Why I don’t use word for writing

There is a popular thread on the NaNoWriMo forums called “Why not Word” — which covers why people should or shouldn’t use MSWord for writing their November novels. It’s a good discussion, but this is my blog and I get to express my opinions a bit differently and a lot more freely here.

I don’t use MSWord to write because it is supremely unsuitable for the job.

It’s not because I dislike Microsoft as a company, or have a machine which is (for one reason or another) incapable of running word. It’s not because of its poor security record. It’s not because of its instability or its huge memory footprint. It’s not even because of the large vendor lock-in of its file format. These are all important issues, but they aren’t what’s important to me most of the time.

I don’t use MSWord to write because it is supremely unsuitable for the job.
Why? Simple. When I’m writing I need to focus on one thing – turning the ideas in my head into words on a page. This is already a difficult and demanding task. Whether I am doing creative work, or writing documentation I need additional distractions the way a swimsuit model needs an extra 50 pounds – which is to say not at all.

What do I need for writing? I need to be able to defer as many decisions as possible. Am I going to publish on paper or online? If I’m doing PDF, what color should the links be? What font should I use? What size? Single or double spaced? Should I format it for letter paper (US) or A4 (Europe)? What page layout should I use? How many levels of table of contents items should actually go in the TOC? Should the document be structured for the web? Can I get fries with that?

What I need is a way to write without having to worry about answering these questions right away. All of them will need to be answered at some point, but the longer I can put it off, the more information I have to work with and the less ambiguity I have about the requirements. I also need a pleasant GUI that makes it obvious what I’m looking at and how it’s structured so that I don’t have to think about the tool, only the words.

For this reason, I normally write using LyX. LyX is an editor for working with structured documents. Chapters are chapters – not 18 point bold Times New Roman with a leading numeric identifier. I don’t have to pay any attention to the format at all. I type in the words, with chapters, sections, tables and everything else identified by their structure. I tell LyX which lines are the headings (Chapter, Section, Subsection, etc) and the formatting happens automatically. Chapters are numbered automatically. Page references are tracked properly. Footnotes go in the right places. Most importantly, everything stays consistent no matter how much I cut, paste and move things around.

The big payoff from using this approach is that it separates the work of writing and typesetting. Because the document is structured to begin with, I can decide later how the structure should map unto the format. The appearance of everything is controlled by two style files, which can be edited with emacs – meaning that I get full control over the document’s appearance without changing the document itself.

When it comes time to create output, LyX uses the LaTeX typesetting engine. LaTeX only does typesetting. It doesn’t try to do anything else. Unsurprisingly, it does that one thing very well indeed, with clean and legible fonts, kerning, ligatures, automatic hyphenation and all the high end bells and whistles you could possibly want. It will even control placement of pictures and footnotes to produce good looking pages without a lot of manual intervention. When it’s done, I get nice printed output, Postscript, and PDF complete with internal and external hyperlinks, all from the same input – a simple flat ASCII human readable text file.

The only price I pay for this is that if I want to do something unusual, I need to write my own style files. These are plain text files with a few LaTeX command embedded in them. Even though this requires learning LaTeX, it’s well worth it, since I only have to do it once. After it’s been done, I can reuse that work with any other documents I write in the future.

Some would say that it’s possible to do style based editing in Word. Technically they’re correct – It is possible. Fundamentally, however, Word is not built to be used that way. Even if you did work using only style based methods, you still wouldn’t get automatic control of pictures and footnotes, kerning, or any of the other advantages of working with a document editor instead of a word processor. You’re also stuck with a difficult to read binary file format that only a tiny number of tools can work with – instead of a well documented 7 bit flat ascii file that can be handled by many, many different tools.
At the end of the day, it isn’t about prejudice against one company or another – it’s about getting the job done.

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One Response to Why I don’t use word for writing

  1. Idetrorce says:

    very interesting, but I don’t agree with you
    Idetrorce

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