Laurel Hart

Computational linguist — Software engineer


User Interface Design for Creative Writing Software

March 16, 2015


Inspiration

The State of Creative Writing Software

For whatever reason, I can never stop thinking about creative writing software (you might be familiar with my promptbot project). Maybe it’s a form of procrastination—I’m forever fidgetting with the software, never actually doing the writing. I have tried a number of different programs, from WriteItNow back in the day, to Scrivener, to Writer’s Cafe, to yWriter, to just about every alternative to Scrivener. While many of them are serviceable, most are little more than pared-down word processors, glorified corkboards, or flow chart makers, and very rarely more than one or two of those. Worst of all—to me—all I’ve seen have the clunkiest, ripped-out-of-the-90s user interfaces. Few take advantage of more recent forms of knowledge organization, such as tagging, nor new forms of interaction such as touch. None look like they were natively written for post-millenial operating systems and devices; to my knowledge, none of them were.

Which is not, in any way, to imply they are totally useless. Certainly word processors, corkboards, and flow charts are useful in creative writing. However, I have found them limiting and wanting. Of the programs I have tried, I prefer Scrivener because I find it the most richly-featured, but still feel constricted by its limited ways of interacting with my writing and its antiquated-looking interface.

Design

Borrowing from Coders — Code Bubbles

It was during my last term as a student, that my Human-Computer Interaction seminar discussed Code Bubbles. My thoughts immediately turned to how I could apply those design decisions to creative writing software. At first I decided that there was not much that would translate usefully; however, the idea kept churning in my brain.

On the surface, the needs of writing creatively are very different from those of writing software. Where an IDE might reasonably include things like tab- completion and templating, these features are of very limited use to creative writing. However, both acts center around both creating content and organizing it. A large codebase can quickly get out of hand if there is no way to usefully understand its structure; likewise, an author can get lost in all the details of a story they are trying to create. When does a particular item or character first appear in the story? Is its appearance described consistently?

The “novel user interface metaphor” developed by Code Bubbles can be usefully extended to the realm of creative writing. More on this later.

Take-aways / novel features of Code Bubbles:

  • Manipulate snippets
  • Concurrently-visible working sets
  • Groups with minimal border decoration, no overlap
  • Large, pannable 2-D virtual space in which to cluster groups
  • Small representation (map) of larger virtual space for easy navigation

Interface Metaphor

Essential to good design is an intuitive metaphor—or model—of how elements are organized and can be manipulated. Code Bubbles introduced “bubbles,” but even this is not so much a comprehensive metaphor that fully explans the bubbles’ fuctionality, but mostly serves to emphasize that bubbles fuction differenty from more-familiar “windows.”

Returning to existing creative writing software, many have the same component elements:

  • hierarchical file system on one side
  • word processor in the middle
  • meta-notes on the side
  • short notes that are rearrangable within a grid

The first two are probably familiar to the user by dint of being related to basic computational tasks. There is no particular metaphor in place that relates these elements with the others; nor, necessarily, does there need to be.

The most novel element is the occasional inclusion of small notes that are rearrangable in a grid. These are always akin to index cards, a simple analogy to the physical world: to add meta-notes to a document in the real world, one might reasonably attach a Post-It note or an index card; the same metaphor is reused for the digital world. But within that analogy, there is actually a loss of usefulness: index cards in the real world can be arranged in more than just a grid. They can be manipulated in more meaningful ways. They can be color-coded with multiple colors. They might also take the form of images, whether a quick sketch, a photograph, or other useful bit of visual information. In the real world, an author will use whatever material best suits the information to be conveyed. The only limitations are related to being physical: portability, duplication, and so on. Unfortunately, this model consistently fails to solve some of those very problems. They fail to make use of the advantages of using a computer program instead of actual notecards.

Furthermore, the model these programs adopt is minimally commital, with only one or two components being related to the real world, while the rest are unrelated to one another. The model gives no clear idea of the functionality of its components.

Instead, I propose a program with a model based around the night sky.

Just looking at the night sky, you might see a mess of little lights: stars, planets, various celestial bodies. These lights (we’ll say stars for simplicity) have no immediately apparent organizational structure. How can one ever learn to consistently identify specific stars, transform the mess of lights into useful information?

The solution to this problem is ancient, yet still applicable to modern life: constellations.

By connecting and making pictures out of patterns of lights, humans have been able to chart the night sky in ways that are memorable and meaningful to even those with only passing interest in the celestial bodies. Furthermore, stars can be part of multiple, overlapping constellations—being a member of one grouping does not prevent it from being part of another.

How does this map to creative writing?

Imagine a story that involves multiple narrator characters. One way to look at the story is how it will appear in the story’s final, written form: a series of events, perhaps presented non-chronologically, from a variety of narrators. But perhaps, as the author creates the story, they want to look at the story as it happens chronologically. Or perhaps they want to examine each character’s part as separate from the others’. Or perhaps the writer wants to group scenes by their locations. All of these are perfectly valid ways to organize the same set of documents, yet in most creative writing software, attempting to create a new organization either destroys what existed previously or creates a lot of needless duplication.

Therefore, I propose software that, like Code Bubbles, allows for snippets of writing to be intuitively grouped, but unlike Code Bubbles, allows for multiple, overlapping organization schemes. The night sky model provides an intuitive interface metaphor that will encourage ease of understanding and use.

Terminology:

  • Stars - notes/nodes/vertices
  • Clusters - multiple stars collapsed into a smaller representation
  • Constellations - arrangements/relationships/networks

Components

Stars

Stars function much like you would expect notes to, but can actually have a range of uses. A Star might consist of:

  • a snippet of writing
  • a character profile
  • a scene
  • notes about a scene
  • a setting
  • an image
  • a quote
  • an event
  • a link
  • a piece of audio or video

Constellations

Constellations operate much like Code Bubbles’ bubbles, but multiple can be defined from the same set of Stars. Grouping will be available both in terms of an outline that encompasses the component Stars, as in the graphical representation of a constellation in real like, and in network-like edges between Stars (nodes). This can be used to create series of events, as in a chronological or diegetic order, while having simultaneously associated but “orderless” elements.

Constellations will be given names and colors, to allow them to be easily distinguished from one another in a selection menu.

Clusters

For simplicity, it is advisable that groups of Stars be collapsible. For example, a group of Stars might consist of notes related to a character— perhaps one Star is a profile, others are images of the character, and so on. Perhaps the author wants to include all the character notes in a Constellation that contains notes on all the characters. Including all the notes on this character at the “top level” in this Constellation would make it difficult to understand the relationship between all the Stars—notes on this character are not directly related to notes on another character. Instead, these Stars should be embeddable into a Cluster that represents the character. Then is is possible to have a Constellation of all the characters, from which each Cluster can be expanded into its component Stars.

Other features

  • small ‘sky map’ of all inhabited parts of the virtual field
  • search across all snippets
  • name/character generator
  • document statistics (word counts, etc)
  • selection of sky/star themed backgrounds will help give the software a modern look
  • bare-bones editor mode for focused, long-form writing

Miscellanea

Working titles for this software design include:

  • Constellate / Constellations
  • Celestial
  • Sky Writer
  • Written in the Stars