When I recently purchased a new set of hearing aids to replace my old, failing pair, it reminded me of when my wife and I traded in our 15-year-old station wagon for a new mini-SUV automobile. Car technology had changed enormously in the interim. Rear-view camera, lane drift alert, automatic windshield wipers — things that were new to us and highly welcome.
With my new hearing aids (Philips 9030 miniRITE T R, sold at Costco), the sound is much better than my earlier-generation Oticons, with less screeching, and there is an app (HearLink) that works as a remote control from my phone or iPad. The new devices are rechargeable, freeing me from having to carry around small zinc-air batteries.
Best of all, the new hearing aids have Bluetooth (BT) built-in. They can answer my iPhone and, with the embedded microphone, allow me to talk “hands free” on the phone while driving, should I need this feature.
Truth be told, though, as a senior living during the Covid era, I don’t drive all that often, so this option is less important to me than it would be for others. However, the ability to listen to audiobooks, streaming music, and YouTube videos directly from my hearing aids while using my iPad Mini is a sheer joy.
I’ll be the first to admit that the sound quality, which I find perfectly acceptable for casual use, is not in the high fidelity range. For that, I have my Apple Airpod Pros and a pair of Bose BT headphones with noise cancellation.
The hearing-aid bass response is thin, though the built-in equalizer helps boost the lower range. Treble is strong, and human voices such as the narrators of audiobooks are clearly heard and easily understood, with the exception of some of the Scottish and British dialects of my favourite UK mystery and espionage novels.
Using the hearing aids with Bluetooth reminds me very much of my childhood years when pocket transistor AM radios first came to market. Despite their poor sound quality, they opened up an entire new way of listening to radio — private listening.
Private listening got another big boost when the Sony Walkman was released, and then again when Sony released the Discman for privately listening to CDs. Private listening transformed into a cultural phenomenon with the advent of the Apple iPod and other MP3 players.
Now even they have been superseded by smartphones and tablets delivering streaming music via Spotify, Apple Music, or Prime Audio. Not to mention podcasts, TV shows, movies, and YouTube videos.
Earbuds have become a way of life, and BT hearing aids double as your always-ready, always-on earbuds.
Seen from this perspective, these new little devices tucked discretely behind your ears, greatly help with the inevitable hearing loss many of us experience as we age. Add BT to this and being a bit deaf isn’t so bad after all.
Gene Wilburn is a Canadian writer, photographer, and retired IT professional.
When you look at the number of writing applications available to writers, whether novelists, short story writers, essayists, or nonfiction writers, you see an almost bewildering number of choices. The time-honored notion that you should use the right tool for the right job sounds good in principle, but what, exactly, is the right tool?
It’s a cliché to say that each writer is different, and that no set of writing tools will be right for all authors. For instance, Canadian SF writer Robert J. Sawyer and American SF writer George R.R. Martin, two highly successful writers, still use WordStar, an ancient, but capable, word processor from the days of CP/M and MS-DOS.
That, of course, doesn’t mean that switching to WordStar will make you a successful writer too. Writing happens in the brain, usually coming out through the hands resting on a keyboard, regardless of the application being used.
Even so, when you find the writing app that suits you best, the app works with you seamlessly, fading into the background as you create your story. Every app has its advocates, and it can be a good idea to try out different approaches to writing to see which type of writing app clicks with you the most.
Essentially, there are three general categories of writing apps:
Full-fledged word processors with all the bells and whistles to create everything from short stories to business reports full of graphics, or graduate-school theses.
Specialized word processing apps designed specifically for writers, with a writer’s needs in mind.
DIY apps that take a minimalist approach to writing, providing uncluttered text editors and usually employing Markdown for text attributes.
Let’s see where you fit in.
Millions of writers use Microsoft Word, the gold standard for word processors. It’s a complete office-oriented app and publishers everywhere can accept Word .docx files. The latest version of Word, in Microsoft 365, even offers a focus mode, that allows you to view your work on a blank screen, similar to such functions in apps like Scrivener.
Despite its widespread use, not all writers either like, or can afford, Word. Its ribbon menus drive some writers nuts, and others have have had bad experiences with Word in terms of stability. Still, if you don’t mind the menus and you can afford the annual subscription, you’ll never go amiss using Word. The current version of Word runs on Windows, Mac, iOS, and Android, which means you can use it on tablets and phones. There is also a cloud version.
If you’re one of those writers who liked the versions of Word prior to its ribbon menus, there’s the open-source and free LibreOffice Writer. It has much of the look and feel of Word from the past, and it has a reputation for being rock solid. LibreOffice can convert its files to Word and many other formats, including Epub. You also get the rest of the LibreOffice suite with it, including a spreadsheet, presentation program, drawing program, and database app. LibreOffice runs in Windows, Mac, and Linux, but not on iOS or Android.
Many writers have discovered the general excellence of Google Docs, a cloud-based word processing app that covers all the basics and is terrific for collaboration. Used in a browser, Google Docs is accessible from every operating system, including ChromeOS for Chromebooks. There are also iOS and Android versions of Google Docs for use on tablets and phones. Google Docs can export to Word format (as well as plain text).
Mac users may be drawn to Apple’s Pages, a very attractive word processor that comes free with a Mac. It’s also available on iOS for iPads and iPhones. It’s one of the easiest word processorsto use and it integrates well with other Apple software, such as Numbers. It too can export to Word format. Pages is a solid choice for those who work entirely within the Apple ecosystem.
All of the above, plus a few lesser-known word processors, can get the job done. If you’re happy using one of these applications, there is no reason to switch to something else. You have everything you need.
Specialty Word Processors
On the other hand, if you find word processors to be, well, a bit boring, there’s a tier of specialty writing apps that have turned the heads of a lot of writers who swear by them and who swear they’d never go back to a word processor after using them. The best known of these, and probably the most widely used, is Scrivener.
Scrivener, from an English company called Literature & Latte, was designed from the ground up to meet the needs of serious writers, rather than the word-processing needs of office workers. It offers views of your writing that are extremely useful, including an equivalent of storing everything in a spiral notebook, corkboard views, the ability to include synopses, and a place to store your research and your character and plot ideas. It has templates for novels, nonfiction, and screen writing.
Scrivener can output to Word, of course, but also to rich-text format, HTML, OpenOffice/LibreOffice, Final Draft, Fountain Screenplay, plain text, PDF, and Markdown.
Scrivener has become the gold standard for a writer-oriented, specialized word processor. It runs on Mac and Windows, as well as iOS. There is no Linux or Cloud version. It is a commercial program that you must purchase, but there is no subscription required.
Another up-and-comer in the specialty writing category is Ulysses, a Markdown-based word creator with a minimalist interface, similar to other Markdown editors, but with some Scrivener-like features like a way to package your writing together and easily rearrange parts, like chapters. It has the usual export features. One of the distinguishing features of Ulysses is its beautiful interface. That alone might convince you to make an annual subscription to use the software. Unfortunately Ulysses works only on Macs and iOS.
The most specialized writing app I’ve used is LyX, which calls itself a “document processor.” This is an app for techies who also write. It’s a front end to the powerful TeX/LaTeX typesetting system and can be used to produce beautiful books and articles, especially those with an academic purpose. It has deep support for creating mathematical equations, abstracts, supported graphics, and all elements of traditional book publishing, including front matter, back matter, footnotes, endnotes, and bibliographies. I include it here because I believe it should be better known. A free, open-source product, it runs on Linux, Mac, and Windows. It’s definitely not “easy,” but if you’re looking for something that can create formal books and reports, this is it. It can produce beautiful novels and Epub ebooks, too.
DIY Word Processing Systems
For the DIY (Do It Yourself) crowd, the way to go is with Markdown. I’d have put Ulysses in this category except for its additional features, but the rest are pure Markdown editors with one job only, to help you write words with a minimum of fuss and bother. Anything you need to do with your words after they’re written is up to you.
A Markdown editor is simply a plain text editor, full stop. Any text editor will do, from Notepad in Windows to TextEdit on Mac, to any number of text editors in Linux. You can use oldies like Vim and Emacs or use a more dedicated Markdown editor.
One of the most universal Markdown editors I’ve used is Ghostwriter, available for Windows, Mac, and Linux. It’s a free, open-source editor that just gets the job done but with a few niceties like keyboard shortcuts for inserting Markdown notation.
My personal favorite Markdown editor is iA Writer, a commercial product available for Mac, Windows, iOS, and Android. I’ve used it for years and it’s never let me down. On its own it can output to HTML, Word, and PDF. It has dark mode support and one of the least cluttered interfaces around. iA Writer was once free and had at one time sponsored NaNoWriMo, so it’s already known to many writers. The commercial edition is modestly priced and doesn’t require a subscription, like Ulysses. That, by itself, tips me toward iA Writer.
Typora is another solid Markdown editor, freely available for Linux and Windows (no Mac version). I’ve not used it yet myself, but, in addition to distraction-free writing, it offers an outline panel and a wider range of exports than iA Writer. It looks like a good offering.
One last app I’ll mention in the DIY section is Joplin. It bills itself as a note-taking app, a kind of Markdown-oriented Evernote. Open source and free, it is available for Mac, Windows, Linux, iOS, and Android. It includes a built-in Markdown editor, plus a rich-text editor, and can as easily be used for writing as for note-taking. The organizational framework it offers gives it a bit of a Scrivener and Ulysses vibe. In my experience, it syncs well across platforms. One feature that grabs me is that it can also invoke an external editor, such as iA Writer, when you’re writing with it, storing the story in Joplin itself.
Ultimately, as a writer, you are what you write, not what you use to write with. Nonetheless, each of us develops preferences for which tools we like, and there’s no lack of options.
It’s worth experimenting with different writing tools to see which ones attract you, and why. Most of the commercial ones offer a free trial period, and you can experience the open-source ones at leisure. When the tool fits, you’re more productive.
The main thing is to get the job done. Happy writing!
Gene Wilburn is a Canadian writer, photographer, and retired IT specialist