Tuesday, December 30, 2014

New breed of writing apps - introduction

Word processing / text editing / writing software is going through some interesting changes lately. A handful of reasons come to mind.

1. Legacy software is often too complex, riddled with little-used options lost in mazes of menus. We spend more time trying to track down the command we do want than in creating content.

2. It's also a sad reality that many of us have lost files to the proprietary formats of now abandoned software. Wordstar is gone. WordPerfect is gone. The files of Microsoft Word (with its "embrace, extend, and extinguish" approach to standards) are notoriously balky, and likely to be corrupted. But the oldest format of plain text - a format  that can be looked at and edited by many free programs on almost any platform - endures. It is reliable and reusable.

3. Mobile computing is on the rise. We spend less time in front of one machine in one location. We spend more time with smart phones and tablets, which run entirely different operating systems. A particular writing program is unlikely to exist on all of them. But plain text is also portable -- given a cloud-based storage system (like Dropbox or Google), the same file can be edited across several devices in the course of a day.

4. Writing now has many other destinations than paper. It could go to an email, to a blog, to a webpage, to an ebook, to a publishing workflow for a magazine. Today's text is designed to be shared, not just formatted and printed directly.

5. Finally, the Internet itself is a powerful distraction, with notifications popping up all over the screen, and the siren song of endless links.

A combination of all these things has led to the rise of a new aesthetic in writing software: simplicity.

This kind of software goes by many names: distraction-free, zenware, or minimalist. In general, the idea is this: the program has a very small, coherent set of functions. It uses a lot of white space (or black space, or gray space) -- and very little else to clutter up the screen. The application may expand to take up the whole screen, shuffling the World Wide Web offstage entirely. It creates plain text files, although the new "markdown" tags preserve most of the information in the RTF format, but far more simply, and produce much smaller files that are far more easily read by humans and computers alike.

My own writing software needs are modest. While I work on a variety of platforms (Windows/Linux, iPad, Android tablet, and even an old Mac, occasionally), the features I look for don't change much.

Text creation: I look for a consistent set of keyboard text controls that allow me to move rapidly around a sentence and paragraphs instead of fiddling with mouse and touch screen. Let's put search and replace here, too.

Text checking: writers need word count and spell check.

A very few formatting controls (header, bold, italic, links) are handy.

Exporting to other file formats: email, html, doc, pdf is important. 

Outlining: I really like the ability to fold, unfold, navigate, and structurally rearrange my text in larger blocks. ("Folding" hides text subordinate to a heading, allowing the writer to more easily see the bones of a piece.) Until now, these have been considered "outliner" functions, and few word processors have them. But recently, some markdown editors have rolled out the function.

So in the last weeks of December, 2014, I've been looking at some of this new breed of applications. The choices are idiosyncratic: these are the things that caught my eye, and I thought might work in my changing environment. Here's a quick look at them.

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