Word processors suck

Do you eat meat? If you do, do you like the sound of "processed meat"? Does meat processing sound appealing to you?

Do you write words? If you do, do you like the sound of "processed words"? Does word processing sound appealing to you?

Try this exercise. Open your favorite word processor, then copy the following paragraph into it:

"Word processing" is an ugly term from the era where computer technology was still new and exciting, and terms like "electronic era" and "data entry" still had a ring of efficiency to them. It was the time when people actually believed a computer could be called an "electronic brain" with some accuracy, and office workers were expected to master the new "computing machinery" as-is. Today, people are much less inclined to accept what they’ve been given and rightly demand that software support their workflow, rather than the other way around.

Now select the first line of this paragraph, from its opening quote to its period.

How did you do it? I imagine you did it in either of two ways: you either took the mouse and carefully dragged the pointer across the screen while holding the left mouse button pressed, or you pressed the Home key and then held Control, Shift and the right cursor key until the entire sentence was selected. You probably didn't use the shortcut for the "select sentence" function, because your word processor probably doesn't have such a function. Reflect on this for a moment. Your word processor, which is supposedly designed to help you write text on a computer, has no notion of an essential building block of text.

Microsoft Word, the word processor with the most market share, has no "select sentence" function. You can double-click to select a word, or triple-click to select an entire paragraph (I believe the latter is a fairly recent addition). If you want to a solution for quickly selecting a sentence, the Internet will readily suggest macros for accomplishing this. In other words, although Word cannot select sentences, it does have the built-in capacity for computer programmers to modify its behavior. Which of these sounds more fundamental to you?

Of course, making this function available out of the box would be trivial, and there may very well be word processors that do have it as a basic function, but it's telling that it's not common. What's absurd is not that word processors are still stuck in the seventies mindset, but that we accept this without questioning. The term "word processor" itself is disgustingly honest about it: we're not writing text, we're processing words. It's nice but not essential if your word processor helps you with writing text. Its primary task is to digitize what's already there, providing ready access to formatting and layout options so your raw thoughts look presentable on paper. For a telling illustration of this, take a look at a proposal for a word processor that's easy to use for people who aren't used to word processors (like kids).

(Image taken from http://kexi-project.org via KDE to sue MS over Ribbon GUI?)

Note how the right side of the screen is almost entirely occupied by formatting functions. At the top, we have the trinity of Cut-Copy-Paste and the basic document management functions (New-Open-Save-Print). Aside from Cut-Copy-Paste, the only function specifically geared to writing text is Check (which presumably invokes the spelling checker). The demonstration text explains  how to select lines (not sentences!) and how to select everything. It's a perfect word processor microcosm.

My intent is not to hold up this design as an object of scorn. Almost all word processors look like this, the only difference is that the professional word processors have even more formatting functions, the ability to insert images and tables into the text, and sundry other functions of use to specialists. The question is: aside from the spelling checker, what of this really helps me construct a text worth reading? Are programs designed to format and redact a single linear piece of text the best we can do?

I think we can actually do better, but elaborating those thoughts will have to wait for another post. For now, I'd like to leave you with this: think about how you write any substantial piece of text, then think about the way your word processor is or isn't supporting you. You might be surprised.


Anonymous said...

Select sentence = and then click anywhere on the target sentence?

Anonymous said...

My bad "" disappears without the quotes! Who knew?

So should read hold the Ctrl key down and click anywhere in the sentance.