Gmail is not a word processor

I was bewildered by Vic Keegan’s article on gmail as a word processor; I should have been illuminated. It shows how many journalists still use a computer as a typewriter with fancy formatting.

He wants a fast and lightweight program with which to process words. Don’t we all? Word is too big for him, and OOo too nerdy. The plain text editors, he’s heard of aren’t powerful enough. ”I’ve tried a few free ‘memo pads’ but they are primitive as they do not want to provide competition for paid-for alternatives”

So now he writes his articles as gmail messages, because it has the “word processing” features that he needs —

“seven fonts and four type sizes (including huge) plus colour, bold, italic, indenting, justification and quite a good spell checker.
It also has a link button of the kind you get on blogs, which inserts a hypertext link to a website behind a word you have highlighted without the need to type in any code. The only thing it seriously lacks is a word counter.”

Absolutely none of these, except a word count and, perhaps, for a link button, would be on my list of essential text editing functions. My lightweight word processor needs only have:

  • movement by word, sentence and paragraph
  • deletion by the same units, forward and backward
  • a function to cycle through upper, lower, and title case
  • the ability to transpose the two characters either side of the cursor
  • drag and drop cutting and pasting
  • word count
  • spell chicking
  • autosave
  • a format that can be indexed for fast later searching in old articles.

The spell checker is optional, though readers may disagree. I don’t care about fonts, colour, indenting, or any of the other presentational goodies that Keegan lists. If they are there, I will play with them. But, providing there is one legible font on the list, Keegan’s choices are no use in helping me get the proper words into their proper order.

I don’t think I have every found a program with all those powers straight out of the box,1 but everything I have written with since Protext on the Atari ST has has been tweaked to do most of them. Even the wordstar clone with which I wrote the police book on an Amstrad PCW twenty years ago did everything on my list but use a mouse.

Typewriters won’t do any of those things, though a fast-moving pencil does all of them quicker than anything else especially if it is about four inches long and well chewed at the blunt end.

All that word processing really adds over text editing is some kind of outlining, and collaborative editing with notes. Most journalists never use any of these things, nor anything on my list above except for spell checking. They do all their improvements by leaning on the backspace key – when they must collaborate to revise something, they mark inserts in CAPITAL LETTERS, not notes; or, if they’re feeling greatly daring, bold. All that is done by hand, slowly and painfully. Then they complain their word processors are too bloated.

I’d really like to have one lightweight editor for everything, that would have my minimal capacities and not much else; it would let me write articles, books, blog entries, letters, emails, and notes all in the same interface, without any cutting and pasting needed to “publish” them. There would simply be a row of icons up the top, allowing me to choose how I want my words saved.

1 cable modem.

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12 Responses to Gmail is not a word processor

  1. Flotsam says:

    It’s a pretty clueless article indeed. I’m a plain text kind-of-bloke and have used many text editors over the years.

    My current favourite is the open source Notepad++. All the capability I need for both writing and coding and none of the ones I don’t. Extras features are via plugins. It runs happily on humble hardware and even from a USB key so it comes with me on my travels. What this and all the other text editors have over Gmail is that I don’t have to be online to use it.

    Lastly, I’m not a journo but I’d have thought that the production people at a paper would baulk at documents with obscure formatting.

  2. acb says:

    It’s another Scite version, really, isn’t it? They’re too much biased towards programmers to suit writing English prose.1 On the other hand, it does have the most “delightful”: advertising icon I think I have ever seen. Go on — click away. It’s an animated chameleon.

    1 thinks: maybe if someone were to write an “English prose” API file, programmers would finally get the idea that sentences are meaningful syntactic units in prose

  3. I know Emacs isn’t what you’re looking for, but for some reason I don’t know why. (I write all my code and all my serious prose in Emacs. C-u 1000 M-x all-hail-emacs !)

  4. qB says:

    All the features you mention, plus two others for radio:
    1) a “time” counter display showing how long the text would take being read (with adjustable word-per-second rates)
    2) a way of marking text which is not to be included in the time counting.

  5. Robert Nowell says:

    Spell chicking? Cluck, cluck.

  6. Flotsam says:

    Yes, Andrew, it’s another Scite (or another TextPad, XINT, NoteTab, Crimson, EditPad, etc.) but none of them have an associated chameleon. All good apps must have a pet lizard; just ask any Mozilla fanboy.

    If you want to have a play with a text editor that is aimed at writers then look at CopyWriter. I auditioned it a couple of years back but gave up on it as there was no obvious lizard connection.

    Talking of shortcomings, I just wrote this post in Scite and had forgotten about the wacky visual formatting it applies to codey words such as “and” or “this” or “or” even. Now I remember why I don’t edit text in it.

    Pip, pip.

  7. jim says:

    The canonical form is “spill chicken”. As in “Don’t rely solely on your spill chicken.”

    I’m with Des. Emacs does almost everything you ask for in that list. It can’t, of course, be described as lightweight.

    I use emacs for initial writing. When I want to just get the stuff down roughly in the right order: first thoughts. Then I transfer to Word (new blank document, insert file, save as) for editing and formatting. The original emacs file gets archived.

    I’m always struck by the idiosyncrasies of computer use. I once had a boss who did everything in powerpoint. I’ve had a colleague who created briefing charts in excel. And no two people seem to write using the same technique.

  8. Michael says:

    This thread is a perfect illustration of why there are bloated word processors. The groups of people who want the same function set are not large enough to economically support an otherwise light weight application. If I’m lucky I’ll find one with my feature set, but it will be a labor of love by some like-minded scribbler/programmer.

  9. acb says:

    Friherrn von Bladet: I once read an essay by Neal Stephenson in whch he explained that emacs was the only thing a serious writer needed. So I downloaded a copy for Windows. It took me two hours to discover the commant for word wrap (I think it’s “fill-format-char” but it might be something obscure) and only then did I notice that it deosn’t print at all on Windows. Not at all. But if I am ever stuck on a desert island with a linux box and no immediate means of suicide I’m sure I will pass the time I might have spent writing, or escaping, customising emacs.

    qB — you’re a mac person. I hear good things of mellel there. The extra bits you want could also probably be programmed into emacs, if you had a desert island handy.

    In general, I can make Openoffice do all the things on my list,and, given a value of words per
    minute, could fiddle the word count in about an hour to give the kind of timings you want. I already have a version that only counts words in my script links and not in the bands1 — but no one could call OOo lightweight or fast.

    1 bands are the pre-recorded bits of a radio programme.

  10. David Dawson says:

    Andrew —

    What you have described as your ideal processor meets my standards perfectly. And it used to exist in almost exactly the form you describe. The program was called XyWrite. I’m almost certain that it had some close familial tie with ATEX, the newsroom word processing program that was first adopted by newspapers when computers began replacing typewriters.

    The movement and deletion by word, sentence, or paragraph became a part of any user’s preconscious mind, just as touch typing or comma placement sometimes does. And the output was an ASCII text file capable indexing, taking up little room on a hard drive, and readable by any word processor on any platform.

    Windows put it out of business.

    As a Mac user (now that I am working at home) I can comment on Mellel, which I use quite a lot of the time. It is just great, but has a few significant shortcomings. It uses a proprietary format to save in, one not easily translated or converted. And the lastest incarnation, as of last week, has entered the fray as a potential page layout program. Yep, feature creep is beginning to make it ponderous.

    Like many who have commented, I’m still looking for the ideal WP program for Mac. It may just be TextEdit, the free editor Apple encloses with the computer. If only it were a little more substantial — word count, for instance, is missing — I would use nothing else.

  11. acb says:

    I worked on Atex for about three years, but it was mouseless, which meant that I never really go the point of Xywrite. Pressing shift-supershift-F3 or whatever to select a sentence was just too complicated. Also, you could only have one story, or screen buffer, at a time, which seemed very limited. I had just discovered split screens, with the notes on one side and the finished story on the other.

    The moral is clear. Whatever the market for writing software may be, it’s not made of writers.

  12. Nick says:

    My Notepad++ idiosyncrasies include, white text on black background.

    Maybe if the chameleon were a journalist – rather than a lizard – I might like it more than I do currently.

    Don’t cry over spilled chicken blood – which is merely the result of the lack of a quick logic check at the end. Their there they’re now, just as important is a quick article check(yea, I know). Our minds are still very useful in the realm of rough information.

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