back to article 'Utterly unusable' MS Word dumped by SciFi author Charles Stross

British SciFi author Charles Stross once had the protagonist of his Laundry Files series, sysadmin/demon-hunter Bob Howard, narrate his day by saying “I'm sitting in my office, shivering over a cooling cup of coffee and reading The Register when my door opens without warning ...”*. Stross is welcome in these pages for that …

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Doubly unusable if he moved the document

If he started the document under LibreOffice (which I suspect he did) it was doubly unusable. It is somewhat specific to Office for Mac X (dunno what MSFT did when they ported it). I have had to throw out and rewrite from scratch multiple documents because of this. The scenario is: a document that once in its lifecycle has passed through LibreOffice, gets to a genius with Office for Mac who does a tracked change on it. Merry hell ensues with 100% or so probability. The same scenario just with lower (5-10%) probability can also play with Office for Mac and Offie for Windows. The document from now on is a mess on anythying - Office for Windows, Office for Mac or LibreOffice.

Still, the platform-to-platform breakage in tracking is nothing compared to breakage in references, citations and indexed tables.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Doubly unusable if he moved the document

Hmm, I've been using LibreOffice for years on OSX (more to do with the fact that it makes it possible to edit on OSX, Linux and even Windows without many problems). My main challenge with Word was that it utterly screws up the formatting of a document when you try to import something - and this even happens when you get a Word document coming from a PC.

Now I am a content guy, but when you're finishing you eventually move to formatting and in the end we just started using LibreOffice everywhere.

Even if you have Word on your machine, work in .doc format. Once Word starts rejecting the doc by crashing (if it gets big and you have lots of shredded format codes due to cut& paste), you can use LibreOffice to clean it up.

As for creative writing, I like Ulysses. I'm on the beta for both the iOS and OSX version, and as good as it already was, it's getting even better IMHO.

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Re: Doubly unusable if he moved the document

Charlie uses scrivener to a point afaik.

http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2012/07/writing-a-novel-in-scrivener-e.html

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Re: Doubly unusable if he moved the document

If he started the document under LibreOffice (which I suspect he did)

No I didn't.

I wrote the bloody thing in Scrivener (which is at heart an IDE for complex compound documents like, oh, trilogies), then generated a word document as output because my editors insist on working in Word because corporate IT at the big publishers thinks everyone uses it, even though many deeply serious professional authors won't touch it with a barge-pole.

Unfortunately $EDITOR[1] edited the word doc with change tracking. Then $EDITOR[2] scribbled on a print-out with red ink. And they want me to make another pass through it and do some structural changes. So my workflow is:

1. Go through change-tracked manuscript in Word (or LibreOffice) doing accept/reject on changes (I get to veto them at this stage).

2. Go through change-tracked MS and PDF scan of hand-annotated print-out, applying handwritten changes. (Thankfully, not as many of them.)

3. Import resulting document into Scrivener and try to rebuild the book's structure and metadata by hand.

4. Retire to the pub, weeping copiously, to consider the possibility of switching to an exciting and fulfilling career as a car park attendant or a tax inspector.

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Re: Doubly unusable if he moved the document

Charlie,

I have gone (twice!) through the process of publishing a book.The first one was basically prose, in a scholarly setting (published by a university), the second one is a technical one. I chose to use LaTeX, the first one written straight in LaTeX, and the second one via Emacs in org-mode. And yes, the correction/edition process was painful. They want to use Word, I certainly don't. It was quite an issue to get them to accept to use red-ink over paper, and I had to incorporate it all... Painful, but OTOH way better than finding out the changes in Word and going back to my Sacred Originals.

Of course, teaching LaTeX to the editor is just out of the question!

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Re: Doubly unusable if he moved the document

Unfortunately $EDITOR[1] edited the word doc with change tracking. Then $EDITOR[2] scribbled on a print-out with red ink. And they want me to make another pass through it and do some structural changes. So my workflow is:

1. Go through change-tracked manuscript in Word (or LibreOffice) doing accept/reject on changes (I get to veto them at this stage).

2. Go through change-tracked MS and PDF scan of hand-annotated print-out, applying handwritten changes. (Thankfully, not as many of them.)

3. Import resulting document into Scrivener and try to rebuild the book's structure and metadata by hand.

4. Retire to the pub, weeping copiously, to consider the possibility of switching to an exciting and fulfilling career as a car park attendant or a tax inspector.

That right there is enough to make me rethink my plans regarding a currently half finished tome I was considering sending off some day. I wasn't real optimistic about actually getting it published anyway, but that just sounds like a nightmare scenario.

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Re: Doubly unusable if he moved the document

"Even if you have Word on your machine, work in .doc format."

An upvote for that alone! .docx is a plague.

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Re: Doubly unusable if he moved the document

>>"Unfortunately $EDITOR[1] edited the word doc with change tracking. Then $EDITOR[2] scribbled on a print-out with red ink. And they want me to make another pass through it and do some structural changes. So my workflow is:"

I'm unconvinced MS Word's inability to merge in one of your editor's hand-written amendments on hard-copy is a reason to call it "utterly unusable".

>>"I wrote the bloody thing in Scrivener (which is at heart an IDE for complex compound documents like, oh, trilogies), then generated a word document as output because my editors insist on working in Word because corporate IT at the big publishers thinks everyone uses it"

Again, not really a reason for attacking Word. You're basically damning it for being successful. If the situation were the other way around and they all insisted you submit your work in Scrivener format and you wanted to use Word, you would be in the same situation. Of course Scrivener will export to Word because Word is the common standard and so it needs to. If the situations were reversed Word would have export support for Scrivener for the same reasons. But you would still be in the same situation as minority user. You would, for example, lose all your change tracking in your Word document when it had to go into Scrivener and back again.

So again, this is an artefact of your choice in writing tool, not any indicator that Word is "utterly unusable".

>>"even though many deeply serious professional authors won't touch it with a barge-pole."

And plenty of other authors do use it fine. I'm not sure if they are deeply serious ones, or why seriousness is so highly regarded by you, but again, you're publically slagging off the work of some very talented programmers who have put years of work into the software for no good reason that I can see here. All of the items you list are more to do with you than with Word.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Doubly unusable if he moved the document

What's all the fuss? I use Subversion (or whatever RCS suits) and Beyond Compare 3.

If all you're interested in knowing is what text has changed between versions of a Word document, Beyond Compare 3 does a terrific job of highlighting the differences.

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Pint

@ Charlie Stross -- Re: Doubly unusable if he moved the document

[...]because corporate IT at the big publishers thinks everyone uses it, even though many deeply serious professional authors won't touch it with a barge-pole.

Giving an upvote simply for the barge-pole remark. Wish I had more than one upvote for the rest of your post.

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Re: Doubly unusable if he moved the document

If Word used a *real* standard format (don't try telling me OOXML is) then these problems would, over time, vanish as other software - e.g. LibreOffice, Abiword - were able to implement import/export functions without having to reverse engineer Word format.

My wife has just been going through a similar process with her latest book (a biography of the architect Thomas Fuller, FWIW) as her editor wants .doc (or .docx!!!!!!!!). Among other problems, she has had to extract the footnotes into separate documents, because they get totally screwed up in the conversion otherwise.

I will join the original author in "publically slagging off the work of some very talented programmers who have put years of work into the software for no good reason that I can see here": my experiences with Word and the rest of Office have always been entirely negavtive.

And, you know, I imagine those "very talented programmers" (I've had better programmers among my students at my community college) were actually getting paid to put those "years of work" into Word.

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Re: Doubly unusable if he moved the document

I chose to use LaTeX, the first one written straight in LaTeX, and the second one via Emacs in org-mode. And yes, the correction/edition process was painful. They want to use Word, I certainly don't.

Oh yeah. I've been there (except I use LyX as my main LaTeX editor, with some editing in vim) too.

Fortunately my MA thesis - the longest thing I've yet written in LaTeX - was deposited as PDF so there wasn't any back-and-forth with Word. The Graduate School would just send me a list of formatting changes that needed to be made,1 and let me worry about adjusting the LaTeX.

One of the nice things about submitting to e.g. ACM journals is that they all use LaTeX as their submission format. That seems to be pretty widely true in the sciences. The humanities are mostly stuck on Word.

1In time-honored tradition, these would be things like "bottom margin on title page is 1.1 inches, must be exactly 1 inch".

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I don't know why anyone would use Word for creative writing. I personally use Scrivener which is totally geared up to whole creative process. Word is for office drones.

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FAIL

In Another Case

In another case a right handed repair person tried both a chisel and left handed scissors to remove a screw rather than a screw driver and cut their hand.

Really if you chosen device it is not right; use the tool that is correct for your task.

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Happy

Re: In Another Case

Hey, excuse me! There's childish bickering going on here! Don't interrupt!!

I want to so see whether Craig will uncheck "post anonymously" for his next post!

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Re: re: Word is for office drones.

"Dude, you're a barista..." was one of the lines from a Samsung ad. It's what one person in the Apple store queue says to another one when he is rhapsodizing about how the Apple technology enables him to be creative. It's pretty on-topic as a comeback, just FYI.

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"I don't know why anyone would use Word for creative writing"

He doesn't.

But there are these creatures called publishers, who pay you money and market your writing, and they do their editorial document flow almost entirely in Word...

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Mr Stross doesn't use Word for writing, I believe he does use Scrivener. However, his publishers use the Change Tracking feature in Word, so he must also use Word for copy edits. Apparently this is very common across the entire industry.

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Unhappy

Overeaction mods! That was some quality banter you just deleted.

Killjoys.

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Anonymous Coward

well that might be OK as an amateur

...but it's simply not a choice that professionals have.

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I put in another vote for Scrivener. It's cheap, designed for the job and you can use it on more than one of your own machines.

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Re: well that might be OK as an amateur

As I recall, author Piers Anthony uses all OSS for writing his novels. Maybe someone else drops it into Word later on, but he's certainly a professional writer.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: In Another Case

It wasn't Craig...

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Re: well that might be OK as an amateur

...that does not make me feel better about open source word processors.

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Re: well that might be OK as an amateur

As I recall, author Piers Anthony uses all OSS for writing his novels. Maybe someone else drops it into Word later on, but he's certainly a professional writer.

And unless he's recanted several years of public statements, he wrote just about all his famous novels longhand on paper using a pencil. Certainly most of the Xanth stories, the Tyrant of Jupiter stuff and Macroscope.

At least, that's what he used to say before Windows XP.

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Content and Style

I've never understood why an author would need a word processor to write a book. The content producer should write it in plain text, and the publisher should mark it up. The only real reason to use Word is in the circumstances where you are responsible for the final presentation style yourself. I'm sure there are other functions on top of a plain text-editor that would be useful to an author (dictionary, change tracking) but I'm pretty sure that formatting and style is completely surplus to requirements.

The problem starts to become apparent in business when you are producing client-facing documents which have a strict style set by your marketing department. Theoretically, it is possible to take the style they have painstakingly (but often inexpertly) created, and fill it with content which will automatically take the corporate style. In practice, however, I have found this very hard to achieve.

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Re: Content and Style

Change tracking by use of diff?

Or is that just too complicated?

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Re: Content and Style

If you're at the low-rent end of the market, or hack away for the producers of endless shelves of tech books, you're expected to deliver the complete product ready to send to the printer, possibly with the exception of the publisher's copyright page. But also to be able to send intermediate versions in a format that the (likely home-based) "editor", publicist and other cogs in the production chain can read, probably on the laptops they supply themselves - and that's usually Word, or, if you twist their arms, PDF. This does rather explain why a lot of authors might prefer the direct-to-Amazon route as it's not clear what value the "publisher" is actually adding.

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@John Robinson

Mercurial or git.

They track changes on texts

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Linux

Re: Content and Style

I use Notepad++ to do the creative part of writing and each part is a separate file.

At some stage you have to use Word format for Publishers and Agents.

I proof read on a Kindle via HTML import to Mobi Creator and make notes on the Kindle.

Office 2003 is last decent version.

Select desired compatibility mode in Libre Office and save as .doc. There are now incompatible .docx versions. Tell the Word users to save as .doc not .docx and compatibility for Office 2003 or similar. Or even Office 97!

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Re: Content and Style

Even if you are responsible for the presentation, Word is not the right tool. Its formatting is basic at beat; cmpare it with the output you get from TeX to see what I mean. It's a shame TeX isn't easier to use because it generates lovely text formatting

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Re: Content and Style

LaTeX + subversion does the trick for me. Both have a steep learning curve, but once you're past it all the problems associated with pinging word processor files between machines and co authors is a thing of the past.

Some enlightened publishers even supply the appropriate LaTeX style file, what more could you ask for?

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Re: Content and Style

if you know of something that compares successive versions and allows you to selectively merge parts, please tell me

- but please dont say cvs/git etc

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Re: Content and Style

How many authors are content to be considered content producers?

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Re: Content and Style

>Change tracking by use of diff? Or is that just too complicated?

Well it worked for the House of Lords back in the '80s. (They bought a Sun 4 purely to use 'diff'. I prefer 'sdiff' - it's designed for humans.)

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Re: Content and Style

Wow ... I felt pretty depressed today at my first choice of career (IT). Now I feel depressed thinking about the alternative (Writing). Maybe there's a novel in amongst this existential angst?

"As Gregor awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found his manuscript transformed into a monstrous mess."

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Re: Content and Style

Well as I wrote earlier, I use a manual typewriter for the first draft.Makes editing a pain in the neck and enables you to just get on with writing.

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Re: @John Robinson

>They track changes on texts.

Not in the way Word does. Track Changes doesn't mean "find the diffs and blames", it means "show all editorial comments in a different style, show content diffs, and get rid of everything except the final raw copy when editing is done."

You could probably hack together a script to do it, but only insane people try to write a book using a code IDE.

(Actually I believe some tech publishers use a tech workflow and will accept copy in - e.g. - MD, but that won't work for most writers.)

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Content and Style

> Change tracking by use of diff?

> Or is that just too complicated?

Did you actually read the beginning of this discussion, wherein it's explained exactly how and why MS Word gets into the picture?

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Content and Style

> It's a shame TeX isn't easier to use because it generates lovely text formatting

A Latex installation on OpenSUSE or Fedora requires upwards of 150 dependencies and a quarter of a GiB. Try pulling in Lyx and you're talking over 600 packages and 680 MiB.

Shame because I used to like Lyx, but I lost patience with having to wait for hundreds of packages being refreshed every time they pushed an update. I followed up the discussion with the packagers in Fedora's and OpenSUSE's bug trackers and basically this was the least bad option. So I fucking uninstalled it and nowadays I just use LibreOffice, which when properly managed produces great quality documents as well.

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bep

Re: Content and Style

"Theoretically, it is possible to take the style they have painstakingly (but often inexpertly) created, and fill it with content which will automatically take the corporate style. In practice, however, I have found this very hard to achieve."

That's because the first thing Word does when you open a document is re-format it for whatever you've got set as the default printer. The problem is there are far too many people who think Word is a desktop publishing program not just a word processor, and who have absolutely no clue what the difference is.

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Re: Content and Style

Oh no, 680 MB. How terrible. It'll never fit on my 4TB hard disk.

Sorry for the sarcasm, but in the modern world of computing, 680MB is not something to worry about. I install productivity software here, specific to education, that hits about 15GB in total. Yes, its huge for what it does, but our users want/need it, therefore we install it and live with that.

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Re: Content and Style

"The only real reason to use Word is in the circumstances where you are responsible for the final presentation style yourself. "

There are in-between situations. An editor or technical writer might be able to put a fine polish on whatever I send them, but I need to give them more than unbroken plain text. They don't know the material or important parts like I do.

"I've never understood why an author would need a word processor to write a book."

Because I'm expected to provide more formatting than is available in plain text, and a lot the formatting is entirely dependent on the content I provide. Someone else isn't going to figure out the method to my madness from blocks of plain text.

"The content producer should write it in plain text, and the publisher should mark it up. "

The publisher doesn't know where I want my italics, chapter headings, paragraph headings, and sub-paragraph leaders. If I can take the time to annotate, "Make this a sidebar," then I could just as easily have highlighted the text and applied a style per the style guide the authors are given. This also eliminates the time wasted on a lengthy back-and-forth email discussion with the editor about my intentions for a chapter or entry when there are enough other questions to answer from the review team, developer, and editor.

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Happy

Re: Content and Style

- but please dont say cvs/git etc

Mercurial does ;-)

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IT Angle

Re: Content and Style

Actually the two latest versions of Microsoft Office can't save in Office 97 format, nor can they read that format.

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