consider the act

It would be very hard for me to pick just one favourite part in WS Burrough's book Naked Lunch, but for the film version by David Cronenberg, it's easy. Lee and his wife are crossing a frontier between two countries via car, and get stopped by a border guard. The guard asks Lee what he does for a living, and he replies that he's a writer. The guard asks him to prove it. Lee pulls a pen out his breast pocket and tells the guard he has a writing instrument.

I love that: a writing instrument. Not a machine, not a (shudder) medium, but an instrument.

Writing is old and varied enough that writers can choose from many different instruments. I switch hit: poetry (when it comes) gets written with pencil on three-ring paper, probably because I started making it up when I was three or four and started writing it down myself when I was about six (before that, my kindergarten teacher took dictation when she heard me reciting something interesting).

The short stories, then longer stories, and then novels didn't start arriving in full force until halfway through high school, by which time I'd learned how to type. My brothers and I got a Commodore 64 for Christmas when I was 12, so I've been typing on computers all that time, and my handwriting has always been sufficiently awful that I can't imagine any other way.

Between that and all the business writing I do for my day job, I am very picky about word processors. I want them to do what I need them to do, in a reasonable manner, and then get the hell out of my way. The years of experience between the arrival of the Commodore 64 and now make me suspect that companies that make word processors don't see it that way, but I still hold out hope that someone will see it my way someday.

The following is a roundup of the three major word processors I use on a regular basis for writing. I use a couple of text editors too, mostly when I'm on a lightly-powered machine like my Nokia tablet, but I'm not including them in this survey because when it comes time to edit I always switch over to my laptop.

Aside before the reviews proper: that link to the Nokia tablet blog post? It details how I use my Nokia to write whilst in transit. It's from almost exactly two years ago, and I haven't really changed my setup since. Wow, maybe I've finally found the toolkit I like. At least until something better comes along.

Google Docs

I have to recommend Google Docs to everyone who doesn't have a computer, but can get some computer time with an internet link attached. Maybe you have internet access at your local public library, or maybe you have a friend who doesn't mind if you come over and use their machine for a bit, but you don't feel right leaving your own files on their computer. Or maybe you usually do have home computer access and your own web access, but inspiration struck when neither of these were handy, but a web connection was.

Or maybe you hate computers but need to create a typed submission?

Google Docs lets you upload word processing documents up to 500 KB in size in lots of different formats, and lets you save them in even more formats, including MS-Word and PDF. Bonus: they have hooked it up to Google Translate so you can translate your docs on the fly. I tried the English-to-French translation on an old blog post (those being the only two languages I am reasonably fluent in), and the French sounded decent, although of course not "native." I would say it was good enough for a French speaker to understand, but not good enough for everything to come across correctly. But it might be good enough to give a proper human translator a good jump start.

500KB is plenty of room for the average novel — one that doesn't have a lot of fancy formatting in it, or need to use specific fonts for text. Like any on-line editor, speed and access are both issues, but it's a lot better than some of the alternatives. As for features — again, it's fine for the average novel.

OpenOffice

I've blogged about OpenOffice (OOo) and its features before. For me, it's proven more than adequate for writing with. It supports master/sub-documents, it has style support, and like Google Docs, it's free, free, free. Unlike Google Docs, it doesn't live in hyperspace — you install it on your local machine. The full office suite runs around 100MB  —  not horribly big for today's machines.

I've heard some gripes on-line about OOo's feature set, but truth be told I've never had any problems with it. I wish the template organiser was a little more user-friendly, but that's about it. I don't know about you, but I only update my templates for books about... once every eighteen months? Something like that. I want to change how the default paragraphs work in my writing template, so I'll get to try it out before the next blog post.

Microsoft Word

I haven't used MS-Word for personal writing in years, but I use it at work every day for business and technical writing. Everyone in my department is a power user: we have strict rules around style and template usage. Form follows function: if we're making text big for a communication reason, that reason will be reflected in the style used (because we use styles for nearly all the formatting), and will thus be reflected in the document's structure. The ideal is that someone who doesn't read English should be able to take a look at one of our documents and be able to see the organisation of the content and understand what information may be found where.

And, like the vast majority of businesses in North America, we use Word to accomplish that.

I would never question my company's decision to go that route — I completely understand and support the business logic — but I will question what on earth Microsoft did to Office 2007. Some things are better, but some things are simply awful. It's become even harder to use some of the so-called advanced features, and template organisation is now worse than it is in the freeware OpenOffice. A lot of features I use at least once a week, like updating styles from another document or template (so, you know, a set of documents look like they're a set?) have become obscure and unwieldy.

I used to say that if you already knew Word and were nervous of OpenOffice's learning curve, you may as well buy your own personal copy of Word and write with that. As of the 2007 version, I've reversed that. Just learn OpenOffice. It will be much less painful in the long run, and you can still save as clean, well-formatted Word documents.

What about all those "writer's" word processors?

I've been reading a lot about them, but haven't tried any in earnest yet. Having a word processor just for writers appeals to some egotistical part of me. I've yet to see a feature set that can't be easily accomplished in a regular word processor like OpenOffice or Word, though. It seems like "writer's" word processors are taking advantage of the people who don't know how to use those features.

Starting next post, I aim to try to fix that.