Friday, March 08, 2013

The most successful thing I've ever written

You probably know about this but you definitely shouldn't have to: there are these things called smart quotes and dumb quotes. If you think a smart quote is -
Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.
and that a dumb quote is -
I can haz cheeseburger
then that's the way it should be.

But because Microsoft wants you know how very, very clever it is, there is unfortunately more to it and back in 2000, it irritated me the way it irritated a lot of people. When you handwrite out a line, you automatically begin and end a quote with quotation marks that look like 66 and 99. You do this because you're normal. When you write on a Mac, you tap the one quotation mark key but it knows when you mean 66 and it knows when you mean 99, because it would, because that's what it should do.

Windows does it as well but, god, it makes such a fuss. If it could've done, 66 would've been patented as the Microsoft 66 Quotation Mark Extended Pro for Windows and the 99 would've been in a Windows Value Pack, sold separately.

As you typed away in Microsoft Word for Windows, it would scamper along chucking red underlines for spelling, green for grammar and letting you see two straight quote lines for just long enough that you notice Word changing them to 66 and 99. They're just quote marks, the whole smart thing was only in the whizzy changing them and you could let Microsoft have its fun, except that I used to write text in Word that would eventually go onto a website that wouldn't recognise these smart quotes.

It could, it could display the 66 and 99, but it had no clue what Word was on about. Same with the 6 and 9 of single quote marks. And apostrophes. For similar reasons, it was a right bugger writing a pound sign and to this day you will see "pounds Sterling" written out in full in online archives rather than "£". Just because Word fiddles.

You could switch off a lot of this junk but then every letter you wrote would have straight quotes instead of 66 and 99 and somehow you didn't feel like using a thousand quids' worth of PC hardware and several hundred pounds of Microsoft Word in order to produce documents that looked worse than your old typewriter.

So instead you'd write what you were writing and when you were done, you'd schlep through doing a search and replace changing 6 and 66 to straight quote marks. Then with 9 and 99. Because Word called the curly quotes smart, the straight ones became known as dumb.

And I got so tired of doing this at the end of every article.

Consequently, one of the most useful things I've managed and easily the most successful piece of writing I've ever done is not a book or a drama or an article but a macro. I wrote a Word macro that just did all of these searches-and-replaces for you. It's no different to doing them yourself, except when you'd written them down once, Word would do them all, in sequence. Finish writing an article, run the macro, watch it make the changes for you.

Since I was changing smart quotes into dumb ones that the website could handle, I thought it was making the smart ones a bit thick. So I called it Thickify. 

I added Thickify to a button in Word and probably used it a thousand times.

But the success came because someone saw it and wanted to borrow it. Then they used it a thousand times. And so did others. And others. And others.

Thickify spread throughout patches of BBC Worldwide. I never knew how widespread it got but friends would tell me with amusement that they'd be in meetings in other offices where someone would say "make sure you Thickify that text" and nobody else there had ever heard my name. I also heard from friends who'd moved to other companies and taken it with them. 

And then I met someone in BBC Worldwide who demanded it be installed for her and was livid that it wasn't already on her copy of Word. She complained to IT: didn't we know she had a website to run? How could she be expected to handle copy for freelancers if she couldn't Thickify it?

Today I do see that it was flattering: she believed my macro was a function of Microsoft Word and that its absence was not that she needed a favour having it installed, but that Word had gone wrong without it. 

But that day I wanted to walk away and leave her to it: Thickify was something I wrote to help and it helped a lot, but she somehow managed to berate and to blank me. 

That was years ago and it's some years since any form of Thickify was needed but I still think of it every time I see someone bitching on the App Store that an app they'll use every day costs a whole 69p. There are people who pirate 69p apps. Professional reviewers now list a price of, say, £1.19, as being a reason not to buy. And if you have paid your 69p, there are then people who think app developers are somehow raking it in and should make gigantic updates for free. 

I think people forget that people write these things.

I spend my life now in other people's apps. My most-used is OmniFocus – I must've spent £80 on that in its various versions and I would pay that again today – but now close behind that is Evernote. That's a note-taking app which is hugely more useful than that sounds and it is free. But you can pay an annual subscription to get more features and I'm going to do that partly to get those and partly because I appreciate the work that's gone into it.

We don't value software as much as we did, as much as we should.

Good thing that isn't the case with all writing today.


Tom Chandler said...

I gave up on Word in the early 2000s; with so much copy intended for online use, I write everything in a programmer's text editor, which doesn't do horrible things (like insert formatting codes).

I am in total agreement about the whining about the cost of apps; you witness writers and programmers complaining online about the $39 cost of a tool that largely defines their everyday working life, as if such things are assembled by little people at the North Pole.

William Gallagher said...

There's much to like about Word and its features above and beyond the most basic text editing, especially for long and complex documents. Yet you can so tell that it was created by engineers who may have been quite brilliant but plainly never had to write for a living.

WordPerfect was much built the way writers think, but it didn't keep up, so.