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IT Directions

Keith Harrison-Broninski

Why you don't need a word processor

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Most of us use a word processor, daily - and for many of us, it comes second only to email as a business tool. But is a word processor actually the best way to create written documents?

It is quite extraordinary that in the 21st century the standard way of creating formatted text on computers is essentially unchanged from its roots in 15th century typography. Gutenberg would have had no real difficulty using Microsoft Word. Prior to computerized typesetting, if you wanted bold text in a book, magazine, or newspaper, your printer would achieve it by taking the characters concerned from a bold version of the font and placing them into the appropriate positions on the page. These days, you do it yourself using a word processor - but the principle is exactly the same. You now place characters in bold by choosing the appropriate menu option, or clicking on a toolbar button, but - just as in the old hot metal days - the formatting is attached directly to the text itself.

Why on earth are we still doing things this way? As Charles Goldfarb writes: "Many credit the start of the generic coding movement to a presentation made by William Tunnicliffe, chairman of the Graphic Communications Association (GCA) Composition Committee, during a meeting at the Canadian Government Printing Office in September 1967: his topic -- the separation of information content of documents from their format." The 40-year old "generic coding movement", of which Goldfarb was a founder member, eventually gave rise in 1980 to the standard markup language SGML, which in turn formed the underpinning of HTML and subsequently XML.

In HTML, for instance, one specifies that certain text is a heading by surrounding it with "tags" such as h1 (heading level 1) or h2 (heading level 2), one identifies a list using tags such as ul (bulleted list) or ol (numbered list), and so on. It is then up to the browser that displays the HTML to "render" headings and lists using appropriate fonts and layout. With HTML, the rendering choices are generally built in to the browser itself. With XML, however, there is more flexibility in document formatting - one can identify sections of text as being of any nature whatsoever, then define (by various alternative means) the way in which you would like text of each type to be displayed.

Such an approach to publishing has many advantages over simple typesetting:

  • You can do structural searches on the document (rather than just keyword searches)

  • It is possible to present the document in outline style

  • A document can be formatted in different ways for different purposes

  • Documents can be stored and analysed via knowledge management techniques rather than as a stream of bytes

  • ... and so on.

It is very hard to explain from a logical standpoint why most people do not write text in this way. Most likely, the reasons are simply commercial - the success of leading word processor products, for example. Yet there are few if any features of document creation that would not be better achieved via separation of content from formatting. And these days there are well-designed, free tools available for the creation and subsequent formatting of structured documents, tools that do not require the user to possess the technical skills of a programmer.


The success of SGML and its descendants is immediately visible to all of us in the increasing prominence of the World Wide Web in everyday life. Yet, for some reason, the vast majority of people still write documents using a word processor, in which text is only structured via an implicit association with the attached formatting - and this is completely unreliable. Few people are consistent in their use even of bold or italic, for example.

More to the point, many word processor documents are stored natively in a format that precludes the simple presentation of the text in alternative forms. Yet this is potentially extremely useful. For example, it would be very valuable if a single document could be displayed either as an article, a slide presentation, a set of Web pages, or a syndicated feed - something that is impossible to achieve via conventional word processing.

In the next postings to this blog I will show how anyone, no matter how technically uninclined, can use simple, free tools to create documents in which content is cleanly separated from formatting. I will also illustrate the immediate business benefit of doing so with examples drawn from daily life.

If you ever write documents (and who doesn't), stay tuned.

1 Comment


I am a documentation and training specialist who has been caught between the devil and the deep blue sea for almost 5 years now. The devil ... the entrenched bureaucracy in every company I've worked for that faithfully trots out the Microsoft party line and claims that the reason I can't make information accessible from (100X)pages of MS Word and Visio is my "lack of training". The deep blue sea ... almost all my portfolio is in XML or XHTML that I demonstrated during interviews for the job these folks hired me to do.

The proof of concept was a help system I wrote after hours. The customers loved it. The CTO gave me a nice award. Not long afterwards he was fired and I was laid off.

Keith Harrison-Broninski cuts through the hype in his hands-on guide to where enterprise IT is really going

Keith Harrison-Broninski

Keith Harrison-Broninski is a researcher, writer, keynote speaker, software architect and consultant working at the forefront of the IT and business worlds.


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