Escape from Microsoft Word

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in microsoft on (#2TKJ)
Edward Mendelson over at the NYT writes:
Auden’s contrast between mediocrity that gets things right and genius that is always wrong is useful in thinking about many fields other than politics. Take, for example, the instruments used for writing. The word processor that most of the world uses every day, Microsoft Word, is a work of genius that’s almost always wrong as an instrument for writing prose. Almost-forgotten WordPerfect—once the most popular word-processing program, still used in a few law offices and government agencies, and here and there by some writers who remain loyal to it—is a mediocrity that’s almost always right.
Good look at the quirks of the modern office's favorite bit of software from a more philosophical point of view. It starts with a quote from Plato, for starters.

WP had a simpler model (Score: 2, Interesting)

by mth@pipedot.org on 2014-10-23 03:16 (#2TM4)

My first urge was to start ranting how Word is anything but genius, but I calmed myself down and read the article first (that's allowed here, right? ;). I think I understand what the author is saying, although I don't entirely agree with it.

WP had (I haven't used it in decades, so I don't know if it's still true) a much simpel model for storing the document than Word. It was just a bunch of "bold on", "bold off" etc codes, similar to HTML tags. There was a mode in which you could display and edit those markup codes directly. That made it relatively easy to visualize what WP was doing internally.

WP was also terrible in my opinion. It would often get the codes into such a mess that the high-level editing couldn't produce the right result anymore and you were forced to hand-correct the markup tags. Some people liked having that kind of low-level control, but to me it felt like being forced to clean up after the program made a mess.

When I first used Word (Word for Windows 2.0), I really liked it. No more messing around with markup codes. And wysiwyg was great for trying different layouts without having to make a dozen prints. But that changed as both Word and the documents I was editing became more complex. Instead of short letters and greeting cards, I started to write reports with embedded illustrations and formulas, tables of contents and often co-writing them with other students.

In particular having multiple people working on a document caused problems. Track Changes didn't play well with auto-numbering and ToC, marking text inserted automatically by Word as changes. Different authors had different ideas about layout: some used direct formatting and some used styles, but even the ones using styles picked them based on the way they looked and not for their semantic role in the document. And they would use various tricks to get the right visual effect, which would fail when other parts of the document changed, or even when switching to a different printer. (If you want a page break before a new chapter, configure that in the header numbering style instead of attempting to fake it by inserting empty lines until the page wraps, grrr...)

Coming back to the article, WP has a simpler model that the writer can directly see and manipulate. This allows the writer to bend WP to their will with some moderate effort: it is not WP being mediocre but right, it is WP being mediocre and the user making it right. Word has a more complex and less visible model, which is great when it works well, but very hard to diagnose when it fails. And it will fail, both because users are not using it properly and because Word itself has bugs and misfeatures that will mess up the document. Comparing Word to Plato suggests that it isn't possible to do real-world word processing based on an ideal model. It might be true that any tool has to compromise to real-world concerns at some point, but I'm convinced that it is possible to do so with far less kludges than Word.

Word tries to support two approaches at once: direct formatting where you change the properties of the text until it looks good and structured documents where the look of a text fragment is determined by its style. I think a lot of problems could be avoided if each document would use either direct formatting or styles exclusively.

I also think Word encourages bad habits by offering formatting features at every step of the way. It distracts from the writing of the text itself, it often leads to inconsistent layout decisions and it wastes time because effort is put into formatting text that will later be deleted or merged. So the last decade and a half I've been using DocBook, HTML and MarkDown, where I can write focusing on just the text itself and worry about the layout later.
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