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Why I don't write in Word

Excel transformed the world. No question.

The first impact that Excel made was nothing to do with its functionality; it was the way it looked. Excel arrived along with the Windows operating system. Excel allowed a user to format cells. You could have borders and bold text. You could make a spreadsheet look good even it all it did was arrange data in rows and columns and sum them.

Herein were the seeds of accountants and others focusing on form rather than content. Excel allowed a user to produce colourful spreadsheets. They looked better but often they made it harder for the user to get the message. Excel did not come with training in graphic design. Accountants did not understand that putting borders around cells makes it harder to read a table. And putting data into 3D pie charts is both ugly and useless. You can see the effects of the lack of design to this day in the terrible documents that circulate in your organisation.

Something similar happened with Microsoft Word but the impact was worse because more people use Word than Excel. Before Word, reports, memo, letters and minutes were written by a human (let’s not drift into machines doing the writing) using a pen or pencil on paper. All they could do was focus on the content. They had to think before they wrote because that reduced the potential for making a mistake that they would have to re-write. If they were a senior person they might have had a dictation machine. This would save them from actual writing but it made thinking about what they wanted to say even more important, so that they could get the text right in the first take.

Once they had written (or dictated) their words a typist would transcribe them onto the official paper. She (rarely would a typist be a he) used a typewriter. A typewriter offered very little in the way of formatting options. It had one size and weight of typeface. It was possible to use all capital letters or underlining for titles and headings. Tables were possible but used sparingly because it was difficult to align text in columns on a typewriter. (If a typist made a mistake the whole page would have to be re-typed.)

Typing pools are long gone and now everyone creates their own documents in Word (or Google Docs). The design of Word invites the user to make a mess of a document. Open the app and the interface is about 25% toolbar, begging people to change fonts, add emphasis, insert tables, all without an ounce of graphic design knowledge.

In many organisations this problem is addressed by creating document templates. They do constrain users to keep with the official typeface and logos and colours. It does not take away the distraction of formatting tools. It does not encourage, let alone enforce, users to focus on getting the content right before thinking about how it should be presented in the document.

Word has a Focus mode. You probably did not know that. It’s there at the bottom of the app’s window. Its aim is to allow the user to focus on the text. It’s rubbish. It hides the toolbar but still shows the document in page layout mode. And if you mouse to the edge of the screen the toolbars slide back into view. There is no barrier or constraint imposed on the user at all.

I use Word because I have to. I do not, however, use it for writing. Never. I have written four book manuscripts, totalling half a million words, and not one of those words was typed in Microsoft Word. The manuscripts were submitted as Word files because that is what the publisher wanted.

I wrote my books in plain text. These are small files with the extension .txt and they contain only human-readable characters. They are not proprietary. Thousands of apps could open and display a .txt file; that is not true of Word files.

After I had written the text of each chapter I pasted it into a separate Word file, added some identification details as headers and footers and that was the version that would go to the publisher for editing and typesetting.

I do something similar for my clients. After I paste the text into Word I will do some formatting of the text, as part of a final quality check. Most of my clients do not know, nor care, what apps I use for writing. But they use Word internally and need the product I give them to be in Word format.

Why do I do this dance? Because, when I write I want to focus on the words. I don’t want to be distracted into formatting them, or wondering if they will look better in Times New Roman.

I encourage you to do the same as me whenever you have to write anything longer than a paragraph. Use a plain text application and embrace its constraints. A plain text application is the digital equivalent of a typewriter. It will be just you and your words. You can focus on what you want to say. The constraint will help you to be creative.

Only when your words are finished — not the first draft, but the final, edited version — is it time to format them. If you are lucky you could pass your text to an assistant or designer who will create the final document for you. For most of us, this is the time to copy the text and paste it into an application where we can format them.

There are loads of plain text applications you could use. I will recommend the one I used for this article, iA Writer because it is a cross-platform application. That means you can start a document on a laptop and make edits using a phone or tablet. Their website also includes lots of material to encourage you to be focused when you write.

Headings and bulleted lists do help when you’re writing. You could type your words exactly as a typist would in order to get some formatting into them. I suggest, instead, that you learn Markdown. This is a simple way of using symbols to bring some formatting into what you write, without your fingers leaving the keyboard. Here is iA Writer’s Markdown guide which is as good as any at explaining what it is and how to write it.

Gary Bandy Limited is a company registered in Cardiff, number 5660437.

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