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Word Processors — One Writer’s Further Retreat

October 9th, 2010 10:11 admin Leave a comment Go to comments

ch-dickinson writes “In 2003, I posted an essay (‘Word Processors: One Writer’s Retreat‘) here about my writing experience — professional and personal — that led to a novel draft in vi(m), and I outlined reasons I chose a simple non-WYSIWYG text editor rather than a more full-featured word processor. A few novels later, in 2010 now, I decided to try a text editor that predates even vi: ed. I’d run across ed about 20 years ago, working at a software company and vaguely recalled navigation of a text file meant mentally mapping such commands as +3 and -2: ed didn’t click with me then. But writing a novel draft is mule work, one sentence after another, straight ahead — no navigating the text file. The writer must get the story down and my goal is 1,000 words a day, every day, until I’m done. I have an hour to 90 minutes for this. So when I returned after two decades, I was impressed with how efficiently ed generates plain text files.”

Read on for the author’s brief account of why he looked a few decades back in the software universe to find the right tool for the job.

Documentation for ed is available on the Internet, but I found it a great help to take Richard Gauthier’s USING THE UNIX SYSTEM (1981) with me when I reported for jury duty in Portland, Oregon. His 30-page discussion of “the editor” is thorough and gave me some sense of the power of this pioneer text editor (cut & pastes, for example).

As I said, what drives my mule-like early morning routine is word count. The text editor ed has no internal word count tool (through dropping back to the command line gives, of course, wc). What I had to do was quite simple: I converted byte-counts (which ed does with each write to the file) into word equivalents. So if my style of writing runs 5.6 characters per word, then a word goal of 1,000 words is simply 5,600 bytes. Every day, I set my target byte count and once there, I quit.

In less than three months, I finished a 72,000-word novel draft and give ed credit for not slowing me down. Based on my experience writing novels with plain text editors (vim, geany, and now ed), I understand how few computing resources are needed to take manuscript composition off a typewriter and put it on a personal computer. The advantages of the latter are several, including less retyping, easier revision, and portability among different systems. Whether going from typewriter to personal computer makes for better writing I’ll leave to others for comment.

What doesn’t make for better writing is confusing text on demand (that daily word count that grows to a manuscript) with desktop publishing. Desktop publishing makes so many word processors into distracting choice-laden software tools. Obviously, there is a place for a manuscript as PDF file compliant with appropriate Acrobat Distiller settings, but that ends, not begins, the process. I like to think I’m not putting the cart before the horse.

So why would I recommend ed for a wordsmith? I’d say it comes down to just enough computing resources to do the job. WYSIWYG word processors have a cost and intuitively I think there’s cerebral bus contention between flow of words onto the screen and keeping a handle on where the mouse arrow is (among other things).

But then perhaps I’ve a “less is more” bias (I have a car with nonpower steering — better road feel; I ride a fixed single-speed bike — ditto). That feeling is the sum of things there (and things left out). When I ride my fixie bike, it seems to know why I ride. Similarly, when I invoke ed, the text editor, it seems to know why I write. An illusion, sure, but also a harmony that goes with being responsible for all of it and staying focussed (without any distracting help balloons!).

One of Charlie Dickinson’s novels is available for download at cetus-editons.com.

Source: Word Processors — One Writer’s Further Retreat

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