Using Microsoft Word

Lord grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change.
The courage to change the things I can.
And the wisdom to hide the bodies of the people
I had to kill because they pissed me off.
J.G. Bullers

The pretty much only software I have to use that I hate with visceral dread is Microsoft Word. Unfortunately, it is still the de facto standard for file exchange in large projects (I still have hopes for GoogleDocs). I have avoided giving tips for Word here and strongly recommend Scrivener for writing, but a short time ago I stumbled upon Arno’s Tech Tools page, who has a lot of information about using Word without going insane (and a lot of other useful links).

So if you want to use Word without it driving you insane, it’s well worth a look. 🙂


  1. I, too, hate Microsoft Word, but I teach in a university and am stuck. I think maybe I’d feel better if I understood who designs this–each successive version more cumbersome & loaded with inconvenient & counterintuitive features. Does anybody out there know? What are they thinking? Who is is convenient for? Who enjoys this product? Is it just a case of trying to please everyone & pleasing no-one? It is certainly not convenient for college students trying to learn to use academic formats like MLA and APA for the first time, that I can tell you for sure.

  2. Hoi Heather,

    totally agree and I’d be interesting in the answer too — I guess it was a marketing ‘more features = better (for marketing)’ decision. Combined with first come tradition — I hope that with programs like Scrivener Word’s predominance will finally be broken.

    All the best


  3. Thanks Daniel for linking to my page. I’m glad you find it useful!

    Although I use Word mainly because I have too and would prefer LaTeX for a large part of the work for which I use Word, I don’t hate it. Actually, I think it does a pretty good job. The trouble with Word is that it wants to be a What You See is What You Get (WYSIWYG) editor, that does all the things a plain text processor can do and is easier to use. This is impossible, of course, but I am amazed how far it goes in that direction.

    The basic problem is: you cannot expect program’s that do complicated things to be intuitive.

    Although Word has bad features, the problem lies not entirely at the developers. The users and the writers of instructions books are part of the problem. People want a word-processing program with which they can do complicated things without learning how to use it. And books about Word typically confuse easy and basic: rather than explaining the difficult basics, they start with the easy things. The results are disastrous: (1) people learn to do things in a way that doesn’t fit the way Word works, (2) people get the erroneous idea that basic features of Word (most notably: styles and templates) are only useful to a handful of advanced users, and (3) people get the erroneous impression that Word is easy to learn and easy to use, but doesn’t work well (in fact it is the other way round: it is a difficult program that works pretty good if you know how to use it).

    Take for example numbering features. LaTeX and other programs that process plain text can easily number sections, lists, questions and so on automatically. It is a matter of defining a variable that gets a value when the text is printed or compiled. So it is not possible to see the number in the document. For that reason many people find it unintuitive.

    Word offers WYSIWYG ways for numbering. Technically this is much more difficult. As anything in Word this works by applying certain styles. So to work with bullets and numbers in Word, one has to use bulleted and numbered styles.

    Because most users do not know how to use styles (and erroneously think of it as an advanced feature, rather than the basic one it is), the developers of Word also offered ways of bulleting and numbering that to most people is more intuitive and apparently work without styles. Apparently only: everything in Word has a style attached to it, so to apply bullets and numbers that are apparently without styles, Word adds a lot of complicated information and ad-hoc styles to the document and has a lot of extra work to do to render the numbers on the screen. This increases the document’s size, slows down the processing, leads to capricious behavior (numbering restarting unexpectedly, bullets appearing were you don’t want them and so on).

    So the choice is: don’t bullet and number automatically and be happy, use LaTeX (easy to learn, but not WYSIWYG and for that reason to many people unintuitive) and be happy, use Word the Word-way (WYSIWYG but difficult) and be reasonably happy, or use Word the intuitive way (very easy) and spent your life complaining about Word’s capricious behavior.

  4. My sentiments exactly. If it didn’t sound paranoid, I’d be convinced that, with each new version, the Microsoft asks itself “What would Mike like?” and then does the exact opposite. Saddest of all, Word 5.1 for the Mac was actually a fairly good program circa 1990 or so. It’s been downhill ever since.

    Someone needs to create a couple of bumper stickers:

    Imagine a World Without Word


    Friends Don’t Let Friends Use Word

    Thanks for the link to Arno’s Tech Tools.

    –Michael W. Perry, author of Untangling Tolkien (written in, of all things, InDesign)

  5. Hoi Michael,

    hmm, perhaps the programming history of Word would be worth a book in itself … the story of the designers and developers involved … could be interesting.

    All the best


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