RHIANA YAZZIE: I’m excited to hear all of your thoughts. I think this is going to be a silly, fun, light-hearted sort of debate over what you feel strongly about, things that have tickled you about using your specific modality or software. I use Final Draft. I can’t use anything else except Final Draft and that’s my full preference.
DEBORAH ZOE LAUFER: That was beautifully said. I’ve always written my plays with Word pretty happily, but writing film and TV, I’m trying to fall in love with Final Draft. I just wish it were easier to convert from Final Draft to Word. This past year, collaborating with several people online I’ve discovered the joys of Google Docs. It’s so useful to be able to work in the same document together remotely, and “suggestion mode” made it possible to make changes when we weren’t working together, without worrying about them being permanent. I could also rewrite during online rehearsals, and actors would see the changes in real time. I will warn against rewriting during a reading! I was madly changing things while actors were talking, and then realized that the script was jumping all over the page for them.
CHRIS LEYVA: Sure. I use Highland 2 for my writing, and I think the reason I’m here is because no one knows what Highland 2 is.
DEBORAH ZOE LAUFER: I think you’re the spokesperson now for Highland 2.
CHRIS LEYVA: Right.
DANIELLE MOHLMAN: I have been using Scrivener for over ten years and don’t know if I would ever use another software, because I’ve just been using it for so long.
AUDREY LANG: I was very surprised to get contacted because I think I’m pretty boring when it comes to software. I use Microsoft Word mostly and have used Google Docs in the pandemic as a tool for, like you said before, working together, but mostly I am really a firm believer in Microsoft Word and I occasionally use the Notes app in my iPhone, more than other people do.
SHARAI BOHANNON: I recently started trying to work things out with Final Draft, but I’ve tried a lot of things. I really, really love the Google Docs, especially if you’re an artist on the go with multiple jobs because you can pick up wherever you left off.
DEBORAH ZOE LAUFER: All right, so should we face the elephant in the room? Tell us about the program you use, Chris, which I’ve already forgotten the name of.
CHRIS LEYVA: The application is called Highland 2. It’s developed by screenwriter John August who wrote Big Fish, both the film and the musical, and he’s written Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and other films. He has developers on his staff to make the apps with all the bells and whistles and everything that he personally needs. His company is called, and this is actually the name, Quote-Unquote Apps. Highland 2 is somewhere in between just a regular, old word processor and something more powerful like Final Draft. It’s the best of both worlds.
When I started writing I used an app that was PC only. When I moved to a Mac, I needed to find something new, and I ended up losing a lot of my plays because they were all in a defunct file format that no other app could open. After retyping drafts, copying and pasting from PDFs and all this, I got so tired of being stuck in a specific format. The first thing that drew me to Highland is that it’s based on plain text, just .txt files, so as long as you’re capitalizing a character name and hitting return and writing the next thing, it’s smart enough to know what’s a character name and what’s dialogue. I don’t have to change it or delineate it to say this is character, dialogue, parenthetical, or whatever; it just knows. But I can also use any of the applications that have been listed, I can use Microsoft Word, I can use the Notes app on my phone, if I copy it and paste it into Highland it just formats it because it’s plain text.
DEBORAH ZOE LAUFER: Does it convert easily?
CHRIS LEYVA: It does. It actually opens .fdx files. It also has a feature that they call “PDF melting” where you can open a PDF and it’ll pull the text from it. You may have to do some minor editing here and there, but it’s really effective at doing that. The big reason why I love using it is for the writing environment. When I was using Final Draft, I hated that I couldn’t go in full screen and I hated that it looked so much like a printed page. I didn’t want to feel like I was looking at script pages. I wanted to feel like I was experimenting and playing. Highland has a dark mode and a full screen mode and the ability to build your own theme, use your own colors. I took a picture of a latte from my favorite coffee shop and chose the colors from the different parts of the coffee to create a personalized theme. Now I have a really customized space that feels free and open. There are other bells and whistles it has, but, for me, it was mainly about the environment and having my scripts be future-proof. I wanted to make sure that no matter what I use, or if Highland’s not there in the future, I still have access to my work.
DEBORAH ZOE LAUFER: Yeah, I lost everything that came before Word. I had an ancient computer that was like fifteen years old when I got it, and I wrote all my first plays that I ever wrote on there, and I couldn’t get them again. Some of them I retyped, but most of them are just lost to the ages, and maybe that’s not so bad.
RHIANA YAZZIE: There was a word processing program called Word Perfect.
DEBORAH ZOE LAUFER: That was it. Thank you, Rhiana.
RHIANA YAZZIE: Yeah. I have a couple of plays in that from the turn of the century. Wow. I’m super curious, though, for Highland, how does pagination work, and can you have a cast list and a title page? And when you finally get to the actual script itself, does it say page one or does it say page three?
CHRIS LEYVA: That is a really good question. You have total control over that. One of the best parts about Highland is that you have control over your document. Their tech support is great. I asked how to change numbering for preliminary pages, and John August himself actually wrote back to me to say, “Here, try this.”
RHIANA YAZZIE: Great.
CHRIS LEYVA: Yeah, I really like not having to think about the formatting. Similar to Final Draft, the application is formatting automatically. But I also like having control over the way pages look.
DEBORAH ZOE LAUFER: And you can change fonts and everything?
CHRIS LEYVA: I think you can to some extent, yeah; I never have. This is what’s really funny, too. Courier is the font that’s standard for screenplays. Quote-Unquote Apps made a font called Courier Prime that makes Courier prettier. So John August is like, “If I have to use Courier, I’m going to have my designers make a better-looking font.”
DEBORAH ZOE LAUFER: And what do you do when you send it to people? Do you convert it to Word?
CHRIS LEYVA: I export it as a PDF. You click ‘File’ and ‘Save as PDF.’
DEBORAH ZOE LAUFER: I’m sold.
CHRIS LEYVA: It’s only available on Mac right now, and it’s a free download from the Mac App Store so you can try it out. I think it’s $50 to move to the pro version, which gives you the stage play format and takes off the “Made in Highland 2” watermark that shows up on PDFs. I can’t remember how much Final Draft was, but when I saw $50, I was like, “Yeah, I’ll do $50. That’s okay.”
RHIANA YAZZIE: Wow, who wants to go toe-to-toe to that next?
AUDREY LANG: I could go, sure. I use Microsoft Word, and I feel like most people generally know the ins and outs. I always feel like I don’t have a lot of formatting freedom on Google Docs. The page doesn’t function and look how I want it to, which is why I use Microsoft Word.
So I use Microsoft Word, Google Docs, and I have written in the Notes app. As a kid I wrote like an 80-page story in the Notes app in my phone, so that’s something I’ve sort of kept doing, because sometimes if it’s like a little germ of an idea, it feels too official to put it in a word processor. In order to actually have it spill out in the way I want it to spill out, I sort of have to write it in a less formal way first, and it just comes out a lot easier, and then I will take it and retype it in Word after that. So that’s me.
DEBORAH ZOE LAUFER: I know that feeling. Sometimes in early drafts I just write the dialogue without any formatting. Once the character name is centered and the stage directions indented, it feels like it’s chiseled in stone. It’s amazing how much the way it looks on the page affects how I feel about the writing. Paula Vogel teaches about allowing the placement of the words to express the feeling of the scene. What drives me crazy about Final Draft is the format is fixed in stone.
SHARAI BOHANNON: Again, I’m a new Final Draft person, but the things that it won’t let me do is frustrating. I started the Final Draft journey like a week and a half before they upgraded to 12, so I used it to transcribe some old scripts for a TV show a friend and I are working on, and I was like, “Oh, I like this. It’s a little bit of a learning curve but I like it.” And then they upgraded it, and it has not been my friend. I love night mode, but it keeps crashing every few minutes and so I keep having to go back however many pages. It’s been very glitchy, but I managed to power through for a script I needed for a workshop. It was a lot of, “There goes those last two pages; I hope I didn’t enjoy anything in those last two,” and having to push forward because I’m stubborn. Like, I really want to write something from start to finish on this, and it doesn’t want me to right now. And I’m happy I pushed through, but I’m going to end up having to talk to customer support to be like, “What is wrong? Is it me? If it’s me, what can we do?”
DEBORAH ZOE LAUFER: Are you going to stay with Final Draft?
SHARAI BOHANNON: I don’t know. If we can figure it out, if it’s like a simple fix or if it’s just a matter of re-downloading something… If we can do that, I would love to, because I just got it, so it’s like a new toy, and I don’t get a lot of new toys as a playwright. I want us to work it out but also the stress of having to save constantly as I go… It’s a lot.
RHIANA YAZZIE: That sounds a little like a relationship you’re not sure you want to stay in and possibly a little toxic.
SHARAI BOHANNON: Exactly, exactly. He won’t let me have my pages.
RHIANA YAZZIE: One thing that I do love about Final Draft is they have amazing customer support. I’ve never been treated like a human being by customer support ever in my life, but they just seem like they really care about the playwright. I can still remember in 2015, I had finished a script literally the last words and then Final Draft disappeared, and I couldn’t find the file at all.
DEBORAH ZOE LAUFER: I’m not going to be able to sleep tonight.
RHIANA YAZZIE: It was totally gone. I reopened Final Draft, all the other scripts I’d been working on were there, that script was gone, and I called my brother who’s a computer technician. He had me download this really obscure software, run all of these things, and then we found the file. But I’ve since learned that I could just call customer support! That was probably one of the scariest moments of my life losing my script. Ha!
SHARAI BOHANNON: I spend a lot of time in the saved files, a lot of time in that graveyard. The play I was working on had multiple endings and I lost a couple, and I was like, maybe it’s a sign that they weren’t good, because I’m not going to rewrite them. [Laughter]
RHIANA YAZZIE: That’s hard. I feel like I was here to champion Final Draft but now I’m just remembering my issues. But honestly, I still love it and I hope by the time I load in Final Draft 12, all the glitches will be fixed. By the way, if anyone from Final Draft is reading this…
DEBORAH ZOE LAUFER: Come to our aid! I’ve been collaborating on a movie in Google Docs, and now we’re going to have to convert it to Final Draft. I don’t think we could get it in shape without their formatting guidance, though I’m really interested in these alternatives.
DANIELLE MOHLMAN: I use Scrivener and I love it. Like I said, I’ve been working on it since 2009, so almost every play that I’ve ever written has been written in Scrivener. I got turned onto it by a novelist friend before I even heard anyone mention Final Draft, so I was like, “Yeah, I’ll try it,” and then I’ve been hooked ever since.
What I love about Scrivener is – well, first of all, it has a pretty clean look and I just love something that is clean and organized. But I like to use it for writing and outlining and freewriting… so, everything. When I plot or outline, I write what’s happening in each scene, and when I’m working on a scene, that summary will be over on the side, on its own index card. And in the center will be the text of my play, which formats as I write.
And then I can change the different formatting settings on a more micro level. So if I wanted to make sure that all my stage directions don’t have parentheses, or if I want them to have parentheses, I could change that here. I could change what is happening after I hit return on a line of dialogue if I wanted to.
I also use it for notes and organizing my research. You can create little drop-down situations where you can do some freewriting about different characters or organize links from research. It’s really easy for me to have everything all in one place.
When I’m starting to work on a new piece, similar to what Audrey was talking about, I will use a notebook to sketch things out. But other than that, I put everything in Scrivener, and I’ve never had a problem with anything crashing or being lost. It autosaves everything as you work. I’ve been working with it for so long that I feel like it would take a lot to get me to switch to a different software, just because I’m so used to it. I didn’t choose it for any particular reason, but I’ve stuck with it because it works for me.
DEBORAH ZOE LAUFER: And you convert to PDF when you send?
DANIELLE MOHLMAN: Yeah, there’s an option in Scrivener to just export to PDF. I usually just copy and paste because I like to check my formatting, so I copy it into Word and then make it a PDF from there, but there’s also the option to just directly export it and have it go straight to a PDF.
RHIANA YAZZIE: How often do updates come out?
DANIELLE MOHLMAN: They come out not as frequently as Final Draft, but I want to say that this update came out, I don’t know, a year ago or something. I’ve had probably four or five different versions, so it’s probably every two or three years that they’ll come out with an update. There are also little updates in between, and one thing that I have loved about them is if they do a major update that would require you to pay extra, they honor anyone who has bought it in the past and they kind of just apply the difference.
RHIANA YAZZIE: Well, I’ve heard folks say that they write notes. I know I definitely do that in my phone too; I keep notes. And then folks have also mentioned handwriting and scribbling. Has anybody ever used a Rocketbook for handwriting and scribbling?
AUDREY LANG: I want to.
DANIELLE MOHLMAN: I don’t even know what that is. Can someone explain?
RHIANA YAZZIE: It’s essentially a kind of a polymer notebook. You download the software, take a picture of the page, and it uploads to the place you want to upload it to, whether that’s Google Docs or Dropbox or wherever you want to put it. But it’ll also turn your handwriting into typed text. I was just wondering if anybody had gotten deep into that yet.
CHRIS LEYVA: I’ve tried to use my iPad for that, but there’s something about writing on glass that just doesn’t feel quite right. Pretty much every first draft I do, I start in my notebook with a pen, and then I will scan the handwritten pages into a PDF from my phone so that when I’m transcribing them I have it on my computer. I’ll have Highland on the right and the PDF of my handwritten stuff on the left. I don’t think I’ve ever done a draft purely on the computer from typing; it all has to be handwritten. I don’t know why that is. My friend says, “Well that’s your sacred space, that’s how you do it so be sacred with it, use your notebook.”
DEBORAH ZOE LAUFER: I used to write by hand a million years ago, but I get very frustrated if characters don’t talk as fast as I’m hearing them, so I type very sloppily but very fast the first draft. I was wondering, does anybody use a recording device and speak your ideas or your dialogue into it?
DANIELLE MOHLMAN: I do that when I’m writing music for plays but not when I’m writing dialogue.
DEBORAH ZOE LAUFER: You do music and lyrics also?
DANIELLE MOHLMAN: Yeah, a little bit.
SHARAI BOHANNON: I don’t do that, but I’ve recommended it to quite a few of my students and friends who are not writers and they’re more oral storytellers. I always recommend that they record themselves and then transcribe that, and that works better for them. I hate the sound of my own voice, which is funny because I cohost a podcast.
RHIANA YAZZIE: What is your podcast’s name?
SHARAI BOHANNON: A Nightmare on Fierce Street. We tackle horror through an intersectional lens.
RHIANA YAZZIE: Do you write horror, too?
SHARAI BOHANNON: Actually, I do. I’ve always liked the genre, but it could be better for some of us, so I just started doing it myself.
RHIANA YAZZIE: Oh, wow.
DEBORAH ZOE LAUFER: Amazing.
AUDREY LANG: I feel like I have the opposite thing as Chris. I don’t handwrite as fast as I think, so even if I tried to start writing a draft by hand, at a certain point I have to switch to typing because I can’t keep up with how fast I’m thinking.
RHIANA YAZZIE: It just makes you wonder about the sense of time and urgency of putting something onto paper. I mean, obviously some of our best-known playwrights did not have any of this technology. I throw this out as a larger philosophical question: are we different now because we can type as fast as our thoughts? What does that mean in comparison to the olden days? And I’m not just talking about English, because there are many languages globally. Thoughts about that?
CHRIS LEYVA: For me there’s something in the transfer from paper to the computer that allows me to reanalyze what I’ve written. It lets me rethink each thing as I’m putting it in and becomes a more deliberate choice. It allows me to slow down, and it feels more like a craft at that point.
DEBORAH ZOE LAUFER: I feel that way about lyric writing. If I write too fast as a lyricist, I don’t take the time to find either the best rhyme or the most imaginative way to put something. I also like to doodle and write lists of rhymes all over the page, so it’s very visual in a way that writing on the computer isn’t.
SHARAI BOHANNON: I never write the whole thing by hand, but sometimes I’ll go ahead and skip straight to storyboarding and find myself in love enough to want to see what’s going to happen. Then I take it and we make it a real thing on the computer. But I write faster than I type, so I’m like Chris in that regard.
CHRIS LEYVA: I will outline on the computer, though, which is the weird thing. I’ll do my outline on the computer and then I’ll go to the notebook to write the scenes I’ve outlined. So I don’t know what that says about me, but I use Highland to do my outline because I can write the title of my scene a little bit like Danielle’s notecard view, except it’s all linear. I’ll do that or I’ll also do a StoryClock. I don’t know if anyone’s ever heard of that tool. It’s really bizarre. You have a circle, and you imagine your story as if it were on a clock. You write the events of the play around the circle where in the time they would happen. You see how the different parts of the story interact with each other and it just allows a different way to visualize the action of the story.
DANIELLE MOHLMAN: That sounds incredible. I want to try that.
DEBORAH ZOE LAUFER: Me, too. Do other people outline? I usually don’t.
DANIELLE MOHLMAN: I’ve only started outlining in the pandemic. I needed some control over something.
AUDREY LANG: I can’t outline. In classes, people have tried to get me to outline, and I just can’t. I’m working on a play right now that is based on the Purim story, and because I wrote Purim spiels for my synagogue and stuff, it’s a story that I almost know too well. There already is an outline, and so I’m having a really hard time cracking it because of that.
DANIELLE MOHLMAN: Yeah, it took me a long time to come to outlines, like only in the last year, year and a half.
I’m also the kind of writer who reads their plays out loud as they write them, so I like to work in Scrivener or just on the computer in general because I’m rewriting as I’m writing. I don’t know if it’s necessarily better for playwriting in general, but for me personally, it feels like a craft because I’m honing those lines of dialogue and those interactions as I go.
DEBORAH ZOE LAUFER: I will say that I love Google Docs, but if you don’t have internet you’re stuck. We lost internet, and my whole day was sort of gone because I couldn’t get to my document. I did write some stuff in a Word doc, but I always start by reading five pages back before I move forward every day to kind of get a running start, so being unable to access the doc was frustrating.
RHIANA YAZZIE: I think that’s why I like having software that can live on my computer rather than live feed to the internet, just because of that issue. I’m not always wanting to write somewhere that I have to be wired into.
SHARAI BOHANNON: I will say I’ve used so many different things because I had student discounts. So I tried Fade In and I tried Celtx. I really, really did love Google. There was a day where Google was like, “No,” and so I had to use Microsoft Word, but when Google decided to cooperate again, I just copy/pasted it and it was a good time. If Final Draft and I can’t work it out, I’m going to go back to Google. No harm, no foul.
DEBORAH ZOE LAUFER: Good luck.
DANIELLE MOHLMAN: One thing that I really love about Scrivener that I forgot to say—and this I guess would be my final selling point—for people with a similar brain, there’s a continuous scroll on each scene, no page breaks. I used to get really hung up on how many pages I wrote each day, or even how many pages were in a play. Ever since I started working in Scrivener, it’s just been about, “Okay, let’s get to the main event of this scene.” My brain just doesn’t like to think about whether this play is 90 pages or 70 pages or 120 pages. It’s as long as it needs to be.
Another thing I really like: in the most recent update of Scrivener, you can see your daily word count at the top of the screen, and I like to challenge myself, like, “Today, I’m going to hit 500 words,” or whatever it is. And to have the full word count for the document and the daily word count next to each other has been really wonderful. I love data like that.
DEBORAH ZOE LAUFER: I’m sold that you can keep so much in one document. I have like twelve note files of research for everything I do and it’s always getting lost.
DANIELLE MOHLMAN: Oh no, not me.
DEBORAH ZOE LAUFER: That seems really great.
RHIANA YAZZIE: Danielle, have you ever been surprised at the length of a play when you typed “the end?”
DANIELLE MOHLMAN: Yes. Yeah, I have a play that’s about 130 pages but doesn’t feel like 130 pages. And then I have other plays that run much shorter, page count-wise, because I’m packing a punch. I’ve just let myself go from different submission requirements of things like “must be hitting 75 pages to be a full length.” There’s such a thing as just letting your characters sit or move, things that don’t end up in your page count. And I think that letting go of that and recognizing the value of the continuous scroll kind of came at the same time for me.
AUDREY LANG: This conversation has really made me interested in trying all these other software. A lot of them definitely have all these other interesting capabilities that Microsoft Word doesn’t, but my plug is also going to be that I think the sort of simplicity and basic-ness of Microsoft Word makes it really flexible, too, and makes it adaptable to a lot of different things.
DANIELLE MOHLMAN: Can I ask, Audrey, do you format as you go, or do you just write everything and then format after?
AUDREY LANG: I format as I go. Even though I’m often sort of writing in my head, thinking too fast to physically write it, I think having to format actually helps me keep up with myself, if that makes sense.
RHIANA YAZZIE: Any last plug for Highland 2?
CHRIS LEYVA: It does have two other features that I forgot to mention. One is it does write sprints where you can say, “I want to write for 40 minutes non-stop,” and it’ll show you how you did during that sprint. But then a newer thing that they added is a gender analysis. I don’t know if any of the other software has this where you can checkmark if a character is male, female, or nonbinary, and it will track the number of lines and the number of words by gender.
DEBORAH ZOE LAUFER: I’m in love with Highland 2. I’m getting Highland 2 as soon as we get off this conversation.
This was incredible. I was thinking, “are we going to be able to talk for an hour about software?” But we could probably go for another hour. I feel very emotional about the different ways I write and it’s nice to know I’m not alone. Thank you all!
RHIANA YAZZIE: It’s very exciting to hear all of your experiences.
DANIELLE MOHLMAN: Yeah, thank you for giving us the opportunity to talk about this—and for giving Highland 2 a platform. [Laughter]