The Writer’s Technology Companion Philosophy: or, Why I Recommend So Much Free Software
If you’ve been reading this site for a while, you’ve probably noticed a gap in the software I cover and recommend. For the most part, the software, online services, and other material (like e-books) I’ve recommended have been free. There are plenty of exceptions, of course — next week I’m gearing up to do a series on Microsoft Word 2007, for example, and I recently recommended paid backup services Mozy and Carbonite. (Update: Actually, I posted this before the post on backing up, which will be along sometime this month.) And of course any hardware I recommend comes with a price tag.
But for the most part, I’ve tried to recommend free or, as much as possible, low-cost software and services — and when possible, open-source software. There are a number of reasons for this, which add up to something like a philosophy:
- Writers, especially beginning writers, often can’t afford expensive software. There are programs out there that promise to help you write better, faster, and clearer copy — for a price. And it’s usually a high price — some of these packages run over $200 US! If you’re just getting started, it might be months (or even longer) before you see any financial return, let alone enough to make back the cost of these programs. Why spend so much when there are plenty of free programs that do the job as well?
- A lot of software for writers seems “scammy”. Writing isn’t easy; good writing even less so. I’m deeply suspicious of software that promises to make writing a novel or screenplay easier. Organizing notes, handling formatting, etc — these are things I expect software to do well, not make writing easy.
- Open source software is free in more than just cost. There’s a saying in the open source/free software world: “Free as in speech”. Writers above all people have a responsibility to support efforts to protect freedom of speech (and the most to gain from those efforts), including the freedoms that are embodied in open source software — to look at and modify the code. Even if you can’t modify your software, there are programmers who can, and open source software gives them the freedom to do so. (Actually, I’d like to find more open source software specifically for writers, so if you know of anything, drop me a line.)
- Free tools are often as good or even better than their paid alternatives. If there’s a paid program that’s really the best for its purpose, I’ll recommend it. But where free programs do the job as well, I see the cost of the paid alternative as unwarranted.
- I can’t afford it. I’ve written largely about products I use, or would use, and cost is a factor in whether I decide to use something. I can’t afford a hundred or more dollars to evaluate a program — and even less to evaluate all the programs available for writers.
- I don’t do the kinds of writing a program supports. For example, since I’m not a screenwriter, it’s hard for me to be fair in evaluating a program intended for screenwriters. When hundreds of dollars are on the line, it’s even harder.
There are programs that are worth the money, and I cover them when I can. There are also programs that are industry standards, like FinalDraft A/V for screenwriting. My feeling is that if you’re at the stage in your career where you need to use FinalDraft, you’re probably pretty comfortable with the technical aspects of the software — and you can probably afford (and probably need) the support material (books, classes, etc.) you need to use the software. A blog post probably isn’t going to cut it for you.
All that said, if there’s paid software that people really need to know about, let me know. Most paid software offers evaluations, and the 30 days or so they let you us the software for free is enough time to figure out most of the basics. I can also try to get a review copy from companies that don’t offer demos, though that’s a hit-or-miss prospect.
Finally, I’d be happy to post your reviews, if you want. If there’s a piece of software that you’d like to see get some attention, write a short review and I’ll consider posting it to the site (and I’ll give you credit). The ultimate goal is to help writers find out about technology that can help them, so if there’s something I’m missing that would help you or your fellow writers, I’m more than willing to figure out how to add that to the site.