Is WYSIWYG good for writing? Perhaps it’s time to ditch Word altogether.

Screenshot of VIM

Novelist and geek-hero Charlie Stross writes about the drawbacks of using what-you-see-is-what-you-get word processors to write novels:

  • Changing file formats
  • Proprietary file formats
  • WYSIWYG “conflates document content with presentation”
  • Heavily marked-up text isn’t suitable for use online
  • Word mixes inline and style-sheet formatting

His solution is (sometimes) to use hardcore programmer’s editing tools:

Given my general aversion to Word, you probably won’t be surprised to know that I prefer to use a programmer’s text editor and a simple macro-based language for formatting text. Back in the day, I wrote several novels using: Vim as my editor (vi keystrokes are hardwired into my fingertips — I’ve been using it since 1989), POD macros (Perl’s Plain Old Documentation format), a Makefile to generate up-to-date output formats such as RTF, PDF, and HTML from the podfiles, and rcs to track changes. (With an entire novel occupying a single file, rcs is more than adequate for the task.)

I used to like using More, a Mac outlining tool, to compose essays in college. Used properly, they help construct compelling arguments, in the style of Barbara Minto’s Pyramid Principle.

Screen shot of More

(Amazing to find that More is still available nearly 20 years later, albeit in an abandonware format. Another interesting discovery is that Dave Winer, ur-blogger, was a major contributor to the program.)

I’ve also tried, without much lasting success, to use distraction-free editors to write. Other people have more success with them but my problem is, after testing, that I can find plenty of other things to distract besides the familiar icons and desktop of my PC.

I use Word. But I’d love to find something better. What do you use to write?

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17 Responses to Is WYSIWYG good for writing? Perhaps it’s time to ditch Word altogether.

  1. Neil says:

    Hi Matthew. A subject close to my heart. After having one too many file crashes in Word, and failing to find a way of losing that annoying “ribbon”, or whatever it’s called, I now use the following set up:

    1/ Journalism and first drafts of any corporate work: I use”Pages” the Apple package, latest version. Solid, reliable. Lacks the “useful” grammar checker of Word, but I reckon by now I can check my own grammar, thanks. It does a similar function called “proofreader”, but I don’t use it.

    2/ Fiction: I need to get rid of all screen clutter, so after experimenting with “CopyWrite” I’ve opted for “Scrivener”. The only software product I own that seems to have been written with me in mind. Love it. “Pages” has the same brillilant “Full Screen” view, but “Scrivener” is great for managing bigger writing projects.

    3/ Corporate work: first drafts in “Pages” but for revision-marking I still need Word, unfortunately, so when I’m ready to shift files back and forth with clients, Word it is.

  2. Neil says:

    Just found out that Pages does have revision-marking. Not sure if it is 100% Word-friendly.

  3. I use Nisus Writer Pro for my commercial and fiction writing. It’s a trim little word processor that started out as a slightly beefed-up TextEdit (the default file format is RTF) but it is gradually evolving to incorporate more pro features. The developers are very responsive to suggestions and questions in the users’ forum. All it’s missing for me is the “reveal codes” feature of classic WordPerfect.

    I still need Word for documents with complex formatting, but for simple text-only documents they don’t mind (or notice!) getting them in RTF.

  4. Neil says:

    Ah, I didn’t realise you were on Windows. I’ve come across people who swear by these:

  5. Julien says:

    SciTE ( does the job for me. The best thing about it, it’s simple and heavily customisable. The worst thing? It is heavily customisable, though customising does not require programming skills in this case.

  6. I came clean about my love for programmer’s editors in an earlier post on my blog.

    Given that so much of what copywriters craft these days is headed directly to the Web, I’ve tumbled for the HTML-friendly editors (I’m a Linux guy, so Bluefish, gedit and [lately] Komodo Edit, two of which are cross-platform editors)

    I do use the clean-screen editors (Pyroom) when I’m writing longer, code-free pieces, but they lack so many basic features they’re really only composition tools – I almost always have to copy the text and paste it somewhere else.

    I’m in the process of writing a post about the “Ultimate” online writer’s word processor, and it would get written far more quickly if I found a text editor that worked when the power was out due to raging snowstorms.


    • With no power, we’re all back to pencil and paper. Although the Kindle has such a good battery life, I wonder if someone will come up with a Kindle-like wordpressor or an external keyboard for the Kindle. That would be cool.

  7. Jonathan says:

    I’ve been using yWriter by Spacejock software for about three months and find it to be quite helpful. As a PC user without access to Scrivener, yWriter is a nice alternative. It’s jam packed with features that are useful for writing novels – although you could use it for just about anything. Most importantly, it’s FREE.

  8. I wonder how everyone feels about the products that allow you to set targets, and write to those targets?

    I’ve been playing with Textroom (on Linux), and – for open-ended, long-term projects – I’m finding the “target” function (time or word count) useful for squeezing out an extra couple hundred words.

    This isn’t work stuff so much as the extra-curricular personal work that helps maintain balance (if not sanity).

    • Never really tried that myself – I always seem to have enough deadlines in my life anyway. But I do find Word’s word count feature very helpful and often use it to check progress towards the required length and also, by selecting paragraphs or blocks of text, to check that a particular section is the right length.

  9. Andrew says:

    I use a basic text editor (gEdit) and Tomboy Notes. Tomboy acts like a wiki with it’s linking system, allowing me to cross reference with ease.

    You don’t need elaborate software to write.

  10. Pst. Walter Ibe says:

    I am working on the ” Design of Efik Word Processing System” . Pls I need input on how to organize the literature review. Thanks

  11. Fred says:

    Nice article. I’ve been using TeX, pdflatex, and lyx for quite some time. It produces very nice output, mathematics, etc. As well as music scores through something called lilypond. Otherwise, there’s always LibreOffice or OpenOffice. Don’t like “finger painting” with Word though.


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