on May 29, 2011
Maybe you’ve heard about it already, but I’ve been working on a book. I began working in Google Docs. I use Docs for my weekly column. It has what I need from a word processor: It loads quickly, gives word count & page number, has spell-checking, and doesn’t try to do my thinking for me. I plodded away on the book for about three months using Docs, before I discovered that it has a size limit. At 90k words, Google Docs told me my document was too large. Fair enough. It’s called “Google Docs” not “Google Great Big Honkin’ Books”.
I could have split it into two documents, but I knew that sooner or later I was going to have to move to a standard word processor. I have proof readers lined up. Professionals, who know their way around a rough draft of a book. And the thing I’ve learned is that the business more or less orbits around Microsoft Word. Sure, you can submit in other formats, but the most convenient way to share is to simply use what everyone else is using. You know how it goes.
Of course, buying Microsoft Word myself is out of the question. Aside from the expense, it really is horrible software. I had a copy of it about five or six years ago and I gave it away, vowing I’d never use it again. It’s a stupid, buggy, pushy, ugly, bloated, nagging, resource pig. It’s like one of those novelty swiss army knives with too many features. Attached to a brick. With a serrated handle.
Yeah, maybe I MIGHT need a spoon someday. But maybe I won’t want to eat with a spoon that folds in next to the knife I used to gut fish. And this saw blade might come in useful, provided I don’t need a blade longer than 2 inches and it doesn’t fold up on my fingers while I’m cutting. Oops, I folded the scissors away improperly and now the screwdriver is bent. And the whole thing is too large to fit in my pocket, which sort of defeats the purpose of joining the tools together in the first place.
Eventually I decided to jump to Libre Office, which is a fork of the open-source project Open Office, which was created as a alternative to Microsoft Word. Unfortunately, it also adopted Word’s kitchen-sink approach to features, which means it propagated a great many of the sins of Microsoft. Oh, it’s not as clunky and slow, and it doesn’t spam my desktop with useless launchers and notification windows. But it still does fifty things poorly, instead of doing five things well.
Great. My word processor can make tables, integrate with power point, display spreadsheets, use databases, do graphic-arts style page layout, embed media files, mail merge, and comes with its own security-hazard macro system. What about a feature the lets me type words? Which of these ten thousand buttons lets me do that?
Here is how it went:
- I figured that since I was using a “full featured” word processor now, I might as well use some of the features. Having a nice chapter index would let my jump around the book faster. So I decided to stop for a few minutes and add chapters.
Adding chapters took four hours.
Paragraphs were turned into chapter titles for no reason. It numbered every chapter #1. And made the number part of the name. And if I removed the number, it stopped being a chapter. And sometimes chapter headings would appear in random fonts. Or abruptly change fonts during editing. Or clicking on the chapter would take me to the wrong part of the document.
- I spotted an option to justify the text. I tried it out. Looked kind of nice. I left it in. I did a bunch of editing, and then I noticed that about twenty pages were completely hosed. Justify is supposed to make every line of a paragraph be the same width… except the last one. For some reason, these twenty pages didn’t work that way, and the paragraphs ended up looking like this:
The quick sly fox jumped over the lazy brown dog.
Nothing could fix this. I had to go through all of those pages and delete the line breaks between the paragraphs, and then add them in again to correct this. This was a mind-numbing twenty minutes. Aren’t these programs supposed to be labor saving devices?
- I decided to add page headings so I could see what chapter I was working on. Took twenty minutes of Google to find out how to do it. I did. I made a heading style, and explicitly said to apply the style to ALL pages.
Sometime later I noticed that it had left a bunch of them out. Every chapter started off with the proper headers on every page, but then dropped them at the first hard page break. I did the “apply this style to ALL PAGES” again, with the same result. Solution: Go through, find all of the sections with missing headers, and add them manually.
Once again, the software is outsmarting itself and guessing at what I want instead of doing what it’s told.
- The crowning moment:
Hey, what’s this screwy little doodad in the left margin? Looks like a formatting control. Maybe for margins? Let’s see what it does. *click* Whoa! That’s not what I want. I’ll just hit undo…
Hi! This is Libre Office! Looks like I’ve crashed.
Don’t worry, though! I’m saving your document for you before I die.
Er. Okay? But you’ve been auto-saving every five minutes, so I don’t imagine I’ve lost much work. But since this dialog only has an “ok” button, I guess you’re not really asking, are you?
No sweat! I saved your work. It’s all good.
Grumble. Let’s restart and get back to work.
Hey! Looks like I crashed last time. I’ve got a saved document ready for recovery! Do you want to recover it now?
Er. Fine. I guess. Whatever.
Huff. Huff. Huff. Okay. I’m recovering. It’s really hard.
A progress bar? What are you doing? You saved a document, and now you’re acting like you’re importing something exotic. This isn’t some foreign thing. This is just loading an autosave. What the hell?
Done! Your file was recovered! I’m such a hero!
WHERE IN THE FLAMING **** IS ALL OF MY PROGRESS?
What is this? How old IS this document? Is this… three days ago? What happened to all of those times I hit “save”? What was that “autosave” you were doing every N minutes? Where were those going? Where is all my work?
I SAVED MY WORK, and it’s STILL NOT SAVED. WTF?!?!?!
I was just short of 100,000 words. After the crash, I was down to 97,000. Three thousand words is a lot, but the real loss was the many, many, many edits I’d done to early sections of the document. I’d renamed things, added a paragraph here or there to clear things up. Re-worded things. Added a bit of dialog here or there to foreshadow / set up bits later in the book. The edits I’d done represented a lot more than just three thousand words. If this was just a single section to re-write it would be one thing, but I can’t even remember all of the edits I’d done. Days of work. Gone.
I Googled around. It turns out the auto-saves are put into a backup directory. The backup directory is purged in the event of a crash.
Every. Single. Feature. Ended up damaging my document or eating time. And so:
- Screw Open Office for copying everything that sucked about Word.
- Screw MS Word for making such a mess out of word processing to begin with.
- Screw Microsoft for poisoning the well by making the .doc an industry standard and then making it an incomprehensible mess of obfuscation that perpetuated the use of Word in spite of its horribleness.
- Screw this industry which is built around this horrible software.
- Screw the stupids who invited this mess by complaining that their word processors should do their thinking for them.
- Screw the people who hired those dolts.
- And finally, to hell with Libre Office for destroying my work through a devious synergy of bugs and bad interface choices.
I would have been happy to see to my own backups if I didn’t see that “Saving” message every five minutes, lulling me into a perilous false sense of security. If it wasn’t for auto-“recover”, I would have reverted to the last time I manually smacked the save button, which would have been a couple of hours at most. I still don’t understand what recovery did, or what it was trying to do.
This happened a few days ago. I haven’t been able to go back to my book since then. I’m still mad and sulking.
Some people suggested LaTaX, but that’s the OPPOSITE of what I want. (At least right now. It might be good once the book is done. I don’t know.) I don’t want to worry about formatting and layout and fonts and spacing and margins an markups. I want a nice, clear, easy-to-read environment in which to put the words next to each other. Even the headings and chapter divisions I set up in Libre Office were silly. I did those because I was curious and wanting to get to know the software. (And because I foolishly believed they would work properly.) I should add that stuff AFTER I type “The End”, just before I send it to my proofreaders.
I guess what I really want is a local version of Google Docs, which was exactly as much word processor as I needed, with nothing extra. The only problem with Docs is that, being a web-based application, it’s pretty slow when dealing with huge documents.
I don’t know what I’m going to do now, but I’m taking a few days off from the book to let my head clear.
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.