no, Microsoft Word really is that bad

My family will tell you that I’ve been difficult to be around for the past few days — grumpy, impatient. And there’s a straightforward reason for that: in order to work on revisions for a forthcoming book, I’ve been using Microsoft Word.

It’s become so commonplace for people to hate Word that a counterintuitive Slate post praising it was long overdue, but even by Slate standards Heather Schwedel has done a poor job. For one thing, she shows just how informed she is about these matters by referring to “the unfamiliar, bizarro-world file format RTF” — a format created by Microsoft. But when she says that her devotion to Word is a function of her being “a copy editor and thus prone to fussy opinions about fonts and formatting and all such things” — it is to laugh. Because if you care about “fonts and formatting and all such things” Word is the worst possible application to deal with.

As Louis Menand wrote some years ago, with the proper emphasis, “Microsoft Word is a terrible program.

To begin with, the designers of Word apparently believe that the conventional method of endnote numbering is with lowercase Roman numerals—i, ii, iii, etc. When was the last time you read anything that adhered to this style? … To make this into something recognizably human, you need to click your way into the relevant menu (View? Insert? Format?) and change the i, ii, iii, etc., to 1, 2, 3, etc. Even if you wanted to use lowercase Roman numerals somewhere, whenever you typed “i” Word would helpfully turn it into “I” as soon as you pressed the space bar. Similarly, if, God forbid, you ever begin a note or a bibliography entry with the letter “A.,” when you hit Enter, Word automatically types “B.” on the next line. Never, btw (which, unlike “poststructuralism,” is a word in Word spellcheck), ask that androgynous paper clip anything. S/he is just a stooge for management, leading you down more rabbit holes of options for things called Wizards, Macros, Templates, and Cascading Style Sheets. Finally, there is the moment when you realize that your notes are starting to appear in 12-pt. Courier New. Word, it seems, has, at some arbitrary point in the proceedings, decided that although you have been typing happily away in Times New Roman, you really want to be in the default font of the original document. You are confident that you can lick this thing: you painstakingly position your cursor in the Endnotes window (not the text!, where irreparable damage may occur) and click Edit, then the powerful Select All; you drag the arrow to Normal (praying that your finger doesn’t lose contact with the mouse, in which case the window will disappear, and trying not to wonder what the difference between Normal and Clear Formatting might be) and then, in the little window to the right, to Times New Roman. You triumphantly click, and find that you are indeed back in Times New Roman but that all your italics have been removed.

This kind of disaster — and worse — still happens. In the document I’ve been working on recently, I was conversing with my editors in the comments pane about the advisability (or lack thereof) of certain changes, and then at a certain point, without warning, every time I tried to type a comment Word would paste in a paragraph I had recently deleted from another page. I wasn’t choosing to paste — I wasn’t even using any special keys (Command, Control, Option). I was just typing letters of the alphabet. And Word insisted on inserting an entire paragraph every time my fingers hit the keys. I ended up having to write all my comments in my text editor and then paste them into the comment box. I was grateful that Word allowed me to do that.

If you really care about “fonts and formatting and all such things” Word is a nightmare, because in such matters its consistent practice is to do what it thinks you probably want to do, or what it thinks you should do. Contrast that to a program that genuinely cares about formatting, LaTeX, which always does precisely what you tell it to do. Now, this mode of doing business can generate problems of its own, as every user of LaTeX knows, since from time to time you will manage to tell it to do something that you don’t really want it to do. But those problems are always fixable, and over time you learn to avoid them, whereas in Word anything can happen at any time and you will often be completely unable either to figure out what happened or set it right.

In every book that I work on, the worst moment of the entire endeavor occurs when I have to convert my plain-text draft into Word format for my editors. I don’t have to open Word to do that, thanks to pandoc, whose use I explain here; but I know then that I have only a short time before they send me back an edited text which I will have to open in Word. And from that point on there can be no joy in the labor, only misery. Microsoft Word is not just a terrible program. It is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad program. It is the program than which no worse can be conceived. We hates it, preciousss. We hates it.

writing big

The bigger your writing project, the less likely it is that you’ll find a writing environment that’s adequate to your needs. When you’re writing a book, you need to find some way to juggle research, ideas, notes, drafts, outlines … which is hard to do.

As far as I know — I’d be happy to be corrected — the only product on the market that even tries to do all this in a single app is Scrivener, which many writers I know absolutely swear by. Me? I hate it. I freely acknowledge the irrationality of this hatred, but so it goes. I can objectively approve of the quality of an app and yet be frustrated by using it. I have the same visceral dislike of Evernote, though in that case sheer ugliness is the chief problem. But both Scrivener and Evernote are created by people who follow the more-features-the-better philosophy, and that’s one I am congenitally uncomfortable with. (The user manual for Scrivener is over 500 pages long.)

A few years ago I thought my answer for big projects might be Ulysses 2. I couldn’t put PDFs in it, but I didn’t mind that because I like to annotate PDFs and you need a separate app to do that properly; and in other respects it had a lot going for it. I could write in plain text with Markdown, and could always have visible onscreen notes, or an outline, for the chapter I was working on and even, in a small pane on the left, the text of another chapter. Also, a Ulysses document was basically a package containing text and RTF files with some metadata — easy to unpack and open in other apps if necessary.

I liked Ulysses, but it tended to be unstable and some of its behavior was inconsistent (especially in exporting documents for printing or sending to others). I was pleased to learn that the makers were working on a updated version — but surprised when Ulysses III came out and proved to be a completely new application. And after I tried it out, surprise gave way to disappointment: essentially, it seems to me, it’s now an ordinary document-based text editor — an attractive one, to be sure, but not at all suited to the creation and management of major projects. As far as I can tell, you can replicate all the features of Ulysses III, except for its appearance, for free with TextWrangler and pandoc.

I use phrases like “it seems to me” and “as far as I can tell” because Ulysses III is getting some good press: see here and here and here and here. But these tend to focus on how the app looks, how well it syncs with iCloud, and its export options — not its status as an environment for organizing your writing, especially a project of any size. Ulysses III seems to me a nice app if you’re writing blog posts, but if you’re working on something big, it’s a significant step backwards from previous versions of the app.

are these apps changing the way we write?

I’ll admit to some disappointment with this essay on new writing tools by Paul Ford — Ford is a smart writer and the topic seems a good fit for him, but I don’t think he gets as deeply as he could into the legitimacy of the claims made by the makers of some of these writing tools.

As far as I can tell, the tools that he examines either aren’t really about writing at all — for instance, Ghost is an environment for publishing stuff online, stuff that you might write anywhere else — or they amount to taking already-familiar desktop writing tools and putting them online to make collaboration easier. That’s about it.

Not an inconsiderable achievement, mind you. Consider Editorially: it takes a practice that some of us have been following for several years now — writing in a plain-text editor with Markdown syntax which you can convert later to HTML or .doc format — , situates it in a super-attractive editing environment, and encourages sharing your writing with collaborators or editors. If I wrote regularly that way, I’d love Editorially.

Fargo does much the same for outlining — though outlining doesn’t seem naturally collaborative to me, so I’m not sure what the use-cases for Fargo are. But just as Editorially won’t be new to you if you’ve been following plain-text gospel, Fargo won’t be new to you if you’ve used, say, OmniOutliner or, if you’re a real oldtimer, the greatly-lamented DOS-only GrandView. In short, even if the tools you make are really cool, you’re not “reinventing” writing just by coding them in HTML5 and putting them in the cloud.

But I do think that a handful of recent apps have indeed made some significant innovations in writing technology, and I’ll talk about them in some near-future posts.

features and featurelessness

I like the general theme of this post very much — we do pay a price, often too high a price, for adding features to our software (and other things) — but this paragraph is wrong:

A perfectly blank sheet of white paper is a tool of infinite possibility. For input you could use a pencil, a pen, a crayon, a marker, a stamp, a brush or more. You could use all of those at once. You can write or draw or paint in any direction. Even multiple directions on the same sheet. You can use any color you want. How you enter data onto it and how that information is structured seems almost limitless. That flexibility and power is available to you because of [its] lack of features. In fact, it is featureless — devoid of them.

No, a sheet of paper has many features — traits — and they are worth noting. Compared to most things in our world, it is remarkably expansive in the two dimensions of height and width, considering its lack of depth. It’s also flexible and foldable. These features are sometimes wonderful (e.g., when you want to write a detailed letter and you only have one sheet of paper, which you can fold into a small square and stick in your back pocket) and sometimes regrettable (e.g., when the letter gets all crimped from staying in your pocket, or when you can't find anything flat and solid to write on). Most of the paper we see every day is also designed so as to receive quite easily all sorts of marks and impressions: the same sheet of paper can go through many different kinds of printers, can be typed on with a typewriter, and, as the post notes, can be marked on by pencils, pens, markers, paint brushes, and who knows what else. This is a feature, not featurelessness. Curiously enough, a piece of paper is rarely square, and as a rectangle offers us the choice of portrait or landscape mode; however, once one of those modes has been chosen it’s not possible to change completely to the other. Unless you turn the page over. We find the spatial proportions of an ordinary piece of paper — or a stack of such pieces, in the form of a codex or notebook — so appealing that we design electronic readers to resemble it. We like its receptiveness to marking so much that we keep hoping for someone to design a really excellent tablet-and-stylus computer. A plain sheet of paper, then, has a great many features, and all of them are worth thinking about. Similarly, when I write in a text editor rather than a word processor, that’s not because my text editor has fewer features than Microsoft Word, but rather because the features it does have are better suited to the task of writing.

“kill your word processor”

Word, Google Office and OpenOffice all come with a bewildering array of typesetting and automation settings that you can play with forever. Forget it. All that stuff is distraction, and the last thing you want is your tool second-guessing you, “correcting” your spelling, criticizing your sentence structure, and so on. The programmers who wrote your word processor type all day long, every day, and they have the power to buy or acquire any tool they can imagine for entering text into a computer. They don’t write their software with Word. They use a text-editor, like vi, Emacs, TextPad, BBEdit, Gedit, or any of a host of editors. These are some of the most venerable, reliable, powerful tools in the history of software (since they’re at the core of all other software) and they have almost no distracting features — but they do have powerful search-and-replace functions. Best of all, the humble .txt file can be read by practically every application on your computer, can be pasted directly into an email, and can’t transmit a virus.

— Cory Doctorow on “Writing in an Age of Distraction”. I don’t follow all the practices he suggests, but his advice is thoughtful and worthy of serious consideration by anyone who wants to write more and better.

a common thread

Just in case it’s not obvious, there is at least one common thread in these recent posts about how I read and how I write: Distraction is the enemy. Yeah, I know, you think you’re a master of multitasking, but you’re not. Seriously, you are not. Okay, I mean it, Give it up. For most of us, focus and concentration are the pearls of great price, and if we want to get them, we have to be prepared to give up options. Options, possibilities, choices are the obvious enemies of focus. This is why I do most of my writing in my office, because when I’m at home I always have the option of seeing what’s on TV to watch or in the pantry to snack on. I have options at the office too — primarily seeing if there are any friends around to talk to — but those typically don’t afflict me quite as much as the tube and food do, not because I don’t like my friends, but because I know that a planned brief visit can easily turn into an hour-long schmooze session. TV and pantry are usually briefer stops. Of course the internet provides options almost wherever I am. Years ago, I would sometimes take the Metra train into Chicago and work all day at a coffee shop in the station — the buzz of commuters somehow helped me concentrate, like a kind of animate white noise — but the advent of public wireless access has made that a less Spartan, and therefore less attractive, alternative than it used to be. And you know, I need the internet. I need to look stuff up. I need to find PDFs that I’ve saved so that I can copy quotes and paste them into essays I’m writing; I need to check dates or confirm authorship. So what I have to do is find that right balance: the balance that allows me access to what I need while offering minimal additional distractions. One of the ways I get that is by reducing the number of options available to me in my writing environment. I don’t need to be wondering what this essay would look like in another font, or with different spacing. (For that matter, I don’t need to be trying to decide which fountain pen to use with my Moleskine notebook — or should I be using an Alwych? But that’s a story for another post.) I need to achieve the highest level of attention possible to writing the words I need to write. For some people that means using a full-screen editor like WriteRoom, and while I think WriteRoom is cool, I don’t like going in and out of full-screen mode all the time, which is what I have to do as I work with my research. If I were a fiction writer Writeroom might be more attractive to me. But for me BBEdit seems to hit the sweet spot. You mileage may vary, of course — but I can’t bring myself to believe that Microsoft Word is the sweet spot for any writer.

what to write with

Before the Kindle came along, I wasn’t looking for it — I wasn’t in search of a new set of tools for reading. I was (and still am!) happy with books and with the tactics I have developed over the years for reading, learning, marking, and inwardly digesting them. (Allusion alert!) I bought the Kindle on a whim and, as I have said, like it more than I thought I would, at least for some uses. But tools for writing I have been thinking about for a long, long time. Like many other people, I think Microsoft Word (for the Mac, anyway) reached its highest level at version 5.1, released in 1991, and started sliding precipitously downhill thereafter. Long ago I came to agree with Louis Menand: “It is time to speak some truth to power in this country: Microsoft Word is a terrible program.” But unlike Menand, I not only spoke such truth, I acted on it. About four years ago I deleted Word, and indeed all Microsoft applications, from my computer. And I have been a happier man ever since. When I tell people that I don’t even have Word on my computer, they look at me as though I has just told them that I don’t have electricity in my house. “Then what do you use?” To most of the folks I talk to, Word simply is writing, or at least writing on the computer — especially if they’re not old enough to remember the days when WordPerfect was a legitimate rival to Word. So what do I use? Well, to format documents I use Pages, but I never write in it. In fact, I think word processing programs in general, while fine for processing words — that is, preparing them to be seen by others — are inimical to writing itself. I write everything — blog posts like this, articles, class notes, and whole books — in a programmer’s text editor called BBEdit. I started moving in this direction nine years ago, when I read Neal Stephenson’s little book In the Beginning Was the Command Line — which you can download for free here — but it took me a while to wean myself completely from dependence on Word. But eventually I achieved my freedom. Most of the posts in the early days of this blog are laying out topics for further discussion — I haven’t said my last word about the Kindle, despite my enthusiastic endorsement of PEG’s bottom-line comment, posted just below; and I will have much, much more to say about the varieties of screen experience — and this is another post like that. Later on I’ll describe the benefits of working in a text-only environment. So please stay tuned.