Friday, July 23, 2010

On the Inefficiency of Word Processors

The influential and classic paper Word Processors: Stupid and Inefficient by Allin Cottrell. written in 1999. is still worth reading, even if you end up disagreeing with most of the conclusions.

Cottrell argues: "The word processor is a stupid and grossly inefficient tool for preparing text for communication with others." The main argument is that a word processor mixes up or conflates two tasks that are conceptually distinct, namely typesetting (or worrying about how the end product, the printed text. should look) and the "composition of the text itself." By this, he means "the actual choice of words to express one's ideas, and the logical structuring of the text."

In writing we should concentrate on the second task. Worrying about the looks and WYSIWYG gets in the way of thinking about the substance. In this context, a text editor is better than a word processor. It does not distract you by confusing formatting and logical structure. A text editor does not save your work in a proprietary format. It uses plain text that can be used in any application.

Cottrell's "strategy," for a strategic decision it is, advocates for the second step, called "type setting" by him, another program that specifies "the structural status of bits of text." He advocates LaTex, but any markup language, including any wiki dialect, will do.[1]

I am not sure that Cottrell is entirely fair to word processors. You can specify styles in most of them, which make "typesetting" consistent with just a few commands, and you do't have to get carried away by the ability to over-format your text. It's more a matter of self-discipline than it is one of the tools. "It's a bad workman who blames the tools," one might say. (Or: "He could have done it, if only he had had a blue hammer!")

Nor am I sure that a "conceptual distinction" of the sort noted by Cottrell should carry as much weight as he thinks. As technology has advanced, many tasks that were once conceptually distinct have been unified or compressed into one new task. Still, I think reflecting on what one is actually doing is always a good idea. This is why I consider this short essay important, even though I am not likely to take up LaTex at this point.

1."One very attractive feature of LaTeX is the ability to change the typeset appearance of your text drastically and consistently with just a few commands."


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the link to that article. It is interesting to read, but I agree with your disagreements. I also think he is fooling himself if he thinks most people would be willing to learn mark-up language. After all, he just got through saying that most people can't be bothered to learn how to use paragraph styles in their word processor. Those same people are not going to figure out mark up and then run their file through a second application to create the output -- which, if they want it to be different than some set styles, they will also need to figure out how to change settings.

EMauro said...

The third paragraph of your post says it all. Text embellishment should be done in a second stage.