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Writing Implements

I haven’t used a word processor, for anything other than opening someone else’s document, in over ten years. Truth is, I do just about everything in Vi.

That’s right, folks. Vi. The editor optimized for 2600-baud modems. The one with the near-vertical learning curve. The one that requires a mode change for delete. I’ve used it to write an entire dissertation, one book (and most of another), dozens of articles and papers, thousands of emails, and many thousands of lines of code. Not only that, but I use it in console mode. No gui, no buttons, no windows. Vi.

I could wax on about the virtues of Vi, but my rationale for using it — or, more broadly, my reasons for using an industrial-strength text editor as opposed to a word processor for everyday writing — didn’t come suddenly. I started doing everything in Vi, because my first real job involved programming in unix.

I started out in digital humanities in a shop that ran pretty much exclusively on unix (aix, no less). I ended up falling very much in love with unix, and decided (after being a loyal Mac user for a number of years) that I’d start running Linux at home. That turned out to be a wise move. When, years later, I found myself in charge of maintaining a rack of high-performance servers, I knew exactly what to do. Ten years on, I know A Lot about Linux.

But from my first moment as a full-time Linux user, I found myself stuck with a serious problem. What was I going to do for word processing? OpenOffice didn’t exist at that point, and I was still in graduate school with lots of seminar papers to write. I looked around at what the unix folks were using, and discovered LaTeX. I was hooked.

Sometime later, I got deeply into the whole business of creating beautiful documents. I read a lot about book design, typography, visualization, illustration, and print history, and as a result, I started to care a lot about how my documents looked. LaTeX was good for this, because it (and its parent, TeX) allow a virtually limitless level of control over how things look. But even before I got good with LaTeX, I liked the mere fact that I could compose (in ascii) in one window, but have a beautiful final version of my document in another. It was as if I was able to see what my prose would look like “in print.”

Recently, I read an article about the tools that professional writers like to work with. As you might guess, people were pretty much all over the map. Some write everything long hand on legal pads and then type it into Word later on. Some compose directly in a word processor (with a lot of people clinging to tools that haven’t been officially supported in years). I was stunned, though, to discover how many pros — including novelists — work in something like Quark for exactly the same reason that I was working in LaTeX; they wanted to know how it was going to look when it rolled off the press (even though it’s highly unlikely that the publisher will accept the author’s own designs).

After awhile, my workflow started to seem more like a photographer’s workflow than a writer’s workflow. I had separate applications for editing (vi), spell checking (aspell), document design and layout (Scribus and LaTeX), typography (various fontbook applications), illustration (Inkscape), photo editing (The Gimp), citation management (BibTeX), and printing (Ghostscript and Acrobat). Today, I tend to use all of these types of tools fairly regularly for things that most people would do with Word. A few months ago, I bought my first Mac in about twelve years, but it actually had very little effect on my writing workflow. InDesign replaced Scribus, Illustrator replaced Inkscape, Photoshop replaced Gimp, but everything else stayed the same. Vi and LaTeX run perfectly fine on the Mac (as they do on the vax, the Commodore 64, and that Lisp Machine you picked up on eBay).

I wouldn’t try to defend this way of doing things. Writing tools are an individual thing. Some writers don’t care at all about how it’s going to look when it’s printed. In fact, some prefer not to think about that at all when they’re composing. Some people really can’t work without a fountain pen and a legal pad. Others never write with a pen (I’m one of them, actually). Some compose in Word and are capable of amazing feats of ingenuity with it. Some people, amazingly, compose in Quark. But when I started publishing, I realized that there were great advantages to working in an ascii editor. Publishers accept submissions in a number of formats, including Word, ascii, pdf, and rtf. A few will accept submissions in LaTeX. But they’re all united on one point: they want the document to be as dumb as you can possibly make it. They don’t want you designing the text. No matter how much you might care about how your work looks, your main goal before you send it to a publisher is making sure it looks as much as possible like it was composed on an ibm Selectric in 12-point Pica. And, of course, if you’re working with desktop publishing applications yourself, you’ll probably find the “pour” less problematic if you start with flat ascii.

(Oh, how I love that word “pour” when applied to text. “Import” makes it sound as if I’ve established a trade agreement with Adobe.)

All of this has been on my mind a lot lately, because I’m thinking of changing my basic editor (for writing, not coding). If you write for a living, you’ll understand that this is a bit like contemplating a change of religion.

I got on this tangent after reading a really good (not to mention funny) article by Virginia Heffernan in The New York Times called “An Interface of One’s Own.” I’ll leave that essay (with its “Goodbye cruel Word”) as an exercise to the reader, but I’ll reiterate the general point: word processors may not be sufficiently geared toward the work habits and needs (not to mention the peculiar idiosyncracies) of most professional writers.

That article got me exploring Scrivener, which is a very impressive tool (its virtues, along with the features of several other “writing-centric” editors, are lovingly described in the article). I’m not sure I’ll switch. In fact, I think I’ll probably use up the entire thirty-day trial before I make a final decision. But so far, it seems to be the ideal tool for the way I work. It separates composing from designing, offers lots of different “compile” options for exporting into various layout programs (including Word, which one might think of as an easy-to-use layout tool), and has lots of different features for organizing large writing projects. There’s a movie available that will give you a sense of how it works.

You’d think I was buying a car or investing in a company. It’s a big decision. But then, I spend more time with my writing tools than I do with any other single application (save, perhaps, my Web browser).

So, what’s your workflow like? Are you happy with your tools? I’d love to hear about it.

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