No More Words in Word, Please

Through great marketing and market saturation, Microsoft Word has become the de facto tool for documentation.  This should come as no surprise since Word is the most popular word processing tool—in fact, the “most popular software in the world for personal use” as MS Office Live Director of Marketing Michael Schulz said.  Naturally, when people chose a tool to create documentation, they used what they knew: Word.  The question is, is it always a good choice?  The answer is a resounding no.

Of course, Word is an ideal program for certain types of documents, especially small documents—letters, research papers, etc.—because it has a fairly simple user interface and people know how to use it.  For more complex documents, larger documents, however, it just doesn’t cut it.

The root of the problem is, as Dr. Jeffrey Shoap says, that Word is supposed to be “everything for all people.”  Let’s consider some types of Word’s failures.

Word tries to do right.  Sadly, it doesn’t succeed.  For instance, if you have a big document of procedures (several hundred pages) and try to add a step to the list, sometimes the automatic numbering gets confused.  Word renumbers all the lists in the document and you have to manually correct each instance.  Similarly, graphics seem to magically move around depending on which day you open the document.  Headers and footers, forget it.  You simply never know what Word is going to display or where.

Word pretends to be a technical writing tool.  Based on user demand and market pressure, Microsoft has added certain features to Word to make it more competitive with standard technical writing tools, such as Adobe FrameMaker.  Word includes Styles which is supposed to help you define text formats to maintain consistency throughout different sections of a document and Master Document which is supposed to separate different chapters into different documents so file sizes are smaller.  These features are like Windows “patches”: they’re supposed to solve problems, but they simply don’t work they way they’re supposed to.

Word can’t handle large documents. Files get corrupt extremely easily and the program crashes when it tries to manipulate large files.

The bottom line is that with large documents, using Word will make a project take longer.  No matter who does your documentation—outside consultant, in-house team, or independent contractor—this means that your project will cost more.

The good news is that there are alternatives.  Programs designed for large complex documents, such as such as AuthorIt and FrameMaker, handle large, complex documents quite well.

Using the proper authoring program can have significant cost savings.  Unfortunately, many companies use Word because it’s familiar, not because it’s the correct tool.  How much is your company losing on Word?

1 reply on “No More Words in Word, Please”

Your point is well made, but keep in mind that the larger systems are not without their faults. I didn’t have much time in Framemaker while doing documentations, but I worked with plenty of AuthorIT and RoboHelp. Both had their own quirks that were on par with avoiding corrupted documents in Word. Maybe in the past few years the other software has improved.
As far as issues of automatic numbering mixups and other formatting issues, from what I’ve encountered, that’s mostly based around incorrect use of styles, or not using them at all. Word does indeed work better when you use styles rather than clicking the “bold” button on the toolbar, for instance. Again, I will grant that the longer the document, the more likely the chance of encountering corruption of the document or styles.
I really disagree with thinking of styles as a patch. For starters, they’ve been around since at least Word 2000, and probably previous versions as well. I think styles are a solid feature, and allow for great control over the format of a document.
I’ve had my share of headaches while working with Word, but I don’t personally feel like they overwhelm any of the issues that I’ve dealt with in AuthorIT or RoboHelp.

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