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3 things a word processing tool should do

July 18, 2013

Blogmaster’s note: Today we have a guest post by MJ Carlson. If you think Word is the only word in online writing, think again. There are other tools that are cheaper than Word and might help you out just as much, or even more! Want more info? Read on!

I’ve spent most of my day with one word processor or another for the past eighteen years. In that time, I’ve used in the neighborhood of twenty programs on five different operating systems. Over the years, I’ve developed thoughts on what the perfect word processor should do for writers.

Some history: My parents owned a manual typewriter (pre-electric) that I played with until they bought their first Smith-Corona in the 60s. I used electrics through high school and college. I liked the weight, the tactile experience of the key strokes, and the solid snapping of the type bars against the paper on the roller, but I wouldn’t want to use one to make a living today.

The first word processor I used was at the Fort Myers News Press in 1974. It was a monster that turned yellow text on a screen into punched paper rolls that went to typesetting. The first “real” word processor I used was WordPerfect on a Microsoft computer that belonged to a girlfriend. Since then, I’ve had to use various versions of Microsoft Word at the insistence of my employers (their machines), and used a score of others on my own. I find programs like Microsoft Word (and OpenOffice/LibreOffice, et al) virtually unusable for a serious writer.

A bold statement. But wait, you say (I heard you): can I back it up? Yes. I believe so. Tools are supposed to make our lives easier, and word processors should be no exception. So, what should a good word processor do for you? A good word processor should do three things really well:

1. Separate the content from the presentation. My focus is content, not font size, formatting, or associated nonsense. My job (and yours, if you write), is to write. There’s even a standard manuscript format for this very reason. Typesetting comes later. I should open up my word processor and write and when I’m done, it should compile my words into a standard format. For shorter works like this, Bean for Mac does an excellent job. It’s free (voluntary donation). For longer work, Scrivener does a beautiful job for $40. It also organizes my chapters, imports photos in .JPEG and documents in .PDF and HTML that I can view as I write. When I’m done, both format my product in .RTF or .DOC, whichever I need.

2. Eliminate distractions. WYSIWYG was a cool idea back in the day, but now we send attachments, not paper. I don’t want toolbars at the top of my page, I want a big, empty screen with big, easy to read text, so I can see my work. Bean and Scrivener both do this really well.

3. Keep things simple. Here, MS Word is the worst offender (with OpenOffice/LibreOffice close behind). You see all those toolbar ribbons at the top of your screen when you write? They’re distracting you from focusing on content. All those pretty fonts? Distraction. Those buttons for hyperlinks, bullets, justification, gallery and paintbrush (whatever those are)? Distraction. A writer shouldn’t be concerned with all that stuff to get thoughts into text.

In my experience, too many writers who use these programs get bogged down in pretty presentation to the detriment of content, which was the original point of the exercise. If you’re spending time picking fonts, you’re wasting writing time or worse, time you could spend with your family. It adds up. I like mine and want to maximize my time with them. A simple, distraction-free interface helps to keep you focused.

In summary, writing tools that speed up the process without getting in the way or overwhelming you make a program writer-friendly.

The usual arguments:

“Sure,” you say, “but I just set things like font and format and forget them.” Yes, and no. One huge problem with MS Word (and the others, to some degree) is that they try to guess what formatting you want based on what you used in the past. If you ever copy/past something from another source, you just changed the formatting in the background. The downside? Different chapters and even different paragraphs can be formatted using vastly different parameters and still look almost exactly the same (until you send your manuscript to be converted). If you doubt my veracity, please download the SmashWords Style Guide (free) to see the hoops you or someone you pay will have to jump through to get your manuscript to look right as an ebook. Or, upload it without the hoop jumping and see how funky it looks for yourself.

“I want to see what my piece will look like when my publisher sees it.” Surprise, you won’t. Back in the dark ages, when people used computers like typewriters, WYSIWYG was great. But that was screen to paper to envelope. Now we send attachments and I guarantee your beautifully formatted manuscript will not look the same when your editor/publisher opens it on their machine. Their default settings will be different and the printer they have will alter those settings. It’ll look different, trust me.

“My publisher insists on Word documents.” No, your publisher insists on .DOC or .RTF formatted documents, just as mine does. Any modern word processor will give you either. It makes absolutely no difference how you get there. Promise.

“What about edits?” That’s editing, not writing. I generally use OpenOffice or LibreOffice to view edits. Both are free (donations), and work well.

If it sounds like I’m Microsoft bashing, I’m really not. MS does some things really well, but it has convinced people that Word is the only game in town and it simply isn’t. It’s only a tool. My suggestions here will do everything MS Word will do for roughly 1/3 the cost, and just as well or better. You can cross America on a pogo stick too, but I’d prefer to drive or fly. The choice is yours.

M.J. will be doing a talk on word processors for writers at this year’s FWA conference. His website is www.mjcarlson.com.

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6 Comments
  1. Mary Ann de Stefano permalink*
    July 18, 2013 9:10 am

    Interesting.

    I agree that Word is bloated and has more features than most users need. But since I don’t want to invest time to learn or money in something new, I make Word work for me.

    I turn off ribbons (toolbars) and use the slider at the bottom of my page to increase the font size. Voila, a clean “page” with no distractions and a font that is easily readable on the page.

  2. July 18, 2013 9:32 am

    I agree! If I can remember to launch Scrivener, I would. Pasting into Word has been my worst experience, but I’ve learned to cope by pasting into Notepad first, then copy/paste into whatever document I’m working on.

    I really can care less about font, headings, etc. I can decide that later. But, when I’m putting stuff on a page, I shouldn’t be held back by the word processor attempting to make things convenient for me.

    At times, I’ll get an idea for an article and want to get it down on the page quickly. What do I do? I launch Notepad. lol

    • July 18, 2013 9:54 am

      Diane, to save pasting twice (Notepad and then Word), use Word’s Edit > Paste Special command and choose “Unformatted Text.” You can also use Tools > Customize Keyboard to assign a keyboard shortcut to this command. Saves a ton of time.

      • July 19, 2013 8:57 am

        Thanks for the tip! I think I saw someone do it once, but I never asked why. lol

    • July 23, 2013 6:31 pm

      Diane,
      Actually a good choice. NotePad (TextEdit for the Mac bunch) opens before you can snap your fingers and has a reasonable assortment of fonts, like Courier and Times New Roman (the default for NotePad is Lucida Console 10 point, I believe). NotePad saves in .txt (ASCII, at the risk of going all technical) which means any text editor on any machine can open and read it, including your grand-dad’s Commodore 64. WordPad is similarly quick (and comperable to Bean for Mac). It’s default is Arial, but defaults are easily changed in either.

      As a long-time Scrivener-user, I’m curious what problem you’ve had with it. It will compile in .rtf easily and I’ve copy-pasted tons of text into OpenOffice/LibreOffice without difficulty. It and Y-writer (both available for Windows) really shine when organizing something thesis or novel-length. For shorter work, anything (even old free NotePad/TextEdit) will do fine. Rather than enter into a lengthy discussion here, if you’re planning on attending the conference in October, please look me up. I’m always interested in learning about the tools of the trade.

      Kristen,
      Hi. Yeah, macros are a shortcoming for Scrivener, but in all fairness, macros and novel-writing aren’t two things I usually put together in my head. It will do super/subscript and footnotes, though, which is respectable for novel-organizing software but for newsletters, and things of that nature, you’ll still need MS Word or one of its (free) open-source cousins.

      Thank you for your comments, all.

  3. July 18, 2013 9:58 am

    I had an editing job in which the client was working in OpenOffice and I was working in Word. I had no idea he wasn’t using Word until he asked me how to do something, and my instructions made no sense to him because he didn’t have the same menu options. I still prefer Word for its user interface, but I’m no longer convinced every writer must use it.

    And yeah, Scrivener rocks for content creation. I just wish its shortcuts were as customizable as Word’s. I use lots of keyboard shortcuts and macros to save time, and that’s one area where Word dominates.

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