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. ----- BODY: 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 Nancy Price, 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 word processor. 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 their authors. 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 systems, writing with XML and creating custom solutions to their own problems, such as 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 novelists software 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. -----