Oh What Tangled Webs…Working with Style Sheets in Word Part 1

Welcome to Part 1 of an ongoing series to help you get your Word documents in order. This will eventually form a portion of a non-fiction book that I’m currently writing on how to better format your novel and prep it for print. There seems to be a plethora of information on creating ebooks, but I find some gaps in the print-on-demand field and I hope I can help some folks out.

Now, those of you who craft your work in Word, raise your hand now. And of those, how many understand Word’s somewhat convoluted style sheet and way of handling formatting? Yeah? Just about no one? Well, that’s totally understandable, and I want to talk a little bit about it today. Even among those of us who use Word on a day-to-day basis in our professional lives (technical writer speaking here) the thing can be a difficult beast to tame.

The problem? For a long time, Word did not account for well-formed code, which caused all kinds of headaches when people used divergent formatting and didn’t use style sheets. This is the #1 reason WordPerfect shall forever be the perfect word processor, but I digress. Going to talk a little technical here before I get to the more practical demonstration, so feel free to skip the next two paragraphs. At work, I would probably be telling you to skip to Step 5.

I’ve talked a little about this before, but one of the biggest problems that faced the early web was the relative flexibility of HTML. That’s right, it was actually too flexible. It’s great that browsers could allow you to do different things, but it led to fragmentation, wherein some sites were nigh-unviewable in certain browsers. You still see this in some instances today, but it’s become very, very uncommon because people got their heads out of their asses about standardization of features across the language (well, to some extent. It could be better but it’s a huge improvement over the early 00s).

So, you might wonder, how does this apply to Word? After all, Word didn’t even support HTML for quite some time. The problem is that this same thinking applied to Word. Combine that with the fact that no one envisioned early word processors as a desktop publishing resource and you have a product that’s trying to grow while being held back by its own legacy and the demands of the current market for a delicate balance of flexibility and rigidity. I don’t blame them for having some difficulty with standards, especially when they support some antiquated formats. I’m sure something has to give with an architecture like that.

Anyway. The issue is that few people used a standardized template with their documents, and styles were in no way formalized. You might have one paragraph that’s tagged as “normal” while the next might be “normal (web)”. You might switch to a “graphic” tag and then have it stick in the next paragraph (this has been fixed in newer versions of Word). The biggest nightmare is copying text from one document and pasting it straight into another document with a different template. The new style gets inserted into the target document and just…that becomes a mess really quickly. You can see where style issues crop up.

Okay, you are now past the geek talk. The answer to all this is to keep a consistent template and style sheet, and be sure that you use styles when you’re writing. How to do that? Well, the current default template for Word 2010 (we’ll be looking at this today) is actually perfectly adequate for writing a novel, though I’ve developed some of my own styles. Continue reading

An eBook Standards Carol Part 1: Ghosts of Formats Past

Hey folks, brace yourselves for a lot of information about the eBook format wars; I’m going to switch hats for the next two posts and write as a technical writer rather than a novelist. I’ll get back to the ghosts and goblins soon, I promise. This post began with a two-part post over at A List Apart about the state of standardization in the current eBook market and where it might be going, including the need for a standard format that everyone can use. You can read Part One here and Part Two here, then come on back.

I shared the post with JW Manus, as she’s explored quite a bit with formatting eBooks and even taught me some tricks that I didn’t know. I was interested in seeing her take on it (and she is sharing her thoughts in tandem with my own here – we’re going for complimentary posts here, so please read hers, too, it’s a worthwhile read), but we ended up in a discussion and I realized that I, too, actually have some things to say about the current state of eBooks and format standardization. Here is the drive of my argument, cleaned up just a bit:

“I’ve come to realize that I’m fortunate in some ways, as I’ve been fighting the formatting wars for close to 13 years when creating documentation (I’ve become a style sheet wizard, which helps in HTML transformations, but that’s a hard-fought victory). Standards can definitely be a double-edged sword. Implementation is everything – MS Word, for example, has some standards, but the implementation is incredibly sloppy. Anyway…he’s right in that we’re becoming a bit more platform agnostic, but everything seems so very patchwork. The most reliable application that I have found for converting Kindle files is an antiquated command-line application. We have to use the ridiculous workarounds that come with translating legacy file formats, and the future is just more of those workarounds if we continue down the same path of everybody following their own paths. This line, in particular, echoes something I’ve written on my blog: ‘The publishing landscape of 2012 looks similar to the music landscape of 1998, crossed with the web designs of 1996: it’s encumbered by DRM and proprietary formats, it treats customers as criminals, it’s fragmented across platforms, and it’s hostile to authors who want to distribute their work through independent channels.'”

Essentially, I realized that I had lived through so much of the period described above that I should talk some about what that was like, and what I learned. Here’s a bit of my own journey, and how I see things eventually playing out, from the standpoint of a technical writer. Continue reading

An eBook Standards Carol Part 2: The Open Standard Phantom

Welcome to Part 2 of an eBook Standards Carol. You can find Part 1: Ghosts of Formats Past here. You can also find JW Manus’s post on the same topic here. Let’s pick up from where I left off yesterday. I saw a comment on Jaye’s blog that bears some repeating and ultimately drives to the point of this whole exercise for me: the last HTML specification that came out of the W3C came in 1999, with HTML 4.01 (created, in part, in reaction to what I discussed yesterday). This was right around the time that Cascading Style Sheets V2, or CSS V2, appeared on the scene and brought more flexibility to what you could do with your site.

HTML5 has been in development for quite some time, and still hasn’t been passed, and yet there has been considerable advances in standardizing HTML and you see a lot less divergence in sites. Though it’s still a concern, those little logos about your site being optimized for this browser or that has died out. Sure, now and again you find sites that work better in one browser or another, but in general the problem has gotten a lot better. Why? Because a concerned group of developers got together to start the Web Standards Project, which called for cross-platform solutions from the people making web sites, even if the companies weren’t going to support them natively. For awhile, we had relative peace, though mobile browsing is getting the whole thing going again. Our discussion of that ends here, though. If you’re interested in learning more, entire books have been written about the subject, and I urge you to check them out. By necessity, a lot of this is vastly simplified, but enough to get the job done. Continue reading