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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.

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18 thoughts on “The Write Tool for Working Words

  1. Wow.

    Tom, your tree saw stands as an ideal symbol of how we all must grapple with Design, capital D, in every realm of our lives. Saws to software, Design is the bottleneck.

    Some advances make the tools we use so much better than they were before. Compare a new car now to a new car in 1984. But then, if an owner wants to work on their car, tweaking and repairing because they enjoy it- well, then, a ’49 Merc or a ’57 Chevy would be the thing. No one without advanced training and a warehouse full of high-tech gear can mess around under the hood of a Prius or a modern Mercedes diesel.

    Is it perhaps simplicity of design that is the attribute most necessary for function, or should I say, for delighting us with function? Is that the problem with Word?

    There’s a little something I’m writing, and I keep a file of ideas that occur to me as important to have in the work. As I find places to weave them in, I check them off. Here’s one that hasn’t found its home yet, but it will, and it seems relevant here. Archibald to his son Aloysius:

    “Design is a verb. Design is a call to action. Design makes a difference in people’s lives. And if we look around us, we see one thing in particular- there’s an awful lot of Design left to do.”

  2. Rick, it is interesting how good design can make something seem to disappear, like the well-oiled workings of this simple saw, and how bad design can make something top-heavy. I’m editing a novel for someone right now in Word, and the author has embedded a number of images in the book, and made what should be a 500k file an 8MB file, and it’s unwieldy, because of the way Word reads images. I’ve cut out a number of the images, but Word keeps some kind of metadata or something else in the file regarding the images, and the file is still slow and huge. With Word, you can gussy up documents so haphazardly that they become memory bombs.

    And I truly love old cars (my current one is 31 years old), but I never have been handy with working on them, so the design tingles my spine, but the mechanics send me into a panic. So to speak.

    I like your mini-manifesto about design, but speaking from without the novel, you want whatever’s within the novel to feel like it’s a supple, natural expression of the narrative, and not an add-on, like a brochure template in Word. But you already know that, of course…

  3. That’s so odd about Word. Why code it that way?

    And yeah, if this aerotome ever takes wing, there will be those who criticize some parts of it on the basis of “real people don’t talk like that.”

    And my answer is gonna be, “Well, no, cause I do! I talk just like that all the time. Especially in coffee bars.”

  4. I haven’t found an alternative to Word for documents with pictures and clever formatting. I too lug around Word for Mac 2008.

    I find writing blogposts in TextEdit quite comfortable. But for writing other, longer things we need some basic formatting to make it visually pleasing.

    I found FocusWriter as one such program. It creates RTF files but you cannot include pictures or other multimedia files (no excel embeds etc). For online use there is a PenZen which publishes to a PDF.

  5. Have saw, will travel? We have a couple of out-of-control cypress trees in our front yard that could really use a lopping.

    I’m still sucking at the bloated teat of Word for Mac 2008 and can’t imagine being weaned from it anytime soon. Criticisms I’ve read of open source alternatives like OpenOffice put me off the whole idea. So I’ll stay with Word, for now, and with my habit of writing some things out longhand (still…), and re-read Leo Baubauta’s recent post on slowly building up one’s “change muscle”…

  6. Rick, on the “real people don’t talk like that,” I think that’s a cuckoo criticism. The problem is when the author hasn’t established the validity of the world he or she has created. You can have all of your characters speak like Oscar Wilde bantering with Henry James in a drawing room after they’ve smoked opium, and if you’ve done the legwork in world-building, all will be well.

  7. Rahul, thanks for the cues to FocusWriter and PenZen (love that name). I’ll check them out. I’m leaning toward getting Scrivener, a program many novelists use, and which can export to a lot of the ebook formats.

    I understand it’s great in a general sense for including a great outliner, note/snippets holder and image holder as well, so it could be a project-management help too.

  8. Annie, I will send you some photos of nicely trimmed cypresses and you can paste them over the windows that face your trees.

    Longhand, really? I truly can no longer read my own writing. I spent 10 minutes trying to figure out a note I wrote to myself about a plot twist in my novel, and I could not figure it out.

    But maybe you know what “glufrk mfinue Ds blagurrst” means?

  9. Tom! That’s a shame about your note to yourself. This has happened to me, but usually over minor stuff. I hope that idea, whatever it was, comes back to you.

    And re Oscar Wilde bantering with Henry James-

    How about Joe DeMaggio bantering with Harry James? It’s a little-remembered fact that baseball fan Harry and his Big Band would arrange pickup baseball games with the actual New York Yankees. Yep. I’ve seen the pics.

  10. Yeah, DiMaggio and Harry James! That would prove just as stimulating and Wilde/James, I’m sure. And Harry probably knew of a more reliable opium source than Henry.

  11. Tom,

    Scrivner is great tool, but it is a project management tool for writers and it does export into ebook formats.

    Dr. Rick,
    I am sure a chemist can read your hand. I am amazed at how they are able to do it. Some of the prescriptions I have seen are like the “interpret the ink blot” (Rorschach Ink Blots test).

    Though, I must say the recent five docs I have met have very clear handwriting, even for their own notes.


  12. I use TextEdit whenever I can. Word is too bloated and slow (and I’ve got 2004; I refuse to use that blasted ribbon).

    I have heard good things about Scrivener, but haven’t tried it.

  13. Forgot to add, I had a boss once whose handwriting looked more like spider tracks than words. You had to sort of squint and tilt your head slightly to read it.

  14. Jodi, yes, the ribbon and all the baggage that goes over it, comes under it and is within it—blecch! More is definitely not better in this regard.

    As for reading my handwriting, squint all you want—the Da Bentley Code will remain impenetrable.

  15. I write in TextWrangler, a free tool that actually runs on my 14th-century Mac.

    If I need fancies, I write in HTML. Yes, I do. Code in the italics and bold and images and espresso beans, and refresh the browser. Because I, too, suffered WordStar when I worked at the paper in small-town Fairfield, Texas, so when I saw HTML I thought, yeah, that.

    Lithe lighting: a good free text editor and a web browser, and my knowledge of HTML and CSS.

    Sue has Word on her machine, and I use it when I have to, but then, I go to the dentist when I have to, too.

    Ooh; hope there are no dentists reading.

  16. Joel, TextWrangler, yes! It has very powerful search/replace and other filtering tools. I used to use it but drifted away; I should add it back into my arsenal.

    As for writing in HTML, that’s not a natural move for me; might be akin to those dental visits. (I’m whispering, because that dentist guy we know hangs around here once in a while.)

  17. Yeah, I do use Dreamweaver, but only when I’m editing an HTML doc. I’d never even think of using it for standard writing, or even nonstandard writing for that matter. Well, I did just think of it, but I probably won’t think of it anymore. I would like to weave some dreams, however.

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