I spend most of my day in a word processor of one kind or another, and have done so for the better part of 20 years. With that volume of experience, I have developed a few thoughts on what constitutes an ideal word processor for writer. Well, for this writer at the very least. Before discussing my principles of an ideal word processor, it might help to have a little history.
I am old enough, at 40, to have used a typewriter before I ever used a word processor. Back when I was using a typewriter, at the ages of 8 or 9 or 10, it wasn’t for any purpose other than self-entertainment. I used my mom’s electric typewriter, a blue Smith Corona, I believe, and I can recall the hum and the clacking of the keys and the bell of the carriage return. Even better, I can recall using my Grandpa’s manual Royal Quiet De Luxe typewriter. I liked that typewriter even better than the electric and as a youngster, even managed to bang out a few stories on that machine. Indeed, I still own it today, and although I no longer use it, it sits in my office as a reminder of times past.
There is, of course, a romance to the simplicity of typewriters like the Royal, but in truth, I wouldn’t want to write on a typewriter today, given the volume of writing I do each day. Word processors make that so much easier.
The first word processor I used was Apple Works. It came with my Apple IIe, if I am not mistaken. I can remember using this for various school papers in junior high school. I think we may have even created some “newsletters: with Apple Works, just because we could.
After Apple Works, we switched to an IBM PC and I began a long stint using WordPerfect. I continued to use WordPerfect through version 5.1 and indeed, when I started college in the fall of 1990, I was still using WordPerfect for writing up notes and papers. Sometime in 1992, I switched from WordPerfect to Microsoft Word 5.5, which remained my favorite word processor for a long, long time. Indeed, I still think it is the best word processor Microsoft ever made. Eventually, both school and work forced me into Word for Windows and its various descendants and I began my gradual frustration with word processors. Today, I think that word processors like Microsoft Word are virtually unusable for a writer like me.
Today, I use a few different tools in my writing. I use Scrivener on my Mac for my fiction-writing. I use iaWriter on my Mac for nonfiction writing. I also use iaWriter on my iPad. I occasionally use Google Docs. I use the WordPress browser editor for blog posts on my Mac, and I use Blogsy for blog posts on my iPad. And I use TextMate for general text editing, although this usually isn’t related to my writing.
A good word processor for writers should do 3 things really well:
1. Separate the interface from the presentation layer. Put another way, as I writer, I shouldn’t have to worry about fonts and font sizes and formatting and all of that other nonsense. That is the job of the person responsible for laying out the piece in whatever market I sell it to. My job as a writer is to write. I don’t want to waste my time fooling around with formatting. Indeed, there is a “standard manuscript format” for this very reason. I want to be able to open up the word processor, start writing, and when I am done, “compile” the document so that what I wrote is automatically converted to standard manuscript format. This is exactly what Scrivener does, and is one of the reasons I love it so much. However my document looks on the screen, it will still come out in standard manuscript format when I am all done.
2. Eliminate all other distractions. WYSIWYG was a cool idea when it first emerged, but I quickly learned that as a writer, it is not my job to layout the document. It’s my job to write the document and WYSIWYG interfaces. What I want in a word processor is a full white screen with no toolbar, and a large font that is displayed clearly on my screen. This is why #1 is so important. I want a large font for easy reading on my screen, but the final presentation (the manscript) should not depend on that font for its production. Both Scrivener and iaWriter satisfy these conditions.
Here is what my Scrivener window looks like, full screen. Keep in mind this is the entire screen on my 27″ iMac:
Here is the same text, full screen on my 27″ iMac in iaWriter (which I typically use for nonfiction1):
Finally, here is the same text in Microsoft Word 2011, fullscreen on my 27″ iMac:
Of course, the key difference between Scrivener and Microsoft Word is that no quite all of the distractions are eliminated. I still have to worry about formatting. And what I see on the screen is exactly how the document will look on paper, whereas with Scrivener, my document, despite how it looks on the screen, will compile into standard manuscript format, saving me a lot of headache.
3. Keep it simple. These days, Microsoft Word does a lot more than just word processing, and that shows from the dozens of toolbar ribbons you can see when you are working with the tool. I want something simple, lightweight, and distraction-free. iaWriter doesn’t even have a Preferences screen and this is by design. Scrivener is somewhat more complex, but unlike Word, each of the features in Scrivener are geared toward making the writing process easier. All of the word process apps that I use keep track of word counts, for instance. They can check my spelling. They all integrate with TextExpander (even iaWriter on the iPad) which helps save even more time.
At the same time, these applications are not loaded down with features that I will never use, and which have questionable value inside a word processor to begin with.
In my experience, writers tend to get bogged down in the presentation of their document instead of working on the content. Word processors like Word encourage this behavior. They give you enough rope to distract yourself with. A tool that separates content creation (the interface) from the presentation layer can buy you back hours of time because you aren’t distracted by manuscript formatting. A clean, distraction-free interface helps to keep you focused. Finally, simple tools and features that speed up the writing process without getting in your way or overwhelming you are what make word processors truly writer-friendly.
- Why use a separate tool for nonfiction? There are a couple reasons for this. First, I typically write fiction exclusively in Scrivener, sitting at my desk. Nonfiction, on the other hand, I’ll write anywhere. iaWriter stores my documents in plain text and they can be stored in Dropbox. And since the client is available on my iPad, it makes sense to use it because I can access my work no matter where I am. Second, I write nonfiction a lot faster, with little need for the added capabilities that Scrivener provides. Third, my nonfiction pieces are typically much shorter than my fiction and the length lends itself to a simpler tool. ↩