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 …


    1. cheveron

      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.

      1. Grade%

        Re: Content and Style

        I use focuswriter. It has manual keystrike sounds and there are various thematic backgrounds that can be set. Personally, there's one with raindrops on a dark stormy window that mirrors my fevered thoughts; makes the process of writing oddly calming.

    2. 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.

    3. cray74

      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.

    4. Trixr Bronze badge

      Re: Content and Style

      Totally agreed.

      If you wanted the amount of author-supplied styling that typically goes into a printed book (bold and itals), then perhaps Markdown (whatever editor you prefer) and some kind of SVN/Git/whatever change-tracking software can do the job.

      For corporate styling, there are a bunch of enterprisey applications out there that will take content and style it appropriately. These will be "enterprise content management" systems or even "component content management" systems - Word might be in the mix using plugins, but it ain't the main styling tool.

  1. oldtaku

    Why not just use a decent app (Scrivener comes up often for good reason) then just export to Word to deal with the mindless drones?

    1. xenny

      Because the mindless drones return the Word document with tracked changes which need reviewing before you can import it into Scrivener for the structural changes you may need to make?

      1. TheOtherHobbes

        Then why not just make the changes in Word and use Scrivener for note keeping and overview?

        Honestly, it's not that hard to do a final pass like this.

        I know everyone hates Wurd, because it's a pile of donkey crap with a cursor and a ribbon.

        Even so. Less drama, eh?

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      > Why not just use a decent app (Scrivener comes up often for good reason) then just export to Word to deal with the mindless drones?

      What a great idea! Why didn't the author think of it?


  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Yes but....,

    Microsoft Word is NOT a word processor. It's a trans-dimensional thaumaturgic simulator monitored by the laundry via GCHQ and rendered most useful by its category three thaumaturgic spell-checker !

    1. Dan 55 Silver badge

      Re: Yes but....,

      Passive Voice (consider revising)

      1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

        Re: Yes but....,

        Passive Voice (consider revising)

        Does Word's Style Advice for Idiots feature ever say "Active Voice (do not revise under any circumstances!)"?

        Really, "consider revising" is either the most useful or most pointless piece of composition advice possible. For a competent writer, "consider revising" probably constitutes at least nine tenths of the labor of writing.

        Kazuo Ishiguro, discussing his writing process in an interview, once mentioned that on one recent day he'd spent the entire morning looking at one passage and eventually adding a comma. Then that afternoon he took the comma back out. Obviously most authors aren't so particular (consider someone like Anthony Trollope, who wrote all his novels to a strict schedule created around his census-taking duties - no days of zero-sum punctuating for him!), but many a composition study has shown that decent writing is mostly revision.

        Coincidentally, the same is true of decent programming.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Yes but....,

      Turd processor.

      It tries to be a word processor, DTP program and vector drawing package all in one. But fails on all counts.

  3. h4rm0ny

    I like MS Word...

    It's good. Seriously, author with noted political stance on software has trouble with Word? This is a news story now? I helped someone who was saying almost exactly the same thing about Libre Office last week which I'd installed for them because they wouldn't pay for Word. They couldn't figure out how to change the line spacing. Is that Libre Office's fault that they couldn't figure it out and said the software was impossible to use? No, they're just technically inept and prone to hyperbole.

    1. YetAnotherLocksmith

      Re: I like MS Word...

      Which would work if it wasn't Charlie Stross, who might just have used these programs a bit more than most - at least 34 of the uses being novels. Who also wrote for Computer Shopper for a decade.

      If he can't track changes, it is broken.

      1. h4rm0ny

        Re: I like MS Word...

        >>"If he can't track changes, it is broken."

        Actually, from the context of what was written, it seems moving things back and forth between LibreOffice and Word on a Mac platform is what messes up the change tracking. That hardly justifies statements that Word is "utterly unusable" or the general attacks on it as rubbish that some seem to be posting here.

        1. YetAnotherLocksmith

          Re: I like MS Word...

          If the one thing you are using a program for doesn't work, then it is broken, regardless.

          A video editor with glitchy Apple ACC / .m4a support for soundtracks, when the only reason you have to use it is because it is the only program that supports the licensed format, would be another good example.

        2. revdjenk

          Re: I like MS Word...

          So what you are saying is: LibreOffice can accept any and all track changes, no matter the source, and Word can only deal acceptably with the ones from Word.

          One, that isn't surprising.

          Two, it is time to tell the publishers to work with the better tool.

        3. Kubla Cant Silver badge

          Re: I like MS Word...

          That hardly justifies statements that Word is "utterly unusable" or the general attacks on it as rubbish

          Which is not to say that such statements and attacks are unjustifiable.

      2. Jedit
        Black Helicopters

        "at least 34 of the uses being novels"

        I maintain that Charles Stross is the real author of the BOFH stories. The style is remarkably similar to the Laundry Files, it's known that Bob Howard's middle names are Oliver Francis, and in the short story Pimpf he also has an assistant whose initials are PFY. If Simon Travaglia is not a pen name for Stross - and it means "one who has heard at work", so it surely is a pen name for someone - then Stross is very heavily inspired.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: I like MS Word...

      To be fair, about the only feature I ever missed coming from over a decade of using Word for large document work was the "return to last cursor position" (shift-F5 on PCs). For the rest, LibreOffice pretty much covers what I need.

      If I need to do creative writing I use a plain editor - now testing Ulysses as it's simpler as Scrivener (the latter is excellent, I just like the Ulysses UI more and the fact that it works with an iOS program called Daedalus).

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: I like MS Word...

      > They couldn't figure out how to change the line spacing. Is that Libre Office's fault that they couldn't figure it out and said the software was impossible to use? No, they're just technically inept and prone to hyperbole.

      Nothing to do with technical ineptitude and more to do with suboptimal UX design¹. But the real reason was that you failed to explain rule #1 of Libre Office operation:

      Google It!.

      ¹ Doing UX is hard. On a complex piece of software even more so.

  4. Sorry that handle is already taken. Silver badge

    To be fair, change tracking is a disaster in Word.

    Other than that, the biggest problem I have with it is that I work in an office full of people who don't know how to use it properly.

    1. Headley_Grange Silver badge

      I remember reviewing a longish report and the minor changes I asked for were met with a lot of resistance. The reason was that the author didn't know that Word could do outlining and even a minor addition required all the subsequent section numbers to be manually renumbered. He was gobsmacked when I enlightened him.

      1. wdmot


        Yes, Word can do outlining -- but it often messes up. Especially if you add a section, copy/paste into an outline, or change the outline level of a section. Unfortunately, in my experience, this is behaviour that LibreOffice has copied. Weird thing is, when I used Word for Mac back in 1990, outlining and indexing worked quite well.

    2. Gavin McMenemy

      Exactly. I've read the posts on this thread and it seems many people miss this point.

    3. fajensen Silver badge

      No, the biggest problem by far is that it is possible (and sometimes even necessary) to apply ad-hoc formatting instead of "styles".

    4. Stevie Silver badge

      re I work in an office full of people who don't know how to use it properly.

      Most of the complaints I see about MS Word boil down to this and it's sub-heading "and can't see the reason to find out".

      A good, if not relevant to the Stross Problem De Jour example is the oft-repeated canard about what a mess MS Word makes of generated web pages, with scads of inline styles all over the place. A simple and documented switch change will alter this behaviour and produce few unexpected lines of code in the final HTML, but it is obviously more fun to scream how awful MS is than try and learn how to use the product properly.

      That said: MS have done themselves no favours with the recent UI revision. They seem to be working under the rule: "What do you do if there's a perception your product is hard to use? Make it ACTUALLY hard to use".

      As for the venerable Mr Stross: If he can use OfficeLibre now, why not all along, and how does this make his pain go away? OfficeLibre is no better integrated into Scrivener than any other word processor (ask me how I know this).

      I'm more confused because he was posting that he'd switched to iPad for all his productivity-production-processes and didn't know full product MS Word or OLWrite would run on ythe said platform. As a new iPad owner I'm eager to know that I can use a proper (and free) office suite on the device.

  5. msknight Silver badge

    My books...

    ...are all written in LibreOffice ... (and I'm STILL not going to pimp myself) ... and simply export to RTF for the publisher. I also actually write within their formatting structure to save re-formatting work, so they don't complain :-)

    in fact, my own issue is that Libre still isn't reliably on Android, then I'd be able to do more on the move with a bluetooth keyboard ... but they're working on it apparently...

  6. AMBxx Silver badge


    Maybe if he concentrated more on writing and less with sharing every thought?

  7. IHateWearingATie

    Don't mind the change tracking in Word

    Maybe if you're an author it sucks, but for general office related tasks it seems to work well enough for me. I couldn't get on with LibreOffice, but then I think that's only because I'm so used to Word everything just felt in the wrong place.

  8. AIBailey

    "Stross is a long-time Linux user...."

    ... and yet clearly uses OSX?

    Surely any long time Linux user would have used Word for Windows running under Wine?

    1. AIBailey

      Re: "Stross is a long-time Linux user...."

      This wasn't meant as a dig at Linux users btw (not sure why people are keen on the downvotes today?), just wondering why it was felt necessary to point out that the author is a Linux user, but only mention he's using software on OSX.

      I should point out that I've only occasionally dabbled in Linux, several years ago now. At the time, Wine was the preferred method of using Windows apps, and so I assumed that if Stross was a) usually using Linux, and b) required to use Word by his publishers, then running the Windows version of Office under Wine would have been the way forward.

      I'm happy to be put right on this one....

    2. MrXavia

      Re: "Stross is a long-time Linux user...."

      Try finding a good lightweight linux laptop... Or even a nice windows one with all linux drivers available....

      I am a fan of Linux, yet I still run windows, not by choice, but for compatibility with hardware and programs (wine is OK, but much of what I run won't work right on it.)

      If your a linux user, OSX is a good compromise.

      1. 2460 Something

        Re: "Stross is a long-time Linux user...."

        Dell XPS 13 developer edition comes with ubuntu pre-installed. Admittedly it is still shipping with 12.04 but that is quicker to fix than trying to find linux drivers for some custom bit of hardware....

        My only real issues with it is it only having one monitor output (mini display port) oh, and 16GB RAM would have been preferable to the 8GB it comes with.

        1. Steven Raith

          Re: "Stross is a long-time Linux user...."

          2460 Something - HP Folio 1040 here, runs Ubuntu fine. OK, it's not an XPS, but it's damned portable, has docking station options (With two DP outs...) and is plenty quick mit SSD.

          Trackpad is a pain though - you can push to click, but it's damned stiff.

          Otherwise, works a treat.

          Steven R

      2. Paul Smith

        Re: "Stross is a long-time Linux user...."

        What is the problem finding a Linux laptop? Buy a laptop, install Linux, no problem.

    3. This post has been deleted by its author

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: "Stross is a long-time Linux user...."

      MS Word on OSX does not have the 'Ribbon'.

      That is enough of a reason to use it over the 'thing' on Windows.

      Sadly the Office updates always seem to bork my default Language and paper size and reset it to US English and Letter (WTF!)

      I do my fiction writing using Scrivenor (another vote for it!) and only use Word to put it in the right format for the publishers.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: MS Word on OSX does not have the 'Ribbon'.

        Fuck yeah! Who cares if it works or not as long as there's no Ribbon!!

  9. Tony W

    A plague

    I use Word and also have to deal with LibreOffice documents. Both drive me to distraction on occasion but LibreOffice more often. At least Word doesn't insert page breaks and lots of new paragraphs within footnotes when saving to .doc (as needed for Amazon to convert to Kindle.) Word occasionally puts footnotes on the wrong page in a complex document - but then oddly enough, so does LibreOffice.

    I am much in favour of creative writing being done in plain text but it's necessary to identify formats such as quoted blocks and subheadings so they can be preserved in subsequent formatting. Not always so easy, and in a long book I'd prefer to avoid doing it by hand.

    1. returnmyjedi

      Re: A plague

      Amazon converts any uploaded documents (whether they are .doc, .mobi or .whatever) to html format for publishing on Kindle so Word or the .doc format is not necessary for using the KDP platform.

      1. Mage Silver badge

        Re: A plague

        Amazon seems to be using the command line mode of Mobi Creator.

        Mobi Creator (and Amazon) are more predictable if you output to filtered HTML first from <insert favourite editor> and then check fix up the HTML. / CSS / Images. eBooks are basically HTML with a few custom tags, CSS and images in a single file.

        You can find specs for what Kindle internal HTML is supported (sadly not client side image maps, but there are two extra useful tags: Force new page and block scroll to page.)

        The block allows you to have text/images that can ONLY be reached via hyperlinks. Thus a text adventure book is possible.

        Direct upload of .doc or .docx to Amazon for Kindle can have images (size and location), internal links and foot notes not working as expected).

        Also Charset and fonts are more limited prior to Kindle 4. Using Mobi Reader or an older Kindle to check what your HTML -> Mobi Creator is doing.

    2. Gray

      Re: A plague

      "I am much in favour of creative writing being done in plain text..."

      Try using the text editor of your choice and Markdown text markup. If the basic set of Markdown formats doesn't quite fit the bill, then use the enhanced MultiMarkdown codes. Plain text becomes the master/archive file (imperishable for the ages!) and the various outputs (.rtf, .doc, .pdf, .odt, etc, etc) will produce a fully-formatted document for final consumption.

      Another vote for Scrivener, absolutely unmatched for creative writing, which also comes with a fully-integrated MultiMarkdown suite.

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I admit, I am Word Processor inept.

    Back in the 80s, when using whatever it was on BBCs (Wordwise?) I got them. I could work it. Margins, indents, tab positions, everything. Then came WordPerfect and even though it wasn't wysiwyg i could use it because it was all that was around, was quick, made sense and *because* of it not being wysiwig, you had to know it. Papyrus on AmigaOS, then the first versions of Word Perfect for Windows and it still made sense. Over time, however, I did less and less documentation to the stage that now I tend to write everything in a text editor, depending on what platform I am on. Usually Scite.

    The reason for this is because I am ignorant on how to do even simple things. I never learned because I was always needing to do something straight away, so just did it the way I could. So now my approach to any Word Processor, even Libreoffice Writer, which is all I ever use if I need one, is severely hampered. It is a little like asking a programmer to do a complex Exel spreadsheet. It just doesn't compute.

    This is my fault. There is no one else to blame. I hang my head. I get asked questions about how to do things and I don't know. Fortunately they do not mock me because i am the first person they call when their computer does something they don't understand...but there is no one i can call on when a Word processor question gets asked, because most other people in IT that I know also don't know. Is this just me?

    This really hampers me. But I suppose I should learn it correctly. So....are there any recommendations for actually learning the whys and therefores of document creation?

    1. Dave 126 Silver badge

      Re: I admit, I am Word Processor inept.

      >So....are there any recommendations for actually learning the whys and therefores of document creation?

      One idea: Get a good existing document, and reverse engineer it.

      I learnt some very useful things by being irritated a feature, and then discovering what that feature was actually for.

      Styles: Very useful. Styles, usually named:

      <u>Chapter Heading, </u>

      Heading 1,

      Heading 2,

      Sub Heading 1,

      Sub Heading 2,


      They are groupings of text paramters like Font, Size, Underline, Line/Page Break etc. Change the font size of Sub Heading 1, for example, and all your Sub Headings are updated.

      Styles are hierarchical, so by using them you are automatically creating a document map - handy navigating straight to a certain section of your document. You can use it to make a 'Contents' page, too.

      1. Peter Gathercole Silver badge

        Re: I admit, I am Word Processor inept.

        You reverse engineer an existing Word document to work out how to use Word!

        I would say that this is close to an impossibility, especially using styles as an example.

        I've seen Word documents that have dozens of what look like identically names styles, caused by someone tweaking a particular element in a paragraph (like indenting it), which leads to a new modified style being created with the same or a very similar name.

        I once spent the best part of a week cleaning up a long, operational document that had been pieced together by cut-and-paste from other documents which had something like 100 different styles in it. All of the source documents were supposed to have been written using the same template, but a lot had had the styles changed in minor ways at the whim of the author. And Word kept the modified styles when doing cut-and-paste!

        I'm a real throwback. I did most of my technical writing in the past in troff with memorandum macros, and I used to use SCCS as the change control (and make to control the whole process). I suppose if I was writing more than I do at the moment, I would probably take a similar tack with LaTeX and a modern change control package, although I do find for my purposes Git or Subversion are too complex. As it is, for short documents and letters, I tend to use Libre all the time, because I can pretty much guarantee that it is either already available or can be installed. Such is the advantage of free software.

        1. Kubla Cant Silver badge

          Re: I admit, I am Word Processor inept.

          Styles are an excellent concept. One set of rules to, er, rule them all. The trouble is that few users of Word (or, I suspect Libre) get it. I've given up trying to explain that there is an important difference between "format this paragraph so it looks pretty much like all the others" and "apply the same format to all the paragraphs". In consequence, most word-processed documents contain a format zoo.

          1. Mage Silver badge

            Re: I admit, I am Word Processor inept.

            The problem with Styles in Word is that they breed with every edit and copy/paste. Anything other than typing in text tends to create a new style!

            Styles are brilliant (as is CSS). Misused by user or the WYSIWYG application programmer they are a disaster.

            1. fajensen Silver badge

              Re: I admit, I am Word Processor inept.

              There *is* a configuration option of "apply target formatting on paste", of course this is not on by default and "update normal.doc automatically" with whatever digital herpes a document contains" is also "on" ,


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