Pitfalls of WYSIWYG

Clippy Sucks

Typing documents in word is one of the most frustrating tasks that I can think off. Every once in a while, I have a chance to see people completely loosing their temper because the Office application refuses to do something.

Today my boss ended up with a document in which some paragraphs had the “Keep with next” property set on them. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, don’t worry – neither does 89% of MS Word users. This elusive property makes paragraphs “sticky”. Word will try to keep all of them on a single page if possible. This can be very useful when you want a heading and a brief description to go with a figure. By default, Word would insert a page break between the text and the image if there was not enough space to fit both. “Keep with next” prevents that from happening, and forces word to put the page break before, or after the marked block.

My boss encountered the directly opposite case. His page was composed of a big table, and 3 paragraphs of text underneath it. There was a single line break between them. When he tried to put more space between the table and the text, all 3 paragraphs would magically jump to the next page. This was of course correct behavior cased by the “Keep with next” property. But for my boss the document was simply broken, and I needed to fix it.

Since I do not use Word unless I have to, it took me several minutes to figure this behavior out. Fortunately, I knew what I was looking for. Most people don’t. And this is a problem.

For me the biggest pitfall of WYSIWYG is that in many cases, what you don’t see is as important as what you do see. For example, “Keep with next” is for the most part undetectable. The only way you can find it is by right-clicking on a highlighted block of text, and choosing Properties.

WYSIWYG hides all kinds of important stuff like formating and layout tags. Some of these can be revealed in word, but most stay hidden. Best example here is the the treatment of boldface text. Please do this experiment in word:

  1. type in a line of text, and press enter
  2. type in another line
  3. highlight the first line with your mouse and bold it
  4. put your cursor at the end of the first line and press enter
  5. start typing another line in between the original two

What happened here? Why is the new line bold also? Internally, some sort of formating mark is placed before and after the bolded text. When you place your cursor at the end of the bold line, you put it directly in front of the invisible, undetectable “end boldface” mark. When you hit enter, you move this mark to the next line. This should not be happening! WYSIWYG my ass! It’s the stuff that you don’t see that matters!

This is why I like to type in plain text, and use markup for formating. In latex and HTML I decide how to structure my text, and where to put the tags. And since these tags are visible, a simple copy & paste is not going to ruin my formating. I really think we would all be much better off without this silly WYSIWYG paradigm. Do yourself a favor and drop Office products and learn latex.

Alternative would be to combine both concepts. Take a page from Dreamweaver or Mozilla composer and provide users with a WYSIWYG tab, and Formating tab where they could see and edit all the formating tags. You do not need to show messy XML – just convert all the formating tags to nice graphical symbols or buttons.

In fact, I vaguely remember using Corel Word Perfect back in the day, which had that feature. Why can’t this be part of MS Word? Why can’t someone implement this in OpenOffice.org?

[tags]wysiwyg, ms office, wysiwyg pitfalls, ms word, markup[/tags]

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5 Responses to Pitfalls of WYSIWYG

  1. ZeWrestler UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    thats the beauty of open source. you can implement it.

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  2. Luke UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Well, I’m not sure you can do this by just submitting a patch to Oo.org. This is probably something that should be designed into the core document format support. This should be built as an integral feature of the ODF support.

    I don’t think I’m the right guy to do this, but yeah – someone definitely could do it.

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  3. ZeWrestler UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:


    this should be the place you need to go.

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  4. jambarama UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    Or you could use TeX! It isn’t WYSIWYG, nor is it as easy to jump into as Word, but there has never been a time using TeX that I thought “why the heck did it do that?”

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  5. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Yeah, LaTex is awesome. I use it for all my personal witting, and school related stuff. My thesis was done with LaTex. I even made my defense presentation slides in it. :)

    Also every syllabus, homework assignment and exam that I write is done in LaTex. I usually use Powerpoint for lecture presentations because I can then write on it using the SmartBoard, save it and republish edited lectures slides for the students. :)

    My other job is a windows shop though, with everyone pretty much addicted to Office. So I have to deal with it.

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