Personally, I blame Danny O’Brien

This time last year, I was happy in my ignorance. I had never really thought very hard about the software that I was using – I used what got the job done and didn’t think about what it was I really wanted from the software I was doing it with. I put up with foibles and crashes and lost data. Well, I was on Windows, so it seemed like part of the deal.

Then in June I went to NotCon, my first ever geek conference. At NotCon I saw Danny O’Brien give his Life Hacks talk, about the way that successful programmers bent apps to their will, creating a working landscape which fit in around their habits, rather than twisting themselves up to fit the landscape imposed upon them by developers.

I’d never considered software in that light before. Suddenly, I started looking at my fugly PC in a whole new way. I started using Notepad instead of Word because it was somehow less messy. I got increasingly cross with Eudora because it wouldn’t let me deal with my mail the way I wanted to. I started to really dislike the entire Windows environment in a way that I hadn’t before. Years of the Blue Screen of Death had, obviously, taken its toll on my saintly nature, but now I’d moved beyond the rolling of the eyes and the sighing and had started to look at that nice hefty hammer I own with a twinkle in my eye.

Then, I got a Mac and a whole new suite of software and I became really demanding of it all. The first thing under scrutiny was my text editing app.

Although this Mac has MS Office on it, it’s a wee bit unstable and Word crashes frequently. I had come to dislike Word anyway, so I didn’t shed a tear over that one. So I started using TextEdit and, whilst that’s 100% stable and easy enough to use, it doesn’t give me a word count and there are no layout options.

Then I started using SubEthaEdit, which produces cleaner files and does wonderful things with Rendezvous and collaborative authoring, but although it provides a great character count, it fails to count words (as far as I can tell, anyway). It also can’t cope with text formatting and has no layout facilities.

So I downloaded Ulysses, a tool designed primarily for authors. It has some great features, including tabbed documents and a multi-pane screen with the ability to keep notes in a separate pane. Whilst these aspects are very good, there is something about Ulysses that makes me uncomfortable. It may be the way that the paragraph numbers don’t update properly, or the fact that I can’t change the zoom so find the text too small to comfortably read. I don’t know. But something makes Ulysses a not entirely perfect user experience.

I have had BBEdit recommended to me by some of my developer friends, but it costs $199, which is precisely $199 more than I have to spend at the moment. Bare Bones Software also do the much more affordable TextWrangler, but from the looks of it, it really is aimed at developers in the way that BBEdit is.

TextForge is just like TextEdit – just far too vanilla for my needs. I really want something that sits between the basic apps like TextForge and the horrible monstrosity that is Word. All I really want for my basic, day-to-day writing is font formatting, basic layout such as bulleted lists and tables, spellcheck as you write, and a word count facility. Tabbed documents would be very useful, as in Ulysses, along with a zoom facility and several levels of undo, but I guess I can live without those. I’m glad to be rid of Word’s automatic ‘styling’ – I hand code any HTML I need for blog posts, so losing ‘smart quotes’ is a blessing. The number of blog posts that have been stuffed up by those stupid smart quotes is astounding.

So up til recently I have been coping by smooshing together SubEthaEdit and Word, doing most of my actual writing in SubEthaEdit and then doing any pretty formatting in Word. That’s fine, it works ok, but it’s not ideal.

Tonight I have downloaded iText, a freeware app that seems to sit in that middle ground I’m so keen on. I can’t say that it’s perfect – it does do some stupid things like put spaces round pastes in the way that Word does, which means inserting an URI in between two double quote marks results in extraneous spaces which need deleting, but I lived with that in Word, I suppose I can live with that in iText. I don’t want to have to, but it’s swings and roundabouts. I will give iText a trial run over the next few days, see how it pans out, but barring tables and and bulleted lists and spellcheck as you write and several levels of undo, it seems ok.

If you have any suggestions for free- or cheapware for Mac OS X, please leave a comment. I would so like to find my perfect text editing app, particularly as I spend the majority of my day editing text.

UPDATE: iText turned out not to support some Polish and Welsh characters, which pretty much rules it out for every day use for me. I am now trying out Tex-Edit Plus as suggested by Michael in the comments, which supports Polish characters such as ę and ł, but not Welsh characters such as ŵ and ŷ. There may be a way to extend Tex-Edit using AppleScripts, but so far I’ve not found one that sorts out the Welsh localisation. Still, it’s a step in the right direction.

7 thoughts on “Personally, I blame Danny O’Brien

  1. I’m not going to wonder too much how you are able to feel good at having traded all that good old fashioned productivity for an endless quest for the perfect software… in my experience it was when I realized that it DIDN’T MATTER what editor I chose that I achieved my own kind of blissful nirvana about the writing process 🙂

    So now I use Emacs– the one True Editor– if it can’t be made to do what you want, then what you want can’t be done…

    What about TextMate? People tell me it’s the greatest thing since the invention of the Alphabet…

  2. Thanks for the suggestions. I will look into them.

    Chris, whilst I would agree with you that the search for software nirvana is likely to be an ultimately disappointing one, the time I have spent looking for a text editor that is right for me is born of the fact that I wasn’t working efficiently in the ones that I had, swapping between programs and losing work as Word crashed or ended up with multiple versions of the same document. So I see this search as time invested in a simpler future. Once I have located a text editor that I’m happy with, my productivity should improve because I won’t be faffing about so much.

    Well, that’s the theory, anyway.

  3. Personally, I subscribe to the notion that when one starts frittering around with software when trying to write that it’s not the software’s fault, it’s indicative of something else that is troubling the writing process, causing one to overthink what is essentially a very simple act that people were managing for hundreds of years with quill pens and typewriters at volumes we can only aspire to… pick any one of the hundreds of sound, stable text editors, learn to use them, and I bet you’ll find more nirvana in the writing than in the software. I’ve written literally thousands of pages in Emacs, textpad, Wordperfect for DOS, and even Word and never lost a word other than with catastrophic hard drive failure.

    This is different, of course, from my own procrastination method of playing with other widgets and things when I *should* be writing. For quite some time I had a laptop that ran only DOS and had only WordPerfect installed to stop myself from that, so I’m no stranger to tricking myself in the service of productivity…

  4. In some cases, yes, I think you’re right – playing with software is a great displacement activity. But having the wrong software, which patently doesn’t do what you want it to do, such as allow you to bold headings or use different font sizes for different sections of the document, does actually slow you down. It’s then, when the software is clearly getting in the way, that the search needs to begin.

    Computers do, as you say, complicate things unnecessarily at times. Were I to be writing with a quill (as I did throughout many of my teenage years because I was a bit weird like that), I could change justification and font size without ever really thinking about it. The fact that SubEthaEdit, for example, can’t do that means that it’s the wrong tool for me to be writing in.

    I wouldn’t want to count the number of pages that I’ve written in Word on a PC, but I’m betting that it’s got to be in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions. I must already have written thousands on the Mac. Verbosity has never been my problem. 😉

    Once I find a tool that does what I want it to do in the way that I want it to, I shall settle quite happily into using it exclusively. But good software should do what you want it to do and then get out of the way, and until I find software that does, I shall have to keep looking.

  5. Merlin Mann over on 43 Folders seems to think highly of TextMate (… (and the blog is a fabulous source of tips and tools for productivity).

  6. Over the years I’ve used everything from DOS Wordstar to XEmacs to IBM mainframe text editors, for a range of purposes. It’s horses for courses. XEmacs is a great application development environment, but I don’t do much coding these days. DOS Wordstar was absolutely fine for straight text (but pretty hopeless for graphics), and in fact was far quicker/easier for multilingual writing than WYSIWYG editors. I’d still probably be using it now were it not for compatibility issues. [You can probably gather that I was a command line junkie for some time: I can stll remember some of the commands from circa 1987.]

    I’m not that inclined to change writing environments unless I have to (usually for external reasons). The words are the thing. It’s only occasionally that time needs to be devoted to figuring out how to format a particular new thing in an environmentyou know, while considerable time is needed to get up to speed on any new editor. Compare the overhead, and figure out how much time you’ve really got to spare.

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