Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

what to write with

Before the Kindle came along, I wasn’t looking for it — I wasn’t in search of a new set of tools for reading. I was (and still am!) happy with books and with the tactics I have developed over the years for reading, learning, marking, and inwardly digesting them. (Allusion alert!) I bought the Kindle on a whim and, as I have said, like it more than I thought I would, at least for some uses.

But tools for writing I have been thinking about for a long, long time. Like many other people, I think Microsoft Word (for the Mac, anyway) reached its highest level at version 5.1, released in 1991, and started sliding precipitously downhill thereafter. Long ago I came to agree with Louis Menand: “It is time to speak some truth to power in this country: Microsoft Word is a terrible program.” But unlike Menand, I not only spoke such truth, I acted on it. About four years ago I deleted Word, and indeed all Microsoft applications, from my computer. And I have been a happier man ever since.

When I tell people that I don't even have Word on my computer, they look at me as though I has just told them that I don't have electricity in my house. “Then what do you use?” To most of the folks I talk to, Word simply is writing, or at least writing on the computer — especially if they’re not old enough to remember the days when WordPerfect was a legitimate rival to Word.

So what do I use? Well, to format documents I use Pages, but I never write in it. In fact, I think word processing programs in general, while fine for processing words — that is, preparing them to be seen by others — are inimical to writing itself. I write everything — blog posts like this, articles, class notes, and whole books — in a programmer’s text editor called BBEdit. I started moving in this direction nine years ago, when I read Neal Stephenson’s little book In the Beginning Was the Command Line — which you can download for free here — but it took me a while to wean myself completely from dependence on Word. But eventually I achieved my freedom.

Most of the posts in the early days of this blog are laying out topics for further discussion — I haven’t said my last word about the Kindle, despite my enthusiastic endorsement of PEG’s bottom-line comment, posted just below; and I will have much, much more to say about the varieties of screen experience — and this is another post like that. Later on I’ll describe the benefits of working in a text-only environment. So please stay tuned.