I think, therefore I harm
I am one of the few who actually learned to use word processors in class. That was on WordPerfect, back in the early 1990s. Silver text on blue background, with a few different colors to represent bold, italic and underlined text. No mouse. Just you, your 40-line, 80-column monitor and your noisy keyboard. And a huge machine that generated enough heat to keep you warm during the winter and used enough energy to impact your ecological foot print. These were the good days.
WordPerfect was initially written by a student and a teacher at Brigham Young University, Utah, in 1979. The two kept the copyrights to the software and founded Satellite Systems International in 1980 in order to sell their work. WordPerfect was a departure from anything previously known, in part because of its interface that showed different colors rather than codes to distinguish styles. It slowly gained popularity and became the market leader in 1986 with the release of version 4.2, which introduced features important to law offices and academics. Among other things, numbered paragraphs and automatic footnotes were never before seen features. WordPerfect peaked in 1989 with the release of version 5.1, in part because of the introduction of onscreen menus in addition to existing key combinations which made it available to a wider range of users. From that point, it became a standard. In the early 1990s it was common, and even often required, to submit works to magazines and conferences in the WordPerfect file format.
Then came Windows 95. Previously a graphical interface on top of DOS, Windows was now a full-fledged operating system. It was slow, heavy, it crashed all the time, it didn’t know about multi-users nor networks. Yet, without it, computers wouldn’t be what they are today. Windows 95 was an instant success that brought computers to every house. It allowed the rapid gain of popularity of the Internet in the second half of the 1990s.
WordPerfect didn’t transition well to Windows. Its features and interface didn’t adapt well to the new graphical world. After being sold twice in two years, it suffered a long and painful agony. WordPerfect is now a specialized law office word processor.
In the later years of pre-95 Windows, Microsoft had developed a new word processor, simply known by the name Word, which was well adapted to the growing graphical environment. With the decay of WordPerfect, Word soon became the de facto standard word processor. It imposed itself in offices as an easy to learn program, but killed everything good that WordPerfect had built before.
Word was a fully WYSIWYG word processor. What You See Is What You Get. Meaning that, instead of abstract symbols and colors to represent styles and formats, Word showed on screen a rough, but close enough, representation of what the document would look on paper. While this may have seemed to be a good idea, this was never used correctly.
Word is the evil of all word processors. It’s an atrocity that should never have been allowed to run on a computer. It’s the Lada of cars, the Dell of computers, the SiS of graphics cards, the Coby of televisions, the Coke Zero of sodas. Technically, it’s possible to use Word the correct way, but Microsoft soon realized that no one actually wanted to and pushed the nice features deep behind 7 levels of menus and 4 levels of dialogs.
Word encourages you to use it wrong. You select some text, hit Center, Large and Bold. There, you have a title. Double-tap Enter to make a new paragraph, hit tab to make a first-line indent, some more Bold to make a sub-section title. I really need to make this short quote stand out, no problem, just hit Shift+Enter. Easy enough. Then comes a time you decide to change the style of your sub-section titles, and select them all one after one to change them. Wait, a tab is not large enough for my tastes, let’s make these indents 8 spaces instead.
I really don’t want to be your editor.
Most WYSIWYG word processors suffer from the same problem. They make you emphasize format over content. A word processor is not a publishing program. It should make you concentrate over your words, not how they appear. While Word is probably fine for office workers (though I have my doubts regarding that as well — those making buying decisions don’t actually use word processors), it will make you fight your way through complicated formatting tasks for any moderate to long text. You may well end up spending more time formatting your work than actually writing anything.
You and I aren’t office workers (I’m sorry if you are). We are creative writers. We write blog entries, novels, short stories, technical documentation, articles, letters, screenplays…
A proper word processor should make a clear distinction between content and shape. It should let you type your content and take care of all the formatting for you. It should force you, unobtrusively, into writing a well formed document that an editor will enjoy working on. All you should really have to worry about is marking up a few blocks as titles and sub-sections, with no concern for how it will look in the end.
There are a few (very few, really) programs that work like that. These tend to be extremely specialized though. I did use some of these over the years, and actually enjoyed some of these. But I always gave up on them because they were too specialized. I don’t want to use one program for a short story and another one for an article.
This is how, in the summer of 2008, I ended up spending about a month, days and nights, writing such a program. The prototype worked well, actually. I was able to apply most of the concepts that I was looking for. But I knew nothing about writing word processors. I didn’t understand the most basic structures of such a piece of software. Unable to turn the prototype into a working program, I ended up scrapping the project.
But I never game up. Over the years, in total silence, with the curtains shut, I studied the internals of existing word processors and read a lot about how they are designed. You wouldn’t believe that such a common category of software is actually covered with a lot of secrecy. Those in the known don’t really share their knowledge. A word processor is much more complex than it may appears on the surface.
Recently, I gave it another try. With a lot of new knowledge, I sat down and planned out my internal structures. When I was satisfied, I coded a prototype. And it worked. I have all the pieces together to write a simple, flexible word processor, which works just the way I’d expect a word processor to work.
It will be months before the project is showable (hey, I have a low-wage, full-time job too — and two aquariums). But I’m telling you this now so you can help me keep motivated. I expect you to bug me every now and then until I have something to show.
Until then, please let me know. What do you write and what are you using to write it? What do you like and dislike about it? What features would you expect from a general word processor designed to let you write novels, documentation or blog posts?