Computers for Writers
By Mike Briggs
I've worked as a computer professional for years, and while my primary background is the care and feeding of Unix systems and databases, I'm often asked about computers for writers. Writers, like any other group, vary widely in their technological knowledge. However, the vast majority of authors do their writing on computers, and most don't have a IT professional at their beck and call.
Oooh, the glittering allure of gleaming hardware! The first hurdle in an author's path is figuring out what sort of hardware to buy. The array of options is dazzling, and the smooth-talking salesman will helpfully steer you to the most expensive machine in the store. . . regardless of your needs. Any advice I could give on detailed specifications would almost certainly be obsolete before anyone reads this article, so let's stick to generalities.
The first decision you'll need to make is whether to buy a desktop, laptop or something even smaller. Desktops have the advantage of being easy to upgrade, very expandable, and slightly less expensive than the others. If you plan to work nearly exclusively from an office, they're ideal. This is my choice of systems, and my desktop is a huge thing with periperials dangling from ports and sockets like christmas ornaments. It's big, it's powerful, and it's comfortable. However, portability is severely limited.
Many authors require additional portability. They may work at the coffee shop, or in the park, or on the train. There's a reason why laptop sales have quickly outpaced desktop systems. Once the toy of high-priced executives and rich yuppies, very nice laptops can now be had for very little more than a basic desktop. Patty has used a laptop for the last several years, and loves it. The portability is wonderful, but many professionals find that laptop keyboards, screens, and pointing devices don't compare favorably with their desktop equivalents. Another disadvantage is that expandability is usually limited, however many laptops come with so many features built in that it's hard to imagine needing to add much to them! Portability always comes with a price, but with modern laptops it's a relatively small one. Docking stations and port replicators provide a means of having a laptop for portable computing, and quickly connecting it to full-sized peripherials at your office.
Finally, there are the ultra-portable devices. Somewhere between laptop and PDA, there's a new crop of relatively inexpensive devices offering moderate performance in a pint-sized package. I haven't used them, but the keyboards and screens look awfully small for my fat fingers. On the other hand, the ability to tuck your computer into your clutch or jacket pocket may be just what some authors are looking for.
Choose hardware that meets your needs, and try to balance portabiltiy, price and productivity. Obviously, only you can decide where that balance point is. Most authors end up buying far more computer than they really need. Putting words on a page doesn't require the most-advanced graphics system, fastest hard drive, and newest chipset on the block. You may find that last-years model or even a lightly used machine will meet your needs nicely, and save you a bit of cash.
Talking about software is, if anything, more controversial than discussing religion. There's a three-way holy war between Linux, Mac and Windows, and fanatics abound in all camps. Personally, I'm a fan of Linux, but that's largely irrelevant. What does concern you is finding a text editor that you like. If you're preparing a book in manuscript format, you don't need a huge desktop publishing package, though that's what most people seem to end up using. Many authors use Microsoft Word, others swear by a variety of less-common options. It's no different than an artist choosing a brush -- pick a word processor that fits the way you work. Don't be afraid to take a little time and test-drive a bunch of them. Open Office makes a dandy office suite, including a top-notch word processor that's available for free. You may find you like the more minimial AbiWord, or KWord. You may find that text-processors designed primarily for computer programmers work better for you than desktop publishing software. After all, computer programmers spend all day manipulating text, and they've written some pretty amazing editors for themselves. Sadly, most of these don't help much with page layout, but the text editing tools are top notch. Try LyX, or GNU TeXmacs, or my personal favorite, jEdit. There are many text processing packages out there, and every one of them offers something a little different.
While choosing word processors, look at the file formats they support. I've spent a lot of hours trying to reverse-engineer documents saved in proprietary formats after the companies who designed and supported them have vanished. Imagine if, several years down the road, you wanted to show your editor your first book, and found that the file you had so carefully saved could no longer be read. Try to save your file in Rich Text Format (rtf), HTML, or another "open" format. Even if you save your work as plain ASCII text, all you'll lose is the formatting. How hard is it to put a block of text into manuscript format? I'm guessing it's a lot less work than re-writing the book!
Most people, whatever they say, use their computers as overpriced toys. When they break, it's a minor inconvenience to purchase another, set up their email and begin bookmarking their favorite websites. Oh, I forgot, they might have to install a few of their favorite games. Heh.
As an author, you don't have that luxury. Your computer has just become the biggest tool in your professional toolbox. When your hard drive crashes, it doesn't just take with it all the software you'd installed. It takes every finely-crafted sentence, every scintillating scene, every nuance and paragraph of your creation. Everything you've written. Except for what you've backed up. On undamaged medium. In a format you can still read.
The problem with backups is that there's a million ways to do it. Whole books can (and have) been written on the topic. I've read most of them. Here's what the average author needs to do:
- Reduce the risk of disk failure resulting in data-loss.
- Copy the data to a remote location
Hard drives fail. It's not "if", it's "when". Sometimes you get a little warning, more often you don't. Your first job is to try to make sure that a drive failure doesn't destroy your book.
If you use a desktop or a laptop that supports multiple hard drives, mirror your hard drive. Almost all motherboards made in the past few years offer on-board RAID capacity, which includes the ability to mirror drives. If, for reason, yours doesn't provide this capability, there are numerous freely-available software-based RAID solutions.
In a RAID 1 configuration (also called a mirror), you install two hard drives of equal size. Then you configure them as a mirrored set, and one drive suddenly disappears. Your operating system will only report a single drive, and other than the extra money for the disk, and the few minutes spent configuring things, your life goes on just as it did before. Until a hard drive fails.
Usually, when a hard drive fails, the first sign is a system crash. Naturally, you'll immediately try to reboot. At this point there are few sights more frightening than the dreaded "No Operating System Found" message. That message typically means, "Your hard drive is dead. Toast. Gone forever. And so is any data it held". Panic ensues.
However, if you've mirrored your drives, you're more likely to get a message that says something like "Error Encountered on Drive 0 of RAID set 0. Press 'D' for details, 'R' to rebuild mirror, or 'C' to continue using redundant data." This message may look scary, but what it really means is "This system just saved your data. Shall I gloat now?"
If you have a disk failure, don't try to fix things. In fact, turn the computer off while you decide what to do. How much data did you just lose, and how much is it worth to you? Chances are good that, immediately after a failure, the data on your drive can be recovered. There are a number of data recovery firms that are extremely good at what they do, but it won't be cheap. Depending on how much of the drive you want to recover, it may cost between several hundred and several thousand dollars. You can, of course, try to revive the drive on your own, or call your friend the self-proclaimed computer expert to help. Maybe you'll have some measure of success, depending on what caused the disk to fail. However, every such attempt carries the risk of overwriting the data on the disk, or causing additional damage to the disk surface if you've had a mechanical failure. Bottom line, if you try to fix it first, even the professionals probably can't help you.
External hard drives have become increasingly common for backups and additional storage. I like them, but they don't offer the same degree of transparency as a mirrored drive. If you have a laptop (which don't usually support multiple hard drives), an external hard drive and a backup program is an excellent investment.
Using a mirror makes a catostrophic disk failure less likely, but it won't help if you accidentally delte the data, or if the computer's stolen, or if your house burns down. For that, you need to keep a copy of your data somewhere off site. Naturally, there's many ways to do this. One of the simplest is to buy a cheap flash drive, and just back your work up at the end of the work day, then take it with you. That's the method Patty uses, and it works very well, as long as you remember to back the book up regularly. The problem is, if you're a little absent minded, the backup may end up being days or weeks out of date when you really need it.
If you have internet access, there are quite a number of companies these days offering internet backup solutions. Many of these offer near real time (nrt) backup capabilities. Basically, as soon as you have an internet connection established, the backup software checks the directories you've asked to back up, and looks to see if there are any files that are newer than the current backups. If there are, it automatically copies them. Then it does the same thing every 15 minutes or so while you work. If you word processor makes backup copies as you work (or even if you just save your files once in a while, the backup software whisks those away to a safe storage within minutes. When your laptop gets stolen, you can easily retrieve your work, and only lose a few minutes of effort. These systems are ideal for authors, but they usually come with a monthly fee. The fee is usually based on the amount of data stored, and authors don't need to store much, so you may find the peace of mind is well worth the purchase price.
If you like the idea of internet backups, but don't want a monthly fee, you can configure many of the freely available backup programs to push data to a networked destination. If you have access to networked storage (like, for example, a website . . .) you can get the same protection as the commercial systems for just a little time and effort. Of course, you'll want to protect the files on the other end so that your readers can't download them!
Changes and Updates
The only constant, as they say, is change. I wrote this a couple of years ago, and sure enough, things have changed. I'd like to make a couple of additional suggestions:
Two years ago, tablets seemed poised to take over the world, now they're a footnote. Cell phones have gained enough processing power to run some word-processing programs, and a handful of authors who value portability over comfort are writing books on their telephones. Personally, just thinking about it makes my thumbs cramp, but who am I to judge?
Laptops have continued to grow in popularity, and have become the de facto standard for writers. I recently read a very good article on choosing an author's laptop by Marcus Burst at TechSpectacle. Even if the new giga-core, quantum-logic ultra-box is out in a couple of years, the reasoning behind his choices is solid.
Many of the open-source programs I mentioned have drifted into unsupported status, and since most authors have chosen Microsoft Word, the publishers have largely adopted it as their official standard (ugh!). At this point in time, LibreOffice is the best-supported free office suite that's compatible with Word. While I use it almost daily and am very happy with it, Patty has never liked it, and continues to write in WordPerfect; a relic from a different age.
While LibreOffice does a fine job of reading and writing MS-compatible files, it doesn't do a perfect job of implementing the latest whistles and bells. The publishers insist on using the full scope of Word's commenting and change-tracking features for editing. If you're working with a traditional publisher, you might have to swallow the bitter pill and buy a licensed copy of Word (or risk your edited manuscript being horribly mutilated at the worst possible time).
Finally, programs like Scribd, which include a basic word processor, as well as specific tools for notes, character desriptions, outlines etc. are gaining popularity, and may well be worth your time to check out.
When I wrote the original article, I had been working as a Unix sysop. Networked storage and RAID arrays are everyday items in that world, and I assumed that the RAID options built into consumer-grade motherboards were of similar quality. I was wrong. After several bad experiences, I can testify that the consumer-grade motherboard RAID systems are nothing like their enterprise-class counterparts. I'm sorry, my bad, and I would recommend you avoid them like the plague. However, I have found some small, dedicated NAS (Networked Attached Storage) units that seem to be pretty reliable. I'm using a little 6-disk unit from Netgear that's been pretty solid for a couple of years. It's much better than the on-board RAIDS of most motherboards.
At this time there are also numerous free on-line storage lockers that will sync files with your computer. Given the small size of most book files, this is probably the best solution for most authors. You can get near-real-time backup to remote servers for free or very low cost. I would caution against storing sensitive information in such a location unless you take additional steps to encrypt it, since they do periodically get hacked. Also, don't store any information in your storage locker that you don't have copied somewhere else. Otherwise, if the remote system is hacked, you may end up paying a ransom to the nasty hackers to restore your files.