Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Word is evil

That is, Microsoft Word.

This is a post about tools of the trade rather than craft. But does a sharper chisel make for finer carving? Does a softer brush make a more supple line?

As a Microsoft Word trainer, among other things, which is to say an advanced Word trainer, who has tried and tested virtually every feature of the tool, I often have to tell users that 'Word is evil.' Not evil in the moral sense, but so badly designed and incoherently implemented that it will inevitably frustrate your intentions and prolong the document development task.

Just explaining why would be the start of a hundred posts or more, but consider the almost universally misunderstood implementation of document styles (and themes, and all that), or the frustrating complexity of page breaks, section breaks, and running headers and footers, not to mention the punishing task of inserting simple images.

And yet, as a writer I've used Word for every short story and every novel I have ever published. Why? Because Word and Microsoft Office are ubiquitous, and all our old files are in the same format. Publishers prefer Word files (or sometimes RTF), and now we use the track changes feature to work through editorial issues, so swapping between applications becomes challenging.

And curiously, about the only kind of document Word is any good for, the long document with minimal formatting, is suitable for manuscripts.

Are there alternatives? Apple's Pages is an excellent word processor with a clean interface and less feature clutter, but its export to .doc format is not seamless. Google Docs is clear and functional, and brilliant for outlines, notes and even drafting short inserts from any location, but I like my core writing to be stored somewhere other than the cloud. On the iPad, I admire the simplicity of IAWriter, but although a distraction-free writing window is wonderful, I also want to be able to choose my favourite fonts (Cochin for drafting, Times New for fair copy).

Tools and processes have a subtle relationship. Because I keep my notes and outlines in notebooks and on paper with pencil, I don't need an outlining and note-taking tool added to my word processor. I do long for a simpler, less complex writing environment (there's a reason why George R. R. Martin clings to an obsolete word processor), but I look forward to the day when my writing can follow me everywhere, from the iPad to the study to work. Let's just not pretend that Word is the solution to this problem.