Yesterday, I opened the Microsoft Word application on my computer, for the first time in weeks. It wasn’t because I have been on vacation, too busy, or not writing. It’s because I rarely want to use it anymore. I still do a lot of writing, in long form on my laptop and in note form on my phone, but I just don’t prefer to use Microsoft Word to do most of that stuff anymore.
I think this change is an interesting one, since one of my very first blog posts was on the subject of Microsoft Word, and my hope that new features would allow me to use it more easily for blogging. Those new features were added to Microsoft Word, long ago. Since blogging has become popular, Word just hasn’t kept up with the other changes in the way that people do electronic writing.
Here are some examples.
1. Collaborative writing.
Recently, for a project at work, I needed to work with my counterpart to write a document, while I was in San Diego and she was still in Baltimore. Within a few minutes, we could setup an online, collaborative writing space, using Google Docs, and it was much easier to work together, in real time, to write the document, than it would have been by using Microsoft Word. We could watch each other type, make corrections, and have threaded conversations in the margins.
2. Distraction Free Writing
There are dozens of very popular new applications, not just for mac users, to enable a clean and simple user interface for writing, one that removes all distracting elements from the screen, so that the computer acts like a typewriter. (Word Processing is NOT typewriting but that’s a subject for another day.)
I can say from recent experience that my writing has benefited immensely from a distraction free interface. I use an app called ByWord these days. Yes, Microsoft Word does have a full screen feature, but not right off the bat, and it isn’t customizable the way I want. I want to be able to open up an application and, bang, seconds later, start typing. When I’m in a hurry to get an idea written down, I don’t want any crap in my way, I just want to get down to it.
Also, I’ve discovered through practice that I’m pretty picky about what my favorite writing interface settings should be. I prefer a monospace typeface, in a fairly large size, at about 65 characters per line, rendered in a near-white color against a near-black background. Microsoft Word still acts like black ink on white paper, and doesn’t give me the ability to write with the settings that I’ve learned to prefer.
3. Cloud Storage
Blogging was just part of the early days of writing “in the cloud” or in other words, to store the writing in a secure location on the internet, for backup or display. Lately, applications like Dropbox, Google Drive and others make it easy to store files from your computer in this way. I can’t really fault Microsoft Word for not adding a built-in feature to do this, since all you have to do is to save your document to a special folder, and it will be synced up with your cloud storage.
Nevertheless, one of the other writing tools that I use, Evernote, has the ability to automatically store an online copy of everything I write in it, as soon as I write it. I love this. It means I can take a note while I’m out on an adventure. Then, as soon as my laptop battery is recharged, I can refine the note into something more coherent. Then, when I get home I can use my home computer to really finish it so that when I get to work I can copy/paste/print it into something final. All of this happens without very much re-saving, burning to disk, USB drives, etc. I don’t have to worry about the brand of my phone, computer or operating system. My writing is just there, where I need it, wherever I am. Because of this, Evernote is very often a preferable way to take notes than Microsoft Word, and because of Evernote’s wonderful phone app, I prefer it to Microsoft’s own note-taking thingie, which is nice, but not as flexible.
4. Version Control
Version control allows you to keep track of each version, or state, of a work in progress, so that changes can be reversed later, or so that the versions can be compared. For a writer, it would also be a very powerful tool. Think about it: how much literary scholarship has been devoted to the various versions of works by Shakespeare, Whitman and others? Writers and posterity alike stand to benefit from easy version control. Computer version control, at present, is still something that is pretty much only available to nerdy programmer types because, sadly, Microsoft Word has recently reconfigured its version control abilities into oblivion, at present the best version control for writers is still too complicated for someone like me, who prefers distraction free writing.
Although it isn’t as robust as full-blown version control, Dropbox does have the ability to keep track of different versions of a file, which is useful. It’s what I’ll use for now.
An Imperfect Fix
At first I used a single, huge application with tons of features I don’t use to do all of my writing. Now, I use several, small and dedicated applications to do a variety of different kinds of writing: I use note-taking applications for note-taking; distraction-free applications for composing; blogging applications for blogging; I do still use Microsoft Word for refining final versions, especially for print; now that I have a smartphone I take a whole lot of quick notes with that. Overall, I have a setup that works very well for me, but it is an imperfect fix, because it is still a bit on the nerdy side. I doubt that very many of my writer friends would want to build this setup for themselves. They would rather wait for one app that does it all. In the hopes of shortening that wait, here’s a quick list of the most important features that a word processor should have. If anybody (Microsoft or otherwise) wants to build the application that everybody will always use to write with, then it’s going to need these features, in my opinion:
1. Immediate distraction-free writing, with easy, simple configuration.
2. Cloud storage, compatible with most major cloud storage services.
3. Version control made simple!
4. Markdown should be optional, not required. Some of us prefer keyboard shortcuts or menu drop-downs. (I’m fond of control-K to do “insert hyperlink” myself)
5. Ability to post document to any major type of blog service. Bonus points for integration with social media e.g. posting notes to Facebook, etc.
6. Save documents to major formats: .rtf, .doc, .docx, .pdf, .txt, .html…
7. Mac or PC? Who cares! You might need to work either way on occasion.
8. A compatible smart phone app, and it shouldn’t matter whether you have an iphone or an android.
9. Advanced features could include: commenting and tracked-changes features (like the very good ones that microsoft word has) and collaborative writing features (like google docs or Etherpad).
… or maybe there just really isn’t the need for one writing application that does everything. Word has features for writing legal documents and dissertations, and although I write a lot, I don’t write too many of those things. Perhaps this move toward lots of tools is just the new way. I’ve described how I do it, anyway.
How do you do your word-processing?