Anyone who buys a new Mac gets a free copy of Apple’s Pages 5 word processor.
That’s great, but is Pages 5 good enough for professional writer? Will we still need to fork out for Microsoft Office as well?
The simple answers is: Pages 5 is good enough for me, but it may not be right for everyone.
From Pages ’09 to 5
Many long-term Pages users were not impressed when Apple updated the word processor from Pages ’09 to Pages 5 in late 2013.
People who invested time and effort learning, mastering and tweaking systems around the earlier version of the software suddenly found their scripts and workarounds no longer functioned. And they found key features were suddenly missing in action.
I’m not one of those people.
After a brief trial of Pages ‘09, mainly for review purposes, I went back to using iA Writer for short, snappy writing and Microsoft Word for jobs where either clients or convenience demanded it.
Pages: The name says it all
Pages ’09 just wasn’t designed for writers like me.
The name is a giveaway. Although Apple sold the software as a word processor, Pages is also a page design tool. In fact, I’d say Pages is mainly a page design tool.
Pages makes sense if you want an alternative to Adobe InDesign for people who need to make words and pictures look good on a page, but don’t need professional level tools.
Not that Pages can’t deliver professional-looking designs, but that’s not my focus here.
What about words?
I’m a journalist. I write words for a living. Most of the time someone else gets to make them look pretty on a page. I’m only concerned about getting the words down as efficiently as possible.
Here I plan to discuss how well Pages 5 works as a tool for professional writers. I specifically ask if it does the job better than Microsoft Word:2011 and more basic tools like iA Writer.
For writers of my generation — I started when magazine printers still used hot metal presses — the typewriter will always be the gold standard. I’ve used word processors for 30 years. In all that time, I’ve always sought to recreate the typewriter’s simplicity. I want electronic writing tools that just stay out-of-the-way.
That’s not how software developers see word processing. They bulk up their products with features designed to appeal to, mainly, the most lucrative users in big companies.
No doubt the word processors that make it through the processor are what people want. After all Word continues to sell. Lawyers love it. PR companies and organisations that want documents written and rewritten again and again love it. You can import graphics, write mathematical equations, do mail merges and lots of other stuff journalists and writers simply don’t need.
Keeping software out of the writer’s way
None of that interests me. Nor do I care about fonts and styles. Well, not when writing. I tend to use a single font for an entire document. I may write heads and cross heads in bold. I may use italics or bold to emphasis words.
But that’s it.
And it explains why I prefer iA Writer to Word.
IA Writer is essentially a text editor. It is difficult to use Word the same way.
However, over the years I’ve learnt to use Word in the most minimalist way possible.
Pages 5 in the background
So how does Pages 5 fare from this point of view? Can I ignore the fancy layout features, all the extra stuff that gets others excited but gets between me and the words I’m paid to write?
The simple answer is that Pages 5 can do this. In fact it does this well.
When Apple remade Pages, it left much of the page design code in the application, but it also stripped back the interface. It’s now easier to ignore all the non-writer features and work on the words.
For the last week, ten days now, I’ve set aside iA Writer and Word to write using nothing but Pages 5. It’s good. I might just stick with it for the long-term.
My minimalist Pages 5
There’s an art to using Pages 5 in my minimalist Ernest Hemingway armed-just-with-a-typewriter style of working.
When I start Pages I open a blank template — I use a custom template more about that later. I set the display to full screen, turn off all notifications on my MacBook Air so I’m not distracted.
The next thing I do is hit command-option-i to hide the inspector which sits on the right side of the screen. If I need it later, the same command will bring it back.
I also hide the tool bar. Then I crank up the zoom to full-page width.
Ideal writing set-up
All this may sound fussy and petty. Perhaps it is. But it is my ideal writing set-up.
Apart from the right-hand scroll bar which, magically, only fades into sight when needed and a tiny lozenge at the bottom of the screen showing the number of words in my document, there is nothing but my writing. Once again I’ve recreated the simplicity and effectiveness of the typewriter.
My custom template isn’t fancy. I’ve just set body text style to Helvetica Regular 11pt and remove the headers and footers. Sometimes I add space between paragraphs to make long documents easier to navigate and edit.
It would be better if Pages 5 could take me directly to this set up. That is adjust the screen to my taste and auto-load the custom template. I’m told by people in the Pages support forum that you can program some, sadly not all, of this in advance.
It would also be nice if I could make my custom template the default. As it is, I have to scroll down a long list of templates I will never use to find my own. Perhaps there’s a way to tidy this up. I haven’t found it yet.
Maybe I’ll get to those tweaks one day. Or maybe I won’t.
Mise en place
While setting up can be laborious if I need to get writing in a hurry, there’s an element of mise en place about the set-up process which helps me prepare my head for the writing job ahead.
In practice, I get a clean writing space. The text is just the right size for my eyes, it is clear and crisply displayed with a margin of about 30 mm of white space on either side.
Every few hundred words a line appears across the display to show where the text moves from one A4 page to the next.
For me, this is a ridiculous anachronism. I haven’t printed my writing for anything other than proofing purposes for at least a decade. Still, it does make it easier to navigate long documents.
On the MacBook Air, my Pages set-up is ultra-minimal. There’s almost no distraction. Any spelling errors or dubious words are instantly visible thanks to red underlining.
All-in-all it’s the most productive and trouble-free writing tool I have at my disposal. It beats iA Writer at the moment because that otherwise excellent app doesn’t allow me to fiddle with the font size — something I had to do when I had serious eye trouble.
Apple built Pages 5 to work with iCloud.
If you hit the Command-S to save, that’s the default option. From the save dialogue you can choose to store documents on your Mac’s drive. The standard OS X Finder appears and you can navigate to wherever you like.
For my work I store my Pages 5 documents in iCloud, which means I can get at them immediately from my iPad or iPhone.
iCloud can be a huge productivity boost. Last week I managed to add some quotes to a part-written feature while I was out in town. The iPhone isn’t an ideal writing tool, but at a pinch it gets the job done.
I was nervous about doing this because the earlier versions of Pages had less than perfect compatibility across OS X and iOS, that appears to be fixed. If there are still incompatibilities, I have yet to see them.
Earlier this year I wrote a major newspaper feature in Pages 5 and sent the file to an editor . The file format mystified the editor. When the annoyed call came asking me for a readable version, I was about to board a flight. It took a few seconds to grab the iCloud document, covert it to Microsoft Word and flick it back to the news desk. I’ve sent 30-odd features written with Pages 5 but saved in Word format to various editors, no-one had said anything about incompatibilities.
Pages 5 for the writing professional
Given that Pages 5 is free to many users and only US$20 if you need to buy a copy, it has to the best value Mac word processor around.
Apple Pages 5 won’t suit every writing professional. It’s not helpful for jobs where the client wants you to use change tracking. That’s such a horrible and unproductive way of working that I try to avoid those jobs anyway. I still have a Word license if I need to do that kind of work.
If you’re committed to Microsoft Office or work with others who are, you may not want to switch.
On the other hand, after ten days of using nothing else, I’ve found Pages 5 is at least as a productive as any alternative.