The ultimate word processor

The ultimate writing software should let you:

  • go back to any previous version of any part of the text.
  • keep different versions of the same part of the text, and easily switch between them.
  • focus on content and structure.
  • write any type of text meant for humans.
  • export to any format imaginable.
  • collaborate with other people.

In May 2004, Adam C. Engst wrote about WriteRight: The Writer’s Word Processor where he laid out his idea of the perfect word processor. Over 6 1/2 years later there is still no such thing. Scrivener is a major leap forward but I feel it is still lacking in some areas, so here I have outlined my own ideas for the perfect writing software. Unfortunately all the good names are taken. The mediocre ones too. So I give you:

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Even better UI: Scrivener

Continuing from last week’s ideas for Scrivener‘s corkboard, here are some suggestions for the rest of the application.

Preview when configuring a compile

When it’s time to get my writings out of Scrivener, there will often be a lot of back and forth to get the output just the way I want it. It would save a lot of time if there was an instant preview when configuring the compile settings.

Link to media files

If I drag a movie into the Research folder the entire file is moved into the project. This makes the project file way too big, so instead I create aliases of movies and import them. This works fine, but I lose the ability to play the movie inside Scrivener. It would be nice to have the option to link to media files instead of importing them. I know you can link to files in “Document References”, but then they are hidden away somewhere in the Inspector and easily forgotten.

Export files by drag & drop

I have collected a lot of PDF files in the Research folder, but if I drag them out of Scrivener and onto the desktop nothing happens. I can export using File – Export – Files…, but dragging is quicker and more intuitive.

Automatic syncing

When I open a project that has been synchronised with a folder and there are changes in that folder, Scrivener very helpfully informs me of this and asks if I want to synchronise the changes back into the project. But if I make changes in Scrivener and then close the project without synchronising with the folder first, which I often do, nothing happens. It would make for a better workflow if the synchronisation occurred automatically when opening and closing the project.

Enforce format

This is just nitpicking really, but there could be an option to enforce one text format for a document. That way I can forget about how the text looks and focus on the content. All this boils down to is make “Paste and Match Style” the default action when pasting and dragging text.

Even better UI: Scrivener – The Corkboard

Scrivener is an excellent application and the closest anything has come to a great word processor (as opposed to a page layout application, which is what most word processors really are). Fiction and non-fiction writers alike love it, and I fully recommend it for writing anything longer than a blog post. But it’s so full of functionality and customisation options that it can be a bit unintuitive at times. So here are a few ideas for improvements.

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Auto-saving in OS X

As I mentioned a week ago, I have a strong dislike for the “Save” dialogue boxes that pop up every time you close a document. It seems someone at Apple, and by someone I mean you–know–who, agrees with me. The next version of Mac OS X will include auto-saving and applications will automatically resume where they were when they closed.

In other words; just like on the iPhone. This looks very promising, as long as they still let the rest of us organise our own work in whatever way we want. The iPhone way of having each document exist “inside” the application that created it works fine for casual use, but for any project or task that requires the use of more than one application it is very restricting. We need to be able to keep different types of files that belong together in the same place.

I’m not quite sure how this is going to work though. So lets say you open TextEdit for the first time. An empty document appears. You type some text, move and resize the window, and close the application. Without being asked any questions about saving, name or location. Later you open TextEdit again, and it opens exactly the way it was when you closed it, with the window in the same position and the same size, and the same text inside it. This is as it always should have been.

But then you close the document. Then what? Does the application close too now that there are no documents open? And where can you find the document again? Will all applications come with their own built-in libraries?

If you want to move the document while it’s still open I guess you can select “Move to…” from the “File” menu. Which will have plenty of free space now that the “Save” and “Save as…” items are gone.

Seeing as many (most?) casual computer users don’t really understand the concept of files and folders I hope Apple succeeds in bringing some of the simplicity and usability of the iPhone platform over to the Mac, but without sacrificing the flexibility that easy access to the filesystem provides for the rest of us.

Dumbest question ever

Some survey once showed that the dumbest question known to mankind is “Are you sleeping?” I don’t get it. That seems like a perfectly valid question. If you get no answer it means “yes” and if you get any answer at all it means “no”. Couldn’t be simpler.

No the dumbest question ever must surely be this one:

It is also probably the one question computer users are asked most often. I feel this most pointless of all questions can only be properly answered like this (click to enlarge):

I recently started using Scrivener, and it is intelligent enough to just assume that you want to keep your changes when you close a document; it automatically saves while you’re working on it. It also assumes that you are intelligent enough to use the “undo” command if you have made changes you don’t want to keep. I wish more applications would have this kind of confidence in its users.