Friday, February 4, 2011

Word Works

I suppose there are always going to be those who are for or against Microsoft Word. I think it is an indispensable tool. I don't know how you could move from position to position as a technical writer without being exposed, in some way, to Word. If you stayed with the Open Office system, sure. But if you're freelancing for different companies, you are bound to find yourself needing Word skills.

Six years ago, I was using Word for large-scale publications. My answer to this question is below:
Here’s a serious question that deserves some thought: Could you use Microsoft Word in a large-scale corporate technical publications environment, and if so, how would you do it? I know I am on record as saying that it’s not quite the right tool for the job (or words to that effect), but there are many corporate tech pubs departments that do use Microsoft Word.
From what I have heard over the years, a lot of non-tech-writing effort goes into supporting that. On its own, Microsoft Word has a reputation for being unstable and unreliable (see Farbey’s Law), and it is often criticised for being so tightly integrated with the Windows operating system that you never know whether a particular setting needs to be changed in the document, the application, the Windows Registry, or the Active Directory Group Policy. In this post I’m going to suggest what an ideal set-up for corporate tech pubs use of Microsoft Word might look like.
Microsoft Word works well when the people who use it have been trained to use it well. Sounds like a cliche, but when I was involved in using Word to create, edit, and collaborate on documents that were published in-house, the only problems that would surface were user-created, not application created. If best practices are followed, losing a document due to some supposed "instability" of the application should be a rare occurrence.

Not many people understand what best practices really are. They are a guideline that you follow, as best you can, every day. You can't enter the network, start opening documents, and start working on them if you're not organized and have a clear purpose. Always slow down, edit carefully, track changes, and save your work as a matter of habit whenever you are transitioning to something else.

If the phone rings, mentally remind yourself to hit the "save" icon. Know where that icon is, and habitually save.

If you begin with best practices, which is to start with a template that all users would adhere to, the application being used is almost not a factor. For a manual that would incorporate work from six or seven individual researchers and would have fold-out tables, charts, graphs, and images, there really was no issue in assembling the document into one Word document. In the editing process, the person charged with assembling the document would have to make the styles consistent across the board. That might mean eliminating some stray Arial font text or it might mean going through all of the endnotes to make certain they followed the correct format.

Once that editor had control of the document, it made publication easier. It made converting the document to a printed soft-cover book easier as well. Even pdf conversion was a quick and painless process.

So, yes. Word is fine. You can't have rogues out there, deviating from the template of the finished product. And you have to invest in the editing process. But work, it does, and it did in my experience.
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