Word Processors vs. Writing

Dr. Mac’s Rants & Raves
Episode #344

I find most (or at least many) people compose longer written prose in a word processor or page layout app such as Microsoft Word, Apple Pages, Adobe InDesign, or Quark Xpress.

As a writer, I believe that if you use a text editor instead of a word processor or page layout program, your writing will be better and more focused, and you’ll finish it sooner.

Photo by Lee Campbell on Unsplash
Photo by Lee Campbell on Unsplash

What’s Wrong with Word Processors?

In my not particularly humble opinion, word processors and page layout programs just provide too many distractions from the task at hand—getting words onto the page. I bear no ill will toward Word, Pages, or the others… They’re all excellent tools for making the words you’ve written look the way you want them to. But, here’s the thing: They’re overkill for writing, offering way too many rabbit holes that aren’t useful for composing words.

My theory is that when you focus on just writing words, without the distractions of specifying margins, typefaces, style sheets, and all those other features I’m sure you know and love. I know and love them too, but I find them of no use when I’m trying to get my the words out of my brain and onto a page.

I Use the Best Tool for the Process…

I prefer to separate the two tasks—writing and formatting—and use the best tool for each. Although I am required to submit most of my work as Microsoft Word files. (Fortunately for me, The Mac Observer doesn’t care what program I used to compose my column, as long as the copy doesn’t suck),

I rarely write a first (or second) draft in a word processor or page layout program. I find I finish much faster when I compose my columns and chapters in a plain-text editor. Only when they’re “final” or close to it do I copy and paste them into a Word document for formatting and prettifying.

A Modest Proposal

This may sound like a radical idea, but for me, it removes the temptation to spend even one second on formatting or prettifying. I know I complete my writing in much less time using a text editor than a word processor (where, no matter how I try, I’m always tinkering with margins, styles, fonts, lists, and spacing).

SO… I just remove all that from the equation when I write, using either BBEdit or Ulysses (which I wrote about here in February) before pasting them into a Word doc for final formatting and polish.

I know I’m in the minority here. Most people are accustomed to using a word processor for writing and don’t have a problem with it. But, for me, if those formatting options are available, no matter how I try to resist, it won’t be long before I’m tweaking margins, fonts, spacing, and such instead of writing.

Writing in plain text is a joy. No font menu, no paragraph styles, and no margins—just words. As you probably know, I’m easily distracted, so eliminating such distractions while I’m writing virtually guarantees I finish sooner. And, at least in my humble opinion, it usually guarantees that what I’ve written is tighter and more focused.

Try It—It’s Easy and Free

If you’ve never tried writing in a text editor to avoid distraction, you definitely should. It’s easy. BBEdit and Ulysses have free 30-day trials, and Bare Bones offers a feature-limited version of BBEdit that’s free (Ulysses requires a subscription after the trial period).

So, next time you write, try writing in a text editor instead of a word processor or page layout app. I know it works for me, big time.

You’ve got nothing to lose, and it could help you produce better work in less time!


Get BBEdit in the Mac App Store.

Get Ulysses in the Mac App Store

4 thoughts on “Word Processors vs. Writing

  • I do lots of writing at times. So my habits have led me to use nvALT as my go-to text editor. It has a very straight-forward labelling method for cataloguing my great works. And It’s supported on all of my Apple devices; by the same reason, I prefer Apple Notes for shopping lists. And for the scripts I create for TV, I must bow to and praise John August’s Highland. These apps are all text editors.

    1. I’ve heard good things about Highland… If I were going to write a script, I’d definitely try it. (But, there are no screenplays in my foreseeable future… just updates to three For Dummies books, two columns a week, and keeping my Working Smarter for Mac Users students happy.

      Thanks for sharing.

  • I remember reading a 1990s comparison of texts produced by users of Microsoft Word (for Windows) and WordPerfect (for DOS, apparently v5.x). The Word users would come up with the more appealing lay-out, the WordPerfect users would come up with the “better” content.

    I do have several “writer’s editors”, but I don’t use them. I write texts for my website in Google Docs (across mobile devices), then copy them to Windows Notepad, then paste them into a template in an obsolete web editor that happens to run under Windows. (Only now I notice the parallel: this web editor features the equivalent of WordPerfect’s “underwater screen”.)

    I remember buying BBEdit as a Mac equivalent, but this older Windows notebook is the only desktop I’m still using (less than monthly).

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