Design of Text Documents

The latest post at India, Ink about using templates in document formatting software made me feel a little guilty, but reminded me why I actually miss LaTeX a little bit. I really don’t understand styles and templates in MSWord, which I used to format my most recent couple of papers, and while it is nice to throw together a handout without having to wrestle with LaTeX, I missed its clarity of structure when dealing with sub-sub-sections and captioning figures and including citations (BibTeX, I miss you so….)
The point at that we ought to learn to use our tools is valid. However, I do think a tool like MSWord discourages us from really learning to use it as a document design tool as compared to a document layout tool. All of the things that are made easy or provided with icons have to do with forcing a particular view of a specific piece of text. You can select a paragraph and change its indentation, font or alignment with a single button-click or keyboard shortcut. You can create an entire document in “normal” style, and it looks fine to the eye. But, as India notes, this doesn’t scale, and it isn’t reusable. It is horrid design.
And yet, while LaTeX puts the design issues front and center, MSWord makes the process more mysterious. Perhaps it can do this, and I have never found the feature, but being able to show the user a marked up version of their text, like the switch between the WYSIWYG and HTML panes in Frontpage, would help, but I’ve only been able to check my designated style by highlighting the text of interest and seeing what the style menu says it is in. Not good for a quick consistency check across a whole document!
I am picking on MSWord, only because I’ve been using it for forever, but the criticism holds for the other WYSIWYG text editors I’ve used as well. They may allow good document design, but they don’t make it easy. I suspect that India is working with way more high-powered tools than these, but I think her point stands that we don’t worry about the design of our text documents the way we ought to, particularly when there is so much potential for them to change presentation format, and the consumer grade tools ought to address this.

6 thoughts on “Design of Text Documents

  1. Hi, Amanda!
    Yes, Word buries all the useful document formatting tools, and then they put in all these stupid default settings that try to style your document for you and invariably make a hash of it. Then people like me have to undo all that crap. I recommend turning off everything under Tools -> AutoCorrect except the two checkboxes that deal with “smart quotes.” Everything.
    BUT, there’s one feature you might want to turn on, if you do use styles, and that’s the “style area,” which is then visible in “Normal” view. In most versions of Word, I believe, this setting is controlled under Preferences -> View. Look for a box toward the bottom left labeled “Style area width,” which will have a value of 0″ in it. Type 1″ and go back to your document window. There should now be a column running down the left side that shows the name of the style applied to each paragraph (probably Normal / Normal / Normal / etc.). Once it’s there, you can drag the edge of it to make the column wider or narrower. It’s ugly, but it helps.
    Also, in newer versions of Word, there’s a separate, vertical Formatting Palette. This is very useful in Windows, allowing you to select all text that’s styled a certain way, even if it doesn’t have a named style applied to it. It’s less featureful on the Mac but still worth the screen real estate.
    Word is a very powerful tool, but it’s also very hard to casually learn how to use its better features. You have to know they’re there, and often the dialog boxes (footnotes, anyone?) are bizarrely conceived. The newsletter is helpful for that, but the archives can seem a bit overwhelming.
    I was lucky in that a programmer friend showed me how to use stylesheets in Word just as I was learning to use the program, back in 1995. (Before that, I was a staunch WordPerfect user, and I really hated not being able to “view code” anymore.) He also installed a homespun formatting palette he’d whipped up, which I no longer need, as its functions are long since native to the program: on the Mac, shift-control-1 applies the Heading 1 style, shift-control-2 applies Heading 2, etc. There’s a similar shortcut on Windows.
    I could go on, but I hope this helps. I do totally agree with you (at least, I think this is what you’re saying) that Word’s default configuration leads writers to obsess too much about the appearance of their documents when what they should be thinking about is the structure. And that so-called feature they introduced a few versions ago, whereby the menu items you use least disappear from the menu? Ack! So stupid! Encouraging users to remain ignorant. If all a person wants is a simple text editor, there are better ones out there.
    Okay, shutting up now.

  2. Ooo – thank you for pointing out these features! As you say, it isn’t pretty, but I’m way more likely to be good about styles if Word at least gives me a *clue* about what is going on. I’m going to try using these tools the right way later this weekend – I have a short handout to make for which it is probably overkill, but it will be a good test case.
    The disappearing menu item feature made me crazy too – horrible, horrible user interface design. I don’t know anybody who liked it. I believe that was the same release where, if you spent too much time looking at menus, the paperclip dude would pop up and ask if you were looking for something. Double arrrggg!

  3. Die, Clippy, die, die! He’s started popping up on my work computer occasionally, and I can’t remember how to kill him completely, it’s been so long since I’ve had to do so. What on earth were they thinking?
    I use stylesheets in Word even for making a five-line memo. It’s quite possible that I’m nuts, though.

  4. I thought that I killed off Clippy by just un-checking “Use Office Assistant” in the Options menu you get if you right-click on Clippy. I seem to recall that I had a service pack installation that reset that option at one point.
    I think there are two good reasons to get into good habits in document design even for trivial documents. First, you stay in the habit and in practice (though, probably not a huge concern for you!). Second, lots of text ends up getting repurposed – your short document may get expanded, copied into another document, or shared in different ways. I suspect it is like using good style when writing even minor helper programs – it may not always be necessary but enough of the time it helps you out down the road.

  5. I’d just like to say that I hate, hate, hate MSWord!(not to mention Clippy and his sound effects!)
    However, I love the new photo on top of your main page…the waterfall is stunning! I feel like I can hear and feel it every time your blog loads!

  6. Thank you! It is one of the waterfalls in the Cascadilla Creek gorge that runs from from downtown Ithaca up to Cornell. When I was back visiting over the summer I spent an afternoon walking up the gorge taking some pictures and hanging out reading. The fact that that’s just a place you can walk past going about your daily business is one of the things that really makes me miss Ithaca.

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