More on line breaks from Rick Schaut

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh
May 20th, 2004 • 7:35 am

Microsoft developer Rick Schaut has written a follow-up to his original post on line breaks in Word. In his follow-up, he specifically refers to my post on his blog entry.

I don’t really have time to address his response point by point. I’ve already spent a lot of time trying to get Rick to understand where I and users like me are coming from — apparently with little success. I am extremely grateful to other readers of Rick’s blog who’ve taken time in their comments on his blog entry to elaborate on my comments and corroborate them.

I’d just like to add a few things. The first one is a general comment on the validity of my criticism. I certainly don’t claim to have access to statistics about Word users on the whole. All I can say is that there are a number of Mac users around me (my wife, colleagues, friends, etc.) who use Word and ask for my help on a regular basis. And they all have experienced and still experience significant frustration with the product. Is it a coincidence? I don’t think so. How often do I have to tell them, “Sorry, that’s just the way it is in Word”? Far too often. Yes, I probably am sometimes too “rude” in my comments on Microsoft’s products and what people like Rick Schaut write — but I honestly don’t think I am a mean-spirited person who does this type of thing for fun. I believe I have written enough stuff to show that picking on Microsoft is not something that I enjoy. Why do I get rude sometimes? Simply because I am trying to get some work done, and Word gets in the way, and it pisses me off. If you read this blog regularly, you’ll know that I also get pissed off by other software products, and even hardware.

It just so happens that most Microsoft products are not well designed, and that the inconsistencies, bugs, etc. far outweigh the positive stuff that would enable me to provide more “balanced” coverage of the products. I honestly don’t think there are many Word features that I feel work just fine and have really been properly implemented. There are flaws everywhere. And I cannot help but contrast this with the quality of a software title such as Spell Catcher X. Yes, it is a smaller piece of software, that does far fewer things. But still… the contrast couldn’t be any sharper, especially in light of the fact that the things that Spell Catcher X does so right are precisely things that Word fails so utterly to do properly (multilingual spell checking, autocompletion, and punctuation).

The second thing I’d like to address is what he says regarding the length of headings in table of contents. Rick says that I shouldn’t use line breaks to break headings that are too long to fit in a single line in a table of contents, and that instead I should try to rewrite the headings so that they fit in one line. This is unbelievable. One of my jobs is to edit an academic review. I have the latest issue right in front of me, and, of the six papers included, three have a title that spans more than one line in the table of contents! (Fortunately, I do the page layout for this in InDesign, so I don’t have to deal with Word for more than just text editing.)

Has Rick Schaut ever opened an academic review? Or reports written by public servants? Has he ever seen how long titles can be? Who is Rick Schaut, a MS developer, to tell us how we should write? This is precisely the type of attitude that illustrates what’s wrong with Microsoft. Instead of actually responding to constructive criticism about the possible uses of line breaks, a Word developers tells us how we should write so that we don’t have to use them! It would really be funny if it weren’t so sad.

Finally, the stuff about poetry is simply insulting. First of all, I clearly specified that it wasn’t just about poetry, but also songs. And there are many people writing songs (or reproducing song lyrics). And if “there just aren’t all that many poets out there who are likely to be in any way concerned about the difference between line breaks and paragraph breaks“, maybe it’s precisely because Microsoft has done such a poor job of showing them how to use line breaks and paragraph breaks to properly format a poem or song.

Instead of criticizing people for the way they write or the way that they use Microsoft Word, it’s time for Microsoft developers to start criticizing their own work in a more meaningful way. Otherwise, we’ll never get anywhere.

3 Responses to “More on line breaks from Rick Schaut”

  1. Henry Neugass says:

    Word is built for the average needs of the average users. It does a pretty good job at meeting those needs. Maybe as an inevitable consequence, it is not easily adaptable to more exacting requirements.

    This makes me crazy and pissed off, too, from time to time — too often.

    Here’s a different path to the same point. I’m guessing MS designers, a long time ago, simply picked the wrong architecture for modeling and maintaining the contents of sophisticated documents. They were unable to anticipate future needs — disappointing, but not exactly an unusual or terribly culpable failure.

    The company has managed to get along for quite a while using this architecture, patching it up as they go, because most users don’t place high demands on it.

    I don’t like being told how to write, either. And I recently re-vistited the line break vs. paragraph break issue — and I realized that I had forgotten how to generate a line break. It’s pretty simple… but not exactly intuitive.

    Perhaps Mr. Schaut’s comments, in broader context, at not at all arrogant, but are simply as close as a Microsoft employee will ever get to saying, “Sorry, if you need that much control, you’ll need to use InDesign.”

    With respect to poets, I think his words might be interpreted to the effect that it is difficult for anyone to see how to make shift-return (for a line break, versus shift-enter for a page break) intuitive to _anyone_. The paradigm _should_ allow such fine control without resort to obscure controls, but it doesn’t.

    You and I and our colleagues need not like this state of affairs– and we don’t! I agree that Microsoft will ultimately be better served by being open to our comments. What would make them secure enough to do so?

  2. Pierre Igot says:

    I am not sure what would make them secure enough to become more open. They already have a de facto monopoly, so they’re not exactly under threat. They don’t seem to be under any major threat from senior MS executives as a unit either. They certainly have enough resources. (I remember reading quite recently that the MacBU was the biggest Mac software development team outside Apple.) And they certainly have enough users motivated to provide feedback. As I see it, it’s mostly an attitude problem. They seem unable to accept that users of their products might become frustrated and therefore critical of them. They don’t seem to realize that we don’t get paid a single cent to troubleshoot Word and work around its bugs.

  3. Henry Neugass says:

    Nicely put.

    Let’s consider this: If the core of Word is as mysterious and off-limits as we have speculated, _they_ –the developers– may be as frustrated as we are! But, as you point out, they are being quite amply rewarded in the process.

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