A step up from MS Word? Desktop publishing software?
December 21, 2010 7:04 PM   Subscribe

I've been fighting with a 60 page Word document that has become unbearable. Is it me? Is it Word? Do I need to be using different software in combination with Word?

Seven or so different people have worked on this document using different versions of Word (and maybe saving the file differently), there are tons of tables in it, there are some tables that were saved by someone as jpg and inserted, there are many, many different styles of headers and styles of bullets.

After fighting with this monstrosity for hours and being incredibly frustrated it seems like there must be a better way. For example, I'll have all the page breaks set up where I want them then someone will edit the document yet again and the page breaks will get all screwed up again. I know - I probably shouldn't worry about page breaks until the end but there is a certain amount of formatting I would like to get straight as I go.

I'm wondering if I just need to learn how to use Word better (I've been using the program for maybe a decade now so I thought I was fairly proficient) or if I should graduate to a desktop publishing software for the formatting part. If it matters at all, the document in my example ultimately was converted into a pdf (because it had to be uploaded that way as part of a grant application). I have Adobe Acrobat Pro if that helps.

When do you use Word and when do you use desktop publishing software? What software do you use? Is there a free or low cost option? Do I just need to suck it up and learn all of Words' bizarre intricacies?
posted by fieldtrip to Computers & Internet (30 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Word isn't really meant to be used collaboratively. It sounds like you and other people are editing the same document? Why not have each person edit his own portion of whatever you are trying to do and then copy and paste all the contributions into a coherent whole.
posted by dfriedman at 7:19 PM on December 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

you did not mention what platform you are working in ... i'm on mac os x and i drag all my word docs into TextEdit.
posted by Rube R. Nekker at 7:20 PM on December 21, 2010

Sounds like in an ideal world, LaTeX would be perfect, perhaps combined with versioning system like SVN. But both of those have serious learning curves. It's what publishers would use though.

Sounds like the "behind-the-scenes" code in your Word doc is taking over with all the conversions, reconversions, etc.

How about going through, cutting all the text and pasting-special as plain text, then redoing the formatting? Daunting task, but it's really the only option if EVERYONE is formatting as he goes, and everyone is doing it differently.
posted by supercres at 7:23 PM on December 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

It sounds as if your biggest problem is having a bunch of people editing the document poorly. You should improve your workflow before your software.

Why are other people working on this after you struggle through formatting changes? Are they adding new material, as in a group assignment? Are they reviewing and adding formal revisions to a document where you are the primary author? Are they using the Track Changes features in Word or just highlighting and adding strikethroughs as they please?

If people own discrete parts of the document, they should develop those independently and let you stitch together the final document using consistent styles and page breaks. ("Clear All Styles" is your friend.) If they are reviewing and editing the whole document, they should learn how to turn on and use tracked changes. If they can't do that, have them keep a second document with change notes. I'm getting feedback on a PowerPoint storyboard right now with a change log in Excel. It's usually pretty clear, and where it isn't, I just ask people to verify what they want.

Whatever you do, please don't let a bunch of people performs SIMULTANEOUS edits on several copies of the same document. You will never, ever make a cohesive document out of that. Let one person make changes; integrate those changes into a new version of the document; send the merged document to the next person; etc.

Most people would agree that large documents are handled better with software like Adobe FrameMaker, but it's not cheap and there is a learning curve. Your co-authors will need FM as well, and I suspect they could inflict even more damage than they do with Word.
posted by maudlin at 7:27 PM on December 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: "Word isn't really meant to be used collaboratively."
Seriously? This is news to me. Everywhere I've ever worked has used Word collaboratively - shooting the same document around by email or working with the same doc on the shared drive. Many folks screwing around with the same doc anyways. It isn't always something where everyone has their own section (often times it is, though). Sometimes, many folks are working on the same section.
If it helps - we use PCs, MS Office Suite, technology isn't really our strong point and we are a rather trim nonprofit (not much cash for software, though sometimes we can get great deals through TechSoup - though there might be a minimum of licenses).
Please feel free to assume that I'm really ignorant about this stuff - you would be right on. Assume I've only ever used MS Office products.
posted by fieldtrip at 7:31 PM on December 21, 2010

Wait, what about Google Docs? You're all essentially working on the same copy, and even simultaneous editing is fine. If it's powerful enough (ie, feature-wise) it really sounds like the best combination of collaborative neatness and shallow learning curve. Naturally, the first port from Word to Google Doc will be messy and take time to clean up.
posted by supercres at 7:32 PM on December 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

"I've been fighting with a 60 page Word document that has become unbearable."

I feel your pain!

"I just need to learn how to use Word better"

Yes. I've found that there are features in Word to prevent all the problems you describe.

Here are some key features to look up and learn:
- Master documents and sub documents
- Outlining
- Sections
- Styles

Here are three books I've found very helpful for learning to use Word 2007 better:
- New Perspectives on Microsoft Office Word 2007, Comprehensive
- 2007 Microsoft Office System Inside Out
- Advanced Microsoft Office Documents 2007 Edition Inside Out

A lot of people may pop in to suggest that you use LaTeX instead. When I first learned of LaTeX I was initially enthused, but I'd have to get my whole team to switch and I've since found that it's very difficult to get people to give up their familiar Microsoft Office products and learn something completely unfamiliar.
posted by Jacqueline at 7:33 PM on December 21, 2010 [4 favorites]

Seconding doublehappy. I work in regulatory affairs, and we have large Word documents that many people make edits to. We've had to train people to use styles, and the captioning function to insert tables and figures. This is not complicated, and makes versioning of documents much easier.

As a tip for your current situation: do not use page breaks to keep lines or paragraphs together. Expanding your paragraph ribbon gives you the option of 'keeping lines together' or 'keep with next'. Using these functions will preserve your formatting - page/ section breaks and hard returns are unnecessarily cumbersome and will only make your life miserable. Please feel free to MeMail me if you need any more help! :)
posted by Everydayville at 7:34 PM on December 21, 2010

Response by poster: doublehappy: thanks for the advice on styles. I've heard of styles but have ignored them. I'll look into it. We do use track changes. I hated it at first but I'm coming around to it. As far as version control goes we put dates and initials in filenames...is this what you mean or am I missing your point there?

Thanks everyone!
posted by fieldtrip at 7:34 PM on December 21, 2010

"Wait, what about Google Docs?"

IMO Google Docs has nowhere near Word's capabilities for desktop publishing.

OP might be able to use it for his/her group to collaboratively work on the text, but then in the end OP should port it back into Word for the final formatting and layout. Whether this is practical for this particular project depends on how far along they are on it.
posted by Jacqueline at 7:37 PM on December 21, 2010

Barring that, you really should resist the urge to format as you go. If you need to force yourself somehow, do everything in Notepad, and insert comments like "[put table 2 here]" or "[page break here]". Once you get all the content in and do the major edits, someone can port it into Word, add the formatting (yes, please use styles!), then send it around for a final review.
posted by supercres at 7:38 PM on December 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Sixty pages isn't big, even with lots of figures and tables. I've written documents three times that big in MS Word 2000-2003 with figures or tables on every other page. Two things I've found that help a lot with big Word files:

1. Be careful when pasting figures, tables, etc. into your document, especially from other Office programs. For example, if you paste a figure from Excel, much more than the figure gets inserted; the data behind it gets inserted too. You can see this if you double-click on the figure in your document -- it'll open up a mini Excel inside your Word document where you can edit the figure and even the table data on which it's based. This will make your document HUGE and will bog down your computer. Therefore, when pasting into your document, you usually want to do Edit - Paste Special; paste as Enhanced Metafile for figures from Excel, Text for tables from Excel, Bitmap for slides from Powerpoint, etc.

2. Use styles for formatting almost exclusively. You can create your own or use and customize the built-in ones. Also, paragraph formatting (as part of a style or not) is your friend. For example, instead of adding a page break, format your paragraph with the "Page break before" option -- it works better than hard page breaks (Ctrl-Enter). Make use of "Keep lines together" and "Keep with next" to make sure stuff that you want to stay together does so.

If you have one person who is smarter on Word than the others, have everyone insert their stuff with the bare minimum of formatting, and the smart person will make everything look nice at the end. This way you won't waste your time formatting things that will get overwritten anyway.

Good luck!
posted by Simon Barclay at 7:40 PM on December 21, 2010

Oh, and in case you don't know about them, you should research Captions, Cross references and Sections.
posted by Simon Barclay at 7:44 PM on December 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

"I've been using the program for maybe a decade now so I thought I was fairly proficient."


"I've heard of styles but have ignored them."

I mean this in the nicest possible, tough-love, telling-you-what-you-need-to-hear kind of way:

If you do not know how to use styles, then you are NOWHERE NEAR "fairly proficient" in Word. Styles is just the very BEGINNING of learning how to use Word efficiently for large, collaborative documents.

If you get those books I recommended and study them, and teach the essentials to the rest of your team (or learn how to set up your master documents so your coworkers can't fuck them up), not only will you probably cut the amount of time you spend on desktop publishing tasks in half but one day you will look back on the fact that you once thought yourself "fairly proficient" in Word without knowing these things and laugh at your adorable naivety.

There is a whole world of amazing, headache-reducing, productivity-improving Word features out there for you to learn. Start getting excited!
posted by Jacqueline at 7:44 PM on December 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

1) Stay with Word for now.

2) Develop a basic document control process for your organization. It can be as simple as saying that:

* Aaron is the primary owner of ImportantDocumentX, and that all people who want to make changes should send them to Aaron rather than editing the document themselves.
* If Aaron is not available to make changes, the designated back-up author (Betty) will make the changes.
* When changes are made , a new copy of the file is saved first with date and author info attached (e.g. ImportantDocumentX_2010Dec20-Aaron or ImportantDocument_2010Dec21-Betty).
* When older versions get unwieldy, zip and archive them, or, if you're absolutely sure, delete them.

If everyone in your office becomes more competent with Word, you may not need to assign ownership of documents just to the most adept, but you will need some kind of check in/check out process so that people don't somehow manage simultaneous edits to their own copies of the documents and put them back on the shared drive. If both Aaron and Betty have versions dated today, they may have some serious discrepancies in content as well as formatting.

On preview: you're already using initials and dates in filenames, so that's great.

Those resources listed above are good, but if you think you may learn better from videos, lynda.com is great. Here's the courses they have on Word 2010, but they cover a lot of earlier versions, too.
posted by maudlin at 7:44 PM on December 21, 2010

Response by poster: Shoot. I was hoping for a silver bullet but it sounds like I need to become a pro at Word. I'll be spending a lot of time with this thread researching the key terms in your answers. Please continue to give me more suggestions of terms, tools and tricks for me to become familiar with...also, please keep suggesting resources for me to learn more. [again, thank you all so much!]
posted by fieldtrip at 7:46 PM on December 21, 2010

"...you should research Captions, Cross references and Sections."

Yes, this. I should have included captions and cross references on my own list of key features that you should look up right away.
posted by Jacqueline at 7:46 PM on December 21, 2010

I've always thought a private wiki is great for this, the way you can page through previous iterations of each section just always seemed more intuitive than 'track changes', (and those red lines and bubbles and squiggles all over the pages drive me insane) and you can always drop the whole thing into word for final formatting. There's lots of free private wiki hosting sites if you can't have someone set up pmwiki on a server for you.
posted by yeahyeahyeahwhoo at 7:49 PM on December 21, 2010

"Word isn't really meant to be used collaboratively."

From what I've heard/read, Office 2010 adds a ton of new collaboration capabilities including simultaneous editing of a document file, but I haven't had a chance to try it myself yet. My organization is not big on the early adopting. :(
posted by Jacqueline at 7:49 PM on December 21, 2010

I haven't used Word in years, but I worked someplace where we supported Word users and, way back when people were wondering whether they should upgrade to Word 97, I used it to lay out novel-length texts.

When people say "Word can do this" or "Word cannot do that", it's important to distinguish between the two kinds of people who use Word. Those who have learned all the styles and macros and collaborative features can indeed maintain consistent formatting through seven-way simultaneous revisions. Those who haven't, can't. You and your group sound like the second type.

There are two ways out, if you don't want to keep struggling along like this. One is to learn and use the advanced features, which will be difficult, time-consuming, and probably produce a lot of resistance from your collaborators. Another is to switch to something like ReST (very easy, very unfamiliar, not terribly powerful) or LaTeX (not terribly easy, very unfamiliar, very powerful), which will be worse.

What do your collaborators think about this? If they're similarly disgruntled, the time may be right to implement some changes. If they're not, you may just be left to suffer alone. Unfortunately, as long as you keep accepting revisions from other people, you won't be able to get your workflow any better than the worst your collaborators will tolerate.
posted by d. z. wang at 7:58 PM on December 21, 2010

I work as a legal secretary, and we use Word, even if we're creating offering circulars for publication. We have different templates for different types of legal documents, and each template has built-in styles. I try to impress upon my attorneys the importance of sticking to the styles specific to the document, but someone always insists on screwing around and adding their own special little flourish, or pasting text in from a document with different styles. When this is done over and over again, the document often implodes.

I'm not sure if you're in a position to do this, but in my opinion the most important thing to impress upon your coworkers is the importance of pasting in copy as unformatted text. If they're anything like the people I work with, they're not going to learn styles, although you should take it upon yourself to do so. The downside is that you'll be the one responsible for the final formatting, but at least you'll be working with a clean slate.
posted by Evangeline at 8:12 PM on December 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Hello fieldtrip!! I work in Word every day. A 100 page specification (with figures, captions, annotations, tables) is pretty run of the mill. Other than echoing others' suggestions of using styles, I'd like to pick up on "I'll have all the page breaks set up":

The majority of the time there shouldn't be a need to insert page breaks manually. You can set certain heading styles to always have a page break before, while (perhaps most usefully) set headings / paragraphs to "keep with next". This should really reduce the need for manual insertion.
posted by NailsTheCat at 9:16 PM on December 21, 2010 [5 favorites]

What may work best for this particular document is to put everything into a basic text editor for now (for tables and graphics just write "INSERT TABLE #xxx HERE", work from that, then at the end you paste all that plain text into a new Word doc and format from there.
posted by radioamy at 9:42 PM on December 21, 2010

Everyone kind of nailed this, some suggestions:

1) STYLES learn about them and use them.
2) Stop putting in page breaks, wait until the document is finished.
3) Sections, use them.
4) Convert the jpg tables to either Word tables OR Excel (if they are more spreadsheet type). If you use Excel you can import the table into word easily.
5) Make sure everyone who is saving the document saves it to the same version. People can have different versions, you all need to save it to the lowest version people are using.
6) Don't use tabs for indenting, use STYLES.

I have worked with some messy Word documents. If people just used styles consistently, most of the formatting problems would never happen. A lot of people still use word processors like a typewriter, even people who never used a typewriter.
posted by wandering_not_lost at 9:56 PM on December 21, 2010

Hi fieldtrip!

I work as a legal secretary too, and you've just described an average day for me.

What has helped me the most with the folks I work with, aside from learning Styles and exercising good Track Changes diligence, is this Very Important Tip:


Yes, I know. Take a deep breath, let it go. It is VITAL that you edit a collaborative document in this order:

1) content
2) syntax
3) format

This may seem irrevocably screwed up to the pedants amongst us, but trust me, when you're dealing with an executive staff who don't know their Garamond from their grocer's commas, you need to make them focus on getting the content nailed down. Once it's in order, THEN you go make it look pretty.
posted by lonefrontranger at 10:30 PM on December 21, 2010 [7 favorites]

I am not at the Styles level, but here are my tips for when I have to use Word for complicated documents:

Save all figures as PNGs. Word plays nicer with them.

I have found that writing the text and composing captions for text boxes in separate documents can simplify the process. I agree with those that content should be perfect before formatting.

I add the figures, text boxes, and tables while zoomed way out to the page level. This results in a more responsive application, since it's not constantly redrawing at high resolution.
posted by Jorus at 5:39 AM on December 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

also, if you are using styles, when you copy and paste, always copy and paste without formatting.... i do it so often, that i created a macro and button to do it instantly...
posted by fozzie33 at 7:05 AM on December 22, 2010

I'll second the reccomendation to go with styles, styles, styles.

It's my experience that "track changes" gets really crusty and slow after a while. It's helpful to have checkpoints where you accept/reject all the changes and start over again with tracking.

You go to desktop publishing as the very last step. Don't worry about page breaks before then because it will change.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:14 AM on December 22, 2010

IMO Google Docs has nowhere near Word's capabilities for desktop publishing.

Right, but the problem isn't with publishing, it's with content creation (as lonefrontranger and the last few comments have pointed out).

Word 2010 allows you to set an option to have Word paste without formatting by default, which makes me a very happy camper. Go switch all your coworkers' settings right now.
posted by Casuistry at 10:28 AM on December 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

Quoted For Truth (quoted for emphasis, but QFT is what the cool kids say)

If it's a terrible mess, like parts of the doc are nearly unreachable, open a new Word doc, and a new Notepad doc. Page by page, Copy and Paste all text into notepad to remove formatting, then into new doc. Or, option to have Word paste without formatting by default, Ohhhhh, yesssss, this is goooood.

In my experience, Word gets cranky with too many images. Put in placeholders, insert images last. I hadn't heard that Word prefers .pngs, but it's worth trying. Somebody who gives you an image of a table and not the table should re-type it, but this might not be enforceable.

Tables. I recently worked on a large Word doc whose originator had unknowingly pasted tables within tables, and it was very untidy, and Word was kind of puking on parts of the doc. Start at the top of the doc, and look for tables, breaks, and other formatting. Save as you go. Show the ruler, and watch for weirdness.
posted by theora55 at 6:16 PM on December 22, 2010

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