TITLE: Software for Writers
AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford
DATE: June 21, 2005 8:59 AM
DESC: A fine lunch led to an engaging conversation with a different sort of computer user, the novelist.
Friday was my wife's and my 16th wedding anniversary.
To celebrate, we went out for lunch prepared by a
well-known local chef, put on at the
Waterloo Center for the Arts.
We had the pleasure of dining with Cedar Falls author
her daughter, and her son-in-law. Ms. Price is most
famous for her novel Sleeping with the Enemy,
which was made into a
major motion picture
starring Julia Roberts. Her father, Malcolm Price,
was president of my university back in the 1940s.
As is often the case, when these folks found out that
I am a computer scientist, they eagerly shared their
views on how programs help and hinder them in their
jobs. All three have plenty of experience with
computers, though as relatively non-technical users.
The daughter and son-in-law hold Ph.D.s and write
as a part of their jobs. The son-in-law, a botanist,
claims to have been the first person in his department
at Cal-Berkeley to produce his dissertation using a
Ms. Price herself writes, and so her computer is a big
part of her professional life. She wasn't shy in telling
me that, in her experience, software still doesn't support
her work very well. "Available programs just don't do
a very good job helping an author work with a four- or
five-hundred page document."
The ensuing conversation led me to several questions.
What programs do authors use these days? Microsoft
Word is the de facto standard, I suppose, as it seems
to be the de facto word-processing standard everywhere
these days. As a faculty member, I have long tilted at
windmills in an attempt to eliminate the Word .doc as the
standard interchange format. I have heard from colleagues
who've written books using Word, and they tell stories of
annoying little quirks. But these days many publishers
seem to be using Word, at least as the interface with
I wasn't much help to my lunch partners in this regard,
as I hang with a technical crowd that likes to get their
hands dirty when writing. I wrote my dissertation using
WordPerfect, and I did have to fight the system on issues
such as pagination and figure placement. Some still use
Framemaker, though that seems to be losing mindshare. The
academic standard has long been LaTex, which has the author
write at the lowest level in plain text. These days,
software folks are as likely to roll their own authoring
writing with XML
and creating custom solutions to their own problems,
writing source code in text.
But that isn't an option for most writers, who just want
a program that lets them do what comes naturally.
What should a novelist's workbench look like? What should
it do? Googling on
brings up lots and lots of tools, mostly for Windows.
I don't have any good sense for what, if anything, these
programs offer an author that a standard word processor
doesn't have. When I examine my own writing needs, I
usually end up thinking about technical problems such
as source code in text that have no meaning to a poet
or novelist. I guess I should find a project working
with a writer to produce such a program -- that's always
the best way for me to learn about the needs of a domain,
by writing programs for the experts.
Who would produce such a product? Ms. Price offered an
answer, based only on an anecdote from a writing colleague.
She said that he had spent some time working with a
software company in an effort to find out why there
weren't better programs for writers out there. He had
reported back, she related with a playful smile, that the
programs were only mediocre because there was no money to
be made -- authors simply weren't a big enough or rich
enough market to drive a software niche.
This is the sort of cynical attitude that we software
folks often encounter when we talk to users out in the
world. I think it should bother us more than it sometimes
does. Why are we willing, if not content, to let people
think that we are unwilling or incapable of meeting the
needs of users?
Actually, a program for writers seems like the perfect
sort of task for a small, specialty software house. My
Google link earlier certainly indicates that a lot of
small developers are in play. I doubt that the market
could support an expensive program, but the right product
might be able to attract enough volume to be lucrative
enough. I don't imagine that this program would be a
huge technical challenge to a software developer, which
would leave plenty of energy for adapting the program and
creating a wonderful interface.
One last note from lunch. Our dining partners expressed
great surprise that I, a computer scientist, am a Mac user.
"I didn't figure they'd let you use a Mac in a CS department,"
the botanist said. I explained that I've been a Mac man
since graduate school in the 1980s, though I've also been
a Unix user for just as long. Now that Mac OS is a Unix,
I explained, my tools are quite in vogue. "Even the Linux
geeks will talk to me now!" If I'd had more time and an
inclination to ramble on, I'd've told them how so many
high profile folks in the software world use Macs these
days. But they didn't seem to be sold on the virtues of
a Mac, and lunch time was winding down.
I enjoyed our lunch and conversation and was reminded
that we computer scientists and software developers
can find interesting questions almost everywhere we
go, just by talking to users of the programs we write.