Back when we did everything on paper, I know that there was a risk that a page could be lost or accidentally destroyed, but usually you just had to be a bit organised. Starting a new document was easy, too, as it was just picking the next blank page. Finding an existing one could be hard, but only because everything looked the same: everything was on A4, everything in the same handwriting or typescript.
Contrast that with yesterday morning when I needed to find something I wrote last year.
On the Mac I’m using, I’ve just counted seven word processors – no, wait, you can write in Adobe InDesign; you wouldn’t and shouldn’t but you can and I have – call it eight word processors.
And then three, no tell another lie, four apps that are used for keeping notes. That’s twelve places to find something and yes, Macs are supposed to be able to let you quickly find anything in any app, but that only seems to work when you’re demonstrating it. Knowing a key word from what I was looking for did not find it.
To be fair, when I came across it by accident later, I found that I’d misremembered that key word and said word is actually nowhere in the document, but come on.
I think I quite miss the days between now and paper. The patch where you did write on computers – no, wait, I write a lot on an iPad, let’s add another dozen writing apps and I’ve just realised I forgot both Final Draft and Highland 2 – anyway.
I miss that brief period where whatever you wrote, you turned to the same word processor. My memory’s faulty here because that word processor changed. But at least it changed every couple of years, not every minute as I pick one best suited to whatever I’m writing.
WordStar may have been the first, though I’m sure I’ve also seen that in a museum and I refuse to believe my own age. Then there was definitely WordPerfect because I wrote computer manuals for a firm and they – yes! They used WordStar until one Monday morning when that was replaced by WordPerfect. I remember finding WordPerfect so easy to use that I shrugged and carried on with the day’s work.
Then I liked it enough that I would leave that job and spend the rest of the day carrying on at home with the evening’s writing.
Around that time I must’ve started writing for technology magazines because I remember the day the WordPerfect Corporation sent me a pallet-full of software. WordPerfect for every conceivable type of computer available at the time.
And then that computer manual firm switched overnight to Microsoft Word and I got my first grey hair.
What I can’t recall is when automatically turning to Word to write anything, and then looking up manuals and online help to recover what Word lost, turned into the grab-bag, free-for-all, use-anything that we have today.
I know it was probably around 2010 because Microsoft famously believed it could kill the iPad by refusing to put Word on it. When people had to look for alternative word processors for their iPads, they found them. And having found them, they started using them on Macs and PCs too. I’m quite serious: you can chart the fall of Word from its 99% marketshare, or whatever it was, to today when it can only dream of ubiquity the way we dream of it not crashing.
Word is now on the iPad and actually it’s very good, but we’ve long since left home.
Just as we used to pick our blank paper stock carefully – okay, we wanted 80 to 120gsm stock but the office stationery cupboard only had lighter photocopying paper and we were cheap – so picking software matters. Maybe it’s less like the paper and more like the pen: it genuinely used to be a thing that writers were asked what pen or pencil they used. It genuinely used to be a thing where you could muse about 2B or not 2B and anybody would know what you meant.
It matters how these things feel. I can’t explain why writing in Word feels like treacle and writing in Drafts, a Mac and iOS app, feels fast. I can no more explain why I relish Drafts on my iPad and iPhone than I can comprehend how I only mostly like it on my Mac.
Like every other one of the however many writing tools I turn to, Drafts does various things that are helpful and that none of the rest do. For instance, I write to you via my website and that means posting the text in a WordPress site, then getting a short link to it, mentioning it on Facebook and Twitter. With Drafts, I write here on my Mac, then turn to it on my iPhone and the text is there, waiting for me to press a button that does all the posting and social media stuff.
That button probably saves me ten minutes each Friday morning and that’s ten minutes more that we get to spend chatting. It’s practically relaxed now. Can I get you a coffee?
Drafts has its benefits like that. All writing apps have their different benefits. But what’s crucial to me is that they also all have their feel.
And I have yet to find just the one writing tool that feels right to me for everything. I’ve yet to find one where I am solely focused on what I’m writing, not the tool I’m using to do it.
I have just this instant remembered yet another writing tool I have on all my devices and it’s one that I did write everything, absolutely everything in for at least six months last year. I wrote most of a book in it and I forgot it.
Right, that’s it, I give up. I must have blank paper somewhere, where are my pens?