This is a sample chapter from Writing For The Web.
Chapter II

What’s Wrong With Word

Microsoft Word is still the primary tool used by most writers I meet. In fact, for many writers, Word is synonymous with producing written content. Microsoft Word is writing. Even if they hate it, they can’t imagine not using it.

Maybe you’re one of those people. Maybe you’ve been stuck fighting with Word since you started writing on a computer. Fear not, a Word-free world awaits you. But before we get there, we’ve got to talk about the problems with including Word in your workflow, particularly if the final product is intended for the web.

Proprietary Software

Word is proprietary software. This is probably the biggest problem. Word’s file formats (like .doc and .docx) are owned by Microsoft. This means you need special software to read and edit them.

You see, Word documents aren’t just the text that you see on your screen. They have all kinds of encoding and special formatting and other information saved behind the scenes. And you can only manipulate Word documents if you know how to read that hidden information.

Microsoft used to be highly restrictive about revealing the specification for Word. They didn’t want other people building tools that could create and edit Word documents. Now they’ve relaxed a bit more, especially with the newer .docx formats. They still own the patents, the legal rights, but they’ve basically made a promise not to sue anyone who uses it. They released parts of the specification so other software can interpret Word files. (A lot of the spec has been reverse engineered anyway.) That’s how Google Docs, Apple’s Pages, Open Office and other applications are able to understand Word files.

But using a proprietary format is still restrictive. This affects those qualities we talked about before. Having to use proprietary, licensed software to access your data limits its accessibility, limits the transferability, and it’s not future proof.

There is no guarantee that you’ll be able to open a Word document you wrote in 2006 in 2046. It’s likely that there will be ways of converting your old Word docs, but you’ll be relying on other people to have built those tools and have permission from the corporations that own the rights. Trust me, you don’t want to have to ask for corporate or legal permission in order to access content you own.

Proprietary restrictions also make your content device dependent. When iOS devices (like the iPhone and iPad) were released, there was no good way to edit Word documents. Even now, you can preview them in your email on an iOS device, but you can’t natively edit them. For years, you had to rely on third-party software that supported Word’s file format. Only in June 2013, six years after the debut of iOS, did Microsoft release a version of Word for iPhone and iPad.

We all know how annoying it is to open a Word file in another application like Pages or Google Docs and see that your document looks different. This is partially because of the proprietary encoding. Even printers are required to decode your Word documents, sometimes resulting in print-outs that don’t match what you see on screen.

When you send Word documents to your friends or editors or clients, they have to have the same software you do – especially if they want to see exactly what you see – which makes sharing and collaborating harder than it should be.

Think about how few tools there are to even edit Word documents. Your primary choices are Microsoft’s official Word, Apple’s Pages, Google Docs and Open Office. This lack of tools is largely because of the proprietary restrictions. When we start talking about the non-proprietary alternatives to Word docs, you’ll see how many other tools and options there are.

Form & Function

When you’re writing in Word, you’re not just composing your text, you’re also typesetting it. Composition is about creating and structuring your content. This is a distinct conceptual and mental process from styling your content. They should be kept separate.

Changing typefaces, deciding line spacing, making headlines bold, justifying text, these are all presentational decisions that are separate from writing itself. You shouldn’t have to worry about how your content will look while you’re composing. But with Word, the two are deeply intertwined. When you have to worry about these things, the friction of the creation process increases.

“Writing is the logical and artful arrangement of words to express thoughts. It is not choosing fonts, indentations, headers, footers, gutters, and margins.” –Matthew Lowes

Even if you try to ignore the stylistic decisions, Word applies them automatically. At the very least, you get stuck with Word’s default styles. Your content will not be separate from all kinds of formatting junk.

Why should your content be separate from formatting information? In short, conflating form and function lowers the versatility, transferability, and accessibility of your work. Let’s use the physical notebook analogy again: Your content in a notebook is completely connected to its presentational form. The paper, the ink, the style of your handwriting, they’re all intertwined with the content. The only way to separate the two is to rewrite the content in a different medium. The same goes for digital work. The more your content is intertwined with form, the less versatile it is. We’ll touch on this more in the “Digital Content” section.

WYSIWYG

Whiseewhatnow? WYSIWYG – pronounced wiz-ee-wig – stands for “what you see is what you get.” WYSIWYG editors render your presentational formatting as you work. You might not be familiar with the term, but you’re definitely familiar with the functionality.

While writing a document, you highlight a section of text and click the little “I” button to make it italic, and the text instantly looks italic. That’s WYSIWYG.

This is how Word, and other WYSIWYG editors, attempt to make the typesetting decisions easier on you. These kinds of editors are intended to lower the friction in making stylistic choices.

WYSIWYG editors have a lot of problems just by the nature of what they’re trying to accomplish because they hide the formatting instructions from you. When you highlight text and make it bold, you’re adding information, code, that says “make this text bold.” But the editor doesn’t show you those instructions, it just renders the result: bold text.

This seems great at first, since nobody wants to read formatting instructions alongside content. But keeping those instructions hidden can cause a lot of frustration later on.

When you have weird formatting bugs that you can’t seem to get rid of – like a certain headline appearing bold even though you keep telling it not to be bold, or pasted-in text that just doesn’t look right, or inconsistent styles despite you, the user, doing the same thing consistently – it’s all because of the WYSIWYG editor. Since it’s hiding all the formatting instructions from you, you can easily end up with competing and overlapping instructions, which cause weird rendering issues. And when you attempt to fix things, you’re typically adding even more instructions on top of what’s already there, which will likely make the situation even worse.

That’s when you sigh in exasperation because no matter what you do, “it just won’t look right!”

Those familiar with writing in WYSIWYG editors are no strangers to its frustrations. These problems aren’t confined to Word; you’re likely to encounter the same issues in WordPress’s visual editor, Google Docs, Apple’s Pages, and every other WYSIWYG tool out there. The frustration and the friction added by them are hardly worth the benefits.

Bad At Its Job

The above issues I’ve discussed are design decisions, which is to say they are intentional choices made by Microsoft. Word was made this way because Microsoft was okay with the trade-offs. Word is intentionally proprietary, it intentionally combines typsetting and composing, and it intentionally uses a WYSIWYG editor. These aren’t bugs or mistakes, they’re supposed to be features.

I’ve been criticizing them as intentional design decisions. I don’t think the trade-offs are worth it. But even if we accept them as features, and accept the trade-offs, we’d still have the problem of implementation. These features are not executed well. There is so much stuff that Word is supposed to do, that it’s designed to do, but that it does poorly.

The proprietary formatting doesn’t only cause problems between Word and other applications. Microsoft can’t make Word documents work seamlessly between different versions of Word itself. You would at least expect that the company that owns the format would be able to make it render consistently.

Consider the typesetting. Word documents aren’t well designed from a typographic standpoint. It forces you to deal with stylistic decisions, whether or not you want to, and then does a terrible job of creating a professional-looking document.

While every WYSIWYG editor is prone to the overlapping instruction problem, Word is particularly bad. Other editors compensate by allowing you to switch into a mode that lets you view the formatting instructions – like WordPress’s “Visual/Text” tabs – but Word doesn’t. You’re left in the dark about the mysterious inner-workings of Word’s formatting rules.

It has a built-in track changes function, to attempt to satisify some of the preservability needs we talked about above, but the functionality is really annoying. This is not a pleasant interface for editing a document:

Microsoft Word Track Changes

The interface and controls in general are pretty bad, and they keep changing. Many writers just end up ignoring a lot of the tools built into Word because they’re poorly designed and confusing.

Microsoft Word Ribbons

This is a screenshot of Word’s different ribbon toolbars. These are just the toolbars! There are even more options buried in the drop-down menus.

The application is bloated. It produces file sizes that are unnecessarily big. It allows for macros to be executed when you open a document, which makes you vulnerable to security exploits, such as viruses. And the list goes on…

“The word processor is a stupid and grossly inefficient tool for preparing text for communication with others.” –Allin Cottrell

Don’t even get me started on Clip Art.

Buy The Book