Software for Writers by John Ravenscroft

You’re an inexperienced writer. You’ve got a great idea for a story. You’re excited, can’t wait to sit down and start writing.

But what’s your next step? Maybe you’ve never written a story before. How do you do it? Maybe you have, but you’re not sure how you’re going to get this particular idea out of your head and turn it into a living, breathing, fictional world full of wonderful characters that other people will want to read about.

Where can you get help?

Until recently you’d probably turn to one of the dozens of Craft books, take writing classes, or join a writer’s circle. All those options are still available, but these days – with the right software – you can also turn to your computer. There are a number of programs designed to help you convert your ideas into well-structured short stories or novels. I’ve been playing around with three of them: FirstAid for Writers, The New Novelist, and The Writer’s Software Companion.

“FirstAid for Writers is a writer’s version of 911.”

That’s what many American users of Sol Stein’s software program are saying. Here in the UK you’d better make that 999 – but the basic idea remains the same: in a writing emergency, FirstAid for Writers is a handy bit of kit you can turn to. The question is, what happens when you do?

Imagine you’ve written your first paragraph, but you’re not happy with it. Paste it into the program and you’re ready to start making improvements on-screen, right there and then. First, Stein shows you what other writers have done with opening paragraphs, and suggests you apply any insights gained to your own text.

Next, he asks you a series of searching questions about what you’ve written. If answering them reveals flaws – make the necessary changes. More examples of first paragraphs from writers like John Fowles and Vladimir Nabokov drive home notions such as resonance, setting, and character-construction. Finally comes advice on cutting out flab.

All that, just on your opening paragraph! If it isn’t better than it was when you started, you’re either blind to your own faults or you’re already a pro.

You get the same kind of in-depth help in over sixty different sections, covering areas like Characterisation, Flashbacks, Creating Tension, Show Don’t Tell. familiar stuff, I know, but for once it doesn’t come across like a mechanic’s instruction-manual. And because you’re applying it under professional guidance, and directly to your own text, it a) really starts to make sense, and b) brings immediate, save-it-and-print-it results.

In my opinion, FirstAid for Writers is worth buying. You can read more about it here:

The New Novelist has a different structure. It identifies five elements in the story-creation process and treats them as distinct stages in the process of writing a story. The order in which those five stages are presented is roughly from the most abstract to the most concrete: in the first stage you establish the Story Concept. This, the most abstract stage, determines the essence of the story.

Next, you choose the Category and Story Type. These choices establish a more concrete notion of the story’s moral basis, as well as its method and style. Here you choose whether it’s to be a Puzzle story, a Love story, an Internal Transformation story etc.

In the World Creation stage you begin the practical task of making notes about the major components of the story. You establish where the story takes place and who populates it.

Finally, you actually write the story, weaving the plot together as dictated by the story’s Category, Type and Components and following the 12 Story Creation Steps.

I found using this software interesting, although some of the guidance given is obvious and the various Steps within the program are too rigid for my tastes. It did, however, force me to think harder about the ‘pre-writing’ stages of story creation.

I discovered a couple of annoying bugs in the current version, and another user, David Rothwell, found several more. David has suggested a number of improvements that would make the program far more writer-friendly, and I hope they are incorporated into the next version.

For more information on The New Novelist and to view a Demo, visit:

The New Novelist is designed to walk you, step-by-step, through the process of writing your story. So, to a lesser extent, is FirstAid for Writers.

The Writer’s Software Companion takes a different approach.

At the heart of this program you’ll find sixty-seven excellent essays on the art of writing by Nancy Kress. She suggests ‘three primary motivational events’ that may cause a writer to turn to The Companion:

You’re writing and suddenly need help with the next step.

Your work has been critiqued and you need help resolving the problems noted by your critic.

You’re curious and want to discover more about the writing process.

So fire up the program and you’ll instantly find answers to specific questions, discover exercises to improve your skills, and be able to read examples of how other writers have tackled the problems you’re currently facing.

The Companion is divided into various sections: Beginnings, Middles and Ends – Characters – Dialogue and Plotting – Drama – Tension – Suspense – Exposition and Background – Getting Better – Literary Issues – Point of View – Prose – Publishing – Setting and Detail – Style and Tone.

Within each section there are a number of articles. Literary Issues, for example, includes Naming Your Story, Theme, Generating Story Ideas, Using Flashbacks and Motifs, and When to Break the Rules. Each article provides an in-depth discussion of the problem and the process – and there’s a particularly useful ‘Troubleshooting’ section that directs you instantly to the article you need if you’re having problems with (for example) Melodramatic Writing, or Poor Transitions, or Uncertain Point-of-View.

For more information about The Writer’s Software Companion, visit:

Happy Writing!

Copyright John Ravenscroft 2002

For more information about John please visit his website:

If you would like to send us an article, email:

Black Expressions 4 books for $2 plus free gift