Why Paragraft? – control vs faff

Paragraft is an app for the iPhone that’s now available on the app store. My tag line for the app is: less than a word processor, more than plain text.

I wrote Paragraft because I wanted an easy way to write up notes while travelling light and wanted to be able to share those notes in a neat and tidy format.

Plain text – or indeed, the excellent app named PlainText, wasn’t quite enough for my needs. But a full word processor was too much, not least because so fiddly to use on a small device.

Modern word processors aim to be WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get). There’s a lot to be said for this. But, for me, it’s not the right paradigm for a handheld device.

As I write, Apple has recently released a revision of Pages, its decently featured WYSIWYG word processor, for the iPhone. Pages originated on the Mac and then migrated to iPad. Apple have thought hard about how to make it viable on a device with a screen as small as the iPhone. They may have done nearly as good a job as can be done, given the constraints.

But the constraints are severe and require making some pretty serious trade offs. For all that is gained when scored against the value of WYSIWYG,  more is lost, when scored against the value of faff-free writing. And I don’t think there’s any amount of design ingenuity that’s going to overcome the fundamental issue here.

The issue is that for Pages the basic working unit is, well, the page. This is the unit you interact with to compose, to edit, to impose style. That unit makes lots of sense on a desktop or a laptop. But on something phone sized, it means if you want to be able to read your text, the width of each line is broader than the screen. So you end up scrolling back and forth just to read a whole sentence. Tiresome.

Running against the WYSIWYG tide, there is a vogue for working in just plain text. One argument for this is that worrying about your formatting is really just so much distraction. Focus on your writing, we are urged. As someone who definitely worries too much about formatting, I see merit in the backlash. But not quite enough. Plain text doesn’t produce output that I actually want to read, whether it is on screen or on paper. And it definitely doesn’t produce output that I want to share with friends, colleagues or clients.

Paragraft lets me compose in plain text using some simple and human friendly conventions to indicate formatting such as bold, italic, headings, and lists. When you want to see what the styled text looks like, a simple touch switches between showing the plain text and the styled text.

To the extent I have got it right, the flip between the two modes is fairly seamless. This creates some sort of illusion that I find difficult to describe, but enjoy experiencing. It’s almost as if the styled and plain text version of what I’m writing morph from one to the other.

Although what you see while editing and composing is not what you get when printing, creating a PDF, or sending a rich text email, you have pretty good information about what you get. For me, I have enough information about what I will get to keep me happy.

WYSIWYG is a means of having control over the final output of your work. But on a phone, it’s a means to that end that brings a lot of disruption to the flow of composition and editing. Here, as elsewhere in life, it turns out, I’m willing to cede a little bit of control in exchange for a big reduction in faff.