March 11, 2012
"All you need is a good text editor"
Now and then I'll run across people who not only sort of hate Microsoft Word, but will say that all they need is some-writing-technology. A subset of these people will go so far as to wonder why anyone would need anything other than some-writing-technology. (For example, I have in the past heard someone say that all he needed was WordPad, and why did anyone need anything else?)
My fondness for Microsoft Word is no secret (I'm composing on it as I write this), so I always feel slightly rankled when I encounter this attitude. This is
particular particularly true for the "why would anyone need Word" contingent.
Recently Hilton Lipschitz wrote a blog entry in which he talked about the virtues of Markdown. Markdown is (to quote John Gruber, its creator):
... two things: (1) a plain text formatting syntax; and (2) a software tool, written in Perl, that converts the plain text formatting to HTML.Markdown supports the type of formatting that most people need most of the time: character formatting (bold, italics); paragraph formatting (headings, block quotes, lists); links; images; code formatting; etc. It has a pretty close mapping to HTML elements, but HTML is only one of the formats into which Markdown can be converted. Markdown is popular with wiki software, because it lets writers perform the types of writing and formatting they need without a) requiring knowledge of HTML and not incidentally b) without opening up the huge security holes that you get when you allow people to use arbitrary HTML.
In his blog post, Lipschitz focused on the virtues of simplicity that Markdown offers. This is in keeping with an idea that others sometimes raise — for example, Kevin Lipe in his post Markdown is the new Word 5.1. From this perspective, the many features and the busy UI of Microsoft Word is distraction with (if I may presume to paraphrase them) no value to them for actual writing.
The problem I have with this is that it's a kind of apples-and-oranges discussion. Or at least, it focuses on a few features and does not necessarily expand the comparison to take into account some other aspects of the mechanics of writing.
My writing environment is somewhat different than what Hilton and Kevin are thinking about. They're usually (or so I gather) sole authors who have a relatively direct process from writing to publishing. I work in a different environment, where multiple people will often grub around in a file, and where our publishing pipeline is — for better or worse — quite complex.
Features of Word that I find essential include these:
I would readily admit that Word has annoyances. I guess I agree that to the person who just wants to write a letter, the tools and the UI are too much. We have our share of frustrations in converting Word documents to other formats, notably to HTML. Some of the features, like getting different page numbering across different sections of a document, seem to require both looking up the docs each time and then fiddling around.
- Semantic styling. Styles are as useful for Word as CSS styles are for HTML, and for the same reasons.
- Templates. We use templates that save us from having to re-create a format and load macros every time we start a new document.
- Review tools. Word's tools for revision marks and commenting are so much better than what we can do in (e.g.) HTML files that we often draft in Word and then convert to another format only when it's time to publish.
- Proofing tools.
- Tools for common tasks. Word has handy features for creating tables of contents, managing headers and footers, managing tables, managing multi-column layouts, dealing with footnotes and endnotes, etc.
- Support for macros and plug-ins. We use macros extensively, and of course they're simple to record (and assign to keystrokes).
- Real WYSIWYG editing.
I would also not argue with Hilton and Kevin that the raw format of Markdown — which is just plain text — is "future proof" and will always be readable. I can point out that Word is able to read Word-formatted documents from 15+ years ago, and that Word's current internal format is XML. But that's dodging the issue in some ways. The real point to me is that it's rare that I have to create a document that needs to be future-proof. Most of our documentation is ephemeral and destined for, if not the trash can, then at least a lonely and unvisited corner of MSDN.
In the end, I don't disagree with the premise of what Hilton and Kevin are saying: that for a lot of writing needs, something like Markdown (with an appropriate editing UI) is plenty good enough. For many (most?) situations, maybe it is all you need. But I certainly argue vehemently with anyone who argued that it's all that anyone would ever need.
(For some more about this, including a conversation that Hilton and I had, see the comments section of his blog entry. Props to Hilton for being gracious enough to take up a discussion with me about these issues in his blog.)