Is Word Too Smart?

Thanks to a posting on the Channel9 website about the use of Apple machines within Microsoft, I came across a discussion about how smart Microsoft Word has become, and whether this is a good or bad thing. The start point is an article on the O’Reilly Network by Marc Hedlund who ran LucasOnline, Lucasfilm’s internet division. You can find his original article at Microsoft Word and “Smarter Than”.

Marc’s point is that in a lot of cases, Word has become too smart for it’s own good. For example, in a recent document I wrote, I wanted to put a letter C in two brackets into the document, following logically on from (A) and (B). The problem was that every time I typed in ‘(‘ ‘C’ ‘)’, the Word auto-correct replaced it with ‘©’. There are many other similar automatic features that Word includes that really bug me if I don’t turn them off.

The argument that the developpers at Microsoft offer, described in this blog entry by Rick Schaut is that Word is primarily trying to take away complexity from the average user leaving the to worry about what to write. As he says

Nearly everything we’ve done with Word, and nearly everything we continue to do with Word, is designed to relieve the user of having to think about the mechanics of writing, thereby allowing her to focus on the content.

However aside from my experiences with the automatics, the fact that Word attempts to be flexible, and second guesses what the user is trying to do tends to mean that it often does things that are unexpected to the average user. As my experience when we put together the Parish Profile for the Church showed, the automatics can produce a nightmare of a document when you try and pull together separate sections from different people. Ultimately I had to go back to a clean document and export everything as plain text. With hindsight this could be avoided by using Word’s templating features, and creating a template that turns off much of the automatics, however that is not usually much help once the bulk of the document is written. Looking later in the Microsoft article, Rick actually concedes the following:

There is no word processor, including Word, that’s perfectly suitable for professional writers.

Whilst I agree that the statment is true, I’d argue that what what we did with the Parish Profile is professional writing, and that what Word did was downright obstructive. It’s also been my experience that even one person with a large document can still get into a hideous mess – try changing the line spacing or font over a twenty page document and it often doesn’t change everything you expect. Thanks to the multitude of good advice on the Microsoft Valued Professional site I sorted it out. There is an article here describing an ideal Word Processor for writers, the conclusion being that there isn’t really one at the moment. The best advice I have found is that to get Word to work with you rather than against you, you need to write documents in a very structured way, working out all the styles in advance. In essence you separate your presentation from your content. A good place to start is this article on bending Word to your will.

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