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Death to Microsoft Word

15 April 2012

From Slate:

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.

. . . .

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.

. . . .

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.

. . . .

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.

Writing Tools

35 Comments to “Death to Microsoft Word”

  1. Oh yes, oh yes. Word has triggered my OCD-freak gene and I’m spending far too much time trying to figure out how to circumvent its most annoying and irritating features. Since I don’t know squat about computer programming or code, I’m only able to attack it from the outside in rather than inside out.

    I’d dump it all together (for my own writing, I have) but almost every writer I work with uses Word. Plus, Smashwords wants everybody to use Word-sorry, Mark Coker, but that was one instance when going with the flow was a big mistake. Until Word falls out of use altogether and joins the old typewriters in my closet, I’ll just keep chipping away at it (and occasionally resorting to my favorite all-purpose tool, the ballpeen hammer).

  2. P.G.

    Word was mature with Word 2. Since then it’s become an decrepit mess, almost impossible to use, with crap all over the screen I didn’t write.

    I’ve got a current version of it around somewhere, but I never use it. Pity, ‘cos Outlook is a half way decent email client, but letting the whole she-bang onto my computer is a bit too much for sense.

    Word needs to die. Jarte is a perfectly decent WP, and for writing books, WriteWayPro, Page Four or Scivener work just fine and dandy.


    • Yep, I use Scrivener. I love how I can just write with it and only worry about formatting when I’m done, not to mention all the organizational and other features.

      • I’ve gone Scrivener, too. And I intend to experiment to see if Smashwords will accept a Scrivener-generated “Word” file. If so, I am through with Word forever.

        • Yes, Jaye, Scrivener-generated Word files work fine for Smashwords. And from what I’ve observed, Word seems to the the major problem for people trying to get their books converted properly for Smashwords distribution.

  3. I use Word 2000 by choice and I’m rather fond of it. So shoot me…

    • I use Word X for the Mac, Service Release 1. I have pretty much gotten it kneeling and calling me Queen. I will never upgrade again if I can possibly avoid it, because it is such a pain to discipline each new version, since MS can’t be bothered to put Word’s preferences in a separate place that can be accessed again with a new version. (You’d think they’d learn from World of Warcraft add-ons, which keep your preferences safely tucked elsewhere so they can upgrade without making you completely re-do everything!)

  4. I couldn’t agree more. I often use LibreOffice, which has plenty of its own cruft and occasionally makes me pull my hair out. But at least it uses an open standard format (the Open Document Format), so I’m not locked in (it’s supported by numerous different programs). Many times I just use a plain text editor, and worry about formatting later.

    Scrivener looks interesting, but it doesn’t yet work on Linux, so I’ll have to wait to try it.

    • Actually, Scrivener released a Linux Beta back in November. There’s a learning curve but it’s actually pretty easy to use.

  5. Word 2003 updated the word count feature, it doesn’t scroll maniacally down the page like 2000, and it meets my needs. I’ve been thinking I ‘should’ upgrade but haven’t wanted to pay the $$. Now, maybe I’ll keep plugging away with what I’ve got.

  6. It never truly hit me how overly-complicated Word is (and I use 2000) until I started trying to explain to others what I’ve learned about producing clean files. I’m working on a cheat sheet right now and the darned thing is pages long.

    But, I will state in Word’s defense, NOTHING else I’ve found so easily and elegantly produces print documents for individual use. I may have to keep it around just for that.

    • Jaye,

      But, I will state in Word’s defense, NOTHING else I’ve found so easily and elegantly produces print documents for individual use. I may have to keep it around just for that.

      That is what Word is intended do. When folks use it for anything else and then whine about it, it drives me crazy. Yeah, I know Microsoft says it can do other stuff, but it is really optimized for one thing, putting words on paper. I think it is really good at that and that it is how it is primarily used by the vast majority of the people who use it. It is a lousy tool for writers (who really don’t need a tool for directly producing paper output).

      I read this article earlier this week and I wondered if anyone would see the flaw in this article. Laughably, the article says that

      For most people now, though, publishing means putting things on the Web.

      Uh, no. Not even close. There are roughly 500 million users of Microsoft Word. There are about a billion people who work in an office environment. Those people need to print stuff to the office printer. The number of people who need to publish to the web is a tiny fraction of those numbers. Where do you think Microsoft is going to put their effort?

      The writer of this article is ignorant and self-absorbed. Much of what he writes is wrong or misleading. He does not understand anything about how to use Word. Which is Word’s greatest strength and greatest weakness. People can use it for years without having the slightest clue about what it really is.

      • You nailed it, William. I’ve been using Word for years and it wasn’t until I got into epublishing that I’ve been forced to figure out how it actually works.

        Since so many of the writers I work with (actually, all but one) use Word, I can’t desert it. Despite all its helpfulness, it’s not impossible to produce a clean file.

  7. Word 2007 here. As I’m meatgrinders dance partner 40 times a month, I’ve learned about as much as there is to know about fixing my Word issues. I’ve also tried most of the competition. I doubt I could live without templates and style sheets. Formatting is a 5 minute job for a 5000 word proofed and ready piece and a novel isn’t much longer. Then again, I do things one specific way and evolve rarely. That makes all the difference.

  8. What we need is a word processor dedicated to e-publishing: that puts a familiar GUI front end on plain, old-fashioned html. Limited options for formatting: just optimized classes. All spacing defined in ems. With an export filter which cleanly translates tags for InDesign.

    The only thing I’d want to keep from Word is the robust search and replace.

    Word would still be needed for consumer use, but an html-based wp for publishing would be heaven sent for pro use.

    • That description made me drool and go dreamy-eyed, Camille.

      • Yes. This.

        GUI HTML/CSS editor for both prose and script formats with excellent search (including regex), and some way to handle the requisite changes that editors like to use (probably need XML for this). No charts. No databases or mail merge. No drawing tools (though image import OK).

        Overall, the goal: K.I.S.S.

        • There’s a simple and clean XML format called DocBook used for generating documentation on Linux. There are tools that can generate various formats from it, including HTML and PDF.

          I don’t know if there are tools available yet to generate .mobi and .epub, but if not it should be reasonably easy (for a developer) to create them.

          LibreOffice supports editing and saving in this format, although when I took a quick look at it before, it seemed to be missing some things.

          This is on my to do list to investigate (and write a blog post about) when I get time.

  9. BBEdit is a great text editor. I write in that, then copy to some other app for formatting, if needed.

  10. I guess I’ve just used Word for so many years it doesn’t bother me. I’m able to generate the html and pdf files I need to upload for Amazon eBooks and print books just fine. The key with Word on Smashwords is to make sure you’ve nuked the text for hidden style sets or hyperlinks and then save it in the MS Word ’97 – 2003 version. Smashword’s meatgrinder doesn’t care for 2007.

    Of course, I’m kind of stuck since my day job requires that I use Word and I prefer to keep my home system and work system synchronized.

  11. +1 for LibreOffice. I haven’t had Word on my system in years.

  12. I have always preferred WordPerfect over MS Word by sheer capability. It’s like comparing driving a luxury car vs. driving a Geo Metro. No comparison, really.

    I have, however, gone over to Scrivener and will only ever open up a Word document if there are no other alternatives.

  13. When it comes to publishing, this is not a new phenomenon. MS Word was driving typesetters mad long before the advent of e-books.

    I’m an old-school book typesetter. I learned my craft on dedicated computers that did nothing but set type. In the mid 1980s, I transferred my typesetting skills to the Mac and a laser printer, using PageMaker 1.0. My clients were non-fiction Big-6 publishers and their authors used Word (a few used WP; WordStar, even). So I learned to strip all Word’s formatting (misplaced tabs, double spaces after punctuation, extra line feeds, etc.) to produce a file clean enough that it wouldn’t choke PageMaker … and then Quark … and then, later on, ID, in order to create professional, well-designed book pages that met industry standards (i.e., kerning, word spacing, H&J, etc.)

    But sadly, some of today’s writers still cling to a typewriter mentality, even though many of them have never even used a typewriter. They tab for paragraph indents, they double-space after a period, and they add extra line hard returns (and often, soft returns) to create white space. I know this because I frequent enough online writers forums to see these questions raised week after week.

    As for Styles … let me tell you how many authors I’ve worked with who used Heading 1, with a sprinkling of Balloon Text, to type an entire manuscript … along with a soupcon of footnote text (the m/s had no footnotes) and the odd hyperlink (none of those, either).

    No matter what Microsoft wants you to believe, Word is not a page layout program or an e-book formatting tool. It’s a word processor, and it does it brilliantly.

    • Years ago I used a desktop publishing package on Sun workstations called FrameMaker (I don’t know the relationship between that and PageMaker, but they’re both owned by Adobe). Took forever to get the stylesheets right, but then you could use them unchanged everywhere.

      There’s an open source one called Scribus too. I’ve heard good things about it for things like newsletter publishing, but I haven’t used it.

    • Do you know if OpenOffice is any better for avoiding these kinds of problems?

  14. I always preferred the old Lotus WordPro to MS Word and still have it on my machine, but in the business/officer world MS Word is still the standard. The documents I receive for translation are in MS Word (if I’m lucky – frequently I also get PDF files, which are much worse) and the customers expect Word files in return.

  15. It’s perfectly true that MS Word sucks at web publishing.

    That’s because it was designed for complex office documents, and web publishing is something extra you can do which you really should use a better tool for.

    This article was also published in the Sydney Morning Herald, and one of the comments there summed up the article perfectly: “This hammer is terrible. I cannot unscrew anything with it and it is too big.”

    For complex office documents – comparing 500 page tracked change agreements, etc – few come even close to Word. Choose your tools.

  16. A couple years ago I got fed up with Word/OpenOffice and started looking for a tool that would let me just WRITE. I especially wanted something that would spring open at the merest touch and allow me to start typing without fumbling and losing the inspiration.

    I saw several options online, but none of them looked very well-developed, so I actually ended up turning to Windows’ Wordpad. Call me crazy, but I find it’s just the right balance of features and slimness– you can bold and change the font size, and that’s about it. It’s always sitting right there, ready to go on any Windows machine I happen to be using throughout the day, so I’m not locked down to certain machines with certain software on them. Also, the RTF files it turns out can be used anywhere by anything. They do have their issues, but it’s pretty easy to strip out the nonsense when necessary.

    Anybody else use this (or even Notepad?) and not too embarrassed to admit it?

    • I wrote a book in Mac’s TextEdit. And not even RTF, either. Any formatting was written in as raw HTML (for copying and pasting to Livejournal).

      I eventually ported it to Word, for various reasons involving Styles and search-and-replace, but the first draft? TextEdit.

  17. brendan stallard

    “Anybody else use this (or even Notepad?) and not too embarrassed to admit it?”


    Embarrassed? LOL…

    Jarte is based on Wordpad, very good piece of kit.

    Free, too, although I do buy the pro version, there’s no real difference.


  18. I was able to go Word-free during my 2-year unemployment because I already had Open Office on our home machines, and it makes a nice pdf file for anyone that needed to see what I wrote, or I could also save as .doc for Word users.

    The problem is open source is not universal. Too many people want to see .doc files, and hand out .doc templates, and I would send a heavily formatted file to work (new job) to just look at it in Word, and say ‘oh no!’ It wasn’t tragic, but if it’s formatted nice, it’s now obvious I didn’t care about appearances.

    What I needed to do was buy Word. Luckily, Microsoft (my friend?) offered a great deal for MS Office 2010 for $10. I get what One Note can do, and Sky Drive ain’t all it’s cracked up to be – yet, Word works great when I figure out where everything’s at (for the past ten or so years, I’ve used XP), except it sometimes hangs.

  19. Ah, as if spoken from my own heart! I use Word because I have to, because of all the other people who do, but for writing I still use an ancient version of WordPerfect, and more recently (for its brilliant organizational tools) Scrivener. My old WordPerfect has the huge advantage over Word that it puts out a relatively clean html file, which I can then easily edit. With Word, editing the html output is impossible.

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