A Good Word Processor for Writers Should Do 3 Things Really Well

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 distractionsWYSIWYG 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.

  1. 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.

Published by Jamie Todd Rubin

Jamie Todd Rubin writes fiction and nonfiction for a variety of publications including Analog, Clarkesworld, The Daily Beast, 99U, Daily Science Fiction, Lightspeed, InterGalactic Medicine Show, and several anthologies. He was featured in Lifehacker’s How I Work series. He has been blogging since 2005. By day, he manages software projects and occasionally writes code. He lives in Falls Church, Virginia with his wife and three children. Find him on Twitter at @jamietr.

17 replies on “A Good Word Processor for Writers Should Do 3 Things Really Well”

  1. I too separate my fiction from my non-fiction tools. I use a Scrivener-like program for Linux called Plume Creator for fiction and I use just about anything else for non-fiction. Usually that means using WordPress for my blog. When I need to write code, I use a text editor called Scribes. Different programs and platform but the same reasons for using them.

    The only time I use LibreOffice Write is when I have to format something for sending to editors, or transferring to epub. Since I do my own digital publishing most of the time, I have other tools that I use for formatting the final product.

    I’ve never had the need for focusing on my fiction though. Perhaps having come from programming with IDE’s I just expect more information about my novel to be at hand when I write. I like to refer back to previous chapters and my outline, character sketches and research.

    Oddly enough, when I write short fiction, I usually just use Write or FocusWriter. But even then, I don’t need to go full screen. Everyone’s different. I do agree with what you said about writers getting distracted with formatting. I see that with other writers.

    Good post!

  2. I am surprised to see that you don’t Evernote for non-fiction writing. It’s an easy to use tool for simple writing jobs on all platforms.

  3. I’m one of those pure unfortunates using Windows Vista. I gave up on MS Word for writing a long time ago, back when I was using Word 2000. I had exactly the same problem as you – far, far too much time wasted on fiddling with the presentation rather than actually writing.

    Nowadays, I do all my writing first in Notepad, and when I’m finished with the actual writing, I copy or import the text into another program, be it a wordprocessor, the WordPress text editor, Scrivener, or whatever, to finish up the actual presentation, organizing of files (if there are more than one, such as chapters of a novel) and saving the final version of the file.

    This definitely works for me. I do the most important thing first, getting the actual writing done, with no distractions, THEN I sort out the formatting. GET ALL THE WORDS DOWN FIRST before you start fiddling around – this should be every writer’s maxim.

    So-called WYSIWYG wordprocessors are the bane of a writer’s existence. The old pre-WYSIWYG wordpros such as Wordstar and WordPerfect were much, much better writing tools.

  4. This is very interesting about Scrivener and I think I may try it out — the Corkboard capability is certainly enticing. I respond now because I am one of what I suspect is a fair multitude of writers who always loved WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS and was compelled by market forces to adapt to Windows and especially to MSWord (which I detest still). Everyone I know who fits this description agrees with me: WordPerfect for DOS could do anything any writer would want except handle graphics. In fact, I still do _all_ my usual word processing in WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS, even thoough compelled to do printing through the Windows version because you can’t find DOS printers any more. (Waiting for the time when I can carry DOS and WP for DOS _together_ on a thumb drive, so as to be able to plug it into any machine at all and use WordPerfect away from my own computers, even in a public library or Internet cafe.) Scrivener sounds as though it might not be a huge or clumsy program — in other words, a word processor for writers who don’t need Excel or PP or graphics manipulations.

  5. I use also use IAWriter for my mac, my iPhone and occasionally on my iPhone as well. When I start editing or if we are more people working on the project i use MS Word for the mac. But only for editing purposes – the creative part is done in IAWriter.

    I have tried to use Evernote for that writing, however, I came to the same conclusions as you did.

  6. Hello, I use Word in normal mode and its OK for nonfiction but I’m not happy. I remember Wordstar fondly, but anyway, my major gripe is not being able to save all the cuts and copies on the clipboard with the text it is associated with so that next time it is all there when I switch on the computer. This is really really really annoying and such a basic useful feature that it mystifies me why I can’t find any word processor that will do this. Anyone know of one? And no, I don’t want clipboard managers they seem to save everything and clog up.

    It’s surprising that word processing on computers hasn’t really improved in time, it’s a less is more thing I guess (except for clipping obviously).

  7. There is a new word processor ConstEdit at http://www.constedit.com that may satisfy your requirements, especially the first point “Separate the interface from the presentation layer”. It however produces documents in the webpage html format.

    You may give it a try. It is free for non-commercial users.

  8. I’m in a real fix right now, and while I wait for the editor who holds my 376 page manuscript in her computer, I’m researching the best word processing programs for writers. I am very techno-NOT-savvy. I was assured I could write my book using Mac Pages, and then export via Word doc. That’s what I did. The editor then returned it with track change comments/edits, and the entire thing has reformatted to be almost one long run-on sentence. When I talked to Apple Care, they told me using pages was as good as Word, but I could get Word for Mac if I wanted.

    Any idea why the thing reformatted? Is this a problem I’ll have when sending it out to agents/publishers? I’ve sent many short pieces back and forth but never this long of a document–I have no idea if the editor did something to cause the mess or if it’s Mac Pages.

    Any ideas/suggestions?

  9. I have used been happy using Msft Word for over twenty years — until this year (2013) when a new PC upgraded (?) me to Windows 8 and Word 2013 — which supposedly fixed what wasn’t broken. Word 2013 is unstable. Margins change when saved text is re-opened. The cursor jumps out of position. And sometimes the screen goes blank. Microsoft doesn’t care as any customer issue is referred to customers! To them customer service is an oxymoron statement. I appreciate your help in finding a reliable word-processor for my non-fiction books. Thanks, Bob Deneen

Comments are closed.