The Write Tool for Working Words

The old saw, leaning by the old Airstream near the old guava tree

This past couple of weekends, I’ve been pruning the trees on our property. We’ve got six or seven fruit trees, many of them upwards of 50 years old, a good percentage of them showing the wear of years. I use various tools, but the one that’s most reliable is the tree saw in the photo above. It’s a simple device: a long serrated blade screwed to a five-foot pole. The serrated blade curves toward the sharp tip, so you can insert it at an angle into the tight crotch of a branch and if need be, cut in short, quick motions.

One interesting thing about this saw is that it’s at least 50 years old too, but it whistles through the branches of the varied trees, no matter the wood’s hardness or bulk. The saw was given to me by my girlfriend Alice’s farmer father, a bit before his death. He also gave me a much more modern tree saw, a nice lightweight aluminum one, with a telescoping height-adjusting pole. That one I gave away. The old one is so balanced, so sound and so fundamental to its purpose that it made no sense to have the fancy one.

Pruning this weekend made me think of the tools I use more often than saws: the software tools I use to prune words. I was a copyeditor in the mid-80s for a big software company, and they had developed their own word processor. It was DOS-based, of course; the earliest, miserable versions of Windows had recently come out, and there was a DOS-based Word, but the owner of my company hated Microsoft, so he had to develop his own program to spite it. But I’d never used a word processor at all, so using the clumsy keyboard-defined field codes for headlines, bolding and italics still seemed amazing to me.

Word Fattens Up, Walks Sideways Like a Crab
But six months later, the company sprang for Macintosh Plusses for the editors, and using the graphical interface, pulled into place by a mouse’s tail, made words on the page work so much better for me. I worked for other software companies in the 90s, when Windows and Word became entrenched, so I moved through the various iterations of Word, both Mac and Windows, because that was the tool within the world I worked. I tried a number of word workers through time—Wordstar, WordPerfect, WriteNow, and other simpler text editors—but because I worked in corporate environments, with seemingly invariant and unmediated corporate standards, Word was the de facto player.

So habituated was I to using Word that even when I became a full-time freelancer, many years ago, I continued to use Word, though by this time, it had become a lumbering code-monster with nine heads, coming in with zillions of templates, add-ons, graphical-handling (and crashing) features and menus with endless sub-menus—kind of like the Cadillac that Johnny Cash sang of, that was composed of the parts of twenty Caddies from twenty different years.

Having to Use a Sled to Lug Your Word Processor Around
Now, there are multiple opportunities to shed myself of Word: many other programs, like OpenOffice, can save in Word’s old .doc format (though the newer .docx can be problematic). But I’ve become so used to Word’s ways, bloated as they are, that I haven’t wanted to spend the time in learning a new program, and I don’t want to worry about possible conversion problems for my corporate clients. So I continue to muddle with Mac Word 2008, itself an aging tree.

But for blog posts? I always use the quick and easy TextEdit, the text editor that comes with the Mac OS. It’s clean and lightweight, like that pruning saw, and does simple tasks squarely and reliably. There’s no aluminum involved.

PS Any of you weaned yourself off Word, if that’s what you were raised on? Let me know what you use to work with words.

Writing Tools and Writing Fools

I love the word cacography. And that affection is amplified because it has an obverse term, calligraphy. I say the obverse, because the two words aren’t precise opposites of one another, but rather counterparts. But your fervid brain is saying, “Why Tom, why do you love cacography?” Because the word has an almost rude sound, a yanking of the earlobe, that works well for me—I have wretched handwriting, and “cacography” serves to describe it in sound and fury.

But the real direction of this post isn’t toward ear-twistings. I mentioned cacography because I wanted to talk about writing tools, and one of the most natural—though less enamored of keyboard clatterers today—is the pen. However, because my handwriting is such a cruelty to the eye, no matter if I painstakingly slow the cursive motion or speed it up, or ply it with bourbon, it always comes out as sadistic scratchings, the Caligula of cacography.

However, I do still take notes by hand when I’m mulling over an article or story, or sometimes just single words which are designed to later prompt an image or situation. Sad are the times when I’ve gone back to my notes and read “Xdz?mph” or some other transmogrification.

Does This Macbook Make Me Look Fat?
So, my writing tool in the broadest sense is my Macbook Pro, which has been my companionable computer for a couple of years. The specific applications I use to wrest words from the ether are Microsoft Word or TextEdit, Apple’s built-in word-processor. (Ah, “word processor”—think blender experiments that render smoothies of beef tongue, lightbulbs and turn-signal lamps.) Many people decry, and with good reason, the tyranny and arbitrary nature of Word, but I have been using it for so long that it’s second nature to me, unnatural nature that it is. But when I just want to write notes without the overhead of a bells-and-hellacious-whistles word-churner like Word, I use TextEdit. Which is what hosts this post this very moment.

However, because I’ve been working on a novel lately, I’m probably going to start using an enhanced writing tool like Scrivener, which is a database-style application that lets you arrange, search and manipulate documents, text snippets, outlines, images and more without opening a rack of individual documents. Because I’ve been saving the novel chapters as individual files, I keep going back and opening them separately to remember some earlier details about a character or situation, and that’s clumsy. Almost cacographous. A tool like Scrivener lets you poke around in a bunch of associated documents and find which one has the red socks and which one the blue, without going through the drawers one by one. And it lets you color-coordinate.

Make Something Great of the Blank Slate
One thing I’m doing more of (with a nod to Leo Babauta) is to try and close out my full desktop of overlapping applications and just have a single naked document onscreen, so that it gets full attention. Thus I’m less tempted to jump to the browser to search for pancake recipes or to my email to see if the pope has written back. Some people use the most bare bones of word processors, without any pallettes or menus showing, in order to crystalize focus, but I’m not distracted by menus. Except in restaurants.

I had a nice device called a Neo a while back, which was a dedicated word processor of sorts. Neos have a built-in keyboard, boot up in a heartbeat, run forever on rechargeable batteries, and could also be used to hammer in loose nails on the deck. I wish I still had it for taking on trips, for those times when a full computer is overkill, but I sold it a while back to buy additions to my twig collection, or something like that. But long before that, I had a magnificent Underwood typewriter, which required brisk workouts with free weights to pound the keys, and which would have produced a seismic reading of 6.5 if dropped out of a plane. Those were the days.

So, which writing tools strike your fancy?