Microsoft Word is a liability

Word has for many years now been the publishing industry’s de facto editorial and production format. Once you move into the world of digital, Word ceases to become a foundation and instead becomes a pair of cement shoes dragging you underwater. It is the worst possible format for the purpose.

The heart of the problem with Word is that it isn’t WYSIWIG anymore and hasn’t been for a long while. Even in the days of print, there was often a chasm between how a Word file was formatted and what the text would look like laid out in a page layout application for the book itself. Now, when ebooks, the web, and other digital publishing platforms have become important targets, Word’s pseudo-WYSIWIG has become a massive liability.

Because, if it were actually WYSIWIG, anything that looked like a heading would automatically be exported as a heading. Anything that looked like a quotation would export as a blockquote. But, even if you do give your Word file the correct styles with the correct names, often those styles are nothing but names and result in no corresponding structure in an export file. Word isn’t WYSIWYG, it’s WYSIWYS.

What You See Is What You see, and nothing more.

WYSIWYS is a bad idea for an interchange format, as it distances everybody in the process from the actual structural markup of the text. A badly documented proprietary format is even worse. It completely prevents an ecosystem of tools from growing up around your editorial and publishing processes. It throttles a lot of your best efforts to rejuvenate your processes in their crib. The publishing industry needs to consider alternatives to Microsoft Word. Using Word in a modern publishing workflow is like using a screwdriver to hammer a nail.


As I explained in HTML is too complex, the range of elements that are usable for authorship and editorial is limited to those that have an immediate visual or behavioural effect. The invisible elements (which are still supposed to have some sort of embedded meaning) are simply too complex for normal people to use. It’s just too hard for people to tell if they’ve done something correctly.

Word is the inverse of that. It’s rich formatting hides text blobs that are free of structure.

What we need for publishing is a true WYSIWYG format where formatting is structure. All headings should look alike and if it looks like a heading it must be a heading. Standardise the rendering and formatting for all structural elements so that it is obvious what is what.

Or, stick to Word and all of the additional work and costs that it entails.

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5 Responses to Microsoft Word is a liability

  1. William Ockham says:

    I agree with your diagnosis of the problem and disagree with your solution. I think it would be better to keep the text as separate as possible from the markup and have markup be descriptive rather than presentational. Like a cross between Markdown and TEI. Emphasized words and foreign words should be marked up differently even if they will both be displayed as italicized text.

  2. Sven Krantz-Knutzen says:

    As soon as you want to have more structure than “heading” (for example semantic tagging of citation to enhance Williams italic examples) you have to admid that formatting is not the same as structuring. Nevertheless you need an editor which helps you more than WORD does out of the shelf.

  3. Tim Klapdor says:

    Markdown is a good start towards this. Being a keyboard oriented workflow it doesn’t remove you from the writing process and it is WYSIWYG – # = H1 etc. With a simple preview (most editors do it side by side) it’s easy to see how it looks without exporting or saving. Plus because its essentially marked up text its a simple process to export it to a range of formats. It’s might be seen as dumbed down – but its a smarter way to work.

  4. Case Talbot says:

    I don’t agree that Word used to be WYSIWYG and is now WYSIWYS. I think Word has always been the epitome of WYSIWYG, and that WYSIWYG editors have always generated garbage metadata.

    With the rising importance of metadata analysis from search engines and the move from print to digital, it has just become more obvious than ever that print is not the sole medium anymore, as you wrote about yesterday. WYSIWYG was designed primarily to assist computer users in their attempts to create print media. It completely missed the needs of consistency in style and design (the text equivalent of pixel pushing) and focused solely on letting people make what they want to make. Those tasks are clearly better suited to rastering engines and print layout software, which document editing software is not. The flexibility of Word in terms of layout and styling is really the enemy that we fight against, since those details are generally better suited to secondary passes than writing real manuscripts. I guess the simple truth is that Word simply isn’t a good tool for writing books as it gives the author just enough rope to hang themselves, or their publisher, as the case may be.

    For me, WYSIWYM has always been the way to go. Hopefully editors like Lyx that don’t allow you to manually style content without telling the program what that style means will become the default in the long run.

  5. nikolawannabe says:

    I don’t agree that Word used to be WYSIWYG and is now WYSIWYS. I think Word has always been the epitome of WYSIWYG, and that WYSIWYG editors have always generated garbage metadata.

    With the rising importance of metadata analysis from search engines and the move from print to digital, it has just become more obvious than ever that print is not the sole medium anymore, as you wrote about yesterday. WYSIWYG was designed primarily to assist computer users in their attempts to create print media. It completely missed the needs of consistency in style and design (the text equivalent of pixel pushing) and focused solely on letting people make what they want to make. Those tasks are clearly better suited to rastering engines and print layout software, which document editing software is not. The flexibility of Word in terms of layout and styling is really the enemy that we fight against, since those details are generally better suited to secondary passes than writing real manuscripts. I guess the simple truth is that Word simply isn’t a good tool for writing books as it gives the author just enough rope to hang themselves, or their publisher, as the case may be.

    For me, WYSIWYM (What You Say Is What You Mean) has always been the way to go. Hopefully editors like Lyx that don’t allow you to manually style content without telling the program what that style means will become the default in the long run.

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