Microsoft Word: 5 misuses and 7 alternatives

If you work on a Windows PC your life most likely revolves around Microsoft Word. It does not need to be so on a Mac. I still need MS Word to exchange files with Windows-based colleagues and also because it has some important features not available in any other software (for example the ability to automatically manage captions and cross-references and some important features for working with tables). Yet, I often observe how MS Word is misused to do simple tasks less efficiently than could be done with other Mac apps. Here are the five most frequent instances when MS Word can easily be replaced to make academic work better, faster and more pleasant.

  1. Note-taking. Plain text is far superior for making notes faster to take, easier to find, and more universally available (e.g. on iPhone). Macademic explains how to take notes using such apps as NValt, Notational Velocity and Simplenote.
  2. Early stages of academic writing. Going through the first two drafts of an academic paper you need focus and ability to structure your thinking. You don’t need formatting or other wordprocessing distractions. At these early stages of writing I outline with OmniOutliner and write with Byword. For manuscripts longer than 2,000 words I also use Scrivener. Check Macademic posts on writing techniques, habits and software.
  3. Preparing short documents. If you want your text to look professional, snappy and elegant use Pages for final formatting. An ancient philosopher said ‘The difference between Pages and Word in Pages it is very diffivult to make a document look ugly whereas in MS Word it is very difficult to make a document look pretty.’ So most of my memos, briefings, case-studies, and reports are written in Byword and then transferred to Pages for final formatting.  Of course you should not email Pages files – convert them to PDFs. MacSparky explains how to make PDFs with a lighting-fast ⌘-P-P keyboard shortcut. Check also Macademic entry on sending files by email.
  4. Exchanging textual information. I often receive emails starting as follows: “Please find enclosed my inputs/thoughts/an interesting idea”. Attached are MS Word documents with 2–3 paragraphs of unformatted text. Sending MS Word attachments is not a good idea. The best alternative is again plain text inserted at the end of your email.
  5. Disseminating and storing reference documents. Another type of emails I receive start like this: “Please find attached my recent paper on XXX for your files”. Once again, the attachment is a “.doc(x)” file. I find it frustrating. What if I do not have this version of Word or a particular font or something else prevents my computer from displaying the file properly? What if I want to import the file in a pdf-management software such as Papers? What if in 10-years time MS Word won’t be used any longer? For circulating and storing final papers and documents it is always best to use the open document-exchange PDF format maintained by the International Organization for Standardization. Even if your document was prepared in Word converting it to PDF can be done in seconds.

In summary, while it is too early to phase Microsoft Word out of academic workflows (I will write about its necessary uses), it can clearly be substituted in a variety of situations to result in faster and more effective work.

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About Aleh Cherp

Aleh Cherp is a professor at Central European University and Lund University. He also coordinates MESPOM, a Masters course operated by six Universities.
This entry was posted in Workflows, Writing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Microsoft Word: 5 misuses and 7 alternatives

  1. I couldn’t agree more with you. Not only have I tried to avoid MS word since I changed to Mac, but I even feel more creative or inspired to write. Writing in Byword or even in simple text lets one concentrate on the writing. I don’t know if it’s just me, but MS Word appears to have been changing for the worse, or at least in functionality and the counterintuitive menus. And if you want to continue to throw things at MS Word, the current flashback trojan takes advantage of an exploit in it to spread. This should clearly be a message to stop sending files in MS Word unless strictly necessary.

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  2. Aleh Cherp says:

    Thank you. I actually think the latest version of Word for Mac (2011) is reasonable: it is more stable and more “to the point”. I also think there are some unavoidable uses of MS Word (I am planning to write about them and would be curious what you think) in academic workflows. However, it is certainly not the best software for these five uses I tried to outline in this post.

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  3. The one thing that keeps in in Word is the spellcheck that is available in all languages that I occasionally use. I write in Byword (or Scrivener that actually has English spellcheck built-in), but before distributing I have to run it through Word anyway just to spot typos.

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  4. Isaac says:

    As a person who uses languages that require diacritics to accurately depict in Roman script (e.g., Sanskrit and Tamil), Word’s spellchecker doesn’t work well at all. The free, open-source Aspell (http://aspell.net/) is, however, excellent.

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  5. Pingback: Microsoft Word: 5 misuses and 7 alternatives | Plaque Imaging

  6. Amanda Chapman says:

    I think this advice is generally spot on but for my work grading student papers I use the review function in Word so Pages doc.s are a real hassle and pdf’s are useless.

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    • Aleh Cherp says:

      The Review function is Word is indeed better than in other wordprocessors. I recently started grading using GradeMark developed by Turnitin and it’s a great system. (The University I work in uses Turnitin integrated with Moodle).

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      • My university is pretty haphazard at this stage and I have to just go along with the system used by the professor I am working with, but GradeMark does look good. Thank you for your blog.

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  9. A. Gautier says:

    “I still need MS Word (…) because it has some important features not available in any other software (for example the ability to automatically manage captions and cross-references). ”

    Quite wrong ! The first that comes to mind is LaTeX that is plain text (future-proof) and will do what you mention event for large documents where Word chokes. Plus, it is *very* hard to produce bad-looking LaTeX documents…

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  13. Hasan says:

    Thank you for the clear comparison and the objective opinion, I believe that Microsoft word is better than LaTEX when it comes to writing simple documents with graphics. And when writing technical documents such software and IT documentation. I think LaTEX is better for research houses and mathematical documents. Anyway I did an analysis about LaTEX and Microsoft Word for IT organization please have a look on it :

    http://www.jaftalks.com/wp/index.php/latex-or-microsoft-word-in-it-organization/

    I will be waiting for your opinion, kindly post your agreement in the comment.
    Thank you

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  14. Pingback: When Microsoft Word is best for the job | Academic workflows on Mac

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