Volume 21, Number 3, Autumn 2004

Russ Hunt

St. Thomas University

http://www.

StThomasU.ca/

~hunt/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"Oh, don't bother; I'll copy the file and fix it for you."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Plague on Both Your Houses


I don’t know how many Inkshedders there are out there who will have confronted this, either as writers or teachers, but it has become increasingly apparent to me that we’re dealing with an industry that wants us to go back to about the fifties in terms of composition theory. Word processors and HTML text editors are increasingly, and inexorably, becoming text display manipulators rather than text processors. Editing something produced in any of the current version is more difficult by a factor of about five than it was five years ago.


I’ve got students creating assignments (lesson plans, essentially) for an eighteenth century literature course and posting them on a Web site so that the rest of the class can read them ahead of the meeting. One of them just posted a page which includes text that doesn’t wrap. Text is displayed out two or three hundred characters to the right of the screen.


She achieved this, she says, by composing the page in M$Word, and then saving it “as a Web page”—M$Speak for HTML. This happened at the end of class Monday night, and I casually said, oh, don’t bother; I’ll copy the file and fix it for you.


I spent over an hour yesterday trying to fix it without copying the entire text to a new file and reformatting everything manually in some different editor—and failed. I can’t find the code that means the text wraps in M$Word but not in a browser. I wound up converting the text to plain ASCII and re-introducing the formatting with Netscape Composer.


The problem is that the sheer amount of useless code that M$Word pours over the text makes it impossible to edit manually, and also—and this is my main concern—really makes it damn near impossible to edit within M$Word itself. Every change you make has amazing, unexpected consequences: there’s a bulleted list in the file, for example, and any attempt to modify it simply screws up the formatting entirely.


I can’t find an editor that doesn’t make it damn near impossible for someone who doesn’t already know what she’s doing—and can avoid formatting tricks and all the other bells and whistles that the damn programs shove in her face—to go back and revisit a text in any way other than spell checking. Both Word and WordPerfect, which seem to be the two default word processors around these days, and all the HTML editors available as well (though to a lesser extent), have been migrated to, or have evolved to be, text display editors. It’s all about how the text looks. And from my perspective as someone trying to help students learn to write, that makes them all next to useless.


What happens when a student wants to produce not a snappy graphic display but a text which can then be revised? I can’t find an editor that doesn’t make it damn near impossible for someone who doesn’t already know what she’s doing—and can avoid formatting tricks and all the other bells and whistles that the damn programs shove in her face—to go back and revisit a text in any way other than spell checking.


We spend half my career getting past surface error fixing as the default mode for editing . . . and Bill Gates & Co. wipe out all that progress in five years of “improving” their word processors.


So I guess I have three questions:

  1. has anybody else encountered this, or is this just a function of the fact that I’m a fossil and still want text markup to be comprehensible?
  2. does anyone know about publications or resources on the migration of word processors toward text display and away from, well, word processing?
  3. does anybody know about a program that’ll strip out the useless code from a M$Word-created HTML file? (as a plain ascii file the text in question is about 17K; in its full flower, as published to HTML by Word, it’s 48K). (By the way, I’ve tried M$Word's “filtered” HTML and Dreamweaver’s HTML cleanup. Neither touch the mess.)


</rant>

St. Thomas University

 

Amanda Goldrick-Jones

University of Winnipeg

 

Response


M$ (!) Word does NOT translate well into html, no matter what “they” tell you! At the very minimum, a user needs to turn off all “smart” features, such as the one that turns double quotes into curly quotes or two hyphens into an M-dash. Smart features become gibberish, and normal word wraparound bolluxes up when one tries to save Word as html—users might have to use hard returns to ensure that their text takes up no more than 90% of a 800 x 600 screen resolution or fifty (50) character spaces.


I’d tell students to avoid the save-Word-as-html option completely. Those who don’t have access to a web page program like Dreamweaver, Adobe GoLive, or FrontPage can use one of the web-page templates in IE, Netscape, or Mozilla Firefox. They’re not fancy, but they’re cheap and they work. Online course software like WebCT also provides webpage templates.


Hope this helps a bit!

 

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