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.