U.S. Intellectual History Blog

I’d Rather Switch Than Fight; or, Goodbye, MS Word?

I lost about an hour worth of worktime this morning due to Word 2008 misbehaving on my Mac (mid-2007 MacBook Pro 17 inch running the latest version of OSX 10.5, fwiw). Lots of delays while the old color wheel randomly spun and two outright colorwheel crashes. This was completely frustrating.

It’s been years since I’ve seriously considered using another word processor. We get MS Office for free at my institution, so price is just not an issue. And though I’ve been aware that some colleagues in the sciences and social sciences have done their work on LaTeX for years, that never seemed like a viable option to me.

Lately, however, I’ve been reading about people using three other Mac word processors that, in principle seem attractive to me: 1) Pages, the iWork word processor; 2) Nisus Writer Pro; and 3) Mellel. Nisus has been around for a long time. Pages is a relatively new addition to the iWork suite (which I already own, so I could use it for free). I just heard about Mellel last week.

So why don’t I just switch? After all, I avoid the rest of the MS Office suite at this point; I use Mail.app and Keynote and basically don’t use spreadsheets at all. In principle I’d love to entirely free myself from Microsoft and their bloated, buggy software. Each of the three alternatives I’ve mentioned is supposed to be more stable than MS Word. And Mellel is specifically designed for academic writing. It’s apparently a champ at dealing with large documents, footnotes, etc.

Here are my biggest concerns:

1) Compatibility: So much of my life involves sending people soft copies of documents. Can they open documents that I produce on these other word processors?

2) Mark-up: I’ve become addicted to MS Word’s editing functions. This is how I read and mark-up student papers these days. And it’s how I collaborate on written projects. Do these word processors have similar features and if I’m relying on others opening my documents in other word processors, will they see my comments?

3) Learning curve: I know MS Word. How long will it take me to get up to speed in these other programs?

I imagine that much of our small exclusive readership uses word processors in similar ways to me.

Have any of you tried to switch from MS Word to any of these other programs? If so, what advice can you give?

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. There are lots of alternatives to MS Word for Mac.

    I use Pages ’09 in iWork. I’ve used neo-Office (free and there are variants of the Open Office software), and have test driven Mellel. I’ve not worked with the latter much, but it’s supposed to be intended for academics.

    So far, of the Mac alternatives to Word, I’ve found Pages most useful. I read student papers on-screen, mark them up with comments and send them back as PDFs (which are easy to create in pages). Moving between Word and Pages 09 is easy.

    My main criticism of Pages is that the footnote function cannot be automated – I can’t make a keystroke combination to create a fn. Otherwise it’s fine. I lecture from the notes on-screen and there is a function that shows only the text and blocks everything else. It’s great for composition as well as lecturing.

    R. Scott Clark
    Westminster Seminary California

  2. There is a chance you wrote this post by reading my mind; the Word crashes, losing things many hours and many seeming autosaves back, is maddening.

    Glad to hear Pages has much of the same functionality. To take the questions to the next level, are the other options interwoven with EndNote, Zotero, and the like as much as Word can be?

  3. If you are looking for an alternative to Microsoft Office, I would HIGHLY recommend checking out OpenOffice at OpenOffice.org.

    It runs almost exactly like Microsoft Word, but comes without all the bloat. It also can open a myriad of file types — including all of your old Word files.

    You’ll never look back.

  4. Thanks for all the comments!

    Scrivener has a lot of online fans (including Eric Rauchway of UC Davis and Edge of the American West), for whom it’s a critical part of their workflow (and Scrivener users seem to be the sort of people who use the word “workflow.”) On the strength of such recommendations, I downloaded Scrivener and gave it a spin about a year ago. It’s a simple and elegant piece of software and I understand its attractions. But for the moment, I prefer not to.

    While we’re on the topic of not-quite-wordprocessors for the Mac, it’s probably also worth mentioning a couple others that come up: WriteRoom is designed to provide a distraction-free writing environment; Bean is apparently a very competent, barebones, and FREE (as in free beer) word processor. Neither WriteRoom nor Bean are full-scale word processors; neither does footnotes, for example.

    Finally, a note on why I didn’t mention OpenOffice. OO has always had a slightly odd relationship to the Mac platform. Until last fall, the official Mac version ran awkwardly off X11, though now it’s finally native on Intel Macs. As a result, NeoOffice, a fork of the OpenOffice project, was usually the recommended implementation. NeoOffice, however, was always a full version behind OpenOffice.

    More importantly, the chief benefit of the entire OO project was that it was a full-service, compatible, and FREE (as in both free beer and free speech) product. Stability was never its long suit, as far as I can tell. And since I get MS Office for free (as in beer), I’m only interested in a word processor at this point, and stability is my #1 issue, I haven’t been much tempted to jump into this particular pool.

  5. If you care about compatibility, I’d strongly discourage any of the Mac-only options. OOo 3 is quite and stable on the Mac these days. I use it regularly, and it’s never crashed on me.

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