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Articles: The Right Place to Write

The line between writing and publishing has become blurry over the past decade. It became that way mostly due to the widespread integration of Desktop Publishing... and that became a problem. It may be hard to imagine a tool like desktop publishing being a problem, but it this kind of ubiquitous tool puts "form" ahead of "substance." That relationship has weakened the writing tools we have. Fonts and line spacing are products of print publishing, and not of content creation. Words create substance in writing, not formatting. This was not much of a problem when word processors and page layout programs were separate. Now we have a single bloated program that pushes features and appearance over functionality. The troubles stem from the need for profit and the desire for dominance... two qualities that often define Microsoft.

Microsoft Word has not always been the cumbersome program that it is today. Not too long ago I remember how useful a writing tool it was. The Word program included in Office:Mac 2001 had grown up from a basic text editor to a full-fledged word processor with adaptive spelling correction and a- mostly accurate- grammar checker. The desktop publishing features were a bonus that lay dormant until needed. The only annoyance was the little help animations, but it was easy enough to banish that feature. Word was still basically a word processor at this point, but the writing was on the wall as to the direction Microsoft was taking. The overall improvements of Word 2001 over Word 98 were more cosmetic than substantive. It encouraged an upgrade, but without much in the way of additional features. This has long been a problem for software developers with a commodity program; programs that offer a basic service that, once properly developed, do not need to be replaced. Word had reached that point of being good enough of a word processor that there was little need to upgrade. After all, the process of writing does not change every year, but Microsoft does need its customers to upgrade regularly.

Twenty-two years ago my father made a significant writing change. He switched from composing letters on a Dictaphone and having his secretary type it up for him, to typing everything himself on an AT&T PC 6300. That was a significant change for my father, just as spellchecking was a significant change in word processing for me. Clip art and automatic bullets are not compelling improvements for someone who just wants to write text. So after Microsoft had tweaked Word to a point of graceful functionality, users were content. That would be the point that most creative developers would focus on a new problem to solve and just maintain and upgrade their application as needed. Microsoft went the other direction, plowing feature after feature into Word, all with the hope that one of the shiny new bits would compel customers into upgrading. The end result is a word processor buried under a consumer-grade desktop publishing application. Just hitting the "Return" key twice can create all sorts of unwanted formatting. Even the once-useful grammar checker lost its ability to catch the errors it once could.

The only thing for me to do at that point was to abandon Word for a better application. One that understood you should write first, and format latter. The likely refuge would seem to be Apple's Pages application, which is part of the iWork suite. The problem with Pages is that it was developed as a competing product to Word. Although it is implemented better than Word, Pages is a page layout program first and a word processor second. Without an obvious program to write in, I began a search for the perfect lightweight word processing application. After many false trails I received a recommendation from our IT Director that got me on the right path.

His recommendation of WriteRoom hit the nail on the head ( This free application is a minimalist's word processor. The only font control is in the preferences, and changes there will affect every character on all documents. You pick the text size and font that reads easiest to you and then you type. Another improvement of WriteRoom over its peers is the Full Screen mode. The "Esc" key toggles you in and out of a full screen mode which will block out all other distractions you have brewing on your computer. WriteRoom also lets you choose your favorite monochrome display settings. Because my father's AT&T PC 6300 was handed down to me, and it was my first computer, I prefer green text on a black background. The 'dumbterm' TV100 fans can work in amber text on black. If you miss WordPerfect, there is white text on a blue background. Any color combination you want is possible, but that's the extent of fancy features. After you set it up, it's all about writing. There is no grammar-check, but WriteRoom uses the OS X 10.4 spell checker as you type. Because it is the Mac OS spell checker, it will remember word training from Apple Mail, so right clicking a miss-spelled word will show you a list of correction options and spellchecker features.

WriteRoom deserves to have a home in every Mac. You will be surprised at how productive this lightweight application can make you. More surprising may be how your perception of writing changes when free of formatting concerns. Although writing has not changed, where we present our written work has. Printing to paper once dominated delivery of written information, but now the Web contains the majority of our works. We post to blogs and email school assignments as text. We format documents in our web browsers instead of apps like Word. The desktop publishing days are almost over; once again it can about the substance of writing.
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