WORDS ABOUT WORD

Big word Microsoft Word: I still use it, but it's no longer my go-to program for all things written anymore.

It used to be that Word was the last word in words.  That changed when the world's dominant publishing environment became an endless forest of glowing screens, found everywhere simultaneously. Instead of Word's proprietary formatting rules invisibly structuring language behind the scenes, minimally formatted text made lots more sense.

Or, said differently, minimally formatted text up front makes more sense when it's likely that millions of scriveners like myself will shortly mark-up their words with their own hypertext of some sort. Meta-textual hooks are a pain in the neck when the program holding those words already has an architecture underneath.

Let me simplify my frustration: I can't stand it when my word processor hijacks my tab settings. Someone out there knows why it gets screwed up, but it drives me crazy, and it takes me mentally out of what I'm doing. Using Word makes me an endless software manager, distracting me from being a writer.

What you're reading now I'm writing this in a program that I dismissed for more than a decade: Apple's TextEdit. It's strange. With almost no formatting information at all, my scribblings here cut and paste comfortably into the WordPress engine I'm using to power this site. Markup's a breeze, and because my blog posts are usually short, the tools are great for fast, easily navigable texts. It's simple, it launches quickly, and the files are small. What's not to like? Besides, the bloated behemoth that underpins the Office suite just rankles philosophically. As a child it was always fun to have infinite options, in the event that someday….SOMEDAY… I just MIGHT want to do some obscure mail merge with an integrated Excel spreadsheet. But seriously? I think I've used about ten percent of the Office tools available, and I'm not likely to sink the precious time to learn tools that have precisely zero percent chance of ever being needed. That bloat don't float!

But I'm being honest here. I must admit that I…do…still…use…Word. I must. for longer pieces, or carefully laid-out, artfully designed document formatting I still find it indispensable. Finding text strings across big documents is simply easier; major formatting tools are profoundly more powerful; organization tools do what I need them to do. (Yes, I'm actively messing around with Apple's Pages, but it's not quite in the fingers yet…) Word is also still the keeper of an all important network-effect, that because it's the standard program in the world, it remains as such. But that hold on everyone's phalanges is beginning to weaken.

But these days, when I use Word I have to know that I'm "going in", that I'll be in Microsoft-land for a while. Imposed formats change the ways we interact with our ideas. Tools shape art. When I have to move a mountain, I drive a bulldozer. But I've been playing more and more with minimal approaches to what I always assumed would be imperturbably solutions for daily tasks. My bulldozer gathers more dust these days. Lately my words just want to be free, and keeping the Microsoft keys on the counter has been a revelation. These days I move mountains more often simply by asking them to move. Such is the power of words set free.

Word.

--MS

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OTHER TOOLS

Tool box I love walking into good kitchen and cooking stores. I always discover a beautiful looking stainless steel gizmo for delicately coring the stems from tomatoes, or a clever wooden box with slats designed to catch breadcrumbs. I always look, I always turn devices like this over in my hands, and I always put it back on the shelf. Inevitably I wander over to the knives. The better stores have endless rows of knives. The thin, strangely curved grapefruit knives; the long, pointy fish filleting knives; the cleavers. These all strike me, however, as museum pieces. The real measure of a knife set depends on the heft and balance of the chef's knife, and the paring knife. The rest? Nice, but not essential, just like the missing verb in this sentence.

Naturally, I already have a terrific chef's knife. My little paring knife––the one that came with the chef's knife as a wedding present many years ago––has a cracked handle, and I plan to replace it someday soon. But here's the reality: in concert with a sturdy cutting board and a few basic pots and pans and a reliable source of heat, I can make you whatever you like.

I love to cook. I love to cook all sorts of things, complex and simple, easy to pronounce and exotic and obscure. As I get older, however, I find that the tools I require to keep up with my expanding skills ironically narrows. You just don't need that much to do a great job.

Don't misunderstand. There are plenty of widgets and gizmos and specialty items that make life a whole lot simpler, or simply a lot of fun, or even in some circumstances absolutely essential to get the job done. But if you're honest with yourself, there aren't too many. It this is true of the moviemaking experience. Hollywood movies may utilize extraordinarily complex tools and techniques to deliver their goods, but plenty of stories, and indeed plenty of scenes inside even the largest Hollywood spectacles, hit the screen with minimal frippery. You need huge crews and vast special effect teams for some things, but I bet you recall the intimate dialogue scenes even more. Those were made with only a handful of people.

Now listen closely. Not for a second do I reject using state-of-the-art equipment when the opportunity avails itself. It's not only a pleasure to use a great tool, but a great tool can enable qualitative differences that lesser tools cannot. Why do you think Stradivarius violins are still so highly regarded? But at the same time, I often find myself looking for the leanest solutions to deliver the best results. Unless absolutely necessary, a deep toolkit can consume precious time, distract from the job at hand, and inhibit your best intentions. It's a tricky balance. Those who skimp on their tools inevitably suffer the consequences, and can never aspire to the full potential of their vision. Those who live for their tools are no longer living for their art.

Ah, Microsoft Word: I hardly knew ye. Once the dominant player, in fact the 800 pound gorilla of word processors, I find that good old Word no longer holds my attention. In the earliest of it's days, I assumed I'd need to learn all of it's cool and promised techniques for turning my words into professional looking documents. As the years went on, I accumulated certain skills in the program where necessary. But the thing that always held me in thrall when using Word… were the words I tried to string together on my blank screen, trying to say something, trying to reach an audience. Word didn't matter; words mattered.  And where the program tried to seduce me with its fancy formatting potentials, I've regularly chafed at the tedious distractions is imposed while I was trying to figure out a phrase.

I need it from time to time, but I find I need it less and less.

Of course give me the chance to shoot with a Red Epic camera and a knowledgable data wrangler and I'll gladly tell you how essential it is for my craft. I'll tell you with a serious straight face, and I'll be happy, happy, happy for it.

Tools matter. They just can't matter too much.

I'll have a little more specifically about Microsoft Word next week.

--MS

PS -- Does this make you smile? Make you think? Make you wish next Monday were one sunrise away from arrival? If so, you may be ready to become one of our loyal outreach team! How do you assume that lofty role? Tell your friends! Tell your colleagues. Share our link on your Twitter and Facebook page, and let people know where you turn every Monday morning for a blog of a different color. You were expecting horses?

 

 

 

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