Has Microsoft Word affected the way we work?
Here’s a trick question: who’s produced the most books in the past 30 years? Answer: a guy called Charles Simonyi. Eh? Well, I said it was a trick question. Mr Simonyi, you see, is the chap who created Microsoft Word, which is the word-processing program used by perhaps 95% of all writers currently extant, and although Simonyi didn’t actually write any books himself, the tool he made has definitely affected the ways texts are created. As Marshall McLuhan was fond of saying, we shape our tools and afterwards they shape us.
I write with feeling on the matter. When I started in journalism, I wrote on a manual typewriter. After I’d composed a paragraph, I would look at it, scribble between the lines, cross out words, type some more before eventually tearing the page out of the machine and retyping the para on a fresh sheet. This would go on until my desk was engulfed in a rising tide of scrunched-up balls of paper.
So you can imagine my joy when Mr Simonyi’s program appeared. Suddenly, I could type away, backspace and delete and overwrite and revise as much as I liked. And no matter how much I hacked away at the draft, I always had a fresh-looking paragraph on which to build. The tide of scrunched-up paper sheets receded. And I could add formatting - italics, bold face type, justification, indentation and other features that began to mimic the appearance of “proper” printed text. Bliss!
And I was not alone. It turned out that millions of other writers and hacks were as disenchanted by the annoyances of typewriters as I was. So we went for Microsoft Word like ostriches go for brass doorknobs. And now everyone uses Word or one of its clones. We are all word processors now.
But we were - and remain - remarkably incurious about how our beloved new tool would shape the way we write. Consider first the name that the computer industry assigned to it: word processor. The obvious analogy is with the food processor, a motorised culinary device that reduces everything to undifferentiated mush. That may indeed have been the impact of Word et al on business communications, which have increasingly become assemblies of boilerplate cliches. But that’s not been the main impact of word processing on creative writing, which seems to me to be just as vibrant as it was in the age of the typewriter or the fountain pen.