Rant Tech

Word processors are for wieners

In my editing work, far too often I come across papers that have headings numbered like {1, 2, 3, 4, 4, 6} or {1, 2, 3, 5, 6}, etc. Likewise, tables and figures are misnumbered and references are not in alphabetical order. Now I claim that no one is writing their papers on typewriters anymore, nor are they writing them out longhand. Nearly 100% of authors today are using computers.

Now think about that word “computer” for a moment. What does it mean? In its simplified meaning, “to compute” means to count. So why do people manually assign numbers to the headings in their documents, only to get it wrong in the end. The computer’s purpose is to count and enumerate these things for you. And the computer won’t get it wrong, even when you move entire sections or chapters around in your document.

The basic problem is that if you are using a word processor to write letters, memos, papers, reports, or even books—namely structured documents—you are using the wrong tool for the job. The proper tool to use is a text processor. Personally, I recommend LaTeX, but there are many other choices out there.

The main point is that writing using a text processor, as opposed to a word processor, allows you to separate content from style. You, as an author, should focus on deciding how to structure your document (the major and minor headings) and what text to put in your document, and not on deciding how the document should look. You should decide the latter after the document is written, and let the computer handle the work of enumerating and managing headings. The longer and more complex a document is, the more important this becomes. Word processors do an absolutely horrid job of maintaining consistency across a document. Text processors, on the other hand, do this trivially.

Free yourself from the madness of the word processor today! Just follow the two links above to get started, and have your computer work for you, not against you.

3 replies on “Word processors are for wieners”

Darren, I think you miss one point: In my job I’m not writing to have a nice looking piece of paper. Instead, I want to deliver content, ideas, conceptions, etc. I’m not happy with Word, but it serves the purpose to spread the word across my colleagues. And everyone can use and read it, because they don’t need to key-in strange commands.
There is a reason, why it sells so well 🙂

I disagree strongly.

While it’s your choice whether you want to create crappy-looking output, it’s foolish to use such a bad tool when better tools are available. You could argue that it’s simply a bonus that the resulting output looks better.

You’re partially right about document sharing: in a given organization, you can almost guarantee that everyone is using the same version of Word, but if you want to share documents (including collaboration on a document) with others outside of your organization, you cannot guarantee this. Open formats are the only fair way to work with outsiders. Requiring outsiders to have your version of Word is quite unfair. Not everyone has computers that will run Word, let alone the Windows operating system. LaTeX documents are plaintext documents, so they are completely open. Furthermore, the LaTeX software is free and cross-platform. It runs on architectures even Bill Gates hasn’t heard of.

As for your colleagues keying-in strange commands, the commands are only strange because they are not familiar. A person proficient in LaTeX can write notes from a mathematics lecture directly into their laptop in real time, even when the notes are all formulas. This would be cumbersome in Word, if not impossible. Might I point out that Word, by default, actually hides the functions from the pull-down menus that aren’t used by the user? Advanced features in Word can actually duplicate the automation that I mentioned above that LaTeX provides. But Word promotes the dumbing-down of the user, and the non-use of these features, by hiding most of its functionality from the user.

But my biggest complaint is that Word manipulates the text of your document without letting you see it. So strange artifacts almost always show up in your Word documents. In LaTeX, all of the so-called “cryptic” commands are explicitly visible. If you don’t like what you see in your document, you can find out why.

The reason Word sells is because (1) it is familiar and appeals to the lowest common denominator of computer user (the wiener), and (2) it is not in the best (short-term) interest of software companies to promote free and open solutions such as LaTeX. The first link in the text above covers this topic.

My original post emphasizes structured documents. I still hold that for day-to-day writing of TPS reports, an automated solution is best. Yes, Word is scriptable, but since LaTeX is based on command-line execution and plaintext source documents, it is much better suited to automation through scripting. Plus you can throw the entire arsenal of Unix power tools at the problem.

So there, the truth finally comes out. The reason I support LaTeX so strongly as a document preparation solution is because it fits very well with the Unix philosophy of doing things. So, yes, you could use a wet noodle to dig a tunnel, but why punish yourself when you could use a pick and a shovel instead? I say, use the best and most efficient tool for the job. For document preparation, that tool is not a word processor.

Just one point: Face reality. Word is in the business world (where it matters) on 90% of the installations available. If not, get OpenOffice.
And this has one reason: Word is easy to use and one gets instant results. It’s not about familarity. An IT person might understand the concepts behind separation of content and layout, the average user (99%) doesn’t.
Bottom line: LaTeX might be the best tool, but is certainly not the most efficient (see: Total Cost of Ownership, where Windows just beats Linux, unfortunately).

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