The Trouble With Word Processors

by | Jan 19, 2010

I’ve been seeing a lot of the books self-publishers are producing on their own. Most of these books are “typeset” with Microsoft Word or another word processing program.

The problem is that these programs are the direct descendents of typewriters, not typesetting systems. They were originally meant to mimic the “look and feel” of the familiar typewriter. This was partly intended to calm the anxieties of the millions of secretaries and assistants who were being asked to switch to computers.

In fact, the original word processors typed with mono-spaced fonts—where each letter or number or punctuation takes up exactly the same amount of space—just like on a typewriter.

In contrast, today’s typesetting programs are descendants of early professional-level computerized typesetting systems that had taken over from film-based typesetting machines. Typesetting was an expensive business, and the people who bought type for books and magazines were skilled professionals who expected a quality product.

No, It’s Not The Same

I thought it would be interesting to look at a direct, head-to-head comparison. Here’s what I did.

  • Located some text and placed it in a Microsoft Word document.
  • Formatted the document to the size of a typical softcover book, 5-1/2″ x 8-1/2″ and set the margins all around at 1″.
  • Set the text to Minion Pro, 11 point with exactly 15 points between lines.
  • Turned on hyphenation, set the first line in each paragraph to indent 1/4″ and set the paragraph to justified copy.

I saved the resulting page as a PDF file so I could export it to a JPEG.

Let’s Try InDesign

Next I revved up Adobe InDesign. This program is the inheritor of decades of typesetting expertise and programming. It has remarkable flexibility and amazing precision in its controls. It’s not cheap, but it’s designed as a tool for professionals, and in that context it’s actually a bargain. Here’s what I did.

  • Grabbed a template for a 5-1/5″ x 8-1/2″ book
  • Set up a text frame and imported the file
  • Arranged my page and type specs to match the Word file
  • Exported the page as a JPEG.

I think it’s really interesting to compare these two pages. Here they are:

Comparison of Word and InDesign

Word (left) and InDesign (right). Click to enlarge

Almost every line of the Word version shows why it’s not a typesetting program. For a clear example, look at the third paragraph down. Gangly lines of words with large spaces, barely holding together. Compare it to the density and even “color” of the InDesign page. It’s a startling difference, at least to me.

Keep in mind that these pages are the result of raw text “dumps.” Although Word has almost no spacing, kerning or tracking controls, InDesign has many. I could start to manipulate this InDesign page to get exactly the look and feel I’m looking for. Incremental, almost infinitesimal changes will alter the overall tone of the page, and make it a more or less enjoyable reading experience.

And also keep in mind that the adjustments a designer might make for this layout in this case, with this specific typeface, are not necessarily the same ones she would make with another layout or even just another typeface, even of the same size and spacing.

So not only is the raw output of the InDesign typesetting algorithms far superior to anything Word can generate, in the hands of a competent designer, it will be that much better. Not only that, but I’ve used a premium font, one built for typesetting, for these samples. Most DIY self-publishers are using the fonts that came with their system.

Does This Story Have a Moral?

The explosion of interest in self-publishing has lead to an unprecedented number of books being produced on word processors. If you want your book to look the best it can, if you want a book that looks like a book and not like the report you did for English Composition, it’s good to know the difference. Sure, you can “typeset” your book on a typewriter, but then again, why would you want to?

I look forward to your comments.

Takeaway: Word processors are descended from typewriters. If it’s typesetting you are looking for, they are not the right tool.

Editor’s Note: This article is was written a number of years ago, when I honestly didn’t think it was possible to create a professional-quality book with Microsoft Word. Readers continued to request a way to format their books with the software they already owned and used: Word. In response we’ve created an amazing assortment of easy-to-use, affordable templates for Word that produce industry-standard, beautiful books. We also offer templates for Adobe InDesign, Two-Way templates that create print and ebooks, cover design templates and much more. Take a look at Book Design Templates.

Image: Stock.xchng / Kriss Szkurlatowski

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Majenko

    I have been working on a new website especially to tackle this problem. It takes a .docx file from Word and tears it apart. It then rebuilds it (using LaTeX and a bunch of custom scripts and templates) into a high quality PDF for you to send to a printers.

    It’s still in its infancy, but the feedback I have had so far have been really promising.

  2. Emmanuel Kelechi Ekeh

    There is nothing Microsoft cannot do…what it cannot do for you is what you don’t know how to do with it…so learn…But in some designs like book covers… Or science diagrams…you may do that else ware…may be use coreldraw/ adobe illustrator…then copy…copy and paste in ms word…it is the ultimate

  3. Shirley Xanthos

    I just came across your article on ‘The trouble with word processors’ and can’t help but feel frustrated. Some years ago I purchased the licence for an InDesign program (at great expense to me at the time). I had not used it for some years due to spending time researching and writing and finally had my manuscript ready. In my spare time it took me three months to put the book together in my program. I only had the contents and illustrations pages to format then the proof would have been ready. Suddenly I lost everything. At first I thought I had done something wrong but it turned out that the licence of the product was no longer supported. So my choice now is to either purchase a new subscription, which I will have to pay for each year (seems licencing products might be a thing of the past) and start all over again, pay someone else to typeset or go back to my word program and print the book and just photocopy as many as needed. Perhaps this is why so many self-publishers who don’t have the funds stick to Word.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Shirley, I’m really sorry to hear about your problems with laying out your book. It’s usually not a good approach for authors to take on the technical sides of publishing, especially with their first publication. You might want to have a look at the tools we provide to help authors with this chore here: Book Design Templates

      • Cindy Goodwin

        I enjoyed your article about typesetting. Over thirty years ago I was a typesetter back in the days when computerized typesetting was fairly new and you had to literally cut and paste. I loved to take something scribbled on a sheet of paper and creating something beautiful. I wish there was some way to update my skills and work professionally again.

        • Joel Friedlander


          Yes, I set lots of type in that era. Check out this post: The Keyboards of Our Lives.

          You already have the most difficult to acquire skills, all you need now is a short course in using Adobe InDesign and you would be back in business. I recommend the video training on, it’s very comprehensive.

  4. ScientificPublisher

    Any self publisher who does not want to spend money typesetting their work should, in my opinion use LaTeX. It provides professional level typesetting and truly, takes about 30 mins to learn the basics, especially for simple memoir type documents.

    Used to be that installing TeX packages would cause an immense amount of royal pain but with online processing platforms like Overleaf and ShareLatex , there really is NO excuse for a self publisher NOT to check it out. When I started out making scientific reports (way harder to reference and include equations), it still took me about 1 hour to go from NO prior experience to a stunning professionally typesetted high resolution PDF.

    Also, the heavy crowdsourced TeX online support is just brilliant. Even reddit’s LaTeX subreddit is very useful.



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