July 21, 2016

My history with MS Word

I read this article about MS Word earlier today, and it really got my thinking about my software choices for writing.

I don't recall learning the ropes of a word processor ever being easy. We had computer classes at school, but most of my computer learning was at home with my father who's an engineer. I remember him showing my how to make an outline with points and sub points and navigating between levels, and that with a push of a button, MS Word would attempt to translate my outline into paragraphs and text. Why were we making outlines on word processors? Because it was fun.

In high school in the early 2000's, all I needed was 1" margins and double spaced 12 pt Times New Roman. Then in college, after getting my two English classes out of the way, all my writing got sent in emails as body text, no attachments. As a student, I got a free (to me) license for the whole MS office suite, so it sat on my laptop, mostly unused. As a math person, LaTeX did such a beautiful job formatting my math heavy writings, I only needed to use an open source editor to make beautifully formatted documents.

Once I was an adult, thrown out into the real world, I wasn't going to need to write papers. Since my MS software had expired, I wrote my resumé using LaTeX. I think it turned out even better that way. I've always done some form of writing, and at this time it was in the form of blog posts and journal entries. I didn't need any fancy formatting, and MS Word created huge bloated documents, so even after purchasing a license through my job for a whole $9.99, I still used the plain text editor that came with my OS. Later, my husband got another MS Word license through his job, and that copy still sits on the laptop I use now.

When I decided to write my first novel,  I opened up TextEdit and started writing. I already knew MS Word took a long time to start up, and even longer to load a huge document. TextEdit wasn't particularly fast at loading documents either, so I saved each scene as a separate RTF file.

When I got to the end of the first draft, I knew I had a problem. I didn't have a manuscript, I had 56 files which needed sequential page numbers, headings, cover page, the works. I tried to put each part together into one document in MS Word and add at least a little bit of formatting. It was a mess. And how would I do revisions? I needed a better way.

At this point I had already found an online writing forum I frequented, so I had heard about Scrivener. I downloaded it and started my 30 day trial. I copied each scene into the program and organized them into chapters. The binder view made it painfully obvious when I had big stretches missing my second point-of-view character, and I could easily select different chapters and see their word counts. My love affair for the software really blossomed when I started drafting my next book. I loved the blank page with no tools or rulers, just text.

The publishing world uses MS Word, probably because it is still the formatting powerhouse. When submitting my first novel, some agents and publishers requested my manuscript (or parts of it) in a DOCX file. No problem. I could compile my work in Scrivener as an RTF, open it in MS Word, then save in the correct format. I open my beautiful manuscript in MS Word and...

My book is a total mess. The entire body is in italics, essentially removing any differentiation between normal and emphasis in the text. I have to go back and forth before I realize it was the font I chose that was the culprit. I still don't know why it did that, but switching to Times New Roman seemed to remedy the issue. But some of the page breaks were wrong. Not all my chapters started on a new page, but some of them followed a blank page.

I went to YouTube and watched some tutorials. Yes, MS Word can do some cool formatting things to make a published novel look really professional, but getting everything to work together requires some, well, serious work.

To the publisher who requested a full in DOCX format, sorry, but you got a PDF. I know it's important to follow guidelines, but it was more important to me that my manuscript looked its best. I could have attached an explanation of why I chose the different format, but I didn't.

The real problem I have with MS Word is that it tries to be good at everything, which detracts from user experience. Since it offers so many styles, it's easier to get one little option wrong, and make a mess of the whole document. When writing a letter, it double spaced my address, but if I use a template, I had a crazy colorful letter with weird graphics and place holders for my corporate logo which I felt made it less professional. So, instead of finishing my letter in MS Word, I opened TextEdit and wrote the plainest looking letter, and it's exactly what I wanted.

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