The Last Word

Tom Scocca puts MS Word in it’s place:

What makes Word unbearable is the output. Like the fax machine, Word was designed to put things on paper. It was a tool of the desktop-publishing revolution, allowing ordinary computer users to make professional (or at least approximately professional) document layouts and to print them out. That’s great if you’re making a lot of church bulletins or lost-dog fliers. Keep on using Word. (Maybe keep better track of your dog, though.)

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. Microsoft showed users how it feels about sharing work when it switched its default format from .doc to .docx in Office 2007, locking old and new Word customers out of each other’s files. (There are workarounds, of course. There are always workarounds.)

At my last job, My computer was upgraded and I received a shinny new version of Office 2007, which is the 2nd most user un-friendly piece of software I’ve ever had the misfortune of being saddled with.* Suddenly, all the menus were int he most counter intuitive places, buried three or four layers deep. I’ve tried just about every alternative platform known to man or best, but they are all second rate Word knockoffs. Even Open Office has turned into a buggy Word emulator that for some reason can’t even do a proper word count. I eventually did what Mr. Scocca writes in his article, and abandoned Word for Google Docs and TextEdit for office work and Scrivener for all my long form prose, which saves me the hassle of having to deal with Word at all anymore. Which is a food thing. Attempting to write fiction in Word was making me yearn for the days when writers made their own quills by strangling geese.


* First prize for worthless software is Innovative Millennium,  a bloated POS Enterprise ILS, whose ostensible purpose is to run a library’s on-line catalog. It was originally designed in the 80s and you can tell, because it still uses a command line for the backend, and users need to know boolean operators to perform searches with any level of specificity beyond a subject heading or title. Subsequent upgrades are just new modules of code slapped on top of the old stuff. It works about as well as you’d imagine.