in defense of Microsoft Word

It’s the post-PC era, where we use apps and mobile phones and tablets and ultra-books, e-books, iBooks, and Nooks. We Kindle and we Hulu and we tweet and tumblr and like. Everything is in a cloud somewhere. This is quite a change from the halcyon days of when computing meant sitting down at your computer and launching a program to do something; now all it seems we do (if you live in the digerati echo chamber, that is) is consume and critique.

That’s the context I perceive for this piece by Tom Scocca (@tomscocca) in Slate mocking Microsoft Word, which quickly went viral. Of the many Top Tweets about it, I found these two rather illustrative:

Most of the other tweets just repeat the author’s assertion that Word is “cumbersome, inefficient, and a relic of obsolete assumptions about technology.” The tweets above are useful in that they are explicit in their counter-assumptions about technology; namely, that the only real writing happens on the Web. It’s certainly true that using Word for simple text like email or blog posts is overkill, in much the same way that using a jet engine to drive your lawnmower is overkill. What’s peculiar is that rather than using simpler tools for their simpler tasks, these people have declared that the more complex and capable tool is “obsolete” and “must die”. This attitude betrays a type of phobia towards technology that I suspect has grown more prevalent as our technology interfaces have become increasingly more “dumbed down”.

In actuality, most of the writing in the real world is the complex variety that requires more than a few buttons for bold, italics and blockquote. Ask any lawyer writing a brief, a scientist writing a grant, or a student writing a dissertation how useful Word is and you’ll get a very different perspective than that of people writing tweets about how Word is too complicated for their blogging. Scocca himself acknowledges that he used Word when he wrote his book, which is a pretty telling reveal that completely undercuts his argument that Word has outlived its utility.

If I were to match Scocca’s hyperbole, I’d have to contend that Word is possibly the finest piece of software ever written, in terms of its general utility to mankind. That statement is arguably more true than claiming Word must “die” – especially since as of fiscal year 2011, Office 2010 had sold over 100 million licenses and drove record revenue growth. And note that the software division inside Microsoft that release Office for the Mac is actually the largest OS/X software developer outside of Apple, Inc. itself.

The reason that Word has outlived all its competitors, including dearly departed Wordperfect and Wordpro, is that it has evolved over time, to becoming an indispensable tool for a writer to save time and stay organized. Here’s a great list of 10 features in Word that any serious writer should be intimately familiar with. And even for casual use, some basic knowledge of Word’s features can let you do amazing things with simple text.

However, let’s suppose that you really don’t want to do anything fancy at all. You just want to write a plain text document, which is the basis of Socca’s argument. Is Microsoft Word really as bad as he makes it out to be? Here’s a quick summary of Scocca’s complaints, with my comments:

* Too many features that are left “on”. As examples, he uses the infamous Clippy (which hasn’t been in Word since 2003) and the auto-correct function (which is also enabled by default in Gmail, as well as TextEdit and OS/X Lion). If you really hate the autocorrect, though, it’s almost trivially easy to turn it off – a small blue bar always appears under the autocorrected word when the cursor is next to it. You can use that to access a contextual dropdown that lets you immediately undo the autocorrect or turn it off entirely, for example:

autocorrect options in Microsoft Word

* Scocca finds certain features irritating, specifically “th” and “st” superscripts on ordinal numbers (1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc) and auto-indenting numbered lists. This is largely a matter of personal taste. Style manuals tend to recommend not using superscripts, out of concern on line spacing. Modern processors like Word can easily handle a superscript without breaking the paragraph’s layout.

* He thinks that Word incorrectly uses apostrophes and quotes. He’s mistaken; see the image below where I demonstrate single and double quotes. Note that if you insist on using “dumb” quotes, you can immediately revert by using CTRL-Z (which every Word user should be familiar with, hardly “hidden under layers of toolbars”).

smart quotes in Microsoft Word

* For some reason, the logo for the Baltimore Orioles uses a backwards apostrophe. And for some reason, Scocca believes this is Word’s fault. I have absolutely no idea why he blames Word for this. Try typing O-apostrope-s (O’s) into Word and you’ll see that the apostrophe is indeed facing the right way. I’m frankly unclear on why the backwards apostrophe on the Orioles’ logo is a threat to civilization, but even if so, it’s not Word’s fault.

* Word uses a lot of metadata to keep track of its detailed and complex formatting. This has the effect of marginally increasing file sizes by a trivial and negligible amount (the files taking up space on your hard drive aren’t Word documents, they are MP3 files, video, and photos). Bizarrely, Scocca tries to cut and paste the metadata back into Word as proof of excess, but this is a completely meaningless exercise which proves nothing. It’s true that if you try to open a native Word file in a plaintext editor, you’ll see a lot of gobbledygook, but why would you do that? If you open a JPG file in a text editor you’ll see the same stuff. Every file has metadata and this is a good thing when you use the file in the software it is intended. Of course, Word lets you export your data to any number of file formats, including web-friendly XML and plain text, so Scocca’s ire here is particularly misplaced and mystifying.

* Scocca sneers that Word still uses the paradigm of a “file” on a single “computer”. He says it’s impossible to use Word to collaborate or share. Perhaps he’s unaware of the fact that as of last month, email-based file attachments have been around for 20 years? Microsoft also is lauching a cloud-based version of Office, though, called Office 365, and with the advent of tools like Dropbox and Live Mesh the old one-file-one-PC paradigm is no longer a constraint. It’s actually better that Word focus on words and not include network-based sharing or whatnot; there are tools for that, and isn’t feature bloat one of Scocca’s chief complaints anyway?

* and finally, he calls the Revision Marking feature of Word “psychopathic” and “passive-aggressive”. I wonder if he’s ever actually collaborated on a document? The revision feature has literally transformed how I collaborate with my colleagues and is probably the single most useful feature in Word. It’s trivially easy to accept a single specific change or to do a global “Accept All” between revisions and users. The interface, with color-coded balloons for different users in the margin rather than in-line is elegant and readable. Scocca gripes that “No change is too small to pass without the writer’s explicit approval” – would he rather the software decide which revisions are worthy of highlighting and which aren’t? This complaint is utterly baffling to anyone who has ever actually used the feature.

Frankly, as a regular Word user for years myself, I find it pretty hard to sympathize with Scocca’s rant. None of his feature complaints are really valid, apart from some stylistic preferences (he’d rather bullet his own lists, etc) which are easily modified in Word’s settings. If the menus are really so intimidating, it’s trivially easy to google things like disable autocorrect, and if your google-fu isn’t up to that task then you can always leave a post at Microsoft’s super-friendly user forums where ordinary users themselves will be glad to walk you through it.

If Microsoft Word were to truly die, then we’d lose one of the most productive tools for complex and professional writing in existence. If that’s the future of the written word, where anything above the level of complexity of a tweet, email or blog post is considered too hard to deal with (and software gets dumber to match), then it’s a grim future indeed.

Long live Microsoft Word!

5 thoughts on “in defense of Microsoft Word”

  1. Word files haven’t been “a file” for years now – they’re actually ZIP files containing various XML fragments, as well as any attached documents. As someone who rips them up for a living, I’ve had to explain to puzzled lawyers that yes, that file really did have that embedded document, even though there’s no reason for it to be in there. “Probably a user mistake…”

    The other problem with Word is when it’s used for incorrect applications. A lot of software simply isn’t in the Unicode era, and it’s rather difficult to get Word to use just ASCII text – things like em-dashes and smart quotes abound. And no, I can’t turn them off (or rather, I can turn them off on my installation, but I can’t turn them off when the original of a list of search terms was written in Word, pasted into a spreadsheet, e-mailed around for a couple months, marked up, cut from the spreadsheet, pasted into Outlook, e-mailed again, then cut and pasted into FileMaker Pro and then converted into a PDF. But I -do- have to go through and get rid of em-dashes and smart quotes and things like that, lest the software go boom (or, more dangerously, fail to go boom yet not work!)

    But because it’s super-easy to use, it gets used for EVERYTHING, and most people react aggressively if you say “would you stop writing your search terms in Word?!”

  2. The important thing about that list of 10 features is being aware of how they are broken. Although, to be honest, I’m stuck with an older version of Word (I have no control over the software installed on my work machine); maybe it’s all fixed in the newer ones.

    – Headers and Footers: I really have no clue what Word thinks it’s doing when you add page numbers. I generally start out with a section with no headers and footers for the title page and other cover material, a section with the table of contents numbered with lower case Roman letters, and the main text, for which I’ve tried a number of schemes, none of them satisfactory. Whenever I add page numbers, Word decides to add them to the *previous* section. I have to add them twice to get them in the section I want, then go fix the previous section.

    – Track Changes: Gave up on it many years ago because it just plain doesn’t work. Seems like if you have enough changes, Word gets confused. What I’d *really* like is something like RUNOFF’s .BEGIN BAR and .END BAR.

    The other stuff she talks about, I have no use for.

    Lately, I’ve had to give up on page numbers that have the section number in them because in some of my documents the table of contents mysteriously believes everything starts on page 7 of whatever section it’s in.

    Had a battle with Word the other day in which it was changing one of my “section: next page”s into a “section: continuous”. When I’d fix the one it changed, it would change some random other one. So I’ve gone to just having one big section for the main body of the text.

    And then there’s the whole bit about when you change a picture in a table, Word will randomly pick a size for the picture ranging from really tiny to quite large.

    However, I’ve not found another word processor that works correctly, either. Every one I’ve tried on the Mac (Word, Open Office, Bean, and a variety of others) gets confused if you want to use combining Unicode diacritics; they lose track of the cursor position.

    I have really not had a wholly satisfactory word processing experience since WordStar 4.0 (which introduced me to the magic of undelete). ‘Course, WordStar can’t do any of the things I want to do these days…

  3. I never like working in Word, but there’s always something I need to do that is more difficult, more tedious, or simply impossible in other tools. I use only a subset of its many “bloated” features, but my subset is completely different from most users; LibreOffice and LaTeX can each do part of the job, but not all of it, and not as well (Word does terrific rendering of vertical Japanese text with furigana).

    For some people, the price is worth putting up with other software’s quirks. For others, using a crappy-but-free tool is a badge of anti-M$ honor. For me, I get Office Pro at a steep discount, so it’s an easy choice. 🙂


  4. Avatar – that’s a strange scenario! 🙂 I think though that the basic point, that Word is actually pretty easy to use, is a good defense of Word in and of itself. The trick is user education – in your case, “Save As” -> Plain Text 😛

    Roger, that behavior about page numbers is odd. It sounds like you’re doing it the right way, creating new sections. But its possible that your just in the wrong section when you create the number. Try turning on the paragraph symbols, theres a single button with the paragraph fancy-P on it that turns thiose all on, and then you can see exactly where the section break got inserted. Your cursor was probably just on eth wrong side of that break.

    I have to tell you, I can’t live without Track Changes. Its teh single feature of Word I rely on most, and its never failed me (and between academic manuscripts and grant proposals, somme of my documents have had a dozen coauthors, several dozen drafts, and thousands of changes. One paper I wrote took six months of revision, and without Track Changes we’;d have just been dead.

    J – agreed. I also use Endnote and Mathtype which ramp up the usability even more. Its like any complex tool, you dont have to love it, you just have to know how to use it. What I love about word is how I get my work done. If someone else finds that their work is NOT getting done, then its perfectly fine for thenm not to use it.

  5. That scenario was taken straight from my everyday job…

    The problem is that I don’t have communication with the users responsible. They work for other firms, often firms that are on the opposite side of legal cases from any client I have, and filled with lawyers who would take news that their choice of word processor was making life difficult for their opponents with positive _glee_. I just have to be able to recognize the results when they crop up, or sometimes to troubleshoot the problems when a co-worker doesn’t.

    All that said, yeah, it’s a lot easier for me to figure out “hey, how do I do this weird thing?” in Word…

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