Monday, January 07, 2008

Are Word Processors Creating Writer's Schlock?

Virginia Hefferman, writing in this week's New York Times Magazine in an article titled, An Interface of One’s Own, asks some serious questions. And these questions must be taken seriously by all educational institutions concerned about creative writing.
After lo this lifetime of servitude, I intend to break free. I seek a writing program that understands me. Goodbye to Word’s prim rulers, its officious yardsticks, its self-serious formatting toolbar with cryptic abbreviations (ComicSansMS?) and trinkety icons. Goodbye to glitches, bipolar paragraph breaks and 400 options for making overly colorful charts.

Goodbye, especially, to the mean, white and narrow page — which is hardly the intoxicating mental expanse Kerouac and Cather must have enjoyed. With Word, I always feel as if I’m taking an essay test.

So I have come to admire Steven Poole, author of books on video games and language, who trumpets a new radicalism on stevenpoole.net. He has purged his life of Word entirely, and he says he feels great. He had nothing to lose but his chains.

Our redeemer is Scrivener, the independently produced word-processing program of the aspiring novelist Keith Blount, a Londoner who taught himself code and graphic design and marketing, just to create a software that jibes with the way writers think. As its name makes plain, Scrivener takes our side; it roots for the writer and not for the final product — the stubborn Word. The happy, broad-minded, process-friendly Scrivener software encourages note-taking and outlining and restructuring and promises all the exhilaration of a productive desk: “a ring-binder, a scrapbook, a corkboard, an outliner and text editor all rolled into one.”

Ring, scrap and cork sound like fun, a Montessori playroom. But read on — and download the free trial — and being a Scrivener-empowered scrivener comes to seem like life’s greatest role. Scriveners, unlike Word-slaves, have florid psychologies, esoteric requirements and arcane desires. They’re artists. They’re historians. With needs. Scrivener is “aimed at writers of all kinds — novelists, journalists, academics, screenwriters, playwrights — who need to refer to various research documents and have access to different organizational tools whilst aiming to create a finished piece of text.”

That “whilst”! It alone makes me feel like writing.

Scrivener, then, is one of us, at home in the writer’s jumpy emotional and procedural universe. Consider its desktop icon. It greets you without Word’s back-slanted, subliterate “W” — speeding nervously to the finish line — but with an open-minded yin-yang adorned with quotation marks. Unlike so many twerpy little applications, the Scrivener icon eschews that ubiquitous Curaçao blue. Neither is it slightly rounded like some squishy teething toy. Instead, it shines and stands upright like a domino, which makes you think of a brisk “click” instead of a software “blurp.” It’s also black and white, like words on a page.

To create art, you need peace and quiet. Not only does Scrivener save like a maniac so you needn’t bother, you also get to drop the curtain on life’s prosaic demands with a feature that makes its users swoon: full screen. When you’re working on a Scrivener opus, you’re not surrounded by teetering stacks of Firefox windows showing old Google searches or Citibank reports of suspicious activity. Life’s daily cares slip into the shadows. What emerges instead is one pristine and welcoming scroll: Your clean and focused mind.

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