Why Do I Hate Word Processors?

Well, first of all…

When I write, I am not processing words. I’m writing. I write sentences, paragraphs, chapters, etc., and pretty much take words for granted. How about you? Do you want to process words? Or do you want to write?

The name “word processing” is a wretched hangover from the days of dedicated, special-purpose machines called “word processors,” which were used by specially trained typists, also called “word processors.” Actually they were more often called “the girls.” The model was that the people who had something to say (generally guys) wrote it down on pads of yellow paper, or perhaps dictated it to “girls” who wrote it in shorthand. Then the sheets of paper went to “the girls” in Word Processing, who keyed it into their machines, added formatting, and turned it into a draft that was printed out.

From there it went to an editor, who was “an English major type who could dot the i’s and cross the t’s.” I had that job, right out of college. The editor would mark up the draft, turning it into actual English (and often resolving gross logical fallacies and misstatements of fact) and send it back to Word Processing. Then the “girls” would add the heavy-duty formatting information to turn the text into printed pages, and they’d be printed on a high-quality printer. Depending on which year, this might use typewriter technology, or golf-ball, or daisy-wheel, and right at the end of the era it might have been a laser printer.

Then came WYSIWYG. In another column I’ll talk about why Ted Nelson called it “an abomination, and the creed of slaves.” But it was the addition of WYSIWYG to the word processor that allowed the basic idea of “word processing” to be ported from dedicated hardware to software applications running on personal computers.

And here’s why I hate it:

The idea of word processing was always that the input was already written, originally on paper, and that the product was printed pages. It’s the perfect formula for creating applications that completely hobble the writer by giving her no help with writing, while constantly directing her attention to how the text will look on the printed page.

I know, the applications have been trying to break away from this. There are all sorts of different views, but it’s lame. Really, there’s the full WYSIWYG view, and then there’s a view that’s the same but without page breaks, and so forth. There’s even an outline view in most of these products, but it’s an afterthought, usually doesn’t work well, and in most cases it’s just an “outline” way of viewing the formatting information that will appear on the page.

These days, my preference is to write with TextEdit in OS X. What I write isn’t usually paginated, and TextEdit gives me everything I really want for stripped-down, non-paginated WYSIWYG document creation. It gives me fonts and sizes and styles, and lets me paste in practically anything, adjust spacing, and justify left, right, centered, and so forth. No style sheets or any of that stuff, but I’m not writing a PhD dissertation or a snazzy newsletter or anything else that’s going to be printed. I mean, that is soooo twentieth-century!

And I’m not designing web pages either. And yeah, I’ve tried using word processors to design web pages. Bleaagh! Something else they are no good for.

Enough ranting. What would I like?

I want an application that helps me write. That means one that helps me organize my thoughts in an outline format, and expand that into written prose, without any gymnastics and without being tied to specific kinds of formatting. The outline has to be the fundamental structure of the text, not a way of viewing it.

I want it seamlessly integrated with the web, so I can go look things up and bring them into my text either as copied text or as links. Maybe I want it seamlessly integrated with my email client, too. (Some word processors have these features — I’m just mentioning them here so that they don’t get left out when someone reads this rant and decides to whip something up for me.)

I want it to have lots of tools built into it. Not just spell-checking and grammar-checking, but automatic summarization and indexing that allows intelligent searching. I want it to have powerful, efficient ways for me to browse what I’ve written (and what others have written).

I want it all and I want it now, but the word processing applications are not going to give it to me, because they are focused on something else — something I don’t need.

How can I get it?

I began my computing career (oooooh so long ago) by working for Doug Engelbart, who pretty much invented personal computing about a decade before there were personal computers. His Augment system has many of the elements of what I want, and more. It’s alive today, but doesn’t run on a Macintosh and is unlikely to become a commercial product in its present form.

There’s hope, though. Augment’s big problem is that it doesn’t fit into the “learn it in half an hour” paradigm. It takes more like a week — and although it is easily worth a week of a knowledge-worker’s time, that just isn’t how things happen. But work is being done on software that might provide a “step-ladder” for getting going on Augment. Naturally, there’s no funding so far. But that’s another rant, and another column.

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