My Tools and Programs, 2020
Posted on January 20, 2020 Posted by John Scalzi 37 Comments
Over on Twitter this morning I was watching people discuss the pros and cons of various writing tools, which reminds me that it’s been a while since I’ve discussed which tools I use to work, and do work-adjacent things, these days. So in case anyone is interested, here is my list of current tools and programs here in 2020. Several of them are the same as they were the last time I did a piece like this, but a few are new and I may have some additional thoughts on the old stuff.
Please note that this is a “this is what I use” piece, not a “this is what you should use” piece, or, alternately, a “this is what I use and if you use something else, you suck” piece. Everyone has their own process and life, and for that process and life will find tools and programs that work for them. These are mine.
Desktop: I have a 2018 Corsair One, which sports specs that were top of the line roughly two years ago in terms of CPU, GPU, RAM and storage. This means that it’s still more than capable for the things I use it for, which are, in no particular order: writing, photo and multimedia editing and processing, consuming and generating social media, and playing video games. It’s complemented by an Asus 27-inch 4k monitor, a 10TB archive drive, a Razer mechanical keyboard and a Logitech MX Vertical mouse that lets my hand rest in a position that does not actively encourage RSI. This is my primary workhorse computer, as were its predecessor desktops — nearly all my novels and novellas primarily get done at my desk, as well as most other work I do when I’m at home.
Laptops: I currently use two, and their use depends on what I need. If I’ll need to use full-powered Microsoft or Adobe programs while I’m traveling (which is the case when I’m writing/editing, or am traveling with my dSLR camera or need to do other multimedia stuff), I have a 2019 Dell XPS 13, with an i7 processor, lots of RAM, 4k screen and so on. If I don’t need those things, I have a 2017 Google Pixelbook, again fully specced. Of the two laptops, the Pixelbook is my favorite — I think in general it may be my favorite laptop ever and close to the platonic ideal of a laptop — and 90% of the time it’s sufficient when I travel. But for that other 10%, there’s the Dell.
Phone: I have a 2019 Pixel 4 with 6GB RAM and 128GB storage space, both of which are more than sufficient for how I use the phone. This is my third Pixel phone, which I buy for two reasons: One, the phenomenal camera tech, and two, because as Google’s own phone, it gets all the Android OS updates first and most consistently, and Google also debuts all their innovations here first, some of which (call screening and audio transcription) are pretty close to revelatory. Also, did I mention the camera? The knock on the Pixel 4 is the battery is relatively small, but for how I live and work (i.e., never that far away from a charging station), it’s not really a problem, and I have a credit card-sized external battery that I take with me to sooth my range anxiety. So far I rarely have to use it.
Microsoft Word: Microsoft Word is the industry standard for documents and editing, so as a professional writer it makes sense to use it — and also, for how I write long-form (novels and novellas), it’s the most congenial program for me. I typically write novels and novellas into a single large document, because that’s how my brain works and because that’s how it will eventually be sent in (and then returned to me for copyediting), and Word is really good at handling large documents. Also, I’ve been using some iteration of Word for close to three decades now, so by this time I’m very familiar with how it works, and familiarity is a thing. Finally, on my 27-inch monitor, I can set Word up to display multiple pages of a document at once, and I find it super-helpful for my writing and editing processes to see a document three pages across.
I have Word through a subscription to Office 365, which I am a little ambivalent about — I rarely use the other aspects of Office, and I’m not a huge fan of now subscribing to a program I used to own outright. But in the real world, I like Word being constantly current and updated, and I like the fact that it now saves seamlessly into Microsoft’s cloud service (I also save to a local document at the end of each work session). And on those rare occasions when I do need Excel or Powerpoint, I have them, which is nice. I’m not in love with Word’s online and Android app iterations, since they either lack or make very hard to use some basic formatting stuff that I absolutely do need to use, and are generally laggy and suck. I use those iterations only when I have no other choice (this is one reason I have the XPS 13), and only for documents where I already have the formatting baked in and I need to make only minor changes.
Google Docs: Google Docs is my go-to word processing program for shorter pieces: Short stories up to 20,000 words or so, and most non-fiction work that isn’t going into the blog. The basic formatting tools are similar to what I get on Word, and some minor but occasionally useful stuff it actually does better (for example, voice entry, which I use rarely but appreciate it working well when I do). Its integration with Google Drive is stellar, and its offline saving is much improved from where it started as well. I literally never worry about losing a document when I use Google Docs.
The knock against Google Docs is simply that it doesn’t handle large documents well, and really never has — my experience has been that once you get over 20,000 words, the programs hangs and stutters and basically wants to know why you’re making its life miserable. I’ve been using Google Docs in its various iterations for a dozen years now, and it’s never handled large documents well, and at this point I’ve just accepted that it never will. This is why I will probably never abandon Word (and also because Docs doesn’t let me do that “multiple pages on my monitor” thing, which again I find super helpful for longer documents). But again, for casual writing and short pieces? I prefer it over Word.
WordPress: What I use to write on the blog (hello!), and for that sort of writing, it’s very easy to use, with a mostly consistent UI and feel. I wouldn’t use it as a primary word processor (I tried it once, when I was writing The Human Division, and… yeah, not great), but WordPress is the gold standard for producing blog writing. I’m very comfortable with it and its capabilities; writing in it doesn’t feel cramped in the way that other blog/social media UI does. I friggin’ hate writing anything more than a couple of sentences on Facebook, for example; its interface actively encourages writing poorly and in an ill-considered manner. Ugh. So, yes, WordPress: Great for writing online when your want your writing to show that you think, rather than merely react.
Adobe Reader: This is what I use to check page proofs (i.e., the documents that show my manuscripts once they’ve been laid out and formatted into book form), or have forms I need to fill out, or occasionally contracts to sign. I also occasionally get books sent to me in pdf format to read (mostly for blurbing) and this is what I’ll use to look at them. I don’t think Reader is great; the UI is a little fiddly and unhelpful. But it’s the industry standard, so, meh, whaddya gonna do.
Fade In: I don’t often write in screenplay format, but when I do? This is what I use, because it’s simple to use and is more esthetically pleasing to me than Final Draft, which is the industry standard program (it’s cheaper, too). That said, inasmuch as Final Draft is the industry standard, I have that around, too, for when I need it.
Nikon d750: This is the camera I use when I want to take formal portraits or get real detail, either up close or from a distance. I have a couple of different lenses but tend to stick with the Nikkor 28mm-300mm lens (f/3.5 – 5.0) I have because it pretty much does everything. I also tend to keep everything in auto, because the camera is actually smart about lighting and shutter speed, and because, inasmuch as I shoot in RAW format and then work on the photos in Photoshop, I mostly tweak lighting and other things there. I also tend to shoot with available light rather than flash. The d750 is a more than capable machine, but I suspect mine is coming to the end of its natural life, since I’m experiencing a few physical glitches and hangups recently. I already have my eye on what I’ll get to replace it. No, I won’t tell you. I’ll let it be a surprise. Until then, however, I can say I have gotten real value out of the d750. It’s been a very good camera for me.
Pixel 4: The Pixel line of phones have been lauded for their photo-taking abilities, and in my experience, justly so. For casual shooting, they do some things as well as substantially more expensive, dedicated cameras, and other things they do even better than that (see: night sight and the new and genuinely spectacular “astrophotography” mode). Other phone manufacturers have caught up to Google so you can have the technical argument that the Pixel line no longer has the best in-phone camera, but what that really means is that now, after years of meh photos from your phone, you now have a choice of several excellent shooters, including the Pixels. We all win, basically.
With that said there are limitations. The Google “computational photography” techniques are great but it does mean that there’s a very specific Pixel “look” to the photos, which some people like or don’t, but is something you have to work with. The zoom on the 4 is better than on previous Pixels, but it still gets impressionistic fast. The Pixel can shoot in RAW format, but setting that up and taking those out of the phone takes effort, so you’ll probably stay with the jpeg format and all the lossiness that entails (lossiness that is compounded when you archive to Google Photos, unless you splash out extra cash). Selfies and closeup shots will still make you look like you have a big(ger) nose, because of the camera’s focal length.
Some people will tell you that these days you can’t tell the difference between pictures out of a phone and pictures from a dSLR or other high-end dedicated camera. Since I use both, I’m here to tell you that’s not true at all; you very much can when the higher-end camera is being used well. What is true is that your chances of getting a very good to great shot out of a phone camera (and in my case, the Pixel) is much better now than it ever was before. That’s a great state of affairs.
Photoshop: I unapologetically “photoshop” my images before I post them, which means I use the program to tweak lighting and contrast, and to remove cat hair, gouges on the walls, the occasional light switch or contrail, and, yes, to alter faces a bit when I use the wrong focal length and give someone an enormous schnozz, or alternately flatten out their head to such an extent that they look like the moon in a Georges Méliès film. Mostly I tend to go for a natural look, but occasionally I… won’t. You’ll see that mostly in overly-dramatic sunset photos or the pictures of me where I make myself look like a ghoul or something.
Lots of enthusiast-to-pro-level photographers prefer Lightroom to Photoshop, because it lets you batch edit and organize photos more efficiently than Photoshop does. I prefer to use Photoshop because I rarely batch edit and I already have a system for organizing my photos, and anyway, in my experience Photoshop allows one finer-grained control over photo editing than Lightroom does. Basically, Lightroom does things I don’t need, and the things I do need, Photoshop does better.
I use a number of plug-ins with Photoshop to clean up photos. Most notably I use a plug-in called Portrait Pro (currently in iteration 19), which true to its name tunes up face pictures. You can do highly unrealistic things with it — I’ve used it to de-age pictures of people a couple of decades — but I mostly use it to tweak lighting and even out skin tones. I use Snap Art 4 when I want to make a picture look like an oil painting or a pastel, and I use Exposure X5 and the Nik Collection (and Camerabag 3, a stand alone program), when I want to give a picture a specific look and feel, particularly in black and white.
I use Photoshop as part of the overall Adobe “Creative Cloud” suite of programs, and I pay for the full-freight subscription (which is about $60 a month) because I use other programs in the suite. But if you’re only interested in the photo stuff there is a Photoshop/Lightroom bundle that’s substantially cheaper.
Photoshop Express: If I take pictures on the Pixel and want to edit them substantially but don’t feel like porting them over to the desktop, I’ll work on this app, which is available for Android. It’s perfectly fine for editing that’s more complicated than just fixing contrast but less complicated than editing out cat hairs. If I’m just fixing contrast or other relatively simple things, I’ll use the built-in editing tool for Google Photos, which is fine for that. I’ll occasionally use Snapseed for its effects library, but Photoshop Express or Google Photos usually has me covered. Speaking of Google Photos:
Google Photos: Google offers online storage for photos so one does not clutter up one’s phone — but if you use the free tier, it will compress the photos before storing them, which makes them smaller but more lossy (i.e., details are lost). You can pay more to store the photos without compression if you like. I use the free tier and I have to say that for most photos the compression isn’t really noticeable at all… until you put them into a photo editor and start to play with them, at which point the compression artifacts can become really noticable the more you tweak the photo. The way I deal with that is that I port the photos I know I want to tweak to my desktop before I clear them out of my phone and store them. It’s a good compromise for me.
Flickr: Most of the photos that come from the dSLR I archive on a hard drive (more than one, actually), but the ones I’ve edited and want to show off in public I put up on Flickr. It’s also where I store most of the photos I use on the site. Flickr’s changed ownership a couple of times since I started using them, so I have some small concern that one day they’ll just up and disappear, but I have those photos archived to a hard drive in any event. I do like Flickr and can recommend the service.
OTHER SOFTWARE AND STUFF:
Adobe Audition: I use this when I do my occasional audio recordings. I have a number of digital audio workstation programs I’ve bought over the years with the ambition to use them to make music, but I haven’t made much headway with them yet, so I will refrain from noting them here for now. I note Audition because I do use it, and because it’s (relatively) simple to record voice into and then edit that voice recording. I have used it for music and it’s done fine how I’ve used it, but I suspect I’m using it very clumsily. With that said, Audition does everything I ask it to do, and it comes as part of the Creative Cloud suite, so, you know. Use what you have.
(When I record using Audition, I am usually using a Blue Yeti USB microphone I’ve had for a couple of years now. It’s really solid and is overall a very good general-use microphone.)
Adobe Premiere Rush: This is Abode’s “kiddie-level” video production and editing software, which means it’s perfect for me and what I typically need to do on those rare occasions I decide to make a video. It’s functional and (again, relatively) simple to use, and I’m relieved I don’t have to learn how to use Premiere Pro.
Freedom: This program keeps me from accessing social media on my desktop from 8am until noon, which is the time of day that I’m generally most creative and therefore should be writing in novels and such and not yelling at people on Twitter. As I’ve noted elsewhere, I hate that I’m the sort of person who has to use blocking software to keep from getting distracted, but I am, so here we are.
DJ Pro: From time to time I DJ dances, and this is program I use to do it. I use it on the XPS 13, because the Windows program is stable, and the Android version, when I use it on the Pixelbook, is not so much. I like it because it’s flexible and (on the Windows version) allows me to mix between four different songs, and also because it integrates with Spotify, which means that I am able to pull up just about any song I want (or that someone requests) when I DJ. It’s nice to have that option.
Steam: When I give myself a break and want to play a video game, this is the service I use to do that. Recently Epic has been making waves by getting some studios to make their PC games exclusive to their store for a period of time. That’s fine, but I like having all my games in one place, so this just means I won’t get those games until they’re on Steam.
Spotify: I actually subscribe to several music services (Spotify, Google/YouTube Music, Amazon Prime Music HD) for reasons that make absolute perfect sense to me and me only. I like and use all of them, but the one I use the most is Spotify, partly because it’s the most widely used (useful when I make playlists), and also because it’s the service that’s best integrated into other things — like the DJ Pro program above.
Fitbit: I own a Fitbit Versa 2 smartwatch (and a Versa before that) and I use the Fitbit app and site to count my calories and chart my exercise. I’ve found the service and the smartwatch very useful, and can recommend both. Fitbit was recently bought by Google, which has caused some consternation, but I’m not too personally put out by it because of the next bit:
Google generally: I joke, although it’s not really a joke, that these days you have to decide which company you want to give your privacy to: Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft or Facebook. Of those five, I think I get the best value proposition out of Google, which provides me a lot of hardware and services I find very useful, and whose intrusion into my privacy is, if not minimal, at least as close to subtle as these services get. So I tend to default to Google services and apps rather than use the apps and services of these other tech giants.
But not always. I use Audible for audiobooks (and not only because they’re my audio publisher), and I have a couple of Amazon Echos, including the new Echo Studio, which is a very nice audio speaker, and like most humans at this point have and use Amazon Prime quite a lot. I own an iPad so I connect with Apple there. I use Windows and have Office 365, as noted, so Microsoft gets me there. Facebook I connect with the least, which is probably for the best, because I think it’s being run by someone who is increasingly malign to the interests of most humans everywhere. But I still check into the service because my mom is there.
Password manager: As I interface with technology so much — and because interfacing with technology means being vulnerable to people who think it’s fun to mess with you — I use a password manager and two-factor authorization on everything, and especially on things that are public-facing and/or have access to financial information of mine. Now all my passwords are ridiculously long strings of random ascii characters that I could not hope to remember myself, and have to be verified with an authenticator in any event. You should use these yourself. Also, on the same wavelength, I use a VPN regularly, which makes it somewhat more difficult for bad folks to mess with me. It’s okay to be a little paranoid about this stuff, folks.
Coke Zero: My stimulant of choice while I work. I think most of you already knew that.
There. More information than you needed to know! But also a good snapshot on what I use to get things done here in 2020.
You may have omitted it on purpose but I was curious what password manager you use? I am aware of LastPass but I sure there are others.
But Scalzi, you forgot to enthuse about your ISP!
More seriously, the move toward subscription-based software worries me. It makes sense for programs that have to deal with external factors that change frequently, like tax software* or maps or what have you. In the case of Adobe, though, it’s just that they’re scared you’ll still find the 2010 version adequate in 2020 and they won’t get any more money from you. It’s another blow against being able to buy software and actually own your copy the way you could in the past, and it’s almost literally rent-seeking behavior.
*Putting aside for the moment tax software providers’ efforts to keep the 1040 difficult.
I am a little dissapointed you didnt mention what brand of burrito steamer you use. Trade secret I suppose.
Word is very good for long documents that only contain text. But, having used it to draft a couple of science texts, it is extraordinarily bad if there is anything in there other than text. I have, for instance, a document that uses Groundhog Day formatting for page numbers — every page is page 42. I have another where text blows right across images. It handles this sort of thing fine for short docs but long ones with mixed media make it cough up a lung.
I also very much object to the extent to which it wants to help me. It is always wrong, and when it does things like autocorrect spelling, I don’t always notice it. Every time I have a new install, I have to spend some considerable time tracking down all the myriad places where it tries to guess what I intend and turn them off.
I’m slightly stunned by how small your desk space is.
It’s intentionally small to keep distractions off of it.
[Deleted for not being on topic — that’s an email request or a Twitter request, not to be put into comments, and also, read my policies on charity and Twitter requests, please. They’re in the sidebar — JS]
When you display multiple pages in Word, do they have to be consecutive, or can they be from different chapters of the book, say for maintaining consistency of a character’s characteristics?
Thanks for sharing this. It’s always fascinating to get a glimpse of a workman’s tools. You seem to have a pretty nicely balanced set. Back when I wrote long documents, I relied on Word. It’s good to hear it is still aces. There was a time when I worried about Microsoft losing software focus.
P.S. Also, which password manager? Do you like the way it is integrated with your other tools?
As someone who only needs light word processing and light spreadsheet-ing, I’m doing very well with LibreOffice. But I’ve also heard other writing pros say that nothing but Word is good enough for their heavy lifting.
Have you ever explored Scriven? I know someone who loves it, but it looks so complicated to me with all the screens open at the same time. I use Word, but I wish Microsoft would knock it off with the massive downloads which occur without warning.
I am thinking of buying a stand-alone laptop and deliberately not connecting to the phone line. I would save to USB and print out at the office.
Scrivener emphatically does not work for me or my process. Other people like it, and good for them.
> Groundhog Day formatting for page numbers — every page is page 42
I think that’s also referred to as Life, the Universe, and Everything formatting.
@John and it’s probably easier to shoo the Scamperbeasts should they decide they need attention whilst you’re at your desk :)
What about your keyboard? Is there a particular brand and/or type that you prefer?
“I unapologetically “photoshop” my images before I post them…”
That’s a bit like a film photographer saying “I unapologetically “develop” my images before I show them.” or a writer “unapologetically” having a manuscript copy-edited. There’s never any need to apologise for the process that gets the image you want to make.
When people manipulate an image so that it depicts something not real and claim it is true, that’s when apologies are needed. Not for the photoshopping though, but for the lying.
I would urge you to move away from Photoshop (and Adobe products). They ruthlessly shafted many photographers with their new pricing schemes and you can find other products that are as good as Photoshop for most consumers for far less. Affinity Photo would be one example. Worth checking out.
Which password manager do you use? I’ve been contemplating implementing one but don’t know who to trust.
Everyone asking about password managers: Here’s a piece from PC World about the best password managers for 2020. The one I use is on that list, and the rest are all legit.
I know about your love for Coke Zero. But “stimulant”? With no sugar or caffeine? Must be homeopathic.
It has caffeine.
Thanks for sharing such a lovely post. I tend to use pages a lot because it’s built in to apple. But I think I may consider having a look into microsoft word.
Oh and I love your minimalist desk!
When I write (ie, dabble in) fiction, I’ve discovered that need to keep a timeline, but after using a messy document for managing dates and sequences and ages of characters, I’ve discovered ‘Aeon Timeline 2’, which has a bunch of useful features. It’s now indispensable for me. I’ve always wondered if other writers spend (ie waste) so much time sorting this stuff out?
You don’t seem to mention an E-reader, Kindle or whatever. Do you read electronic books? If so, do you use dedicated hardware? Your phone? A laptop? Of course, maybe you don’t read electronic books so much, you seem to get mailed stacks of interesting books to read, more than you could possibly find the time for.
@Magda Scrivener is for those of us who are “massively parallel” in their work process and need to have every damn thing in front of them all the time. Some people (such as myself) find that stopping to look for something is a much worse distraction than having a lot of stuff open.
In light of your RSI, have you considered (after appropriate consultation with your orthopedist) a trackball instead of a mouse of any kind? Shoulder and forearm muscles and ligaments are not optimized for fine control; fingers are… and Logitech makes several good, differing form-factor trackballs that use the same driver as the mouse pictured on your desktop, so it would be true plug-and-play.
What I find most interesting is how well everything seamlessly integrates these days. The time when you needed a degree in comp sci to get software from various sources to run on a single platform/OS, much less pass uncorrupted data/files across boundaries, is well behind us.
How would I book you to DJ a dance. Asking for a friend.
I don’t know when it happened but Google Docs (at least on my windows machines) doesn’t seem to have the same issues with larger documents. I’m currently working on several books > 40,000 words with no hiccups at all. That’s not to say there won’t be issues above 50 or 80,000, but so far, so good.
Do you use e-readers? If so, which one?
That can’t be your desk, there are no cats on it.
Mention of Word, and the shot of your screen showing obviously justified paragraphs, makes me wonder: what page layout/format does your publisher expect for a submission? Clearly not double-spaced courier (OK, Boomer…).
I will second the vote for Affinity Photo, a one-time purchase, as a worthy replacement for PhotoShop subscription. Downside, there are enough differences in the UI to drive you nuts until you learn them. OTOH, there is a massive array of Affinity tutorials on YT, both from the publisher and third parties.
Have you considered/tried Open Office? It might be an alternative for Office365 if the subscription is of concern. Open Office can save files/docs in the Word format if needed, which it usually is when passing on to others.
In fact, when I submit the final manuscript, it’s in double-spaced courier. It’s not what I write in.
Greg Leon Guerro:
Open Office is okay. It fucks up formatting and edit notes a lot, however. Easier to stick with the industry standard.
Switch to Foxit PDF.
I’m surprised you’ve started to get mechanical glitches on the D750. Four years ‘ish seems short for a Nikon to start acting up. That’s presuming you don’t beat equipment around much but that does’t seem like you. So?