Edit, Dec. 1, 2016: The site has changed a lot in the last year, all for the better 🙂 I’m going to do a new post
shortlyeventually, but in the meantime, know that this post was based on an earlier version of the site and much of it has changed.
I participate in NaNoWriMo every year, and one of the side effects of that is trying out the products from their various sponsors. I’ve had more than a few successes over the years, finding things like Scrivener that I love and can’t imagine working without. Others are just fun.
This year, one of the ones I tried out for the first time is the site 4thewords. I think they were a sponsor last year as well, but the early reports indicated they were having a very rough Beta, and I decided to give them a little more time the get their feet under them. Things seemed more stable this year, and their walk-through video once again convinced me this was something I’d find fun, so I decided to give them a chance.
It’s gamification for writing. Combining two things I love, so of course I had to try it out.
The first thing I’d say is that the updates they’ve rolled out this month are fantastic, and were sorely needed. The difference in the user experience even between now and when I started on November 2nd is enough that it was the difference between my continuing with the site after NaNo and not. If the writing interface had stayed the way it was when I started, I wouldn’t have remained with it, and may have even ditched it before NaNo was over. Given the updates, however, it’s a functional WYSIWIG, with the ability to create multiple files and organize them into projects, and something I can see myself continuing to use. It’s not a full-fledged word processor, but I have Scrivener for that, and this is an excellent way to get words on the page.
I love the monster battles. There are a variety of different monsters available, each with a different word count. Reach the word count, and you defeat the monster. It’s a great way to set a target for a day (or a session for the smaller/shorter ones), and they keep it interesting by having some monsters that are time sensitive. For example, there’s a monster that’s only out during the day, and another at night. They even added a NaNo-related monster for November, with the daily NaNo target as the health bar. I’m not certain if we’ll be able to do anything with the badges we collect for the defeating the monsters, but I do know it’s harder to knock off early when you have that battle bar in the corner.
Daily Target and Stats
I’d prefer if this was customizable, but the site has a daily target of 444 words. Hit that, and you start a streak. The site automatically tracks how many days in a row you’ve reached the target, and displays it with the rest of your stats. As with the monster battles, wanting to see the streak counter increase is motivational for me.
The dashboard is another area that improved recently, though I think even the initial one was decent. You have charts for your daily word count, your time, and your battles. Again, visualizing progress is motivating to me, and not having to fight with Excel to get nice charts is something I like. It’s also fun to see the break down at the bottom, which shows the average words per day of the week, and the percentage of writing you do during the day versus at night.
As mentioned above, each monster has a word count you have to hit to defeat it. They also have a countdown, which is the time frame you have to write those words. I’m a little torn on this one, because the countdown begins the second you start the battle, and it uses all time instead of just writing time. I can see why they made this choice, and I think either would have their positives and negatives, so I can’t call this a bad thing. Really, I didn’t even notice it at first, because most of the monsters give you a lot of time in which to complete the battle.
However, some of the new monsters have very short countdowns. I like this, because it means the different monster battles have different challenges. The downside is that it makes you really dependent on the site stability. There’s more about that in my “bad” section, but ultimately, it means if something goes wrong on the site during a short battle, you’ll lose.
This may just be an inherent issue with an online tool. I’ve never really used any before this, so it’s hard for me to say, and I don’t know the technical challenges involved. But anyway, it looks like the writing interface is entirely online, with no local caching. Again, I don’t know what the options are, but if something happens and you’re sent off the writing page, then even if you go back, anything in between then and the last save is just gone.
For the most part, this isn’t a problem. There’s an auto-save feature with a decent timer, so I’ve only really run into problems twice:
- Wi-Fi drop. Totally not the site’s problem, but during one session my wi-fi dropped unexpectedly. However, it doesn’t seem like the attempts to save have a timeout. (Or didn’t at the time. I haven’t checked recently.) That meant even though I hit many auto-save points, and even clicked Save manually a few times, there was no error message. I also received no success messages, which if I’d known better would’ve clued me in, but when it comes to potential data loss an explicit notification is better than an implicit one.
- Random Tab Crashes. They’re working on these, and they appear to be resolved for the most part, which is good, but for about a week I was getting random tab crashes in Chrome when writing on my desktop. I’d be in the middle or working on something, and then, “Oops, error, everything is gone”. The frustrating part was that it usually hit around the time it should have been auto-saving, so resulted in a lot of re-writing. It also meant that not only were words lost, but so was progress in my battles, because they save at the same time as the page. This is where the short countdown timers became a problem. My progress was wiped so many times, and finding ways to work around the issue took long enough that the battle ended while I was dealing with them.
Again, this may just be something that comes along with an online environment. It’s sort of the same problem as programs that have a crash issue, but it’s something to be aware of, and frustrating when it crops up.
No Time Zone Setting
I think this is something they are looking at implementing, but currently there is no way to set your time zone. Given the tracking, the charts, and the time-dependent monsters, it’s a noticeable over-sight.
I tend to write in the evenings, skirting very close to the end of the day. That means if I don’t get on the site to create a file early in the day, any words I write will be counted to the next day. However, some days I manage to pull off an early writing sprint (it’s something I’m trying to work on doing on a regular basis), and the combination throws everything off.
For example, on the 14th I didn’t manage to create a file early, and by the time I logged on to write, the site’s time zone counted it as the next day. On the 15th, however, I did manage to get on early, so both days were counted that day. That means my dashboard says I have nothing for the 14th, but did awesome on the 15th, and it’s not accurate for either.
Given the stats tracking is one of the things I love about the site, having inaccurate data on their is frustrating. I’m working around it by trying to create a file whether I get on to writing or not, but I really just want to have it in my timezone. (Also, the new streak calendar doesn’t seem to match whatever the files are using, so it just gets confusing.)
There are other people on the forums who point out that the time zone also has an impact on the monsters, as the time or day dependent ones don’t show up when they’re supposed to for them.
The issues I have with the site are not deal-breakers. (At least as long as the tab crashing doesn’t come back.) They are things I can work with, and while I wish they’d change, they aren’t enough for me to leave the site behind. I’m also really looking forward to features I can see in development, like additional quests and whatever is replacing the badge system. (I admit, I miss the badges. I love achievement-type-things.) So, I’m going to keep using the site to defeat monsters while getting words on the page. Right now, it looks like this is another NaNo sponsor win to me.