Web dev at the end of the world, from Hveragerði, Iceland

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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