A car will always be an even number of wheels controlled by a steering wheel and a number of pedals proportionate to the number of feet attached to the average human being. The hammer: hold it by the wooden end, swing the metal end at the nail, repeat until either the nail is flush with the surface or your mum runs in screaming about her antique oak writing desk.
Pens and pencils? Very rarely are these things used properly (particularly if there’s a New York Times crossword or White House stationery underneath them) but the mechanics of applying a line to a page are well-understood.
Fundamental tools never change. That’s sort of a feature.
Software is different, of course. Made from infinitely-malleable electrons, no matter how old and entrenched the old way has become, there’s always room for revolution.
So why did word processors stop moving forward in 1990 or so? Microsoft Word grabbed the product category in its talons and flew off with it. And things have been pretty much the same ever since. I mean… what the hell?
I’m sorry if I’m in sort of a reflective mood here, sensation-seekers. But I’ve been writing these column-thingies half my life, and always with Word – and I’m still enjoying the giddy novelty of using something else. Incredibly (well, incredibly to me, anyway) I’ve dumped Microsoft Word in favour of a hit cult app called Scrivener, a $40 app published by Literature and Latte.
Seriously. It’s like a premium sports car made by a company called ‘Awesome Babecatcher Motors’. The app of choice for pretentious twits pretending to write novels at Starbucks.
But that’s honestly the only bad thing I can possibly say about Scrivener. It’s precisely the sort of application I love: it seemed to start with a series of observations about how people use a word processor, not with a series of assumptions about how such a thing should traditionally work.
Word of the day
In 1990, word processing was still the next evolution from the typewriter. You typed and the final, presentable version of the document appeared before your eyes as you worked. But Scrivener benefits from a couple of important observations.
Firstly, people no longer write documents. They write content. Take this column you’re reading right here. When I finish it, other people will apply their various mojos to it. My editor will drop it into a template and lay it out for publication in a physical magazine. He will also drag it into a different window and turn it into an online article.
So it’s a waste of time for me to worry about how it looks as I’m writing it. For now, it might as well be big text in a simple, uncluttered window that removes all other distractions.
Secondly, it’s never just the one document. It’s the thing you’re writing, plus the other parts of the project, plus the files you’re using for research purposes, plus your notes, plus your outline… et cetera. Ideally, all of these things need to be kept together and organized.
Scrivener doesn’t save documents. It saves projects, called ‘Binders’. Here, I’ve got a binder named ‘Macworld’. The left-hand column of this iTunes-like editing window I’ve got in front of me contains the three Macworld columns I’ve written since I switched to Scrivener, ideas for three future columns, captures from a couple of websites that I hope to reference… all organized into folders.
Cool. But what do I hand off to my editor? Genius: a ‘Compile Draft’ command lets me specify which bits of the binder need to be exported and how they should be formatted. If this was a novel, I’d select the 23 chapters and they’d be consolidated into a single, huge document separated by whatever page breaks or other formatting I call for. But here, I just check the box next to this month’s column and then select a pre-configured collection of settings (she wants a Word file, double-spaced, with a nice, readable font; curly-quotes and other modern typography should be in place).
Presto: a standard Word document, cooked just the way she likes it, made slightly alarming by the fact that it has a creation date of just 20 minutes before she received it, suggesting that I really engaged in a heroic amount of procrastination before starting work on this.
Scrivener is a shrewd collection of tools that everyone will appreciate equally, but exploit differently. It’s the perfect word processor for people like me, who write weekly and monthly columns for a variety of publications and websites. To a pal of mine, it’s the perfect word processor for writing a very complicated science-fiction novel in which a large cast engages in complicated schedules and agendas that all have to be tracked and coordinated with each other through the story. To another, it’s the perfect tool for writing comic-book scripts.
You see, Scrivener isn’t an oddball niche ‘alternative’ product. It’s poised to start a genuine revolution.
I’m just glad that The Company That Makes Scrivener – I have thought about it carefully and concluded that actually writing out such an awful name in a document for publication must invite the same catastrophic bad luck as speaking the name of the play Macbeth on a stage – had the guts to fire off the cannon salvo. It’s probably correct to say that a child was born and grew old enough to drink heavily and go to war in the time it’s taken for a really new word processor to come on the market. And now we’ve seen two of ‘em (I’m including the latest update to Pages) in the same year or so.
The most incredible thing about all of this is that six weeks ago, Microsoft sent me a copy of the first major revision to Microsoft Office in years. I’ve yet to install it. For the first time since I was 19, Microsoft Word is not the most important program on my Mac.