Why Microsoft Word Is Inefficient for Writers

Yesterday, I was talking to a designer about software, and he extolled, with unbridled passion, the supremacy of PhotoShop.

“It does everything,” he gushed.

As  he explained the varied uses of PhotoShop in different aspects of the design world, I started thinking about the writer’s equivalent.  Do we have one?

Yes. Unfortunately. We do.  We have…(gag) Microsoft Word. Every editor has it. Every publisher has it. Every web design company has it. Now, magazines, newspapers, publishers, web design companies, and whomever else you may be writing for, will ultimately reformat your piece into a variety of other applications.  But as I explained to my designer friend, “They want it from you, in that .doc file.”

This is understandable, as it relates to setting a universal file format for an industry of contract writers that largely work from home. But MS Word is….well…Bill Gates’ version of what it means to be a writer. It’s a businessman’s software. Memos. Job offer letters. Business proposals from a company template. Nastygrams to be laminated and posted in the break room. But for a writer, Microsoft Word sucks. Here’s why:

Word works in a linear fashion. You open the file on page 1. Scroll. Page 2.  Scroll. Page 3. And so on. For you non-writers, you may be asking what’s wrong with that? Everything.

If you have a 3 or 4 page document, it’s not that big of a deal. But, what about a 600 page manuscript? Then you’ve got problems. First of all, in my experience, Word tends to get a little finicky around roughly 400 pages or so. I’ve read that this has to do with Word’s attempt to be all things to all people.

Because there are so many varied uses for the application, the coding is more complex, making simple text files larger and bulkier than they need to be. In other words, your text file is full of all sorts of useless information running in the background so that you are set up to use any of the program’s many other features. Which makes no sense, because, if you try to use Word for its other features, design-centered documents like newsletters or other desktop publishing, it’s…really not the best either. Which, begs the question…for whom is Word really designed?

But aside from all that, can you imagine trying to edit a 600 page file? That is, trying find that one paragraph that you think is…somewhere….around here….between page 234 and 237….and moving it to that one section…that ends up being…on page 349? I guess you’d make proficient use of the “go to” or “find” features. But those functions are designed for quick maintenance, not heavy use.  What about when the prospective publisher says it way too long and you need to cut it by half? Can you imagine doing major reconstructive surgery on a 600 page text document?

Well, of course, you wouldn’t put it all in one document. No. You put the manuscript in a series of files, by chapter or scene. So, if you’ve got 25  chapters, and each chapter its own file, you’ve got at least 25 files to manage for your reduction project, cutting and pasting between them. Now, each chapter is composed of scenes. If you want to reconfigure the chapter, you will probably want to start by working with the scene files, rather than the still lengthy chapter files. If each chapter has, conservatively, 4 scenes, that’s 100 files to manage. That is–to remember, keep in order, and name with memorable keywords.

And then, there’s this. Most novel writers don’t write sequentially. They write as they come up with scenes, a lot of which don’t even get used. So, while the final product may have about 100 files of individual scenes all arranged in folders that they’ve compiled to form chapters. But then there’s a whole separate folder of “deleted scenes,” which they may use in whole, or in part, later. My head is already starting to hurt.

And that’s if the writer is organized enough to keep a good system. Many aren’t. Many writers start out with a system, but mysteriously end up with “charlie-car-wreck-scene-version3-revised-final-again.doc, somehow in their Mobile Photo Upload folder from September 2012. And they have no idea it is even there, until they remember writing that one description that would be absolutely perfect in the final document, and so they have to run a full computer search function based on a key phrase they vaguely remember. Geez.

Which brings up the other problem with Word’s linear layout. In MS Word, the current screen version is the only version that exists. Unlike other applications, there is no provision for alternate versions of the same file in one place. It’s a business way of thinking. It’s either there, or it’s not. Black and white. There’s not a cutting floor full of usable scraps that can be recycled, tried out, tweaked and then tweaked again. If you want that, which is necessary, you have to create and navigate your own ad hoc system.

This means, if you want to have, perhaps, ten different takes on the same scene, the only way to do that, is either to have ten different files, or keep all the different versions sequentially in one really long file. (Like, six versions of the same eight page scene, each with slightly different variations…)

If you’re not sure which version you like, or maybe you’d rather have a varied combination of several versions, you’re jumping back and forth between ten different draft files, or scrolling like a boss, cutting and pasting all over the place until you don’t even know what you’re doing anymore. The only split screen function in Word is to be at two different points in the same file. This is helpful when you are working with perhaps a 10-20 page file, but if you are working with four different 8 page files, this all must be done from your taskbar.

If you are certain that a particular version is crap and you don’t want it in your way anymore, you can delete it. But, if you change your mind six months later, you had better hope you didn’t empty your Recycle Bin.

Not to mention, if you’ve got ten different files, on say, about 100 scenes, that’s potentially over 1,000 Word files to manage and keep track of for your manuscript. The probability for human error and subsequent data loss… almost certain. That’s not even counting background files. These are things like character bios, plot summaries, outlines, or just those preliminary type documents where you ramble for fifteen pages trying to explain what the story was going to be about, when not even you knew.

There are many text processing applications, I don’t know all of them. I wish I knew more. But I don’t want to bog my system down with a lot of experimental downloads. But, when I found  Scrivener from Literature and Latte, I fell in love. It’s created for Mac, so the Windows version can be a bit buggy from time to time. But the benefits of having an organized system of files are so much better. I have Word, and I use it for lighter projects. But, for heavy writing, especially intense pieces, I use Scrivener.

I don’t know how anyone wrote anything major when all there was was Word. Maybe that was before e-mail submissions were standard, and typewritten work was still marginally acceptable.


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