Escape from Microsoft Word

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David Levine

This post is about word processors, but I got the idea for it from something W. H. Auden once said about political philosophers. In 1947, talking with his learned young secretary about an anthology he was compiling, The Portable Greek Reader, he mentioned Isocrates, a Greek orator whose simple-seeming ideas about relations between rich and poor cities were sane and practical. Naïve-sounding Isocrates had solved problems for which Plato’s grand theories had no answer. “Isocrates reminds me of John Dewey,” Auden said. “He’s a mediocrity who’s usually right whereas Plato is a man of genius who’s always wrong.” Only a genius could have devised Plato’s theory of the forms—the invisible, intangible “ideas” that give shape to every visible, tangible thing. But the theory of forms is always wrong when applied to political thinking, as every experiment in ideal, utopian politics has proved.

Auden’s contrast between mediocrity that gets things right and genius that is always wrong is useful in thinking about many fields other than politics. Take, for example, the instruments used for writing. The word processor that most of the world uses every day, Microsoft Word, is a work of genius that’s almost always wrong as an instrument for writing prose. Almost-forgotten WordPerfect—once the most popular word-processing program, still used in a few law offices and government agencies, and here and there by some writers who remain loyal to it—is a mediocrity that’s almost always right. I submitted this post in a file created by the latest version of Word because Word is the lingua franca of publishing. But I wrote it in an ancient MS-DOS version of WordPerfect that hasn’t been updated since 1997, because WordPerfect is the instrument best suited to the way I think when I write.

The original design of Microsoft Word, in the early 1980s, was a work of clarifying genius, but it had nothing to do with the way writing gets done. The programmers did not think about writing as a sequence of words set down on a page, but instead dreamed up a new idea about what they called a “document.” This was effectively a Platonic idea: the “form” of a document existed as an intangible ideal, and each tangible book, essay, love letter, or laundry list was a partial, imperfect representation of that intangible idea.

A document, as Word’s creators imagined it, is a container for other ideal forms. Each document contains one or more “sections,” what everyone else calls chapters or other subdivisions. Each section contains one or more paragraphs. Each paragraph contains one or more characters. Documents, sections, paragraphs, and characters all have sets of attributes, most of which Word calls “styles.” A section can have its own margin settings; a paragraph can be indented or set in a specific font; a set of characters (such as one or more words) can be italicized, underlined, and printed in red, all by applying a single “style.” Even if you don’t apply a specific style, everything is governed by what Word calls the “normal” style. To complicate matters, Word also lets you apply what it calls “direct formatting,” in which, for example, you italicize a word without applying a separate style to that word alone.

On a typewriter, when you wanted to increase the left margin on the page, you moved a metal lever, then moved it back to decrease the margin again. To type a superscript (as in mc2) you rotated the carriage slightly, typed the superscripted letter, then rotated the carriage back again. In effect, you progressed in sequence from one set of conditions to another. Things changed as you typed.

In Microsoft Word (as in all other word processors built on the same model, including Apple’s Pages), the underlying model is static, like a Platonic idea. In effect, you “paint” a whole section with its own margin settings, and you “paint” a character with the superscript attribute.

I’ve been vaguely aware of Word’s Platonic ideas since I learned, years ago, that I had to create a new section when I wanted to change the page margins. But I didn’t realize how bizarrely Platonic Word can be until I started using it to create the manuscript of a complete edition of Auden’s prose. At the foot of each essay and review, the edition has a line indicating its source, for example, “The New York Review of Books, 2 May 1965,” or “The New Yorker, 27 September 1966.” While preparing the file for the publisher, I applied to all these lines a style named “Article Source”; this style arranged the lines so they were aligned at the right margin, and added a line space above and below. I was puzzled to see that when I applied the style, Word sometimes removed the italics from the magazine title but sometimes didn’t, for no obvious reason. When I applied the style to the first of my two examples, the italics disappeared; when I applied it to the second, the italics remained.

A friend at Microsoft, speaking not for attribution, solved the mystery. Word, it seems, obeys the following rule: when a “style” is applied to text that is more than 50 percent “direct-formatted” (like the italics I applied to the magazine titles), then the “style” removes the direct formatting. So The New York Review of Books (with the three-letter month May) lost its italics. When less than 50 percent of the text is “direct-formatted,” as in the example with The New Yorker (with the nine-letter month September), the direct-formatting is retained.

No writer has ever thought about the exact percentage of italics in a line of type, but Word is reduced to this kind of arbitrary principle because its Platonic model—like all Platonic models—is magnificent in its inner coherence but mostly irrelevant to the real world. In order to make a connection between heavenly ideas and tangible realities, Plato himself was reduced to inventing something he called the Demiurge, an intermediate being who translates the ideal forms in heaven into something tangible in the world. The Demiurge is an early instance of what programmers call a kludge—a clumsy and illogical expedient for dealing with a problem that seems too intractable to solve more elegantly. Word’s 50-percent rule for applying styles is a descendent of the Demiurge, and just as much of a kludge.

The inventors of WordPerfect had no grand ideas about the form of a document. Instead they looked over typists’ shoulders and tried to find ways of imitating their actions on a computer keyboard. So, when you want to change the margin in WordPerfect, you press a few keys to perform the computer equivalent of pushing the lever on a typewriter. You change the margin, and then, later, you might change it back again. Word’s intellectual model is effectively timeless: you paint the text with its attributes. WordPerfect’s is active and progressive: you change a setting, continue typing, and then change some other setting. Auden’s word “mediocrity” seems too strong to apply to WordPerfect, as it was too strong to apply to Isocrates or John Dewey, both of whom had something very like genius in their clear-sighted, unprejudiced perception of the world as it is.

Despite its underlying idea, Microsoft Word, of course, has evolved over the years so that it lets you work more or less as you do in WordPerfect, turning on italics and then turning them off again. But if you do anything more complex, you still find yourself deep in Word’s arcane Platonism, which is too deeply ingrained in the program ever to be replaced.

Intelligent writers can produce intelligent prose using almost any instrument, but the medium in which they write will always have some more or less subtle effect on their prose. Karl Popper famously denounced Platonic politics, and the resulting fantasies of a closed, unchanging society, in his book The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945). When I work in Word, for all its luxuriant menus and dazzling prowess, I can’t escape a faint sense of having entered a closed, rule-bound society. When I write in WordPerfect, with all its scruffy, low-tech simplicity, the world seems more open, a place where endings can’t be predicted, where freedom might be real.