Why we settled with using MS Word for our book 22:47 on Monday

I was asked on the comments to my post on MS Word which word processor I would choose now, with the knowledge I got from our book project. It’s a good question with no good answer. If you want to know which word processor I prefer, that would be Apple Pages. Would I recommend it? Not really.

For the book we tried many options: We tried Google Docs. We tried Zoho Writer. We tried Writeboards. We tried wiki format. None of these worked well for us.

The problem with the online editors is that there’s no real structure, in the same sense as enabled by Word styles (or Latex for hardcore unix freaks). The other big drawback is that you don’t have a document map of any sort. I’ve found the Word document map very helpful for navigating long documents and for having the document structure “there” and visible at all times when writing.

With the online editors there’s also only little variety in style, which I personally don’t see as a drawback when you’re writing instead of crafting a colorful document to impress your “friends”. Writeboards allow only plain text editing with Textile, which combined with the lack of a document map makes navigating a big document next to impossible.

Our main motivation for starting with online tools was that we needed a way to collaborate on the book. We were willing to give something away in favor of good version control and reviewing tools. All of the above mentioned products have version control, but not the sort of versioning useful for a book project.

So, I like Apple Pages, but it wasn’t an option for the book, as Sami had a Windows laptop and I was on a Mac. Not that Pages would have worked either. It’s notorious for its buggy implementation of numbered lists, which until version 3.0.1, still have not been fixed. Not a huge problem when all you have is a few pages, but go over a hundred pages and listen to yourself scream when doing the numbering again every time you open the document.. one heading at a time. There’s no way to manage captions for images or tables, and there are no endnotes or cross references. Therefore, Pages is not the best option for academic work.

But if anyone finds a really good option for a word processor, let me know.

13 Responses to “Why we settled with using MS Word for our book”


  1. sig Says:

    Niko, one word -Lyx!

    Never have to tinker with enumeration, layout or TOC or basically anything. Only way to go about long documents, let Lyx (front end for Tex) do it all. Ok a bit constricted layoutwise, but with some experience you can do a lot. Export to PDF, postscript, html, text, LaTeX even custom. Import text.

    Track changes the usual way and whatnot, only industrial strength text processor out there.

    Good printers / publishers should accept LaTeX files even (with luck).

    Try it and you’ll never look back (but hey, you must surely have tried it so why is that not on your list?)

    http://www.lyx.org/news.php#item1 – 1.5.3 binaries, OS X and Win and Linux

  2. *nen Says:

    Thanks for a comperehensive reply! Turns out I was a bit too optimistic in my plans to leave Microsoft Office out altogether. It’s just that the days I spend working on my thesis would be a lot sunnier without having to find against the Word usability windmills. About the only thing that drives me as mad are the Nokia “smartphones”, with usability issues that match those of Microsoft’s. Saatanan tunarit, sanoisi Kekkonen. :)

  3. PA Says:

    I should start writing my thesis but it seems that I keep putting it off, waiting that a decent alternative miraculously appears.

    People say that Pages it not a word processor. And I agree. But can’t understand why Apple doesn’t want it be one. Maybe Office 2008 will save me.

  4. *nen Says:

    … fight against the windmills, of course. :-)

    Being a man of curiosity, I checked out the recommended Lyx. Unfortunately, the website looked not-that-convincing, so I figured that might be the truth for the software too. But I’m happy some people are working to provide alternatives.

  5. Janne Says:

    I’m currently trying out Scrivener. It’s essentially a text editor with really good document map, the ability to store reference documents with your text, and loads of other features, aimed at helping the writer with little distractions. It is not a layout tool, and you will need to export your book, once it is done, to something like Word or OpenOffice for the layout, indexes and final touches.

    But for the writing/research phase, I really like it. It’s very nice when writing a document piece by piece.

  6. Niko Says:

    Janne.. WOW! By a quick look at the site, Scrivener looks like a dream come true. Have to check it right away!

  7. Arvind Says:

    Niko : Nice that you looked into Zoho Writer as an option and sorry that it didn’t fully satisfy your needs. Would like to mention a couple of points.

    With Zoho Writer, you can make a Table of Contents easily of all the Heading tags within your document – just on the click of a button (look for the TOC icon in the Zoho Writer toolbar’s second row, just before the smiley icon). And here’s a blog post made last November for NaNoWriMo which can give you ideas of using Zoho Writer or Wiki for writing a novel, book.

    Do mail me your feedback comments on Zoho and where you think we need to improve.

  8. Ville Säävuori Says:

    I’m suprised that you didn’t even mention OpenOffice (NeoOffice for Mac). I assume you tried it? I’ve been using OO.org since 2002 for business documents if I, for some odd reason, have ro read or write office-compatible documents. (Luckily that’s very seldom nowadays.) It works as bas as Word, and it gets the job done — for free.

    For creative writing I use mainly CopyWrite ( http://www.bartastechnologies.com/products/copywrite/ ), which is one of many great writing tools for Mac. CW has good fullscreen-mode, support for versioning, and relatively good project management tools. Like other writing tools, with CW you need to export the final draft for layout and finishing, but IMHO, that’s how writing tools should work; deal only with writing.

  9. Zoli Erdos Says:

    Zoho Writer can now generate a TOC based on the header1, header2 ..etc styles you use as titles. That supports a basic form of structure.

    But if structure is the key thing you need, wikis are a perfect answer. They give you structure but also easy flow, the better ones with word processor-like features. What did you find inadequate using a wiki?

  10. sig Says:



    p>c’mon, be a bit more curious – Lyx, LaTeX, TeX are Open Source, the de facto standard forever in thesis writing – TeX being the text formatter with roots back in 1969, Lyx is a frontend ““What You See is What You Mean

  11. *nen Says:

    Sig: Ok, ok, I’ll give it a try. I’m actually doing my thesis on nostalgia and retro brands, so using a text formatter with roots back in 1969 is a convincing idea :-)

  12. PA Says:

    I came across Scrivener lately as well and it seemed promising. As far as I understood, it lacked support for cross-references and automatic captions, though, and the idea was that one could export the project in RTF at some point and finish it in Word. I guess that third party software EndNote was mentioned somewhere but didn’t dig further at the time.

    I’ve given Lyx a try a couple of years ago and I guess it could be bearable for a simple layout, especially with a ready-made template. As a spoilt Mac user, however, I’m compelled to believe that WYSIWYG is the way that things are meant to be and feel more natural in such an environment.

  13. Ceczenie Says:

    Apple Pages is not a good piece of software for serious writing: not document map, not outline, not integration with Endnote, exclusive file formats… I thinks your options are: 1- Stay with MS Office (and pay). 2- Try NeoOffice/OpenOffice (with Firefox’ Zoteroh extension for bibliography). It could solve all your problems and it’s free. Cons: The interface is really ugly… 3- Pass the learning curve to work with Lyx (and some Bibtex software). But be awarded: convert to .rtf or standard file formats is not an easy task. Hope you luck