It's Not Quite Time To Kill Microsoft Word

Over at Slate, Tom Scocca has written an eloquent article about how it's time for Microsoft Word to die. I agree with him to a point, but I think he's pitched the use of the tool slightly wrong in final analysis. Giz reader Michael pointed me in the direction of this piece, which he'd spotted at the Sydney Morning Herald; it's originally a Slate opinion piece, and the SMH's version cuts out some of the more code-centric parts of the article -- so I'll refer to the Slate original instead.

It's also worth pointing out that I don't use Word myself on a day to day basis much at all -- and I'll get to why that's so shortly.

Scocca's article is a reasonable length read; you can peruse it here if you'd like.

If you'd prefer not to (or you're just time poor), the basic gist of Scocca's argument is that Word is astonishingly poorly laid out and badly suited to the Internet age, because content copied directly from a Word document can bring a lot of baggage with it when dumped into a web content management system.

There's a lot there that I simply can't argue with, because it makes perfect sense. If you dump Word content directly into a CMS, it may well go a bit nuts parsing all the additional layout code that surrounds the average Word file.

The same was true way back in the day when I used to assess web publishing suites; the kind of code that FrontPage used to throw out used to make me want to throw up. Its replacement, Expression Web may well do things in a more elegant manner, but it's been years since I've been neck deep in such stuff.

Scocca's right, but at the same time I think he's incorrect in calling for Word's death, and for two very important reasons.

Firstly, it's the problem of using the wrong tool for the job. That's pretty simple stuff (and in some ways it is Scocca's argument) -- but just because Word isn't an elegant web content creation tool directly doesn't mean it's a bad tool per se. Even Scocca's on board with this to an extent, albeit a slightly dismissive extent

"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.) "

My bigger issue with it is that for the vast majority of web content creation, you're doing a creative job. A word processor, or a blank terminal screen, or wordpad, or textpad, or your choice of any of a bajillion* other text wrangling bits of software out there is just a blank slate, and how you choose to work with it is up to you. Scocca states, for example, that he sometimes dumps text into Word purely to get a word count.

That's one expensive piece of word counting software, but if that works for him, all the better.

Likewise, if you're creatively comfortable writing in Word, then why not do that? I know people who are extremely talented writers but feel extremely awkward outside their software comfort zones, and it'll show in their writing. Equally, you can do some interesting things within Word (or other applications) to improve your writing; one tip I picked up from a fellow hack was to change the entire font of your document prior to submission to something totally different.

Why? A simple matter of perception; when you read through the reformatted document you're not looking at the same thing you were before, and you're therefore more likely to pick up errors.

I did note above that I don't use Word myself on a day to day basis, and this is exactly why; I've got a routine for writing (largely based around Bean) that works for me. It might work just fine for others, or not at all, and that's fine with me.

There are also some minor nitpicky things that irked me; Scocca writes

"It's possible that the current version of Word does have [a particular function]; I have no idea where among the layers of menus and toolbars it might be. All I really know how to do up there anymore is to go in and disable AutoCorrect, so that the program will type what I've typed, rather than what some software engineer thinks it should think I'm trying to type."

While I'm not a big fan of the Ribbon interface per se, it's just an interface. It won't bite you if you click it, and if you click it, you may well learn something. But that's a nitpick, undoubtedly, as is my ire at the following sentence.

"For short blog posts, I write straight into the publisher."

Ouch. Bad, bad, bad idea. Which isn't to say that I haven't done exactly the same thing myself from time to time; but just because I'm doing it does that make it intelligent. Indeed, based on some feedback I get, nothing I do is intelligent -- but I digress. Writing straight into a web content management system typically gives you no backup whatsoever. Have an interruption to your Internet connection? Work may be gone. Have a browser page or rendering crash? Work may be gone. Accidentally click on the "publish" button? Work isn't gone so much as it's gone up way before it may have been ready!

Yes, I'm guilty of all of those. I get why it feels necessary --- sometimes there's a burning desire to just get a story out there -- but it isn't at all wise.

Ultimately, if you're creating something of value to read -- whether it's a column such as this one, an invoice for your business or a blog post about how much you love Belgian cheeses presented artistically on the backs of live tortoises -- the choice of tool doesn't make anywhere near as much difference as the words you use. I'm not a big Word user, but I can't see a real argument for its death; merely the appropriate use of its particular functions as best suits the end user. *A technical term from the making-up-numbers-industry. [Slate]

Image: quinn.anya