Dispatches, thoughts, and miscellanea from writer Jon Konrath

Dumping Word

I hate Microsoft Word.  I don’t know how much of my life I’ve wasted on Word, although I’m certain I will be on my deathbed and wish I had all of the years back I spent cursing at Clippy and the Ribbon and every idiot who ever handed me a book or story entirely formatted by hand, every single paragraph still sporting the Normal style.  Whenever I’m working on a project and the phrase “let’s just use Word”, it must be like when people working at a gym hear a person say “fuck it, let’s just order Pizza Hut and eat a gallon of ice cream, because it’s easier than a treadmill.”

I’ve never written fiction in Word; until I switched to Scrivener, I did all of my work in emacs.  But because most print-on-demand houses and lit magazines work with .doc and RTF files, I’m usually forced to go through a final production step where I drag my completed work to Word and style and format it there, sometimes while doing battle with someone else’s templates.  Some places will take a PDF, and for many of my books, I’ve used FrameMaker for the layout.  It’s what I use at my day job, and I know it well.  But it requires me to use Windows, which happens to be written by the same company that makes Word, and that’s a zero-sum game for me.  I might be able to producecompiled Scrivener PDFs that meet all of my requirements, but right now, it’s not there yet.  I’m sure if I took a weekend or two to screw around with it, I could get it to work, but as the book production part of the book cycle happens last, it’s usually at the point where I have no patience for this and just want to get it over with.

I’m in the middle of finishing a book, and was going to use Word to lay it out for CreateSpace, like I did the last few times.  Three things stopped me.  First, my copy of Word 2008 for the Mac is slightly flaky, and it’s just “off”.  Second, I wanted to go buy a copy of Word 2011, and of course, there’s a huge maze of torment involved with this.  I am not even sure if Microsoft officially sells Word 2011 alone; I found one price on the web that costs more than buying all of Office 2011.  Also, they don’t have a 64-bit version, and the current Amazon listing is hovering at a star and a half out of five, with a ton of reviews saying “don’t buy this version!”  So I’m not willing to throw down a few hundred dollars on something that will cripple my machine.  Lastly, I started up Word the other day, and it got into this update death spiral, where it would download half a gig of updates, sit for an hour installing them, and then restart and say more updates are available.  That’s about the time I said fuck this, I’m ditching Word for good.

I have a copy of Apple’s Pages on my machine, but I’ve never really used it for anything.  I bought it for $20, thinking I’d eventually make a zine with it or something, but never got around to it.  On a whim, I had Scrivener export an RTF and then opened it in Pages, expecting the formatting to take a day or two.  I finished the whole thing in a couple of hours.

So here’s a list of why I like Pages more than Word:

  1. It’s much faster on my machine.  I have a 2.66 GHz i7 with 8 GB of RAM, and Word just clunks along.  It’s not swamping the CPU or flooding the memory; it’s just clunky.  Sometimes you click on something and there’s a delay.  It’s not a major delay, maybe a few dozen milliseconds, but it adds up.  It often feels like I’m working across a shared screen on VNC to another computer across a slow wireless connection.  It’s not unusable, but it’s maddening.  I know the MS apologists will say this is something screwy with my machine, but this is the top-of-the-line in mid-2010 MacBook, and right out of the box, with nothing else running, it was like this.  Pages runs fine, and performance is snappy.  No problems.
  2. Page sizing in Word for the Mac is fundamentally broken.  When you go to File > Page Setup and select a paper size, there’s a chance it might work, a chance you’ll only change the size in one section, and a chance it will do nothing.  You can sometimes get it to stick by doing a File > Page Setup > Word Options, then selecting Layout, then clicking Page Setup.  Sometimes that doesn’t work.  Sometimes you have to try it an even number of times, and then an odd number of times. In Pages, I just go to File > Page Setup and select a size.  You can also see the page size in the inspector in Pages.  I don’t know how you can see the document size in Word, other than turning on rulers and counting.  (You can go to File > Page Setup, but if that doesn’t work, it could tell you the wrong size.)
  3. The headers and footers in Pages are fairly intuitive.  You see the boxes for the headers/footers, and you enter your stuff in them.  Word has that weird “they’re greyed out, but if you click on them, but not too fast and not too slow, I’ll open some bizarro editing field for you” that has always been clunky for me.  Sometimes I can do it in two clicks, but sometimes it takes seven.  And when every click is just a few milliseconds off, it adds up.
  4. In Word, working on a document with different even and odd pages is a crapshoot.  Like when you put in a section break to start the document on an odd page and there’s going to be a blank even page, Word won’t show the blank page in Print Layout.  It will be printed (or not printed, depending on how you look at things) but it won’t show that in Print Layout, which is cute.  Pages, just works.
  5. Also, that blank even page in Word will still have your header/footer on it, which is wrong in a printed book.  In Pages, not there.  And as per my last point, you can see that it’s not there, which is nice.
  6. In Pages, all of your paragraph, character, and list styles are in a slide-out drawer that’s easy to find, easy to open, and easy to keep open next to your document.  In Word, there’s a Toolbox window, which can appear anywhere and is easily lost. Also, all three types of styles are just “styles”, and you have to know that a style with a paragraph mark is for a paragraph.  Plus all three are lumped together in a single list which is sorted by odd criteria such as when you last used the style, or if it’s in the document or in a template, meaning you almost always have to move to a different window and lose focus in your document, then scroll with some clunky non-Apple scroll mechanism to find your style.  Repeat that times 9000 and you will go mad.  Also, that toolbox window will vanish if focus goes to another application, so good luck trying to do some tech support involving looking at your browser and the toolbox window.  (To be fair, Pages has an inspector dialog box with similar behavior.  The difference is, they don’t put vital controls like the style chooser in that window.)
  7. When you import a document into Word that has manual formatting, it first appears that the entire document is in the Normal paragraph style.  It isn’t until you pull up the Toolbox that you can see each paragraph is styled with “Normal + Comic Sans 20 + First Line: 0.5″ + Space After: 8pt” or whatever.  This is one of the 19 reasons why people completely fuck up formatting in Word.  In Pages, you can see in the Style drawer that each paragraph is marked as “Free Form”, meaning you need to either define some styles or assign existing ones to your paragraphs if you want to avoid chaos.
  8. When you have a paragraph that’s been assigned a style and you make a change by hand to that paragraph (like, say, change the font), in Pages, a little red triangle appears next to the style in the Style drawer, telling you that you need to either redefine the style or otherwise get your shit straight.  In Word, good luck.  It doesn’t show up in the Toolbar’s style chooser; maybe if you see that the font is changed there, you’ll spot it.  If you open the Toolbox, you’ll see “Style + whatever”, but because the box is only about 20 characters wide, you probably won’t see entirely what changes have happened.
  9. If you’re inserting photos or whatever into documents, Pages lets you simply open a little browser of your iPhoto library, where you can easily preview pictures.  Word has this abortion of a “scrapbook” feature that you have to populate with your stuff manually.  Oh, and it’s in that ever-vanishing bastard of a Toolbox, and you’ll need to click back and forth between that and your list of styles.
  10. There is a version of Pages for both the iPhone and iPad.  I can bring this book to the iPad, and it works well.  I could even write an entire book on the iPad using my bluetooth keyboard, if I really wanted to.

I’m sure there are things Word can do that Pages cannot.  I don’t know what any of them are off the top of my head, though.  An often-desired, often-missing feature is track changes/commenting, which is supported in Pages.  It does not support VB scripting, but neither does Word on the Mac.  (Both support AppleScript, though.)  I think the big difference is that Pages was essentially born in 2005, and slowly added crucial features, meaning it’s much leaner.  Word has a twisted history, always trying to capture feature parity with Windows versions, always failing, and always trying to support backward compatibility.

The biggest difference, other than the efficiency of the codebase, is that Pages is a hybrid word processing/DTP program.  It’s like a simplified version of Pagemaker, where instead of a flowing document like Word, you can choose from templates and select which page layouts you want to use, and then flow in your text.  If you’re doing something like a brochure or flyer or catalog, this is infinitely easier than trying to fake this in Word.  Microsoft has half-assed some DTP features in Word, but it’s all duct tape, and you’d never want to do something like a magazine in it.  Pages is nowhere near as powerful as InDesign, but it’s got enough templates and it’s easy enough that doing that zine or homeowner association newsletter is going to be pretty simple.

One word of warning – if you use Pages (or any other Mac software) and you export to PDF and your document had graphics, it’s going to create a 72dpi PDF that won’t work for press.  There’s a way to add a free add-on so it will save in PDF/X-3 format.  I don’t have the link in front of me, but if anyone’s running into that problem, drop a line or leave a comment and I’ll dig it up.

So, that’s done.  Now maybe I will screw around with that zine project I originally thought about.


2 responses to “Dumping Word”

  1. Whenever a recruiter asks me to send him my résumé "in Word format," I take a certain amount of pleasure in haughtily responding "I don't own Word. You can see the HTML version at this URL. Hope that's good enough."

    1. jkonrath Avatar

      The only thing I hate more than that is when the recruiter takes your carefully-formatted resume and then cuts and pastes it into some bastard program that completely fucks it up and does everything short of re-rendering it in Comic Sans, and then spams that out the potential employers.