I’m writing a book. I’ve got the page numbers done.–Steve Wright

Dear software developers who write word processing software,
I know that English majors and math/engineering/computer science majors are very different species, and this writing thing is uncharted territory for you, but after decades of being tormented by your word processing software products, I think it’s time to let you know what’s up.

We don’t actually write the way you think we do.

Sure, it might make sense to write a document, memo, or short story or a novel that way. I mean, who wouldn’t want to sit down and say, “this novel is going to be 350 typewritten pages, double-spaced, divided into 12 chapters. I am going to start with the first thing that happens and go on until the end. It will have this header, this footer, these page numbers, these margins, and this much dialog.”

But that’s not what happens. Some people start in the middle! I KNOW, right? But they do. And some even add in characters and go back and insert stuff or take it from one spot and put it somewhere else (cut n paste you got right, and I thank you very much)*. But the fact is, we don’t give a flying monkey’s crap about margins, justification, bullet points, lists, fonts, and all the other stuff that right now is on the top header of my MS Word that gets in the way and keeps me from writing what I want to write.

That’s not writing. That’s creating a document. It’s different. That stuff comes after. It’s what you do later, when the draft is done. So on the next go round of whatever word processing iteration you are working on, keep that in mind. And I’m not talking about Notepad or Wordpad. My dream word processor would come up in writer mode, that is, blank page, default 12 point text in Times Roman. And the toolbar across the top would be a simple bare bones toolbar with nothing but editing commands, and maybe show invisibles. And for god’s sake, the margins would just stay put! (I’m talking to you, WordPerfect!).

Then, when the document is done, us writers could go into document mode and make it all purty like.

So maybe this letter is a long time coming, and I should have brought this up four or five novels ago. But I just got a new computer and I have a new iteration of Word, and it makes me want to cry. Because all that stuff on the top doesn’t help at all. All those bells and whistles, useless. It thwarts the writing process instead of making it easier. And I think you should know this, because I can’t imagine you are really doing this to torture writers. I think you just didn’t know. And that you want to know, right? Because…because even though we never really understood one another, and even if the stint I did in the UT electrical engineering department as a writing tutor was painful for everyone concerned, deep down, you want to create the most beautiful, useful, elegant word processing software out there.

We’re on the same side.

So, next time, ask a writer. Find out what they really want. Because honestly, that crap toolbar with the icons that make no sense and are a useless waste of space just isn’t it.

Yours in solidarity,

Patrice

*In high school this kid Pete Smith, who was a math genius engineering type, invented cut and paste, using xerox copies and scissors. Smart guy. Soul of a writer, obviously. Pete, if you are out there, know that I appreciate your fully sung genius.


3 Comments

Audrey Lockwood · July 21, 2011 at 8:30 am

Oh yes. If I thought about it I could probably come up with quite a few word processing wish list items myself. Actually, have you tried http://www.ommwriter.com/ ? It’s kind of wonky in the way it saves, but it’s very relaxing and atmospheric.

Bethe Ann Bugbee · July 24, 2011 at 7:05 pm

Hi Patrice,

I so agree with you.

Have you tried this…..create a document with all the defaults you want. Then each time you start writing, don’t start with the standard “New Document” from the word processor. Make a copy of your defaults document and start with that. You may need to put in some dummy first line in order to set the size and font which you can then type over.

Now if I could only get Word to stop tyring to number things for me…..

Patrice Sarath · July 24, 2011 at 9:04 pm

I do need to prepare my documents more. I tend to just open up a blank page and then start typing. You are right — prep first!

I like the idea of ommwriter. Simple, clean, no fuss. I like it.

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