Writing Tools You’ll Like Far Better Than Microsoft Word

Writing Tools You’ll Like Far Better Than Microsoft Word

GIVEAWAY: Will is generously giving away a Kindle copy of his latest ebook, , to the person who leaves his favourite comment. Bonus points if you make him laugh! Comment within one week to enter. Good luck! (Update: Martina won!)

Many writers struggle with MSW addiction. They tell themselves they’re not addicted. They tell themselves they need MSW. They tell themselves they can quit whenever they want.

But they can’t. No matter how much they hate it, no matter how much they wish they could stop, no matter how much it affects their professional and personal lives, they keep using MSW.

I, for one, will no longer enable the use of Microsoft Word.

I know all the excuses.

“I’ve been using it forever.”

“I have to use it. It‘s the only way to get my work done.”

“I just need it for one more project. After that, I quit.”

Does any of these excuses sound familiar? Well, I’m here to tell you there’s a way out.

No more fighting with frustrating and convoluted menu systems. No more deciphering mysterious formatting and layout quirks. No more emailing Word files to your friends and colleagues with your fingers crossed, hoping your document appears correctly.

Word processing beyond Word

To start, you might try another, better word processor. Apple’s and are the heavy hitters and is a long-time writer favorite. There are also new entrants, such as , who hope to modernize word processing. Each of these programs is superior to Word, but you can go even further.

Be bold: quit word processing altogether. Or at the very least, quit using word processors for composition.

You see, word processors, especially ones like Microsoft Word, aren’t actually good tools for composition.

The act of composing is about ordering and structuring thoughts. It’s not about setting your margins or choosing fonts or italicizing phrases. But word processors are notoriously bad at letting you just compose.

MS Word Just Say No

Word processors conflate composition with typesetting. Making stylistic decisions about your work is a separate mental process from penning your thoughts. When writing software forces you to deal with presentational elements, it only distracts from composition. Even if you try to ignore the stylistic decisions, Word will be typesetting your text anyway. And you’re still stuck looking at a bloated interface built for formatting, not composing.

So during your composition process, skip the apps that want you to make stylistic decisions. Instead, use a plain text editor.

Editing in plain text

Plain text editors let you compose in plain, unformatted text. Notepad for Windows and TextEdit for Mac OS X are the standards, but they’re nothing compared to more robust editors. There are fantastic plain text apps that provide a heavenly writing environment, especially compared to the hell of Microsoft Word.

Here are a few options to get you started:

  • and are beloved by Mac users. They also have iOS counterparts, so you can use them on your iPhone and iPad.
  • and are Windows-only options. They’ve been around for years and have been battle-tested by many a writer.
  • and are both cross-platform editors, meaning they work on both PCs and Macs. If you use multiple machines with different operating systems, these programs are a great way to maintain a similar writing environment on each device.

Try composing in several different programs to help you get a feel for which one you prefer. I guarantee they’ll all be a more pleasant experience than your word processor. And if you absolutely have to, you can always turn to a word processor later in your workflow, when you need to format or print a document. (Although, I suspect that if most of your writing is intended for the web, you’ll have little use for it at all.)

Remember, friends don’t let friends use Microsoft Word. (Like this idea? )

How do you feel about Microsoft Word? Do you have a favorite program for composition?

Don’t forget to comment so you’re in the running for Will’s ebook giveaway! You could win a free Kindle copy of his latest ebook, . (Update: Martina won!)

Filed Under: Craft

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183 comments

  • Alouise says:

    I admit I use Microsoft on my Mac, mostly because it’s what I have and what I’m used to working with. Way back in the day I used to write on Corel’s word processor (apparently Corel still exists..never knew), but it’s not a plain text editor. In University I started using Google docs, because it’s a great way to do collaborative writing/editing for projects. I know Microsoft is trying to do the same thing with Word and Skydrive, but I have found it’s too buggy and doesn’t work well. This is also why I refuse to buy the Microsoft Surface Tablet, because while it looks like a great as laptop/tablet it uses the new version of Word, which I hate (and also apparently the only browser you can use is Internet Explorer, what’s up with that?).

    If anyone is looking for a plain text editor for coding (html, css, etc) I recommend Notepad++ for Windows or TextWrangler for Mac. Definitely don’t write code in Microsoft Word and plan for it to work, because it doesn’t. The quotation and apostrophe marks are always off, meaning you have to edit any code that includes those punctuation marks.

    Aside from Google Docs and Evernote I’d never heard of these word processors. I might have to check some of them out.

  • Debra Eve says:

    Excellent research and analysis, but I won’t be making the switch. Word is just a tool. For some it’s bloated, for others (like me) it’s a pocketknife with tons of gadgets. I write in Web layout or draft view, which drop the formatting (I prefer Web). I also published a Kindle book with images using a Word file converted to HTML. It came out perfectly.

    Writing on my smartphone would be impossible with it, however, so I am intrigued by those options!

  • Rick Yentzer says:

    I’ve never liked Word. It was only one up from a hammer and chisel. I’ve tried several apps for writing and I’ve stuck with [Nisus Writer Pro]() for academic papers and [BBEdit]() for writing in markdown.

    I used BBEdit for years as an code editor but it is great for both plain text and markdown. As you stated it allows me to focus more on the content and less on the look.

  • Rick Carter says:

    I wrote my first book by hand and many many articles likewise. going back into the early 60’s. I was excited when I found a replacement for my Selectric typewriter! I worked with apple and then ms and settled with word perfect .. stayed there even to now but I don’t like it … starting or changing ideas and noting selections is a huge pain and slows me down.

    I am only now looking at alternatives which may have been way too late since they’ve been around it appears for awhile! Well, I appreciate this post a lot and thanks! Rick =)

  • Jonathan says:

    I use word and I’ve never ever thought of these restrictions the article is professing. I think some programs work better than others. You want to write freely? How about picking up a pen? I don’t think writers should be saying that something is better than something else because we all have our preference. I understand if Pages or some of these other programs work better for you but everything isn’t for everyone. If you’re proficient with Word it can do everything you need it do. Change the margins takes like five seconds. I don’t get this.

    • It’s not that Word doesn’t have the features, it’s the fact that it’s simply so bloated and clunky that it takes forever to load, it freezes up, it suddenly closes, and when you try to get out the program, it refuses to shut down. I don’t have any of those problems with Scrivener, Pages, or OfficeLibre. If Microsoft wants to really capture the Mac audience they have to make a version that doesn’t have any of these problems. And lower the price point. Pages is $19.99 and it does everything Word does. And Scrivener, the best organizational program for writers, which does just as much as Word (or more) is $45.

    • Will Moyer says:

      Jonathan,

      This article didn’t present the full case against Word, just a piece of it. Here’s a more detailed explanation of why Word is particularly bad:

  • Nick says:

    I thought MS Word would lose some of its juice when a lot of the pc manufacturers stopped including it for free… I switched to Apple about 7 years ago and will never go back… love iA Writer but still end up in Pages or MSWord for MAC because that’s where the editors seem to be… Hoping that changes soon.

  • Chizoba Adimba says:

    I have been using word since i know how to use a computer and i have found it quite helpful, i think people have a right to make their choice. Are we bordered about the monopoly of Microsoft or what? If they are not there other monopolies will arise. Methinks that we should let many flowers bloom. I have also been using evernote and a little of google docs but i will still be using MSW for a very long time.

  • May I just say I hate word and Internet Explorer! I’m a community college instructor who is “required” to use MS. because out platform doesn’t like other processors. IE9 is incompatible with the platform in many respects, so we’ve been told to use other processors. I have several downloaded and switch between them. I hate MSWord and IE9 because I download dozens of documents a week, and about five documents a week get “lost”–always after I have spent up to thirty minutes responding to the documents. Then I have to use the “find” option and hope I can recover the lost file–just yesterday I lost work (on a downloaded document) that I’d spent several hours responding to. I had been periodically saving the document (once again forgetting that MSWord loses the downloaded documents). I definitely am ready to try something new. As of summer semester, we are ditching the student platform based on archaic MS code, and I can change to anything but MSWord. I’m going to try the programs suggested. Also, my next computer will definitely be a MAC.

  • Will Moyer says:

    Just wanted to thank you all for commenting and let everyone know that Martina (http://ilblogdellorco.info/microsoft-word-just-say-no/#comment-5420) won the free copy of my book.

    It’s hard to beat a haiku about text editors. Nice one, Martina. 🙂

    Thanks again to everyone for their comments!

    • JonthueM says:

      I am starting to get tired of paying for word 360 and even powerpoint, any is there other good software besides Scrivener? can ppt be replace?

      • Will Moyer says:

        The applications suggested above — in the article text — are all good replacements for Word.

        I’d replace Powerpoint with either Apple’s Keynote or Google Doc Presentations. Good luck!

  • Shelby says:

    My computer doesnt even have MSW xD I have to use Limbre Office, or, now that I downloaded Scrivener for NaNoWriMo, I use that. I get 50% off on it tomorrow. I will never abandon my Scrivener. I love it.

    The school I work at makes the kids write everything in MSW, though, so anything I want to send from my personal computer to put on my school account, I have to copy and paste into an email and edit it to look right on MSW. =P

  • Laura says:

    I use a program called WriteItNow. I really don’t know how it compares to other creativity/organizing programs like Scrievner or Pages, but for me this has been a great program especially for large projects or novels.

    If I’m blocked I can spend some time on character details or location descriptions OR I can even get random prompts to help jump start my day’s work. Someone said it well, Word is for work where everyone has Microsoft Office and writes memos and business letters.

    Great discussion!

  • Scott says:

    I use Vim for text composition and editing. It’s a hardcore programmer’s editor. The user interface has modes for text entry (insert mode) and editing (normal mode). Commands to the editor are touch typed. Once you learn it, it is fast and indispensable, but the learning curve is steep. I can’t live without it.

  • Bruno says:

    Microsoft is known for their bloated softwares. I simply use pages for EVERYTHING I need. Not only does it do,the job, but it does the job very well. Personally, I no longer need Microsoft office for anything do. I didn’t know pages very well before I bought my iPad Air but I was really happy when I found that that it works so well for me. Microsoft risks being irrelevant in the next few years that is why they have so radically changed. PC makes with rare exceptions ship junk after junk in hither market. I bought a horrible dell machine and I had the chance my hard drive within the fist week, really crappy crappy computer. I am buying a Mac as soon as they are available I mean the new models unless Apple launches a bigger ipad with keyboard then I will go for it.

  • Stephen says:

    I’ve never understood Microsoft haters. They are as puzzling to me as strawberry haters and people who find mayonnaise disgusting. What’s to dislike??? So many commenters talked about “bloat.” Do you actually feel or experience the bloat somehow? For me, whatever it is you’re calling “bloat” is totally hidden somewhere on my hard drive.

    I tried Google Docs, and several years ago, OpenOffice. If that’s the wave of the future, I’ll pass. And you’re telling me people out there write with their cell phone? Write with one of those dinky tablets with no keyboard? Well. I guess we’ll never see another “War and Peace.”

    But, set all that aside. Here is the real puzzler for me. If you give up Microsoft, you also give up OneNote, the most amazing piece of software for a writer ever invented. Nothing else exists that even remotely compares to the interoperability of Internet Explorer and OneNote for gathering research and creating a rough draft, all synced with and saved by OneDrive in the Cloud to be exported instantly to Word for re-writes, editing, and publishing to the Web.

    If it digitally exists, it can be collected and organized with OneNote. No webpage, PDF, photo, audio track, video, or ebook will ever disappear ever again. Every thought you write, every great quote found, every photo or chart discovered, every crib, every element needed for your project, once stored in OneNote can be easily retrieved and organized into your rough draft. It is the greatest rough draft (or zero draft) creating machine that exists. Then, click, click, click, click — and it becomes a Word document in folding outline form ready for edited.

    No other software can beat that.

  • Gertude Wallace says:

    Good insight on alternative writing tools. Another good alternative to google docs that a colleague had suggested to me was collatebox. They seem promising.

  • Deborah Nock says:

    I love Word, but am really tempted by the organisational ability of Scrivener. However, I really worry about the citation side of Scrivener – all of the documents I write are heavily referenced (I am a medical writer) and I would be lost without Reference Manager. But it seems I can’t use it with Scrivener. And I like the ability of Word to create excel graphs, etc. within a Word document (or import and then edit accordingly). I think Scrivener is ahead of Word in many aspects – but behind Word in other…very important…aspects. I guess I’ll stick to Word for now – and will live in hope that MS will take some tips from Scrivener in the next version of Word 🙂

    • Hmm, I’m not sure about the citation management aspect of Scrivener, though I think you can integrate it with EndNote:

      Regardless, it’s great that you’ve found a system that works for you!

      Heather
      TWL Assistant Editor

      • Deborah Nock says:

        Just an update – I decided to try OneNote, as suggested by Stephen above. It’s brilliant! I can do all my research online and organise it in one place, then use it side-by-side with Word for writing the draft. So glad I took at look at your website, it’s already helped me immensely!

        • Stephen says:

          Hi Deborah, I’m happy you found OneNote works for you, however, it is much, much easier to create your first draft right in the section of your OneNote notebook where you have collected your research. And I write that draft in unformatted plain text for all the reasons Will Moyer has explained here and in his book. When you’re ready to format the document, you can send it to Word with 4 quick clicks where you can save a copy as a plain text document; again, for all the reasons Will has mentioned. OneNote doesn’t have Word Count, but if you’re working with 2010 or later, here’s a link to a great word-count add-in created and offered for free by one of the OneNote team members.

          OneNote has fabulous outlining features, but if you’re working with plain text, you won’t want to use it. So here is a trick. For longer documents and books, I create a new page for every part and section of the project. As you know, pages and groups of pages can be dragged up and down as needed and on the fly. If you have sent your reference material to these same pages, all that stuff travels with your rough draft as you move pages around. And here is another trick. If you have reference material saved in a separate reference section on in a different notebook altogether, you can easily create hyperlinks in your rough draft that will instantly take you to that material. I first started using OneNote for writing projects in 2007, but OneNote is so feature rich, I’m still learning and developing my process.

          Oh, one more trick. The Quick Access Toolbar is in the upper left corner of the window. Click on the down arrow, then click on “More Commands.” Search for the “Back” command. It is a circle with an arrow pointing to the left. Add that command to your Quick Access Toolbar and you can toggle back and forth between a given topic in your rough draft and whatever reference material you are using as you write, another reason to save reference material in the same section as your rough draft. Of course, you can toggle using hyperlinks also.

          • Deborah Nock says:

            Thank you so much, Stephen, for the valuable advice. I will give it a go for my next project, see how I get on and if I can wean myself from formatting as I write (I’m so used to that, after 20 years…). The outlining feature would be good, though, as the materials I write are normally very structured (e.g. training manuals), so I would need some idea of the overall flow.

            I certainly like OneNote though and am sure I’ll learn how to use it more over the next few weeks. Ta

  • Debi R says:

    I just finished my first book using Word. However, I do have Scrivener, and really want to break the MSW habit. I don’t really have much problem with Word; however, I love the way Scrivener organizes the chapters of a book and allows you to keep research material to together within the same project.

    But here’s the problem. I tend to write when I’m at work on a PC. I have a MAC at home. I’ve purchased a license to both MAC and PC versions of Scrivener figuring I can upload my work from my PC to Dropbox like I always do and continue writing at home on my MAC. However, when I write on the PC and upload to Dropbox – the file doesn’t convert to MAC – and it’s the same visa versa. I can’t take a chance with my work like that. I love the idea of using Scrivener – but my circumstance makes the format conversion a precarious one.

    Is this a common problem for writers using both a PC and a MAC?

  • Bo Grimes says:

    I’m not a Word apologist, though my primary word processor is Jarte (built on WordPad). I use ConnectedText, WriteMonkey, Textroom, Draft, LightPaper, LibreOffice, Notepad++…I’m one of those hardcore productivity software addicts.

    However, I have never understood why folks (especially LaTeX and Markdown users) insist that content and structure can’t be separated out in a word processor.

    Any word processor can create a plain text file just like an editor. Don’t worry about structure, style and formatting until you want to. Jarte has something called “format brush.” And RightNote has styles one can set keyboard shortcuts for.

    Just write. When you’re ready to format, just highlight and change the style with a few keystrokes.

    Using Word as a plain text editor is like shooting squirrels with an elephant gun, sure, but it’s easy to do. It’s not like a word processor can’t be used just like an editor.

    Every couple of years I get determined to learn LaTeX (the king of the separate content and structure philosophy) until I spend a half hour on it and realize one is constantly making format and typesetting decisions. They just aren’t rendered until you compile. (Yes! Compiling documents!)

    When I write HTML I don’t even do the markup and CSS until I have the content. Why do people feel forced to make stylistic decisions just because it’s possible?

    I use an auto-hotkey script to disable the backspace key to get “Hemingway mode,” when I write to force me to not correct mistakes as I go. One can put off stylistic decisions just as well as editorial ones until such time as one chooses. The software isn’t the problem.

    • Thanks for sharing this perspective, Bo. Great point — it’s not just the software, it’s also about our own willpower not to monkey around with editing or formatting when we want to just write.

      Heather
      TWL Assistant Editor

  • Mike Bove says:

    Wow, this comment/thread has been going for over a year.
    I read all of the comments and do not remember if I got the suggestion for FocusWriter here or elswhere.
    But I have been using it for all kinds of writing, my WIP, blogs, letters, etc. I just copy/paste to my site, blog, or wherever and do a bit of editing there.
    A simple free app that’s worth a look:

    • It’s amazing to see new comments still coming in on this post — we love hearing about helpful tools for writers. Thanks for sharing your experience with FocusWriter; I’ll have to give it a try!

      Heather
      TWL Assistant Editor

  • George says:

    Here is a problem I am running into. I write manuals for companies and use MS Word. To be more precise office 2013. When I do editing and arrange text per page, I notice when I scroll through the document (it arranges the page layout. Paragraphs are split on pages where I don’t want them. If I start a new subject heading on a new page it shifts up to the previous page. Why does it do this? Each time I edit a page, I notice word goes back through my document “pauses” and re-edits the page layout. Sooo infuriating.

    Any ideas as to why?

  • Eva says:

    I do all my writing in Evernote. It’s beautiful because I don’t have to worry about any typesetting stuff – I just write. What’s even better is then all my writing is available to me across all my devices. So I can write, edit, brainstorm, whatever wherever I am.

  • Well, this is a timely post for me…my MSFT 365 just renewed, and I found myself wondering WHY I pay for it!

    I increasingly use Google docs with my teams, I use MarsEdit to compose blog posts and work offline (great super-simple mac tool), and I’m just starting to look at Scrivener for my ebooks.

    I feel like Word just didn’t keep up, and isn’t that well-suited to writers’ and bloggers’ needs.

    • Great point, Carol — I use Google Docs for just about everything, although Scrivener is fabulous for big projects. I love the compile feature for creating ebooks.

      How do you like MarsEdit? I haven’t tried it yet, but I’ve heard good things.

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