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When something is fully fit for purpose, should you fix it? Most people would say ‘no’. The history of software development seems to be littered with ‘yes’. Take wordprocessors, for example. Back in the day there was WordStar. WordStar was a bit clunky, and required you to use the * key to call up the menus. It didn’t do many of the things you might reasonably want to do, but it was a lot better than an electronic typewriter. After WordStar’s star had really set, WordPerfect and Word came along. On MS-DOS, both of them suffered from not being WYSIWYG, at least, not while you were editing. By suffered, of course, I mean that they were not completely intuitive for formatting letters. You could (and I did) use WordPerfect as a kind of low-grade Desk Top Publishing application, but it was clearly not quite optimised for that.
On the other hand, if you wanted to write a novel, the MS-DOS WordPerfect was pretty much perfect. It didn’t try to distract you with features you didn’t need, didn’t start trying to correct your text while you were writing it, and didn’t involve you in endless font and format choices.
Both Word and WordPerfect moved to Windows versions, and Word got picked up on the Apple Mac. After that, they ‘developed’. By developed I mean that they got more and more complex, offered more and more features, combined some of the attributes of a spreadsheet, a desk top publishing system, a project management system, a reference library, a database manager, and pretty much everything else the programmers thought might be wanted.
As far as writing a novel, though, they’d gone backwards not forwards. As well as the endless distractions of choosing fonts (advice: don’t) and so on, Word in particular attempts to help out by i) saying ‘you seem to be writing a letter!’, and offering to format your novel as a piece of business correspondence ii) changing three asterisks, which novelists use to denote a change of scene, into a bullet point with two asterisks after it and iii) attempting to change dates, such as typing ‘2011’ into today’s date, formatted as approved by Microsoft.
I did wonder about going back to a manual typewriter, but, sadly, I gave my old Imperial away in 1987. There is someone doing a typewriter to USB conversion
which looks rather fine, but is a little bit unwieldy.
Enter a group of software applications which take you right back to the glory days of plain wordprocessing. These include Scrivener and Ulysses, but my favourite is Jer’s Novel Writer
. Basically, Jer’s Novel Writer is a plain word processor with a minimum of formatting functions (though you can waste your time doing fonts if you really want) designed to make it easy to write long form prose. To do this, it works semantically rather than visually. So, for example, there are highly structured functions for chapters, text sections, or any kind of hierarchical structure you want, but no functions for new page, hyphenation, or any stuff like that. There’s a useful built in database for keeping track of your characters and so on, but that’s as far as that function goes. The margin notes are easy to use, easy to see, and don’t get included when you export your text, and there’s also loose note functions. You can get an update of words in a section instantly by just hovering the mouse, or total words from one menu. Likewise, it will tell you how many pages you’ve written. Most important of all, Jer’s Novel Writer allows you to go into full screen mode where you are not distracted by anything else other than what it is you were writing about.
So how good is it to actually use? Well, since I got it, every piece of long-form prose I’ve written has been on Jer’s Novel Writer. It’s very cheap (and you can haggle if you don’t like the price), though it’s Apple Mac only. There are equivalents out there for Windows.
The problem, of course, is that having created something which is more or less perfect, Jer, the author, as he explains here
is beginning to move on to pastures new. To be exact, he’s landed a job at Apple.
Which leaves me wondering: when the versions of Word and WordPerfect expanded from efficient, 340k tiny word processors to be multi-megabyte monsters, was this because the users perpetually demanded more features, or because the only way to keep the programmers happy was to keep giving them more things to do?