Sunday, March 08, 2009

How do you think in Word?

Now's your opportunity to help me, especially if you mostly create text using a markup language but occasionally use a word processor.

First a disclaimer: I think it's likely we all learn, think, and work somewhat differently. The fact that I work one way doesn't mean I think you should necessarily work that way, too. Somewhere I recall reading that many people (especially technical people) tend to pick one main tool, master it, and arrange the rest of their work around that core. Today I'm asking how you work when you have to work outside of your core toolset.

Now some background: I've used word processors for quite a few years, starting with Speedscript, AppleWorks GS, and then Word 5 (or was it 4 or 5.1?). I've used many versions of Word up through 2007 at some level of intensity. A few years ago, I worked on a successful documentation project that involved on the order of 100 Word and Excel documents, some quite lengthy (I seem to recall one in the 700 page range).

At some point, I discovered markup languages. I started with nroff and later moved to LaTeX. After that Word project, I moved to DocBook and completed a follow-on project that garnered some nice praise for having gotten around some of the challenges of the first project while producing quite readable and professional-looking documentation. I currently use asciidoc, LaTeX, DocBook, and J Publish.

In all of this, I find it helpful to have great tools. I've built my toolbox around GNU Emacs, starting around version 18.24. For LaTeX, I use AUCTeX; for DocBook, I use nXML mode and eDE on Windows or any of several toolchains on Linux. antiword is handy for converting other people's Word documents into a form I can import into one of those tools, and I make use of revision control (currently bazaar) and makefiles to help with organization and productivity while reducing the chance for unfortunate mistakes. I've used cweb when writing about simulation models.

Despite my tendency to use markup languages, I do still use a word processor from time to time. write is my current preferred choice, because I find its approach to styles is robust and easy to use, because it stores files in an open format, and because I haven't lost an document yet.

I often think by writing. I am noticing that I find it easy to think when writing with a markup language, but I'm finding it much more challenging to think effectively when faced with the simultaneous content and layout creation tasks in a word processor. While I sympathize with much of this rant, I'm looking for solutions, not conversion, today.

The first question: if you, like me, work well in markup languages, how do you think when writing in Word? Are there tricks to the setup to make it easier? For example, I think there used to be an unformatted mode in which you basically just saw text. That sounds attractive, but I thought it had been deleted from Word. I spoke with a former journalist recently, and he noted that he often composed text in email and then pasted it into Word for formatting. What other ideas can you suggest?

The second question: how do you format the final document? I know the "right" answer: create and use styles and templates, yet I find that harder to do in Word than in or even than in systems such as LaTeX. Do you have any tips, especially for those situations in which you're working with documents that were created at least partially with direct formatting?

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Blogger Dale Emery said...

I think by interviewing myself about the topic.

Sometimes I use The Spiral Method, which is a kind of interviewing style.

08 March, 2009 17:37  
Blogger Bill Harris said...

Thanks, Dale. I like what you've written on the linked page. I'll have to test whether that addresses my block, which is more in line with the division of labor between content and presentation that gets blurred in a word processor (and, specifically, in Word).

08 March, 2009 18:22  
Blogger Dorai said...

I use two tools for thinking - drawing mind maps on paper and typing notes in a desktop wiki.

The mindmaps help me think at a higher level and not only jot down concepts and connections. I simply draw them in a notebook. Since I use this tool for taking notes while listening to talks and podcasts as well, it is a convenient tool.

When I need to publish this information, I just edit it using a concept mapping tool from ihmc (

I use a wiki to take notes. It has very simple formatting and does not get in the way. The nice thing about the wiki is that I can turn any phrase into a link and start on a new blank page. I use a desktop wiki (
I use it to keep my LearnLog, DailyLog and IdeaLog and ThinkLog. So I guess I do my thinking using two tools.

I am reading a book on "The back of the napkin" which introduces Visual Thinking with simple sketches. I am planning to explore that as well to see whether it makes my process of thinking better.

Constantly looking to improve. So this is a good topic though I would like the title to be "What are your thinking tools?"

Thanks for sharing and starting a discussion.


30 September, 2009 21:35  
Blogger Bill Harris said...

Dorai, that would be a good title in general, but I was asking for help with a specific problem: thinking when one's writing tool has to be Word.

When I have my choice, my tools include Emacs, Lotus Agenda, and Freemind,

01 October, 2009 19:49  

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