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Letter From Elsewhere: The Lord of the Wing-Dings

I am in mourning for my software. We've been together for fourteen years. We’ve written three whole books, parts of several more, and countless papers, speeches, articles and reviews.

But last week, after a long battle, the Lord of the Wing-Dings finally triumphed. His encircling armies of converts were just too numerous and powerful, and I was exhausted by their endless demands that I conform to their systems. So I reluctantly gave the order to kill my beloved WordPerfect, the Writer's Friend, and replace it with Word.

These words are appearing in 10 point, because for some inscrutable reason, that's what the Lord of the Wing-Dings has deemed to be the most appropriate point size for creating new pieces of writing. They are small and mean, because they are only 75% of their proper size - another of His inscrutable Default decisions, back in those far-off days when Word first moved on the face of the screen. The top of the screen is cluttered with four distracting lines of words, numbers and silly little pictures called, ominously, "icons". He has ways of making you worship Him.

Yes, I know I can change almost all these things, plus a million more. Like His great prophet, Henry Ford, the Lord gives his subjects free will and infinite choice - so long as it's Word.

Of course, they must study the sacred manuals and beg Help to find the right menus and follow the right path through the maze of choices He provides for them. More important still, they need to know how to find their way back through the maze when they get it all wrong, as they inevitably will. In the dark land of Wordor, infinite choice turns out to be much the same as no choice.

There is another way - if you can pay the price. Moving among us are a devoted band dedicated to studying the Lord's Works. For $100 an hour, they will rescue you from the maze. The one thing they will never do (they must take some secret oath in their youth) is give you a specially designed map that is simple enough and clear enough to let you find your own way around Word and bend it to your own will.

WordPerfect was an open, transparent, obedient servant. You could make it show you the instructions you, or it, had put in. You could delete them all immediately, at any time, simply by using the delete key.

But in Word, there are many things the delete key will not delete. Instead you must know the secret removing code, even though you often don’t have a clue what secret code you inadvertently used in the first place. Mysterious formatting embeds itself in your prose at the slip of a finger, and stubbornly refuses to go away.

It's all hopeless, anyway. I'm locked into an alien environment, with no hope of escape. Because the truth is, the Lord of the Wing-Dings hates writers. No one with the faintest understanding of writing would ever have come up with these horrible wiggly red and green lines that flash into place like electronic secret police at even the faintest deviation from what they deem to be the rules.

The whole secret of writing is to pay attention to one thing at a time. And the very first thing you must pay total attention to is what you are trying to say. Editing comes later, and prof-reading comes last.

But before you've had a chance to get your ideas down, these nasty, officious little policemen come rushing in to prod you with their batons and point out that you've just made a spelling mistake, or (horrors!) you've put one space too many between this word and the next, and you must fix it RIGHT NOW. (WordPerfect gets an instant red line.) Yet because these idiots have the brains of an earthworm, they can't spot prof-reading.

Despite its name, Word is not designed for people who care about the words themselves. It's about form, not content. It's designed for people intent on dressing up and disguising the words in bullet points and boxes and a thousand different headings, with those dreaded Wing-Dings scattered throughout (they even turn up in novels). They just love the little bureaucrats who automatically leap in, uninvited, to number each new paragraph 1, A, i, with increasing indents. But the rest of us - the writers - have to keep going back and deleting what the Lord has decided we are writing, and by the time we've done all that we've forgotten what we were going to write next…Oh, the Lord of the Wing-Dings is mighty indeed.

When I can afford it, I'm going to get in a sympathetic, reasonably priced expert (there are a few of these pearls beyond price around) and beg him or her (it's usually a him, but that's another story, and we won't go there just now) to show me some easy way of automatically banishing the whole officious tribe of prodding policemen and frantic formatters.

Till then, there are only two ways to evade the Lord's mighty power, at least for long enough to get that first draft done. Use a pen and paper. Or turn the screen off while you write. Try it - you'll like it. But don't tell the Lord, or He'll find a way to stop you.

© Anne Else 2001

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