The normal way to feel about Microsoft Word, I’ve gathered, is somewhere on a spectrum from muted tolerance to outright hatred. “I don’t think you’re allowed to like Word,” Paul Ford, the writer and founder of the software company Postlight told me. “It doesn’t matter what my opinion is. It’s like asking what is my opinion of thunder or what is my opinion of weather? It’s just part of our existence now.”
Ford’s distaste for Word is mild compared with the ire some people have for the program. This very publication called for its death four years ago.
Which is pretty interesting to me. Because, the thing is, I … love Word. I do, I love it an abnormal amount. You can take your Google Docs and your Scrivener, because when it comes to file formats and word processing programs, I only have eyes for one: light of my life, fire of my limbs, Microsoft Word.
Here is where I admit that I am a copy editor and thus prone to fussy opinions about fonts and formatting and all such things—I once, upon receiving a draft in the unfamiliar, bizarro-world file format RTF in my inbox, had to restrain myself from asking the sender if she was raised in a barn. But then again, when I asked my colleagues on the copy desk, they professed no great fondness for the software that we use day in and day out. I confess that I had called Ford because, as the host of a podcast called Track Changes (hot Word slang for when multiple users make edits on a single document), I thought he might sympathize with my Word preference. But alas, it sometimes seems like it’s just me out here banging the drum for Word.
Now is actually an exciting moment in the world of word processing, if the idea of using exciting and word processing in the same sentence doesn’t strike you as inherently ridiculous. Sure, I spurn them all, but there’s the aforementioned Google Docs, Apple’s Pages, the ability to compose in a Gmail window or your phones Notes app if you feel like it. “Microsoft Word has dominated the market for so very long, but I think we’re in this really interesting moment when there are real alternatives out there,” said Matthew Kirschenbaum, a professor at the University of Maryland and the author of a book called Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing. Ford agreed: Word is “no longer as dominant as it used to be. Ten or 15 years ago, it was hard to work as a writer without always turning things in in Word.”
Ford’s point about the necessity of Word for working as a writer might be key to understanding the program’s appeal to me. Around college graduation, I seem to recall worrying there were other, better programs I should know how to use. Perhaps the one that had served me all through high school and college wasn’t going to cut it in the professional world, where surely I’d have to learn, I don’t know … Quark? Some other random content management system? I have learned to use many random content management systems in the years hence, but I was glad to be disabused of the notion of a Word-less society: The writing and editing world runs on Word, it turns out. Every book that you see and every magazine article (certainly every Slate article) that you read was probably a Word document at some point in its lifespan. Yes, the very same program that you learned in a long-ago computer classes is the one favored by editorial professionals the world over. If that doesn’t thrill you, fill you with some vague urge to put on a scout uniform and salute Bill Gates and/or Clippy, then you’re a different breed of dork than I.
And I do think that much of the apathy and antipathy surrounding Word is unfair. “When Word debuted in 1983, it did things that no other word processing program did,” Kirschenbaum told me. “I like to describe it as the No. 2 pencil of the digital age. Even the humble No. 2 pencil is itself a pretty remarkable piece of technology when you think about it.” Right, and no one hates the No. 2 pencil! Ford attributed much of the hate for Word to an earlier era, when computers in general were less reliable: “In the early ’90s, everyone had a pretty pathological relationship with their computer, because they wanted to get stuff done and the computer would be like, ‘yeah, let’s get it done,’ and then at 2 p.m. it would just go pa-chook and not type anymore and then you would just watch it fizzle and go to the blue screen of death. And you’d just realize that two hours, three hours of your life, unless you’d been assiduous in saving, were never coming back.” Word isn’t like that anymore—for the most part, it works great now. It’s an extremely powerful program saddled with an unearned bad reputation.
I’ll admit that there are certain features in other programs that have tempted me. Google Docs beckons with its cloud-based software that can be used anywhere there’s internet access. The way it saves automatically, on its own, seems kind of like magic. But magic is scary, and as Ford put it, “at an emotional level, [Google’s auto-saving] didn’t make sense for a long time.” That lack of a decisive file-save moment, a satisfying dramatic conclusion of a job, if not well done, at least done leaves me cold.
The truth is I feel sentimental about Word. The only person I know who is more of a Word expert than me is my mom, a whiz at the program from working as a technical writer and editor. Growing up, I was always making fake restaurant menus and fake brochures and fake periodicals for school, and it’s my mom who helped me format them to meet the exacting standards of a future copy editor. She taught me to put two spaces between sentences (a practice I let go of when I came to work at Slate but still look back on wistfully) and to turn on formatting marks, so that little dots mark each space and backward-P pilcrows mark each new line. To this day I use them, and each time someone looks over my shoulder and asks, “how can you even read that?” I swell with pride. It’s my superpower: how I spot extra spaces and how I can tell hard-return line breaks (correct) from soft-return ones (the province of fools).
This word processing nostalgia made sense to Ford: “I think software has this amazing power where it allows you to conceive of yourself doing other things. You were able to conceive of yourself as a writer,” he told me. “I think Photoshop has this power for people where they conceive of themselves as digital artists, learn to manipulate their own photographs and are able to think of themselves as photographers. The same is true of DJing software.”
At some point when I was rhapsodizing about paragraph markers, Ford mentioned the once-popular word processing software WordPerfect. It had a feature called Reveal Codes, which allowed users to do the equivalent of looking under the hood of a document to fix any problems. “If you talk to legal secretaries from the ’90s, they still miss it.” Maybe that’s my future. George R.R. Martin is similarly loyal to an out-of-date program; Kirschenbaum pointed out that the Game of Thrones author still uses a word processing software from the ’80s called WordStar. That could be me one day, sticking with Microsoft Word long after its prime, when everyone else has long since moved onto Snapchat’s revolutionary quick-expiring word processing app. Word may already be evolving past normal, but I’ll be sticking with the horse I rode in on.
Read more from Normal, Slate's pop-up blog about how you're supposed to do it.