Simple tools: file corruption

This article is a continuation of the earlier post, In praise of simple tools.

Software tools form ecosystems unto themselves – writing tools included – but if you are a creative writer, your software ecosystem is a hostile one that threatens to eat your young, deplete your food sources and scare away your brood mares. It hates you.

Why? Because your needs are too simple.

When it comes to necessary features, most creative writers don’t need much more than load, save, bold, italic, and print – at least, not for the bulk of the writing process. Most of us don’t need fancy graphics, justification, bullets, footnoting, etc. Layout isn’t our job – that’s what designers and production people are for. These simple needs were probably met by version 1.0 of every word processor on the market – and this means that from the perspective of the people who are trying to sell writing tools, we’re kind of boring.

So for the most part, the vendors ignore us to go off in search of needier prey customers: business writers, technical writers, lawyers, etc. Now those guys have needs. Envelope printing, database integration, embedded retinal scan data, etc. And the they have other ways to find needy markets, too. Do you think Word 1.0 users could write in Urdu? When the Japanese Bone-Implant Transfer Technology goes live, do you think Japanese engineers will want to be able to display their J-BITT data in their documents?

As software vendors pursue these other markets, the software itself needs to grow to be able to handle these new features. File formats get larger and more complicated. Menus get more cluttered, more intrusive, and more difficult to navigate. Processing times get longer as the application spends more time repeatedly guessing about whether you’re about to enter an Urdu quote or insert a J-BITT file.

And where are you, with your load, save, bold, italic and print mentality? Right back where you were at the beginning, probably – working hard in version 1.0 and getting on with your life.

But then one of your stories gets accepted to Field & Ditch Magazine,  and the editor sends it back to you, marked up in a version 8.9 file. Since you’re running 1.0, you can’t even open it. So, grudgingly, you go buy the upgrade, install it, and load the marked up story file to work on the suggested changes. When you save it out, you notice that your old 1.0 file (that used to be just 14,318 bytes long), has now been saved in the new 8.9 format and it’s 3,812,143 bytes. It’s the same content – only a few words or sentences have been changed here and there – but the file is almost 200 times larger. What’s up with that?

Well, that’s what happens when feature sets evolve – they increase the demand for storage space. And processor space. And screen real-estate. Repeat ad infinitum. Meanwhile, creative writers like you and I get nickle-and-dimed to death by the slowly eroding responsiveness of our tools, as features are added that we don’t need.

So what if I told you that there is one class of writing tools that have been around for over forty years without ever having a file format change? What if I also told you that the files they store are in plain text, so even if the program strangles itself with loops of its own programming intestines, you can always just open it in another program without losing any data at all? And then what if I told you that the programs were free?

Would you be interested?

That’s where the text-only editors come in. They are lightweight, they are fast, and you will never, ever be forced to upgrade them just because somebody, somewhere starts taking a night class in Urdu.

If you write for a living, I strongly urge you to consider doing 95% of your writing in one of these work horses.  To get you started, have a look at these fine choice: Notepad++ (for Windows users), Text Wrangler (for Mac) or GEdit (for Linux). Save your whiz-bang turbo-charged word processing layout tools for your polish phase; your Sunday-going-to-meeting-with-a-publisher phase.

You’ll be surprised how much more work you get done, and how much less time you spend struggling with your tools.

Sanderson's Principle of Limitations
Apple's iBooks Author may have a deadly hidden sting

About the author

Jefferson Smith is a Canadian fantasy author, as well as the founder, chief editor and resident proctologist of ImmerseOrDie. With a PhD in Computer Science and Creativity Systems compounded by a life spent exploring most art forms for fun and profit, he is underqualified in just about everything. That's why he writes.