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December 06, 2002

Writing Software

Friedrich --

Do you dislike Word as much as I do?

I suppose it's an OK piece of software, and using it to write certainly beats longhand or a typewriter. But I'm offended by it. It's really a tool for making documents, optimized more for memos and reports than for helping you get your thoughts down.

As a tool for writing, it's a lumbering beast determined to inflict on me its rather sinister desire to do favors. (Why do so many Microsoft products want to do me favors? I feel the way a restaurauteur does when the Mob offers to do him a favor.) My copy has to be actively stopped -- apparently at the end of a gun barrel -- from turning asterisks into bullets, for instance, and from underlining grammar and spelling it doesn't approve of. I don't care if there are ways of stopping this behavior, I don't want it starting in the first place.

Feeling offended isn't a good mental state to be writing in. And, besides, writing and document-making are two different activities, darn it. I'd prefer to have a separate program for each.

But the problem, as I see it, also boils down to something that isn't specific to Word. It's the nature of the word-processor itself. A word processor sure beats a typewriter -- but by all that much? Maybe it's just me, but once I got past the "I never have to retype again" exhilaration, I started wondering: Gee, aren't there better things computers can do to help with writing?

The main job/task/challenge/fun of writing, it seems to me, is to take a vague and cloudy (ie., nonlinear) notion -- something that exists only in your mental space -- and translate it into linearly-arranged strings of concrete words on a real page.

No one has ever asked me for this, but here's the way Michael Blowhard breaks down the act of writing, plus bonus tips. Four steps, as I see it:

1) Collecting data -- whether research, notes, thoughts, or ideas. It's best at this stage to keep things nonlinear. Avoid turning your hunches and notions into anything polished or grammatical. Just note it all down telegraphically. It's important to keep the writing project, however tiny, open-ended even as you begin to give it some definition.
2) Organizing the material sequentially. Imagine how you'd present your material to to a bright friend who's interested in what you have to say. Line your research, ideas and information up in the way your friend would find most helpful and entertaining.
3) Writing your way all the way through. Even now it's best to avoid being too linear. Write a passage at the end of the piece first. Write something from the middle. Do a little work on the second paragraph. Move around inside the piece, and when you get stuck, drop the problem and go to work elsewhere in the piece. The problem will probably solve itself. Painters often work this way -- a little here, a little there. They talk about bringing the whole picture up at the same time. They know that if they overwork one section, the picture will become lopsided.
3B) Taking a break. Nap, eat, walk, watch the tube. Let your unconscious do some work, unimpeded.
4) Going back to what you've done, and fixing it.

I find that Word has very little to offer where such a process is concerned. (And spare me its rotten outliner, please.)

Being a goof and a sucker, I've spent far too much time looking into other computer products that promise to help writers, whether with the actual task of writing or with the creative process itself. I've tried outliners (More for the Mac can be useful), visual aids like Inspiration (pretty good), brainstormers, hypertext writing programs ...

More and Inspiration seemed to me the most plausible of these programs. But after a few months I'd abandoned both of these too. The rest of them ... Lordy, they made you feel like you'd gotten lost in some fruitcake's intricate Kabbalistic system, or like you'd gone to a shrink hoping for one piece of advice and wound up in years of grueling, pointless therapy instead.

But there is one kind of writing program that I have come to love using. I don't make huge claims for it -- it won't unleash any imagination you don't already have. But I use it all the time. It's pretty much, in fact, all I want from a writing program.

On the Mac, the only version of this tool I'm aware of is called Z-Write. I've run across a half-dozen versions of the same product for Windows. The original version of it seems to have been TreePad, created back in the mid-'90s by Henk Hagedoorn; TreePad is the one I use.

These programs are based on something like Windows Explorer -- I'm not a techie! I don't really know what I'm talking about! -- and what they apparently basically are is simple databases for writing and ideas. There are two panels. On the left you make a list of topics -- chapter titles, perhaps, or blogging ideas. On the right is the content. Click on the title of a blogging idea, for instance, and on the right is a window where you can write about that idea.

Here are images from both programs, TreePad first, then Z-Write.



What's so useful about these programs? For me, it's that one file can contain many, many topics, and much writing on each topic. Open the one file, and there it all is -- it's like being able to have 20 or 30 Word files open, and being able to bounce around inside them, and back and forth among them, simply and easily.

You could write a novel in these programs using one file. Each topic could be a chapter, or a version of a chapter. The programs enable you to move the topics around, and to cluster them together. In my blogging file, for instance, I have about 40 topics currently underway. (Look out, world.) I've gathered about a dozen ideas (each one of which I've done some work on) under a master topic called Movies.

I can't emphasize how helpful it is to be able to keep everything pertaining to one project in only one file. No more maneuvering through folders within folders, trying to find one Word document; no more scrolling up and down endless Word documents, searching for that one thing you once scribbled down. No more files slugged things like "ChapterOneV1." Instead, it's all in one place.

The Wife uses a Z-Write file to store all her email. I use a Z-Write file for all my fiction ideas. (Like I say, brace yourself, world.) Bloggers should love this software. When something occurs to me I'd like to blog about, I simply start a new topic in my blogging file. When I want to blog, I simply go to this file -- this one file -- and windowshop. There all my ideas are, laid out before me and eager to please.

TreePad Lite, the basic version of TreePad that I use, is free; fancier versions cost a bit. Z-Write, being a Mac program, costs 30ish bucks. Both are usable and helpful within about five minutes of downloading them.

Then, once you've written -- once you've said what you have to say, or made what you wanted to make -- well, then it's time to pretty the damn thing up. Copy and paste to Word or Quark and go wild. There aren't many "document-making" capabilities in TreePad or Z-Write. So what. As writing tools they're superb.

You can read about Tree Pad and download it from here.

Z-Write can be found here.



posted by Michael at December 6, 2002


With all due respect, I think you've missed the point of sophisticated word processors such as MS Word (which I use, and have used from its beginnings). The point being that the application is so rich and malleable that one can make it behave in any way one chooses (you can even set it up to mimic the application you so laud). Those enabled Word options you so object to, are set as factory defaults because MS assumes that most users will be software-illiterate, and from the feedback MS has gotten over the years they know those options enabled is what most users will be most comfortable with.

I've used just about every word processor on the market for Windows and MS DOS (including a very early but amazingly powerful one -- really more a text processing application rather than a word processor -- called PE Editor), and none is so intuitively right-on, or as rich as Word for straight (as opposed to specialized document) writing.

Just another opinion here.


Posted by: acdouglas on December 7, 2002 1:01 PM

Word is evil. Very evil. And while ACD is correct, you can configure Word, it takes hours (about three) and you have to start over from scratch every time you have to reload Word - which is about every four to six months in my world. Additionally, you have the problem of having to shift gears when you use someone else's machine and people who try to use your machine will be driven crazy. Even your own assistant who should know how you like things...

One thing I've never, ever figured out how to do safely: edit the spellchecking so that Microsoft default "correct" spellings are removed.

Posted by: Gert on December 8, 2002 12:08 AM

I have been looking for a simple application like this for years. In fact, when I started to study Microsoft Access to build databases for my employer, I toyed with the idea of putting together a "research assistant" application to mimic the way I would use index cards for research: one card for each source numbered to correspond to a pile of cards with information from that source. A farily simple, 2 table relational database, in concept. I wanted to use Visual Basic to turn the database into some kind of standalone application that could be carried around and loaded independently just as Treepad is. Of course the project fell prey to the fact that (1) I don't have the patience to get that sophisticated with Access and VB, and (2) I don't do that much research like that, anymore, really.

In any case, for the type of writing I do now, this provides just the right kind of structure and assistance.

Finally why can't more applications run like this, without an installer first sticking its tentacles into the Windows registry and about a dozen different folders? I'd love to see more simple programs for everyday tasks like this. It's similar to my favorite image viewer and editor of all time: IrfanView. Same no nonsense, no installation functionality and also freeware. I have photoshop for heavy image crunching, but I probably use Irfanview ten times as often for simple editing, and just for flipping through the pictures. Worth a quick download at

Posted by: Nate on December 8, 2002 9:42 AM

Fascinating, thanks for all the reactions.

Is anyone else as struck as I am by the way reactions are so totally split? On the one hand, AC, who (I'm guessing) loves the way the Word can be such a comprehensive, all-accomodating writing environment. And on the other, people who (like me) prefer to interact with smaller, more focussed tools.

I don't know about anyone else, but I react so strongly to these things that I can't help but feel that my preferences are much built into the system in a very basic, structural way. OK, I'll say it: biological, genetic, whatever.

Do you guys also find that your preferences in tools such as computer-writing thing-a-majigs are strong, deep and instinctive?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 9, 2002 2:45 AM

Michael wrote: "Do you guys also find that your preferences in tools such as computer-writing thing-a-majigs are strong, deep and instinctive?"

You bet! Wars -- the real shooting kind -- have been pursued with less passion than is evident in the verbal wars over software preference, the two biggies being operating systems and word processors.


Posted by: acdouglas on December 9, 2002 8:00 AM

I should have added in response to your,

"On the one hand, AC, who (I'm guessing) loves the way the Word can be such a comprehensive, all-accomodating writing environment. And on the other, people who (like me) prefer to interact with smaller, more focussed tools,"

that AC -- when he's actually writing -- *hates* "...comprehensive, all-accommodating writing environment[s]," much preferring -- even demanding -- "...smaller, more focused tools."

What AC loves about comprehensive, function-rich, and malleable applications like MS Word is that one can make it behave in the exact focused way of one's choosing simply by configuring it to work that way. With less rich applications, one must settle for whatever the maker's idea of focused is.


Posted by: acdouglas on December 9, 2002 9:20 AM

"Do you guys also find that your preferences in tools such as computer-writing thing-a-majigs are strong, deep and instinctive?"

Yes, I do have an obsessive love for tools that do one thing and do it well. I know I could configure Word to be more streamlined; it just bothers me that it has to load all that extra, bloated code when I start the program. Granted, it's just a couple seconds on a modern computer, but that's just my neurosis.

I also have a collection of 5 manual typewriters. When I *really* need to get something written, I use one of those; otherwise I spend too much time diddling around in my software environment.

Posted by: Nate on December 9, 2002 11:09 AM

Thanks for the z-write link, I may end up having to buy a copy.

Computer programmers are also notorious about their choice of text editor, it's an endless running 'religious' debate.

Posted by: David Mercer on December 14, 2002 12:20 AM

TreePad and Z-Write both sound like great programs... if you own a Macintosh computer, that is. For the present, I am stuck with a PC. However, I am quite disgusted with everything about Bill Negates and the Microsnot Corporation. My question is, does anyone know of any software comparable to Treepad or Z-Write that is compatable for use on a PC?

Posted by: Razzberry on July 27, 2003 8:28 PM

Replying to Razzberry:

Yup, there's lots of such programs for the PC; in fact, TreePad is a PC program. Check out the following Overview of Windows Outlining Programs at

Posted by: Alexander on August 11, 2003 3:11 AM

I have used a great many word processors. Word no hands down is my favorite. Combine it with the other components of the Microsoft Office Suite and you have one of the most powerful versatile business software tools ever created. I had to sign up for classes at a nearby college because I wanted to learn everything that Word could do for me. I really canít say enough in support of Microsoft Word.

I hear what you are saying about a handy reference tool to switch back and forth among different writing strings. However, using Word with a solid knowledge of how to use Window Explorer accomplishes just about the same effect. Or, you could just use Microsoft Outlook and still get the same effect as the other software packages you mentioned.

Posted by: ShipShape on October 19, 2003 12:57 PM

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