Another Review (Notes… part deux)

I’ve recently discovered Markdown and it looks quite handy – a simple markup language that produces formatted text that can be exported to HTML and PDF without further conversion. It’s an attractive idea but I couldn’t see any way I needed to use it, since I’ve already got at least a dozen fully-featured text editors for producing both web pages and PDFs. Just possibly I could use it to write an extremely simple web page, but that was about it.
However, my search for a note-taking application (see last post) turned up WriteMonkey.This is an extremely simple, barebones writing program, and you can use Markdown in it. (You don’t have to, you can write in plain text if you want to, but then why use WM in the first place?) According to the testimonials, many writers use it; the main point of using Markdown for writing lengthy text that needs some formatting – novels, stories etc – is that you can format text as you write instead of breaking off to highlight a word or sentence, search the task bar for the right button, and click on the button. In other words, your writing flow isn’t interrupted.
I’ve had Scrivener for a couple of years, attempting to write a book. In many ways it’s a good program for writing, with lots of useful features. However, for me there are just too many features, with a hard-to-navigate interface. Lots of professional writers swear by it and it’s clearly hugely useful for them, but it’s just too cumbersome for me and I simply can’t get the hang of it – I’m forever stopping to try to find some bit of text or information that I put on the corkboard somewhere. And of course, there’s the formatting faff. So WriteMonkey’s “zenware” approach has me hooked.
My initial experience with it wasn’t positive – it opened with a full-screen blank splash page that had a grey background that appeared on my screen as an eye-aching flicker. The task bar was almost empty, with things like Preferences, Save and so on nowhere to be seen. After a lot of fruitless searching, I’d almost decided to give up on it, when an accidental right-click on the page bought up a long list of options. All part of WM’s minimalist approach, but it would have been helpful to have been told about it somewhere in the documentation! However once I’d found that, I quickly customised things (getting rid of that migraine-inducing splash screen was first) and started playing.
The basic program is free and is perfectly adequate for a writing project. If you want more flexibility, there are a number of plugins – all available for a single one-time donation – that add a spellchecker, search, thesaurus, extra export options and several Scrivener-like features, particularly a ‘board’ where where you can store odd bits of text, graphics or information to be used in your project. The difference with Scrivener is that you can choose which features to install, and they don’t complicate the interface – you can just get on with writing your brilliant prose! If you want, you can go full-screen and have a page completely clear of visual distraction; if your preferred writing style is the ‘straight-from-the-brain-to-the-keyboard’ sort, you can disable the Delete, Backspace, Copy and Paste commands; you can minimise, or even do away with, using the mouse with a huge number of keyboard shortcuts; the story files are saved as .txt format so that they can be opened in any text editor. Finally, it’s very small and can be installed on a USB key.
All that means that WriteMonkey gets the thumbs-up from me.
PS – it’s a Windows-only program. Sorry all you Macheads and Linuxers!