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« Computer-Writing Bliss | Main | Elsewhere »

April 20, 2007

A New Class of Writing Tools for the Mac

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

There isn't much that'll prod me into acting all unpleasant and snobby, but a few minutes with Microsoft Word will do the trick. All due respect to those who like it as well as to those who have no choice but to use it, of course. Still: what an unhelpful beast I find it to be. The picky writer in me is beyond-offended. I rise up and say, huffily: "Why, that's not a tool for real writers. It's a program for the creation of" -- patooie -- "business documents."

To be fair, my dislike of Word has a lot to do with the word processor category generally. I wrote back here about how much I dislike conventional word processors. (I notice that I cracked a few decent jokes and ventured a couple of potentially-amusing thoughts about writing too.) Short version: I find word processors to be unsatisfying compromises. Half text-slinging tools, half page-layout programs, they aren't particularly good at either task.

And Microsoft Word compounds the basic conceptual problem with the usual Microsoft featuritis. God ... Word really does make me turn up my nose.

In my previous posting, I extolled a couple of non-word-processor writing tools that I was then finding helpful in a sympathetic-to-real-writing kind of way. That was a few years ago, though, and those tools have since been superseded by yet better writer's tools -- by a whole new class of software, in fact. Since many people may not be aware of these new and newish programs, why not yak about 'em a bit and pass along a few links?

My taste in writer's tools has first to do with something very basic and rooted in temperament. For some people, pulling together a piece of to-be-published material is a matter of integrating imagery, graphics, words, and editorial concepts. That's where they start, juggling all those different media elements. Dave Eggers and Chip Kidd, for example, are famous for composing their books -- right from the outset -- in page-layout programs. This approach makes sense for Eggers and Kidd because layout and design are so integral to how they think and work, as well as to what they want to produce. The Wife is someone else who likes seeing her writing in a page-layout sense as she's composing. She says it helps her bring her writing to life.

I'm not like that. I'm a words-first kinda guy. Incidentally, this isn't to put people who aren't words-firsty down. I often I wish I shared their kind of talent-set and temperament-set. I love artist's notebooks and sketchbooks, for instance -- they're some of my favorite books. The combo of jotting, sketching, notes-to-self, captions, diary entries, watercolors, etc., can make my head spin in pleasure. I feel like I'm experiencing someone else's perceptual apparatus, and in a nice way.

Unfortunately, working in such a way doesn't seem to be in the cards for me. No, when I want to pull together a piece of to-be-published writing, I first want to get the words in order. Call me an old-school, word-centric, hidebound square, but there you have it. At this stage, I don't want to be thinking about presentation at all -- to do so would strike me as working ass-backwards. So far as images and graphics and concepts go, well, I love 'em all. But 99% of the time I turn to them only after I've made the words behave.

So I'm drawn to writing tools that enable me to get on with the making-the-words-behave thang as simply and directly as possible.

As far as small-scale writing projects go -- letters, notes, blog postings -- I avoid word processors and use a plain-text editor instead. If you're writing something very short, why sweat it? I like this good text editor, which is free.

The term "text editor" can be off-putting, as can the fact that text editors are tools used by programmers. Geek alert! In fact, for all the geekiness that surrounds them, text editors are great for writing short pieces. They're as straightforward as can be: Virtually no layout options are available in the usual text editor. It's just you and your words, staring at each other through the screen.

The other reason text editors rule is that they produce text that's -- in a computer sense -- clean. Many writers don't realize that the text that comes out of word processors (and email programs too) is often crusted-over with layers of invisible computer instructions. That's why -- when you copy and paste text from one program into another -- you so often wind up having to go back and clean up garbage symbols and bizarro spacing.

The plain text that text editors work with and generate is lovely to manage because it is what it is, and it's nothing more than that: no "invisibles," no crud of previous-generation computer instructions, just raw text. You can copy and paste what you've written in your text editor into a word processor, into email, into a page-layout behemoth, or into a web-publishing program, and your writing will work fine.

Part of what this means is that someone who uses a text editor will, once done with the lining-the-words-up part of writing, almost always wind up putting that text into another program for presentation purposes. That's when I will pull the word processor out -- to make the piece look good. I don't find this to be any trouble. In fact, I rather like it. ("OK, I've kicked the words into place. Now, time to make this piece of crap look passable.") It leaves me with a pleasant sense of control. The world seems in order.

For longer projects (articles, stories, novels), I've gone crazy for a new class of software that has no as-yet-settled-upon name. I think of it as the writing suite. These are programs that enable you to do all your writing activities in one program. They combine quick-and-dirty text processors with various other capabilities: outlining, databasing, annotating, etc.

The general idea of these programs is to enable you to get a writing project done entirely within one software environment. No more clicking back and forth between different programs; no more hunting and searching through stacks of different files and folders.

If you've ever written something long, you know what a bookkeeping challenge writing can become. When The Wife and I co-wrote our recent trash novel, for example, we used a conventional word processor. Although we did what we could to keep our material organized, bits and pieces of it quickly flew out of control. Drafts of chapters and lists of details that needed attending-to were scattered over a variety of folders and subfolders. There was real anxiety at times about whether we were even working on the same document. When it came time to stitch together our 20 or so chapters from the mess -- in other words, to pull together an actual manuscript -- we were already so exhausted from the writing-it-all stage that we barely made it to the finish line. Had we used a writing suite, we'd have spared ourselves a lot of that trouble.

As someone writing something sizable, you most likely want someplace to put research, lists, and notes. You probably want the ability to play with outlines. You want to be able to keep track of old drafts; you want to be able to annotate what you've already sketched out. You also want to be able to write and edit in the direct sense, of course; how lovely it would be if you could do so in a semi-transparent, nonlinear way. And you want to be able to switch among these various functions with ease.

That's the magic of these new writing suites. You can keep everything an entire project requires in one document. All your research, all your scraps and outlines and notes and chapter-versions. No more folders within folders. And you can do everything from preliminary-fussing-with-vague-ideas to sewing-a-final-draft-together in the one program.

(As with using a text editor, when you've completed your project in a writing suite you'll almost certainly want to export it to another program -- a word processor, a page-layout beast, or a web-making program -- for final presentation purposes.)

Ulysses is the granddaddy of this class of software. Other somewhat similar programs are CopyWrite, Avenir, Jer's Novel Writer, and Scrivener. I've tried them all and I've liked every one of them. So please consider them all recommended. None are perfect, all are excellent, and your mileage will vary because we all come with our own little set of quirks and preferences.

The programs vary mostly in terms of small details, feel, and price.

  • Ulysses is the hardest-core of these packages, as well as the most expensive. It's a heckuva program, and I bought it as soon as I learned about it. But I found it much too stark and abstract for my taste and purposes; I never succeeded at making regular use of it, awestruck though I was by its conceptual brilliance. It's one of those pioneering programs that's so much what it is that you have to either take it or leave it. Perhaps I'm just not fanatical enough to do it justice. I also, honestly, couldn't understand why it's twice as costly as the other programs. But Ulysses does have its addicts.

  • I found CopyWrite much more congenial. It's like Ulysses if Ulysses were to don pyjamas, get a neck-rub, and enjoy a late-night drink. You don't have to be wired on espresso let alone a great abstract thinker to use it. Even if you put CopyWrite aside for a while it's easy to recall how to get around it when you return. CopyWrite does a great job with sections, chapters, and versions, and it offers a terrific way of organizing both chapter notes and project notes. It isn't at its best where outlining and stashing research go, though. Still, a lovely program, and at a hard to beat price: $29.95.

  • Jer's Novel Writer beats CopyWrite's price. A labor of love from programmer/writer Jerry Seeger, it's flat-out free. Hats off to Seeger for a great job. His program is ambitious yet conceptually clear as well as very usable. It hasn't grabbed me for some reason, though. I'm not entirely sure why. Perhaps it's because Jerry designed the program to suit his own needs, and Jerry's quirks don't synch up all that closely with mine. But download the program and give it a test-drive anyway. Maybe your brain and Jerry's brain will be a good match.

    * Avenir is a little gem. (I wrote about it here.) It took dumbo me all of about twenty minutes to understand how to use it -- now that's a sign of real simplicity and elegance. Designed by Todd Ransom, Avenir is amazingly compact and spry for such a rich program. I especially like the way it keeps track of sections, and the way it makes annotating your writing so convenient. My only beef is a personal one -- Avenir makes a fair amount of use of "tagging," a Web 2.0 innovation that I'm not fond of. And one small warning: Avenir has been optimized for fiction writers. Other than that, I have nothing but good things to say about Avenir, including the fact that it's only $29.99.

  • Scrivener is the nouvelle writing application around which there's currently the most buzz. Many reviewers and writers are ecstatic -- an amazing number of people say that it's the program they've always wanted. It's easy to see why Scrivener (created by the very generous Keith Blount) generates so much enthusiasm. It does everything all the other programs do, adds a well-done corkboard-with-notecards feature for organizing purposes, and knits all its elements together in a very accessible way. I'm dazzled by Scrivener -- what a piece of work it is! But there's so much Scrivener can do that, to be honest, so far I'm still a little overawed by it. Nonetheless: Bravo! $34.95.

But why take my word (heheh) for it? You can download and try each of these programs out for free. You'll decide for yourself whether you like the general concept, and you'll be able to choose which one suits you best. For myself: I never made much use of Ulysses; I'm migrating slowly away from CopyWrite; and I'll likely settle on either Scrivener or Avenir. Or maybe both. Why not? They're cheap, and god knows I do like fussing with writing tools.

Here's a page that lists the programs I discuss above as well as some others I haven't tried out, including a number of programs for -- patooie -- Windows.

As far as word processors for the Mac go ... Even if you like conventional word processors, why buy Word? There's no need to support Microsoft, especially when their design sense is offensive and they overcharge. $200 for a word processor? Puh-leeze. The Wife likes Nisus Writer Express. It does everything we need and costs all of $45. We co-wrote our novel on it, I use it when I need to style some text, and the Wife was perfectly happy to write another book on it too. Other people are fans of Mellel ($49) and Mariner Write ($49.95). I've tried them both, and y'know, they're just fine.

Sigh: One of these days I'll have to figure out how to use a real page-layout program ... Any suggestions from anyone for a page-layout program for Mac that doesn't cost as much as Quark or InDesign? And that's easy to use?



posted by Michael at April 20, 2007


Michael - Interesting stuff. I will keep a copy of this and your earlier posting in case I ever migrate to a Mac. The problem for me, as has been the case since the earliest days of the Mac, is that there is just no good Mac software for the types of business work I do.

I formerly used WordPerfect, which had a great text mode, and easily allowed to apply formatting later or to switch back and forth between text and fancier display modes. At a couple of offices I worked at, the secretaries and admin people would have both Word and WordPerfect (and sometimes a couple of other word processors) but would tend to prefer WordPerfect when they needed to get something done good and fast.

I'm always seeing stuff about specialized products for screenwriters, but don't know much about them.

I don't know if it is still the case, but a number of law firms I know of continued to use WordPerfect, because the way that it used style templates was well-suited to legal boiler-plate tasks.

Oddly enough, I know a number of companies that migrated from WordPerfect to Word not because Word was better, but simply because Word was part of the larger big-ass Microsoft Windows installation (and IBM OS2 stuff also fell by the wayside) and Tech departments were just too lazy to support multiple word processing products.

I've never much used the advanced features in Word or other products that supposedly allow you to keep track of versions and multi-user editing and commenting. I typically just use File/Save As to maintain earlier drafts, and do outlining the really old fashioned way, either in my head or on a piece of paper.

Page layout does not come naturally to me. Microsoft Publisher came with my current computer, and I tried to use it once for a project, but got frustrated and found a way to get it done in Word.

Posted by: Alec on April 20, 2007 8:03 PM

I've been using WordPerfect from the early DOS days, and it continues to be superior to Word in every way I know of, especially file handling. WordPerfect now has a utility that perfectly translates text into Word, so I am no longer constrained by publishers who want manuscripts in Word. I believe I have written about 55 of my 62 novels in WordPerfect. The earlier ones were written in WordStar or on a typewriter. WP is elegant and flexible, and it is no wonder that nearly every author I know uses it and prefers it to Word.

Posted by: Richard S. Wheeler on April 20, 2007 9:32 PM

It may be too simple, but Apple's Pages in their iWork suite is the only page layout software I've seen under $100. I haven't tried it however; maybe someone else here has experience with it. Rumor has it that it will be updated in the coming months.

There is something called Ready, Set, Go, made by Diwan, for $175.

Otherwise there don't seem to be too many offerings besides the expensive programs from Adobe and Quark.

Posted by: nathaniel on April 20, 2007 10:02 PM

There is a (Open Source) app named Scribus...

OSX users will need Fink / or X11 to compile the downloaded application files.

(they do have a good wiki in the support pages of their site).

Happy publishing

Posted by: Pero on April 20, 2007 11:05 PM

When I worked for the City of Portland, all the clerical people used WordPerfect and loved it. We'd swap good macros over coffee. Management forced Microsoft Word on us and had a near riot, but they loved the prestige of it all. I still have nightmares about that blasted "paperclip" character. Now that I'm dealing with an academic press, they keep pleading for Microsoft Word for Macintosh -- which I resist -- and we settle on Text.

But I'm using Appleworks (formerly Clarisworks) and get along pretty well with that. One can do a certain amount of layout, dragging in photos and drawing lines, creating columns and so on. If I read the directions, I could probably get it to do quite a lot more.

I started out with WriteNow and still miss it, but my WriteNow documents would be inaccessible except that I keep an old laptop with the program. Seems to me someone said Mariner was a little bit similar.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on April 20, 2007 11:59 PM

Michael, thanks for this post. Having recently written an entire book in MS Word--and having grown to dread conjuring up that baleful white screen for current projects--I'm eager to check out these alternatives, which promise to be far more intuitive.

My only question is: While most of these programs tout their ability to export documents to Word, do they generally do so flawlessly? I like to make life as easy as possible for the good people in editorial and production, who tend to want Word docs, and I would hate to develop a reputation as the kind of writer who has to say, "Er, hang on--this looked just fine in Avenir, I swear..."

Posted by: Jeff Sypeck on April 22, 2007 5:41 PM

I've become a fan of (yes, the ".org" is a part of the name of the product). It's free, it works (its file formats are xml-based), it both reads and writes MS formats quite reliably, and it's free. Among other advantages, it doesn't auto-corrupt documents like Word does. (In particular, never use Word's master document "feature".)

FWIW, I rather like the outline view in Word, which doesn't seem to be available in OOWriter. But it's not enough to outweigh the other problems with using Word.

Note that neither OpenOffice Writer nor MS Word is a page layout program. You can do page layout with them, but then you can do page layout with a chisel and a slab of stone. It's an open question which is easier.

If you're serious about page layout, use PageMaker (if you can find a copy cheap), InDesign, Quark, or FrameMaker. The first three are optimized for magazine-style layout, the last for technical writing. You might notice that I didn't list MS Publisher. There's a reason.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on April 22, 2007 6:54 PM

NeoOffice is the Mac version of OpenOffice, also free.

Posted by: claire on April 22, 2007 11:40 PM

Jeff -- I think they all play well with Word. But I think what you'd probably want to do would be to export (or copy and paste) into Word, and then do your actual styling there. I don't think these programs would be of much use to someone who writes perfectly clear and straight through right off the bat. But if you bounce between chapters a lot, and move things around a lot, and re-draft a lot, they're just great. Avenir is probaby best-suited to fiction, btw. Scrivener would probably be better for your nonfiction.

Doug -- Tips from a pro, much appreciated, thanks. Funny jokes too.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 23, 2007 12:52 AM

Appreciate the advice. In fact I took your suggestion earlier and bought the bundle package. Then I used MacJournal to write a post about how much I enjoyed Avenir. (But I wasn't able to get it to interface with Typepad, so we're still doing a bit of cutting and pasting. But having fun.)

In short, this was the sort of software experience I was hoping to have with a Mac when I bought it. Paying $200 for another version of Office would have been humiliating; and though Openoffice (dot org) was free and effective it lacked the streamlined finesse and style that Mariner's products seem to have.

I just want to know how you have time to write erotic fiction, travel, work for a salary, and and field test every word processor there is. Where is the software package that lets you do that?

Posted by: Nate on April 24, 2007 3:25 PM

I used to use a clumsy combination of Word and MacJournal. Now I'm a big fan of scrivener. Thanks for the write-ups, it's nice to know what's out there.

Posted by: Sean Sakamoto on April 25, 2007 1:50 PM

"...crusted-over with layers of invisible computer instructions."

The term of art you want is "mark-up"; as in "Hyper Text Markup Language" or "eXtensible Markup Language".

A lot of corporate e-mail consists of a few hundred bytes of text embedded in 20-30K of HTML. Very often the HTML does nothing but specify format that is de facto "plaintext".

A lot of people send similar personal e-mail because they don't know how to turn off "formatting."

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on April 25, 2007 9:54 PM

Thanks for doing this thorough summary! I am curious to check out some of these programs.

I too am anti-Microsoft, so I use Pages for most of my text composition, or plain TextEdit like you do. My only complaint about Pages is that it can't talk to referencing programs like Endnote or BibTeX, a flaw that makes it virtually useless for me for work.

Yes, I've gotten into LaTeX lately, which you didn't mention at all here (maybe in another post). It may be a bit too "patooie" for you since it's rather programmer-centric. I like the flexibility and formatting power. I was surprised to find that I really like referencing with BibTeX much better than Endnote.

Re: using layout programs, I can tell you that I use InDesign a lot for making figures and posters for work, and while I love it for handling images (especially the Edit Original feature, I use that a LOT), I can't imagine using it to compose extensive text outright. Haven't used Quark. Unfortunately the Adobe suite has become something of the Microsoft Office of image handling.

Still really looking for a WYSIWYG program that can handle figure layout, referencing, and text smoothly. No luck yet.

Posted by: Sam on May 10, 2007 8:51 PM

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