My Turn

Programming for Yourself

Marc Zeedar
2001.03.29

My Turn is Low End Mac's column for reader-submitted articles. It's your turn to share your thoughts on all things Mac (or iPhone, iPod, etc.) and write for the Mac web. Email your submission to Dan Knight .

My goal has always been to be a writer of fiction, but in the pursuit of that target my life has taken many twists and turns. For instance, in high school I got involved with journalism, and that led to a career in graphic design (the field I'm in today).

I'd been saving my money for an IBM Selectric typewriter (they cost about two grand back then), but then I saw my first personal computer (an Osborne I) and knew my days of White Out and retyping were over.

Once I'd bought a computer, I discovered BASIC programming, and that distracted me for a while. I wrote little games and utilities, and I dreamed of creating amazing things. Later, when I became a graphic designer, I learned to use a Macintosh and knew my PC days were over.

I'd used Borland's TURBO Pascal on the PC, so I bought the Mac version. Unfortunately, writing Mac software was far more complicated than I'd expected. I tried THINK Pascal, and eventually CodeWarrior. I wrote a few half-finished utilities and games, but though I was brimming with ideas, I was hampered by the difficulties. I spent hundreds of dollars buying Apple's Inside Macintosh series but couldn't fathom reading them. Besides, Apple changed everything every few years, and not being a full-time programmer, I couldn't keep up with the rapid API changes.

I tried HyperCard, and it was more my level, but it couldn't really create standard Macintosh stand-alone applications. It was slow, didn't work well with color, and didn't include many standard Mac user interface elements.

Then I read about REALbasic in TidBITS. It sounded exactly like what I was looking for. I downloaded a copy, and in hours I had my own working "SimpleText" word processor. When I saw how easy it was to add a feature like find and replace, I immediately bought a REALbasic license.

Being a writer, word processors have always been a passion of mine. I've gone through dozens over the past decade, but I've always found them frustrating. I hate the behemoth Microsoft Word, and I love the svelte WriteNow, but then the smaller program becomes limiting when you're ready to format your work of art. I'd finally switched to just writing everything in BBEdit, a text editor, because plain text can be converted to any program easily.

The biggest difficulty of fiction writing was organizing my work. For instance, for one of my novels I had collected over 30,000 words of notes in four different word processing formats. I had outlines, ideas, character biographies, scenes, revisions, and research material. And that didn't include any of the actual novel! Trying to find anything - when was Sarah born? - was an exercise in torment.

For years I'd dreamed of my own word processor, something that would make the writing process easier. Then one day it hit me - if all those disparate chapters and notes could be collected into a single file, keeping my novel structured and organized would be much simpler. I launched REALbasic and began to play.

The word processor that was born out of that was Z-Write, the world's first "nonlinear" word processor. I call it nonlinear because it allows you to organize your writing into sections of any length, in any order you like (unlike a traditional word processor in which your text is nothing more than a long, linear scroll). You can mix notes and chapters, and just print one or the other. In a sense, each Z-Write document becomes a miniature database of writing snippets for a large project. At any time you can easily export selected sections into RTF, plain text, or copy them to the clipboard to take to a full-featured word processor.

The idea is simple and easy to use, but revolutionary in its effectiveness. I wrote it for myself, but Z-Write was so cool that I decided to release it as shareware. The results blew my mind.

Not only have tens of thousands of people downloaded the software, but many have purchased it. Positive reviews appeared in various webzines and print publications - MacHome rated Z-Write higher than Microsoft Word!

Even better, from an inspiration standpoint, I've received hundreds of wonderful emails from writers worldwide thanking me for a remarkable achievement. Z-Write is not perfect, and I have many improvements in store, but it's an incredible start.

The key for me is that a program like Z-Write would never have been written by a programmer: it required a writer to see what was needed. I think that's true for most revolutionary ideas.

A programmer thinks about programming. A musician knows music; an architect, architecture; a dancer understands dance. But unless they know how to program, they cannot invent the software needed to assist them in their challenges. If you look into it, all innovative software - the first spreadsheet, the first desktop publishing package - was initially created by nonprogrammers or programmers who had a keen interest in another field. It only makes sense: How can a non-musician understand what a musician needs?

REALbasic gives real programming power to the nonprogrammer. If you can handle a scripting language like HyperCard, you can handle REALbasic. I'm so convinced of the power of REALbasic that I'm starting a magazine and writing a weekly tutorial column for Applelinks.

No matter happens in the future, Z-Write's success has changed my life forever. I had a little idea, threw it out there, and people responded. That's given me incredible confidence in all aspects of my life.

So take a risk! Learn something new! You never know what unexpected good will come out of it.

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