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The trouble with finding the perfect word

The trials and tribulations of Microsoft Word users

Microsoft Word is an abomination.

It frustrates ordinary writers, irks good ones and sends professionals (many of whom are lawyers) into anger-management programs. Its coded approaches to the creative process of writing are not only inane and wrong, they are unyielding and unchangeable. And most insidiously, Word’s near-total dominance of the word-processing software market has already lowered the quality of writing in every sphere, including the legal profession.

Word’s greatest sin is arrogance. It thinks it’s smarter than you are. To those who actually think while they write, this attitude is particularly grating. Word frequently confronts writers with admonitions of errors based on an entirely private system of grammar and format only it knows. Writing with Word is like performing a ballet while being constantly corrected by a tut-tutting tap-dance coach. Tap dancing is a good and wonderful thing, but not when you’re trying to do a plié.

Word wants to singularize some plurals. It refuses to capitalize many words you have chosen to capitalize for emphasis or because they are defined terms. It highlights a word or phrase for correction, and then offers exactly the same word or phrase with exactly the same punctuation and spelling as an acceptable alternative. It almost randomly refuses to let you number items in a list in the style you deem most useful.

For instance, I still have not figured out how to get Word to let me type a lower case letter i in parentheses, like so: (i). Word allows me to type (ii), (iii) and (iv). But instead of (i), Word insists that it be (I).

And why should I have to pick my way through the labyrinth of Word’s many default settings simply to eliminate the most irksome? It would be less arrogant for Microsoft to start with some basics, such as a standard paper size, set margins and a spell-checker. After that, each user should be able to add writing aids as he or she desires. But most ordinary writers are either too intimidated by the task of undoing the defaults, or assume the Microsoft way of writing must be the new and the best way to write. The result is bad writing.

The ugliest manifestation of this surrender to Word’s way is the badly formatted document. Too many people are producing texts that are featureless and therefore less useful because they can’t make heads nor tails out of Word’s formatting features. The crazy things that appear on their screens when they try to number or highlight something often forces writers to settle for a page of dense typing that impedes easy understanding. As these dense and standardized documents crossed my desk with increasing frequency over the years, I was met with the cold realization that an entire generation of office workers have never experienced the freedom of the typewriter, much less the freedom of WordPerfect.

Microsoft feigns user friendliness with the always-available Help button. It can even appear as a cute cartoony paper clip called Clippit. But Clippit is a sly-eyed bit of twisted wire that often dispenses little more than a list of index entries when asked a question.

This low-rent piece of digital animation has exclusive access to the very thing a serious writer asks of the all-powerful Word—the user’s manual. But the manual exists only in digital form. A writer can’t flip through it for a quick answer. The writer must scroll through it. Or Clippit, which you can program with sound effects (for god’s sake!), is sent looking on the writer’s behalf. But he (it?) rarely comes back with anything useful.

I am certain Microsoft would say you can eliminate many of these irritating aspects of Word with a few mouse clicks, and that the rest are a product of my misunderstanding, or worse, of my unwillingness to adapt to the vast and ideal features of the new cyberworld. I would expect such a response from a monopolist.

But it’s telling that even as Word dominates the field, most lawyers still speak fondly of WordPerfect. Many of their firms reluctantly converted to Word only because their clients had switched. Absolutely no one I’ve discussed this with during the past 10 years sings Word’s praises. At most, they say it’s not as bad as I think, and besides, you have to use it because that’s what everybody else uses. Such an endorsement.

So I continue to use a stripped down version of WordPerfect with ease and satisfaction. To my fellow writers who are prisoners of Microsoft Word, I urge the slogan, “Give me Liberty, or give me a pencil!” That sounds about right.

Contributing Author

Bruce D. Collins

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