Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Gravity’s word processor

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The Scythian

In this week’s issue of the New York Review of Books, the literary critic Edward Mendelson outs himself as yet another fan of old-school word processors, in this case WordPerfect, which he describes as “the instrument best suited to the way I think when I write.” He goes on to draw a contrast between his favored program, “a mediocrity that’s almost always right,” and Microsoft Word, “a work of genius that’s almost always wrong as an instrument for writing prose,” with its commitment to a platonic ideal of sections and styles that make it all the harder for writers to format a single page. It’s the difference, Mendelson implies, between a mindset that approaches the document from the top down, thinking in terms of templates and overall consistency, and the daily experience of a writer, who engages in direct combat with individual words and sentences, some of which have to be italicized, indented, or otherwise massaged in ways that don’t have anything to do with their neighbors. And as someone who lives comfortably within his own little slice of Word but wants to tear his hair out whenever he strays beyond it, I can’t help but sympathize.   

I happened to read Mendelson’s essay with particular interest, because I’m a longtime fan of his work. Mindful Pleasures, the collection of essays he edited on Thomas Pynchon, is one of those books I revisit every few years, and in particular, his piece on encyclopedic fiction has shaped the way I read authors from Dante to Joyce. Pynchon, of course, is a writer with more than a few ideas about how technology affects the way we live and think, and in his conclusion, Mendelson takes a cue from the master:

When I work in Word, for all its luxuriant menus and dazzling prowess, I can’t escape a faint sense of having entered a closed, rule-bound society. When I write in WordPerfect, with all its scruffy, low-tech simplicity, the world seems more open, a place where endings can’t be predicted, where freedom might be real.

There’s more than an echo here of Gravity’s Rainbow, which pits its anarchic, cartoonish personalities against an impersonal conspiracy that finally consumes and assimilates them. And if Pynchon’s fantasy is centered on a rocket cartel that manipulates world events to its own advantage, a writer trying to wrestle a document into shape can sometimes feel like he’s up against an equally faceless enemy.


If Word can be a frustrating tool for writers, it’s because it wasn’t made for anyone in particular, but for “everyone.” As one of the core handful of programs included in the Microsoft Office suite, it’s meant to serve a wide range of functions, from hammering out a high school essay to formatting a rudimentary corporate newsletter. It’s intended to be equally useful to someone who creates a document twice a month and someone who uses it every day, which means that it’s tailored to the needs of precisely nobody. And it was presumably implemented by coders who would rebel against any similar imposition. There’s a reason why so many programmers still live in Emacs and its text-based brethren: they’re simple once you get to know them, they’re deeply customizable, and they let you keep your hands on the keyboard for extended periods of time. Word, by contrast, seems to have been designed for a hypothetical consumer who would rather follow a template than fiddle with each line by hand. This may be true of most casual users, but it’s generally not true of coders—or writers. And Word, like so much other contemporary technology, offers countless options but very little choice.

There are times, obviously, when a standard template can be useful, especially when you’re putting together something like an academic bibliography. Yet there’s a world of difference between really understanding bibliographic style from the inside and trusting blindly to the software, which always needs to be checked by hand, anyway, to catch the errors that inevitably creep in. In the end, though, Word wasn’t made for me; it was made for users who see a word processor as an occasional tool, rather than the environment in which they spend most of their lives. For the rest of us, there are either specialized programs, like Scrivener, or the sliver of Word we’ve managed to colonize. In my post on George R.R. Martin and his use of WordStar—which, somewhat embarrassingly, has turned out to be the most widely read thing I’ve ever written—I note that a writer’s choice of tools is largely determined by habit. I’ve been using Word for two decades, and the first drafts of all my stories are formatted in exactly the way the program imposes, in single-spaced 12-point Times New Roman. I’m so used to how it looks that it fades into invisibility, which is exactly how it should be. The constraints it imposes are still there, but I’ve adapted so I can take them for granted, like a deep-sea fish that would explode if taken closer to the surface, or an animal that has learned to live with gravity.

Written by nevalalee

October 22, 2014 at 9:38 am

2 Responses

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  1. First thing I ever sold was written in 1991 using DisplayWrite3 1.10, a pretty unexceptional IBM product from about 1986. Word for Windows was in its adumbral phase in those days, WordPerfect 5.1 dominated on DOS machines and Microsoft was in the process of misleading WordPerfect corporation over the Windows API (and selecting key bindings that would interfere with WP users muscle memory) in order to get people to buy Word (which worked).

    At is a review of DW4. I still find myself using the keystrokes from it, I suspect just because it was the first word processing tool I ever really learned. That means that when I use anything else, I have an extra layer separating me from the program. No matter how lousy in retrospect, your first is always your first… Habit, as you say. The fact that it gave you a simple green on black screen that was incredibly easy on the eyes was not, I think, a bad thing, and some modern programs like WriteRoom, WordGrinder and DarkRoom (review at are essentially recreating the same feel. The key qualities are:

    (1) You don’t have many formatting options available. For a draft of a story I like centring (for section breaks) and some form of emphasis (DW3 actually lacked italic — it had underlines and bold (and bold underline) only! And anyway on screen all the program did was change the text to blue). But that is about it — any more complex formatting can usually be done once the drafting is finished. Of course some typographically complex works can’t easily be done this way.

    (2) For what formatting is available, you don’t need to use a mouse, just a few keystrokes. Your hands stay around the keyboard.

    (3) The screen is easy on the eye — green on black (like an old XT monochrome screen) or the white on blue of WordPerfect 5.1 and similar. The font is large and easy to read — this is going to be VERY subjective. For us old DOS users, the simple VGA-style fonts on these old programs is invisible (like the word ‘said’), not so for you young people.

    (4) The basic copy/paste/search/replace, again using keystrokes. This was very simply implemented in DW3 and I still recall the keystrokes: F4, C(ut), M(ove) or D(elete), block in text, Enter to copy/cut/delete, move cursor, Enter to paste/move.

    I think you are right, we tend to adapt to the constraints of the tools we are given (or find) especially when they arrive early in our learning, and the constraints can become strengths in our eyes. Which I guess they are — for us!


    October 23, 2014 at 11:08 pm

  2. Sometimes I think I’d prefer a word processor that limited the forms of emphasis you can use: I’ve tried to cut down on italics and other formatting tricks in my own work anyway. And I like how you use the word “invisible” to describe the experience—just about everything I do in Word is designed to make the physical properties of the page as invisible as possible, although the details of what this means will vary dramatically from user to user. (I can’t write anything in a Word doc that isn’t justified, for instance, although I know a lot of readers find this distracting.)


    October 27, 2014 at 9:02 pm

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