Nearly two decades and several text-handling paradigms ago, I was an editorial assistant at a weekly newspaper, where a few freelancers still submitted their work on typewritten pages. Stories would come in over the fax machine. If the printout was clear enough, and if our giant flatbed scanner was in the mood, someone would scan the pages in, a text-recognition program would decipher the letters, and we would comb the resulting electronic file for nonsense and typos. If the scanner wasn’t in the mood, we would prop up the hard copy beside a computer and retype the whole thing. Technology was changing fast, and some people were a few steps slow. You couldn’t blame them, really, but for those of us who were fully in the computer age, those dead-tree sheets meant tedious extra work.
Nowadays, I get the same feeling of dread when I open an email to see a Microsoft Word document attached. Time and effort are about to be wasted cleaning up someone’s archaic habits. A Word file is the story-fax of the early 21st century: cumbersome, inefficient, and a relic of obsolete assumptions about technology. It’s time to give up on Word.
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Today, it’s become an overbearing boss, one who specializes in make-work. Part of this is Microsoft’s more-is-more approach to adding capabilities, and leaving all of them in the “on” position. Around the first time Clippy launched himself, uninvited, between me and something I was trying to write, I found myself wishing Word had a simple, built-in button for “cut it out and never again do that thing you just did.” It’s possible that the current version of Word does have one; I have no idea where among the layers of menus and toolbars it might be. All I really know how to do up there anymore is to go in and disable AutoCorrect, so that the program will type what I’ve typed, rather than what some software engineer thinks it should think I’m trying to type.
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For most people now, though, publishing means putting things on the Web. Desktop publishing has given way to laptop or smartphone publishing. And Microsoft Word is an atrocious tool for Web writing. Its document-formatting mission means that every piece of text it creates is thickly wrapped in metadata, layer on layer of invisible, unnecessary instructions about how the words should look on paper.
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Online publishing systems gag on this stuff; gremlins breed in the hidden spaces. Some publishing platforms have a built-in button especially for pasting text from Word, to clear away the worst of it, but they don’t work very well. Beyond the invisible code, there are those annoying typographical flourishes—the ordinal superscripts, the directional quotation marks, the automatic em dashes—that will create their own headaches in translation. Multiple websites exist simply to unmangle Word text and turn it into plain text or readable HTML.
When a standard tool requires this many workarounds, we need to find a new standard. Word wants to show that it knows the world isn’t merely about paper—you can make documents that have real, live hyperlinks in the text! You just can’t necessarily put those hyperlinks up on the Internet for anyone else to click on. Again and again, Word is defeated by the basic job of contemporary writing and editing: smoothly moving text back and forth among different platforms. The fundamental unit of Word is the single, proprietary file, anchored to one computer.
Link to the rest at Slate and thanks to K.W. for the tip.