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10/9/2009
01:20 PM
Mitch Wagner
Mitch Wagner
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Bean, A Free Mac Word Processor That Does Less

Writing tools are intensely personal choices -- for some people. Most people make do with the corporate standard, Microsoft Word, and many are even happy with it. But some of us have to be different, we're unhappy with Word and seek productivity elsewhere.

Writing tools are intensely personal choices -- for some people. Most people make do with the corporate standard, Microsoft Word, and many are even happy with it. But some of us have to be different, we're unhappy with Word and seek productivity elsewhere.Cory Doctorow is one of those wanderers. Doctorow is a talented science fiction novelist and short story writer, and co-author of the blog Boing Boing. As a journalist, he's written for InformationWeek, our sister site, Internet Evolution, and elsewhere. He works fast, and needs tools that are built for speed. He's written about his work habits several times; he recommends the simplest possible writing tool: A text editor, with no formatting or other distractions.

Text editors are everywhere. They produce unformatted ASCII-standard text, which will be readable forever. A word-processor like Microsoft Word uses a fancy format that might become obsolete in a few years, turning your documents into gibberish.

For my professional writing, here at InformationWeek, I do the same thing as Cory. He's a Linux guy, and uses the built-in Linux gedit text editor; I use TextMate, a Mac text editor priced at €39, or $60 US.

But I also write fiction after hours, and for that, I find I really want to be able to do some light formatting. Not a lot, but I want to be able to underline text (which tells editors that text should be italicized in print). I also find I like to use boldface to mark key passages when taking notes, both for InformationWeek interviews and when doing background research for fiction.

I wrote my first novel (which I finished a couple of months ago), using Scrivener, a $39.95 tool specifically designed for writing long stretches of non-business prose: Novels, screenplays, and especially nonfiction books. It's project management software for writers, you can store your writing as well as research all in Scrivener.

Scrivener was very good for me, it helped me organize my thoughts and write every day. I finished that novel over the summer--or, rather, I put it aside until my first-readers can get back to me with comments and suggestions for revision.

But I ended up dissatisfied with Scrivener. It had too many features, too many distracting fiddly bits.

And, like Cory, I worry that the stuff I write will still be readable in decades to come. I might want to call up a document 10 or 25 years after I wrote it. At that time, Scrivener might not be around. I might not be using a Mac then. I might not even have access to a Mac. Ten years ago, I was running Windows 95. Twenty years ago I was using MS-DOS.

Scrivener stores its files in RTF format (more on that in a little bit), which is likely to be around a long, long time. But each section of a Scrivener project is a separate file, with the entire project stored as a special kind of Mac folder called a "bundle." Opening a Scrivener document without Scrivener is like being handed a stack of printed-out scenes in random order, without page numbers, and being told to assemble the scenes into chapters and then into a novel.

For my second novel, which I started in August, I went back to Microsoft Word for a little bit, but Word drives me crazy. It has far too many distracting features, and some of the keyboard shortcuts are non-standard for the Mac, which leads me to frustrating typos. For example, option-left-arrow and option-right-arrow on most Mac writing programs move the cursor forward or backwards a word at a time, and I use that keyboard shortcut frequently. But on Word, those shortcuts change the formatting of text. Likewise, Cmd-G on most Mac programs is the command for "search again"--but not on Word.

Also, I'm worried that Microsoft Word file formats might not be readable for the long term.

So I did a little Googling for alternatives to Word on the Mac. I looked into software that produces Rich Text Files (RTF). RTF is a document format developed by Microsoft in 1987 for exchanging documents between different word processors. It does everything I need it to do, including boldfacing and underlining text.

Anything that's been around as long as RTF is likely to stay around for the foreseeable future.

RTF files are plain text. If you open them in text editor, you see the text you wrote, along with a bunch of formatting commands that are easy to ignore. So even if RTF files become obsolete, the text is preserved, although it might be hard to reproduce the formatting.

TextEdit, a word processor that comes with the Mac, reads and writes RTF files, but I find TextEdit annoying. The screen formatting of documents is ugly, and I haven't figured out a way to customize it to my liking. Also, it doesn't do live word counts--I set myself a fiction-writing quota every day, and I need live word counts.

Most Mac word-processors are RTF-compatible, including Word. But I wanted the lightest possible word processor, the one that did the least. And eventually I found one I like: Bean.

Bean is a free, open-source word processor for the Mac. Unlike Word, Bean starts quickly. It does a little bit of text formatting (but not a lot). Bean does live word counts, it autosaves, and it's attractive onscreen, without a lot of menus and floating palettes and buttons. One favorite feature of mine: You can easily switch back and forth from the standard black letters on a white background, to white letters on a dark blue background, which I find gentle on the eyes.

Bean saves files in RTF, or in a related format called Rich Text Format Directory (RTFD). RTFD is a format for embedding images in RTF files, which I like to do when assembling image galleries; I can save images and notes on the images together in a single document. Unfortunately, RTFD files are, for now, only readable on Macs, but RTFD is comprised of RTF documents and images in a single bundle, so they'll be retrievable on other platforms. And I'm betting that RTFD files will be readable on Windows soon enough. Standards are often a trade-off like that--you trade present-day convenience for the possibility you'll have trouble accessing your file in the future.

With Bean, I now have the proper writing tool to launch my career as a novelist. Now, on to the relatively small detail of writing the books and getting them published.

By the way, I still recommend Scrivener, if you need the kind of structure it provides. It's developing a small but devoted following among writers. I reviewed Scrivener here.

Cory reveals his writing productivity secrets here: "Writing In The Age Of Distraction". Here's what he says about word-processors:

Kill your word-processor
Word, Google Office and OpenOffice all come with a bewildering array of typesetting and automation settings that you can play with forever. Forget it. All that stuff is distraction, and the last thing you want is your tool second-guessing you, "correcting" your spelling, criticizing your sentence structure, and so on. The programmers who wrote your word processor type all day long, every day, and they have the power to buy or acquire any tool they can imagine for entering text into a computer. They don't write their software with Word. They use a text-editor, like vi, Emacs, TextPad, BBEdit, Gedit, or any of a host of editors. These are some of the most venerable, reliable, powerful tools in the history of software (since they're at the core of all other software) and they have almost no distracting features - but they do have powerful search-and-replace functions. Best of all, the humble .txt file can be read by practically every application on your computer, can be pasted directly into an email, and can't transmit a virus.

I find that some of Cory's tips don't work for me: In particular, I've been writing with distractions for a long time now, and it's an unnatural act for me to focus on writing one thing, and only writing one thing, for an extended period. I research as I go, I take breaks to read e-mail and scan the Web, and somehow it all gets done.

Also, I tried his advice to leave a rough edge:

When you hit your daily word-goal, stop. Stop even if you're in the middle of a sentence. Especially if you're in the middle of a sentence. That way, when you sit down at the keyboard the next day, your first five or ten words are already ordained, so that you get a little push before you begin your work.

I tried that. I'd write: "She came through the door, her gun drawn, and". The next day, I'd come back to my writing and couldn't remember what I meant to say: "'And' what? 'And she shot everybody in the room'? 'And she tripped over the ottoman'? 'And she made herself a cup of coffee'?" So now I try to find a natural break-point, then stop, which has the pleasant side-effect that I'm almost always exceeding my fiction-writing quota every day, not just meeting it.

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