WriteRight: The Writer’s Word Processor
Please accept my sincere apologies if the title of this article has raised your pulse along with your hopes. There is no WriteRight, and, speaking as a professional writer, with thousands of articles and numerous books under my belt, I’m comfortable saying that the Macintosh world doesn’t have a word processor that’s designed for writers. Although I’m not familiar with the full complement of word processors for other platforms, I’d be surprised if they were any better. I’m not talking about students, who may knock off a few papers per semester, or managers who need to write up occasional status reports. I’m talking about real writers, the kind of people who spend their days in their word processors, creating text, tweaking it into shape, and preparing it for the next stage in its life, be that a Web page, a press release, a magazine article, a book, or some other form of published work. It continues to amaze me that no word processor has attempted to appeal more directly to its most professional and accomplished users; it would be like telling a Hollywood director to use iMovie instead of Final Cut Pro.
Then and Now — First, a bit of history. In the beginning there was MacWrite, which introduced the entire concept of WYSIWYG – what you see is what you get. There were a few other good word processors back in the early days of the Macintosh, including the sprightly WriteNow, FullWrite (whose 2 MB memory requirement was shocking back in the day), and two more familiar names that have survived to this day: Microsoft Word and Nisus Writer. Other word processors were built into now-defunct integrated programs like BeagleWorks and GreatWorks; also, both ClarisWorks (now AppleWorks) and the perennial underdog RagTime are still kicking.
Along with the surviving programs, we’ve seen a revival of interest in small word processors: Nisus Writer Express (actually a completely new program that bears only a passing resemblance to the powerful and quirky Nisus Writer Classic), Mariner Write from Mariner Software, and the intriguing Mellel from the Israeli company RedleX. It’s also worth considering TextWrangler from Bare Bones Software, a text editor descended from the venerable BBEdit. Alas, when I call these word processors "small," I mean it. They have occasional flashes of brilliance, and all show some promise, but for a serious writer who collaborates with other authors, works with a variety of editors, and produces text for professional publication, they simply don’t cut it.
Microsoft Word remains the juggernaut of the industry, and to be blunt, aside from a few years when it seemed Nisus Writer Classic might have been able to make a run at the bloated and buggy Word 6.0, Word has been the most powerful and capable word processor on the Macintosh. At the same time, Word elicits more cursing from writers than any other. Its features are piled high and deep, and while they often claim to do something particularly useful, they’re often confusing to use while falling short of what’s actually necessary. For instance, Word’s Compare Documents feature has never produced sufficiently useful results for me. Perhaps others have had better luck, and I always remain hopeful that a new version will make drastic improvements, but I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’m unlikely ever to have more than an arm’s length relationship with Word.
So come with me on a fantasy trip into the set of features that in my opinion (bolstered by that of many other writers and editors with whom I work regularly), would exist in the ideal writer’s word processor, call it WriteRight. Do note that such a program would of course need solid implementation of all the basic word processing features; I focus here on the features that are either essential to the writer or for which I’ve heard many a writer express a fervent desire. "If only Word could…" is how those conversations always start, and then we go into the feature wishlist.
Keyboard and Mouse Navigation — It always surprises me when I use a word processor that doesn’t offer full keyboard navigation and a full complement of text selection features. Writers spend so much time in their word processors that keyboard and mouse shortcuts become not just niceties but essentials. This isn’t the place for a full list, but you should be able to navigate a document using the keyboard by character, word, sentence, paragraph, and document, with or without the Shift key held down to enable selection. Similarly, double-clicks should select words, triple clicks should select sentences, and quadruple clicks should select paragraphs.
Also useful in this regard is the capability of customizing keyboard shortcuts. For whatever reason, I (and many programs) believe Option-Delete should delete a word, but for some reason, other programs assign this function to Command-Delete. It’s maddening, so I always take the time to regularize a program that disagrees with me, even if I have to use a macro utility like iKey or QuicKeys to override its default behavior. Keyboard customization within the program is better.
Auto-Save — Also surprisingly lacking in many word processors is a good auto-save capability. At its most simple, auto-save merely needs to write the file to disk every few minutes. If something goes wrong, you never lose more than the last few minutes of work. Nisus Writer Classic offered the best combination of controls, enabling you to specify both an elapsed time and a number of keystrokes between saves. For instance, I might want to auto-save every 5 minutes, but I can type rather quickly, so I might also want to auto-save every 500 keystrokes. As far as I know, no other word processor yet matches that level of configurability, but WriteRight should.
Nisus Writer Express offers a new feature I was initially dismissive of, but which I’ve subsequently grown to appreciate: Document Manager. Basically, Nisus Writer Express can automatically save new documents to the Document Manager rather than forcing you to save each file separately. Sometimes I just want to start writing; I don’t want to name my file and put it somewhere specific (and there’s little worse than an auto-save feature that doesn’t work until the document has been saved for the first time).
It might seem clever to record all actions in between saves to a separate roll-forward log that could be replayed after the user restarted, and I’d be all in favor of that if it were implemented well. For instance, Word automatically opens a copy of your document after a crash. But it’s a copy, so you must manually figure out if it has useful data that doesn’t exist in your original, and if so, you must decide whether it makes more sense to copy the recovered text back into the original or to save the copy and replace the original file in the Finder. Psychologically, it’s the worst time to ask users to make decisions that could result in data loss. In contrast, Adobe InDesign has a pretty good roll-forward log; most of the times I’ve crashed with unsaved work in an InDesign document, InDesign has merely reopened my document with the unsaved changes. Of course, there were two times while I was writing my iPhoto Visual QuickStart Guide that InDesign blithely reported that my document was corrupted and couldn’t be opened after a crash. I would have appreciated an opportunity to revert to my last saved version (which should have been fine) without all the interim changes. Both times, my Retrospect backups saved my bacon.
Search Harder — Find/Replace features are another area where most word processors don’t make the grade. Nisus Writer Classic remains the gold standard here again, with its capability of searching on any attribute of text in the document using either plain or pattern-based searches within a selection, throughout an entire document, or even across multiple documents. It’s powerful, flexible, and elegant, and I remain flabbergasted that other programs haven’t just copied it wholesale. Even Nisus Software’s own Nisus Writer Express doesn’t match up.
If you doubt that writers need these kind of features, just imagine the on-deadline call from your editor saying that figure references need to be in the form "Figure 1.2 – Caption text." and every figure reference in the 12 files that make up your 350-page book uses the previous requirement of "Fig. 1-2: Caption text.". With Nisus Writer Classic, I could make that change throughout the entire book in a few minutes; with any other program, it might be hours of error-prone manual labor. (And if I have to tell a program to continue searching from the beginning of the document again, I’m going to scream. Simple searches shouldn’t require user prompting.)
Character and Paragraph Styles — One of the most important features of a word processor is styles. I’m not talking about text formatting styles – bold, underline, and so on – but user-defined character and paragraph styles. With such styles you can change the style definition, and all the text in that style immediately changes to match. Character styles apply to any run of one or more characters, whereas paragraph styles apply to the text of a paragraph (as indicated by a trailing return character).
Word’s support for styles is quite complete, despite a complex interface and a few quirks in how multiple styles applied to the same text interact. Mellel and AppleWorks both offer some level of style support as well, Nisus Writer Express 2.0 (due in a few months) promises it, but the current versions of Nisus Writer Express and Mariner Write both lack styles entirely, as do more text-oriented programs like Bare Bones Software’s text editors.
WriteRight would refocus its style support somewhat. Styles are useful for the control they give over both the look of certain bits of text and other attributes (such as identifying a style that shouldn’t be spell checked, or that should be considered to be a URL). But what’s most important, though, is that styles be easy to define, apply, and modify, and that they be available to other programs. For instance, if InDesign and QuarkXPress can’t read a word processor’s character and paragraph styles, it simply won’t be acceptable for producing documents for layout. WriteRight should also have HTML and XML export features that work from character and paragraph style definitions, since the easier it is to repurpose text, the better.
Reference Tools — When it comes to working with text, too few word processors provide tools to help writers write. There are a few such tools, of course, like inline spell checking, and it’s not unheard of for a word processor to have a thesaurus, a dictionary, or even a grammar checker. Even when present, though, the implementation of these features leaves much to be desired from the writer’s standpoint.
Inline spell checking is wonderful, of course, and my main irritation with it at this point is that not everything shares the same dictionary, even though Apple now offers system-wide dictionaries. So, I end up with separate user dictionaries for Eudora, Word, and Cocoa applications. (Here’s an idea for a shareware utility: a program that synchronizes user dictionaries between programs and between Macs. If only iSync were open to developers!) And a few programs I use for text, such as BBEdit and InDesign, still don’t offer inline spell checking, so not only do they have their own user dictionaries, but they force users to work through clumsy dialog-based interfaces.
(For the record, Adobe should be ashamed of the spell checker in InDesign; it’s possibly the worst one I’ve ever seen, requiring three clicks in two dialogs to add a word to the user dictionary and offering no style-based way of marking text like URLs that should never be spell-checked. At least InDesign CS added an option to avoid complaining about sentences that don’t start with capital letters, as every other sentence in my iPhoto Visual QuickStart Guide does, thanks to Apple’s capitalization.)
After inline spell checking, though, writing features become far less coherent. Word offers a grammar checker that could be useful to people who aren’t writers (since professional writers who use "poor" grammar generally do so intentionally). A useful mode for a grammar checker would be as a proofing tool that could catch typographical and other subtle errors, such as the wrong "its" or a typo that results in an incorrect, but properly spelled, word.
Word does provide a dictionary that’s handy for looking up definitions, but it’s not nearly as usable as a truly clever feature in Nisus Writer Express. When combined with the free Nisus Thesaurus, Nisus Writer Express can show you, in a portion of a drawer, thesaurus entries for the word next to or containing the insertion point. I often now begin TidBITS articles in Nisus Writer Express because the real-time thesaurus helps me break out of the rut of using roughly the same words in article after article. I’d love to see a similar feature in WriteRight that also performed real-time dictionary lookups.
It’s tempting to build Internet search capabilities into a word processor, such that you could select a word and look it up in Google, for instance. However, that kind of a feature (which appeared in the most recent release of Eudora, in fact) misses the point, since a writer is unlikely to want to run a Google search for a single word because the results probably won’t be relevant. However, I could imagine a feature in WriteRight that would take advantage of Apple’s text summarization feature to summarize a selection and then feed that summary to Google. The additional context from having multiple search terms would likely produce useful hits.
Word Count & Document Statistics — For years, Microsoft’s Word product managers complained that every review of Word took the program to task for not making it sufficiently easy to do a word count. Microsoft finally added a constantly updated word count to the status bar at the bottom of the document window, and in my next meeting, the Microsoft folks pointed out that feature, joking that it was only there so they could get better reviews. I laughed along with them, while sighing internally: word count is utterly necessary for almost everyone who makes a living writing, and bringing the feature out into the open wasn’t a sop to reviewers, it was a long-overdue decision.
For TidBITS articles, we care about character count instead of word count, since, in our case, character count is a more true representation of an article’s size than word count. Although most word processors can perform these counts, Nisus Writer Express and Mellel deserve credit for making document statistics particularly visible. My theoretical WriteRight would definitely work along similar lines.
Outlining — For many writers, everything starts as an outline, just like our seventh grade English teachers taught us. Outlines help you organize your thoughts ahead of time, and particularly with longer works, ensure that you don’t realize two-thirds through that your organization is all wrong.
There are of course numerous stand-alone outliners, such as OmniOutliner, NoteTaker, Hog Bay Notebook, and so on. But outlining is the first part of the writing process, and it’s clumsy to be forced to create your outline in another program and then refer back to it constantly as you write. Of the current crop of word processors, only AppleWorks and Word offer outlining capabilities, and the outlining tools in AppleWorks seem crude. As with so many other features, Word’s outlining tools have the right idea, but suffer significantly in the implementation.
I won’t expand on Matt Neuburg’s long-standing criticism that Word’s outlining tools lack the functionality of More, which remains the gold standard to serious outline users like Matt. I’m not as picky as Matt about how I interact with my outlines, but I still find that outlines I create in Word never go beyond being outlines; I always start a new file to write my document. By doing so I lose the capability to flesh out my outline with the final text of my article, book chapter, or paper. And more to the point, when I’m in the middle of a long document and wish to shrink everything down so I can move sections around wholesale, it never seems to work out. In part, that’s because Word’s outlining mode relies entirely on Word’s built-in styles, which many publishers don’t use because they conflict with the styles necessary to work with their particular page layout template. But even with our Take Control ebooks, which do rely on Word’s built-in styles for reasons like this, Word’s outline view isn’t clean; there are often bits of text that don’t want to slot into the appropriate hierarchy for some reason.
In short, though Word has the right idea, I’d like to see WriteRight offer not only outlining that Matt Neuburg will love, but also outlining that allows the author to expand or contract the full text of the piece at any point in time.
Collaboration Features — Most serious writers, other than those working on their first novels in unheated garrets, work with other writers and editors, but this fact seems to be lost on companies that create word processors. In fact, in the Macintosh world, only two word processors offer any collaboration features at all: Microsoft Word and (stretching the definition of a word processor) SubEthaEdit. So what’s necessary? WriteRight should provide revision tracking, extra-textual commenting, and collaborative editing, and it should write files in a format that can be read without loss of information in Word, InDesign, QuarkXPress, and other common word processing and layout programs.
Word does offer revision tracking to help you identify, via color coding of text, who made what change in a document, and the feature is essential to any serious writing project. Essential though it may be, it’s also horribly implemented, difficult to use, and buggy in ways that can cause significant troubles. (Most notably, sometimes Word just forgets who you are, and starts marking all your changes as being made by Unknown.) Revision tracking needs to be based on both person (as Word does it) and time because the same person may often edit a document more than once, and it’s important to see which changes were made in which edit pass. When Glenn Fleishman and I were writing The Wireless Networking Starter Kit, we sometimes changed our names in Word for our second or third passes just to differentiate between initial changes and subsequent revisions.
Revision tracking doesn’t help much with identifying and working with the various versions of a document through time. If a document goes through several editing passes by different people, it may be difficult or impossible to see the state of the document at any point in time. Also, keeping copies of interim versions of documents is prudent because Word documents occasionally become corrupt. If you’re exchanging documents via email, multiple versions of a file are a fact of life, since you send one version of a document and get another back, but if you and your collaborators use a shared folder, you must come up with a manual versioning and checkout system; the approach I see most often involves editing the filename with a version number and your initials. I’d like to see WriteRight integrate a distributed version control system where you could write a document, check it out (which would allow you to send it to someone else), and when you receive their changes back, check it back into the system. Even if WriteRight were just maintaining the files on disk in a coherent way, that would eliminate the need to fiddle with filenames and special In/Out folders.
Revisions happen to the actual text of a document, but equally important is the capability for different people to make comments on aspects of the document outside of the text. Again, Word offers a commenting feature that, though slated to improve in Word 2004, is so amazingly annoying in Word X that you wonder if anyone at Microsoft could have actually used it before shipping. Just the way it scrolls the text of the document when you click in a comment, placing the commented text at the very bottom of the screen (so you can’t see most of it), makes my stomach hurt. But commenting, like revision tracking, is essential when working with another author or editor, so WriteRight must include a complete commenting system.
Document Management Server — In an even wilder fantasy world, WriteRight would also have an Internet-accessible document management server that would make it possible for multiple people to see and comment on the same document simultaneously, with each person being able to see the comments of others. That’s great for avoiding redundancy and enabling people to refine or disagree with each other’s comments. Right now, the best way of doing this is with a free Web service called QuickTopic Document Review; I’d love to see a similar multi-user document commenting interface that also integrated the comments into the actual document.
A document management server could also enable real-time collaborative editing, a feature that exists, as far as I know, only in the SubEthaEdit text editor. Real-time collaborative editing means you can have multiple people on a network (including over the Internet) writing and editing in the same document at the same time. Although the act of sharing a document space requires some getting used to, it proves to be incredibly helpful at times, particularly in the early stages of developing an outline or taking notes.
Unfortunately, SubEthaEdit truly is a text editor, not a word processor. It offers only the barest minimum of editing and writing features, and even its signature feature lacks obvious refinements such as being able to save the color marking that indicates who wrote what after the document is closed. I’d like to see SubEthaEdit’s developers document the sharing protocols and make them available – either as open source or on a licensed basis, whichever they feel is most appropriate – to companies developing full-fledged word processors. The capability of allowing multiple real-time editors in a document is too useful to restrict it to an application as limited as SubEthaEdit.
And One File Format to Rule Them All — Microsoft Word controls the word processing market for two reasons. First, as we’ve seen, it offers more useful features for serious writers than any other word processor, and even badly implemented or buggy features are often better than nothing. Second, and more important, the Word file format has become the lingua franca of word processing documents. It’s a network effect: lots of people have Word, so exchanging documents happens most easily in Word format. The page layout programs support Word because it’s what most people use, which then makes it a requirement for anyone who writes text for later layout. Put bluntly, then, WriteRight must not only read and write Word documents, it must use the Word file format in as close to a native fashion as possible. Realistically, that probably means RTF, though it will need to at least convert Word files from .doc to .rtf format without losing anything.
As much as I’d like to think otherwise, file conversion currently isn’t good enough. I wrote my first few books in Nisus Writer Classic, then converted them to Word to send to the publisher for layout in PageMaker. I performed the conversion successfully, but I spent a lot of time preparing the files for conversion, making sure styles were all named perfectly and consistently applied. After conversion, there was even more cleanup work to bring the file to the level necessary for prepress work. Worse, going back and forth between programs ensured that collaborating with my editor was a nightmare, since he didn’t use Nisus Writer Classic, and I had to give him quickly translated Word files then address his comments back in the original Nisus Writer documents. After the final conversion, I was also faced with the problem of how to start the next edition. I gave up, and now I write my books in Word (or directly in InDesign).
I’m sure converters have improved, but just for giggles, I dropped a moderately complex Word document with styles and tables and comments on Nisus Writer Express, and while the file opened with all the text intact, it didn’t look much like the original. Returning the file to Word after a change didn’t help; the file had lost the essential metadata that marked paragraph styles, tables, and comments, among other features.
Is WriteRight Pure Fantasy? Honestly, I hold out little hope that any of the companies building word processors today have it in them to bring their products up to the level of my hypothetical WriteRight. RedleX seems to be moving fairly quickly with Mellel, and although Nisus Software clearly doesn’t have the development resources to bring Nisus Writer Express up to the level of Nisus Writer Classic right away, at least they have it as a goal (not to mention a model).
The real kicker is my last requirement – that WriteRight be able to read and write Word documents without losing any information at all. I believe the RTF format can encode essentially everything in a Word document, including comments and revision tracking, but that’s helpful only if WriteRight also supports all those features. In short, WriteRight must essentially clone almost every feature of Word that matters (and I haven’t even mentioned things like tables and hyperlinks) to be able to read a Word file without losing data, and more to the point, to be able to write the file back out with all data equally intact. It’s a tall order, and one that may not be feasible.
But aside from the fact that it never hurts to dream of a tool that would actually make my everyday work faster, easier, and better, I think it’s also important to make sure these ideas are in circulation so that those who are developing word processors can know that just ensuring we can make our text use different fonts in bold and italic won’t warrant even a yawn.