back to article Brit Sci-Fi author Alastair Reynolds says MS Word 'drives me to distraction'

In August last year, one-time-sysadmin and now SciFi author Charles Stross declared Microsoft Word ”a tyrant of the imagination” and bemoaned its use in the publishing world. “Major publishers have been browbeaten into believing that Word is the sine qua non of document production systems,” he wrote. “And they expect me to …

  1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge
    Windows

    Not unheard of

    Well, since Neal Stephenson's "In the Beginning was the Command Line" we were alerted to the vagaries of "Word".

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Re: Not unheard of

    I wrote two novels on Google Docs. I gave it up because of extremely heavy bandwidth use that topped out my bandwidth. Libre Office is now my favorite software to compose books, but I do have to save the final copy as DOC for my editor.

  3. Roger 11

    Re: Not unheard of

    Not sure if serious.jpg.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Re: Not unheard of

    "Libre Office is now my favorite software to compose books"

    I can only assume you must be on a budget or you are using a *NIX OS for which there is no MS Office version. Libre Office is vastly inferior to Word for pretty much all parts of that task and is far more buggy.

  5. Alan Brown Silver badge

    Re: Not unheard of

    MS word is vastly overloaded with feature bloat.

    Most people use less than a dozen features of their editor program. The rest is all just padding.

    One could as easily use Abiword, which is screamingly fast.

    Bear in mind that MS came to dominate the market not by being the best but by being "good enough" to do most functions for most people and "cheap". Once they had market domination they followed the lead of all monopolies everywhere and pursued lock-in as hard as they could.

    Libre and friends scare the shit out of MS, not because it's "the best" - but because it's "good enough" and "cheap"

    Personally I find the Libre UI somewhat more easy to use than MS's, but I haven't had to undo years of exposure to MS's bad habits first. (I have used Wordperfect, Wordstar and friends in the past, but spent most of the last 20 years not having to deal with secretarial programs)

  6. toughluck

    Why use an unsuitable tool in the first place?

    To be honest, I can't understand why anyone would want to torture themselves with a full-featured word processor to write anything serious.

    You're the Writer, NOT the Editor. You're there to write, not to edit or prepare for publishing. If the writer is trying to do the editor's job, and even the best writer might be a mediocre editor/publisher, the primary task will suffer and the resulting book will be form over substance.

    I can understand a writer emphasizing certain passages, introducing quotations, digressions, etc., but it's the choice of the editor whether to italicize or embolden, not the writer.

    What any self-respecting writer should do is to submit his or her work in plain-text or at most in light markup (such as RTF, for all its shortcomings), and the publishing house should be the party to actually decide what the final form will be.

    With that in mind, either use a typewriter (with a facility to save text, of course), or software such as focuswriter (it's free) that comes with features specifically for writers.

    Do note that the alternative is to let the writer do everything, including (virtual) typesetting, preparing for publishing, sending to the printer, promoting it, hey, why not pay for the whole thing while he's at it, in effect self-publishing, but where the proceeds go to a publishing house that didn't do anything worth paying for.

  7. illiad

    Re: Why use an unsuitable tool in the first place?

    hey, you may be the writer, but you need to be GOOD to the publisher!! do you want to earn any money from your work???? that means stuff he can read *easily*, not full of tons of errors... any excuse he can give NOT to use your work!!! :(

  8. toughluck

    Re: Why use an unsuitable tool in the first place?

    Did I make even the slightest hint that the work should be submitted full of errors?

    1. The tool I suggested (focuswriter) has a spelling dictionary and checks on the fly or at the end.

    2. Word is not better (or worse) in this regard.

    The software you use is not an excuse for errors. However, let me point out that it used to be common to submit written works as typescript (or manuscript) and the writers did not have the luxury of spellcheckers or even error correction. And the quality of manuscripts and typescripts was vastly superior to some examples of today's works where the writer did not even bother to run a spellchecker on his or her text once.

    However, it's Alastair Reynolds we're talking about. So your comment that the publisher would give excuses not to use your work is absurd. Mr. Reynolds has been published extensively and his publisher is definitely not going to give excuses not to use his work since it's basically printing money. Well, okay, I presume if he submitted utter rubbish, the publisher would firmly say 'no,' but otherwise, you're very unreasonable.

    Your post reveals that you may have been rejected by some publishers. However, I would offer an alternative explanation. Whatever tools you use (or don't), they're not the reason you were rejected. And they were right -- they want "stuff" that's readable. Yours is not. It displays as three lines on my screen and I can say with all certainty that if I were to read through three thousand lines of such dubious quality, my eyes would bleed out of my eyesockets.

  9. jelabarre59 Silver badge

    Re: Not unheard of

    > Libre Office is vastly inferior to Word for pretty much all parts of that task and is far more buggy.

    If your task is fighting with a substandard, bloated, crash-prone P.o.S. that has one of the most abominable user interfaces this side of Blotus Notes, then yes. Otherwise the only functional use of MSWord is as a doorstop.

  10. jake Silver badge

    Personally ...

    ... I use vi as my text editor. Because I'm inputting ... er ... text.

    Correct tool for the job, and all that.

    Markup comes long after typoing/editing.

  11. Khaptain Silver badge

    Re: Personally ...

    It's difficult to know when jake is feeding the fish and when he is being serious.

    I can imagine that you might do some scripting with VI but 250 pages of Sci-Fi novel sounds a bit dubious.

  12. jake Silver badge

    @ Khaptain (was: Re: Personally ...)

    First, it's "vi", not "VI". Second, I'm totally serious.

    BSD and Linux (and Minix, Coherent, et alia) were written in vi (EMACS, or other ASCII text editor of choice). vi just works.

    Adding rainbows, stars, unicorns and sunsets aren't actually functional.

  13. xenny

    Re: Personally ...

    Ahem.

    If you read this post by Charlie:

    http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2010/01/writing-tools.html

    he mentions having written several novels using vim (vi improved). I've read at least two of those novels. They're pretty good.

  14. Dan 55 Silver badge

    Re: @ Khaptain (was: Personally ...)

    There is nano these days. Sometimes progress is good.

  15. Khaptain Silver badge

    Re: Personally ...

    Jake as much as I agree that "vi" just works, I find it hard to believe that today someone would choose vi over the multiitude of WYSIWYG solutions. As an example "Scrivener" is a dedicated writing program with a multitude of tools that can assist the writer. Whereas vi is a just "text editor". ( yes I know it is more than just a text edit but you get my point).

    What advantages does vi offer a writer ?

    Personally, on Linux, I use nano because I really do not like vi. I never remember the shortcuts, which forces me to pull out my cheat sheet, which i don't like having to do.

  16. Gordon 10 Silver badge

    Re: Personally ...

    Charles Stross has also mentioned that he uses scrivener - although he likens comparing it to a text editor as similar to comparing Word and Project.

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Linux

    Re: @ Khaptain (was: Personally ...)

    "There is nano these days."

    Or joe, which uses Wordstar commands, just as nature intended....

    Actually, it's now an automatic reaction on a new install to type "aptitude (or zypper) install mc joe"

  18. keithpeter
    Windows

    Re: Personally ...

    "I can imagine that you might do some scripting with VI but 250 pages of Sci-Fi novel sounds a bit dubious."

    I don't write books, but study packs in the 30 to 90 page range can be done in 'mark up' quite easily using a text editor and a previewer now and again to check the typesetting.

  19. Mage Silver badge

    Re: @ Khaptain (was: Personally ...)

    I just wrote about 140K words in last two months using notepad++

    Tabs for open documents

    Wonderful regex search and/or replace on selection, document, all open documents, all in directory or including subdirectories.

    Minimal markup when imported later to something else:

    _and_ for auto itallics

    *and* for auto bold

    Auto tables from comma separated lists

    Auto headings base on line spacing

    I now distribute copies for proof reading etc to Kindle etc using .prc fornat

    (text -- > Word or Libre Office --> Save as filtered HTML --> Mobi Creator --> eBook)

    Kindle DXG is nice for proof reading and allows markup. The "share" feature is rubbish sadly.

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  21. jake Silver badge

    @ Khaptain (was:Re: Personally ...)

    "What advantages does vi offer a writer ?"

    The ability to just write. My goto for shifting ASCII from my brain into my computer has been vi (with the help of a Model M keyboard and a serial attached so-called "dumb" terminal) ... to the point where I have a user-name "write" that uses vi as the shell. When I'm writing (code, documentation, contracts, dead-tree letters), I don't like distractions.

    Once the words are on the page, I'll format them as I see fit.

  22. ElReg!comments!Pierre

    Re: Personally ...

    Why so? For simple things (text, the occasional title, table or image, regardless of length) rst markup is enough (usually I just rst2pdf it). For more complex stuff I use lout. Never a problem with putting half a word in italics or with randomly-shifting left alignments etc. That alone makes it worth trying... not to mention, the result is beautifully typeset.

    For collaborative work, comments and corrections à la MSWord are a source of problem as often as a solution, so while I understand the reason people use them, I personally find inline corrections with comments markup (or a quick diff) more useful.

    Matter of taste and work habits I suppose. There's something you can't argue against though: ressource usage. I typed entire sections of my last article on my Ben Nanonote.

  23. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Re: Personally ...

    @khaptain

    Aye, aye, sir ...

    I maintain a 2000+ pages book almost exclusively with vi. Sed and awk come in handy. Actually, it is 2000 distinct pages in 13 books. Part of my work is tech writing.

    Never had an issue - I must say that I use wiki style for markup, links, and tocs ... if I need to move a chapter of 5 topics, I open the toc file, locate chapter, "5dd" move cursor to correct position "p", done ... no select, cut, [prays the scrollbar does not freeze] scroll & paste hoping the formatting is not all down the gutter.

    I even have a preview function in vi that renders the stuff into HTML and opens a browser, complete with links, images, etc, etc ... spellchecker, grammar checker, markup checker ... you name it. I can output almost any format.

  24. Steve Knox Silver badge

    Re: @ Khaptain (was: Personally ...)

    BSD and Linux (and Minix, Coherent, et alia) were written in vi...

    Remind me again which of those is a science fiction novel?

  25. Adrian 4 Silver badge

    Re: @ Khaptain (was: Personally ...)

    Nano is awful.

    With so many common control-key shortcut standards available, why did they have to produce another one ?

  26. Adrian 4 Silver badge

    Re: Personally ...

    Because a wanter wants to write, not page-set ? As someone else said, the content is very different from the layout. Concentrate on text and let the typesetter make it look pretty - you'll be more productive and he'll do a better job.

  27. Primus Secundus Tertius Silver badge

    Re: Personally ...

    @Adrian4

    For producing simple narrative text, Notepad will do; or Geany/Kedit on Linux machines.

    But for a complex technical document with tables, illustrations, and captions, you may not have the time to faff around trying to remember the Latex directives. So it is Libre Office or Word. Also, I need the spell check: not because I can't spell, but because I can't type (to a professional standard).

    I like using One Note for first drafts.

  28. b0hem1us

    Re: Personally ...

    Yeah I know I went back to plain text as well, just use #*@ for own mark-up. WYSIWYGs in general distract you with visuals you don't need when you write creatively (imagine coding in a WYSIWYG). The downvoters don't know any better.

  29. ElReg!comments!Pierre

    Re: Personally ... (@Primus...)

    > But for a complex technical document with tables, illustrations, and captions, you may not have the time to faff around trying to remember the Latex directives.

    If you only have tables, illustrations and captions (all quite simple) you can use something simple like aft or ReStructuredText.

    For more complex stuff I prefer Lout to LaTeX, as the whole install is around 1 MB instead of 5-700 MB for a usable LaTeX setup. It is also a single piece of software, maintained coherently, which means that everything from the C code to all the high-level metacommands is coherent. Makes it very easy to remember the parameters you may want to faff around with.

  30. TechnicalBen Silver badge
    Linux

    Re: Personally ...

    Wait, how do I undo my upvote? I thought you said "I use Emacs"...

    ... Oh, they are the same. :)

  31. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

    Re: Personally ...

    >WYSIWYG

    If you are an author you don't need to care about layout - that's what you have publishers, editors and cover designers for.

    It's like saying a composer should use a mixing desk because they need to know what level of compression will be used when they music is played on Radio3.

  32. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Re: @ Khaptain (was: Personally ...)

    No novels. But I've written documentation, programmes, HTML and collaborative stuff by the shed load in vi(1). Much easier than Word or similar, much quicker and I can call any shell level command within it (e.g. sort(1)), mark up with HTML, troff(1) or whatever else you like. For personal notes, programming etc. I still use it (and for the ksh command line history :))

    I rather think the original C manuals and lots more were done in vi(1) or something very like it and the output is just the text you want, not the overhead deemed essential by the supplier. If you look at the older text books, they often say they were marked up in troff or similar and those were for text files that would be thoroughly broken by word processing software. So a text editor, usually vi(1) or emacs(1) was the normal tool.

    An incalculable advantage for those who can touch type is that one need not move the fingers away fro the home keys to reach arrow keys, function keys, <insert> and so on. This provides speed and simplicity. And, being text, a text editor provides true portability.

    Finally, interesting subsitutions and rearrangements across thousands of lines and simple macros are simple, quick and can be automated (using the vi(1) subsets, ex(1) or ed(1) or, the streaming, ec(1)-like sed(1).

    The missing feature, for collaborative work, is inbuilt change mark-up. Somehow, with decent source code control systems, such as RCS, Subversion or even SCCS, we managed very well.

  33. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Re: Personally ...

    You think Word tables are good? Only if they conform to the ideal defined by MS.

  34. Oninoshiko

    Re: Personally ...

    not able to write a 250 page SciFi novel without word?

    I wonder how Heinlein managed Stranger in a Strange Land?

  35. John Gamble

    Re: Personally ...

    I can imagine that you might do some scripting with VI but 250 pages of Sci-Fi novel sounds a bit dubious.

    Seriously?

    First: Look up "typewriter".

    Second: Do a page count of Brit Sci-Fi author John Brunner's novel Stand On Zanzibar

  36. SineWave242

    Re: @ Khaptain (was: Personally ...)

    I was just going to mention nano! I find myself using it more and more these days. Great editor!

  37. TimeMaster T

    Re: @ Khaptain (was: Personally ...)

    I am amazed at the number of down votes to such a simple comment. I know some people have issues with vi but I never imagined them to get this incised about it.

    vi is a great editor, it can handle files of arbitrary size, has no formatting info to worry about, and the resulting file can be imported into any full featured editing suite without issues.

    Personally I wouldn't use it for a novel but hey, to each their own. It what makes vi so great, if you want a clean text editor it just works.

  38. Roger 11

    Re: @ Khaptain (was: Personally ...)

    You pedant.

  39. Roger 11

    Re: @ Khaptain (was:Personally ...)

    So, stuck in the past?

  40. Roger 11

    Re: Personally ...

    Well said. The crap which is vi was not intended to write books. It is meant for script kiddies.

  41. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Re: @ Khaptain (was: Personally ...)

    "vi just works."

    A pencil and paper 'just works'. That doesn't make it a sensible choice.

  42. ElReg!comments!Pierre
    Trollface

    Re: @ Khaptain (was: Personally ...)

    "A pencil and paper 'just works'. That doesn't make it a sensible choice."

    Very right. Let's spend billions on the developpment of a pressurized ballpoint pen instead.

    http://www.snopes.com/business/genius/spacepen.asp

  43. mmeier

    Re: @ Khaptain (was: Personally ...)

    >>BSD and Linux (and Minix, Coherent, et alia) were written in vi...

    >Remind me again which of those is a science fiction novel?

    Linux. It starts with "When Linux dominates the desktop". About as likely as the Orion VII taking of from Base 104.

  44. Alan Brown Silver badge

    Re: Personally ...

    The best editor for markup is LaTex. Everything else is just handwaving.

  45. Alan Brown Silver badge

    Re: Personally ...

    "I find it hard to believe that today someone would choose vi over the multiitude of WYSIWYG solutions"

    Show me any serious author who uses anything other than a text editor.

    The first thing a publisher does is throw out the formatting and select an apprioriate font/size based on the target market/papertype/sale price.

    Prettifying your words is the mark of an amateur or a sales droid.

  46. Alan Brown Silver badge

    Re: @ Khaptain (was: Personally ...)

    nano is derived from pico, which was a purpose built mail editor.

    The keybindings are the same ones used by tcsh and the bourne shell- the idea being that people who were comfortable in a shell environment didn't have to learn yet another set of command strokes.

    FWIW: Joe uses wordstar bindings by default but can switch to _any_ of the common text editors commands - something which keeps the jed diehards here very happy.

  47. Alan Brown Silver badge

    Re: Personally ...

    "But for a complex technical document with tables, illustrations, and captions, you may not have the time to faff around trying to remember the Latex directives. So it is Libre Office or Word. "

    As soon as it goes for publication the first thing that will happen to your document is that it gets fed into LaTeX for reformatting - if you don't want your stuff being buggered around with, use the right markup editor in the first place (where "right" = "what the printing industry uses")

  48. Alan Brown Silver badge

    Re: Personally ...

    > First: Look up "typewriter".

    More than a few SF authors preferred to write - using a pen (or in some cases, a crayon)

    Given the entire thing had to be reentered by typesetters anyway (typed or handwritten), it didn't make a lot of difference to the end product.

  49. ElReg!comments!Pierre

    Re: Personally ...

    > The best editor for markup is LaTex. Everything else is just handwaving.

    ERP DERP

    > As soon as it goes for publication the first thing that will happen to your document is that it gets fed into LaTeX for reformatting

    Nope. the first few things that will happen will be proofreadings and sub-editing; the people who do that are used to MSWord and Acrobat and that's why most editors require everything in .doc (or .docx) and sometimes .pdf. Which is a pain in the backside, but no big deal since my document processing software can output pdf and ODF (which is then easy to convert to whatever crap they want).

    I've even had someone tell me they wished I stopped sending files in "that weird .txt format" as they had to copy and paste them into Word to read them. I kid you not.

  50. Martin-73 Silver badge

    Re: Personally ...

    Simply rename long_novel.txt to long_novel.doc

    Word will open it just fine

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