Anyone who buys a new Mac gets a free copy of Apple Pages 5 word processor.
That’s great, but is Pages 5 good enough for a professional writer? Will we still need to fork out for Microsoft Office as well?
The simple answer is: Pages 5 is good enough for many, but it may not be right for every professional writer.
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. They found key features were suddenly missing in action.
Pages 5: The name says it all
Pages ’09 wasn’t designed for writers.
The name is a giveaway. Although Apple sold the software as a word processor, Pages is also a page design tool. In fact, Pages is mainly a page design tool.
Pages makes sense if you want an alternative to Adobe InDesign 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 the focus here.
What about words?
Most writers are only concerned about getting the words down as efficiently as possible.
For older writers of my generation the typewriter will always be the gold standard. It is simple, has few features and stays out of the way.
That’s not how software developers see word processing. They bulk up word processors with features designed to appeal to the most lucrative users in big companies.
No doubt the word processors that make it are what many people want. After all Word continues to sell. Lawyers love Word. 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 complex tasks journalists and writers simply don’t need.
Keeping software out of the writer’s way
Fonts and styles are not when you're writing. If anything they are a distraction. It's good practice to use a single font for an entire document. Heads and cross heads are typed in bold. Italics emphasis words.
But that’s it.
It explains why IA Writer is popular with professional writers.
IA Writer is essentially a text editor. It is difficult to use Word the same way.
However, over the years some people have 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 writers ignore the fancy layout features, all the extra stuff that gets others excited but gets between the writer and the words they are paid to write?
Pages 5 can do this. In fact it can do 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 a minimalist Ernest Hemingway armed-just-with-a-typewriter style of working.
Open Pages with a blank template. Set the display to full screen, turn off all notifications so you are not distracted.
Next hit command-option-i to hide the inspector which sits on the right side of the screen. If you need it later, the same command will bring it back.
The inspector is Pages 5 equivalent of Microsoft Word's ribbon, it's where you can play with fonts, styles and other distractions from getting your writing done.
It's a good idea to hide the tool bar. Then, on a smaller Macbook screen, crank up the zoom to full-page width. There's no need to do this on a Mac with a big screen.
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 the document, there is nothing to see but your writing. This recreates the simplicity and effectiveness of the typewriter.
I use a simple custom template. Body text style is set to Helvetica Regular 11pt and the headers and footers are removed. You may wish to add space between paragraphs to make long documents easier to navigate and edit.
It would be better if Pages 5 could take you directly to this simplified set up. That is, adjust the screen to taste and auto-load the custom template. You can program some, sadly not all, of this in advance.
It would also be nice if you could make a custom template the default. As it is, you have to scroll through a long list of templates you will never use to find any that you create.
Mise en place
While setting up can be laborious if you need to get writing in a hurry, there’s an element of mise en place about the set-up process which helps you prepare your head for the writing job ahead.
In practice, this approach give you a clean writing space. The text is just the right size, 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.
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.
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.
If you store Pages 5 documents in iCloud, you can get at them immediately from an iPad or iPhone.
iCloud can be a huge productivity boost. Last week I managed to add last minute quotes to a part-written feature using my phone while I was working in town. The iPhone isn’t an ideal writing tool, but at a pinch it gets the job done.
Earlier versions of Pages had less than perfect compatibility across OS X and iOS. That appears to be fixed.
Earlier this year I wrote a 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.
Apple 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.
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.
1. I didn't.