An American Editor

March 6, 2013

When Editors and Authors Fail

There is at least one area of the manuscript process in which authors and editors equally fail: Their lack of mastery of the tools of their trade, especially Microsoft Word.

What brings this to mind are recent queries on several fora by editors and authors asking how to accomplish what I view as basic procedures in Word, as well as queries asking how to do something in Word for which they already own an add-in to Word, such as EditTools or Editor’s ToolKit Plus, that easily accomplishes the task. I would probably have ignored those fora queries were it not for a manuscript I was asked to look at which was a nightmare of formatting.

What is it about text boxes that attracts authors? What is that compels authors and editors to create yet another new style in a futile attempt to make the manuscript look visually like what they think it should look like as a typeset product? What is it about Word that seduces authors and editors into needing to try “features”? What is it about the tools we use that entices us to take the lazy way of learning how to use them?

Word is a great product except when it is the bane of my existence. I used to curse Microsoft every time I received a manuscript that was riddled with poor formatting choices and myriad styles — more styles than there are pickles in the universe, or so it seemed, and certainly more than needed — as part of the basic (Normal) template. Now I don’t curse Microsoft so much because I realize that it is us end users who succumb to the lure of Word’s “exotic” options who are the primary problem.

Have you ever wondered why Word isn’t flagging a word as misspelled when you think it should? Some basic possibilities that every Word user should know and should check before threatening to punch out their monitor are: Is spell check turned off for the document or for text to which a particular style is applied? Is the wrong language governing the manuscript? Yet, much too often neither the editor nor the author has checked these possibilities.

The problems begin with the author of the document. Every author should know how their manuscript is going to be processed. Is it going to be edited and then typeset in a program like InDesign? If yes, then why worry about “formatting” the manuscript to make it look like you want it to look when published? The reality is all that work will be for naught, and 99% of the time will be done wrong anyway.

If you are writing a manuscript that will be published in English, shouldn’t you make sure that English — not French or Spanish — is the language choice for the document? I am always amazed when I receive a manuscript  that is to be published in English and the language preference is French. Of course, the very first thing an editor should do is verify that the correct language module is being applied by Word and fix it if it is wrong — yet, I often receive for review a document that a client has had edited only to find that the wrong language module is applied.

And why text boxes? Of all the things that are wrong about Word, the text (and graphic) boxes are the absolute worst. Text boxes don’t stick in place; text boxes do not break over pages; if the text box is too big for the page or not big enough to display all of the text it holds, it gives no clue that there is hidden in-box text; text boxes obscure text and other text and graphic boxes — basically, text boxes are evil and not easy to get rid of. Need to box some text? Use a table cell. It works just as well and has none of the evil features of a text box.

More importantly for the author: If the author is paying the editor, the author will save money by not using text boxes because you can’t convert a text box to text like you can convert a table. To avoid the evils of text boxes, the editor has to find each text box, select the text, copy it, paste it outside the text box, then delete the text box — and hope that all of the text was copied.

I know it is called a text box by Microsoft; that doesn’t mean it should be used to put text in a box!

Consider the styles that you create. Is it really necessary to have 18 of the same style with the only difference being the amount the text is condensed or expanded (and why expand or condense the text?) or the fraction of an inch of spacing there is between lines (why not have equal spacing between all lines?). Of course, the editor should be cleaning out excess styles, but there are usually so many, we all give up and let it be someone else’s problem.

What is being missed from this picture is that if the manuscript is going to be professionally typeset, all of these efforts by the author and/or editor to “design” the manuscript and make sure that what is wanted on a page actually displays in Word on a single page are wasted. All will be ignored by the designer and the typesetter; they will use programs and tools appropriate to the design and composition function, such as InDesign, not Microsoft Word, which is a strong word processor but a very weak composition and design engine.

There is much more, but you have the idea. The real problem is that neither author nor editor has taken the time to master the basic tool of their trade. I know editors who use Word but do not even have a single dedicated reference book for the version of Word they are using. They prefer to stumble through, thinking that their role is limited and so they need limited features. Perhaps they do only need limited features, but they can never know if there is another feature that would make their job easier if they were aware of it in the absence of stumbling across it. (When I buy a new version of Word, I also buy several different manuals and spend a full day going through them and the new version.)

Authors use text boxes without thinking about the feature because they think to themselves “I want this material boxed” and so they use a text box — after all, why would it be called a text box if it wasn’t intended to be used to box text? Authors want text to be in columns so they use tabs (or worse, spaces) to try to align the material, when a table would be so much better. (Did they not ever notice that the text they have so beautifully aligned using tabs or spaces is no longer aligned when they change computers or fonts? Or that it often wraps and becomes confusing when moved to another computer?) Why not use the table feature? Usually authors tell me it is because they do not want lines (rules) around the material. OK, but tables do not have to have visible rules.

Authors and editors fail to create the best and least-expensive document to process because neither understands Word’s functions. If both took some time to master the basic tool of their trade, the author could save some money, and the editor could focus more on the editing and less on the peripheral matters that take up so much our time (and thus either raises the author’s cost or decreases the editor’s effective hourly rate and profit).

A lost point is that a feature’s name is not always indicative of what the feature is best used for. To know what feature to use, one must be knowledgable about the tool and all of its features. An editor should be asking, “Why do I need to ask in a forum how to change the language preference from French to English? Why don’t I know how to do this already?”

When it comes to formatting a Word document, less is infinitely better than more.


  1. Rich, I honestly think it simply comes down to many people lacking even a basic understanding of how Word works. I don’t know how often I’ve clicked “show formatting” to find spaces/tabs in lieu of indents, hanging or otherwise. Or swathes of tabs to force a page break. Smashwords Style Guide goes some way to educate people, but it really is up to the individual to get the most out of his/tools.


    Comment by Vicki — March 6, 2013 @ 5:11 am | Reply

  2. AE wrote: An editor should be asking, “Why do I need to ask in a forum how to change the language preference from French to English? Why don’t I know how to do this already?”

    I know why I ask in a forum: It’s usually faster and easier to get the answer than to waste time digging through confusing help files or manuals, or experimenting and failing to do it yourself. Often, when I’m stuck on something and can’t resolve it in a few minutes, I’ll send out a query then resume working; within a range of moments to a few hours, I’ll have the answer in hand, more clearly than available documentation. And/or more than one person to consult directly vs. trying to get through helplines or customer service centers. In the meantime, I’ve been productive.

    I entered the workforce the same time word processing did, and have been a Word user since v1.0. The recent generations of this software have grown over more opaque as they become more powerful. I don’t want or need 90% of Word’s features, but I know how to do 90% of the necessary word-processing tasks in my sleep, having done them for 30 years on multiple platforms.

    Most of today’s writers using Word simply had it dropped on their desks without ever receiving training, not only in how to use the particular application but also how to perform any WP tasks at all. How many of them want to waste *their* time self-teaching, when they can meet their own job requirements at a low level? To them, Word is a fancy electronic typewriter they have to use to produce their documents. They’re no more interested in mastering its fine points than I am in programming in Visual Basic. I learn new skills because situations demand them, not because I’m hungry to master every facet of my tool. So I don’t expect different of authors. In fact, I’m starting to add formatting back into my service set because it’s so easy for me, so difficult or frustrating for them, and may become a way to expand my income.


    Comment by Carolyn — March 6, 2013 @ 6:38 am | Reply

  3. I do a lot of academic editing, which entails formatting per a particular style guide (e.g., APA). It amazes me that academics can reach the heights of their profession without knowing how to format papers in their discipline’s predominant style! I could see outsourcing tables — but headings? I usually spend at least an hour stripping out useless styles and applying correct ones, running a search-and-replace for tabs to create indents, substituting page/section breaks for endless returns, etc. Add another hour or more to reformat tables. They’re well into triple digits before I start to read a word! So yes, I’m amazed and sometimes appalled by their lack of Word skills — but glad, too, because it keeps me in business!


    Comment by girlof100lists — March 6, 2013 @ 7:56 am | Reply

  4. 1. I find that in my version of Word (2000), spell check marks as correct any word that is followed by punctuation. I hope that’s been fixed. If I insert a space, it works.

    2. I thought the problem of authors trying to format their documents to look “pretty” was a temporary phenomenon. Guess not.

    3. Aren’t there services that will strip out all the unnecessary formatting?

    4. One reason people ask simple questions on forums is that you no longer get manuals with software. I used to go through the manual when I got new software and try out the various features that were new. Now you just have stripped-down “help” files that are usually pretty unhelpful.


    Comment by Gretchen — March 6, 2013 @ 1:03 pm | Reply

  5. First thing I thought of was trying to stand out in the slush pile. Though to be honest simply knowing the proper format for submissions tends to do that, and it’s not going to be hard to find out what that is. When it comes to things that are already being prepared for publication, it does seem a tad silly. But then Feeping Creaturism (otherwise known as the Curse of PowerPoint) is nothing new – people just like to play with options when they get handed a stack of them. I recall doing that when I first got hold of a Selectric and could swap typeballs ad lib.

    Gretchen is right – there are an awful lot of theoretically reputable software companies expecting the user to depend on dubious FAQs and essentially unorganized fora. I think I’ve seen /one/ of the last that had an active library staff sorting queries instead of letting a googool of duplicate discussions with slightly different titles grow. Not sure what I’d do without the Missing Manual folks.


    Comment by anansii — March 6, 2013 @ 3:55 pm | Reply

  6. I agree. I have worked on manuscripts that have so many styles in them, I’m not sure where to look when downloading errors come up, so I end up deleting them all anyway. Simple is always better!


    Comment by Christine Keleny — March 8, 2013 @ 2:13 pm | Reply

  7. Reblogged this on CKBooks Publishing.


    Comment by Christine Keleny — March 8, 2013 @ 2:17 pm | Reply

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