Sunday 15 November 2015

Why Do Some Writers Dislike Word?

There is a fair amount of disdain amongst some writers for using Microsoft Word to produce documentation of any size.  I use the word "disdain" because the people that "hate" Word normally type "Micro$oft" as a mark of how edgily anti-establishment they are (while using an iPhone).  There's no point engaging with these people in any meaningful way, because they're either teenagers trying to look cool (because all the ladies love a man who knows bash, right?) or adults who have a lot of unresolved issues (seriously, why don't women understand how cool I am???).

Very few writers actively hate Word, and when we do, it's oddly got nothing to do with whether Word is actually any good.  As it happens, even writers who use variants of SGML every single day and never go near Word will acknowledge that if you just want to whip up a one page letter then Word is the tool to use. However, that doesn't mean they'll use it to whip up a one page letter, because they're professionals.

And there it is.  That, dear reader, is the problem that a lot of writers have with Word.  It's snobbery. But before you get all hot under the keyboard and splutter indignantly in the comments, I need to contextualise that snobbery a bit. 

Word is an astonishingly polished and powerful writing tool.  I've been at this professional writing malarkey for over a decade, and in that time I've used Google Docs, Open Office, Libre, Zoho and a few others I can't even remember and none of them come even vaguely close to matching Word's functionality, intelligence and integration points.  This is especially true for Office 2013 and the desktop version of 365.  No matter how one-eyed you are about Word and it's faults - and it does have faults - if you deny that Word is the single most capable word processing tool around then you're wrong.  Fact.  It's not even a matter of opinion.  It's not like arguing about whether the Aston Martin DB9 or Jaguar F-type is the prettier car where there is room for subjective opinion, it's about plain facts.  Word can do more, do it better, and do it more intelligently than anything else out there.

So why the snobbery?  Why don't some writing professionals give Word the love it deserves?  They don't use it everyday, because there are better tools for things like single sourcing, topic based authoring and so on and so on and that's fair enough.  Word is designed to allow you to write everything from a 1 page shopping list to a 500 page book, and it will do those and everything in between very well, but it's like buying a Range Rover.  You can drive over almost any terrain in a Range Rover, and do very illegal speeds on the motorway, and be very comfortable, and fit a lot in the boot, but it's not as good as a tank off-road, or a Ferrari for high speed or a Rolls-Royce for comfort or a van for load capacity.  But it's still the best all-rounder by some distance.  That's Word.  Other writing tools offer specialist functionality, but is there a single PC user who hasn't used Word to write something at some point?  Unlikely.  And if there are, their numbers will be vanishingly small, because Word is just the best all-round package available and therefore the most ubiquitous. (There are additional reasons to explain the Office hegemony, but that doesn't change the facts about Word's pre-eminence.)

If you want to understand the snobbery about Word, it can be boiled down to that pre-eminence.  It's not the fact that Word is popular, otherwise writers would never visit Starbucks, and it's not that Word isn't the best tool for the job, because in some circumstances it demonstrably is. 

No, the reason a lot of writers don't like Word is that it's made it so easy for Billy Bob Developer to write a decent looking document that people now think technical writing is easy, and oh my God is that fricking annoying! 

No-one likes to feel that other people think their job is easy when you know that it's not.  It's fair to say that some jobs are easier than others, and some jobs require more training that others, and I'm not going to suggest that writing a help file is more intellectually demanding than writing a compiler.  But by the same token, I know someone who has written compilers, and his opinion was that writing the documentation for them was the most difficult part, because he could see everything in his head but he didn't know how to communicate it in writing.

As a professional writer, this pleases me.  I like the validation that my job is not easy for some people.  I like the fact that someone who does something I have no idea how to do considers my job the hardest part of his working day, when I find it the easiest.  It's a nice feeling.

And then along comes a bozo who thinks they can do my job because they've worked out how to add headers and footers to a Word document.

It's very easy to develop an irrational hatred of Word when you constantly hear "Can't you just whip up a quick Word document?", or "Why can't you just write it in Word?" and of course our particular favourite, "Why is it taking so long? I could do it myself in 10 minutes in Word!".  There are many, many variants of these phrases and every single one adds a small straw to the camel's back.  Eventually, the camel breaks down and from that point Word becomes "The Enemy".  So writers subtly, or not so-subtly, point out that "Of course Word is good, but as a professional I use something different", the implication of course being that using Word is fine for amateurs, but not "proper" writers.  The dislike of Word, ostensibly because it's not a professional tool, becomes a way of setting ourselves apart from non-writers.  

It's a tribal thing, and snobbery about the way that people outside of your tribe do something is a key part of all tribes. For many writers, being snobbish about using Word is an identifier that marks them as a member of a tribe they want to belong to.  It differentiates them, gives them an identity and a sense of collective, whilst letting them rail against Word as a proxy for all of the non-writers who don't understand what writers do and treat them accordingly.  It doesn't matter how good Word actually is, it matters that it's a stick that some people use to beat us with.  Or at least that's how it feels.

I'm not going to spell out the myriad reasons:

a) why Word is not always appropriate for what we do,
b) why Word doesn't have all of the functionality that we really, really, really need, and
c) why you can't do something better yourself in Word. 

If you're reading this the chances are you either know the answers yourself or at least are smart enough to know that the answers are good ones.  But next time you hear a writer railing against Word, just remember that once upon a time we were all Word fans....until it got too good.

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