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The Silicon Amanuensis: Microsoft Word Revisited

Steve Beisner -- April 15, 2012

What piece of modern technology is most responsible for the not-fit-for-polite-company vocabulary in your everyday speech? If you answered "Microsoft Word," you're in good company. But is Microsoft Word really that bad? Yes, and in some ways it may be getting worse.

The mis-design of Word has been a theme in many of my articles about tools for writers. A few days ago Tom Scocca, writing in Slate Magazine, confirmed many of the complaints I've had with MS Word as used by writers: unhelpful "help"; bizarrely organized toolbars and menus; display bugs that seem to lose text; auto-formatting and auto-correction that screw up formatting and introduce errors; the senseless and trouble-inducing change from .doc format to .docx format, which sets sharing with colleagues back decades... the list is long.

Over the years Word has grown more and more complex, through a process that Microsoft touts as "simplification." But in the speech of the wizards of Redmond, we've all come to understand that "simple" means "complicated and obscure".

But these things are not the central complaint that Tom lays out in his criticism of Word. The point he makes, and it's a good one, is that Microsoft Word has not kept up: most publishing today takes place on the web. If you've ever tried to write something in word and then move it to the web you know the problem. Word does not like HTML, the format of the web. Word speaks HTML with the same degree of fluency as my uncle from rural North Louisiana speaks Mandarin Chinese.

The good news is that there are alternatives to Word. I've written about many of them: OpenOffice/LibreOffice/NeoOffice is a good example. It's highly compatible with Word, but has a cleaner design and great support for the web. There are also specialized programs like Scrivener designed explicitly for writers.

So if Word has been raising your blood pressure, read Tom's article, then try some of the alternatives.