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 …

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Re: CS Lewis' food for thought

Yeah, like C S Lewis knew about "good writing"...

Tolkien used a typewriter, and is generally considered to knock the pants off Lewis when it comes to prose quality.[citation needed]


Re: CS Lewis' food for thought

Tolkien? Wrote a lot of low grade stuff like "Lord of the Blings" and "Bilbos 14". His OED on the other hand - still a great work. A bit dry maybe.

Michael Wojcik
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Re: CS Lewis' food for thought

Auden, on the other hand, thought it necessary to go from holograph to typed as soon as possible, because, he felt, authors like the appearance of their own handwriting and so aren't sufficiently self-critical until they see the words rendered in relatively impersonal type.

Michael Wojcik
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Re: CS Lewis' food for thought

Tolkien? Wrote a lot of low grade stuff

Ooh! Let's drop the file-format and editor flame wars for a Tolkien one.

(Personally, I think JRRT is rather overrated, but who cares?)


Wasn't that long ago when novels were written using a typewriter, or even (as CS Lewis recommended) with a pen. Didn't seem to stop plenty good stories being written and published. What's changed?

Mark Simon

Not the first one …

I remember Douglas Adams writing about Word some years ago:


Re: Not the first one …

Thanks for that, the late, great Douglas Adams, sadly missed :-(

As for writing, markdown text works for me and exports well to PDF, but as they say YMMV.

Primus Secundus Tertius
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Re: Not the first one …

He was complaining, wittily I grant you, that Word at that time did not have "smart quotes" or a word count. Both are long since fixed.

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Re: Not the first one …

That bastard. "Smart quotes" are one of the dumbest things about Word.

On-by-default, a way to guarantee that a Word document can't be translated into a web page without breaking in half the world's browsers. Simply imbecilic.

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Word's "Best Feature"

Must be the "urgent deadline detector". That's the one where the courier is drumming their fingers on your desk while you are poised to print the definitive and final, final copy. THEN your figures disappear and are replaced by large red crosses and random chunks of text are rendered in Baskerville Old Face 130 pt.


Reminds me a little of the Gimp

I know, I know, you get what you pay for but this reminds me that I could write a book about all the shit things I keep finding in the Gimp. Yes, I could use Photoshop but they want to move us all to a subs model. F*ck that.


Not even scratching the surface

I've written several non-fiction (published!) books in Word, and hundreds, if not thousands, of long articles. I've created some macros to help me out, but it's still agonizing. The problem with ALL the options mentioned in this article is that they are just word processors. They fundamentally do nothing more than WordStar did on CP/M. For long documents, Word and LibreOffice offer little advantage over something like vi.

What they should have evolved into by now is document processors. Something that can truly help with structure and content. For example, I'd like to be able to attach metadata to paragraphs, identifying the source of the information they contain. This is a perennial problem with typing up research notes: you lose track of their origin. I'd also like something far, far beyond the miserable 'outliner' in Word. I continue to use Ecco for outlining and tracking various types of content, but having it integrated with a proper word processor would be an enormous help. (LibreOffice has no outliner at all, demonstrating its utter lack of ambition to be anything but an inferior clone of Word.)

These kinds of tools I'm talking about would be of even more benefit to the non-professional writer. Most people never learn that with anything longer than a a single sentence, structure must come first. The only tool that ever attempted to place structure first was Lotus Manuscript. It was full of great concepts, but buckled under the limitations of its character-based user interface. There are also writer's tools, such as Scrivener, which are promising. But last time I looked, Scrivener lacked such indispensable features as macros, or in fact, any form of customization. (Again, its creators seem to think they're 99% done, even though they've yet to replicate even the basic features of Word.)

Microsoft is operating as if Word already had EVERY FEATURE that a word processor could ever have, and the only thing left to do was to monkey around with the UI (making annoyingly needless changes even where the long-standing approach was already optimal). Application software development has generally stalled, because of their attitude, but nowhere is this more apparent than with Word and word processors as a category.

Old Used Programmer

Embedded source refernces

Sounds like you want footnotes or endnotes. Vi plus nroff has had that for decades.

Michael Wojcik
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Re: Not even scratching the surface

The only tool that ever attempted to place structure first was Lotus Manuscript

LaTeX does, for some values of "structure" and "first". Try document creation with LyX, for example: start by defining the type of document (document class), optionally populate a template, then add one of the structural elements defined for that document (e.g. front-matter, chapter, abstract, section...). Populate it with content and optionally sub-structure. Create more structures. Repeat.

I've used the Freemind mind-mapping tool to create an outline, then export it as a LaTeX document that I could then open in LyX, giving me all the structure and content from the mind map. Not suitable for all sorts of projects, or for all authors, but it was definitely structure-first workflow.

And, of course, all nice marked-up plain text that is handled well by tools such as Subversion.

Anonymous Coward
Anonymous Coward

Re: Not even scratching the surface

used a mind-mapping tool


Doug Bostrom

"Everybody else dips their pencils in s--t so I have to dip mine."

Why the situation stinks for everybody: by mutual consent.


And we should care what this clown thinks because why?



Re: And we should care what this clown thinks because why?

Don't be a fanny.

Version 1.0
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collaborative mark-down

I think this is by design - collaborative writing is all to often a book written by a committee and retains the worst of all the authors.

Andy Non

Clippy is gone in name only.

I've cursed Word many times when it decides to create a bullet list without my permission or change the formatting or font of the text or just generally bugger around while I'm typing. The days of Clippy may have gone "It looks like you are writing a letter, would you like me to interfere?" However, the sentiment remains, and Microsoft tries to be helpful while I'm typing and fails utterly. If I write technical documents containing snippets of other languages it tends to auto-correct words incorrectly or switch from British English to American English spelling and mangle my English spelling. Tiny graphics within help documentation intended to show which button to press in an application suddenly turn into a graphical bullet list.

The worst case of Microsoft's automated interfering happened with Access a number of years ago when they introduced a spell checker into it. I'd inherited a project based on a large Access database. One of the non-unique key fields held the lower-case alphabetic letters a, b, c, ... p and the fields were referenced by the software. We made an update to one of the tables and shipped out hundreds of CDs to our customer base. It wasn't long before complaints came in that the program was falling over. The key field data had mysteriously been corrupted - all the key fields consisting of a lower-case letter "i" had been changed to upper-case letter "I". Thanks Microsoft.


Re: Clippy is gone in name only.

Very true. Microsoft can't wrap its collective brain around the idea of giving working writers really powerful tools. Instead, they target some 'dumb' user, and do everything they can to make them even dumber. They're like that person who tries to help you by taking over. "Here, let me do that - it'll be quicker."


Re: Clippy is gone in name only.

They do it with their operating systems, too. Quite unsuccessfully I might add. As a long-time computer support guy I can only say this: users love shortcuts on the desktop. They love when everything can be done within a click or two. So "upgrading" a start menu to a menu that needs a manual on its own to use is absolutely cretinous. XP menu and especially "quick-start" shortcuts are brilliant. That's just one of the reasons why people like XP so much. I find its user interface incredibly great and I try to mimic it in my Linux OS because its so perfect. When you have a perfect product like that... well, some things just don't need to be "upgraded", eh?

Anonymous Coward
Anonymous Coward

Re: Clippy is gone in name only.

When you have a perfect product like that... well, some things just don't need to be "upgraded", eh?

And that, in a nutshell, explains why MS interfaces now suck - they put people back on the path of hoping that the next version will be better (it used to be with drivers, but now it's the UI), without realising that that will NEVER happen - not even with the subscription model.


Call George RR Martin!

He has a spare copy of DOS and a DOS version of WordPerfect for him! :)


Re: Call George RR Martin!

I think it's WordStar he uses. (WordStar 2000? Not the best version, anyway.) Personally, I was wooed away from WordStar 3.3 by Borland's Sprint, which picked up WordStar's UI, ran faster (even in text mode under Windows) and added a mass of new features.

Of course, this was back when there was actual innovation going on. Word essentially stopped evolving in the mid to late 1990s. After Word 2003, the product actually started to backslide, becoming harder to maintain, more buggy, uglier, and far more annoying to use, while offering no meaningful advancement whatsoever.

Anonymous Coward
Anonymous Coward

Re: Call George RR Martin!

I loved Sprint - saving every character on a computer that had not even 1% of the power most machines have now. Actually, I generally liked Borland stuff, the Turbo languages, Quattro Pro - even their "use it as a book" license model.

If we stopped adding so much crud to code we could have machines that were fast as lightning now, but strangely, you still have to wait 20 seconds or more for a machine to boot. Why?

Prst. V.Jeltz
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Re: Call George RR Martin!

"you still have to wait 20 seconds or more for a machine to boot. Why?"

Tru dat , its mind boggling , just look at the list of processes in task manager for a clue - what the hell is all that stuff doing??

Its like there's a rule - coders will always fill available resources.

Just like my dad will fill all available shed space with junk.

I remember watching a guy with a flashy pc switching between word and excel like lightning - and that was because he had 32Mb of RAM. because he was a "power user" .

This post has been deleted by its author

Anonymous Coward
Anonymous Coward

Then stop complaining and use a proper writing tool?

Writing isn't even the main thing I do, but I still only use Word for final presentation and sharing (often with people who can only except Word).

Ian Easson

So, someone encounters a small bug in a word processor (Word) having to do with scrolling, reports it to the producer (Microsoft), producer acknowledges it is a bug and promises to fix it soon, and then the person declares the product to be ”a tyrant of the imagination” and bemoans its use in the publishing world..

Overreaction, anyone?


Hardly an over-reaction,

more like a surprisingly restrained response to the seemingly unending catalogue of presumptuousness and arrogance from a large corporation as it seeks to entrench it's monopolistic dreams, and milk its customers, with a piece of software that first and foremost is intended to serve the interests of said corporation.

Word is a functional and ergonomic disaster, barely suitable for writing letters, let alone any serious document. The only reason it continues to thrive (if that is the right word) is because of Microsoft's success in persuading/bullying large institutions and corporate entities into using it as the default standard.

MS can't be blamed for that, it's a corporate entity itself---it's what they do. The problem is we're talking about a tool. And anyone who uses tools knows that the best kind are the ones you hardly notice you are using because their design functionality and aesthetics have been so well honed to performing the intended task that that is all the user is concious of doing---getting the job done, without having to wrestle the tool into submission, or worry whether it is going to let them down.

MS Word is not that kind of tool, it's the other kind---a cynical bit of money grubbing corporate w*nk.

Now some may say that the above is an over-reaction, but considering what Word could be, given the time MS have had to make it into something useful and usable, I would argue my response is proportionate and finely judged. Of course others may beg to differ.


Microsoft is losing...

Microsoft is losing the hearts and minds of /*

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In defense of the word processor

I wrote one novel on Word (with the occasional help from notepad or phone when inspiration struck). I naïvely used the normal level of formatting, only for the KDP publishing process to require that I scrubbed most of it. These days all I really need is a spell checker and a rudimentary headings / table-of-contents. Sort of functionality found in every word processor since WordPerfect 5.1 I suppose.

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It's always funny how many people complain about Word because they never learnt to use it.

Most complains from Word users are because they never learnt how to use Word. Most user try to use is as a digital typewriter, but that's not how Word is designed to work but for very short documents.

Word can be configured to match what you need to do in a given moment. Need to enter large amount of text without taking care of formatting? Switch to draft mode, hide the toolbar/ribbon, and you have something very much alike a plain text editor.

Need to handle large, complex documents? You'll need a template, styles, and maybe some macro. After all, how do you design an HTML document today? Using inline formatting, or using CSS (the template..), styles and JavaScript?

Need to avoid a single document grow too large? Use a master document.

There are many features in Word that when known and properly use make it a very powerful tool. If you just try to use it as a typewriter with some fancy effects, you won't go far.

Charles Manning

Fool me once....

shame on you.

Fool me TWICE, shame on ME!

You are a victim of your own thinking, not a victim of Microsoft.

Silly whiny-pants author. Don't like it? Don't use it!


Re: Fool me once....

I'm not sure if I should down-vote or up-vote your post because I absolutely agree with your "Don't like it? Don't use it!".

However, so many people are just simply bullied into using Word for writing articles, books and whatever, because people are not informed well. All they hear about is "Microsoft Office" and "Word" and all I can tell them is: use something else. "Word" is so far from being one and only for everything. Ask around for alternatives - there are hundreds! Microsoft is a company who makes subpar one-track-minded corporate software and have succeeded *somehow* [even using malicious practises] to push their software upon so many users. That doesn't mean AT ALL that their software is the best. Just use whatever suits you bes,t and if someone tells you that you should send them a "doc" or "docx" just use Libreoffice to convert the document into whatever format they ask of you for free. On Linux with LibreOffice you can even easily "print it" to PDF. It's THAT EASY because you don't have to install anything else like in Windows.


How Awful is it?

If you want to Really find out just how bad Word can be, take a document created in Word, make a COPY of it. Rename that copy to a .TXT file. (Don't SAVE it, Rename it.)

Then, just for fun, open that .txt copy with notepad and browse through it.

Your will be Amazed. You will also find out just Why a one page document with only 2 or 3 paragraphs can use up as much as a Megabyte of memory when saved.

I first did this myself with an E-Mail from a friend that included a Word document as an attachment. I didn't Have Word on my computer at the time and my word processor didn't want to open theWord document. As a last resort, I tried the "Rename" trick.

I not only found the Text of the document she sent me, but a Whole Bunch of stuff that belonged to Other Documents she'd been working on in the recent past. Seems Word saves all it's Work Buffers along with the Document.

I let this friend know that she had unintentionally sent me large chunks of several Legal Documents she had been working on for Clients of her Law Firm in those "Work Buffers".

She and her Co-workers had to change their work habits to Close out Word completely and Re-open word when changing from one document to another.

No more just clicking on the "New Document" button on the menu.


Re: How Awful is it?

Exactly! People are not aware of what kind of things are being saved in all of their doc and docx files! When I first found out about it using the same method as you, I was like huh!?!?!? It's preposterous!

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Re: How Awful is it?

A much better work habit is... don't send Word documents to clients. Ever.

That's what PDFs are for. Even Microsoft finally relented to include "Save as PDF" as a native option.


Re: How Awful is it? Export to PDF

Yes. After getting fed up with my wife constantly complaining that her MS colleagues opened her Linux Textmaker DOC files and found bullet points in the wrong place I asked if they needed to edit them. No, she said. Then send them PDFs, I said.

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Re: How Awful is it?

"I not only found the Text of the document she sent me, but a Whole Bunch of stuff that belonged to Other Documents she'd been working on in the recent past. Seems Word saves all it's Work Buffers along with the Document."

Again, a classic example of not knowing how Word worked (it should happen with .doc documents using OLE compound files only, not .docx).

If "allow fast save" is active (and it should be the default) Word will *add* changes to the current document incrementally. It allows for faster save, but old data will be still there. It means that:

1) The document grows larger and larger, even if you actually delete or change text mostly

2) If you create a new document reusing an old one (a bad habit of many lazy users...), it may contain data from a totally different document!

This is was well known among Word users who took the time to learn to really use Word...

Prst. V.Jeltz
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fast save

and all that pissing around , wasted space , possible data security problems just so you can "save faster"?

how long is a slow save?


Scarred but understanding now I'm an author too

I wrote "Getting Started with LevelDB" last year, for Packt. They too insist on using MS Word for two reasons. One is the collaborative markup with commenting and change control. The other is a strong style-based production pipeline.

They produce cheap 120 page, highly-focused books and have a production process that requires the author to use an exact range of MS Word styles that then map directly into their production styles (presumably using InDesign or similar).

The collaborative markup was both a blessing and a curse.

Some chapters went through 5 revisions with the technical editor (trying to write about Objective-C in 4.5 pages per chapter with multi-line wrapped source examples is a nightmare).

You need a way to have comments attached to specific points in the text, with anchoring that will survive editing by more than one party.

That is a non-trivial exercise, far more complex than any stylistic markup.

I would love to see an extension to Markdown which coped with editing markup or maybe a tool integrating Markdown with version control that offered at least the functionality of MS Word's commenting, for non-technical users.

I am NOT a fan of Word and the bubble comments don't scale - beyond two participants and multiple reviews they become a confusing morass. I would be very happy to hear that there's a better alternative.

Turgut Kalfaoglu

why not libreoffice?

Why not use Libreoffice like everyone else does?

Henry Dorsett

I realize that I'm in the minority here, but I actually enjoy using Word for writing. I've been using it for the better part of my life, and no other piece of software covers as many things as well as Word does. Sure, I could go caveman use vi (actually, I'd rather shoot myself in the head than use vi ever again, but I could use nano), or I could break free of the tyranny of Microsoft and use LibreOffice or AbiWord, but I find the lack of ability to format things in a way that pleases my eye while I'm writing, a major reason that people are citing as a BONUS to using a basic text editor like nano or Notepad++ (which is what I use on Windows), to be more distracting than any amount of feature bloat on Word. And finding any features in LibreOffice that aren't the absolute most basic, commonly-used ones means having to look things up, which is REALLY distracting, because then not only am I not writing, but I'm also pissed off that I'm not using Word, where I already know how to do damn near everything that I'd ever want to do while writing a novel or short story.

If you're talking about distraction, it's important to remember that while Word may not be the best program for every single job at every single moment, the way so many of you seem to expect it to be, it is able to do almost any word processing job reasonably well. The trick, I've found, is to use an older version, one from before they started screwing with the UI. Personally, I like Word 2003. Microsoft even has patches to support their new document formats.


Alastair Reynolds is, IMO, the best science fiction writer currently publishing. You can find a good list of his best works here-

Rick Giles

What's wrong with .TXT?

Seriosly, as long as you can read it, why the hell do you need all of the MS bullshit?

Prst. V.Jeltz
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Re: What's wrong with .TXT?

I'd take that over a pdf anyday , because then i wouldnt have to have use a superconputer to run adobe reader to read it.


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