irfanview melds all those functions into one executable that loads at the speed of light and runs nearly as fast. I hate to call anything a "Swiss Army knife", but Irfanview comes as close to earning that label as anything you could cough up from Download.com.
Scribus is to desktop publishing and typesetting what LibreOffice is to word processing, a free package of near commercial-grade quality. I've used it to lay out the cover art for several of my books, although the quality of the results always depends on the expertise of the user.
If Irfanview is the Swiss Army knife, 7-ZIP is the Swiss Army can opener. It opens, and creates, archives of every imaginable kind, and is also a handy way to create self-extracting archives with maximal compression and minimal fuss.
Sometimes, all you need to do is edit text. The native Notepad app for Windows is a little too simple — it still doesn't support UNIX-style linebreaks, for instance — and so Notepad2 provides a fine way to fill in the gaps. It has that "just-enough" quality that I appreciate in a good tool — the feature set isn't huge, but is well-chosen, and the presence of a simple regular expression engine alone has gotten me most of the way home for some particularly tricky jobs.
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