A world of difference between writing and word processing Jason 27 Jul 2006

52 comments Latest by James

One of the criticisms we get from time to time about Writeboard is that it doesn’t have WYSIWYG formatting or fancy layout tools. That’s because it’s a writing tool, not a word processor. There’s a world of difference.

Writing is getting the words right. Word processing is… processing. It’s taking what you’ve written and doing stuff with it. Either bolding this or italicizing that or centering the headline or inserting a table or tweaking the margins or changing the font and sizes or adding color or… That’s word processing or page layout.

Just hiding the icon-crazy toolbar won’t do it either — the temptation to bring it back is too strong. The keyboard and the return key is all you need. That’s writing. Once you’ve got the words right you can take that text and process it in a word processor or page layout program later.

Writing tools like Writeboard and the pleasantly austere WriteRoom (for Mac OS X) take their cues from blank pieces of paper or typewriters. When you sit down to one of those you’re ready to write. Writing is all you can do. And when you’re about to write that’s all you should be ready to do: write. Leave the rest for another day. There are words to get right.

52 comments so far (Jump to latest)

Jack Shedd 27 Jul 06

100% agree. Hence my love of Markdown.

Alexander Schearer 27 Jul 06

I think the analogy between paper and an application like write room only carries so far… On paper you can add italics or bold whenever you feel like, with Write room you need to move to a separate application.

I don’t think the writing and formatting have to go hand in hand but it is a stretch to say they are distinct. What you outlined above sounds more like brainstorming and outlining than real writing. Or maybe you were just talking about web writing, which is hardly comparable to writing for other venues.

benny 27 Jul 06

That’s why I love writing in Stickies.

ramanan 27 Jul 06

I’d say using Markdown still muddles word processing with writing, as has been described here. Regardless of how you go about bolding or underlining text, you’re still wasting effort thinking about layout when you should be thinking about words.

ben 27 Jul 06

And yet my keyboard reliance has made hand writing pathetic. When I put pen to paper I feel like my thoughts are scattered.

Ben 27 Jul 06

Bulleted lists, bold, italic, underline, indentation - it doesn’t have to be formatting. It’s getting ideas down in whatever way they make most sense to you.

Otherwise you end up with plain text that looks like weird wiki-style text because
>minds
>>do
>>>think in
>>>>hierarchy
>>>>status
>>>>relative importance
>>don’t
>>>always translate into linear text

This is why whiteboards and paper still beat ascii for almost all jotting down and quick communication of complex ideas.

John Beales 27 Jul 06

Add me to the agree list. I usually start my writing process with a pen and paper. While I could underline, it is pretty hard to make something bold or properly italicize with those tools. The idea of the writing is to get the actual language right. To make sure that you are using the right words, pull out the thesaurus every once in a while, and to re-work your sentance and paragraph structure. As mentioned in the post all you need is the keyboard and return key, although I would add the cut & paste shortcuts to that as well.

Dylan 27 Jul 06

Totally. I find myself writing in TextMate more than any other program. The keyboard, the return key and a basic spell check.

This post is rather like that Tibor Kalman quotation from yesterday:

Now Iím at a point where Iím tired of talking about what kind of accents to use. I want to talk about the words that are being said.

losamorales 27 Jul 06

yeah, but by adding some text-style like bold or italic you’re telling something as well. that’s why people has invented it. word is important - that is true - by how this word look like has it meaning as well and it’s also important. so you can’t separate word meaning from it presentation because they are integrated.

Alex 27 Jul 06

I’ve found I’ve been much more productive and creative when I can just write in Writeboard, wherever I am, then export the document for someone who knows about layout (and the quirks of Word). I feel sorry for the poor sod who has to deal with Word, though!

matt 27 Jul 06

I was first exposed to Textile through Typo/Writeboard/Basecamp and took to it instantly. Now I write nearly everything on Writeboards, including a monthly column, customer quotes and meeting notes. How much formatting does one really need? I like to bold section headers and add bullet points for outlining. It’s easy, fast and the simplicity of the formatted pages is quite pleasing to my eyes.

James Weirick 27 Jul 06

Perfectly stated. That’s the exact reason that I use Writeboard instead of other more powerful applications. I don’t want to process. I want to write.

I’ve never heard of WriteRoom before now, but only seeing the text on the screen seems like an awesome feature (hint, hint).

James Weirick 27 Jul 06

Perfectly stated. That’s the exact reason that I use Writeboard instead of other more powerful applications. I don’t want to process. I want to write.

I’ve never heard of WriteRoom before now, but only seeing the text on the screen seems like an awesome feature (hint, hint).

Chris 27 Jul 06

Disallowing page layout is one thing, but the removal of “styling” is another. Styling text is an important tool in communication — bold, italics, font size, font type are all essential in writing.

This feature should be included. Why did you italicize text in this post? Remove your italics.

Des Traynor 27 Jul 06

I very much agree Jason. I think I write better in notepad than I do in word, because I don’t have the crutch of bold and italics for emphasis. Any emphasis comes entirely from the writing itself, not from clicking icons for bold, italics or underline.

Scott 27 Jul 06

Writeboard isn’t for everyone. Some people like total control over formatting and page layout. Some of us just want to put our words on a page (or, in this case, on a screen) with the minimum of fuss and distraction.

And you can add some basic formatting to a document in Writeboard — bold, italics, bullet and numbered lists, headings and hyperlinks. Not a huge range of options, to be sure, but just enough IMO.

Scott 27 Jul 06

Writeboard isn’t for everyone. Some people like total control over formatting and page layout. Some of us just want to put our words on a page (or, in this case, on a screen) with the minimum of fuss and distraction.

And you can add some basic formatting to a document in Writeboard — bold, italics, bullet and numbered lists, headings and hyperlinks. Not a huge range of options, to be sure, but just enough IMO.

Chance Bliss 27 Jul 06

Iíve noticed that I have been using MS Notepad more and more to jot down reminders, meeting notes and ideas. It has absolutely no formatting, styling, grammar or spell checkers to get in the way. Also it doesnít require an internet connection and loads in no time flat. I just click start > run > notepad and Iím on my way.

If I try to do the same thing in Word, my OCD kicks in and I spent just as much time formatting as writing.

Steve T 27 Jul 06

A web product will never appeal to the consumer or general business author without rich text editting of bold, links, headings and unlimmitted depth bullet lists (but limmitted to these sementic elements not styling and layout). Using Textile type formatting is OK for web designers, but not for authors with no technical knowledge, who nontheless want to use Web 2.0 collaborative tools. Hence, the likes of JotSpot having a rich text editor.

You’ve just posted about “Client bashing”. Perhaps you misunderstood the requests from your clients. Perhaps they want WYSIWYG semantic formatting NOT layout features.

Narendra 27 Jul 06

Well said. Er, written!

Just Some Guy 27 Jul 06

Writing and formatting often go hand in hand, because when done well, the formatting is just as important as the words. It tells part of the story by accenting the right things, splitting them out into bullets (which, as we all know, is the first thing anyone looks at on a web page full of text), and so on.

That said, I have a friend who uses an old typewriter for creative writing exercises so he doesn’t have the option to self-edit all the time. No formatting, and no ability to UNDO.

So yeah, it’s an interesting point, but it’s more interesting that 37s can make almost anything sound positive - even a lack of basic editing tools in a web-based text editor. I haven’t decided yet if it’s a blessing or an annoyance.

warren 27 Jul 06

this is why i hate microsoft office and love emacs.

people who think microsoft office gives them total control over layout are dumb.

Colin Scroggins 27 Jul 06

Chris: All the things you mentioned are styling elements and are not part of copy editing - they are part of the visual styling half. Nobody is saying that these aren’t important or necessary, just that they aren’t part of Writeboard’s core function.

I find that when I write without the ability to style, I tend to select better words and phrasing because it all seems so naked, and I want it to be able to stand alone. For me, this results in a better product, when I finally do add style to it in the publishing phase.

Narendra 27 Jul 06

Well said. Er, written!

Narendra 27 Jul 06

Well said. Er, written!

Alexander 27 Jul 06

I agree with many of the comments - that writing by hand on paper naturally includes ‘formatting’ like size and emphasis, and spacing on a page.

To seperate ‘writing’ from ‘processing’ is on valid for some people, some of the time. They are not, as suggested by the article, inherently different tasks.

Alexander 27 Jul 06

I agree with many of the comments - that writing by hand on paper naturally includes ‘formatting’ like size and emphasis, and spacing on a page.

To seperate ‘writing’ from ‘processing’ is on valid for some people, some of the time. They are not, as suggested by the article, inherently different tasks.

Just Some Guy 27 Jul 06

Writing and formatting often go hand in hand, because when done well, the formatting is just as important as the words. It tells part of the story by accenting the right things, splitting them out into bullets (which, as we all know, is the first thing anyone looks at on a web page full of text), and so on.

That said, I have a friend who uses an old typewriter for creative writing exercises so he doesn’t have the option to self-edit all the time. No formatting, and no ability to UNDO.

So yeah, it’s an interesting point, but it’s more interesting that 37s can make almost anything sound positive - even a lack of basic editing tools in a web-based text editor. I haven’t decided yet if it’s a blessing or an annoyance.

Spencer Fry 27 Jul 06

I agree 100%. That’s why I use NotePad.

Rob Olliges 27 Jul 06

Get closer: Think tablet!

Rob Olliges 27 Jul 06

Get closer: Think tablet!

Ryan Allen 27 Jul 06

Wow, thanks for sharing the WriteRoom link. They have some very nice looking products! Wow!

ARWolff 27 Jul 06

Amen. If one’s writing skills are so underdeveloped that one cannot provide emphasis and meaning without italics — never mind colors, backgrounds, etc. — then one needs some remedial writing help. “Desktop publishing” tricks simply masks the underlying problem.

(Please note, I avoided the second-person pronoun to give no other posters offense.)

James 27 Jul 06

I use gedit, a simple text editor on Linux for most of my work. I just found I spent so long playing about with the format and layout in Word/Open Office that I wasn’t getting much done. If I need formatting, I use LaTeX - easy to include in plain text and easier to change formatting later (anyone ever tried to use styles in Word?).

Christian Augustin 27 Jul 06

What’s wrong with (simple) Wiki markup? Or Textile, or MarkDown? For a trained typer it is much faster to type in some additional characters to *emphasize* some text. Using formatting tools is often very time consuming, and keyboard shortcuts are not always helpfull (because they often are set to easy to remember positions but that hinder fluent typing).

And formatting is no part of writing. Look at the newspapers and magazins — you will seldomly find bold or italic inside of the copy text (even though they could have it :-). And look at the books you love most — how many bold, italic? (I don’t mean technical books here, were formatting is necessary to differentiate the parts of command syntax or the like.)

I was never a Word fan (even though this program has its qualities), and most often I start BBEdit or some other lightweight text editor to write a text. Sometimes I use sticky notes (those on my Mac), but its not the same …

Jack Straw 27 Jul 06

So I’ve listend to the Stone Roses “This is the one” about 100 times in a row now. Great song. A keep glancing at my wallpaper which features a photo from a recent vacation with my extended famlily (parents, grandparents, etc.). Back in the city now I’m nostalgic for this really poor quality, overstretched image. The quality is bad, I’m not a photogropher, but I know that the this picture is framed wrong. But that doesn’t matter. I’ve never been able to get into photography for that reason. No matter how well constructed or well shot, someone else’s photo of a place you’ve never been or a person you’ve never met can only start to hint at the emotion that is evoked from ture experience. When I feel a moment of inspiration and need to just get thoughts out, be it about something existential or practical, I need to type fast, and I type in a writeboard. When my boss wants me to prepare an SOW to send to a client I open up word and start word processing.

Chris 27 Jul 06

My partner did something wonderful for me a couple years ago: he bought me a decommissioned Newton eMate 300 off eBay. It has a keyboard, and a bright little monochrome keyboard and…well, that’s it. You know, I’m pretty good about writing without formatting for first drafts. Naturally, Writeboard, WriteRoom, notepad.exe are all good at this. But when I’m on my Powerbook, it’s just too tempting to pop out to BBC News or start meandering through Wikipedia doing “research.” The eMate forces me to just WRITE. I almost would like to see a lockdown key combo for apps like WriteRoom, where you have to actually take multiple steps to get out of the 100% screen view. Otherwise, the temptation to leave your writing zone is just too strong.

Rus 28 Jul 06

That’s funny, I find the opposite:

Many writers seem to think of the stream of words as their sole tool—- formatting is an afterthought. That’s because many writers don’t care to see their text the way their readers will—- for them, the text is the goal, the reader is just the excuse to justify the self-indulgence of writing.

But for writers who find it more important to achieve a purpose with their writing than to write for its own sake, then the focus is on the act of READING, not writing. A reader-focused writer knows that a reader is extremely visual, and will want to use text size, weight, color, and whitespace to prioritize the content so that the important points are understood even if the rest is skimmed. A reader-focused writer wants to ensure that the reader isn’t annoyed, confused, or repulsed by any aspect of the look of the text, right down to the serifs on the font.

In short, a truly reader-focused writer wants the most control possible over the text, and then wants to see the text just as the reader will see it—- WYSIWYG. Writers that choose otherwise apparently care more about their own writing experience than their readers’ reading experience.

Niko 28 Jul 06

Only one of the commenters mentioned structure.

I completely agree that the abundance of formatting controls get on the way of the writing process. Then again, I don’t like Writeroom either. I also think that Writeboards can only go so far, because there the actual formatting gets on the way.

The problem is that we don’t need formatting controls while writing, but we do need styled text. The longer the text, the more you need to be able to quickly point out headings, images, footnotes, quotes. It’s not a question of style, it’s a question of visualizing structure with style.

Word sucks when you need to write a 150 page paper because you get lost in the options. It can be done, but it’s not a fun exercise.

Writeboards suck in the same task because the plain text loses the visualization of the structure. It can be done too, but it’s not a fun exercise either.

Patrick 28 Jul 06

There’s also a program for windows called DarkRoom.

I really like the fact that you can write without any distraction and it also has a multi-monitor support, so your second or third screen also doesn’t distract you from writing.

Greetings,
Patrick

George 28 Jul 06

I’m gonna jump aboard the “Amen” bandwagon here.

I love Writeboard because I can just full-screen the browser and focus 100% on what I’m saying. I use it in preference to the WordPress post writing interface, especially.

Bob Boydston 28 Jul 06

I agree with the writer’s distinction between “writing” and “processing.”

Over the years I have gravitated toward MS Notepad as my first editor of choice simply because I can get started fast. After awhile I copy and paste my draft to Word so that I can utilize spell checker and the thesaurus.

Formatting is the last thing I do. By the way, that is what I did here! I discovered that I misspelled “formatting.” :)

Luis 28 Jul 06

I downloaded Writeroom for Mac OS X and it rocks!
For those with a Mac and a need for a Writeboard-type stand-alone app, download it.
Best of all it’s free!
Insane-crazy-amazing-cool!

Henk Kleynhans 28 Jul 06

Jason,

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, you’re reasoning on this topic is simply flawed.

I agree with your premise: Make a simple writing tool without fancy features.

However, that’s no reason for making a simple writing tool that doesn’t allow you to see the result of what you’re creating. It’s simply too bizarre to have to edit, click on view, edit, click on view etc. for small changes.

Yes, that’s how web programming works, but that’s NOT what you should make your customers suffer!

Hope you get this sorted. You’ve still got my $12/m in any case. I’m just using Writely until you fix Writeboards.

ST 29 Jul 06

I agree with this Dojo dude on this topic:

http://alex.dojotoolkit.org/?p=570

Simple 29 Jul 06

I just use Notepad. Its simple. No tool bars or anything to get in the way. Best of all its free.

J 29 Jul 06

However, thatís no reason for making a simple writing tool that doesnít allow you to see the result of what youíre creating.

Can you miss the point any more? You ARE seeing what you are creating: TEXT. WORDS. LETTERS. That’s it and that’s the point. Get the words right by focusing exclusively on the writing. Then you can format the words in one of a billion other word processing or page layout programs.

Ian 04 Aug 06

Sorry, I disagree with Jason.

The presentation does affect what you write. You wouldn’t write the same way if you had 2 lines rather than 50. Or if you knew the width of the line was going to be 200 characters, you probably wouldn’t write very, very, very long sentences.

And so, having the ability to make your text bold, italic or a different colour will affect how you write. At least, it should do.

Also, I’m little confused as to why you insist on calling Writeboard a writing tool (not a “word processor”) but then give the user the option to format their text?

Mikeal 04 Aug 06

I’m in complete disagreement with you for one simple reason, writeboard is _not_ WriteRoom and is _not_ stickies. WriteBoard is intended for collaboration, which means that it’s intended purpose is to write quantifiable data and share that with other people who can contribute.

WriteBoard and stickies take a fairly Jef Raskin approach to their UI design, complete auto-save and a type-and-go approach that allows people to just write. The reason they don’t, and don’t have any reason, to support more advanced markup is that the user who is typing the data is putting down their thoughts and doesn’t, and shouldn’t, be bothered with markup or UI that is intended to facilitate better quantifying and description of their thoughts.

When collaborating it is imperitive that users have the ability to describe their ideas as well as possible, this means rich text and markup.

I’m not a huge fan of traditional WYSIWYG design, it usually either gets in the way or places buttons somewhere I have to leave the keyboard to click on. But that doesn’t mean you can cop out on trying to explore and develop a better way to facilitate rich text and markup by saying “it doesn’t need that because it’s now what we are trying to do”.

Sure, you can say “we are stickies but with collaboration” but you can’t ever say “we are the best collobaritive writing application” and if you are interested in furthing your products and your users experience you should try to be the best. Stop with your bullshit cop outs and start thinking about ways to “help” your users collaborate instead of assuming anything you do will just get in the way of their writing.

Mikeal 04 Aug 06

I’m in complete disagreement with you for one simple reason, writeboard is _not_ WriteRoom and is _not_ stickies. WriteBoard is intended for collaboration, which means that it’s intended purpose is to write quantifiable data and share that with other people who can contribute.

WriteBoard and stickies take a fairly Jef Raskin approach to their UI design, complete auto-save and a type-and-go approach that allows people to just write. The reason they don’t, and don’t have any reason, to support more advanced markup is that the user who is typing the data is putting down their thoughts and doesn’t, and shouldn’t, be bothered with markup or UI that is intended to facilitate better quantifying and description of their thoughts.

When collaborating it is imperitive that users have the ability to describe their ideas as well as possible, this means rich text and markup.

I’m not a huge fan of traditional WYSIWYG design, it usually either gets in the way or places buttons somewhere I have to leave the keyboard to click on. But that doesn’t mean you can cop out on trying to explore and develop a better way to facilitate rich text and markup by saying “it doesn’t need that because it’s now what we are trying to do”.

Sure, you can say “we are stickies but with collaboration” but you can’t ever say “we are the best collobaritive writing application” and if you are interested in furthing your products and your users experience you should try to be the best. You should try “helping” your users instead of assuming that features have to get in the way of expeience (like Windows).

jessica 09 Aug 06

so true but what do you think of spell check?

James 13 Sep 06

As a professional writer, I often write first drafts in longhand, but I still use formatting. Like more professional writers, I have proofreaders’ marks memorized, and I use them. Seems most have forgotten that computers and word processors have not always been around, but formatting has been. Formatting with a pencil is very easy. Formatting with Writeboard is not.

Saying you can bold or use italics, etc., later is fine, but only if you can find what it was you needed to bold, what it was you wanted to italicize, etc.

When writing for publication, you either format now, or you format later, but you will have to format. It’s not like formatting with a word processor, or with a pencil, is rocket science. It’s very easy to do, and if something this simple breaks your concentration, you have a problem considerably more serious than whether or not to format.

Writeboard has its uses, and good ones they are, but it simply makes no sense to make a task any more difficult than it has to be, and trying to format serious writing documents later is a true pain in the rear.

A small, online word processor is a wonderful idea, but I’m afraid Writeboard is too small and too simple for most needs. I use Writerly. It’s every bit as fast, but allows me to format when I need to format.

And, really, folks, if you don’t want to format, you don’t have to do so, even with a word processor.

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