writing words

The NYT Magazine features a nice little essay by Virginia Heffernan on Scrivener, a writing application designed not for office workers but for writers. It’s Mac only, as is a somewhat similar but quirkier predecessor in this field, Ulysses. And what field is this? The field of applications created by and for people who know that Microsoft Word — in its PC or Mac version — is a terrible, terrible application in which to write anything substantial.

I abandoned Word some years ago when it occurred to me that I was spending more time fiddling with typefaces, spacing, margins, and crap like that than I spent actually writing. The fiddling arose either because Word, as everyone knows, constantly adjusts your typefaces, spacing, margins, and crap like that whether you’ve asked it to or not, and even if you think you’ve turned off all its auto-correct functions; but the fiddling was also a function of the fact that I am a natural fiddler.

After a brief period of experimentation, I settled on a system that I have stuck with ever since: I write pretty much everything, from blog posts class notes to whole books, not in a word processor but in a programmer’s text editor, a magnificent application called BBEdit. I cannot express how much happier I have been since I banished Word from my workflow. All BBEdit allows me to do is to edit text. No italics, no boldface, no indentations, no headers or footers — nothing but text, which BBEdit allows me to manipulate in every way imaginable. It keeps me focused on what I’m really all about, or supposed to be about, when I’m writing. I don’t fiddle because I can’t.

Eventually, of course, I need to open a word processor in order to do the formatting necessary to submitting a manuscript, but (thanks to certain tools now available to the plain-text writer) that doesn’t happen until near the end of the writing process. I shudder when I think about trying to do any significant amount of writing in Word. It’s really quite remarkable that so many people write stories and essays and poems — and write them very well indeed — while using a tool that’s astonishingly poorly designed for the purpose. By rights all our novels and poems ought to read like business letters. Human adaptability is a great thing.