Friday, 14 August 2015

Three Ways Authors Can Get the Most Out of their Computers

This post was originally published on Picture Book Den, a blog about picture books by picture book authors and illustrators.

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 find can 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 far more 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>Dictations and Speech>Text to Speech and click “customise” to find them). You can find 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 it’s 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.

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