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. David Given

      Re: I admit, I am Word Processor inept.

      The biggest rule is that writing and layout are different steps of the process, and need to happen at different times. If you try to build the layout while you're entering the text you'll keep fiddling with the layout as your requirements change, and both the layout and the writing will suffer.

      Ideally you should write your text in as simple an editor as you can manage which still supports all the features you need, then once it's done (and you've done the first draft proofreading and editing) you import it into a proper DTP app and do the layout all in one go. That way you know how many levels of heading you have, how big your chapters are, whether you have sidebar boxes, etc, etc.

      Now the inevitable plug:

      <plug type="shameless"> I wrote a word processor specifically for doing stage 1 in; it's called WordGrinder: It supports plain text with bold, italic and underline; a small handful of non-configurable paragraph styles; it imports and exports most standard formats, including HTML and ODT. It runs on Windows, OSX (but you'll have to build it yourself), and Linux (it's in Debian). I've written about 150k words on it. It's small and relatively efficient and it gets the hell out of your way and lets you get some work done --- you can configure it to give you a completely black screen with your text on it and *nothing else*. </plug>

      Or if you want to spend money, use Scrivener.

      1. P. Lee Silver badge

        Re: I admit, I am Word Processor inept.

        So true, have an upvote.

        I'm constantly telling my kids when they sit down to do a school project, "Do not format anything. Gather your content and write the text. You can format it later." Formatting is a massive time-wasting distraction and you're likely to change it all before you finish anyway.

        Also at work, the number of hours I've spent having to line up table columns between different tables on a page. Styles should be a boon, but yes, they breed and can easily over-run you. Mostly, I use them for headers / document outline functions. Paste "as text" or via notepad and woe betide anyone who tries to use Excel to hold table data before bringing it into Word!

        I like libreoffice because its fast, cross-platform etc, but I find it ugly to look at. ARGH those icons! Menu fonts don't look quite right - indefinably messy. It feels primitive, even next to Word, though that might just be Suse's packaging or Gnome app running under unfavourable KDE settings. I find Word a real pain with its exceedingly dumb XML mark-up which can happily include the graphic in a caption and insert it into a table of figures. "Everything is just a style" seems to be the motto with no intelligence applied. At least WordPerfect had a "reveal codes" function so you could see and fix bad mark-up. I've just downloaded the Linux beta for Scrivener and while not having used it in anger, it does look very nice!

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: I admit, I am Word Processor inept.

          Ahh - at Work - I have to suffer the bloated, pre-formatted, unbearably ugly, word templates - with VBS in them to support the client-side JAVA-based revision management system, which barely works (unless of course "works" is defined as: "Generating millions in revenue for con-sluttants and contributing to global warming" - which it certainly does). At least the VBS doesn't work on Mac-Word, which is what I have, so there is that small grace I suppose.

          I normally copy the whole template to an ascii editor, write the text, then copy-paste to word, then fiddle with tables, pictures and headings. Easier on the eye and mac-word does not "beach-ball" itself while not writing in it.

        2. keithpeter

          Re: I admit, I am Word Processor inept.

          "...though that might just be Suse's packaging or Gnome app running under unfavourable KDE settings..."

          Yup - I had that one on Slackware with KDE 4.15. Slack does not install any Gnome libraries by default. There was a work around using a theme I recollect and some changes in the KDE config. I needed the oxygen-gtk2 engine installed and I had to puggle about disabling the LibreOffice KDE integration code. After that it looked toastie.

          I'd ask on an OpenSuse forum for specifics.

      2. Wilseus

        Re: I admit, I am Word Processor inept.

        [WordGrinder] runs on Windows, OSX (but you'll have to build it yourself), and Linux (it's in Debian).

        FYI it's in the Ubuntu repositories as well.

        1. Stevie Silver badge

          Re: WordGrinder

          Windows users have Wordpad, though most of them don't remember to look for it. It has opened anything text-like I've pointed it at, though of course it won't render anything from markup.

          I use Scrivener but it has a small number of visually stylistic nasties that get in the way of what *I* need it for sometimes. These are by way of unreconfigurable personal tastes so your mileage will certainly vary.

          I also recommend the napkin-back whiteboarding tool Scapple for roughing out ideas. It *is* integrated with Scrivener and the two together are ridiculously useful. Scapple has a short'n'shallow learning curve too, because it was designed from the UI back.

          As for the cost of Scrivener being a disincentive to using it, I got it for $40 and consider it money well spent. Scapple cost something like $14. If "free or nothing" is your mantra then you'll pass it by, but it will be your loss.

  1. Dave 126 Silver badge

    I remember one very short chapter in Michael Baywater's book 'Lost Worlds: What We Lost and Where Did It Go?'

    "This book was researched and written without the aid of any Microsoft software at all. Such a pleasure; you can't imagine."

    (Michael Baywater was the inspiration for his friend Douglas Adams' character Dirk Gently. He worked on some interactive fiction games in the 1980s and later on Adam's Starship Titanic. )

  2. Harry the Bastard

    vi + ms + troff (+ tbl + eqn + pic + scripts + sccs + etc. as required)

    job done

    1. Dave 126 Silver badge

      Re: vi + ms + troff (+ tbl + eqn + pic + scripts + sccs + etc. as required)

      WYSIWYG was just something that happened to other people, wasn't it?

      1. Harry the Bastard

        Re: vi + ms + troff (+ tbl + eqn + pic + scripts + sccs + etc. as required)

        i value substance over style

        wysiwyg encourages the exact opposite

        when i want complex layout i use indesign, not the foul abomination that is word

      2. Tom 38 Silver badge

        Re: vi + ms + troff (+ tbl + eqn + pic + scripts + sccs + etc. as required)

        WYSIWYG was just something that happened to other people, wasn't it?

        You missed that he said "scripts". scripts encompasses everything, so how do you know he has no WYSIWYG?

        It is trivial to have vim autosave. It is trivial to monitor files for modifiction. It is trivial to generate and display the content if it generates. It's especially trivial to automate the lot.

        Open source isn't really about sandals, beards and zealots, its about having simple single use tools that you combine to do the things that you want. It's like the guy 10 posts above, "I love linux, but most of my windows applications wont run under wine" - buddy, you're holding it wrong.

      3. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

        Re: vi + ms + troff (+ tbl + eqn + pic + scripts + sccs + etc. as required)

        WYSIWYG was just something a disaster that happened to other people, wasn't it?


        WYSIWYG, by yoking content and formatting, did more to harm the composition process than probably any other technical innovation in the history of writing (which is, of course, all of history).

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Just use VI or Emacs.

    Who needs more than a text editor to write stuff?

    Check in the file to GIT or SVN for your version tracking.

    1. tony2heads

      complex documents

      Use LaTeX

      - no the fetish stuff

      1. regadpellagru

        Re: complex documents

        "Use LaTeX"

        Well said. Upvoted :-) LaTeX was my first Word Processor.

        Speaking of this (formulae processor), has anyone managed to write some complex sigma formulae with Word 2010 ? The formula processor of 2010 is totally awfull. I thought it would be OKish, but not. That very day I tried, reminded me how simple it would be with LaTeX.

        1. Peter Gathercole Silver badge

          Re: complex documents


        2. fajensen Silver badge

          Re: complex documents

          The formula processor of 2010 is totally awfull.

          Try applying list formatting to formulas - this will brick your document so that you cannot save it, not even as RTF. Only way out is "select all", "paste as text", redo equations.

    2. herman Silver badge

      You should use ed. It is the standard.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    British SciFi author Charles

    Charles Who? Oh, I get it, Charles I-Hate-Office...

    1. Jes.e

      Re: British SciFi author Charles

      "Charles Who? Oh, I get it, Charles I-Hate-Office..."

      Hapily Charlie isn't the only one.. You've heard of Douglas Adams?!msg/

      Of course this is quite mild (and entertaining) compared to the lashing he gave to Microsoft as a whole..

      ..oh yes..

      Share and enjoy!

      1. h4rm0ny

        Re: British SciFi author Charles

        Well yes, but when Douglas Adams was alive and writing, you're talking the era of Windows ME and 98. I think he just made it into the Windows XP era, pre SP1. So whilst his opinion is valid, it is hardly current. ;)

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: British SciFi author Charles

          His opinion is still partially current. I have a glimpse into current MS hardware development, and much of their Surface hardware development is driven by "a user experience at least as good as Macbook Pro" or similar -- still trying to keep up with Apple. I suspect there is similar drive in Windows development.

  5. Giles Jones Gold badge

    If you want to use Libre Office on OSX I'd go for NeoOffice which has some improvements which make it more useful on OSX.

  6. Zog_but_not_the_first Silver badge
    IT Angle

    Quiet news day?

    Man switches software? Really.

    1. sabroni Silver badge

      You missed the bit that made it newsworthy.

      Man changes software then tweets about it.

    2. Tromos

      Re: Quiet news day?

      Linux/iOS user cannot say anything nice about Microsoft products.

      1. Sandtitz Silver badge

        Re: Quiet news day?

        You cannot say anything nice about Microsoft products without downvotes from Linux/iOS users. TFTFY.

      2. ecofeco Silver badge

        Re: Quiet news day?

        "Linux/iOS user cannot say anything nice about Microsoft products."

        For damn valid reasons. They suck and I make a living supporting them!

    3. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

      Re: Quiet news day?

      Clearly no one found the topic interesting, which is why there are no reader comments.

      Really, Reg - can't you find something controversial to publish?

  7. Neil Barnes Silver badge

    And yet not one mention of LyX

    That'll probably be because LyX is quite emphatic about the difference between presentation and content, so people think it's *hard*?

    What Word has done is trained a generation of users who have never learned the difference between the two. Although it has had for years the capability of requiring the use of a style it does not have the ability to mandate it. Further, it is a program which I strongly suspect most people are never taught; instead, they're sat in front of it and told to get on with it... which is never going to end well.

    The fact that probably ninety-five percent of the users never use more than a tiny fraction of its capabilities no doubt adds to the mess.

    And of course, what Word does, Libre/Free Office also have to do, because people expect similar functionality instead of sensibly looking at what they (the users) actually do and finding a program that just does that.

    As M0rt demonstrates above, Word in an immensely complex program with dozens of ways of achieving the result, many of which are either surprising then next time you use them or just plain wrong.

    So yes, I'm with Charlie - a plague on all their houses!

    1. This post has been deleted by its author

  8. robert 15

    New version for Office for Mac coming .... when?

    Office 2011 for OSX is just plain crap. Having been issued a Mac Air as my work laptop recently and trying to embrace it with an open mind, it felt like a massive step backwards going from Office 2013 on Windows. I still use it daily but my emails I do in OWA and any word processing I wait to I get back to my desktop.

    Microsoft have promised a new version of Office for a while now - they've released the iOS and Android versions so hopefully a full suite for OSX isnt far off?

    Releasing the new Outlook client only to corporate Office365 users was annoying as well, what about all of us that pay for on-premise exchange?

    1. P. Lee Silver badge

      Re: New version for Office for Mac coming .... when?

      Office 2011 for OSX must have fixes applied. Otherwise it repaginates every time you touch anything. Try that with a 300 page document.

      I'm not sure if anyone can confirm, but is Word single-threaded, even under Windows? It seems to grind to a halt on my quad-core i7, which surely can't be right!

  9. Kharkov

    Yes but WHY did he mention El Reg...?

    Obviously because when CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN takes place, 'when the stars come right', it'll be the readers of El Reg who find themselves summoning Chuluthu from the vasty deeps so OF COURSE Bob has to keep an eye on us...

    I'd rather believe that than assume Bob's as sad as the rest of us...

    1. a cynic writes...

      Re: Yes but WHY did he mention El Reg...?

      I'd rather believe that than assume Bob's as sad as the rest of us...

      Bob's full nom de guerre is Robert (Bob) Oliver Francis Howard.

  10. Peter Prof Fox

    Who says LO is useable?

    I write 440,000 words a year using a version of Word Perfect 18 years old. I can see the codes and hack the styles so as to place what I want where I want not have to struggle with trying to get around something that's invisibly embedded in the document. That's why I'll never be giving up XP. (And it doesn't have lots of nuisance tools.)

    1. cheveron

      Re: Who says LO is useable?

      I'm sure el Reg had a recent article about another writer sticking with WordPerfect because it has a better workflow (I still use a manual typewriter for the first draft when I'm writing fiction). As I understand it there is a version of WordPerfect available as part of WordPerfect Office for current MS operating systems. On the Mac I may have to dig out version 3.5e again and see if I can get it working under SheepShaver.

      1. Paul Kinsler

        Re: a writer sticking with WordPerfect

        ... wasn't that the Game of Thrones guy?

        (nope, Wordstar apparently... might be what you were thinking of though)

        1. Charles 9 Silver badge

          Re: a writer sticking with WordPerfect

          Moreover, Wordstar for DOS. No GUI for him. In fact, the system IIRC even has floppy drives on it.

  11. tony2heads

    Word Perfect

    Was actually quite good. Pity we cannot get it any more for newer OSs

    1. Nigel Whitfield.

      Re: Word Perfect

      For quite some time when I first went freelance (20 years ago this spring) I did all my writing using WordPerfect 5.1 for Unix. Mostly on a Wyse 50 terminal that I had on the kitchen table, because it had a great keyboard.

  12. All names Taken

    Google drive too

    If he saves it and syncs it to google drive and deletes will be safely (?) reachable in Google Drive Bin no?

    1. dogged

      Re: Google drive too

      Technically, according to Google's T&Cs, doesn't that mean he would eternally assign all copyright over the work to Google?

  13. James 47


    I once tried to chart 65k timeseries values. I think I started back in October. It's still at it

    1. Palpy

      Charting timeseries data

      Tried Kst? Can plot a couple of million timeseries values, multiple series, scroll and zoom the plots very very fast. Splendid software.

    2. ecofeco Silver badge

      Re: LibreOffice

      Your phone was not made to do that.

  14. Inspector71

    Maybe Just Me....

    If you want to just you know write something, I can't highly enough recommend WriteRoom if you are using OS X.

    Just retro style full screen green text on black, no bells, no whistles, no distractions.

  15. JDX Gold badge


    I'm no great lover of Word - some things regarding formatting are awful - but I'm pretty confused what makes it so bad an author would dump it, unless they're doing something avant-garde with formatting.

    We have 1000+ page technical documents, 10 years old with hundreds (thousands?) of revisions going back to Word 97 (or earlier) and hundreds of images and tables and what-not. And they work fine.

    For writing a book, I would have thought any modern WP is just fine.

    1. Maurice Walshe

      Re: Confused

      The problem is is Charlie is using Office on a MAC which is not as good as the Windows version.

      Also Apple is rapidly distancing its self from any serious "professional" use case preferring to go down the Jesus phone fondleslab route - trust me on this I am looking after a mostly mac office and migrating a set of stand alone macs to an OSx server based set up is non trivial let alone moving an outlook user account between macs!

      If Bob had to deal with MACS in the laundry verse he would be asking Mo and violin to go pay a visit to Cupertino - and I am sure sure the nazgull would look the other way.

      Charlie as an ex pro should know better if your end customer is using windows 8 and Office that’s what you use he should no better to try and do some nonstandard multi os/hardware software lash up MAC -> open office to Windows office and back again to MAC open office is just asking for trouble.

      Just buy a nice i7 system and a decent keyboard or run parallels and have an identical system set up to where you deliver to life’s to short to try and force computers to do things they don’t want to do

      1. gerdesj Silver badge

        Re: Confused

        "The problem is is Charlie is using Office on a MAC which is not as good as the Windows version."

        Whereas now he uses LO, he gets pretty much an identical application whether on Mac, Windows or Linux. The only real difference is one, two or three mouse buttons.


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