It doesn't really matter whether you are putting up a shelf, re-wiring a plug or knitting a scarf. Whatever you are trying to do, the right set of tools is going to help you do it faster and better. Installing a shelf is going to need a power drill, some drillbits to make accurate holes; a tape measure to get them in the right place, a level to make sure the shelf is horizontal; a powered screwdriver to get the screws tight, and then a vacuum cleaner to suck up the debris.
If you try to fix a shelf without any of these, then the result is going to be a pretty poor shelf. The same with a plug. If you have the right tools, the job is much easier. Try to fix a plug with an old pair of scissors and you may end up with a fixed plug, but it will be a whole lot more diifficult to achieve a neat, safe result than if you have screwdrivers, pliers, wire strippers and the rest of the paraphernalia that electricians carry around with them.
Knitting is less critical, but it's just not possible to knit without a pair of needles, and the diameter of the knitting needles defines the size of the holes between knots, so you need the right size and length of needles to get a good result.
Put simply, the tools a tradesman needs to carry out the job are the tools of the trade.
For good or ill, the world is changing. While we all continue to need plumbers and electricians, there is also a lively trade in other skills; knowledge-based skills.
Coders and writers are the new tradespeople, working at their stock-in trade of manipulating symbols on a computer screen. What tools do the writers need? What tools do the coders need?
In my job — I get paid to write and edit things — my company provides a computer. A fancy Mac running the latest software. For as long as I can remember, I have had access to a copy of Microsoft's Word program for word-processing. I am not alone in that. I guess 80 percent of the world's office workers have access to a copy of Microsoft's Word program.
Microsoft Word is a powerful piece of software. It allows users to create pages in columns and to generate personalised mass-mailings. It can show who made which correction and when. It can automatically update an image whenever the data in a linked chart is changed. It can run mini programmes which do God knows what.
I never use any of these features. I want to use the program to write my words, and then edit them.
The trouble is that as Word has got more and more sophisticated and the publishers have added more and features, they have tried to make it 'easier' to use.
So now, when I start typing a list, it automatically starts the next line with a new number. Bollocks to that! I don't want it to do that, because I was going to use a different number, but it takes a few seconds of fiddling to tell the program what I want it to do. In that time, I have lost the thread of what I was trying to say.
It's the same when I try to highlight exactly five characters from the middle of a word and replace them with something else. The damned software thinks I made a mistake and helpfully highlights the whole word. I type my five characters and the piece no longer makes any sense. I know I can fix these particular issues. That's not the point. The point is that these and other small issues detract from my productivity and concentration. The software which promised to help me ends up making it more difficult to achieve the precise result I want.
There are many other irritations that go with using over-clever software that thinks it knows better than me. The upshot is that I have dumped Microsoft's product in favour of a text editor. Having tried OpenOffice and a series of other editors, I'm writing this in Apple's Textedit program, which does what it says on the tin. It allows one to write and then edit, with none of the fancy 'helpful' features that Word has accumulated. Once I've written the piece, I copy it across to OpenOffice to get word counts and use whatever other tools I need.
A while back some friends came to my house. Among them were a couple of very competent coders. At the time, I was struggling to build my first-ever website, and I proudly showed it off to them. Being the writing type, I was rather fond of the words I had used and even of the colours and layout I had employed. I was congratulated myself on how the site gave out a certain air of professionalism about the service I was offering and inspired confidence in the visitor.
Of course they didn't even look at the pages, nor spare a glance at my precious words. They went straight to the source code and, no matter how horrified they were to see I had used some old-fashioned approach to web design, told me with great tact and sensitivity that I might like to throw the whole thing in the wastebucket and start again. This time with a proper, up-to-date approach.
I took it in like spirit and immediately threw them out of the house. Later, after recovering composure somewhat, I asked the most expert coder what program she used to write her software. I thought that having the right software might help me to build a decent website.
Now a lot of you know this person, and you will understand when I say that her answer came with a twinkle in the eye. "A text editor" she said. I didn't even think to ask if she meant LaTeX, or Notepad.
Her answer was the gospel truth, but beneath the answer was something more. She knows her code so well that fancy schmancy application-specific software gets in the way.
I doubt I'm as good at writing as she is at coding, but my experience with Microsoft Word gave me some inkling of what she meant. Word is supposed to be a word-processing tool. It's supposed to make life easier for people who deal with words and sentences and paragraphs. And I'm sure it does for the thousands – millions of people around the world who pay their corporate dollar to Microsoft.
For those of us, however, who know our words, and can spell, and can distinguish between subjective and subjunctive, the program sometimes gets in the way of what we want to do.
For better or worse, I don't use spell checkers. I know it's accepted wisdom that all writers need to use them, but I don't. And I suspect that most people who spend their days working with words don't use them either. I have no evidence for this; I've never done any formal research, and I can't even remember talking about it over a beer or a glass of wine with friends. All I know is that I rarely use the things, and when I do, I rarely find they save any time.
I am confident in my ability to read through a piece of text and spot most if not all the errors pretty quickly. I also know that if I run it through a spell checker, I still have to do a thorough proof-read, in order to catch the errors which are themselves valid words. So the spell checker adds to the number of processes involved. I'm going to have to proof-read anyway, whether I run it through a spell-checker or not. So why go through the spell-check stage at all?
To cut a long story short, I'm starting to form the idea that the tools of the knowledge worker's trade are a computer, a text editor and an internet connection. And not much else.
Or rather, that each of us finds the tools we need, and adapts the software that we are provided with — or seeks out software that does the job we want it to do — but not more than that. The more expert one is in a field, I suspect, the simpler the tool one seeks out.
Now I know it is facile to suggest that this is all one needs. When I need to process photos, I need a full-on image editor like Photoshop. On the other hand, when I want to change the size or resolution of the image, I don't need Photoshop, or its knack of sucking up resources. Imageconverter is almost always sufficient for my needs. And that's a much simpler, less bloated piece of software. When I need to lay out a page, the control afforded by QuarkXPress or Indesign is the equivalent of an electrician's mains tester or the builder's laser level. It is absolutely necessary to have the right tools for those particular jobs.
I'm just starting to think that, despite all the powerful software on the market, designed for some specific functions, knowledge of your trade is more valuable than the software ostensibly designed to help you carry out that trade. And the most knowledgeable tend to use the less complicated programs. Primarily, because the simple programmes offer better control over whatever it is that you want to achieve.
And to say that for people who write, that MS Word is not really the right tool. It's good for people who want to create letters and business presentations and memos and all that kind of thing. But not really for writing.