Removing the Stigma From 'Writing Software'

By Keith Blount

scrivener-blog.jpgDouglas Adams came up with the following rules about the way we react to new technologies:

1. Anything that is in the world when you're born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
2. Anything that's invented between when you're fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
3. Anything invented after you're thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

I am tempted to use this as an explanation for my immunity to the charms of the iPad, but my mother, who will be a septuagenarian next month and won't thank me for saying so, loves the thing, so I know that really age has nothing to do with it and I'm probably just an early-onset curmudgeon. But there is a truth here, even if it can't be pinpointed to age, and it's one I run into occasionally when I see our writing software discussed in writers' forums. Such exchanges often take the following form. Someone asks what software other writers use or recommend. They then get some helpful replies, pointing to Word alternatives, or to software like our own. At some point, however, in the writerly discussion equivalent of Godwin's law, there will come the inevitable growl:

Real writers don't use "writing software."


All you need is an idea and Microsoft Word.


Professional writers just use Word.

And, my favorite:

Jane Austen didn't need (spit) "writing software" to write Pride and Prejudice and Zombies!

And why, that Dostoyevsky/Flaubert/Tolstoy was written with cold gravel on a paper bag while the author was working twenty-nine hours down at t'mill. (Actually I quite like the idea of Flaubert working at a mill.)

It is undeniably true that many -- most? -- professional writers do only use Word, and it may well be true that my grouchy invented straw man does indeed only need Word and an idea, but does that make it an unbreakable rule? More importantly, does it follow, as is so often the implication, that a work written in software intended to make the writing process a little easier is therefore somehow worth less?

Many of us have a natural tendency towards conservatism when it comes to the tools we use and rely on, but when it comes to software aimed at writers there seems to be an extra layer of cynicism that I think is rooted in something else: "writing software" has, for many, become synonymous with what is really "story theory software." There is a whole industry of "how-to-write" software out there; software that, at its worst, promises to turn your fuzzy idea into a multi-million-dollar blockbuster by following on-screen wizards (which is a sweeping generalization in itself -- there is some great software out there founded on some very interesting and well-respected story theories, such as Dramatica Pro and Contour). Just as how-to-write books usually (with the exception of Stephen King's excellent On Writing) inspire cynicism in many writers, so do their software equivalents -- you know, writing software.

But Microsoft Word is writing software, and those who look down their noses at writers using dedicated "writing software" instead of a plain old word processor may find themselves in turn looked down on from above the noses of those clacking away at an Olivetti. In an earlier post, I said that the word processor was essentially a straightforward replacement for its analogue equivalent, the typewriter, but that statement was overly simplistic. Even ignoring the vast number of tools that modern word processors now have built into them, from mail-merge to bibliography management, it's easy to forget just how revolutionary programs such as WordPerfect, WordStar and Microsoft Word (and, to a lesser extent, the physical word processors that preceded them) were when we first started using them in place of typewriters. Cut, Copy and Paste have removed a great deal of agony from the way we edit and revise documents, and while we now take the ability to select a word and type over it for granted, I'm sure Peggy would have appreciated just how much repetition and time such seemingly small features can save when she was ordered to re-type that letter in the first episode of Mad Men. I'm so used to hitting "Undo" nowadays that when I break a mug or put my foot in my mouth in real life, I find myself mentally reaching for the Cmd-Z keyboard combo.

Whether you love them, are indifferent to them, or blame them for increasing the temptation of endlessly tinkering with your text like a modern William Langland, word processors are so much more than typewriters. But like all software, word processors were designed for a specific purpose (even if in some cases that purpose has got a little blurred), and to that end it's worth remembering that just because Word tends to be our first go-to these days for tasks for which we might previously have used pen and paper, it is not a replacement for all that we do with paper or files (after all, we cannot play tic-tac-toe in a Word document nor turn it into a paper airplane -- unless we print it first).

What word processors do is this: They provide anybody with a way of creating a professional-looking, typeset document, and a way to edit, refine and polish that document. Whether you're creating a memo, a newsletter, a lost-cat poster or writing a letter ("It looks like you're writing a letter; can I help?"), a word processor allows you to produce documents of a presentational standard that most people couldn't have achieved 20 years ago.

Word processors enable us to produce good-looking documents -- but do they encourage us to focus on the content? Presentation is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to producing a text, especially a long and difficult text that involves a complex structure. The trouble is that presentation is the raison d'être of most word processors -- Apple's Pages, for instance, boasts "a beautifully designed, professional-quality document created in minutes." The time it takes to compose the content presumably isn't a factor. Moreover, while textual content is always the author's concern, the final presentation is often someone else's -- and even if the author is self-publishing or writing a thesis that has to be presented in a particular way, the writing process rarely benefits from worrying about typesetting options simultaneously with trying to choose the right words. This isn't to disagree with Kierkegaard's assertion that what constitutes a classic work is the coherence of its form and content: for all but the most experimental of texts, "form" doesn't usually equate to font choice (or else literature professors would be apoplectic every time a new edition of a classic was published).

At this point, some readers may be wondering what software can possibly have to do with content generation, and it would certainly be disingenuous to claim that word processors and traditional text editors do not serve many writers very well. After all, Jack Kerouac famously wrote On the Road in three weeks on one long roll of teletype paper; Kurt Vonnegut wrote his novels one page at a time, retyping each page until he was satisfied and only moving on to the next when the last one was perfect. The computing equivalent is to start at the top of a Word document -- or a TextEdit, WordPad or Bean document - and to keep typing until you reach the end, and this works well for many writers. But everyone approaches the blank page differently; what of writers who don't work this way? I discovered an interesting blog post in my Google Alerts earlier this week by Jake Seliger, which touched on James Joyce's writing methods. Seliger quoted the following passage from Walton Litz's paper, "The Design of Ulysses:"

[Joyce] did not write Ulysses straight through, following the final order the episodes. First it was necessary to determine the design of the novel, to visualize its characters and the course of the action, and this entailed putting scattered portions on paper in order to clarify them. Then, like the mosaic worker, Joyce collected and sorted material to fit the design. Finally, the fragments were placed in their proper positions through a process of rough drafts and revisions.

Nabokov wrote most of his novels on index cards (2,000 of them in the case of Ada), and he would write the middle of each novel last, before shuffling the cards until he found the best structure and getting his wife, Vera, to type them all up for him.

Hilary Mantel, who won the Man Booker prize for her novel Wolf Hall in 2009, described her own novel-writing process in an essay she wrote for The Agony and the Ego (a superb collection of essays by novelists discussing their craft) entitled "Growing a Tale:"

I carry 3 x 5 inch index cards. I try to put down... every glimpse of what this book will be... When I have a few of these cards I pin them up on a cork notice-board in the room where I work. You do not know at this stage what is important... You do not know the order of events... Ideas build around these glimpses... Perhaps I write something else on one of my cards, just a few words; or perhaps the original idea begins to develop, and I am moved to write a paragraph or two. I pin that paragraph behind the card to which it relates... I keep them on the board, in any order, until one day I see a sequence, a logic, begin to emerge. Then I repin them, very approximately, very roughly, in the order in which I think the narrative will shape. A few weeks on, all these bits of paper - the original cards, and anything that has accumulated behind them - go into a ring-binder. With a ring-binder you can easily swap the papers around - you're still not committing yourself to an order of events... This is really a method of growing a book, rather than writing one.

For such nonlinear approaches to writing, traditional word processors can only go so far. They are still important in the final stages -- for the typing-up that Vera did, for the final drafts that grow out of Mantel's ring-binder -- but the earlier stages of such nonlinear writing -- the "growing" of the text -- have usually been ignored in traditional writing tools: even though some word processors have basic navigational and outlining features, they are still built around the idea of a single, coherent document that is born either full-formed or at least mostly in order. And yet a long text can begin life as many small fragments that have to be juggled and nudged and cajoled into place, and so, while their more linear-minded colleagues hammer away at their computers, nonlinear writers have generally been left moving pieces of paper around or shuffling index cards.

Over the past few years, however, a new type of writing software has been emerging that is focused less on presentation -- being happy to leave that to dedicated word processors -- and more on content; software which integrates some of these nonlinear processes of note-taking, working in fragments and shuffling the pieces. Not that software can or should replace all real-world processes any more than one piece of software can suit everyone -- many writers will always prefer to work with real index cards and note-paper, and my guess is that most ideas will always start with pen and paper. But some nonlinear writers may be fed up of typing their index cards into computers, of copying and pasting large chunks of text between the documents that comprise their chapters, of juggling outlines and notes and research.

It was these frustrations, and the feeling that my own writing processes (which I recognized in Mantel's essay) weren't being catered for by traditional word processors, that led to me learning to code so that I could write my own software that would allow a non-linear, "in chunks" writing style. But I can make no claim to being the first, nor the last, to do so -- and nor do I wish to use my spot as guest blogger here to try to hawk my own wares; over the past decade a number of programs have emerged that take on the challenge of trying to address the processes of writing beyond typing, formatting and revising. On Windows, for example, programs such as PageFour, Liquid Story Binder and (the now sadly discontinued) RoughDraft are all built around a nonlinear writing process, and on the Mac Scrivener is far from alone -- for instance, the excellent Ulysses not only allows nonlinear writing but also eschews formatting distractions altogether. None of these programs will try to tell you how or what to write any more than Microsoft Word will (let's pretend Clippy never happened) and none are the same -- they all tackle nonlinear writing in a different way, just as do writers themselves -- but they each try to take the pain and repetition out of areas of writing that have not been addressed by traditional word processors -- giving easy access to research, allowing the writer to work in fragments, making the reshuffling and structural processes easier.

Still: no one needs specialist writing software to write a long text, just as no one needs a word processor to write a letter. And word processors will remain an essential part of every writer's toolbox and will always have a place on most users' desktops (my personal favorite being the Mac-only Nisus Writer). My hope, though, is that software that tries to tackle other aspects of the writing process will gradually lose the stigma attached to "writing software." Like any tool, at its best good software gets out of the way entirely and removes the distance between us and our work. But we all work differently, and that's why, to me at least, it's exciting to see (and to be a part of) so many new approaches to old problems appearing on our computers.

Keith Blount is the designer and lead developer of Scrivener writing software.