On Wishing Death to Word

So I keep seeing links to this denunciation of the dysfunction of Microsoft Word in Slate: Tom Scocca, “Death to Word”.

One heartily endorses the sentiment. Scocca’s example of what pasted Microsoft Word XML looks like is comedy gold (and all too familiar from student blog posts). The heart sinks, however, when it turns out that the only alternative Scocca knows to mention is TextEdit, even though his explicit concern is with the crippling defects of Word when it comes to moving documents between print and HTML. In other words, the entire universe of text editing software (as opposed to word processors) is invisible to the writer of the article. No doubt he can’t imagine any way to break Word’s near-monopoly, let alone that there are both open-source and commercial systems of long standing that are much more versatile.

As I keep learning when I try to explain my use of LaTeX to humanists, the first obstacle is that the very concept of text processing is alien to most word-processing, WYSIWYG-expecting users. The response to a screen full of my TeX source is, “How do you print that”? Such users have long accepted the endless frustrations of Word in exchange for the relative simplicity with which it allows them to produce printable documents and share them. Or they have accepted the frustrations because the alternatives are unknown, maybe inconceivable without a different kind of conceptual framework.

But it is baffling, in a way, that though people who write are willing to spend many many hours learning to persuade Word to do its job and fighting with its problems, the same people are unlikely to spend the hours (probably fewer, in the end) needed to become adept at text-processing. Somehow the digital facts of life about text–markup, text encoding, processing—are quarantined in Code Land, the forbidden zone where only the Techies dare to venture. And everyone knows it’s okay for humanists and literary people not to be Techies. In spite of that they become, by default, technicians of Word but not technicians of text.

The latter would be better. Why is this not part of everyone’s basic digital literacy curriculum? Oh, wait, we don’t have a widespread basic digital literacy curriculum. But we should, as part of the goal of distributing the cultural capital of genuinely useful literacy as widely as possible. And it should include some lessons on two distinct tasks: composing text in a digital medium and processing digitally-composed texts into other formats (including print). Everyone should have a chance to learn what it’s like to write text in a text editor and then do something with that text in a processor.

Extra thoughts

I really wish the popular blogging platforms made the ability to swap between HTML and WYSIWIG editing more prominent, and encouraged everyone to do it. It seems to me that if more of the people who are writing on the web could be encouraged to play with this ready-made demonstration of how they are really first composing marked-up text and then rendering it in a browser, many more people could become technicians of text. And the day when we dance on Word’s grave would come a little closer.

I also think very highly of markdown. tumblr, bless its heart, allows you to compose posts in markdown. Markdown is easy to write, and its relation to HTML is easy to understand. Thus you can actually see how your composed markdown text leads to HTML, and then you can render it yourself in-browser.

E-mail clients too. Who thought RTF would be a good “rich” e-mail format?

To come, maybe

A guide for the perplexed on how to gain “reading knowledge” of LaTeX, if you are ever working with a TeXhead like me who shares their source and gets crabby if you ask for it “in Word.”



Filed under Conversion, General Reflections, Word

4 responses to “On Wishing Death to Word

  1. Tyler Trudeau

    It is nice to see more people in the humanities using LaTeX. Well, at least one other person. At the start of my second year in university I decided to teach myself how to use it so I could begin to produce better looking documents. Ironically, I only came across LaTeX after trying to emulate the typographical style of handouts my Math professor produced. I have found that LaTeX does get much easier to use over time but only after taking the absolutely painful challenge of developing a general template for papers.

    For me, the real usefulness of Word is limited to checking on word count. I wish you the best of luck in convincing your students that ideas can look good on paper.

  2. Andrew Goldstone

    Thanks for your comment and good wishes, Tyler! It’s true that the initial confrontation with TeX can be pretty intimidating, and one of the frustrating things is that it’s not easy to discover a good template a beginner writing a paper can just grab and use–though it’s easier than it used to be. But still not quite easy enough to entice most people who need to produce the paper now now now to give it a shot.

    Re word-counting, have you tried the texcount Perl script included in TeX Live? I only just discovered it, but it seems quite sophisticated, and it is happy to chew up my big source files from my book MS and spit out reasonable-looking counts.

    • Tyler Trudeau

      I have not tried any sort of word-counting feature like the one mentioned. I currently use TexMaker. I have tried using a LaTeX system that featured a “live” interface when I first started out but I found it distracting. I will admit, however, my current method of counting words by dropping code into Word, when I need an approximate figure, is a bit archaic.

      I once tried persuading a teaching fellow of mine, now a PHD candidate at Harvard, to consider using LaTeX for her doctoral thesis. We were going over a paper of mine and she remarked, “this paper is much better formatted than my MPHIL thesis.” I went through the ins and outs of creating a document in LaTeX with her but I have doubts to her actual conversion. She had this idea that it must take more time to create documents this way.

      Over time, creating documents using a Tex system really doesn’t take much more time than using Word. Further, it looks so good! One thing I learned in typography class in high school was that good typography is fundamentally concerned with readability. Typography is, essentially, the intersection of the aesthetic, form and function. In that careful balance what breaks through powerfully is the message spoken in and through the written text. A good typeset book/paper will demand to be read. This, if for any other reason, must be why someone must care that their ideas appear “nice” on paper.

  3. Jacob

    In terms of translating LaTeX over to the humanities, what about introducing people to Lyx? I’ve used it to write several major papers and it’s been a relatively smooth transition without the steeper LaTeX coding skills.

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