Uber-science fiction author Charlie Stross unloads beautifully on the brain-eating zombie that is Microsoft Word, and I feel privileged to see it happen:
I hate Microsoft Word. I want Microsoft Word to die. I hate Microsoft Word with a burning, fiery passion. I hate Microsoft Word the way Winston Smith hated Big Brother. Our reasons are, alarmingly, not dissimilar …
Microsoft Word is a tyrant of the imagination, a petty, unimaginative, inconsistent dictator that is ill-suited to any creative writer’s use. Worse: it is a near-monopolist, dominating the word processing field. Its pervasive near-monopoly status has brainwashed software developers to such an extent that few can imagine a word processing tool that exists as anything other than as a shallow imitation of the Redmond Behemoth. But what exactly is wrong with it?
In simple terms, I agree, as do many of the nearly 300 commenters on Charlie’s blog. MS Word is a document editor with some word processing features tacked on, and it serves neither longform writers nor those writing primarily for online use. Worse, its monopoly has retarded progress in the writing world for far too long, and needs to have a wooden stake driven through its tired, monopolistic heart.
It is, however, very good at generating memos.
I haven’t owned a copy of MS Word since the 2003 version, and the only reason I care whether it lives or dies is because others — who believe it’s the Choice Of Professional Writers Worldwide — force me into contact with its files, if not the product itself (Stross too):
The reason I want Word to die is that until it does, it is unavoidable. I do not write novels using Microsoft Word. I use a variety of other tools, from Scrivener (a program designed for managing the structure and editing of large compound documents, which works in a manner analogous to a programmer’s integrated development environment if Word were a basic text editor) to classic text editors such as Vim. But somehow, the major publishers have been browbeaten into believing that Word is the sine qua non of document production systems. They have warped and corrupted their production workflow into using Microsoft Word .doc files as their raw substrate, even though this is a file format ill-suited for editorial or typesetting chores. And they expect me to integrate myself into a Word-centric workflow, even though it’s an inappropriate, damaging, and laborious tool for the job. It is, quite simply, unavoidable. And worse, by its very prominence, we become blind to the possibility that our tools for document creation could be improved. It has held us back for nearly 25 years already; I hope we will find something better to take its place soon.
Keep in mind that MS Word isn’t the publishing world’s favorite tool because it’s a better text editor than the rest. It’s ubiquitous because it offers comments and change tracking features, yet those features are buried in a file format so conflicted (purposefully so) that others are still unraveling it.
Microsoft changes the format every few years, forcing writers to upgrade to maintain some kind of file compatibility. In effect, people are renting access to their own data from Microsoft.
Keep in mind Stross typically only deals with one “edited” file coming back from his publisher; copywriters often end up dealing with multiple “edited” copies of the same file.
In many cases, the comments are contradictory. This is not a roadmap for success.
Some time ago, I outlined my Ultimate Copywriter’s Writing Tool, and while it hasn’t come to pass, I’m now seeing elements of it emerging in collaborative online writing tools like Draft and Editorially. Google docs aren’t quite the same beast, though they do offer a handy subset of features.
I don’t necessarily want to write online, but online tools like those mentioned would make it easy to write the first draft in my offline tool of choice (like Emacs or Sublime Text, or for the undead-huggers out there, MS Word), then upload the text for the next step in the workflow, where collaboration demands a different set of tools.
More importantly, edits and changes from multiple users wouldn’t take place in a vacuum; those offering suggestions will be forced to confront contradictory changes ordered by others.
The writer would be the beneficiary.
Online products like Draft are evolving rapidly (most don’t offer enough import and export options), and I suspect — in a few years — they’ll make it possible to break MS Word’s stranglehold on the publishing workflow.
Keep writing, Tom Chandler.