Hating Tools You Use Daily (A Microsoft Word Rant)

Well, since we’re discussing various projects we work on regularly, I’ll share (read: vent) some of my frustrations with a tool I use daily: Microsoft Word 2007.

I’m a documentation guy. I spend about 85% of my workday in Microsoft Word editing documents for customers (both internal and external), and the other 15% of my day figuring out what the heck Word did with my document. As some of you may have experienced, Word routinely does retarded things. I routinely have the following issues with Word:

  1. Word is not meant for multiple people editing the same file. Oh, sure, there’s the “Track Changes” option, which is supposed to tell you who did what, but try using that on a 150-page software requirements specification with 3 different sets of changes from 3 different developers… it gets so screwed up you can’t tell what is what.
  2. Word’s “Track Changes” tool can’t detect changes inside of a table. If you have an 8 page table where you only changed one line of text in one cell, Word says “oh, the whole table is different” and it gives you a 16 page Word comparison where it’s 8 pages of crossed-out old table and 8 pages of what it deems is a brand new replacement table.
  3. Word inherently links content and formatting. Ever copy something from one part of your document to another, and find that Word suddenly changes the font or the indentation on you? Or sometimes you get bullet points and numbered lists where you don’t expect them, and you can’t figure out how to make them go away? Word treats paragraphs differently depending on how they are formatted and it tries to remember formatting when you copy things around. However, it routinely makes the opposite decision from what you intended. I am of the opinion (after years of working with Unix and HTML) that text is text is text, and formatting should only be applied AFTER the text is written.
  4. Word does not handle cross-references cleanly. Cross-references are something you’ve probably only dabbled with (you’ve probably used them for footnotes or endnotes). I use them regularly to automate the process of creating tables of contents and referring to other manual/specification sections. Try this exercise.
    1. Create a new Word Document (I’m using Word 2007, but it should work in any other version).
    2. Type “I AM HEADING ONE” on the first line, and then apply the “Heading 1” style to it.
    3. Type “I AM HEADING TWO” on the second line, and then apply the “Heading 2” style to it.
    4. Type “I am a reference to ” on the third line.
    5. At the end of the third line, insert a cross reference to “I AM HEADING ONE”, which in Word 2007 is “References -> Cross-Reference -> Heading -> I AM REFERENCE ONE”.
    6. Change “I AM HEADING ONE” to read “CHANGED CONTENT”
    7. Highlight the third line, then right-click and say “Update Field”.
    8. You should now see “Error! Reference source not found.” Word fail.
  5. Imagine this happening in a 150 page document because some coworker changed one letter in that first line, and it’s now your job to find all the places where the link occurred, re-bind the link, and hope to god someone else doesn’t change a different reference while you’re not looking. Oh, and it’s due in an hour because the customer needs it.

    The way Word should handle this is to create a “link character”, something that says “This line of text can be cross referenced.”  Then, when someone changes the text in your header, the link doesn’t get deleted, and you can still reference that place in the document. They could have fun with it and make it a non-printing picture of Zelda or an Ocarina or something.

  6. Word cross-references can also be done across files. For example, you can use the cross-reference feature above to pull content in from another file entirely (called an Include in the programming world). The problem is in how it links it… it uses the full file path. For example, if I have a Word document on my Desktop called “andrew.docx” and I want to include all the content from “minecraft.docx” which is in the same folder, the cross-reference should simply say “Oh, I’m looking for a document in the same folder as myself.” No, instead, it says, “I’m looking for a file at C:\Documents and Settings\adorney\Desktop\”, which of course doesn’t work at all when someone else logs in and is trying to read a copy of the file they just got.
  7. The “Ribbon” thing. It’s gotten a lot of negative press… I actually find that it helps me get my work done faster now, but it took me a year to re-memorize where everything is. A year of mental gymnastics, and MS couldn’t even be bothered to include a “Classic Menu Layout” option. *shakes fist*

Anyway, those are things I am routinely frustrated about with Word. I’ll describe ways to fix these issues in another post.

  1. #1 by Kurt on December 23, 2010 - 9:26 AM

    *Whistles innocently while changing linked words in specs/tests*


  2. #2 by Chadwick on December 23, 2010 - 10:41 AM

    Regarding the ribbon, I still can’t find some of my favorite functions in things like Paint. They have “Classic” views for every other thing; why did Office not get it? *sigh* On the other hand, I’m always annoyed by the sheer volume of legacy content Microsoft likes to pack in, so maybe I should just suck it up and deal.

  3. #3 by Joshua on December 23, 2010 - 11:13 AM

    The ribbon is a dumb idea for most people. That’s my two cents. And it sounds like you need proper documentation software – MS word wasn’t meant for doing any of that.

    • #4 by Andrew D. on December 23, 2010 - 1:38 PM

      I’m routinely surprised by how many companies use MS Word for their primary documentation program and how few of them have heard of FrameMaker, DocBook, or anything else designed for Tech Writing. More on those in the next post. 🙂

  1. Solving Word’s Problems… by ditching Word. « Around Teh Table

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