Death to Word
It’s time to give up on Microsoft’s word processor.
Online publishing systems gag on this stuff; gremlins breed in the hidden spaces. Some publishing platforms have a built-in button especially for pasting text from Word, to clear away the worst of it, but they don't work very well. Beyond the invisible code, there are those annoying typographical flourishes—the ordinal superscripts, the directional quotation marks, the automatic em dashes—that will create their own headaches in translation. Multiple websites exist simply to unmangle Word text and turn it into plain text or readable HTML.
When a standard tool requires this many workarounds, we need to find a new standard. Word wants to show that it knows the world isn't merely about paper—you can make documents that have real, live hyperlinks in the text! You just can't necessarily put those hyperlinks up on the Internet for anyone else to click on. Again and again, Word is defeated by the basic job of contemporary writing and editing: smoothly moving text back and forth among different platforms. The fundamental unit of Word is the single, proprietary file, anchored to one computer. Microsoft showed users how it feels about sharing work when it switched its default format from .doc to .docx in Office 2007, locking old and new Word customers out of each other's files. (There are workarounds, of course. There are always workarounds.)
Word's idea of effective collaboration is its Track Changes feature, which makes an uneventful edit read like a color-coded transcript of an argument between the world's most narcissistic writer and the world's most pedantic and passive-aggressive copy editor. No change is too small to pass without the writer's explicit approval, and the editor is psychopathically unwilling to accept a blanket concession: "On page 5: our house style is 'eleven,' not '11,' so I changed your '11' to 'eleven.' Do you understand?" Yes, OK, sure. "On page 9, you wrote '11,' so I changed it to 'eleven,' do you understand?" Yes, yes, house style, got it. "On page 15, you wrote '11' ..."
Some people have already moved on to a post-Word world. One national sportswriter told me he writes everything in TextEdit, because it goes easy on memory and it opens and closes in a snap. (My own latest copy of Word won't launch a new blank document without demanding that I identify which of a half-dozen kinds of project files—most of which are meaningless to me—I'm trying to create.)
When I was writing a book, which required lots of alone time with a giant file—and lots of word-counting, which Microsoft is good at—I stuck with Word. But for everyday projects, I go days or weeks without opening it. This piece started out as a Gmail message, which saved automatically and was easy to access at home, at the office, or on my phone in transit. Then I switched over to TextEdit, which gives me a bigger window to work with and handles line breaks more cleanly than Gmail does. For protracted edits, I create a Google document, so multiple readers can work on it at once. If they want to track the changes, they can read the revision history. For short blog posts, I write straight into the publisher.
If I really want a word count, I open a Word document and paste my work into it. Once I have the number, I dump the document, unsaved, so nothing gets contaminated with Word-iness.
I know only one person who loves working in Word: my 4-year-old. It's valuable to him to be able to put the names of subway lines in their correct colors, or to spell out "autumn" with each letter a different falling-leaf hue, or to jump from Times New Roman to Comic Sans to Chalkboard in midstory. He also loves to write things on my old manual Smith-Corona. A tool that's lost its purpose makes a great toy.
Tom Scocca is the managing editor of Deadspin and the author of Beijing Welcomes You: Unveiling the Capital City of the Future.