If there’s one piece of software at the center of the writing life, it’s word processors. I’ve used a variety of these programs over the years migrating with technology and formatting preferences. Recently, I got to thinking about the pros and cons of all these programs as I was working on Chapter 4 of The Sky Below on my Linux box using AbiWord and thought I’d share them with you.
WordPerfect – I wrote my first book with this program, starting with version 6 and using version 8 and 10 with each new computer we bought. I used to say you could have Word or you could have perfect. As a software guy one of the things I appreciate about this program is the cross-compatibility between versions. You could create a document in version 10 and open it in version 6 and vice versa. This was the program I used on my first computer (a Windows 3.1 Compaq) and on my first laptop (a gifted gray brick of a Toshiba Satellite). Remember when you used to have to come up with 8-character names for file names? Probably the reason most of my titles are still short.
OpenOffice – Nothing like getting an entire office suite for free. Word Processors, and even programs like Excel and Power Point feel like such an essential part of the computer that it can sting a little bit to pay high double digit, or even low triple digit prices for them. I primarily used OpenOffice 2 and 3 though I have 4 installed on several of my machines. Probably the last time I used this was for NaNoWriMo in 2011 when I found out the word count had a quirk where it would count quotation marks as words and I had to make up a deficit of about 1000 words before the deadline. Surreality’s first draft was written between WordPerfect and OpenOffice which caused all sorts of interesting formatting quirks when I started converting it to an eBook. I remember liking that you could save books to PDF long before Word got that ability directly.
AbiWord – Basically a clone of Word 2003 but with a variety of plugins and conversion formats so you can read and w rite to just about every common format (including the .docx format used by Word today). The main advantage to this is performance. I’ve got it installed on old hardware designed mainly for Windows XP and now running Zorin light linux. OpenOffice might run (or it’s branch LibreOffice), but it would take forever. Playing around with it the last couple of weeks I noticed it had a summarize feature that looked pretty cool and the ability to save directly to the EPUB format. Works well for writing and editing the chapter before formatting it in something else.
Notepad++ – If you’ve never used this program you really should, particularly if you’re a web programmer who doesn’t like using a fancy IDE. This is mainly my program of choice for writing blog posts offline before pasting them into WordPress and is also a great way of using the “nuclear option” to clear formatting from something else. It can read the text back to you with text to speech, has a spell check and can open up documents in tabs. I really wish Linux had some kind of equivalent to this as I’ve come to heavily rely on it on almost every machine I own.
DocumentsToGo – I probably had the best setup you could possibly have for this, a tablet case with a keyboard so I could type in this like a mini-laptop. But after taking more than half an hour to write 300 words I went back to focusing on getting my old Linux laptop to fit my needs. This has few of the formatting options of a real text editor and is probably most useful for creating short notes or viewing documents. Maybe on more powerful hardware with a better keyboard I’d like this better, but that seems far too expensive to buy on a tablet when I can get cheap laptops for a couple hundred bucks.
GoogleDocs – I love the collaboration of this, the auto save and the easy ability to highlight notes in the text and resolve them without leaving a trace on the document. This is a great way for my wife and I to revise Surreality before putting in the final changes in something else. Again I feel like this document format is plain, and doesn’t even have some of the simple paragraph styles that are so easy to set up in Word. Some of them are there, but frankly I’ve found it best to write the document in Word, upload it to Google Docs to edit, then paste it back into Word to apply the final changes. I don’t love having chapters up in the cloud so I tend to delete them after they’re in the finished draft.
Microsoft Word – I’ve used this since 97 but the primary versions I’ve used are 2002 (XP) and 2007/2010. I’m one of the people who grumbled about the redesign of the menus into these pallets or tabs or whatever you want to call them, but the truth is once you get used to them, they’re actually easier to use and better laid out than pull down menus ever were. I hate to say this, but the Word format, even though it seems to have a lot of overhead, actually saves documents that render consistently to eReaders and in general has the most robust formatting options for equations, integrating images, etc. Sure if you wanted to lay out your book in something like Latex or Sigil it might look a tidge more professional (maybe) but that’s no way to write. Some self-publishers will insist that using Word will make your book look unprofessional, but the truth is a lot of that can be overcome by testing your book out and paying attention to the advice of other writers. I don’t like that I have to keep buying Word, particularly these cloud based subscription models like Office 365. Sure, it hurt to spend $85 to get a single license copy of 2010 for my new laptop, but it’s been worth it so far.
There are probably others I’m forgetting including what I’m pretty sure was an old version of Word Perfect on a old DOS machine I used to use (green text on a black background and everything). What’s your favorite program to actually write in?