Word processors suck. Anyone who has prepared a manuscript for publication will tell you that. I’m also fairly certain that Microsoft is the reason word processors suck. It is because of Microsoft that we are stuck with the “.doc” standard for word processor files, surely one of the worst file “standards” in the history of computers. Even though I knew there were other options out there, I did my thesis in MS Word because I thought that only MS Word would be up to the task of handling a large academic document, with the need to generate a table of contents, bibliography, etc. Boy was I wrong! Anyone who has ever worked on an academic manuscript will tell you that it is right when you need these features most that Word fails on you. You start getting strange formatting errors that are completely opaque and inexplicable. The text just seems to have a mind of its own. When you are trying to meet a deadline this can feel like someone moving your plate away every time you try to take a bite of your food.

I don’t think it was always this way. Word was a decent word processor some time in the distant past (around version 5 or 6). I remember even recommending that other academics use it over the competition (Word Perfect) because it was so much easier to use. But after finishing my thesis I swore off not just Word, but all Microsoft products. You know something is wrong when your flagship product creates deep seated antipathy in your users.

So, what are the alternatives? One is OpenOffice. This is a free, open source, copy of Word. It does a good job of replicating Word, but it seems to replicate all its problems and bloat, and hostility to the user as well. It is as if you chose to sleep in a prison cell because it was free. I used to have hope for OpenOffice, but after needing it for some serious work on a few occasions I think I have to swear that off as well.

Another option might be something called LaTeX, which is a very geeky tool used by people in the sciences to format their document. If you don’t mind looking at a little bit of code interspersed with your text this might be a reasonable alternative. But it is most definitely not WYSIWYG (“what you see is what you get”). If you were in the sciences and your editors all used LaTeX it still might be OK, but in the social sciences it is not. You still need to give your editors a .DOC or .RTF file in the end, and so at some point you have to convert from LaTeX to .DOC. LaTeX is optimized for producing PDF documents, which is not ideal for collaborative work in the social sciences.

On Mac OS X there is one application which shines above all others when it comes to Word Processing, and that is Mellel. Mellel is WYSIWYG, and it handles styling beautifully. Nothing is unexpected. Mellel also integrates beautifully with OS X bibliographic software like Bookends and Sente. It seems to be an academic’s dream. Except …. Except that it uses its own file format and at so at some point you still need to export to .DOC or .RTF, and the process, while good, is never 100% accurate. Problems get introduced and what you see in OpenOffice or Word is not what you saw in Mellel. When you are trying to format something for a book or journal anything less than 100% is just not acceptable. Like LaTeX, if all you had to give people was a PDF file, it would be great, but that’s not the case. So after writing two academic publications in Mellel, I’ve had enough.

For my next project I will give Nisus Writer Pro a try. It feels a lot like Mellel in many ways. Back in the days of OS 9 my friends swore by it, but I found it difficult to use. But the OS X version has been completely re-written from the ground up, and now uses .RTF as its native file format, which means that you shouldn’t have the problems one finds in LaTeX or Mellel. Integration with bibliographic software is far less slick than Mellel, and that’s disappointing, but it does work pretty well (I tested this last night with Sente). But already I’ve found one problem with Nisus: annotations made via the “notes” tool do not show up as “notes” in OpenOffice. This is also disappointing, but I can live with it for now.

The .RTF file format, used by Nisus is also the one being promoted by Apple as an alternative to .DOC. It is still a crappy format. I hope that there is some kind of a revolution in the future and the whole .RTF/.DOC tyranny is replaced with something better. (And no, .DOCX is not what I’m talking about.) Till then, maybe I’ll give Nisus Writer a try…