Recently I have been trying out a new piece of writing software and, in due course, I’m going to write a review of it, but first the obvious question. Why not use Microsoft Word?
The answer to that question is not simply answered by saying that MS Office is expensive compared to alternatives (unless it’s bought for you by your company) and that it can be unstable (as evidenced by the periodic swearing on the internet when a .doc file becomes corrupted).
This last one is contentious. People will say that it wasn’t Word’s fault, but rather some other software; a driver, an operating system issue, some malware infection. They say you should do backups, save copies, be more careful. They may be right, but it’s no comfort to the person who just lost a piece of writing that they cannot easily reproduce. Ah, they will say, but you configure auto-save, and that backs it up for you.
Well, yes, and no. I could wear body armour all the time in case I trip and hurt myself, but I don’t because I don’t expect to fall over. Nor do I expect a word processor to corrupt my work. I shouldn’t need to automatically back up every two minutes in case that happens. It shouldn’t happen. In contrast I used a different piece of software to write 150,000 word novel editing multiple versions over a five year period. It never crashed once.
MS Word is a general purpose word processor aimed at the business user. It’s an excellent tool if you want to write a letter, compile a report, knock up a CV, make some notes or write a business proposal. If you are writing a report and it goes over 20,000 words you are not being sufficiently concise. If you have a CV of over 2,000 words you are going to be asked to shorten it. These are not long documents, and MS Word handles them well enough.
On top of being a capable word processor, MS Word adds in additional functionality. It supports table structures, language changes, structural elements, tables of contents, embedded spreadsheets, preconfigured styles and hundreds of other features. It is almost a desktop publishing platform. It integrates with other software and collaborates with SharePoint and Office platforms. It’s a corporate communications platform. Indeed, the product has become so overwhelming rich in functionality that by the time Word 2003 was released, Microsoft were hiding features from the user to reduce the impression of complexity.
These features aren’t much use to a fiction writer, though. What writers mainly want is text, and lots of it. One font is enough, in the same size, with bold and italic. Maybe another for titles or emphasis, but that’s it. We want to configure line-spacing as single, 1.5 or double.
Then we want the ability to handle large volumes of text. A business report might be 5,000 words. Your dissertation may be 20,000 words. But if you’re writing a novel you want to be able to easily handle over 200,000 words. This is an order of magnitude greater in size, but in computing terms we are talking about a file that is less that 2Mb in size – not exactly taxing.
What happens when you’re typing in Word and it autosaves a 200,000 word document?
If you’re lucky, it stops responding for a while and then bursts back into life, streaming the characters you were typing while it autosaved onto the screen like a ghostly typist. If you’re not lucky, it crashes. If you have live spell-check activated, it stalls when that engages too, and when it grammar checks, should you be foolish enough to have that enabled. Insert something at the beginning of the document and the entire thing may repaginate.
Of course, you can turn these features off in the Options screen, but if you do, it’s off. You no longer have autosave or live spell-check. You can trigger spell-check manually, but make sure you save first because it may just crash. As documents get larger, the lag becomes more of a problem. It’s not because of the hardware – we’re talking about a 2Mb file here – it’s the way it works.
Many writers break their work up into chunks. For me, chapters works quite well. Have you tried working on nine different files at once in Word? How about thirty? There’s no way to know what’s saved and what’s not, which document is which, and where you are in the stack of files. The titles on the icons get compressed to the point of unreadability and the desktop is a mess of open windows. Then autosave kicks in, resulting in a potential multi-file pile-up of epic proportions.
Let’s assume we persevere. Open up twenty files, each containing a chapter and rename the character we previously called Jim to Charles wherever it is used in those twenty files. This is exactly the sort of thing a writer is wont to do.
Search across multiple files? No. We have to go through them one by one. Ah, say the Windows enthusiasts, you can use Windows Desktop Search for that, or Google Desktop Search, or something similar. But there’s a problem with that. We only want to change the name Jim to Charles in the current version of thirty files that we’re working on. We have twelve other earlier drafts, each with their own set of files, saved on the hard drive and we want to leave those alone. A desktop search finds every instance in every file and it’s down to us to find which ones need changing. Another nightmare.
The truth is that MS Word simply isn’t intended for writing novel length work. It’s not that it’s bad software – it’s very good software, as evidenced by the millions of users who use it for business and domestic tasks worldwide, but it’s not intended for writing books. It is simply not the right tool for the job.
Luckily there are a number of tools which do this job very well indeed. Many of them are priced for a budget pocket or free to use, which is a bonus, and all of them are aimed at writers. Over the next few weeks I will take a look at some of them in the context of Tools for Writing. Hopefully you’ll find one that’s sympathetic to what you’re trying to do.