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Word Processors: One Writer's Retreat 634

Charlie Dickinson writes "Writers get attached to the implement that puts words from head and heart on paper. Hemingway favored carpenter pencils for his drafts. Possibly only a blunt pencil lead would bear the vitality of words flowing from his fingertips. More recently, amid PCs on Everyperson's desktop, Northwest novelist David James Duncan noted his lengthy The Brother's K was lovingly crafted on a typewriter. Often individualistic, writers must feel free to accept or refuse new writing technology and answer only to their muse." Dickinson walks through some of the choices writers face (or have faced) in their choice of tools, and champions his own favorite -- which isn't a fancy "word processor" at all. Read on below.

Personally, when the PC revolution got underway, I bought an Apple IIe soon after its introduction. VisiCalc caught my eye. As did Flight Simulator, and going online with a 300-baud modem to local computer bulletin boards. But when it came to writing -- in those days, three drafts of a first novel -- I would not abandon my trusty Hermes portable typewriter. The Apple would not tempt me to some writing Eden. The complexity of computers, I sensed, could only sap the creative process.

This reluctance to mix computers with writing ended abruptly in 1988: I began writing professionally. At different writing jobs, I made use of whatever hardware/software combo the employer had. I fashioned text with PCs, Macs, Sun workstations, and still deemed any personal writing project at night better suited to the beloved Hermes.

I soon realized storing words on electronic media meant the professional wordsmith also did "desktop publishing." I had to worry about font selection, repagination, stylesheets. I wondered when I'd have time to find the right word, the original phrase. Once, while "writing" a software manual, I commented that I'd spent far more time formatting than actually writing. That comment went unanswered. I had a sure sense I needed to make an adjustment to new priorities.

Still, I couldn't shake the idea something was being lost when writers got embroiled in desktop publishing. After five years, I gave up the software manuals, the marketing newsletters, to refocus on personal writing. And for the first time, I thought about moving my writing to that Apple IIe. I hesitated. The monitor was filled with text glowing green on a black background. Would those green emissions overwhelm my inner eye of imagination, unlike a piece of paper sitting in a typewriter? I decided to take the plunge and see.

Maybe I looked sideways when I visualized a story scene. I soon found the Apple IIe gave efficiency analogous to replacing handwriting with typewriting. I only retyped what I needed in successive drafts. Counting words was a snap. And, thankfully, Apple IIe word processing was primitive: more a typewriter with memory, not a desktop publishing system. On balance, a good tool. Before long, I was publishing short stories to the World Wide Web.

But by 1999, living with an Apple IIe was Neanderthal. So despite 15+ years of service, I upgraded to an IBM ThinkPad laptop. I was attracted by portability, the renowned IBM keyboard touch, and a promised multimedia experience of the World Wide Web. As for writing, I would use the full-bodied word processor that came with the ThinkPad. This I accepted as a tradeoff for new PC technology. I gave it a go and lived with a plethora of pull-down menus within pull-down menus. I endured help balloons that appeared without bidding. To keep writing, I resisted becoming expert with all my word processor could do.

This strategy of limits on learning worked but briefly. In months, I was driven to maddening distraction with features I thought I'd accidentally turned on and wouldn't, in a blue moon, set right. Gems like capitalization on autopilot. But what really called for a decision was discovery of quotation marks in the wrong font spread randomly throughout a book-length file (and a pair of left quotation marks at that!).

Moreover, the ThinkPad's operating system, Windows 98, caused me to yearn for the stability of an Apple IIe (if not a Sun workstation). I thought about Linux--the alternative to Windows (unless one buys a new computer and goes Macintosh). But in a serendipitous experiment, I installed the very alternative BeOS on the ThinkPad. As operating systems go, it was a vision of loveliness. Scot Hacker, author of THE BEOS BIBLE, aptly described BeOS as combining "the grace of a Mac and the power of Unix."

The productivity suite I bought for BeOS had a "less is more" flavor and the word processor, in particular, worked well. I wrote a novel without struggle. But too often I tackled the day's writing deciding such issues as a font for the day's draft. The point being, I still had too many choices, compared to my beloved Apple IIe. When I finished the 76,000-word manuscript, I found a disconcerting bug in my otherwise dependable word processor. It repeated words, on occasion, in the text. Admittedly, a dozen "doubles" among tens of thousands of words isn't a big deal, but I wondered if my writing might benefit from even less computer functionality. Did those font choices have a price?

With a new novel to write, the time seemed ripe to switch software. I'd like to say I scoured about for word processors, but I didn't. In my novel, one character would write computer programs. The story question was, What software would he use? It had to be vi. Vi, a Unix editor for plain text files created in 1976 by Bill Joy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems. I'd remembered working with a software engineer, who saw no advantage to word processors and dismissed the "prettiness" of desktop publishing. He did everything in vi. Could I write a novel in vi? I decided, Why not?

Vi fast became -- and remains, 100,000 words later -- my writing implement of choice. Most of all, what I like about vi is something that is, well, aesthetic. I like vi's keyboard-only operation. Vi doesn't assault with helpful balloons or racks of toolbar icons. No, vi has a 70s ambience (no mouse, no GUI) that's refreshingly clean. In that sense, vi is a treasured software servant. It works well without showy presence and respectfully stays out of the way.

Sure, vi is only a digitized window on the ThinkPad screen. But, at times, I can almost imagine another sheet of paper filling up with words, not unlike one I rolled into my Hermes typewriter. That's when vi, the minimalist's text editor, lets the words roll freely, as with Hemingway's carpenter pencil, from my fingertips.


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Word Processors: One Writer's Retreat

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday September 23, 2003 @01:30PM (#7035825)
    Sunday! Sunday! Sunday!

    This Sunday at Slashdot Arena:

    VI VS. EMACS

    Right after the tractor pull and the monster truck races!!
  • vi is good but... (Score:4, Informative)

    by grub ( 11606 ) <slashdot@grub.net> on Tuesday September 23, 2003 @01:31PM (#7035835) Homepage Journal

    Having started with Wordstar under CP/M on an Apple ][+ in ~1981 or 82, I found Joe [sourceforge.net] to be just what I was looking for. If I want a graphical editor on a Unix-like system, NEdit [nedit.org] is the only thing I use (I have it configured to highlight/italicize/colourize keywords and other goo in Cisco PIX config files).
    It's graphical, yes, but otherwise quite lightweight and responsive. Of course a good working knowledge of vi is useful as it's pretty much the lowest common denominator on any Unix-like system.

    Pico? Begone, infidel! :)
    • Having started with Wordstar under CP/M on an Apple ][+ in ~1981 or 82, I found Joe to be just what I was looking for.

      You can still get VDE [punky.com], which is a blazingly fast WordStar-like DOS editor written in assembler. AFAIK, because it loads the entire file into a page of memory it still has a 64K file size limitation, but it has a built-in ability to split and reassemble to and from larger files.

      It works great on an 8086 class PC. There's even a Palm version.

    • by mattdm ( 1931 )
      Anyone want to add color syntax highlighting to Joe? The author made a comment on a newsgroup or list about doing exactly that -- something like 8 years ago. I really like this editor, but the lack of color is finally driving me away. I've got a list of half-done projects three pages long, so I'm not going to add this to that, but if anyone implements this in Joe, I'll buy you a beer. Or non-alcoholic beverage of your choice.
    • by kaan ( 88626 ) on Tuesday September 23, 2003 @02:13PM (#7036303)
      Of course a good working knowledge of vi is useful as it's pretty much the lowest common denominator on any Unix-like system.

      Very well put.

      I first learned vi in 1991, and while it was a steep uphill battle, I crested the hump pretty quickly and have been totally pleased since then. I have always enjoyed having a familiar editor available on just about any system I've touched (Solaris, Ultrix, Unicos, Linux, OSX, Windows).

      Sure it's nice to have Emacs configured to do a gazillion things for you, but I liken that to owning a radio, tv, telephone, answering machine, dishwasher, dog walker, maid, bicycle, grocery cart, and dry cleaner all built into one gigantic thing.

      No thanks, I just want to edit files...
      • Sure it's nice to have Emacs configured to do a gazillion things for you, but I liken that to owning a radio, tv, telephone, answering machine, dishwasher, dog walker, maid, bicycle, grocery cart, and dry cleaner all built into one gigantic thing.
        That reminds me of the wife joke [yzedf.com]....
  • In 1996, (Score:5, Insightful)

    by tarquin_fim_bim ( 649994 ) on Tuesday September 23, 2003 @01:31PM (#7035839)
    in a presentation in Australia to the Press Club, Scott McNeally stated: "When the anthropologists look back on the 1980s and 1990s and do the archaeological digs, and get their callipers and brooms and microscopes out, they will blame the massive reduction in productivity during the 1980s and 1990s entirely on Microsoft Office."
    While this view maybe considered extreme, the author of the article certainly casts some doubt on the usefulness of complex word processing software. But then, I would not call vi particularly intuitive, but it does cut down on pointless formatting decisions that seem to endlessly arise.
    • Re:In 1996, (Score:5, Informative)

      by ePhil_One ( 634771 ) on Tuesday September 23, 2003 @01:51PM (#7036064) Journal
      it does cut down on pointless formatting decisions that seem to endlessly arise.

      This is utter nonsense. A writer KNOWS what font he writes in makes know difference, the magazine/publisher will likely decide this. This is akin to blaming the existance of pencils and electric sharpeners for his incessant pencil sharpening. Its just a habit he has to avoid working, get rid of it and he'll find another.

      Which isn't to say MS Word isn't a bloated nightmare.

      • Re:In 1996, (Score:3, Insightful)

        by TomV ( 138637 )
        This is akin to blaming the existance of pencils and electric sharpeners for his incessant pencil sharpening. Its just a habit he has to avoid working, get rid of it and he'll find another.

        A habit, aye, there's the rub.

        I've heard and read the same story from so many writers, from Douglas Adams' famous 'whooshing deadlines' comment on. Authors, perhaps, fall into two broad categories - the possessed, compelled to write all the time without rest, and far more commonly, the procrastinator.

        There seem to be
    • Re:In 1996, (Score:3, Insightful)

      by julesh ( 229690 )
      I would not call vi particularly intuitive, but it does cut down on pointless formatting decisions that seem to endlessly arise.

      OK, I'm going to jump in here. I thought the point was particularly daft when the original author wrote it, and I think its daft now.

      There are no formatting choices when you write a novel. Well, pretty close to zero, anyway.

      Lets see:

      Typeface: Courier (or nearest equivalent).
      Market research shows that manuscripts that are made to look as close to traditional typed te
  • XyWrite (Score:5, Informative)

    by mr.henry ( 618818 ) * on Tuesday September 23, 2003 @01:33PM (#7035857) Journal
    Salon has a pretty good story on XyWrite [salon.com], the old DOS word processor which is apparently a favorite among a lot of writers. If you want to play around with it, you can build a "XyLite" [serve.com] system with a little work. Also check out the XyWWWeb [serve.com], an excellent resource for XyWrite related stuff.
  • vi for writers? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by jbellis ( 142590 ) * <jonathan@NOsPaM.carnageblender.com> on Tuesday September 23, 2003 @01:34PM (#7035870) Homepage
    Sure that plays well on slashdot, but most writers looking for a typewriter-with-memory would be better served by Notepad or the Mac equivalent. (Does OSX still have TextEdit?)

    How many writers know what a regular expression IS, let alone how to search with one? :)
    • (Does OSX still have TextEdit?)

      Yes it does but it now feels more of a word processor then a text editor. With a large font selection, red dotted underline for misspelled word, Margins, ability to add pictures, etc... It is a mix of Word Pad and Microsoft Works in functionality.
    • Yes, OSX still has TextEdit, though it has been expanded. Native format is now rtf, and there are rumors that the next revision of the OS will have it able to read and write .doc files...

      Personally, I'll stick with BBEdit. (It is the only program I have set to start up with login.) If I want to use the GUI, it's got a good one. If I don't, well then I can use keyboard commands all I like. I find myself using it for everything; over TextEdit, OpenOffice, AppleWorks, or the rest.
    • would advise against notepad.

      ctrl-z only works for your last mistake - then it just redoes your mistake over

      that would totally suck it big time to lose like 250 pages of work becase your pet walked across your keyboard, startin at the lower left corner... "ctrl-a"
    • Re:vi for writers? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Frymaster ( 171343 ) on Tuesday September 23, 2003 @02:09PM (#7036262) Homepage Journal
      writers looking for a typewriter-with-memory would be better served by Notepad or the Mac equivalent.

      if you think vim is a "typewriter-with-memory" you must have one hell of a typewriter! can notepad do:

      • word completion from the buffer? vim can with ctrl-p or ctrl-n
      • find next occurrence of word under cursor? vim can with *
      • uppercase current line? vim can with gUU
      • provide built-in encryption? vim can with :X
      • regex find/replace? vim can with %s///g
      • dump stdout from any command right into what you're working on? vim can with !! command

      the list goes on and on. vim is a fully-featured, powerful, customizable, lightweight and ubiquitous editor that runs on just about any os available. notpad can't even do line numbers.

      take that, notepad!

  • My observations... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Lumpy ( 12016 ) on Tuesday September 23, 2003 @01:34PM (#7035873) Homepage
    I know 3 novel writers and many script writers...

    and they all completely despise Microsoft Word and Open Office.

    some of them even have nasty words to describe both of those products..

    basically the jist of all their gripes is the damned "features" you cannot turn off or get in the way, both apps (word and Open Office) are written for childish minds as one of them put it... "any word processor that does anything you did not specifically ask for is a complete piece of crap" (referring to microsoft word.)

    • by Shalda ( 560388 )
      Well duh. Word and Open Office aren't designed for professional writers. They're intended for office workers. They server their intended purpose very well, but they can not be all things to all people. Likewise, Vi also has an intended purpose: quick textmode editing of text files. If you're a unix programmer or sys-admin, it's an invaluable tool. But I couldn't imagine trying to write anything extensive with it. There are programs designed to be word processors for serious writers. I don't know wh
  • Mr Duncan (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday September 23, 2003 @01:35PM (#7035878)
    I met him at a writers conference in the outskirts of Detroit. He presented a small essay about the life of the borgeouis class in late 19th century Germany which many people found fascinating. But what astounded me, and I'm not usually that superficial, is how even though he had a pronounced lisp he was one of the most captivating speakers in the seminar.

    I spoke to him the following and explained to him that he was one of my main writing influences. I think I mildly embarassed him since he seemed to lost for words.

    Great chap and an excellent writer.

    Which is nice.

  • by Enry ( 630 )
    I've written two books, a computer-based-training video script (and text), and more than a few LDP HOWTOs using only vi. Keep sections of text small, use something like DocBook to tie it all together and make it look pretty in the end.
  • WFB on WordStar (Score:4, Interesting)

    by RabidOverYou ( 596396 ) on Tuesday September 23, 2003 @01:35PM (#7035884)
    "I'm told there are better programs [than WordStar], but I'm also told there are better alphabets." --William F. Buckley Jr.

    This is a darn old quote; I've no idea what he's running these days.
  • Amazing (Score:3, Insightful)

    by cubicledrone ( 681598 ) on Tuesday September 23, 2003 @01:37PM (#7035899)
    It is truly amazing how important the simple act of writing really is. Nearly every form of education, entertainment, business and reference is totally dependent on letters, words and sentences.

    In the face of $100 million motion picture budgets and teams of hundreds building video games, the words of another author remain quite profound:

    "With words alone, I have an unlimited special effects budget."
  • Textpad!! (Score:5, Informative)

    by NineNine ( 235196 ) on Tuesday September 23, 2003 @01:38PM (#7035915)
    Personally, I've been a fan of Textpad for years, and it's one of the few pieces of shareware that I actually bought. Light, fast, with incredicle search and replace (even regular expressions). I use it for the few documents I write, and any coding that I might do.
  • by N7DR ( 536428 ) on Tuesday September 23, 2003 @01:41PM (#7035934) Homepage
    I don't suppose that anyone is really interested, but this does give me the opportunity to say that my novels have all been written using absolutely the best tools for the job: a real editor (in my case, mostly VEDIT Plus under Windows, although I also did one with emacs) and Plain Tex. Yes, that's Plain Tex, not LaTeX.

    I remain firmly convinced that the combination of a powerful editor and Plain TeX cannot be beat.

    The problem, though, is that nowadays publishers more and more demand manuscripts in the form of M$ Word files, which frankly sucks. I am measurably less productive under Word than I am with the combination of (editor + Plain TeX), and I suspect that the same would be true of most authors who are technically competent.

    • From what I can tell, most publishers don't really trust their writers to do anything but the simplest formatting or typesetting (nor probably to most writers want to think about typesetting). The Word document they are looking for is as plain as can be -- maybe a few italics here and there at most. Probably of more interest to the publishers is the track changes mode in Word. They probably won't do any formatting until the book is very close to finished, but tracking changes is important. I don't know w
  • Same here (Score:3, Insightful)

    by JanneM ( 7445 ) on Tuesday September 23, 2003 @01:41PM (#7035938) Homepage
    Not at all at the level of "real" wordsmithing, but I wrote my Ph.D. thesis in Vi (Vim, to be exact) using LaTeX. Same goes for all papers and other 'professional' text generation.

    What a word processor does well, on the other hand, are short documents that are due to be printed and consumed immediately, such as letters, applications and so on. For such stuff, you can't really separate content creation and formatting anymore, and LaTeX becomes too heavyweight to deal with it. Of course, with that focus for wordprocessing, 95% of all features are absolutely worthless.

  • I like to write my first drafts in pencil and paper. I use a 0.5mm #2 Pentel pencil, a Magic Rub eraser, and college-ruled paper. Subsequent drafts are typically on PC, in whatever format--usually .DOC format, since I primarily use Windows at home. I spent a half hour configuring the normal.dot template the way I wanted it, and I was off and running.

    I recall listening to Harlan Ellison describe why he uses typewriters--such "features" as having to rewrite the entire page when you make mistakes, etc..

    • by Theaetetus ( 590071 ) <(moc.liamg) (ta) (todhsals.suteteaeht)> on Tuesday September 23, 2003 @01:56PM (#7036125) Homepage Journal
      I like to write my first drafts in pencil and paper. I use a 0.5mm #2 Pentel pencil, a Magic Rub eraser, and college-ruled paper. Subsequent drafts are typically on PC, in whatever format--usually .DOC format, since I primarily use Windows at home. I spent a half hour configuring the normal.dot template the way I wanted it, and I was off and running.

      Call it a result of my lousy public school upbringing, or a result of my 17 years of piano lessons, but I can type at 95 wpm and handwrite at only 15-20. Typing, I can almost keep up with my thoughts, and I find that papers, essays, and stories flow much easier from my mind to the page. Writing by hand, by the end of a long sentence, I've gotten so wrapped up in the mechanics of writing - loops, curves, dotting the T's and crossing the I's - that I've lost the flow, and have to frequently read back the same line over and over again to complete the thought.

      I'm not saying it's for everyone, but when teachers stopped insisting on handwritten rough drafts, I was a happy man.

      -T

      • by cei ( 107343 )
        In a previous /. discussion on the death of cursive writing, one of the arguments FOR writing longhand was that it made you think harder about what you were committing to paper. A million monkeys with computers can generate a nive USENET feed, but if they had to write in script, there might be better stuff to read. *shrug*
  • It's a simple, unobtrusive interface that allows me to type for hours on end in almost any location using a fold up keyboard. No internet distractions, or complex formating to deal with ( woudn't look right on a desktop anyways ). I can then come back to my PC and do the editing required before printing or emailing the document to others.

    I've seen many people start to do the same thing too, the only ones that have a real problem are the poetry writiers because of the very narrow screens.

    I have also grow
  • by pleasetryanotherchoi ( 702466 ) on Tuesday September 23, 2003 @01:42PM (#7035952)
    with index finger clicker is my weapon of choice, although I use Kwrite (What? Not Emacs/VI? Let the flammage ensue but direct your shrapnel away from the top of my head.) for producing a final draft.

    While words cannot express the beauty of discovering the frequency of Sol-type stars within 100 light-years of Earth, or Tibetan surnames and their construction without visiting a library, computers (and especially the internet) are a godawful distraction to creativity.

    Like now.

  • by Spectre ( 1685 ) on Tuesday September 23, 2003 @01:43PM (#7035958)
    And Jerry Pournelle successfully campaigned to have Microsoft add an option to Word just for him. Which one?

    [] Blue background, white text

    That option is still there to this day.

    Dang, it must be nice to be able to tell Bill Gates what to do once in a while!
  • Okay, maybe the classic version of vi is (which I have written tens of thousands of lines of code with), but not the more recent incarnations like vim. Surem vim doesn't have help balloons and all that, but you'll still spend the next five years figuring out everything there is. If you're the kind of person who loves to fiddle with fonts and colors and settings, then vim is like crack. You'll kill even more time configuring vim than most GUI editors because it's all so byzantine.

    Realistically, if you wa
  • Tom Robbins had problems with a IBM Selectric in Still Life with Woodpecker, so it's possible for a writer to have problems with any word processor no matter how well designed it is.
  • Minimalism (Score:2, Insightful)

    by dang-a-pin ( 585009 )
    I write with Ultra Edit, & can vouch for the complete lack of distraction that the minimalist editor provides. Instead of emphasizing your prose with underlining, italics, boldface, etc., you throw your readers against the wall by better word choices, more dynamic phrasing, and edgier dialogue. It's also just plain easier to concentrate, when you're not thinking about how a program must be used. Anything else is for sissies.
  • You know... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by superdan2k ( 135614 ) on Tuesday September 23, 2003 @01:45PM (#7035979) Homepage Journal
    I have a degree in English, with a concentration in Creative Writing. You know what I do? I write first, format later, and you know what? It works! It's called time management.

    Furthermore, it's not tough to select Courier, 10pt., set the margin widths to 1.25" all the way around, and set the material to double-spacing. That's all that's really required.
  • Creative people (Score:5, Insightful)

    by j-turkey ( 187775 ) on Tuesday September 23, 2003 @01:45PM (#7035980) Homepage

    Creative people seem to be among the most resistant to new technologies and/or meduims brought about by technology. The word processor is just one example...but how long did it take photography to be accepted as a fine art? (I'm sure that there are photographers out there right now that will argue that it still hasn't).

    A large fraction of those same photographers who are shaking their heads right now -- they refuse to accept digital photography as an artistic medium. Furthermore, much of the other digital "art" mediums have yet to be accepted...what about 3D rendering? This is surely an art form, but is not widely accepted. The demo scene is another that is not embraced by the artsy world.

    The point is that the artistic types will tend to cling to their ways...who knows why. But it doesn't seem like, as a group, creative folks tend to enbrace new technology (or in this case a pretty damn old one, like a word processor) I wonder if it's alright to use an electric light Vs. a candle to write?

    --Turkey
    • ...practically the day it was invented. Indeed, it can be argued that he started using one before it had been invented, or at least perfected.

      Jack London began using a typewriter the very instant he could afford one. The one he could afford wasn't very good--a balky Blickensderfer that required great effort to operate, was badly aligned, and only typed in uppercase--and he switched to a better one as soon as he could afford that.

      Here's a picture [geocities.com] of the typewriter he used from 1904 on.

      "Creative people" l
  • Bah, computers? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by JaredOfEuropa ( 526365 ) on Tuesday September 23, 2003 @01:45PM (#7035982) Journal
    I can imagine people appreciate a tool like vi, or notepad for that matter, that has few features and is more or less keyboard-driven. Myself, I use editplus to bang out lots of text for reports, memos and the like... which means I do not have to worry about formatting and such. When I am reaonably happy with the text, I paste it into Word and apply a template and formatting.

    But for the more creative writing I still prefer a notepad and pencil for the first draft. I can easily annotate, make drawings, cross out stuff and then decide I want to keep that text after all... and there's just no computer tool that is as easy to use. I find that both the features and the inherent limitations get in the way of creativity.
    The drawback of course is that I have to type it ito the computer anyway, at some point.
  • I think most computer users went through, or will go through, a similar journey when they first start using a computer where they used to use paper and a pencil, pen, or typewriter.

    The key as the author points out is to totally forget about presentation when you're *trying* to focus on content. That's why vi is better than Word when you're just trying to get ideas out and organized, why many of us prefer Notepad to FrontPage, etc.

    It's similar to why teachers insist on writing drafts for essays -- get it O
  • Metapad (Score:3, Informative)

    by nucal ( 561664 ) on Tuesday September 23, 2003 @01:45PM (#7035991)
    Metapad [liquidninja.com] is an excellent, free, plain text editor for Windows that can seamlessly replace Notepad. Handy for editing html source code ...
  • Work Method (Score:3, Interesting)

    by SpaceRook ( 630389 ) on Tuesday September 23, 2003 @01:45PM (#7035992)
    Once, while "writing" a software manual, I commented that I'd spent far more time formatting than actually writing. That comment went unanswered. I had a sure sense I needed to make an adjustment to new priorities.

    I'd recommend writing the raw text first and then formatting later. I've written several lengthy user manuals. The first thing I write is a table of contents. This can be done in a program as simple as NotePad (although I like EditPlus).

    Then, fill out each section. Write the content. Trying to format on the fly with something like MSWord is a major pain in the ass (don't even get me STARTED on what a nightmare subdocuments can be). Plus, you end up wasting a lot of time.
  • I like technology (Score:2, Interesting)

    by mrandre ( 530920 )
    I must confess to enjoying the feel of fresh pen on paper. And I have printed countless copies of nearly identical sections of writing, just so that my pen can run across the paper. Of course, when visceral pleasure runs out, practicality must take over, and it's easier to manage a large digital collection of scraps than a large pile of scrap paper. And so I have turned to DevonThink [devon-technologies.com], a mac-only program that I am thrilled with. It makes it terrifically simple to edit many little scraps, and organize them in
  • Artistic folk don't like to change their ways too often. Familiarity helps them create. Many writers/artists force themselves into a daily ritual that they adhere to rigorously. They must begin their day at a certain time at a certain location with the same damn fern and mechanical pencil they used in college. It's purely psychological.

    Technically inclined people are always looking for better ways to get something done. That isn't to say tech people can't get set in their ways. (People are still usin
  • by coult ( 200316 ) on Tuesday September 23, 2003 @01:47PM (#7036004)
    for all my novels. Sometimes I even write in rot13 code just for fun.
  • by thelexx ( 237096 ) on Tuesday September 23, 2003 @01:47PM (#7036005)
    A friend was once writing a fairly lengthy document with pen and paper while sitting on my couch during one of his stays in town. He had brought his laptop with him, so I asked why he wasn't using it. He explained that it was too easy to spend a lot of time editing and second-guessing instead of writing. So he did his initial drafts and main revisions on paper first, then put it into a wp for final tweaking and output.

  • by tekiegreg ( 674773 ) * <tekieg1-slashdot@yahoo.com> on Tuesday September 23, 2003 @01:47PM (#7036006) Homepage Journal

    The last time I stepped into my mom's office (she's a lawyer btw) and still found people there using Wordperfect 5.1/DOS. Whatever works for your purpose, as my mom tells me "It does legal briefs better than anything else that I know how to use, so why change?" Why should authors use the latest version of MS Word or Vi, or Emacs or anything?

    Once people have found a comfortable niche in technology, why change until you have better needs?

  • Years of developing software brought me to XEmacs [xemacs.org], which is just a subtle variant from FSF's/Richard Stallman's GNU Emacs. Functionally they're, for most practical purposes, identical. Like Emacs, XEmacs has got a learning curve like an Olympic ski jump and it takes a good long while (months) before you're very productive with it. But I can do just about everything with it that I do on a computer: email, programming, Usenet, personal information management (including scheduling and a contact database), scre
  • I do automotive systems engineering. So I have to analyze all the systems of a particular vehicle. Eventually I will present modified improved versions in schematic form.

    I find it much more helpful to initially draw schematics by hand. Freehand, not drafting style. This helps me to cache the systems implementations in my head. While drawing them in TurboCAD or Visio is pretty, it also distracts from the details. I have to think about the Tool to some degree. Also, I have to sit virtually shiftless f
  • I learned vi back in the 1970s and have returned to it after some years of using other word processors. In the early days, we used troff(1) to format the output; vi and troff together had a feature set exceeding that of most word processors up until recently.

    The article above surprises me, mainly because vi is so difficult to learn. Having once learned it, it's not a half bad editor, but there are better ones that are easier to learn. After all, vi was designed to take advantage of the (then) increasin

  • You would think Charles Dickens could have come up with a less obvious pseudonym when submitting the article.
  • Howard is the only science fiction writer I know who doesn't even own a computer. (I think even Gene Wolfe finally bought one.) He uses a pencil. As Howard is wont to say, "Whenever my word processor crashes, I just sharpen it up again!"
  • write direct to .eps

  • by CAIMLAS ( 41445 ) on Tuesday September 23, 2003 @01:51PM (#7036067) Homepage
    You weren't intended to "format" your writing at the same time as you wrote it, at least for a large part. Format things -after- you're done writing, if you find you tinker too much with formatting to get it "just right".
  • WordPerfect...5.1 (Score:2, Interesting)

    by ZephyrQ ( 96951 )
    I used to be rather prolific...enjoyed writing and all that. Even when I had to write grant requests and such...

    Then WordPerfect went to 6.0. I configured it to look a *lot* like 5.1 -- still lotsa joy.

    Then MSWord became the defacto format...which is when I started looking at other OSes because, well, I *hated* MSWord. But WP couldn't keep up. I eventually landed at Linux and had the corresponding version of WP. Then Corel bought it, then MS bought/ran/abused Corel.

    I've been switching b
  • I do some writing for fun and enjoyment [furinkan.net]. I've written a few thousand pages of anime fanfiction, original fiction, essays, rants, etc.

    I prefer TextPad on Windows and have used BBEdit on Macs. I used to use Super NoteTab on PC, but I moved to TextPad for a few of its features.

    I will not use a word processor for my writing. Period. I will not choose a font. I will not use 'styles' until I'm finished and want to convert my work to stylized text for a web page. I do not want tables. I do not want headers and f
  • If simplicity and ease of use is what you want as a writer, you could always fire up PICO.
  • Loved to see this, as it matches my experience. Oh, I'm mostly an EMACS user, but when I'm not feeling religious I happily use vi -- say a quick script when I'm su'ed.

    When I'm writing fiction, screenplays, or other prose, I just use EMACS text mode, except that recently i've been using emacs-wiki mode. (See here [repose.cx] for details.)

    All that other crap in Word etc just gets in the way.

    (I will say I really liked Word for DOS 6.0, the one that got the new interface but kept regular old character-mode text and sty
  • i still find the apple //e keyboard to be the most typing friendly of them all. i remember many all-nighters in college working on term papers.

    i have to admitthough, that i need to start an essay on a piece of paper, with a rollerball pen.

  • newspaper (Score:3, Informative)

    by scrotch ( 605605 ) on Tuesday September 23, 2003 @01:56PM (#7036129)
    I work for a small newspaper and we have related issues. Writers use Word and do all sorts of inconsistent formating (inconsistent from other writers and other paragraphs they wrote). Everything gets placed in Quark XPress and most of the formatting dissappears. Most of the rest of it has to be undone.

    It's absurd to use a word processor that costs hundreds of dollars rather than TextEdit or Notepad just to mark a few words bold or italic (that's all the formatting we keep). It's also too tempting for writers to try to insert tables or images or other nonsense that really needs to be submitted as a seperate file. To make it more difficult, Quark 4.x on the Mac won't open an RTF or SimpleText file and retain the little formatting we need. It'll open a proprietary .doc just fine, though. It's rather absurd if you ask me. I've been told that Quark 6 opens RTF files, finally, maybe that will put an end to it.
  • Did anybody else ever use "Norton Textra Writer"?

    The best link I could find was this glowing 1990 review about it. I guess my love for it came from the fact it was the first word processor program I ever used, back when we carried our Creative Writing 101 papers to school on a 5.25" floppy. It was simple, cheap, and accessable.

    Ah... nostalgia!

  • by Jedi Holocron ( 225191 ) on Tuesday September 23, 2003 @01:58PM (#7036145) Homepage Journal
    If I may quote Spider Robinson a moment:

    "Goc damn it, you didn't write it on a "word processor"! Or even on a "computer." What it is, is a goddamn typewrite--a machine for turning fingerstrokes on a keyboard into ink symbols on a piece of paper. (Okay, yours can also be used as a computer when you're not writing--my old Ryal manual can be used as a nutcracker, or a paperweight, or a murder weapon.) The silicon revolution did not change that process--from the user's point of view--much more than did the electric typewriter, it merely streamlined the error-correction process. When it's being used to make words appear on a page, it's a typewriter.
    To speak of your "word processor" is like refering to your car as an "exothermically powered, myocontrolled matter transporter." [ed. or refering to a flashlight as a "low voltage high density photon projector"] The only purpose of the term is to cue your listeners that you can afford to use a computer as a typewriter, and all it really tells them is that you're insecure enough to worry that people might think you still used one of those old-fashioned things to type on.
    --Mike"

    Take it for what it is worth...
  • This will probably be one of those 'hey this is my personal favourite app' posts.. ok, it is... but before you scroll away, just take a quick peek at this app: Mellel [redlers.com]. (Warning: those of you who hate brushed metal will cringe at first. I humbly submit that this is Metal Done Right(TM).)

    It's gorgeous, functional, truly multilingual, and rocks my world. It looks like bloody iTunes, which sounds wacky, but actually works astoundingly well. And its $25.

    However, I take my writing apps very seriously. For mos

  • I am a writer, though not professionally I have been published on numerous occasions. My word processor of choice was originally AmiPro (2.0!) under Win98se.

    Until I discovered BeOS and GoBe Productive. Haven't looked back since. (contention) Best OS/Office package out there. (/contention)
  • I'm not a novelist, but rather a technical writer, so the formatting and so forth of text isn't such a distraction for me (it's just part of the job). The best tool, hands down, for this is FrameMaker. It gets out of your way, but still lets you quickly format text. If you apply styles as you go along (which is very quick... F9, start typing the style name, hit return, and your paragraph is formatted, unlike Word which requires you to choose a unique key combo for each paragraph style shortcut).

    For just p

  • I doubt there's any other software out there that has single-handedly extended the life of so many rickety old computers (including XT clones), attracted countless technophobes to computers, and triggered the mass extinction of another tool (the typewriter) from most offices all at the same time the way that WP5.1 did. In hindsight, word processors haven't improved much since then; WYSIWYG gets only half credit, since WP had a WYSIWYG preview mode if your graphics hardware supported it.

  • "Would those green emissions overwhelm my inner eye of imagination, unlike a piece of paper sitting in a typewriter?"

    "Could it be that pink shoes and a semi-transparent whiff of cloth really will make me a better woman?"

    Seriously, if he gets too distracted by his tools to put down words, maybe he doesn't have much to say to begin with. Besides, there certainly is a touch of forced excentricity to the choices of some famour writers. Hemingway used carpenter's pencils? Ha, the common hack! I will use nothin
  • Writing something that matters vs. writing for school:

    I've noticed a marked distinction between when I write something that matters to me (my weekly London journal [colingregorypalmer.net] for example) and when I write something I just want to get done (a school paper).

    For my journal, I write it out first longhand on yellow paper. For some reason, if I want something to be a good piece of writing, it has to be done longhand. When I do type it up, I share the author's abhorrence of GUI. Terminal mode emacs is the only way
  • Didn't NS write a large part of his new book with a quill? I seem to remember hearing something like that. hmm
  • LaTex anyone? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by olorin42 ( 251806 )
    I personally use LaTeX for all of my writing beyond a simple memo (which is usually email at this point). Although I am no professional writer, I find myself writing and maintaining several large documents on a daily basis. Things like software architecture documentation, requirements documents, etc.

    Tex's seperation of "content" from "formating" means that, as I am writing, I am not distracted by things like font and layout, I can decide on that stuff later. Then all I do is publish to Postscript,PDF or HT
  • by Camel Pilot ( 78781 ) on Tuesday September 23, 2003 @02:01PM (#7036184) Homepage Journal
    Time to get back to the basics folks.

    Good writing should really be done on the primary writing environment - that is cuneform and clay [solstation.com].

    You should really forego the modern inventions of typewriters, ink and paper and such as they will contaminate the muse and offend the gods. Nothing like the smell and feel of freshly pressed clay tablets.

  • by Schlemphfer ( 556732 ) on Tuesday September 23, 2003 @02:04PM (#7036212) Homepage
    I've been working on a book for the past year, and I spent many hours thinking hard before settling on my writing tool of choice. It wasn't my G4 tower with flat panel, nor was it my 1.6 gigahertz Vaio with flat panel. I decided the optimal tool for writing my book was a 266 Mhz Thinkpad I scored last summer off eBay for about $250.

    I prefered the Thinkpad for a couple of reasons. First, it had the best keyboard I've ever used. Second, I deliberately never installed games, nor hooked it up to the Internet. So I was never tempted to check email or surf the web when I should be writing.

    As for my word processor, OpenOffice did not until recently have a decent "draft mode" type view until recently. ABIword was too unstable (I don't know about the new 2.0 release.) So I've been using WordPerfect 10.0, which has the speed and flexibility I could desire, great footnoting, plus the ability to view embedded codes on the off chance your document gets screwed up.

    I'd say right now, my dream system for writing would be:

    A mini-PC
    Flat panel
    Thinkpad 600 Keyboard (how I wish I could buy the keyboard alone, that's why this is a dream PC.)
    WordPerfect

    A little shopping around for a used 1.6 Mhz system, and the whole thing shouldn't cost more than $400-$500. I couldn't ask for anything better for writing.

  • LyX (Score:3, Insightful)

    by frohike ( 32045 ) <bard.allusion@net> on Tuesday September 23, 2003 @02:06PM (#7036240) Homepage

    Really, I figured someone would have said this by now (maybe they have and I need to refresh again :) but what this guy really needs is LyX [lyx.org]. It's basically a pretty word-processor-style front end for LaTeX. The help files and tutorial explicitly tell you that LyX follows a "WYSIWYM" principle -- What You See Is What You Mean. It tries to avoid pushing details like formatting into the writer's head, and instead focuses on getting the words organized into a meaningful structure. The program takes care of formatting everything based on the style you choose (you can choose any style at any time and the whole doc reflects it on the next preview). It's more or less the whole MVC paradigm that the XML/XSL folks push, but it's actually practical.

    After discovering it I became a lot more productive with my writing. Admittedly that was limited mostly to writing college papers, but I spent a lot less time fighting with the word processor over formatting, focused on the writing, and the output was usually awesome looking.

    YMMV I guess, if you're a formatting control freak then LyX won't work so well for you. Sometimes it's tough to make it do exactly what you want in the formatting phase too, so I eventually switched to using raw LaTeX or TeX for my docs, but LyX is a good middle of the road solution.

  • Writing tools (Score:4, Informative)

    by miketo ( 461816 ) <miketo@@@nwlink...com> on Tuesday September 23, 2003 @02:07PM (#7036241)
    As a professional writer, I use a lot of different tools. Several of my books I've used MS Word, because the publishers had special templates and macros they used in production that weren't easily ported or usable in other software. (I know, I tried it.) On other stuff (aka 'submitted but not published' works) I've used TextPad [textpad.com], OpenOffice [openoffice.org], and Power Writer [write-brain.com]. TextPad lets me write without getting any programming or interface nonsense in the way; OpenOffice lets me compose more complex documents with footnotes; and Power Writer contains plot, character, and idea databases that help keep all my reference details in one place. All good, all for different reasons. Except Word. I'm not very fond of Word.
  • by CAIMLAS ( 41445 ) on Tuesday September 23, 2003 @02:09PM (#7036266) Homepage
    If you're big on 'minimalist' stuff for writing, I'd strongly recommend one of the following (depending on how 'minimalist' you want to get):

    AlphaSmart 3000 [alphasmart.com]

    AlphaSmart Dana [alphasmart.com]

    They're (basically) Palm Pilots with full-sized keyboard functionality, w/o any irritating clip-on devices, etc. Their "word processor" is quite minimalistic with basic features such as spellcheck. Definately a nice tool for the mobile geek writer.

  • by Fencepost ( 107992 ) * on Tuesday September 23, 2003 @02:13PM (#7036311) Journal
    The problem with any WYSIWYG editor is that they promote fiddling with appearance when really the appearance is minor and the content is what matters. For a lot of things I'd actually rather have WordPerfect 5.1 than anything WYSIWYG, because it really doesn't matter whether the text ends halfway down the last page or has an extra 1 pt of spacing between each line to take it to the bottom of the page.

    Put differently, it all goes back to the aphorism "Perfection is the enemy of (good/progress/etc.)" which is true not just because in trying to make things perfect you often either ruin them or never finish them - it's true because everyone's idea of perfection is different, but most of us can agree on "pretty good".

  • by Keighvin ( 166133 ) on Tuesday September 23, 2003 @02:15PM (#7036330)
    I'm of the same school of thought, keep the writing process as simple as possible so as not to occlude the creativity.

    To that end, I have an AlphaSmart(.com) - a small portable keyboard, 4 lines of text, capable of storing about 100 pages (12pt. single spaced courier) of information. It runs on 3 AA (LR6) batteries and gets between 500-700 hours (no, no missing decimal points) of active use per set. I honestly haven't changed them in over a year. All active memory too, never worry about saving - it's always there no matter when it's turned off.

    It emulates a keyboard when hooked up to a host machine, so open your favorite app and hit "Send" and the text is put in wherever you want it; connects via ADB, PS2, and USB. The only additional feature I've ever wished for was a VI interface on it to speed up some editing proceedures.

    I highly recommend any freelance writer, journalist, novelist, student, etc. take a look at the device. They have a newer model running PalmOS for those who might be interested as well (no Linux, yet).
  • by wray ( 59341 ) on Tuesday September 23, 2003 @02:18PM (#7036371)
    My main two reasons to avoid it are:

    1. Search / Search Replace are terrible. To search you are required to bring up a new window and is not very featureful (regex, incremental search, etc). Replace is equally or more lacking.

    2. Undo is only one step.

    Both of these things are in emacs and vim. Emacs and vim are ported to nearly every platform in existence, and both emacs and vi, can also serve many other purposes besides writing text like programming, publishing (w/ latex, nroff, etc.), letters, mail, and news.

  • Okay, I'm at least a semi-pro writer (one published book, contributing editor for DV Magazine). And I think folks are completely missing how to use Word correctly, and its strengths. I'll be talking about Word for Mac v.X here. Even though Office XP is quite capable, I can't stand the way that they put icons in the left of the menus. Plus there's no better to write than with a laptop in the lap, leaning back in the Aeron, feet on the desk keeping the beat with NoFx.

    Back around '89 when I first got Word 4.0 on my Mac SE, I did procrastinate by too much formatting. But I got over it! The key is just to define your standard template. Get that template down, and you're writing object-oriented with styles. Understanding how to use styles and tabs is critical to efficient Word use. Instead of doing it spaghetti-code style with formatting applied directly to units of text, build the right design for each style, and religiously only use styles. If you need to change the style later, it's changed in all instances. Much, much easier.

    I NEVER mess with formatting when writing articles anymore, since my standard template has my styles all set up the way I want them.

    The real strength of Word is that it lets you deal with your content in a variety of modes. I actually write all my first drafts in Outline mode now, so I can see and tweak the overall structure. This means I don't need to write linearly, like a typewriter is required. I can write what I'm inspired to write that moment, skip back to get terms used later defined in the appropriate place, and that kind of thing. And since the outline headings are styles, formatting concerns just disappear into the background. And because, the structure is always visible, it's much easier to remember what you intended to do, and to pick up on structural errors in my original plan for the piece.

    When I'm editing, especially someone else's work, I use Normal mode. Thus I'm not distracted by where page breaks are and that kind of thing. Just the text.

    Page Layout mode I use rarely. Word isn't designed for any kind of detailed layout. Still, it's nice to see where the page breaks fall before going out to PDF or anything. But I'll just import into InDesign if I need fine control.

    So, big picture:

    Use Styles to make structure, not formatting, central.

    Use the right viewing mode for the stage of your project.
  • by ortholattice ( 175065 ) on Tuesday September 23, 2003 @03:25PM (#7037157)
    I use pens and pencils a lot for marking things up, making notes, and even scribbling rought drafts when I'm inspired away from a computer. No one seems to discuss this much, but anyway here are my personal preferences.

    I've tried dozens of different kinds of pens over my lifetime, and the one that I've settled on and now insist on is the inexpensive Pilot EasyTouch Medium Point ball-point (the Fine Point is good too, but not quite as smooth). It is the smoothest writing instrument I've found, whether ball-point, roller-ball, gel, fountain pen, or whatever. And it always just seems to work; it doesn't dry on me and require those scribbles to get the ink flowing after several days of non-use, like other ball-points. Strangely it doesn't seem to be a standard stock item and I have to special order it from Staples. The blue color seems slightly smoother than red or black, but that may be subjective.

    As for pencils, for years I used to use a Pentel P205 .5mm, but recently I've come to prefer the Staedtler 9505 .5mm. An advantage is that it doesn't have that frustrating slippage in the last 1/4" of lead that you end up throwing away. I also like a very soft lead (2B) because it writes dark with little effort. But that's just me - it takes getting used to because the lead is so fragile, and other people sometimes get frustrated when I lend it to them, breaking the lead over and over because they're used to pressing hard.

  • by Lulu of the Lotus-Ea ( 3441 ) <mertz@gnosis.cx> on Tuesday September 23, 2003 @03:35PM (#7037277) Homepage
    When I wrote my Ph.D., I used the still quite excellent WordPerfect 5.1, for the most part. However, for better or worse (mostly for worse), I did wind up finishing it in WordPerfect for Windows (I think 6.1). At least the file formats were compatible, but in retrospect I should have stuck with the text screen (unfortunately, I recall that OS/2 actually ran the Windows version a bit better than the DOS one at the time though). FWIW, you can read that at: David Mertz Disseration, WordPerfect version [gnosis.cx]; or since WP compatibility isn't so widespread nowadays: PDF page style [gnosis.cx] and PDF book style [gnosis.cx]. Back in those days, I wrote about PoMo philosophy and the like.

    Flash forward a few years. Now I am a writer about computer programming. And mostly because of that transition, I absolutely cannot stand to write anything other than plain text. Well, almost plain text, I have my own little variant called "smart ASCII", which uses just a few of the conventions that email and Usenet often use: *bold*, -itals-, and so on.

    In fact, I have written hundreds of articles, tutorials, and the like about programming [gnosis.cx] (for well-known publishers like IBM, Intel, O'Reilly, etc.), all in plain text. My book Text Processing in Python [gnosis.cx] is written the same way.

    Well... once in a while I am compelled to use something awful like MS-Word--or something that exports to it, like AppleWorks or OpenOffice--but I hate doing that. It is tools that convert my smart ASCII into formats like HTML, XML, LaTeX, PDF, and so on. But those tools come at the end of the process. After I put the words down, then is the time to worry about niggly details like fonts, layouts, and so on... all in a way that is far more consistent than a wordprocessor is likely to produce. My book, for example, has been praised as particularly attractive typographically... I did all the preparation myself, by eschewing all the GUI nonsense that gets in the way during writing. David Mertz

  • What Knuth does (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Phronesis ( 175966 ) on Tuesday September 23, 2003 @11:08PM (#7040587)
    Here is a description of Donald Knuth's writing process, as related by one of his students in Mathematical Writing [cs.uu.nl] (p. 14):
    His first copy is written in pencil. Some people compose at a terminal, but Don says, "The speed at which I write by hand is almost perfectly synchronized with the speed at which I think. I type faster than I think so I have to stop, and that interrupts the flow."

    In the process of typing his handwritten copy into the computer he edits his composition for flow, so that it will read well at normal reading speed. Somewhere around here the text gets TeXed, but the description of this stage was tangled up with the description of the process of rewriting the composition. Of course, rewriting does not all occur at any one stage. As Don said, "You see things in different ways on the different passes. Some things look good in longhand but not in type."

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