Mac Lab Report

Writing in Microsoft Word an Excercise in Frustration

- 2004.09.15

Writing a book using Word is like...

  • using an aircraft carrier to fish for bluegills.
  • using a hammer to tighten a screw.
  • using a jackhammer to plant a tree.
  • planting a garden to make a sandwich.
  • using a fish to - well, you get the point.

I've been writing a book over the summer, which is why you haven't heard my "unreasoning shrill anti-PC ranting at a low, low discount price" voice as much as usual.

And, of course, to get the job done the publisher requires the use of Word. I can't use one of the substitutes such as AbiWord or OpenOffice, because there are a lot of graphics to be inserted that don't translate well.

What I found out is that there's a reason they don't translate well. Word, as some of you have already pointed out, is not Word compatible.

Word is, as many of you know, a word processor, not a page layout program. It tries hard to be a page layout program, but it really isn't built for it. I'm using Word for X, but I can tell you from many years of experience that even though Word 5.1 was no great shakes either, at least you could control it to some degree. Word 6 was a disaster, and Word 2001 was painfully slow but usable.

Now we're at Word 2004, which I haven't seen yet. I doubt that the things that trouble me the most have been fixed; perhaps one of you fine readers can render an opinion.

When you insert a graphic into a Word document, it can be treated in one of two ways: It can be an inline graphic, which is like a single giant letter of the alphabet and subject to rules like if you backspace over it it will disappear, or you can place it as a wraparound graphic.

Here's where the layout fun begins. When you place a picture in Word in wraparound mode, it becomes anchored to a particular paragraph nearby. Selecting the graphic requires sub-pixel cursor control, so set your mouse to superfine and have a spare desk nearby to use as a mousepad. The placement of the picture is relative to the first letter of the paragraph, so if you edit text later and move the anchor paragraph, your picture may stay in the same relative position or shoot off the edge of the page because the beginning of the paragraph shifted as it dropped down below newly added text, or disappear completely for several days until it pops up later at the beginning of your last section break when you were editing something four pages after that

Always anchor graphics to paragraphs that are not flowing around the graphic, and the problem mostly goes away.

Along the way I learned other tricks of working with Word.

If your program crashes unexpectedly, there is still hope. Before you start working make sure you set autobackup and autorecovery in the general preferences. I had autorecovery set up (Word: Preferences: Save bullet: check "Save AutoRecover info every 10 minutes") set up, and I thought this would protect me from the regular crash-and-disappear problems I have when doing some intricate graphics inside a text box maneuvers.

AutoRecover is supposed to load a cached backup copy when you restart Word. However, earlier this week it didn't work. I dug through help files and Web support pages for a while until I located the location of autorecovered files (user: Documents: Microsoft User Data: AutoRecovery save of ....) The last one listed was from weeks ago, so I looked a little more and found a series of documents all titled "Word Work File A_gobbledygook" that I had assumed were temp files containing clipboards or subsets of the document.

Lucky for me, the most recent Word work file was the entire document just before the latest crash, so I could pick up where I left off.

All of this could have been avoided if I had just checked "Always create backup copy" in the preferences dialog, which puts a duplicate right there in the directory where my file is supposed to be every time I save.

I also have autosave activated, but that didn't help me in this case because the crash occurred during a save; the program stopped responding and sat spinning for half an hour before I gave up. When I tried to open it again, the document was corrupted and caused Word (and AbiWord, and OpenOffice, and AppleWorks with MacLinkPlus translation) to crash when the document opened.

Of course, it must have been my fault for, uh, hmm, saving too often, yeah, that must be it. If you save too often, Word will crash. Whoda thunk it.

I'm getting through this book, and there are some nice features I've taken advantage of in Word, but I have to say the style dialog is a complete mystery to me. It's out of control and doing bizarre things like suddenly switching in the middle of the paragraph - probably some hidden key combination is triggering it due to my sloppy typing. I like having text boxes inserted for parenthetical comments - I just love em-dash asides, can't you tell? - but with all the other features running around you'd think they'd let you have boxes with rounded corners.

I can't use macros for repetitive tasks because they're verboten by the publisher (can't say as I blame them), and every time I blink the program starts repaginating, which takes 3-4 seconds while you wait (at least for a 350 page book). There's bound to be a switch for that somewhere in the preferences. Or in the menu items that are turned off by default. Or in the list of functions you can make a button activate.

The trouble is, by the time I've learned everything I need, the latest version of Word will be all rearranged like the aisles of my local Costco in a desperate attempt to make the consumer feel a new product has been released.

Tell me, does anybody use all this stuff? I'm writing a book, for cryin' out loud, and I don't use a tenth of it. What is a cross-reference and should I be using it? How do I insert an index entry without all those funny characters that get tacked on screwing up my pagination in page layout mode? Shouldn't those be invisible? Why does a document need a background sound?

Anyway, those are some of my thoughts regarding Word. Many of us are required to use it from time to time for various purposes, and we just have to muddle through. I'm sure you know what I mean.

Somewhere around here I've got an old set of 5.1 disks. I wonder if it'll run in Panther via Classic?

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is a longtime Mac user. He was using digital sensors on Apple II computers in the 1980's and has networked computers in his classroom since before the internet existed. In 2006 he was selected at the California Computer Using Educator's teacher of the year. His students have used NASA space probes and regularly participate in piloting new materials for NASA. He is the author of two books and numerous articles and scientific papers. He currently teaches astronomy and physics in California, where he lives with his twin sons, Jony and Ben.< And there's still a Mac G3 in his classroom which finds occasional use.

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