# XyWriteMay 21, 2011 9:50 AM   Subscribe

A famously fast, robust, command-driven text processor/file manager that publishers... relied on throughout the '80s and some do even now, [XyWrite] is an unrivaled writer's tool.
posted by Trurl (65 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite

Very interesting. If I can find a way to run this on my Mac, I may try it.
posted by reenum at 10:02 AM on May 21, 2011

May be related: Why do so many laywers use WordPerfect?

The WYSIWIG editors of today are very much like taking the blue pill.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 10:04 AM on May 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yeah, the firm I used to work at still uses WP. I hated that software with the intensity of a thousand suns.
posted by reenum at 10:07 AM on May 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

RobotVoodooPower: I still occasionally get a call from one of my consulting clients, a law firm, that needed to make a DOS version of Word Perfect work on new hardware, usually at the insistence of one of the older secretaries who adamantly refused to learn anything newer. Last time I had to use VMWare Player and FreeDOS to make it work on Vista, which might actually breathe another 10-15 years of life into it given the portability of VMs.
posted by deadmessenger at 10:18 AM on May 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Nota Bene is in use by many folks I know. They love, love, love it. It's similar to XYWrite.
posted by bz at 10:21 AM on May 21, 2011

Long live reveal codes; death to Word.
posted by jrochest at 10:30 AM on May 21, 2011 [4 favorites]

Up next: Pre-press shops that keep an old Mac alive just to run Pagemaker.
posted by Thorzdad at 10:30 AM on May 21, 2011 [5 favorites]

deadmessenger: Ha! That's awesome. I remember writing my first technical document with WordPerfect, cursing all the while, but appreciating the fact that I had complete control over formatting. If only my PC could have run LaTeX back then :)
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 10:31 AM on May 21, 2011

I think it was the Office 2007 upgrade that killed the last compatibility add-on that gave you WordStar formatting codes. A couple of my writer friends were distraught.
posted by scruss at 10:35 AM on May 21, 2011

There are many great text-based editors from the 80s and early 90s that have commercially died but remain very useful. I miss the editor that came with Microsoft C (circa 1988), called simply "m", it was very cool. I'm sure someone has documented these editors somewhere. The most famous being vi and emacs, though those tend to be more unix-world than DOS. I still use pico daily (via pine for email).
posted by stbalbach at 10:40 AM on May 21, 2011

RobotVoodooPower beat me to it with the WordStar link. It's fascinating how certain subcultures cling to old software - I fully expect a post in a decade or two about the authors running Scrivener on their antiquated MacBook Airs (and for a Vim/Emacs derail to break out in the comments)

deadmessenger: Joe's Own Editor is very WordStar-ish when you run it as jstar. Whether it'd be enough to satisfy legal secretaries, I'm not sure.

Also, there's something lovely about a text editor coming from a town that's a misspelling of another town.

Conincidentally, I wrote and edited a pretty lengthy weblog post in ed today, because... well, I suppose I have to admit that using arcane or obscure text editors is one of my hobbies. And XyWrite is new to me - hooray!

If I can find a way to run this on my Mac, I may try it.

I'm wondering if it'll work with DOSBox. If not, Virtualbox and an appropriate version of Windows will do the trick.
posted by jack_mo at 10:48 AM on May 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm sure someone has documented these editors somewhere.

texteditors.org is pretty extensive, but they only have a cursory entry on m.
posted by jack_mo at 10:53 AM on May 21, 2011

Hey guys, LYX 2.0.0 was finally released a couple days ago. It's the LATEX editor that eats like a word processor.
posted by LogicalDash at 11:00 AM on May 21, 2011 [9 favorites]

Anything's better than Word. I still have nightmares about the technical writing job I had at a small software manual company (which also involved a lot of formatting work) ten years ago. You know how they say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and hoping for a different result? Not with the version of Word I was using.*

* disclaimer: I wasn't any kind of graphic designer or editing expert. All I know is if I tried to do something the Word manual or help file said should have worked five times and it didn't, that was no guarantee it wasn't going to work - for no apparent reason - the sixth or eighth or fifteenth time.
posted by The Card Cheat at 11:00 AM on May 21, 2011 [4 favorites]

Ah, XyWrite. Many are the documents I composed and formatted thanks to your thoughtful, customizable features---documents printed on an Epson dot-matrix printer and faxed to clients over a 9000 baud fax machine.

When I dropped Win 95 in favor of Linux in the mid-nineties, I latched on, without a second thought, to vi. Yes, vi, for writing emails and documents, primarily, along with an occasional sliver of Perl. The transition from XyWrite was silky smooth. Switching from insert mode to command mode to type "s" for saving reminded me of accessing the XyWrite command line (by hitting F5) to type in similar commands. And customization? You could do that up the wazoo, using a .vimrc file in place of the XyWrite customization methods.

vi has always seemed like a beefier, geekier version of XyWrite and Nota Bene--one that's marvelously adapted to the needs of writers under heavy deadlines, even though it wasn't developed for that specific purpose. I'm not sure how many people, if any, use it as a text editor. But for me, it was the perfect XyWrite replacement.
posted by Gordion Knott at 11:05 AM on May 21, 2011 [3 favorites]

We are technical writers who use Frame. We just had a meeting with a vendor who is trying to encourage us to switch to XML because "it's easier for them." After saying that oh yeah, it wasn't WYSIWYG, it would be more time consuming to do just about everything and we wouldn't be able to do little things like callouts anymore, we just sort of stared at them and said "you know, there's a reason why everything went WYSIWYG twenty years ago."
posted by Melismata at 11:10 AM on May 21, 2011

stbalbach: via pine for email

I used to love Pine for email. Honestly, I don't think I've ever liked an email client or service better in terms of pure writing email fun.

I think all the hotkeys is what made it such a pleasure to use, as well as the serene and easy on the eyes green text on a black background field of view.

Ah...Pine.
posted by Skygazer at 11:10 AM on May 21, 2011 [8 favorites]

I was at one time a pretty hardcore fan of AMOS AlphaVUE.
posted by bz at 11:20 AM on May 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've used Pine for years and years to access an old (1994 e-mail account). Fairly recently-- about a year ago, I guess -- Pine was dropped by my ISP in favour of Alpine.

Yes, if I really wanted to I could use the ISP's webmail version to access my messages, but it's just so slow compared to the text-based, keyboard system. It's an account I mainly use to read listserv traffic, and trying to read the message via webmail takes three or four times as long.

Long live Alpine.
posted by sardonyx at 11:21 AM on May 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

\documentclass{article}
\usepackage{harvard, graphicx}
\usepackage[psamsfonts]{amsfonts}
%\usepackage{times}
%\usepackage{mathpazo}
\usepackage{booktabs}
\usepackage{fancyhdr}
\usepackage{rotating}
%\usepackage{subfigure}
\usepackage{setspace}
%\usepackage{endnotes}
\usepackage{pdflscape}
\usepackage{dcolumn}

\usepackage{insults}

\author{ROU \emph{Xenophobe}}
\title{An Insult}

\begin{document}
\raggedbottom \maketitle

\begin{insult}
Word processor?  Meh.
\end{insult}

\end{document}

FUCK! Why won't it compile?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:22 AM on May 21, 2011 [15 favorites]

Docbook v5. That is all.
posted by five fresh fish at 11:28 AM on May 21, 2011

The outside law firm we use is still using WP but they "convert" documents to Word when they send them. It's always fun going through them to find the abrupt font changes and other anomalies from the conversion.
posted by tommasz at 11:46 AM on May 21, 2011

FUCK! Why won't it compile?

You know, for all the infinite flexibility of TeX, most users just crank out documents from templates formatted in some by-gone era because who, except for programmers who enjoy leafing through t echnical specifications and interpreting arcane error logs, is really interested in debugging a document?

So, in principle you could generate documents far beyond the ken of Word, but in practice you produce something which looks like it was layed-out 1977.
posted by ennui.bz at 11:57 AM on May 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

How does XyWrite compare to LateX?

Does this question even make sense?
posted by spacediver at 12:04 PM on May 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

After saying that oh yeah, it wasn't WYSIWYG, it would be more time consuming to do just about everything and we wouldn't be able to do little things like callouts anymore, we just sort of stared at them and said "you know, there's a reason why everything went WYSIWYG twenty years ago."
I've always done HTML by hand. I tried a WYSIWYG tool in like 1999 or something and I think I spent about 1 hour being frustrated before giving up forever, and frankly writing markup just isn't that hard.
posted by delmoi at 12:43 PM on May 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

On a similar subject, "Markdown is the new Word 5.1".
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:07 PM on May 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

TeX, LaTeX, and ConTeXt still rocks the socks off every other document preparation system when you need equations, component reusability, or version control. It's just sweet typing say :

latex "\newcommand\goals{...} \input resume.tex"

You can automate combining pdfs into larger documents using the \includepdf[pages=-]{blah.pdf} command from the pdfpages package. You can even execute shell scripts using \write18.

There is definitely lots of boilerplate in most latex documents ennui.bz, especially if you count people's custom personal packages, but half defines mathematical notation like \PSp or \trdeg or even people's names involving funky letters.. and another third defines automated stuff like environment enumerations. If we didn't handle that stuff via macros, then our equations would exhibit the massive absence of consistency seen in Word documents. Even an aesthetic command like \def\con#1=#2(#3){#1\equiv#2\pmod{#3}} helps ensure a consistency alien to Word.

I've never been very happy with XML document types unless I designed the XML schema myself, or felt it was very well designed, delmoi.

posted by jeffburdges at 1:08 PM on May 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

My dislike of LaTeX is primarily due to the ugliness of apacite, which requires a mess of fiddly exceptions and isn't well supported outside of LaTeX. About half of the problem with that rests with the APA's definition of a horribly complex style for in-text citations.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:16 PM on May 21, 2011

"Markdown is the new Word 5.1"

Excellent. I had always suspected that word processors attained perfection in 1991, just like rock attained perfection in 1974 (it's a scientific fact).
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 1:50 PM on May 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

Yay, old person water hole!

How about that Quark 4.0! It kept you up nights, didn't it?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 2:12 PM on May 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

For those of you who miss Pine, Alpine (a sort of Pine 2.0) can be configured to run with Gmail. It is fun and retro, and also useful for netbooks and other resource-limited environments. PINE4LIFE
posted by en forme de poire at 2:47 PM on May 21, 2011 [3 favorites]

So, in principle you could generate documents far beyond the ken of Word, but in practice you produce something which looks like it was layed-out 1977.

Mmm... but it behaves predictably while you're doing it, unlike Word.

Of course, most TeX/LaTeX/ConText users are wedded to it because we have no viable alternative, not because we think the article document class produces something particularly brilliant.
posted by hoyland at 3:15 PM on May 21, 2011

vi has always seemed like a beefier, geekier version of XyWrite

Funnily enough, reading up on XyWrite it kept reminding me of Emacs.

I'm not sure how many people, if any, use it as a text editor.

Lots and lots. Well, Vim anyway. If you're the sort of person who hammers out a load of words before whipping them into readable shape, it's just wonderful.
posted by jack_mo at 3:32 PM on May 21, 2011

Came in here to say emacs and (La)TeX. Glad to see the situation is already well in hand.
posted by DU at 4:22 PM on May 21, 2011

"Markdown is the new Word 5.1"

Yeah, for years I wavered between "I need more control than these WYSIWYG editors give me!" and "LaTeX really seems like overkill of massive proportions for my needs."

But since discovering Markdown, I've reached a kind of nirvana: combined with Dropbox and a basic .txt editor, Markdown allows me to write, edit, format, and sync all of my documents on any computer on the planet, including the one I carry in my pocket for phone calls. Just thinking about gives me a total "boom-di-yadda" feeling. (Details of my setup.)

This works for me because, unlike most people in this thread, my needs don't go far beyond bold, italics, centering, and indenting. I'm sure as hell not claiming that Markdown is a replacement for LaTeX. However, if you're frustrated with how WYSIWYG editors mess with your text when all you want to do is add a soupçon of formatting, while at the same time you realize deep in your heart that learning LaTeX is bringing a bazooka to a knife fight, then you might want to check it out.
posted by Ian A.T. at 4:25 PM on May 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

I've had word processor and spreadsheet files literally delete themselves on opening. I kid you not - you open the file and it deletes itself and closes the window.
Stuff that processes a text file and outputs a new file of formatted output doesn't do that. I use LaTeX because I can be pretty damn sure my file won't delete itself when I get it parsed.
posted by edd at 5:00 PM on May 21, 2011

So, in principle you could generate documents far beyond the ken of Word, but in practice you produce something which looks like it was layed-out 1977.

I think this can be mostly blamed on the default Computer Modern font. It was probably Modern in 1977, but it is not now.
posted by vanar sena at 5:03 PM on May 21, 2011

It was probably Modern in 1877.

Honestly, though, the issue is less that CM is old-fashioned, and more that it's just clumsy. Don Knuth is a smart guy but he's not a type designer.
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:41 PM on May 21, 2011

On a similar subject, "Markdown is the new Word 5.1".

God, yes. Emacs (or Notesy on my iPhone/iPad) + MultiMarkdown all the way. MMD even supports ODF now, so even those inflexible coworkers who get pissy when I send them anything other than a .doc can be satisfied.

Love him or hate him, Markdown alone justifies John Gruber's entire existence. Marvelous invention. And big ups to Fletcher Penney for making it even more useful. Damn thing's a Swiss Army knife.
posted by middleclasstool at 5:44 PM on May 21, 2011

Don Knuth is a smart guy but he's not a type designer.

Fortunately, he's smart enough to make up for that.
posted by DU at 6:13 PM on May 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

Computer Modern is indeed a drain on the soul, but LaTeX users should not despair; modern font-handling is a snap. My god, the day I got XeTeX going and started cranking out docs in Garamond using the memoir package was a wonderful, wonderful day.

LaTeX stopped looking old-fashioned a long time ago, thank heavens.
posted by waxbanks at 6:34 PM on May 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

So I guess I'm the only one who doesn't mind—indeed kind of likes—Computer Modern, then?
posted by kenko at 6:42 PM on May 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Nope. I actually kind of love it.
posted by middleclasstool at 6:52 PM on May 21, 2011

I like CMR, but I think it's mostly because it reminds me of many well-written well-read documents, not because it's a particularly lovely font. But try to typeset mathematics in a general-purpose font and you'll start wishing for CMR.

We are technical writers who use Frame. We just had a meeting with a vendor who is trying to encourage us to switch to XML because "it's easier for them."

Doesn't Frame already use an SGML format for its documents? It's been fifteen years since I used it, but FrameMaker always struck me as one of the very few WYSIWYG-type editors aimed at people who actually want to produce high quality, complex documents. (Rather than memos-and-term-papers editors or church-flyers DTP programs.)
posted by hattifattener at 6:56 PM on May 21, 2011

kenko: So I guess I'm the only one who doesn't mind—indeed kind of likes—Computer Modern, then?

I like it too, but it does look out of place in a world inundated with Microsoft standard fonts.
posted by vanar sena at 7:17 PM on May 21, 2011

Looking out of place in a world of Microsoft anything is a good thing.
posted by DU at 7:26 PM on May 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

Love him or hate him, Markdown alone justifies John Gruber's entire existence. Marvelous invention. And big ups to Fletcher Penney for making it even more useful. Damn thing's a Swiss Army knife.

Let's not forget the glories of pandoc and its Markdown extensions.
posted by kenko at 7:33 PM on May 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

But try to typeset mathematics in a general-purpose font and you'll start wishing for CMR.

The mathpazo package for LaTeX puts things in Palatino and works pretty well for even somewhat complex mathematics, in my experience. God, Computer Modern is ugly.

The XyWrite phenomenon fascinated me back in the 90s—even then it seemed old-fashioned. Do many people still use it? The linked pages are old—one is even 13 years old. The XyWrite mailing list shows only a small amount of recent activity.
posted by grouse at 7:48 PM on May 21, 2011

I still like Emacs. Its navigation commands are second nature to me.
posted by mike3k at 8:08 PM on May 21, 2011

I do like LaTeX but I wish there were a wider variety of standard LaTeX fonts (particularly sans styles). I have a soft spot in my heart for Computer Modern, but it gets a little monotonous. Plus, it has sort of become this shibboleth that I'm a little uncomfortable with. There's this undertone of "I WROTE THIS IN TEX, AREN'T I CLEVER. MY BACKGROUND IS PROBABLY IN THEORETICAL SOMETHING OR OTHER. HURF DURF DONALD KNUTH"

It reminds me of a friend of mine who wanted to start using the Computer Modern font in Microsoft Word as a practical joke, to see if anyone would notice. If not, you would be able to convince people of your weighty intellect with just a fraction of the curly brackets.
posted by en forme de poire at 10:26 PM on May 21, 2011 [4 favorites]

Ventura Publisher, anyone? Anyone? SGML formatting markup with linking out to external Word Docs? GEM windowing environment? Hello? Can I get some love here?
posted by MattC at 12:06 AM on May 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

...you would be able to convince people of your weighty intellect with just a fraction of the curly brackets.

Uhh...are you implying that Word is easier to use than LaTeX? Because that's...uhhh...

LaTeX is harder to *learn*. But as I said back in the "reinventing the UNIX shell" thread, optimizing for the learning curve is bad design. After you pass the learning curve, you have to pay for that optimization for the rest of your user life. LaTeX, like all good tools, optimizes for the long-term user.
posted by DU at 2:41 AM on May 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

Uhh...are you implying that Word is easier to use than LaTeX?

Well, my last post was supposed to be funny. But in some cases, definitely: think resumes, memos, collaborations.

I mean, dude, I use LaTeX a lot. I love the crap out of vi. I'm not knocking steep learning curves, and I am somewhat horrified to find myself defending Microsoft Word a little here. But there's a big difference between Microsoft Word and that abomination of a reinvented shell in the other thread, and that is that Microsoft Word is a serious tool. I think it does some things really awfully, like citations and formulas and very large documents, and there are political reasons to dislike it as well. That doesn't mean that anyone who uses it for anything has just been hoodwinked by "bad design," and if only they knew better they would be using LaTeX. There are plenty of long-term power-users who can do very sophisticated things with Word (and Excel for that matter), both in industry and in academia. Some of them are even computer scientists! These people don't deserve condescension about how they're using the wrong tools: maybe LaTeX would suit their needs better, but actually, maybe not.
posted by en forme de poire at 9:54 AM on May 22, 2011

But in some cases, definitely: think resumes, memos, collaborations.

Word drives me batshitinsane for resumes. I do not enjoy fucking around with seemingly arbitary decisions about when it's going to apply or revoke styles and other formatting whatnots when I'm just trying to think about how to pitch myself for a job.

This is what ended up selling me on LinkedIn, in the end. Enter job details, click button, get adequately formatted PDF.
posted by rodgerd at 11:55 AM on May 22, 2011

What broke LaTeX for me was being told, "your dedication page needs to be single/double spaced for acceptance." That lead to a half-day struggle to figure out how to change the spacing on that one particular block (where none of the usual tricks worked). The result is that LaTeX is brilliant within the academics communities the styles are written for and very difficult outside of those styles. In those cases, it fails at its reason for existence: liberating academics from worrying about typography by offering a strictly semantic markup system.

So I've given up on it. If I need for the text to look pretty on the page or PDF, I'll use InDesign. For the rare memo or letter that's not going into email or a Web-based system, I'll just use Google Docs with minimal formatting on the grounds that obsessing over typography and page balance isn't worth my time.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:07 PM on May 22, 2011

I'll just use Google Docs with minimal formatting

Although Google Docs is on the road to removing its "minimal formatting" option in favor of that depressing new page- and layout-oriented would-be Word rival.

Tendrils of smoke sneak out of my ears and nostrils every time that "Would you like to see this document in the latest version of the editor?" pops up. NO, GOOGLE, I WOULD NOT.
posted by tangerine at 1:59 PM on May 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

that depressing new page- and layout-oriented would-be Word rival.

Speaking of which, are there any web-based document editors with decent outline support for larger documents, somewhat like a docbook editor with rudimentary WYSIWYG? Google's editor feels like such a missed opportunity.
posted by vanar sena at 5:29 PM on May 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Well, my last post was supposed to be funny. But in some cases, definitely: think resumes, memos, collaborations.

I just wrote my resume in LaTeX the other day. Googled for a (Creative Commons-licensed) template and modified it in less time than merely battling the bullet point algorithm in Word usually takes, let alone the tab system.

The result is that LaTeX is brilliant within the academics communities the styles are written for and very difficult outside of those styles.

Shouldn't this be obvious? The styles were written for those communities. There's no reason other communities can't build styles for themselves. I haven't done it myself, so this will sound a little flip, but I have read both the TeXbook (Knuth) and the LaTeX book (Lamport) and they are very clear. I think the main difficulty wouldn't be the (La)TeX itself but identifying the variables that your community style requires.
posted by DU at 3:01 AM on May 23, 2011

DU: I haven't done it myself, so this will sound a little flip...

It is. Debugging LaTeX is substantially worse than debugging CSS, which at least has tools tools which will allow you to see the origins of the half-dozen scripts and directives that may apply to a given text block.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:14 AM on May 23, 2011

No, I've written (some) LaTeX. What I haven't done is created a new style.
posted by DU at 6:12 AM on May 23, 2011

And, the more you dig into CTAN or create class and style for single-case and few-case fixes, the less portable your document becomes. Sure, I can spend time trying to unravel LaTeX spaghetti code or recreate my build environment, but that's time I'm not spending writing.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:42 AM on May 23, 2011

Having spent decades loathing Word since 5.1, I have to say Word 2011 for the Mac is the best Mac word processor yet. It's really, really good. I've been using it heavily for months, and have only once ended up in the infamous "why is it doing that?" loop.

(The reason it was doing that was I was mixing portrait A4 and landscape A3 in the same document, then trying to delete across boundaries. So I forgive it)

I'm curious to see what Nota Bene is like, though.
posted by bonaldi at 8:06 AM on May 23, 2011

I just wrote my resume in LaTeX the other day. Googled for a (Creative Commons-licensed) template and modified it in less time than merely battling the bullet point algorithm in Word usually takes, let alone the tab system.

They have templates and styles in Word, too. And if, for example, you have already edited your resume down to the bone and are trying to fine-tune it so that everything fits on one page and nothing looks stupid, given equal proficiency with both tools that's going to be easier to do with a WYSIWYG editor than with LaTeX.

I'm not trying to tell you that your resume can't be written in LaTeX. Mine is as well, although it's an academic CV so it's not quite comparable. My point is that in scenarios when there is a high styling to content ratio, like resumes, Word (or LibreOffice, or your favorite free software equivalent) is a totally reasonable choice.

The other thing Word actually does pretty well compared to LaTeX is track changes. LyX has this feature too but it's not as sophisticated yet (e.g. only one set of edits at a time) -- and anyway, good luck getting all of your co-authors to download, install, and use LyX.
posted by en forme de poire at 10:25 AM on May 23, 2011

What broke LaTeX for me was being told, "your dedication page needs to be single/double spaced for acceptance."

\usepackage{setspace}
...

\doublespacing
...
\singlespacing

[dedication page here]

\doublespacing
posted by kenko at 1:21 PM on May 23, 2011

kenko: As I mentioned above, setspace wasn't working in that particular environment for some arcane reason I can't quite remember (as it was a one-time fix). After struggling to figure out why that environment didn't work, I ended up just recreating the page manually in the proper spot which defeated the whole purpose of using that document class to begin with. There are probably about a half-dozen similar exceptions scattered through the whole 100-page document, along with at least three or four raw bibtex citations which defeats the purpose of using that.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:31 PM on May 23, 2011

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