The guide: “How to use Word without hurting Heiner’s eyes”

Upon general request, here’s my guide to proper use of MS Word:

  1. Never ever use direct formatting.
  2. That means: never ever click on any of the buttons in the formatting toolbar
  3. . . . which means that you might as well disable that toolbar altogether (right-click in the toolbar area and uncheck “Formatting”)
  4. You are allowed to keep it there for two reasons:
    1. To control what is going on in the document, and
    2. to click on the “Styles” button (the one with the two “A”s), which opens the “Styles” sidebar, . . .
  5. . . . which should always be visible, and which is the only acceptable way to format the text.
  6. Create styles for the types of text that you are going to use, and/or modify the existing styles to suit your desires.
  7. These desires should under no circumstance include using Times New Roman or Arial, which are Microsoft’s rip-offs of slightly more acceptable typefaces; but which in themselves are objectively ugly; and which give a discerning reader the impression that you don’t care how your document looks. Good alternatives are Garamond (which, in Microsoft’s version, is not a Garamond at all but a Jannon, but it comes close enough), Gentium, a nice, free unicode font (a combination of three huge advantages which are rarely seen together), or for that matter Book Antiqua, which is also a rip-off, but of a nice typeface: Hermann Zapf’s Palatino
  8. Use templates:
    • In an empty document, set up all the different styles that you think you will be using (plain text, indented text, blockquotes, headings, etc.), and save the document, not as a Word Document, but a Word Template (choose it in the drop-down list below the field for the file name).
    • Choose New document from template from the Files menu and select your template.
    • Lo and behold! All your styles are there.
    • You can apply your new template to any document through the Functions > Templates menu. Check the box with “update styles automatically”.

27 thoughts on “The guide: “How to use Word without hurting Heiner’s eyes”

  1. Hehe… I forgot one piece of advice, which, if it came out, would force every support department in the world to cut their staff by two thirds:


    If in doubt, right-click.

    This opens the “context menu” – a specialized menu containing the alternatives which are available for precisely the object which you click on (in other words: it is different for a Word file than for a program icon). If you wonder how something works: right-click. In 90% of the cases, you will find an answer there.
    (The last piece of advice in my crash course is: don’t be afraid to open the menus, and especially the “Preferences” or “Options” menu, usually situated under “Edit” or “Tools”. They are there for a reason, them menus, although surprisingly many people have never used them.)
    These two tips aren’t restricted to M Word, but they apply there as well.

  2. One more question: What is a good substitution for Arial, i.e. a screen-compatible sans-serif font? On the particluar machine I’m writing this, a font called “Gill Sans MT” in some horrendous large size is used, with mixed results.
    But: Microsoft seems to have a licensed a real version of Palatino from Linotype as part of Win2000/XP, dubed “Palatino Linotype.” Quite nice; & and no need for “Book Antiqua” anymore.

  3. Is there any particular reason for the widespread use of Times New Roman and Arial? I know nothing about typography myself, but if there are typefaces that work equally well and look better, how come so many people elect to use Times New Roman and Arial anyway? Just laziness?

  4. I guess there are historical reasons—these typefaces exists since Windows 3.0. And there are the default onces since. How many people change defaults?

  5. I wouldn’t say there are any really good sans-serif fonts in the standard packages that come with Windows or MS Office. Personally, I prefer the geometric and humanistic sans-serifs, and Century Gothic is a decent rip-off (contradiction in terms, perhaps…) of Futura. For the same reason, I like Gill Sans, a nice cross between humanist and geometric.
    Verdana is usually presented as the optimal alternative to Arial for on-screen reading, as it is designed specifically with readability in low resolution in mind. It is based on — or at least similar to — Arial, and I don’t particularly like it. The same, more or less, goes for Tahoma.
    Trebuchet MS, the sans-serif font that is the default on dylanchords, has a little more character (I like the gs…). That said, that very character probably gives it a less “serious” appearance.
    Part of the problem with the sans-serifs is, I guess, that whereas serif fonts have a 500-year-long history of evaluation, development of preferences, etc., the sans serifs have only been around for a century or so. Since they originated in some kind of anti-sophisticated ideology, they expressly rejected some of the finesse which a good text font requires (but as headlines, they can still work quite well).
    On computer screens, this lack of finesse has become a quality, since that finesse is usually lost anyway when the letter outlines have to be reduced to a handful of pixels.

  6. I do… :-)
    There is a good discussion thread about the development of the standard sets of fonts, with posts by some of the people who were actually involved, here:
    What that thread does not say anything about, is the reason why those particular fonts were chosen. Times was a highly successful font when it was designed (for Times) in the 30s, particularly for newspapers, because it combined economy and readability: it is narrow but still clear. My two main objections against it are (1) that it has sacrificed too much character to the — in most cases dubious — benefit of economy, and (2) that it is over-used: if you’ve seen millions of documents in it, most of which are badly designed also in other respects, there is no way you can judge the intrinsic quality or beauty of the font any longer. (Hence, Oh terrible thought!, had Microsoft chosen Adobe’s Garamond as their standard 25 years ago, I would probably have written here about the merits of Times New Roman over the ugly Garamond…).
    Arial was copied from Helvetica, the most fashionable font of the 60s (“When in doubt, use Helvetica”)

    Here is an exellent article about “The scourge of Arial”, and this article has a good survey of the differences between Arial and Helvetica.

  7. Thanks for the tips. Never really bothered about the type of font before. Anyway I haven’t used word for anything serious since I learned Latex.

  8. When I type up guitar chords or tab, or if I’m printing someone else’s out, I typically line up the chord change with the syllable change that it falls on. This is easier with a font that has equal spacing for all characters. Which one would you suggest?
    So far, I’ve been using Courier New or Lucida Console. Courier seems a little boxy, and the Lucida is a serif font that wishes it was sans-serif.

    I agree with your comment on Trebuchet, I like to use it for most other everyday purposes.

  9. May I turn the question back to you: Are there any common alternatives to these fonts in the linux world? Is there a “core” set of fonts which most distros have, or is it hit and miss? I found URW Gothic L in my system, which is another Futura clone, and URW palladio L as a Palatino clone, sortof. What else is there? If one wants to avoid TNR and Arial, that is, and still stand a reasonable chance of getting the desired display even there?

  10. i dont have a clue how to post a blog or any of that shit, but to the site owner, dylanchords, man you really got your shit together, how do u get all this info?

  11. There are not too many (TTF) fonts available for Linux, but you can import the Windows ones if you like. Good fonts need good artists, and those are mostly rare in the OpenSource world…

  12. For those on Mac, I strongly suggest using Mellel rather than Word. Mellel handles non-English languages better than Word for Mac (particularly Hebrew which is totally screwed up on Mac because Microsoft won’t take the time to fix it). Mellel + a good unicode font is a dream to use for those who have to use languages with different character sets. Also, Mellel forces your hand and really encourages you to use Styles—which seems to be the main concern of this article. Unfortunately, Mellel is still in its early stages, so some of the more advanced features of Word it can’t match—but I tend to do my own tables of contents and indexing and whatnot anyway.

  13. Well…one thing that hurts MY eyes (and brain) more than a shoddy font: right- AND left justification of text…jeez, I hate it when Word tries to do what typographers spent a lifetime learning. /Rick

  14. These typography entries (and the links contained therein) are great. I need to write quite a few formal-style documents (scientific reports – I’m a physics student), and I’ve been getting sick of Times New Roman and Arial, but never knew what to use instead. I like to think I have enough of an eye for design that my page layout is straightforward and easy to read, but typefaces have always been a bit mystifying to me.

    In fact, I hadn’t even looked closely at my documents until I read these articles, always assuming that the words are most important, then the layout, and finally the font. After printing out all my old lab reports again and looking over them, I realised that I could definitely make my work look a little neater and prettier just by changing typefaces.

    Thanks to these pages I’ve settled on Gentium for my general-purpose font, since it’s close enough to Times to still look professional to a type-blind academic, but sufficiently different to help individuate my report from the dozens that the tutors will be reading. Plus there’s the obvious advantage in that it doesn’t look quite as sterile after having been seen in millions of characters before reaching mine.

    My standard sans-serif font is now Tahoma, but I’m not sure about it. Trebuchet MS is quite nice, but a bit too wide, and Verdana’s default spacing makes it appear a bit too wide when bold (great for screen, but on paper it’s not so good). Arial definitely looks worse, but it’s harder for me to decide what should replace it because there simply isn’t much sans-serif stuff in my documents – a couple of section headers and diagram labels are the only instances.

    I guess I also want to say thanks for opening my eyes (if only slightly), and to ask what you and the readers of these pages recommend as a professional-looking sans-serif font. Something with the same production ethos as Gentium would be fantastic (from a less-than-aesthetic point of view), but I really don’t know what to look for.

    My last problem is slightly more specific. Thanks to the wonders of physics, I have to include a fair amount of Greek characters and mathematical formatting. So far I’ve been using Microsoft’s Equation Editor to embed the formulae in my Word documents, and without any real troubles. Part of the reason I chose Gentium was the fact that it includes Greek characters, so I’d like to be able to change the Equation Editor’s font to use that as the default. Does anyone have any ideas? I just can’t fathom the minimal interface to the editor, and I’d like to avoid shelling out for MathType (although I suppose I could always ‘acquire’ it).

    Is TeX a suitable alternative? I keep seeing references to it, and I think they use something similar to achieve equation formatting on Wikipedia, which looks okay. If anyone can offer a suggestion on how best to use it (if at all) I’d be grateful – should it be for my entire documents, or just the equations? If the former, what do I use to edit/style the document? If the latter, how do I import the formatted equation into Word?


  15. Hi. I’m a student of mathematics and care a bit about fonts and layouts. My advice is:
    (1) Use (La)TeX if you want your document to look good. Nothing beats it when it comes to typesetting formulae, and for the rest it is as good as any “desktop publishing” program, if you put enough effort into it.
    (2) If you want it easy and “need” WYSIWYG, TeX is not the right think for you. Even with LyX it is nowhere as easy as Word, nor as stupid.
    For more infomation, search the web, there’s plenty around. Wikipedia is a good start. [BTW: As you noticed, Wikipedia creates screenshots of TeX’s output to display a formula-image.]

  16. Exactly right — the idea is to use named paragraph and character styles. Stated in its convers form, avoid at all costs the ad hoc formatting of Word’s *normal” or *default* styles.

    First, named styles allow one to ala CSS, update or revise all instances of that named style by simply changing the style name.

    Second, it becomes much easier to convert a document from Word to some other format if specific types of content — headings, bulleted lists, numbered lists, etc. — are properly tagged. Again, the converse is that everything is identified as “normal”, making it literally impossible to automate a conversion based on a style name / tag…

  17. Great Site!
    BTW, I usually use Frutiger Linotype (getting it free and licensed from Microsoft Reader) for sans-serif type font.

  18. in “LaTeX vs. Word vs. Writer” article i noticed you used \textit LaTeX command—which is, i suppose, an analogue of “italic” button on direct formatting toolbar in Word.

    i propose that “1. Never ever use direct formatting” should be replaced by softer “don’t apply more than one direct formatting to single piece of text”, like: you can make text bold or italic, but not bold and italic at the same time.

    Or should one make “emphasize” style and use it?

    1. You’re right: there is one — and one only — exception to the “never” and that is italics. No, that’s not true: there are other cases as well: small-caps, occasionally boldface, and even a change of typeface is permissible if one know what one is doing.
      My point is that not the one should not use formatting, but that (1) it should be used meaningfully and (2) consistently, which means that it should be applied through styles and not as direct formatting. With styles, one can define a certain set or formatting commands for a particular kind of content; with direct formatting, one can certainly achieve the same effect, but only through a much more inefficient path (by applying the same set of manual formatting to every instance, instead of defining all the relevant text pieces as instances of the same kind once and for all), and with a much greater risk of error/inconsistency.
      The one exception, as I mentioned, is italics. I could write another post on this subject, but to make it short, this is one of the points where I disagree with the dogma “separate style from contents”. Because of the 500+ years’ tradition of mixing the regular font with a corresponding italic font (originally not even necessarily belonging to the same typeface), I would argue that I’m not simply asking for “emphasis” — which in principle can be defined as any alteration of the text presentation — but specifically and emphatically for “italics”. Italics is not just any kind of emphasis, but a particular kind of emphasis which carries a lot of associations and expectations which apply to specific situations: titles of books/works, emphasised words, phrases in foreign languages, epigraphs, certain paragraphs that should stand out from the text flow, etc. To call all these cases “emphasis” would be wrong. Ideally one might define different styles for each of these cases, and then set all of them to “italics”, but in any less ideal world (e.g. a practical world), I prefer to use plain italics.
      That is half the reason why I use \textit and not \emph. The other half is that, for some reason which I don’t fully remember,
      will not prevent the “f” from crossing the parenthesis, while

  19. Found your blog and decided to have a quick read, not what a normally do but nice one. Nice to see a blog for a change that isn’t full of spam and rubbish, and actually makes some sense. Anyway, nice write up.

  20. The remarks and comments posted here is a step above the usual “Microsoft sucks” talk that seems to have infected the discussion of alternatives. Allow me to jump in here and make a few comments, based on years of work with Word preceded by years with other word processing software.

    Eyolf is right about relying on paragraph-level (i.e., style sheet) formatting. Word is organized like a hierarchical system; typography-inspired programs and WordPerfect are text-stream software. In Word, the rule of thumb is to apply the highest level of formatting that fits the task at hand. Here’s another basic mistake about Word. Contrary to popular belief, it is not only WYSIWYG. Print layout (Word’s term) is one of its three views. I would bet and give odds that that most experienced Word users rely on the other two views, especially outline view for writing structured documents such as papers and theses.

    People dislike Word for three reasons: 1) It’s a Micro$oft product and hegemonic. 2) It’s stupidly simple, has few options, and corrupts complex documents. 3) It’s obscure and frustratingly complex. One is a political statement, and fair enough.The common complaint #2 speaks more to the writer than the program. I echo complaint #3.

    People who utter #2 are most likely using Word like text-stream software and confining themselves to a single level of the structure. You can get away with this tack if you are writing notes or letter, or small papers that have a few tables and graphics. But for writing a book — and a dissertation is a book — the approach almost guarantees grief and pain. (If you have gotten away with it, I suggest you count yourself fortunate but don’t press your luck.) Here is an example of genuine grief; it comes from a different blog:

    “I used latex previously off and on but my sup likes MS Word. So, he kind of forced me into Word. Now, it was actually too late for me when I realized what a huge mistake I had made! In my case my MS Word and Endnote had close to 300+ references and I was done with my first draft by the time I realized that I should have never used MS Word! To summarize, it was extremely painful to deal with tables, figures running out, contents not properly generated and it was terrible when in spite of all efforts, my examiners spotted ridiculous errors of missing references (of figures) due to MS Word’s problems with handling long documents and how things get updated (and most times not updated!!) So, if you can move away from MS Word to Latex or even Lyx (which is sort of a nice compromise between Word and Latex), then please go ahead. You may have to learn it for two weeks or even a month, at first, but it will save you a lot of time and possibly embarrassment (as it happened in my case) later!”

    In the hopes of preventing someone else from telling a similar story in the future, here are two pieces of advice: 1) Every major word processing and typesetting program that I’m aware of will do the job, provided that you know how do use it. Every piece of software has a learning curve. Figure on six months minimum, probably a year. That means, never start a book project until you are familiar with the software. I would be adverse even to changing versions of the same program once I’m into the project, much less to changing programs altogether.

    2) Because every major program can do the job, you should choose the one that works best for you: It’s an intuitive and aesthetic choice, like Parker vs. Waterman.

    The poor fellow who made a mess of his dissertation should have been using Latex all along — assuming that the department and university supports it. To anyone who may find him- or herself in a similar position, I suggest that you discover early if your adviser is dogmatic about this-or-that software. If so, be prepared either to buckle down and learn it for real or get a different adviser. I recommend that you consider the latter. In the case above, I suspect the adviser insisted on Word because he does not know any other way to read and comment on-screen. If your adviser doesn’t show a little flexibility, perhaps learn how to use Adobe Acrobat, I would wonder whether he or she should be driving to campus, much less advising students on a dissertation project.

  21. Thanks for the solid advice. It will be really useful when people I submit documents to insist in a “Word Document Format” (like an upcoming conference in December).

    Might I compliment you on the exquisite typography on your web site. It is a joy to read.

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