Watts (chipotle) wrote,

Party like it's 1989

In techno-nerd land there’s something kind of interesting happening with writing tools. They’re regressing. Kind of. Scrivener couldn’t have existed in the DOS world, or even very easily in the pre-WWW world. And the nerd-focused applications I’m thinking of like Byword require us to be living in the future: their strength comes from syncing documents across multiple devices via Dropbox or iCloud.

On the Mac you can snap Byword into a mode that uses “rich text,” which makes it about as capable as TextEdit or WordPad, but it’s aimed at writing plain text in Markdown. Byword does a little simple formatting on the screen to show you italics and bold and the like, but to see the fully-formatted text you need to switch to a preview mode. Just like WordStar for DOS.

In my last post I mentioned that some writers prefer what might be called an anti-WYSIWYG writing environment. Writing and formatting aren’t, so the argument goes, related disciplines. As the author, typesetting shouldn’t be your concern, and tools shouldn’t encourage you to futz around with formatting.

It’s a mistake to think this reflected an intentional philosophy, though. WordStar—like most word processors of the era—tried to display margins, line spacing, and even justification as true to the printed page as possible within the limitations of 80×25 character-based displays. It didn’t discourage you from formatting as you wrote because its designers thought that was the ideal way to write; it discouraged you from formatting as you wrote because it wasn’t very good at it.

Truthfully, avoiding WYSIWYG was never necessary. I quickly learned the stupid pet trick all wannabe professional writers should: create a template that sets up an old school manuscript format. This always means 1″ margins and double-spacing your lines, and—at least until recently—a monospaced font and using underlines for emphasis. (It’s starting to become acceptable to use a proportional font and actual italics now.) The standard format tells you where to put your name, what to put in the header, what to do with the title, the whole thing—all you do is put in placeholders for the parts that change. Then when you start a new story, open the template. Ta-da!

Having said that, though, I’ve found I really do like working in text editors and “minimalist writing environments” like Byword. No window chrome, rulers, blah blah blah, just black text on a white screen with a typewriter-esque font. It’s like taking all the good parts of going back to a typewriter, without having to flail around with correcting tape every few minutes. And I do think there’s value in a workflow that does keep you from thinking about formatting while you’re writing—when you’re trying to put the right words to virtual paper, it’s simply too early to be thinking about the page count.

(Incidentally, I think Courier and Times New Roman are just about the two worst typefaces that come with your computer. If you’re writing a manuscript with proportional type, try Century Schoolbook, a version of which comes with just about every computer now. For a monospaced font that’s great for prose rather than code, try the free Luxi Mono.)

(Originally published at Coyote Prints)

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