# WYSIWYG nationApril 12, 2006 11:38 AM   Subscribe

Word Processors: Stupid and Inefficient. Oldie, but a goodie. All text, no pretty pictures.
posted by ontic (109 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

posted by Jairus at 11:42 AM on April 12, 2006

As a web developer I would find the world a much happier place if clients could be persuaded to provide content in plain ASCII or marked up in some semantically sensible way... Sadly it's never going to happen and a portion of my work is always going to revolve around untangling whatever horrible formating the content creator has done to the content in word.
posted by Artw at 11:44 AM on April 12, 2006

Heh @ Jairus.

This is actually the way I do most of my papers for school; I write them in UltraEdit, because I don't get distracted by the need for superscripts and headings, and other such oddities. Defaulting to a grey background (as opposed to Word's blinding whiteness) is an added bonus.
posted by arrhn at 11:45 AM on April 12, 2006

The only thing really tying me to Word are the collaboration tools: embedded commenting and track changes. If I could have similar functionality in a text editor, I'd start making the shift to LaTeX....
posted by mr_roboto at 11:52 AM on April 12, 2006

I think the future is web-based text editing combined with pre-designed templates for 90% of the crap that gets done with Word today.

We need to seperate content from styling. Most people aren't competent to do both.
posted by empath at 11:52 AM on April 12, 2006

mr roboto:

Writely

or if you want even simpler:

Writeboard
posted by empath at 11:53 AM on April 12, 2006

As soon as I started reading that I was like "um, why not just use LaTex?" and boom he said it.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 12:05 PM on April 12, 2006

On a related note, I overheard this earlier today in a class at the college I go to:

"Man, why do I need to learn grammar when Word just does it for me?"
posted by Mach5 at 12:11 PM on April 12, 2006

He lost me at Adam Smith. Sorry for the punctuation and capitalization.
posted by Sk4n at 12:12 PM on April 12, 2006

mr_roboto: Actually, I find the track changes in Word to be broken in frustrating ways. Is that text blue because it was added by a co-author, or is it really colored blue for reasons that I don't understand. It's not WYSIWYG in regards to empty paragraphs, and fails in regards to table formatting. After a few rounds of edits, the document becomes unsuable without an accept all changes, at which point Word users frequently use a variation on the version-in-filename hack. With LaTeX, comments can go inline, and version control can be done using CVS and subversion (you can also put MSWord documents in CVS and subversion, but you don't get the benefit of diffs).

On the other hand, LaTeX is not without its warts. Debugging errors and conflicts between extensions is a PITA. You have to make certain that everyone has the same versions of the class and style files. HTML conversion is not as simple as is claimed, especially with APA, that monster of a style specification. There is no round-tripping to other formats. LaTeX borders on the user-hostile on learning curve, and don't expect anyone to know how to use it.

Having said that, I've chosen it for my larger works because it handles references and bibliographic citations fairly well.

empath: I think the future is web-based text editing combined with pre-designed templates for 90% of the crap that gets done with Word today.

posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:14 PM on April 12, 2006

Newer versions of Word try to make styles more overt (section header style, etc.) but it just gets in many users' way. Select, increase font size, bold! Voila section header.
posted by Firas at 12:27 PM on April 12, 2006

Having done office work involving editing and updating documents prepared by other people, my comment is: for the love of all that is good, let the separation of content and style become popular. And for that matter, reduce styling to the dozen or two essential functions that are actually necessary to produce a useful document.

Most people in offices have very little understanding of how Word is supposed to work. At least 90% of the features baffle people who use Word daily, as the main tool of their trade. Of the other 10%, half are wantonly misused. Some of the resultant documents, especially after revisions, still give me shivers now, years after having to deal with them.
Not to mention the time I frequently had to waste fixing the insane errors people make on documents that weren't supposed to have anything to do with my job.

Conclusion: seperate text and style, severely limit formatting options, don't do anything automatically. Please. The average business will probably get at least 10% more useful work from its document creating employees, should such a tool become available.
posted by MetaMonkey at 12:37 PM on April 12, 2006

CSS anyone?
posted by blue_beetle at 12:41 PM on April 12, 2006

Newer versions of Word try to make styles more overt (section header style, etc.) but it just gets in many users' way.

Office 12 addresses this pretty well.
posted by Jairus at 12:42 PM on April 12, 2006

MetaMonkey: Most people in offices have very little understanding of how Word is supposed to work.

There is a way that it is supposed to work? For the life of me, it's been at least 6 years since I've seen a hint of a consistent concept of workflow or document behind the design of MSWord (and even then it was muddled).

Unfortunately, OpenOffice.org shares this confusion.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:45 PM on April 12, 2006

I spent weeks(!) teaching Markdown to a client who was doing basic text publishing for multiple output formats (PDF, HTML.)

It finally payed off when he understood that when a section heading is semantically marked as a heading, and not just bigger, bolder text, it has meaning to the computer and parser, which can manipulate such semantic content elegantly.
posted by ijoshua at 12:54 PM on April 12, 2006

For simple documents, such as letters, I do all the work in Word. But for anything else, I write the document in Word, sans any style decisions (I've turned off smart quotes, etc.), and then lay it out in InDesign. But, then, I do layout for a living.

It's almost impossible to convince the writers I've wroekd with not to attempt to format their stories, and likewise with ad people, who actually sometimes try to design their ads in Word and send them to me.
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:55 PM on April 12, 2006

Has anybody tried this?

I read about it in the Seattle PI recently--never got around to testing it.
posted by _sirmissalot_ at 12:59 PM on April 12, 2006

Look, I've got a list of complaints against Word as long as your arm, but the author of the linked post makes complaints that are unjustified.

Word has the capacity to indicate a document's structure through its styles. And, if you are careful, you can swap stylesheets in a document to change its appearance without changing the content at all.

MetaMonkey is right though--most people (including the author) don't understand this, they don't get the concept behind styles at all. I've had clients specifically ask me not to use styles--because they didn't know how to work with them, they wound up working against them.

I would love a word-processor that operated more according to a structural markup+css model, as long as it didn't require me to type in raw XML. As it is, Word occupies an uneasy middle-ground between presentational markup and structural markup, and is larded with wizardy features that create more problems than they solve. But yeah, once you get the hang of it, it is easy to use Word to create structured documents.
posted by adamrice at 1:00 PM on April 12, 2006

Astro Zombie, is that really any different than a thumbnail sketch on a napkin? Aren't they just using the tools at hand to (try to) tell you approximately what they want?
posted by Malor at 1:01 PM on April 12, 2006

I use notepad and I keep the monitor off. All I write is Sabrina the Teenage Witch fan fiction.
posted by I Foody at 1:01 PM on April 12, 2006 [1 favorite]

embedded commenting and track changes. If I could have similar functionality in a text editor, I'd start making the shift to LaTeX....

You can. For comments, just put TeX style comments right in the source document; any modern text editor can display them in a different colour to minimize distraction. For change tracking I find TeX's plain text format combined with diff (or RCS, CVS, Subversion, etc) way simpler and more powerful than Word's fancy change tracking tool.

Isn't it horrible that 20 years later TeX is still the best tool for serious document production?
posted by Nelson at 1:06 PM on April 12, 2006

Interesting. If you don't have Word and don't want to spend the money, this seems like a good option.
posted by Astro Zombie at 1:07 PM on April 12, 2006

Astro Zombie, is that really any different than a thumbnail sketch on a napkin? Aren't they just using the tools at hand to (try to) tell you approximately what they want?

They're nopt telling me what they want. They think they have sent the ad ready to be plugged into the newspaper. Often with embedded graphics, which are too small for an actual publication.

I don't blame them, of course. It's the ad salesperson's fault. Unless the ad rep explianed very carefully what was needed, and client client nodded like they understood, and then went ahead and created the ad in Word anyway. Which sometiimes happens.

You know, I started as a writer and editor, and only swicthed over to the deign end of things about, oh, four years ago, mostly because it seemed like the layout artists had more fun (which turned out to be true) and also because I realized that writers, editors and designers were speaking entirely different languages. I figured I would be helpful on the design end, because I could translate the language of the writers to the deigners (who often lay out stories without reading them). As it turned out, I realized that as a writer and editor, it sure would have helped for me to understand the needs of design.
posted by Astro Zombie at 1:12 PM on April 12, 2006

Yep, working semantically is much faster. It's just a pain to make the huge investment the first time round to set it up. I can still do it faster in InDesign for one-offs.

The other thing that makes writing much, much faster is using full-screen. The difference it makes is surprising.
posted by bonaldi at 1:19 PM on April 12, 2006

I've recently discovered LyX, which is a LaTeX-based editor that seems to follow along with the philosophy of this paper. I've become addicted to it; it plays nice with BibTeX, it's got decent equation support, and it actively prevents you from putting two spaces or two line-breaks in a row. Plus it has the bonus feature that everything you type looks like it was published in a scientific journal (or, at least, everything I write with it, since that's the document type I use).
posted by wanderingmind at 1:23 PM on April 12, 2006

If anyone knows from experience: what do professional writers tend to do their word processing on?
posted by Acey at 1:24 PM on April 12, 2006

Word.
posted by Astro Zombie at 1:39 PM on April 12, 2006

Many of the professional writers I work with use Wordpad. Some even use Notepad. I find there's an almost universal lack of interest among pro writers in the so called "functionality" of most word processors, and the last thing Editors are impressed by is nice formatting.
posted by slatternus at 1:41 PM on April 12, 2006

KirkJobSluder: Actually, I find the track changes in Word to be broken in frustrating ways ... After a few rounds of edits, the document becomes unsuable without an accept all changes...

Amen, brother. I'm in the middle of a Word-heavy project that requires change tracking. A document with too many changes makes Word erratic and unstable. Symptoms range from 1) jumping to the top of the document when the user presses the down-arrow key to 2) the inexplicable inability to delete things to 3) classic old crash and burn. It seems that even at this late date, pretty much any feature in Word that's used by less than 10% of the users is flaky as hell.

Frankly, even if the change tracking worked as designed, it's still basically a terrible way to collaborate on a document. It automatically records who changed what (which is kind of nice, I guess) while ignoring the very real problem of keeping all the copies in sync and avoiding a profusion of different versions on everyone's PC. A network-aware system that keeps everyone's copy of the document in sync (like a source-control system does) or that keeps only one copy of the document (like I expect the web-based systems do) actually solves the root problem, as opposed to papering it over with nifty color-codes.

The Microsoft ads touting the collaboration features of Office make me laugh my hollow, soul-less laugh.

It does seem to me, though, that a lot of the article's complaints are really complaints about a writer's own self-discipline. It's perfectly possible to use Word (or any other word processor) as a simple text editor, and postpone all the formatting jazz. All that's required is the will to do so. And Word's style features, which have been around for years, offer exactly the sort of content/format separation he's after, although I'd argue they represent a perfect metaphor for how all things Microsoft turn out: a solid (but not revolutionary) idea, poorly implemented.
posted by Western Infidels at 1:41 PM on April 12, 2006

By the way, while I'm happy in LaTeX, if anyone knows a Markdown-type scheme for LaTeX, I'd be happy to hear about it.

It doesn't need to have all of TeX or LaTeX's functionality, just enough for writing standard documents without equations. Surely someone has to have something like this written in Perl or PHP.
posted by ontic at 1:42 PM on April 12, 2006

Word has the capacity to indicate a document's structure through its styles. And, if you are careful, you can swap stylesheets in a document to change its appearance without changing the content at all.

The article notes this. It's not that you can't do logical formatting with Word, it's just that almost nobody does, because (in part) Word makes logical formatting difficult and physical formatting easy.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:46 PM on April 12, 2006

Having edited and printed the revised libretto for a stage musical, I feel this article on a visceral level. Of course, I did what I was supposed to -- there were separate tags for character names, stage directions, character stage directions, dialogue, and songs -- it is amazingly frustrating to do this in a WYSIWYG editor. If I'd known about LaTeX then, my life might've been considerably easier, but I was using OpenOffice.org (and experiencing fun compatibility issues with various incarnations of Word when printing).
posted by graymouser at 1:50 PM on April 12, 2006

>I use notepad and I keep the monitor off. All I write is Sabrina the Teenage Witch fan fiction.

You too?!
posted by skallas at 1:56 PM on April 12, 2006

You know, everything this guy says makes a lot of sense, but rings like an argument for betamax superiority to my ears. Maybe it's because he wrote this a while ago? I mean, nobody's less-than-tech-friendly mom and pop is going to want to go through the process he describes, which it turns out is the major motivating factor behind most commercial software, fi I understand the industry at all.
posted by shmegegge at 1:57 PM on April 12, 2006

A large percentage of people--maybe a majority--are always going to use their eyes to appreciate what they are writing as they write it. Before modern technology many writers prided themselves on their beautiful handwriting, and when people wrote letters, they often employed complicated calligraphic styles. Now they use emoticons or crazy fonts and backgrounds.

When a normal person (meaning not trained in design or typography) creates a complicated document, they create it visually--they aren't thinking of the data structure, and never will. The most elegant program is not the one that asks a user to 'forget' their visual sense, it would be one that allowed a person to work at the visual level while intuitively handling the underlying structure.
posted by _sirmissalot_ at 1:57 PM on April 12, 2006 [1 favorite]

bonaldi: Yep, working semantically is much faster.

Which is why I almost always start out in outline view mode, whenever I'm using Word. The reaction that people have to that is kind of interesting; mostly they say "what's wrong with your screen?" If I make the mistake of leaving the document in outline view before I pass it off to a co-worker, they complain that the formatting is broken and say they can't read it that way.

From that, I can basically conclude one of three things: That they're stupid, and I'm superior; that I'm stupid, and they're superior; or that they have a different way of processing information than I do. I've decided over the years that the third assumption is the most fruitful of the three.

Outline view is basically the one thing that kept me using Word for a long-ish period when I wasn't trading documents with a lot of other people.

All of this gnashing of teeth (not here, but in the linked piece) is like waving steak before a hungry dog: You'll either get the dog to be really angry at what you want him to be angry at, or really angry at you for brining up the sore subject of unattainable steak. For me, it's more of the latter. The "solutions" the author touts are just plain unworkable for 98% of users. TeX? LaTex? LyX? Text-editors? Um.... yeah. Right.

Succinctly: Idealistic poppycock.

I tried to write in HTML for a while, back around the turn of the century. I write a lot. I wrote documentation; I wrote memos; I wrote trip reports. But I gave up, because I was spending too much time typing and backspacing over paragraph codes and list elements and what not. The tools for doing it then were about as good as they are now. Which is to say they sucked. Which is fiercely disappointing.

Get more people thinking in terms of content separately from presentation? Damn straight. It's a slow battle; for every step we take up the hill, we slide back three-quarters and sideways a half. Most "solutions" don't really address the problem. What would address it? A brain-dead simple WYSI[sort-of]WYG HTML editor would be a good start, coupled with a presentation engine that you could switch into at the drop of a hat, and a code view a la the old WordPerfect. (Code view doesn't have to be scary. I used to train university secretaries to use it; show them how powerful it was, and lots of them'd go nuts. It was scary, sometimes.)

And this doesn't even begin to address the problem of document interchance. Wouldn't it be nice if everyone used XHTML and CSS. But they don't. Try to give your client an HTML document, and see how seriously they take you after that. Insist on doing everything in LaTex, and see whether they hire you for the next job. Tell a potential employer that you don't use Word because you disagree with it at a philosophical level, and see if they hire you.
posted by lodurr at 2:00 PM on April 12, 2006

wanderingmind: ...and it actively prevents you from putting two spaces or two line-breaks in a row.

This is one of the things I like about LaTeX. It nicely tolerates my old typwriter habits. Really it's a BS issue. The rendering software should adjust end-of-sentence spacing to a good visual width. (I know, I should break my self of old typewriter habits but it's easier to just search and replace.)

Acey: If anyone knows from experience: what do professional writers tend to do their word processing on?

I use whatever the client requests.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:05 PM on April 12, 2006

Astro-Zombie, oh, how I hear you. Sometimes though Design utterly complicates content.

Today after weeks of finalizing designs for a restaurant chain — branding, interiors, signage, menus, etc — we were told that each individual restaurant (there were several sub-brands) wanted the ability to edit their own menus. Of course. However the approved art for each menu style had been created in InDesign. With custom page sizes in some cases. Templates, with the main graphics, were pre-printed on the correct stock. Fairly standard thing for restaurants.

The catch: Try to re-layout multiple columns, floating text & graphics with style sheets all for custom page sizes in word. Then, when that is accomplished ,try to teach a restaurant manager in Miami to be able to do it. Try to get Word to behave the same of differing machines and laser-printers.

Frigg'n HELL!
posted by tkchrist at 2:05 PM on April 12, 2006

Hey, just try telling them not to type two spaces after a period. They will freak. Even if they don't freak, they'll never remember. It's easier just to pull them all out of the document once the text is placed in Quark or InDesign.
posted by Astro Zombie at 2:07 PM on April 12, 2006

That was in response to lodurr.
posted by Astro Zombie at 2:09 PM on April 12, 2006

If anyone knows from experience: what do professional writers tend to do their word processing on?

Without exception, the people in my writers group use whatever is most conventiently available. Most of the time that's Word.

I went looking for good non-Word Mac word processors at one point, and dipped briefly into a strange world of "writers word processors". These were typically laid out like an IDE, and were based on the idea that you need to organize "writing projects" (in which category the authors of such software invariably included "plays, novels, stories") in a highly structured way, and that you need to format your text using tags, not display information.

They looked more like IDEs than word processors. They would have scared the hell out of most of the writers I know.

Writers don't want to use software; they want to write. Word (like other "word processors") pretty much lets them do that. It's got more flaws than we could enumerate if we kept this thread going to ten-thousand posts, but if you want to just fire something up -- just one thing, and not screw around with learning multiple interfaces -- Word is a pretty safe bet.
posted by lodurr at 2:12 PM on April 12, 2006

Wait, you're not supposed to put two spaces after a period anymore? (clearly, I don't often use professional documents in my work.) Why not? And in what way does that involve layout apps?
posted by shmegegge at 2:14 PM on April 12, 2006

I tell the folks in my office to NOT, PLEASE DON'T, NEVER EVER give me a Word document with styles and formatting. They want to suggest or indicate a heading or something, we've agreed that they can type it between square brackets, like [THIS IS THE SUBTITLE]. I can usually follow what they mean. I have a few developers who give me plain old ASCII text with no formatting, God bless them. I'm paid to do all the editing and layout and print production--they aren't.

I think a big problem is the belief that "anyone" can write, because we've been writing since Grade 1 or so. And we've been led to believe that WORD or Open Office are just like smart typewriters and anyone can just use 'em without learning how to use 'em. (Kind of related to this is requests from people I know who are tired of marketing or project management or whatever an want to "try technical writing" as if tech writing is as easy as that.)
posted by paddbear at 2:20 PM on April 12, 2006

"we're looking at a situation in which MS Word is poised to become, for much of the world, the standard for the preparation of documents using computers"

Please lemme know when this actually happens so I can start a blog or something in protest.

posted by sfts2 at 2:20 PM on April 12, 2006

lodurr said: "Writers don't want to use software; they want to write."

Very true. When I'm writing, I don't want to decide on how to make it look while I'm writing--that can come later. I just want to get the text and instructions down first, then edited and apply styles for print or online.
posted by paddbear at 2:22 PM on April 12, 2006

lodurr:

As far as a comfortable word processor for Mac goes, I dig Nisus Writer Express. Really clean, doesn't feel like a development environment, and can handle Word files when you need. It's definitely a "I will get out of your way so you can write" word processor.
posted by Mikey-San at 2:23 PM on April 12, 2006

The problem with separating content from styling (apart the fact that it's easier said than done) is that it's really not practical for the type of writing that most Word users do. It's like the reverse polish notation: conceptually sound, but useless except for a few niche markets. As a Word user since version 1, I really don't believe that conception and typesetting are conceptually distinct. Most of the on-the-fly typesetting done by Word users has a semantic purpose, with the additional benefit of making the text immediately readable and printable. There are works that do benefit from a clear style/content separation: novels, scientific papers, technical books, etc. But the bulk of my professional writing, i.e. reports of varying content, public and length, would suffer if I had to put it every time through a strict style/content methodology, because I'd lose a lot of flexibility, for example the right to (easily) change and modify the typesetting locally whenever I want.
posted by elgilito at 2:26 PM on April 12, 2006 [1 favorite]

Wait, you're not supposed to put two spaces after a period anymore? (clearly, I don't often use professional documents in my work.) Why not? And in what way does that involve layout apps?

presumably if your document is properly separated into content & presentation then you can get the presentation side to display/print an extra space everytime it detects a period without that extra space having been entered into the content side.
posted by juv3nal at 2:26 PM on April 12, 2006

ROU_Xenophobe--Thanks, I skimmed over that.

Thing is, it's not hard to do logical formatting in Word. There's a big education problem, and it's not immediately obvious that logical formatting might be happening behind the scenes, but it's not hard to do.

I have long had a notion of a word processor that has a narrow pane running down the left side of the window to show the block-level tag for the adjacent copy (which would be presented WYSIWYG, or something near to). This would make the structure explicit and make it easier to change.
posted by adamrice at 2:27 PM on April 12, 2006

schmeggee: It depends. The consensus seems to be two spaces on a typewriter, single spaces for proportional fonts, two spaces if you are writing source code in an editor that uses that to identify the end of sentences.

Personally, I find it easier to use a macro than to retrain myself.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:29 PM on April 12, 2006

presumably if your document is properly separated into content & presentation then you can get the presentation side to display/print an extra space everytime it detects a period without that extra space having been entered into the content side.

How does it know when a sentence has ended? There are lots of times I use periods without wanting an extra, or indeed any, space inserted, e.g. when using abbreviations. Sometimes (as in a list of names) the following word begins with a capital letter, too.

I'm not going to start wrapping all of my sentences in \sentence{}, either (or all my abbreviations in \abbr{}).
posted by kenko at 2:30 PM on April 12, 2006

shmegegge: The habit of typing two spaces after a period was developed as a result of the limitation of monospace fonts -- fonts where every letter has exactly the same width, which were generally the type used by typewriters, but for a few very sophisticated models. The eyes don't scan monospace fonts as readily as they do a properly designed font, like the sort thart a printer would use (or, nowadays, anyone with access to a computer) where some letters will be a little wider, some a little narrower. It was also a little hard to tell where a sentence ended, so the double-spacing became a convention to compensate for this.

Not only is double-spacing not required with a proper typeface, it's actually too noticeable -- there's just too much space at the end of the sentence. But, even though most of the world uses computers nowdays, and most use typefaces that are not "fixed pitch," typing instructors persist in teaching their students to type the two spaces, out of sheer force of habit. Typesetters and layout artists generally go in and pull them out, just like we replace the double-hyphen (--) with an M- or N-dash, depending on usage, and make a million other little changes to whatever text the writer sends in, such as unindenting the unnecessarily indented first paragraph. Unless, of course, we work for a newspaper that has decided it likes the unecessarily indented first paragraph, and then we grit our teeth and indent the stupid thing.
posted by Astro Zombie at 2:31 PM on April 12, 2006

astro zombie, that was precisely the answer I was looking for. thanks. rock on with your bad self, and all that.
posted by shmegegge at 2:37 PM on April 12, 2006

A large percentage of people--maybe a majority--are always going to use their eyes to appreciate what they are writing as they write it. Before modern technology many writers prided themselves on their beautiful handwriting, and when people wrote letters, they often employed complicated calligraphic styles.

Hell yes. Also, the vast majority of writing people do isn't headed for general publication, either print or Web, and it's self-centered of design-types to think so, no matter how frustrating it is – and I've done that sort of work so I completely know. Most writing is internal correspondence people want to make kind of presentable. Personally, I think Word 5.1 era processors are more ideal for this than the jumping monstrosities we've got now but trying to shoehorn everyone in a content! not! presentation! mode by default is an overreaction.

on preview basically what elgilito said.
posted by furiousthought at 2:38 PM on April 12, 2006

Mikey-san: I liked Nisus alright -- more than alright. If I recall correctly, it was my favorite of the five or six that I tried. But the nature of my work life is that I have to swap documents with a lot of people, and the RTF interchange between Nisus and Word was pretty nasty if you had anything as complex as, say, a page header/footer. And I just didn't want to screw around with multiple programs. Going Mac was supposed to simplify my life, not complicate it. So I broke down and exploited my fiance's academic position to buy the cheap version of Office.
posted by lodurr at 2:42 PM on April 12, 2006

presumably if your document is properly separated into content & presentation then you can get the presentation side to display/print an extra space everytime it detects a period without that extra space having been entered into the content side.

No, no. There are not supposed to be two spaces after a period, ever. If you look at any professionally printed material, from any point in history, you will not find two spaces after the periods. It looks weird and serves no purpose. The habit of inserting two spaces after periods comes from old typing classes, back when typewriters used monospace fonts, and it was thought that a single space didn't differentiate sentences enough. People who learned to type in these classes perpetuate the error.

Why Two-Space Is A No-No
posted by designbot at 2:44 PM on April 12, 2006

I'm obsessed with typography. It's basically the grammar of layout -- admittedly, with as many foibles as English grammar, which sometimes makes it seem a little ridiculous to new designers, but we don't start spelling "Phone" with an "f" just because it makes more sense to do so.

The birth of the computer has brought about massive, terrific invention, but has also brought about a steep decline in typography. Most designers I've met, who went to design schools and learned on computers, have taken nothing more than the most cursory course in typography, and don't care to know any more. They design intuitively, and, I'll tell you soemthing, when you're working in newsprint, it often shows -- the point of layout in a newspaper is not to create a gorgeous work of design, but to layout a story in a manner that clearly communicates its content in such a way that the reader is easily able to follow the story and see how the various elements of the story relate to each other. This is becoming a lost art.

I should mention that I am self-taught at typography, and feel like a beginner and a dilettant as a result, but my typograhoc knowledge vastly outstrips that of many designers I have met.
posted by Astro Zombie at 2:45 PM on April 12, 2006

On (non-) preview, what Astro Zombie said.
posted by designbot at 2:46 PM on April 12, 2006

I knew I'd be posting almost simultaneously to someone else.
posted by Astro Zombie at 2:49 PM on April 12, 2006

God. I'm going to start proofing my posts more.
posted by Astro Zombie at 2:52 PM on April 12, 2006

An excellent little guide to principles like what kind of dashes to use, and why not to use two spaces after periods, etc. is The Mac Is Not A Typewriter, by Robin Williams. (No, not that Robin Williams.)
posted by designbot at 2:53 PM on April 12, 2006

Most of the on-the-fly typesetting done by Word users has a semantic purpose, with the additional benefit of making the text immediately readable and printable.

A daring proposition, sir! And I salute you for having the courage to make it. Sometimes (especially in Metafilter threads and at noisy bars on Friday night) expressing a nuanced, moderate view is just asking to get spanked...

astro-zombie: just like we replace the double-hyphen (--) with an M- or N-dash, depending on usage, ....

This is the kind of picky stuff that just drives me batshit insane. The idea that there are semantically appopriate places for em dashes and en dashes (btw, I'm not accusing AZ of holding that view, it's just that his statement brings it to mind) is, quite simply, a fabrication on the part of typesetters. There is no commonly understood semantic difference between em- and en-dashes. If there were, we'd have a typewriting convention to express it: E.g., three hyphens for an em-dash, and only two for an en. Ordinary people just don't give a damn about it, and the bizarre insistence of some typography nazis on the web that we all need to use the right typesetting symbolics or we're furthering the fall of civilization... well, they just need to take a fucking pause. Make it a double-em. Maybe a triple.

While I'm at it: Did anyone else find it ironic that the author of a picky piece about threat word processors pose to semantic markup would use "" to denote a left-quote?

And while I'm at it, dammit, right and left quotes? Kill 'em. Stupid. Useless. One quote opens -- the other closes. Simple. Why make it more complex? "Smart quotes" is one of the first things I turn off when I set up Word. (Or any other word processor.)
posted by lodurr at 2:53 PM on April 12, 2006

I'm still trying to find the ideal true full-screen text editor for OS X.

I'd thought I'd found it in Ulysses, but then I found out I'd have to pay €100, and so I laughed and laughed and laughed and deleted that application.
posted by Sticherbeast at 3:00 PM on April 12, 2006

If it calms you down any, I always use M-dashes, unless the typeface in question makes them look freaking HUUUUGE.

I like curly quotes, though. " means inches, and ' means feet. But bless you for turning them off in Word -- they don't translate when you sent them through email, and I can't tell you how many stories I get that look like this: %pf*I says to the guy,98#45 I said.
posted by Astro Zombie at 3:02 PM on April 12, 2006

Lodurr, you might as well accuse typographers of fabricating a semantic difference between uppercase and lowercase. Just because you don't observe the difference, or object to the existence of such a difference, doesn't mean it doesn't exist. To oversimplify (because my Chicago Manual is in the next room), you use n-dashes in a range of numbers, like 1–5, and m-dashes to set off major breaks in your text—that is, I use them that way.
posted by adamrice at 3:05 PM on April 12, 2006

I'll say this, M-dashes are a pain in the ass if you're using a PC, as are all special characters, which require some weird four-number code on the number pad to call into being. I think this is the main reason deigners prefer Macs.
posted by Astro Zombie at 3:09 PM on April 12, 2006

I like em-dashes. And I even like curly quotes, assuming they are encoded in a civilized character set (that is, UTF-8 or UTF-16) which is correctly specified in your mail or HTTP headers (it’s true that I've never yet seen such a case, but I am told they exist).

But using two backticks as a left-double-quote should result in one’s head being placed on a spike in a public place as a warning to others.
posted by IshmaelGraves at 3:13 PM on April 12, 2006

No, no. There are not supposed to be two spaces after a period, ever. If you look at any professionally printed material, from any point in history, you will not find two spaces after the periods. It looks weird and serves no purpose. The habit of inserting two spaces after periods comes from old typing classes, back when typewriters used monospace fonts...

That makes sense, but aren't there still legitimate reasons to use monospace fonts nowadays?
posted by juv3nal at 3:15 PM on April 12, 2006

Yes. If you want it to look like a typewriter. And some people just like the look of, say, Courier, although I warn you -- it's the default font when you convert something into a PDF, which means that if a font didn't translate properly, it will suddenly turn into Courier. If you want a call from your printer complaining that there must be something wrong with your PDFs, design using Courier.
posted by Astro Zombie at 3:21 PM on April 12, 2006

Astro Zombie: Not only is double-spacing not required with a proper typeface, it's actually too noticeable -- there's just too much space at the end of the sentence.

Or you can look at the problem the other way. Proper typesetting algorithms should interpret a period followed by two spaces as a full stop. (Something that LaTeX and HTML both get right.) This is one of those cases where it is rather stupid to try to shoehorn human performance into the demands of technical systems(*). Especially given that a large chunk of your workforce was trained to 40+ WPM on typewriters using the two-space method. In addition you get the added benefit of having a relatively unambiguous tag that enables software to understand sentence boundaries.

(*) Another example is the demand for long strong passwords of random characters of mixed case. But the design of security systems is a bit more difficult.

designbot: No, no. There are not supposed to be two spaces after a period, ever. If you look at any professionally printed material, from any point in history, you will not find two spaces after the periods. It looks weird and serves no purpose. The habit of inserting two spaces after periods comes from old typing classes, back when typewriters used monospace fonts, and it was thought that a single space didn't differentiate sentences enough. People who learned to type in these classes perpetuate the error.

I just love it when people directly contradict themselves in the same paragraph.

Let me be blunt. Two spaces at the end of a period was considered good style and in some places manditory for typewritten business correspondence and submitted document drafts until relatively recently. Of course some submission styles also still ask for double-spaced copy, and footnotes, images and tables appended to the end of a draft. (One per page.)

Frankly sir, you are not only wrong, but you are badly wrong, and missing on the fact that writers and typesetters have traditionally worked with different tools, and in different media.

Astro Zombie: I'm obsessed with typography. It's basically the grammar of layout -- admittedly, with as many foibles as English grammar, which sometimes makes it seem a little ridiculous to new designers, but we don't start spelling "Phone" with an "f" just because it makes more sense to do so.

Here is the issue, for about 80 years of history, writers have been asked to submit copy using a very different grammar. It's only in the last 10-15 years that the whole workflow of publication has radically changed. Even 10 years ago, the request that I submit camera-ready copy rather than a double-spaced final draft with images stapled on back would have been unthinkable. I helped my dad in the 80s print out copies of his dissertation to send to a typesetter who would paste in the hand-crafted musical staves into the final draft. Now, I don't even need to get my dissertation printed.

This is one of those thing where it is trivial for a typesetting engine to do the right thing and understand a notation that is as old as the keyboard. The Mac certainly isn't a typewriter, and there is no need for it (or any other software) to insist that every space must translate to an equivalent width when formatted.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 3:24 PM on April 12, 2006

As I said, I don't ask people not to double-space after periods. I just fix it later, as I do with every element that they send in to me. All I ask is that they don't add any additional formatting.
posted by Astro Zombie at 3:34 PM on April 12, 2006

I have long had a notion of a word processor that has a narrow pane running down the left side of the window to show the block-level tag for the adjacent copy (which would be presented WYSIWYG, or something near to).

WordPerfect 5.0 did that back in 1988. "Reveal codes," it was called, and it was a Feature Of Great Utility.

Except that it put the "processed" copy on the top and the visible codes on the bottom, and it wasn't WYSIWYG. But I'd bet you a schmancy meal that the Windows versions of WP do/did retain the Reveal Codes feature.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 3:36 PM on April 12, 2006

To follow Astro Zombie: I use NoteTab Pro for text docs, HTML, CSS, etc. It can do powerful search & replace based on regular expressions. With a set of saved S&R commands and some intrinsic NoteTab features I can automatically scour documents of double spaces, paragraph indents, lines breaks, e-mail quote characters, and other annoyances. It's amazing to click a couple buttons and watch a misshapen mess turn into a crisp, orderly document. Ahhh.
posted by Tubes at 3:40 PM on April 12, 2006

Let me be blunt. Two spaces at the end of a period was considered good style and in some places manditory for typewritten business correspondence and submitted document drafts until relatively recently. Of course some submission styles also still ask for double-spaced copy, and footnotes, images and tables appended to the end of a draft. (One per page.)

Frankly sir, you are not only wrong, but you are badly wrong, and missing on the fact that writers and typesetters have traditionally worked with different tools, and in different media.

I said "professionally printed material," not typewritten correspondence or document drafts. I was referring to the kind of documents traditionally produced by typesetters, not the kind traditionally produced by writers. I am well aware of the difference.
posted by designbot at 3:41 PM on April 12, 2006

I've never used Writely but hear good things about it. Especially for collaborative writing.

I like the idea of using Markdown etc. as a replacement for WYSIWYG. Not sure how well users would take to it though. Speaking from a usability perspective, the less distance between what you're working on and what you end up with (eg. what you see when writing on screen and what comes out of your printer) the better. The intruiging counterpoint is that writing lists as sentences preceded by asterisks is actually easier to deal with than the 'gee, this is a list! Now we'll assume that the way we changed it is what you wanted' automation that Word & co. put in.

I was at this CopyCop place a couple months ago, trying to print a huge image (in filesize, not particularly large in dimension), and found that the computer I was provided to bring up the image in just wasn't up to opening the dern thing, after I'd waited ages for the file to download off the interweb. So a staff person came over, to get the file to try opening it on her computer, logged into Hotmail, and I stood there as she attempted to get the huge file (more than 10 megs I think) from my computer to hers by doing the attachment upload thing. Of course, Hotmail's interface absolutely sucks, I wonder where they came up with the bright idea to launch a progress indicator in a popup window (does it even indicate progress or just display a useless animation until things are done?), but nevermind that, here she was in a retail operation, transferring files between computers a few dozen feet apart by using bloody email attachments. Do computers suck or what? Yeah, this problem was solved somewhere around 1960 with the brilliant invention of 'network storage', now there's an idea! (By the way, the attachment didn't work or something on her computer, so I just pointed her to the URL the image was at.)

The other night I told my friend who wanted to scan images and send them to customers as PDFs to, I quote, 'paste the image in Word' and PDF-ize that—what an incredibly dumb way to go about the issue—but I mean, that's the first thing that came to mind to tell a normal person at a normal computer. Windows still doesn't come with image handling that doesn't terribly suck (no, MSPaint doesn't count).

(Oooooh! I know! We could print out the data, scan it in, and then paste the image into Excel!)

And you have dozens, hundreds, thousands of products that solve things well without anybody hearing about them, or they're too high priced and people don't pay for software (the worldwide masses will never pay for software beyond Windows and Office, sorry, but they'll plop those $15 on a CD instead, what an odd situation eh?) People have no idea how to get things done, pasting things into Word and pushing them around via Yahoo! attachments, ignorant users being inflicted upon by desperate product designers, who in turn are pushed by their higher-ups put to more features in, god, we need to sell this next version, do something, make it 'better', while they sell to hapless IT managers, who decide that paying$120,000 for a 'site license' for some random collaboration or customer management app makes sense because nobody can get things done otherwise.

While normal people, just trying to get things fucking done, copy images from web pages, paste them into Word, and send them to family via attachments in Yahoo! Mail. And the point that got me started off on this rant was, maybe if people use stupid email messages for everything from planning events, complete with each RSVP'er hitting 'reply to all', to reviewing agendas, well then, maybe plain text isn't that bad after all, and a good way to do word processing would be a 'plain view' with the Markdown syntax and a 'print view' or whatever, but nobody will develop this product, it's not worth it—MS Office dominates, nobody has much choice about the matter do they? We'll think our thoughts through Microsoft's product, pipe our lists through its list-o-matic, gnash our teeth as that goddamned image refuses to align the way we want it to, and it's nobody's fault really: you can't blame the user for not bothering to learn how to use the thing, you can't blame the designers and developers for not being able to satisfy every writer's needs, especially considering that if people are used to a certain behaviour in your product they'll want it to never change however many years go by, you can't blame Microsoft for attempting to dominate the market and lock out actually innovative competitors.

We need decades of hard, slogging work to get computers to the point where we can just write things, share pictures with our friends, or even just talk to people without pulling our eyes out, without users being raped by software companies, without programmers coding themselves into early graves from death-march software schedules, without people working in the software field wondering how the fuck they got into an industry that provides so much of the world's productivity increases while being paid peanuts in return.

Computers suck, computers suck, computers suck, and yeah, I know, the Web will save us, we can finally upload pictures and send the URL over IM, we can finally charge for software as a service, actually get paid \$10 a month by each user, and the upside is that they won't have to worry about turning into sysadmins, upgrading and troubleshooting software that won't work, and when we develop for mobile phones and PDAs we won't make all the mistakes we made when developing for desktops, we'll have standards and things, so the Microsoft stranglehold will finally break… wake me up when The Sanity comes.
posted by Firas at 3:42 PM on April 12, 2006 [1 favorite]

I should point out that about 80 percent of the writers I know don't double-space, so it is possible to unlearn that habit. And, speaking as a former editor, rather than as a designer -- writers will submit their documents in whatever god damn format I tell them to, or I will send them back and have them reformat the thing, or I will not publish it.

You'd be surpised how quickly writers can adapt.
posted by Astro Zombie at 3:52 PM on April 12, 2006

Most of the on-the-fly typesetting done by Word users has a semantic purpose, with the additional benefit of making the text immediately readable and printable.

I don't think this undermines the thesis of the article in the OP, which is a heartfelt screed on how WYSIWYG makes it exceptionally difficult to create anything that is consistently formatted.

Here, I think, is the deal: MS Word is an M1A1 Abrams Tank with augmented SUV controls. It, and all other WYSIWYG editors like it, is quite competent for complex layout tasks, but the way it's set up it is easy to use for extremely simple projects and difficult to actually get to the functionality, because it creates a fusion of design and writing which is detrimental to both. The average person's needs could be covered completely with an improved version of Wordpad. Writing software in the WYSIWYG mold needs to be rethought from the ground up.
posted by graymouser at 4:10 PM on April 12, 2006

The Not-So-Short Guide to LaTeX 2E
TeX by Topic

Awesome Mac frontends:
TeXShop, iTeXMac, TeXMaker, LyX/Mac
posted by mrbill at 4:17 PM on April 12, 2006

I wrote Structured data and the death of WYSIWYG back in 1999. I was overly enthusiastic, working on a free text-oriented XML editor called Conglomerate at the time. That project has since changed hands a few times, and is pretty dormant, although I think the current version is largely usable.

Anyway, I keep hoping for the change to structure and semantics to happen, but I'm not too optimistic anymore. Even though CSS seems to be catching on in the Web world, CSS is not exactly the easiest thing to work with, most people don't understand it, and most sites use a mix of semantic and visual HTML.

I generally agree that writing software needs to be rethought. I use Final Draft, a specialized word processor for screenplays, quite a bit for work, and even that is, honestly, a piece of shit. It's the best there is for screenplays right now, but it still sucks. Celtx promises to be a free replacement, but it's not quite there yet.

Anyway, it's not particularly innovative either, if anything, it has even more of that "writing project" style with a bunch of forms where you can write in the defining characteristics of your characters and whatnot, which just doesn't fit my writing style very well. I'd much rather have something like a small wiki-like system to organize concepts and notes and characters and everything, with much less fixed format, but more relationships between things.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 4:27 PM on April 12, 2006

The bizarre quotation marks' used in the linked article appear to be an artifact of the TEX to HTML translator that the author used to create his web page.
posted by designbot at 4:32 PM on April 12, 2006

MS Word is an M1A1 Abrams Tank with augmented SUV controls. It, and all other WYSIWYG editors like it, is quite competent for complex layout tasks

No, it's really not. It's an SUV with a tape recorder under the bonnet making brrrrrr tank sounds. It is no way competent for even simple layout tasks: it can't even justify an entire paragraph correctly (it does it line-by-line, and the floating spaces it uses when text is set-left make me shudder, so much do they look like double spaces).
posted by bonaldi at 4:35 PM on April 12, 2006

I still have a 1995 copy of WordPerfect for DOS on my 2003 ThinkPad and use it regularly.

It looks like shit. Always. So all you can do is concentrate on what you're writing......I love it.
posted by Nicholas West at 4:38 PM on April 12, 2006

Amazing to see such a rant about a piece of software when it's apparent the writer simply doesn't know how to use Word. Who cares if people use it "well" or not? Does it stop the serious writers from using it well? No. Does it stop others from being productive if they don't bother to RTFM? No.

Word is the result of a decade+ worth of feature creep. Start with a clean sheet design and in another decade you'll have folks ranting about that word processor.

Frankly, as a user, I don't want to have to work with two different programs just to write and print a donor letter, or work on a research paper, an article for the Web, or a grant proposal. Most of us are focused on the *writing* aspect, not the presentation aspect. Word works fine, if you take a few minutes to learn how to use its organizational tools and such. Could it be improved? Sure, but so could every software program out there.
posted by docjohn at 4:39 PM on April 12, 2006

Astro Zombie: As I said, I don't ask people not to double-space after periods. I just fix it later, as I do with every element that they send in to me. All I ask is that they don't add any additional formatting.

I should point out that about 80 percent of the writers I know don't double-space, so it is possible to unlearn that habit.

I wonder how many of those make use of automatic correction features of word processors.

And, speaking as a former editor, rather than as a designer -- writers will submit their documents in whatever god damn format I tell them to, or I will send them back and have them reformat the thing, or I will not publish it.

You'd be surprised how quickly writers can adapt.

Well yeah. It's an issue that takes less than a minute to fix, and some of the word processing software out there will do it automatically. I have a macro that does the trick that I run along with my spellcheck. I'll give my editors and clients whatever the heck they want. But I don't get paid enough to untrain and retrain 25 years of skill.

However, bitching about users for a decades-old practice that's only been in flux for the last decade seems rather petty to me. Especially when it is so trivial for the software to do the right thing here. We use software to properly center objects on the page, a formerly tedious and error-prone process. But we can't expect the software to properly add the correct quantity of space at the end of a sentence?

greymouser: It, and all other WYSIWYG editors like it, is quite competent for complex layout tasks, but the way it's set up it is easy to use for extremely simple projects and difficult to actually get to the functionality, because it creates a fusion of design and writing which is detrimental to both.

Oh, I don't use word for complex layout tasks, or even simple layout tasks if I can avoid it.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 4:44 PM on April 12, 2006

I agree with docjohn. MS Word is as simple or complex as you choose to make it. You can make it as basic as Notepad if you want to. It's up to you to learn how. And then if you want the more advanced features, they're there.

It's just that most average computer users are dazzled by "features", and don't feel they're using what they paid for unless they have 19 different fonts and 28 different indents in their 2,000 word document.

I notice that when you install MS Word, a lot of the more annoying automatics are default "on". That's ass backwards. It should be that when you install MS Word, it should be as simple as Notepad as default, and you should be forced to learn the program in order to turn on more features.
posted by Nicholas West at 4:45 PM on April 12, 2006

Another program similar in ways to Markdown is etset. It's also free, available for Windows (and could be compiled for Macs), and doesn't require Perl. It's used as a standalone program to convert marked-up text into plain text, LaTeX, HTML or Palm's ebook format.
posted by slackbp at 4:49 PM on April 12, 2006

Wanna have some mildly malicious fun? Walk into a roomful of technical writers -- preferably a goodly mix of grizzled veterans and relative newbies -- and ask the "one space or two" question. I once watched a near-catfight over that one.

Word's an interesting tool. If you're crafty about it, you can make it almost work like an XML-based editor. But it's not fun unless you like to tinker.

Most shops I've been in, the TWs are all using Word for Windows, just like everybody else in the organization, but wistfully musing about using FrameMaker instead.
posted by pax digita at 4:54 PM on April 12, 2006

Oh oh oh! Good topic!

This post really resonated with me, as I find it difficult to write fiction with Word. It looks to finished. I need something more preliminary to remind myself that drafts are drafts and are going to be revisited. Writing is a lot more relaxed for me using something other than Word.

And I did find a good set of writing tools; Idea Knot for plotting and writing alternative scenes, character sketches, stuff like that, and Avenir for writing drafts. I am completely in love with it. It lets you annotate using hyperlinks, and it has space along the side for the chapter outline. Idea Knot is free for macs and has a PC version, but Avenir is mac only, and costs a token amount. I really can't recommend either of them more than I already do.
posted by Hildegarde at 4:57 PM on April 12, 2006

Thing is, Word is actually a decent program if you turn all of its features off. Seriously! Try it! It's actually quite bearable.
posted by Afroblanco at 5:32 PM on April 12, 2006

Amazing to see such a rant about a piece of software when it's apparent the writer simply doesn't know how to use Word.

Why would you say that? You've never seen the author use Word. You're just snottily assuming that anyone who really knew it would like it, and that he's engaging in some sort of absurd sour-grapes argument. Well, phooey on you.

Most of the people I know who've moved to TeX have done so from the Word (or WP) world and were frustrated by the limitations and crummy output quality. I'm in that camp. While I was never a Word wizard, I shifted to TeX because I was tired of Word periodically deciding to just swallow up an equation stack, and tired of a document shifting formatting because I switched printers, and tired of having to create bibliographies manually, and tired of...

Who cares if people use it "well" or not

I care. Because I have to deal with other people's output day in and day out. Getting papers from students in ugly formatting with random font shifts sucks. Dealing with yet another regression-output table where the author didn't even bother to strip out all the unnecessary cell borders and it's twice as hard to read as it has to be sucks. Reading another 40-page article in default Word formatting, with bad word spacing and terrible justification and columns that are far too wide and no ligatures and no or bad kerning and that hurts after that tenth page sucks.

So, yeah, I care.

Frankly, as a user, I don't want to have to work with two different programs just to write and print a donor letter, or work on a research paper, an article for the Web, or a grant proposal.

How is this an argument for Word and against TeX? TeX can do all that, and more. I use LaTeX for letters -- hell, it even automatically generates letterhead for me.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:26 PM on April 12, 2006 [1 favorite]

"That [article] reminds me of an interesting story. Well, actually, it's not so much interesting as it is long..." -- Grandpa Simpson
posted by neuron at 7:18 PM on April 12, 2006

It's not that you can't do logical formatting with Word, it's just that almost nobody does, because (in part) Word makes logical formatting difficult and physical formatting easy.

Yeah, it's easier to set the font, character style, and size (three menu item selections) than to choose a paragraph style (one menu item selection). Oh wait.

I find it high-larious that this nerd's solution to people not understanding how to use Word properly is... to switch them to another program entirely and suggest they learn a bunch of impenetrable-to-normal-people formatting codes!

Tell me, what exactly is keeping the users from making the same mistake using a markup language in a text editor? And how does subjecting writers to a compile-edit-debug cycle for documents help them be productive?
posted by kindall at 7:50 PM on April 12, 2006

The bizarre quotation marks' used in the linked article appear to be an artifact of the TEX to HTML translator that the author used to create his web page.

Yeah, I'd be much more impressed with his claims of the wonderfulness of TeX if the program he used to publish his document for the web hadn't so horribly mangled the HTML source. Jeebus.
posted by moonbiter at 2:24 AM on April 13, 2006

See, this article had me until the author suggested TeX as a solution. You seriously expect home users who can't figure out styles in Word to suddenly know how to use TeX? That would be like expecting everyone to suddenly learn HTML.

Way back in the bad old days before word processors, documents didn't have any "structure" at all, except for whatever visual styling was present. Yes, Word allows people to play author and typesetter at the same time, but why must we always act as though that's such a bad thing? As stated numerous times above, Word is capable of basic structuring via style sheets, and it's no more difficult to teach someone who already knows Word than the emacs (fer chrissakes, EMACS!) and LaTeX combination.

Arguably, for simple structured docs, Word is sufficient and easy, and for more complex documents, you'd probably want to use something like Framemaker, which has a solid XML backend. I wish Word had a better typographical engine, but eh.
posted by chrominance at 4:46 AM on April 13, 2006

You seriously expect home users who can't figure out styles in Word to suddenly know how to use TeX?

No reasonable person would expect Grandma to set up a TeX/ghostscript installation and start banging out \documentclass{grandmaletter}. But maybe Allin Cottrell isn't reasonable.

I read stuff like this as saying "Hey, you! The one trying to write another research paper and dissertation using Word's default behavior! Stop it! JOOOOOOIIIIIN USSSS!" Not as trying to convert people to use TeX for letters to Mom.

I suppose "Stop it! Don't use the default behavior! Use style sheets, subdocuments, and be religious about it!" would be another reasonable response. But that still won't get you bibTeX, or reasonable mathematical typesetting.

And you don't have to learn emacs to use TeX. I didn't, and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone who didn't have some other reason to use emacs.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:14 AM on April 13, 2006

That would be like expecting everyone to suddenly learn HTML.

Everyone here seems fairly adept at slinging enough HTML to post competently, and tehre are some damn stupid MeFi users, let alone LJ and MySpace which are even more HTML-heavy.

Actually I would say that this generation of kids growing up with the ubiquity of HTML would take to a TeX-like system of publishing more easily than they would to learning to navigate the menus and toolbars of your typical word processor.
posted by Space Coyote at 7:53 AM on April 13, 2006

adamrice: you use n-dashes in a range of numbers, like 1–5,

Well, if the Chicago Manual of Style says it, it must be so.

Only ... that's what hyphens are for.....

Again: This is a typesetters convention. It has no meaning for ordinary people. This "grammar" that's supposedly elucidated by good typesetting? It's not grammar at all. At most, it's style, in the linguistic sense. But it's not grammar. If you're going to argue that it is, you need to actually make an argument, and no one to my knowledge has yet done that. "Grammar" is a big word.

And again: Conventions are defined by use, not by books. Books merely codify them.
posted by lodurr at 9:36 AM on April 13, 2006

Space Coyote - really? You know how many times I've seen people drop a raw link because they can't make the a href part on their own, without a WYSIWYG editor?

I mean, I learned HTML code by writing it out, on paper, with a pencil. I still edit source in a text editor. But that is because I haven't found a WYSIWYG editor that actually formats source the way I expect it to, using clean code and no useless or unnecessary markup.

Having said that, I don't agree with the argument in the FPP, for one simple reason: 95% of the world does not need to learn markup to produce documents. When I sat down to write my dissertation, I didn't go learn LaTex. I used Word, with the reviewing tools. LaTex sounds like a great thing if you're a picky bastard who works alone in your writing dungeon, or with a group of other picky bastards who like to work that way. If the people with whom you collaborate do not also use LaTex, using it yourself is kind of a dumb idea. You are either going to waste a lot of time LaTex-izing their contributions, or taking your own edits and making them into a format that your colleagues can open and read.

No matter what your argument for semantic markup may be, you try taking a well-formed web page and handing it to an average person, as plain text code, and see how well he or she is able to read the document. Next, ask him/her to spot the text that should be in italics but is not. Then ask which spot should include a superscript. Now, try it again with the code hidden and the included markup applied to the content. Humans do not natively read code well. We need to be trained to understand or ignore the markup when reading source. What we do well is visually inspect the formatted document.

I had an advisor who continually needed help doing things like adding labels to pictures, adding attachments to files, adding passwords to computers. She's a great person but is not computer savvy. She actually prefers to edit hard copy drafts, but started using reviewer mode mostly because I and her other students got her more used to doing so. There is no way in hell that I would have expected her to learn LaTex just to have more control over formatting.

When I wrote the damn thing, I inserted figure placeholders and chapter headings and so forth using the tools available in Word, and EndNote for managing the bibliography. These are tools that all of us in the lab had, and although not everyone knew as much about the automatic TOC generation for example it was nothing that anyone else had trouble understanding. In short, I could share my document and get feedback, without any more unnecessary markup in the visual display of the document than the Endnote referecne codes, which we were all familiar with and learned to ignore when reading.

After it was written I did the remaining formatting. Section-specific margin layouts, auto-generated chapter headings (linked to the previously inserted heading levels) and auto-generated table of contents, reference insertions for figures. I used an alternate program (Illustrator) to generate pdf files of the pages that contained images, and then manually inserted these to replace the blank pageholder pages in the Word document (so that image refs would be linked to the appropriate page numbers).

I might have been able to do this in LaTex, but why would I want to take the time to learn it when nobody else would have been able to understand it? If I sent my advisor a raw text file, how would I expect her to make edits without either deleting important markup on accident (because she wouldn't know that it was important) or do the edits in an appropriate way, by making her learn the same editing scheme when she had enough trouble just using her computer as it was?

You know the other reason it was much easier for me to build the dissertation in Word? The 30 million times I had to enter abbreviations or commonly used phrases that require specific formatting to make sense visually. All I had to do was format it one time, set up an "Autocorrect", and I could punch in Greek letters, chemical formulas (with proper super/subscript), and so forth, easily. ca++ becomes Ca2+, automatically, every time. I wrote it, I went through it page by page to make final edits, I personally printed it (12 goddamn times, counting the drafts for committee review and all revised copies for submission and binding). I'll be damned if it was going to have a single frickin' typo because I made a mistake entering some arcane \format{} sort of rule. The last thing I wanted to have to do was spend time adding extra keystrokes to denote markup. I'd already spent 6 years of my life on this single document; anything to make it HARDER to finish would not be welcome.

Ideally, markup and content are separated, yes, but in a real world situation this separation should be done by the word processor itself. If you show me a program that allows me to write and format the way Word does, but uses a backend that saves everything as LaTex plain text files, maybe this is a possibility. Until then, Word is going to be the main choice of the average user - because everyone has it, and most everyone knows how to use it at a basic level.

(I do however go all psycho on a labmate who insists that Excel can produce publication-ready graphs. We bought that copy of SigmaPlot for a reason, damnit. If you have a screwdriver, you do not go looking for a butterknife.)
posted by caution live frogs at 10:04 AM on April 13, 2006

AppleWorks.

[runs away]
posted by ancientgower at 10:26 AM on April 13, 2006

CLF, your experience was very different from mine. LaTeX made my process of writing a dissertation far simpler than it would have been with Word, because I knew enough LaTeX and didn't know enough Word.

I started learning LaTeX for two simple reasons:

(1) We didn't have EndNote, and I couldn't afford EndNote.
(2) Word pissed me off when it effectively ate a paper in one of the revision changes, turning equation stacks into garbled nonsense.

So I spent a couple of weeks learning basic LaTeX. So by the time I started writing my dissertation (or turning conference papers into dissertation chapters):

I did not need to learn how to do automatic TOC creation with Word, because I knew how to type \tableofcontents (and \listoffigures and \listoftables , both of which were also required elements).

I did not need to learn how to do section-specific margin layouts and automatic headings, because I knew how to type \documentclass{dukethesis}, which did all that crap automatically along with all the other weird local rules for theses. I didn't even have to format the signature page; all I had to do was have \author{}, \advisor{}, and \member{} filled in appropriately and the \documentclass put in all the appropriate language and lines of the exactly correct width and all that stuff.

I sure as hell didn't need to generate PDFs of pages with images and force them back into the places where I'd saved blank pages. I just put the \includegraphics{} where they should go, along with a \caption{\label{}}, and everything got numbered, cited, and paginated perfectly without me doing anything.

As I hope you'll see in a minute, I don't mean this as a pissing contest.

I might have been able to do this in LaTex

This is one of the things that LaTeX is very, very good at.

but why would I want to take the time to learn it

If you know enough about Word to be using it like that, you probably shouldn't. A minor reason would be to avoid instabilities in Word and the .doc format, but that's minor.

On the other hand, if a student doesn't know LaTeX and doesn't know Word except at the casual level, I'd probably recommend learning LaTeX if there's any danger that they'll want to be formatting equations or games in the future.

If I sent my advisor a raw text file, how would I expect her to make edits without either deleting important markup

Your advising experience was very different from mine. I'd send a PDF to an advisor and get comments back "This is fine, but you should be kinder to Parker in section 3.2" or "Bloznik's article in AJPS is relevant to section 5.2." Not editing of sentence structure or anything like that.

The problem with an incendiary polemic like TFA is that it implies that only a ninny would keep using Word, which is false. People with sunk costs in learning Word might as well keep using it, though I think that the instabilities of Word will come back to bite them on the ass at some point.

You know the other reason it was much easier for me to build the dissertation in Word? The 30 million times I had to enter abbreviations or commonly used phrases that require specific formatting to make sense visually.

The LaTeX equivalent would be to define and then use \ca++ (or \capp if \ca++ is disallowed).
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:40 AM on April 13, 2006

AppleWorks.

[eye-roll /]

As for all that namby-pamby live and let live nonsense that ROU_Xenophobe and Space-Coyote are engaging in, I call poo! Poo on you! It's wishy-washy nonsense like that that's destroying this nation! Polluting the purity of our essence! Diminishing our moral fibre! TAKE A STAND, MAN!!!
posted by lodurr at 12:58 PM on April 13, 2006

Oh. Excuse me. I meant Caution Live Frogs, not Space Coyote. My sincerest apoligies. Rough day and all that crap.
posted by lodurr at 12:59 PM on April 13, 2006

I took a stand. I took at stand at my office door and said told Word, "This far, but no farther! YOU SHALL NOT PASS, MOTHERFUCKER!" And then I waggled my beard.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:30 PM on April 13, 2006

JUDGE 1: ... and then I banged me gavel.
JUDGE 2: You didn't!
JUDGE 1: I banged me gavel!

"Pardon me while I have a strange interlude...." -- Captain Spaulding
posted by lodurr at 1:58 PM on April 13, 2006

Oh. Excuse me. I meant Caution Live Frogs, not Space Coyote.

It was a real nice semantics we had once.
posted by sonofsamiam at 2:05 PM on April 13, 2006

caution live frogs: I think the first mistake is in assuming that you need to share the source file in order to get feedback. Most of what you mention in regards to revision and feedback can be done with PDF as well as MSWord (and if you have Illustrator, you probably have Acrobat Standard). And then you say this which makes me cringe:

I used an alternate program (Illustrator) to generate pdf files of the pages that contained images, and then manually inserted these to replace the blank pageholder pages in the Word document (so that image refs would be linked to the appropriate page numbers).

Why? LaTeX gives me this automatically. And ROU_Xenophobe points out one way to give you auto-complete macros. That's a feature that is included in dozens of different editors however, and is not a strong argument for Word.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 3:59 PM on April 13, 2006

MICROSOFT WORD
Words by Paul Anderson, c1994
Music ["Wild World"] by Cat Stevens, c1970 Unichappel Music
"Microsoft Word" is a trademark of Microsoft Corp.

Now that I've lost everything to you,
I was gonna start Chapter Two
And in fact I was thinking of leaving,
But if I'm gonna leave, I take good care
To save it all to disk, so it's not fair
That I got that little bomb and a system error.

Chorus:
God damn I hate Microsoft Word
It's hard to get by when it messes with your life.
You stink on ice, Microsoft Word
And I'd love to dismember you with a knife, yeah.

I didn't get as many pages as I want
So I tried to use a bigger font
And then I played around with the margins
And did some enlarging.
But when I tried to save, I got a frowny face
Telling me the memory was out of space
And that seven hours of typing had been erased.

Repeat chorus

Lalala la la, lala la la, lalala la la, lala la la,
La la lalala la, lala la la, goddamn computer!
I was gonna leave, go get a beer,
But my whole paper just disappeared.
So I guess I'll turn in one that I wrote last year.

Repeat chorus
("And now there's 5.0, it's slower!")
Repeat chorus
("One more time! For Bill Gates!")
Repeat chorus
("Wha... system error? This can't be. I was almost done. It was perfect!
You stupid computer!")
posted by oats at 5:36 PM on April 13, 2006

If anyone knows from experience: what do professional writers tend to do their word processing on?

The sad truth: on whatever their editors tell them to use. Which too often means Word, even though it'll be laboriously re-set, because too many editors aren't writers, or work in corporate settings where someone who doesn't give a shit about writing has the power to make it a MS Office shop.

There was a point in the 1980s (in the UK, at least) when the workflow was much simpler: writers used 'Amstrads', so did editors, there was no WYSIWYG, all was fine. A friend of mine who works in a law office says that he can date the firm's switch from non-WYSIWYG WordPerfect to WYSIWYG: documents formatted like bad family newsletters, with awful fonts.

I switched to LaTeX for long-form writing in 1998, partly inspired by this piece, because Word 97 did horrific things to a hundred-page masters' thesis. My doctoral thesis looked a lot nicer, and it made the terrifying final days before submission degrees of magnitude less atrocious. If you drove a car that turned out to be a lemon, you'd probably buy a different car and tell other people about your problems. Perhaps they'd be subjective nonsense, but I've heard enough stories of eaten Word files to be content to

On the one hand, you can 'just drive' with LaTeX; on the other, you can tinker with templates to your heart's content. Still, it's rare to have a document's formatting change drastically on you, as can too often be the case with Word. But for short assignments, I'm stuck with Word, because those are the templates my editors send.

One other big problem with WYSIWYG word processors that hasn't been mentioned is the lag between typing and seeing the words appear, due to font rendering: even apps with cleaner UIs such as Nisus Express feel as if they're struggling to catch up with hunt-and-peck typing (as does MeFi w/ auto-preview). For writers, that's really shit. The immediacy of handwriting or typewriting plays an important function when you're putting stuff down, and applications that hinder that are little short of trying to dictate to a bad stenographer.
posted by holgate at 2:47 PM on April 15, 2006

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