The next generation of writing tools will free us from the tyranny of Word
A view from Russell Davies

The next generation of writing tools will free us from the tyranny of Word

If you fancy reading an eloquent, angry rant, look for a blog about Microsoft Word by the science-fiction writer Charles Stross. It is spitting, splenetic and smart.

Stross does not like Word. He doesn’t like it because it’s bloated, misguided and baroque, it’s simply no good at what it’s supposed to do. We all know this. But he wants it to die because it’s unavoidable – it has been integrated into the workflows of almost every large organisation in the world. You can’t get away from it.

But, actually, increasingly, you can. A new generation of writing tools is starting to emerge on the web; tools specifically focused on the kind of writing people do now, not devoted to writing letters or printing labels but aimed at blog posts, presentations, bits of persuasive writing. And a thought suddenly occurred to me: I wonder what those new tools will do to creative writing?

It has long been assumed that the word processor encouraged people to take risks with their writing, to head into uncertain territory with words because editing and rewriting suddenly got a lot easier. Similarly, I spend a lot of my time in Google Docs at the moment, and it’s almost always a collaboration with someone else – normally lots. So I type "blah blah blah" all the time, knowing that someone will come in and tidy it up.

I imagine my collaborators as being like the "mending mice" in Bagpuss (younger folk can Google that). You can watch your words being stretched, amended, corrected and improved. But it demands a looser writing style, less formal, less emphatic, less idiosyncratic. The challenge in Docs-world is to stop it being styleless and bland.

I spend a lot of my time in Google Docs and it's almost always a collaboration with someone else

Writing apps are set to proliferate – just like apps in so many other categories – with product teams hoping to find a niche in a particular subdomain of writing. There have long been specific tools for things such as scriptwriting, but it won’t be long before they get way more particular. It made me wonder what a specific tool for writing advertising would have to be like.

It would need to incorporate multiple layers of comment, obviously, and have very robust version control.

Maybe it could also highlight clichés or do some content analysis and flag it up if designated brand values weren’t sufficiently displayed.

It would also be nice to have something for columnists too. If you were very lucky, it would automatically add some sort of dramatic, cliffhanger ending to get the reader to come back next week. Or maybe it wouldn’t…

Russell Davies is a creative director at Government Digital Service