The dawn of the augmented writing era

In which human superpowers are made a reality

Jensen Harris
Jun 20, 2017 · 9 min read

The idea, like so many others before it that have transformed the world, is simple, elegant.

What if you could know in advance how other people would react to your words?

Humans have long imagined language superpowers. Douglas Adams envisioned the babel fish, which you put in your ear to act as a real-time translator for all languages. C-3PO is fluent in over 6 million languages. Professor X, founder of the X-Men, can actually read the words in other people’s minds.

It makes perfect sense that writers invent fantasies about totally flawless communication abilities. Words are, after all, the currency of humans. They are how we interact, the window into one another’s brains and souls.

But for real people, communicating ideas well is a constant struggle, and we usually rely on a lot of hope. You write a love letter and hope it gets you the date. You send a marketing email and hope it gets you customers. You post a job listing and hope it finds you great employees.

Hope is a great thing. But we can do better.

Imagine if you could know — in advance — exactly how other people would react to your words. What if you could always find the words that are on the tip of your tongue but just out of reach? What if you always knew the phrases and sentences and paragraphs that would create the outcome you want?

From this simple but immensely powerful idea was born a totally new category of software: augmented writing. It has the potential to be a fundamental breakthrough in human communication.

Surprisingly, because of the slow pace of innovation in writing software, augmented writing is really only the third disruption in nearly half a century of computer-assisted writing.

Let’s take a brief trip down memory lane.

A brief history of writing software

Though there was once something sold called a “word processing machine” (basically a glorified typewriter with a small screen so that you didn’t have to use as much gunky Liquid Paper to correct mistakes), the true beginning of mass market word processing started with the advent of IBM’s personal computer and the subsequent PC revolution.

The IBM Personal Computer. Available in beige or beige.

Although many word processors sprouted up promising efficient writing in the post-typewriter era (WordStar, XyWrite, DisplayWritesomeone must be out there missing you fondly), the 800-pound gorilla was a piece of software called WordPerfect.

WordPerfect for the IBM PC

WordPerfect was extremely popular, and rightly so. It was amazingly better than the typewriters that came before it. It’s hard to appreciate today how revolutionary all of this was… you could move text from one place to another! You could make corrections right in line! You can check your spelling to see if you spelled accommodate or embarrass correctly! You could even easily add formatting like bold or italic to your text by surrounding it with [Bold On]special formatting codes[Bold Off].

None of this was possible on a typewriter.

For the first time, people had a flexible tool (the PC) capable of running this amazing software (WordPerfect) and it seemed to be ushering in what was destined to be decades of writing software dominance. WordPerfect had over 70% share of the word processing market and a cadre of loyal and satisfied users.

Until this happened.

The Apple Macintosh. And you’ll see why 2017 won’t be like 1984.

So there’s some question about who stole what from who from whose rich neighbor. But no matter how you slice it, a bunch of really smart technologists at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center basically invented the modern computer networking, the mouse, graphical user interface, and so much more— and Steve Jobs and Bill Gates raced to productize their ideas.

Apple was first to market, introducing the Apple Macintosh in a famous Super Bowl commercial. Of course Microsoft followed with their own (and as someone who was at one point responsible for the user interface of Microsoft Windows I think I can say this), let’s say, less elegant operating system. But it got the job done.

Windows 3.1 running on some exceedingly ugly TANDY PC. And you wonder why Radio Shack didn’t invent the iPhone?

This new graphical user interface (GUI) was a disruptive enabling technology that brought with it an incredibly important sea change in software — the advent of WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get.) The idea was that you could see on the screen exactly what a document would look like when it was printed.

Microsoft had a purpose-built applications team founded with the mission to build great WYSIWYG word processing software, and they were quick to market with a little product called Microsoft Word that took full advantage of this new technology.

Microsoft Word let everyone create garish documents with just the click of a button!

For the first time, the printed page was right there on the screen! No weird special formatting codes. And, you could include graphics! And tables! And rich decoration of text styles—scalable fonts you could see on your monitor with colors and sizes exactly to your liking.

All of a sudden, the average person had the power of desktop publishing at their fingertips. This totally changed people’s expectations of what writing software was for. Once people had Word, they never ever wanted to go back.

WordPerfect didn’t have WYSIWYG in their blood… the team and software hadn’t been purpose-built for the graphical era. They couldn’t rebuild their product to compete fast enough and within a few years Microsoft Word owned 90% of the word processing market. When WordPerfect eventually did add a rudimentary graphical interface, it was too little, too late.

I was at Microsoft during the heyday of this era, creating what became the standard productivity software user interface — the Ribbon. Little did we know that only a few years later, we were about to be disrupted ourselves by a totally new kind of writing software.

It’s the Information Superhighway. (Or is it Vapid Transit??)

The early commercial internet! Popup ads, GeoCities, and Friendster.

As with the personal computer and GUI before it, the internet fundamentally enabled a totally new era of writing software.

Early in the what became known as Web 2.0, a product called Writely was built which introduced a radically new idea of what the word processor should be. Instead of being organized around formatting, it was centered on people and collaboration.

Writely. Delivered instantaneously in the web browser in a world in which Microsoft Word was still available distributed on floppy disks. (Nearly 40 of them!)

Writely was quickly bought by Google, who recognized that this new kind of collaborative productivity software was going to rule the era of the internet and cloud. They used Writely to create Google Docs, a collaboration-first word processor.

Google Docs popularized collaborative multiuser editing

Docs let multiple people type at the same time, in the same document, in real time. What it didn’t do was bring every single feature of Microsoft Word forward — it only brought forward the most critical ones.

Because Google’s software was purpose-built for this era of cloud collaboration, it wasn’t long before they did to Microsoft what Microsoft had done to WordPerfect. By 2012, Google had won fully half of the word processing market.

And this is pretty much where today’s mainstream writing experiences have stalled out. Even Quip, the biggest writing exit of the last few years, is fully of this collaborative era.

So we’ve seen writing software evolve from text mode through WYSIWYG editing to today’s focus on collaborative editing.

What does all the software from all of these eras have in common?

It doesn’t make your writing better.

There are features galore to decorate text… to make it red and bold, or to encapsulate it in fancy bulleted lists or surround it with ornate borders. There are intricate features to create tables of contents and mail merges, or to flag sections for coworkers to improve. There are features to quickly get back to earlier revisions of your document.

But these products miss the highest, most important potential of writing software — the capability to make the human a more successful writer.

The augmented writing era

And so now, we stand at the precipice of the next era of writing software — the era of augmented writing.

Each era in writing software was fueled by a disruptive technology that changed people’s expectations of what writing software was capable of

Augmented writing builds on an incredibly disruptive technology: machine intelligence.

The core tech now exists to be able to quantitatively predict with a high degree of accuracy whether a document or email you’re writing will get the outcome you want.

This predictive power is paired with a new kind of writing user interface which x-rays your document in real-time. It uncovers the structure and language hidden just below the surface that can improve the performance of your document. It works alongside you, helping you craft exactly the most effective version of your writing, in your voice.

A user interface for augmented writing

This isn’t about making your words adhere to some lame grammar manifesto (it turns out that good grammar mostly doesn’t even matter that much), but about producing the best version quantitatively. The version that gets the outcome you wanted when you set out to write the email. The love letter that does get the date. The job listing that floods your inbox with great applicants.

This essential pairing — a highly predictive machine intelligence layer and a real-time user interface that bridges this quantitative reality into human creativity — is what defines this era of augmented writing.

In 5 years, everything you write will be using augmented writing software.

Textio invented augmented writing, and though right now its platform is optimized for recruiting writing — job descriptions and outbound mail — it will go far beyond that, eventually to all writing.

As in the past, today’s dominant writing software vendors will attempt to catch up by shoehorning basic elements of augmented writing into their legacy products. Just like WordPerfect eventually added a rudimentary graphical interface and you can cooperatively edit a Microsoft Word document in the web browser today.

But truly winning the era of augmented writing requires a very specific platform stack. You need the deep data that powers the predictions, you need the technology that turns highly predictive models into guidance a human can understand, and you need a purpose-built writing user interface designed from the ground up with data at its center.

Other new players will no doubt come along for the ride as well, and add their own ingenuity and innovation and advances. The industry will move augmented writing forward at a breakneck pace, as this is the biggest opportunity in productivity software for the coming decade.

Because whether you type on a laptop or on your phone — short text, long text, business text, personal text… once you feel what it is like to be granted this amazing superpower — to know how other people will react to your words as you create them — you will never again be able to imagine being without it.


Learn more about how language impacts your hiring at textio.com

Jensen Harris is the co-founder and CTO of Textio.

Textio Blog

Writing about the future of writing

Jensen Harris

Written by

Co-founder & CTO of Textio

Textio Blog

Writing about the future of writing

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