Writing Novels and Non-Fiction with Visual Studio Code

TL;DR

  1. Learn Markdown in 10 minutes
  2. Go grab MS Visual Studio Code to do the writing part
  3. Get yourself a free account in https://PublishQuickly.com to do the metrics and close-to-publish-ready word doc generation

Introduction

  • first, I tried Microsoft Word
  • then, I went to OneNote so I can better organize the manuscript before packaging for publishing . My post on using OneNote for Novels is pretty popular
  • then, I tried Scrivener — briefly — an established tool for novelists with customized features for writing
  • after that, I dabbled with Ulysses — an excellent software for Mac and iPad, customized for writing needs. I wrote significant parts of The Wrath of God with Ulysses
  • I also briefly flirted with Bear, a beautiful markdown editor and note taking tool
  • and then I returned to Microsoft Word because I found myself restricted by certain aspects of Ulysses
  • Difficulties in managing chapters, writing speed, moving things around, navigating, creating beta versions or boxsets, wasting time on formatting too early in the process
  • Inability to easily get robust metrics (I’m a bit of a numbers guy), keeping track of development history
  • Lack of content portability (getting tied into proprietary formats)

A typical Writing Process

  1. Writing
  2. Polishing the work (grammar, pacing, rewrites, reviews…)
  3. Understanding the writing metrics to smooth out rough edges (unbalanced POVs, excessively long chapters etc.)
  4. Getting it beta read with multiple people, revising
  5. Sending for proofreading or querying
  6. Exporting to publishable formats (word, epub, mobi, pdf…)
  7. Publishing

What attracted me to Visual Studio Code

  1. It’s free and well maintained
  2. Excellent “extensions” system to extend the capability of the editor
  3. Great themes that make writing pleasurable
  4. Zen/Focus mode
  5. Ability to write my chapters as simple text files and keep it organized on my folders and Cloud — ultimate portability
  6. Ability to do version control (ooh, we’re getting fancy!) — I use GitHub to and do all my revisions in it
  7. Ability to write scripts that can analyze chapters and provide valuable metrics, or even automate several tasks… I use a online version (I’ve used other versions before) called PublishQuickly to go from a Markdown file to useful data

How I organize my work in Visual Studio Code

manuscripts/
the.last.pharaoh.regent.md
the.last.pharaoh.queen.md
the.last.pharaoh.empress.md
...
resources/
tlp.map.png
tlp.cover.png
...
  • paste my Markdown text file into the PublishQuickly text area
  • choose a template for output generation
  • click ‘submit’ and that’s it — I get metrics and almost-ready publishable Kindle KDP word doc
PublishQuickly — add manuscript for generation

The Results

My process chain is:

The Ten Features of Visual Studio Code I use for Writing my Novels

  1. Fast writing and Powerful Extensions — the autocomplete feature enabled by the All Autocomplete extension can enhance writing speed and reduce writing errors; extensions to help with Markdown writing, live preview, and many, many others
  2. Beautiful dark theme — (Pitch Black) which is easy on the eyes, and the ability to customize themes and fonts. I’ve since tried other beautiful themes — my current favorite is Horizon. It’s wonderful.
  3. Excellent Markdown editor with CSS customization and live preview that scrolls in sync with the editor. An outline view is a superb navigation feature that lets you jump to sub-sections (particularly helpful for non-fiction, academic or computer related writing)
  4. A Zen Mode that keeps focus only on the editor
  5. Ability to see chapter words, spell check, fast search, global search, and search-replace
  6. Integrated version control — I can save versions of my chapters as many times as I want, and go back to any version I want
  7. Works on files on the folder, which means I can open these files from any editor, including simple notepads, wherever and whenever, and continue to work. For example, on iPad, I use GoCoEdit. It’s this ability to work on simple text files that also makes it perfect for scripting against it.
  8. Split editor — open multiple versions, same chapter in two places, reference files, todos — whatever you want. In fact, the split can be more than two — if you have a large monitor you can have 3 vertical splits with each having a horizontal split, or a 2 x 2 grid…
  9. Line number and right side mini-view that’s great for navigating large chapters and going back and forth
  10. VIM mode support — most people won’t know about this outside coders. But this is a fantastic writing emulation that lets you write and navigate text files really fast using just keyboard strokes. It takes a little getting used to, but once you get a hang of it, it’s amazing! I cannot stress this enough — Vim has truly powered writing for me.

Disadvantages

  1. Not designed by default for writing. Unlike Scrivener or Bear or Ulysses, there are no built-in presets or features that are specific for writers (like exporting to multiple formats, separate note taking, chapter organization etc.) But personally, I ended up not using those features much and their value diminished.
  2. No mobile support — there is no Visual Studio Code for iPad or Android or iOS. You’ll need to find some other Markdown text editor (I use iaWriter on my iPad) that can connect to your Cloud account to edit the files. Perhaps this will come some day. I’ve heard of VS code in the Cloud, but I prefer to work on files on my computer.
  3. No in-built document formatter — e.g., bold, italics etc. You write in text, but you can use Markdown to get most of those features. Markdown is really simple! (Some of the themes in VS Code, like Horizon, do a pretty good job of coloring the text based on the formatting — like bold and italics, and it’s good enough)

Using with Grammarly

Proofreading

What Next?

  1. Learn Markdown in 10 minutes
  2. Go grab MS Visual Studio Code for free
  3. Get yourself a free account in https://PublishQuickly.com

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I write on topics pertaining to ancient history and productivity. I am also the author of The Whispers of Atlantis series — more on https://jaypenner.com

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Jay Penner

Jay Penner

I write on topics pertaining to ancient history and productivity. I am also the author of The Whispers of Atlantis series — more on https://jaypenner.com

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