Today I farewell a friend, a singular (sort of) witness to countless hours of my work over a keyboard over many years.
Actually, ‘friend’ is pushing it a bit. Let me start again.
Today I farewell one my essential tools of trade—vale, Microsoft Word 2008:
You survived seven years’ worth of hardware and software upgrades (an eternity in technology). And only now I lose you, just when things had been going so well and I had begrudgingly accepted your quirks and customised your most obscure settings and templates, and in the course of my work ceased to really notice you much at all.
A writer’s choice of word processor is very individual and a certain degree of fussiness (some might say “fartiness”) is surely to be expected. Some writers like to move around between different kinds of software. Some demand no formatting or scoff at the folly of fake pages. Others just fall into habits. And while experimenting with writing techniques and technology is part of my brief, for the straight up job of getting text out of my head my go-to software was one of the most feature-bloated and clunky bits of kit Microsoft had seen fit to bestow upon us since Clippy first observed that it looked like I was writing a letter.
Two years ago, I experimented with writing on a typewriter and discovered how profoundly the tools with which we write affect how we go about what we do. At the time I said:
I’m a cut-and-paste writer. This sentence has been cut-and-pasted at least half a dozen times in the creation of this essay. My approach to writing is to throw sentences down, and use a little C & P magic to fashion them into something with flow and form.
Cut and paste, find and replace, dictionary and thesaurus, header and footer, line and paragraph formatting, and the keyboard shortcuts to all these are a feature set to which I’ve grown extremely accustomed and without which I find it difficult to get rolling.
I never loved Word 2008, but I never hated it either and, when I needed to produce text, it did the job. At least until recently.
For the record, I do like to keep my software up to date. And there’s good reason for this. The most common software updates patch annoying bugs and fix security holes that would otherwise threaten your system and your data.
But once in a while, software companies like to shake things up. They get bored with the features and layout and set about radically redesigning it. Sometimes these redesigns are for the better. Sometimes a redesign needlessly screws around with the interface. When the new version of your word processor takes a flawed but organised toolkit and turns it into an interminable forest of tabs and obscure unlabelled buttons, you can either take it on the chin and upgrade anyway or stick to your guns.
It’s fine to say ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ for a while at least, but all software has a hard use-by date. Even the software companies that stay in business can’t support all their products indefinitely. It’s hard to imagine Redmond continuing to publish regular security updates for Microsoft Bob (look it up).
Really—unless you’re willing to encase your computer in amber, resolve never upgrade anything again and never connect it to a network—at some point, the software simply will stop working with its operating system.
So it was with Word 2008. It always had a fickle, skittery streak to it, but my recent OS upgrade sent it into a tailspin. It crashed when I try to save. It crashed when I did a word search. It crashed while starting up. Sick of losing work in progress, I took to obsessively hitting ‘save’: an old, old habit dredged up from when I stored master copies of my documents on floppy disks.
There’s a paradox in this need to constantly save: when your writing flows freely and you become immersed in your story, pausing to save your work is (and should be) the last thing on your mind. So the crash that takes your work with it (to some unrecoverable digital hell) is almost guaranteed to happen when you feel like you’re doing your best work.
For a while I tried to find a balance between saving and writing. I swore (a lot). I shook my fist, even. But then I would reopen the application, tell it not to send diagnostic information (what good would it do?) and try and get back to where I was, all the while saving, saving, saving.
It couldn’t last. The bond of trust between writer and software had irrevocably broken. It was always going to end this way, but I had hoped to get maybe just a little more time from it.
I have now begun the difficult process of finding a replacement and although nothing feels quite right, there’s no turning back. So, Word 2008, for the moment, while you remain in my applications folder for now, soon I will have to let go completely and send you to the big crash.
Thank you for your tolerable familiarity.