The Word's The Word

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2017-08-24 12:00:00 No comments

Hugh Howey (of Wool fame, et al.) has outlined his feelings for an ideal word processor. It's an interesting read, both because of the number of people who want to beta-test such a thing or help him build it, and because of the way it's caused many writers to pipe up about their priorities. My own feeling is a minority opinion: I need good organizational tools that conform to my workflow, but my actual writing tools are not something I want to toss out and replace anew, as they work fine.

When writing was just you and a pencil and a piece of paper, you were expected to conform to the tools at hand, and masterworks happened all the time anyway. (Leo Tolstoy's wife copied War and Peace SEVEN TIMES, BY HAND!) This persisted mostly unchanged up to and through the typewriter days. But as more writing was done using software, there came the growing expectation that the tools should conform to the user's demands, and not the other way around.

I mostly agree with this. It's part of why I started using TiddlyWiki as my primary way to organize projects rather than on endless Post-It notes or in a monolithically linear Microsoft Word document. But the other part of it is that I have decades of habits built up inside of using Word, and a good sense of how to get the tool to conform to my needs, that I'm not all that interested in scrapping that tool for something entirely new. Such a tool would have to do everything Word did, and do it better, to get me to bother. (And since "better" tends to be highly subjective anyway....)

I go against a lot of people's expectations, and perhaps also their sensibilities, when I say that I not only use Word but actually like it. I think it's improved tremendously over the years. It hasn't crashed on me in I don't know how long, and deals well with the very longest, most complex documents I throw at it. Most everything you don't need is now kept out of your way by default, and the few things that nose their way into your workflow are easily switched off once and for all with a little effort. Rather than complain about the toolset and long fruitlessly for something better (again, whatever "better" would mean), I decided to make the effort to learn about how it worked, and put that knowledge into my service.

Side note. I get the impression most of the reason people hate Word has more to do with a general unreasoning animosity towards Microsoft than anything else, so any flaws that would be minor in another program are amplified into an unbearable burden in Word. Never underestimate the power of people's irrational perceptions to color what they think are rational analyses. As someone else once said, "... our mental processes tend to be compromised by a phenomenon called ‘motivated cognition.’ Motivated cognition refers to our unconscious tendency to selectively process information in ways that suit ends or goals unrelated to the truth."

Anyway. If Word and the like are eclipsed by anything, it'll be online services like Google Docs, although I still think they're underpowered. They perform very poorly when dealing with long documents. I can't really break a novel into chapter files if I want to do global search-and-replace or perform similar things. And last time I checked, they don't really offer a way to gang together multiple documents in any way more sophisticated than just dumping them all into the same folder, which isn't a solution for me.

Maybe someday I'll end up like poor old George R.R. Martin, running my word processor of choice by way of some elaborate set of software emulation layers. Or maybe Microsoft Word will still be around in another twenty years, more by way of habit than anything else. Or maybe the online incarnation will be the dominant (and monetizable) version, and the desktop application will have been painstakingly open-sourced and released. All I ask for is the ability to keep some semblance of the toolset I know in the places I want to keep it, and the freedom to move away should I choose to.

Addendum: Another project named Granthika also seems a closer look.

Tags: Hugh Howey Microsoft technology writers writing