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. Reuben Dunn


    just a question about design software.

    InDesign is rather costly. Is there a better, less expensive Windows software alternative to this?

    I presently use Word 2010, and have had little problems with it, albeit sometimes it’s like unbending a cooked pretzel to put the headers etc. up correctly, and am wondering, short of buying a preformatted template, if there’s a better alternative that is affordable.

    Any guidance would be gratefully appreciated.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Unfortunately, Reuben, I don’t know of any. Some people use MS Publisher, which is fine for flyers and stationary, but I don’t think it has the tools for long documents like books. We’ve been able to make Word into a decent layout program with our templates, and I think one of the reasons they are so popular is that there aren’t many alternatives. Did you know you can get InDesign on a subscription now for $19.95/month? If you only need it for a few months, that might be a good solution.

  2. cib

    Just use LaTeX.

  3. chris Lambe

    Can you type-set my book for self pub
    46,000 words
    How much you charge?
    P.S. Need it printed etc for launch in Nov 2014

    • saranya

      Mr. Chris Lambe,
      just saw ur query in website. sorry for delay. I’m editorial assistant in Bonfring Publication. We undertake editorial work such as formatting/editing the book material with book publication service. If u’re interested, kindly contact me via [email protected]. The charges may vary depending upon the format & other consideration.

  4. Jim Savage

    So where does this leave me having just bought one of your Word layout templates?

    • Joel Friedlander

      In good shape, because with our templates we’ve solved most of the problems of using a word processor for book layout.

      • Steven Zacharius

        Hello Joel,

        I stumbled upon your blog by accident. As an owner of a publishing company with a digital first imprint doing 20 titles per month we’re always looking for ways to make the costs of the title low enough in case the book doesn’t perform well. Yes we could certainly afford to buy InDesign, we use it in the rest of our art department. But we were looking at having freelance people do the page makeup for us. Most books will not end up in print and rather as an ebook. So I’m also interested in knowing what you recommend to convert the document to epub. I saw mention of templates you have for Word which might be a good compromise. I’d be interested in learning more about that.

        • Joel Friedlander

          Steven, the templates we have are displayed on our site here: Book Design Templates. Our print templates have e-book versions that attempt to keep as much of the formatting as possible when making the transition. And our 2Way templates will format both print books and ebooks from the same template, although the design on these is necessarily stripped down a bit. In either case, they allow you to use freelancers who only know MSWord to format books for you, and our Formatting Guide will step them through the process. If you have further questions, use the contact form on the templates site for fastest response.

  5. Tavares Jones

    Good evening, Mr. Friedlander!

    I am currently shopping for a typesetter and was wanting to know if you’d an idea of where I’d need to search to find a professional typesetter? Also, if at all possible, what is the amount an author could expect to pay for good quality typesetting? Thanks in advance for your time.

    • Raphael Freeman

      So a few comments, but first to Tevares Jones. Professional typesetting should cost you around $3 a page (sometimes less if there are more pages). If you are interested be in touch and I can do a free sample for you (which answers your first question as to where to find a good typesetter).

      Now to various other comments. The first one that really stands out to me was a comment on a graphic designer wants the page to look pretty. Well yes, graphic designers do. Don’t get one of those designers to typeset your book!

      A well–typeset book is like a good road. You are travelling from A to B. When you arrive, if your comments are to the tune of, “all those potholes” or “got lost three times”, then that indicates that the road was awful. If you comment are, “wow what a beautiful location” then the road has served it’s purpose.

      The story should be a good story. The person should turn each page because the story is great. If the book has been typeset professionally, then like the good road, the car will drive smoothly. If a person notices that the page is pretty, then the typesetter has failed. If a person slows down on the third paragraph or speeds up on the fifth due to poor spacing for example, then the typesetter has failed.

      Now, the truth is that Word (especially in version 2003) has got a lot better at the typography. It even supports old-style numbers (but not true small caps yet). But if you plonk a random piece of text into Word and then into InDesign with the default setttings, then even a person with no knowledge is going to get better results with InDesign. Think of the P setting on an expensive DSLR camera. Yes the result will be better than your camera phone, but the result will be even better if the person taking the picture actually knows how to take pictures.

      With regards to fonts. The difference between Minion Pro and Bembo has nothing to do with the original font designer (although Minion Pro happens to be a personal favourite). The difference is how the fonts have been digitised. I have been through the digitisation process of a classic font (a Hebrew font called Koren that was only available in lead) and it takes months of work and costs tens of thousands of dollars. Is the Bembo that is being used a cheap reproduction or a professional reproduction. Typically when the word “Pro” has been added, there are many nuances in the typeface from true small caps, real fractions, and manual kerning all programmed into the font. Take for example the Garamond that comes with Microsoft Word and Garamond Pro that Adobe used (and may still) bundle with InDesign. Completely different results.

      Ultimately, you can look at the sample above and try and work out which is better, or you may have a “feel” for it, but in the end, when the book is printed, the book that has been typeset professionally will be a more enjoyable experience for the reader than the book that has been put together in Word. Will it sell more copies? I can’t tell you.

      Now in regard to digital publishing (this thread started three years ago of course). It’s tricky. Books that appears in Kindle, is well, rubbish. Books that appear in iBooks are better, but nothing compared to InDesign. However, just like 25 years ago, books were being produced in Aldus PageMaker and printed out in 300dpi were considered by professional typesetters to be, well rubbish, things have improved somewhat!

      I sincerely hope that the time it takes to get from awful typography on tablets to great typography will be much shorter than the path from PageMaker to InDesign.

      And finally, money. Yes Adobe InDesign is dead expensive. But I question the wisdom of a self-publisher actually typesetting their own work. Again it’s like the P button on the expensive DSLR camera. The point of self-publishing is to give you the ability to sell books at a greater profit to yourself. With that profit, you should have more money left over to typeset a book than you would have if you had had the book published traditionally. You also will want a pretty good graphic designer to do your book cover too.

      Anyway enough of my ranting…

  6. Craig Eliot

    WordPerfect allows true typesetting (spacing between words, and spacing between letters in words) in a way that Word doesn’t. The results are much more authentic and pleasing, i.e., more readable. In fact that example of In Design here looks frighteningly like Word’s “perfectly balanced” (and therefore tiresome) spacing between words. The fact is that there should be very slight differences in spacing between the words because this relieves the eye and thus helps one concentrate on the meaning of the text.

  7. RichardG

    Hope you don’t mind me keeping an old thread alive. This is a very interesting page, both article and comments. I noticed that none of the people who commented about you page comparison specified if they had read it on the computer, or printed it out and then read it. I imagine most read it on the screen.

    I believe the difference between computer screen and physical print is crucial. Physical print (and this not on A4 paper) developed over hundreds of years, out of the longer tradition of calligraphy. The computer screen layout has developed out of printing, but also the early computer technology, which started from the typewriter. Html also introduced a spoke in the wheel, with it’s concept of codifying content independent of layout – so the computer could lay it out differently in different situations.

    The html experiment was largely a failure (imho). Web designers want control over how their pages look, and all sorts of tricks in html have been used to make that possible. Many publishers of on-line content have turned to .pdf as the way to make sure the page layout remains invariant.

    The on-screen situation now is unsettled. There are ever more devices with different screen-sizes and resolutions, some with touch-screens, and most of them offer web access and document reading. So how can a designer lay out a page on-screen without having multiple versions?

    I know this article is about books proper. I believe we need to keep a clear distinction between these and the on-screen world. I also believe that computers have not reached maturity when it comes to the tools and aesthetic conventions for on-screen display.

    There is surely a trade-off between excellence in aesthetics and more universal access. Both are valid concerns. I think we get confused between the two – which ends up with people posting “aesthetics in print don’t matter” when they mean that nobody is clear when they matter, and when they don’t.

    That added to the confusion between print on A4 paper, in books and on screen has left us all in a mess!

    • Glenn The Anti-Conformist

      First timer here, kindly excuse any mis-prodigals. I’ve just returned from four weeks in China to get my next book published. I’m a previously published author with Crown, but when I showed them my next effort about an unshaven Latino detective who delves in ghetto cases, they held my mock-book up like it was a dirty diaper and thus passed. I had an exclusive three-book deal with ‘em, however they made it pretty clear they want Romance, Vampire Couples, Cookbooks or Why I Have Two Daddys? Or anything that’s exactly like what just sold last year.

      Nonetheless, the Chinese publisher I settled on is asking for PDF files with crop marks, (I have no color, photos or graphs – no need for color chart or reg. marks). So, I just reviewed the above comparison images because I have to make a decision quickly, which way to submit. Well, certainly the ID version above looks 100% better than the WORD version, as depicted. However, upon closer inspection, it appears to my eye, that the submitter has gone to extreme efforts to degenerate the WORD version; lower resolution, lower opacity, (perhaps done in PS), having an almost gray color, fuzzy font, yet with the ID version, it has more contrast, darker font color and crisper resolution. I know this because I compared these same images to my WORD version of my book, (reduced to lower resolution for fairness), side by side, and its fairy obvious some trickery has been performed. Albeit, the kerning and spacing is superior with ID, but I would bet a hundred bucks my father wouldn’t know the differences in a million years and he purchases four books a week. I’ll also bet a hundred bucks not one judgmental InDesign techy will even know about my book, let alone purchase it. (I still wuv you guys, er, people).

      Consequently, I’ve seen this type of disingenuousness with the FCP vs. Premiere Pro film-editing crowd; via purposefully inserting crappy and bad cuts, crummy sound tricks and intentional bad color-correction to make the PC look like crap next to Apple.

      For me, content is king, the story trumps all. Also, anything that brings publishing closer to the people and away from those who wish the publishing world to remain only for the so-called professional elites, who will stoop at anything to elevate their status, is for me what counts. It’s like arguing how Hitchcock’s classic Psycho would be much better if shot digitally today in HD/3D/Dolby 5.1/4K Resolution.

      In conclusion, I feel I’ve mastered WORD, but humbly called upon a designer friend who touts ID as the end-all and of course his skills at mastering it, but not surprisingly, he wants a fortune to convert my WORD design, which is what this is all about, and has always been about—money and control.

  8. Jacqueline D.

    You advise the use of software that is expensive to buy. And most writers are poor as dirt and can barely afford a freelance editor, let alone this software that you recommend. Whereas Microsoft Word comes free on almost any computer that you buy. And yes, I did search up the program and look up it’s price. If it comes down to hiring an editor or buying the software that you recommend, I would advise writers to sink their money in a freelance editor to give their manuscript a once over before publishing.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Hi Jacqueline, and thanks for your comment. To be clear:

      • Microsoft Word is not a free program, although it costs a lot less than InDesign. It may be preinstalled on many Windows PCs, but you are definitely paying for it.
      • I do not recommend that writers buy InDesign, what I’m pointing out is that InDesign can create professional-level typography, something that Word cannot do. I do recommend that if your publishing plans require a professional quality book, you hire a book designer or layout artist to do that part of the project. It will cost less in time and money than trying to do it yourself and you’ll end up with a better result.
  9. The Boogeyman

    So I notice you didn’t hyphenate the Word document.

    Might have something to do with the difference in spacing.

  10. Eira Fenn Gaunt

    I’ve been a typesetter for the last eleven years and am considerably cheaper than buying InDesign. If anyone would like to contact me regarding typesetting their books, then please contact me at above e.mail address. I actually love my job!

  11. Ravi Banthia

    “You get what you pay for” is often true.

    MS Word may have its shortcoming, but it also has its strengths.

    The above example isn’t quite enough to justify the higher price of ID.

    Thank you all, for your tips, especially Elizabeth Burton and Cheryl Anne Gardner.

  12. tonya

    Could send contact information so I contact you …

  13. tonya

    Hi my name is Tonya and I read your article…I’m in need of a typesetter do you think you can help with my manuscript of 250 pages…

  14. James Smith

    I was involved in typesetting from the early 90s just as the industry was swapping from old Monotype computers to Quark on Macs.

    What I found was that the extra abilities of the DTP programs left me as an OCD wreck – worrying about kerning, tracking and the overall colour of the text on a page.

    Not to mention moire, screens and over-printing on film outputs.
    This consumed more of my time than it should have.

    >> Spend less of your time on computers.

  15. Colleen

    Thanks for an interesting article – BUT – I’m laughing hysterically right now. I’m not a writer, but a reader who has stumbled upon this site, so forgive me, please, if I’m way out of line.

    The first thing I did when I got my e-reader was set it to sans serif. The second thing I did was bump up the size of the type. I’m prepared for the strangeness that sometimes results on a page, and it doesn’t bother me a bit. I’d be delighted if writers would stop inserting blank pages and merely insert a couple of blank lines before starting a new chapter, but otherwise format doesn’t affect me (and I actually prefer the Word document above – it’s easier to read). I really don’t care about the format of traditionally printed books, either, although I do resent that I can’t get them in a sans serif font.

    As readers, we’ve been forced to accept type and format that publishers produced. Now we can rebel – and most everyone I know is doing so. (We’re all getting old and our eyesight isn’t what it once was, so we’re all bumping up the size of the type and going to sans serif.)

    Give us a great story, watch the typos and plot line, put up a cover we can actually read and that is pertinent to the book, and we’re happy.

    Go forth and write – and don’t worry so much about the trappings!

  16. Daniel Kopf

    Great article. On the other hand, I’ve noticed these problems but haven’t found a poor man’s solution yet. Is there typesetting software available for people who can’t afford typesetting software?

  17. louise

    I class myself “professional”, but I didn’t see much difference at all. I certainly wouldn’t say, Ah that’s a DIY and that other is the professional.

  18. Derek Murphy

    Great post, thanks. I’m playing with inDesign, I think it’s true that professionals will immediately spot the difference.

  19. Don Mitchell

    I’ve looked at some of these types of comparisons for my book too. BTW, Open Office is identical in behavior to Word; presumably it was reverse engineered. In general it is very inferior to Word in capability and stability, so beware.

    Before giving up on Word, turn on the layout options “Do Justification like WordPerfect 6.x”. Most people think it is superior to the default. Also, consider “ragged right” which is fashionable now and some people believe is more readable than full justification of any form. Also, be sure to turn on Kerning in Word, amazingly it is not on by default.

    In any case, LaTex and InDesign do the subtle stuff like optical margins (pushing punctuation beyond the margin which can make it subjectively look more even). They also use a fundimentally more sophisticated algorithm (dynamic programming) for justification, to suppress rivers.

    Bottom line, I’m using word, because I think it is OK with Kerning and WordPerfect justification option turned on. But I’m still considering InDesign.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Don, thanks for that. I haven’t used Open Office but I’ve seen books done on it, and I think the limiting factor is the person who is doing the formatting. In other words, if you want to struggle with a document-oriented word processor, rather than the page-oriented layout programs like InDesign, you can do it, but it will take more work for a less-perfect result. But sure, you can turn out a decent book from a word processor if you put in the time and effort.

    • Brian Tillage (pseudonym)

      I’ve written two self-published books — one of which I sold more than 45,000 copies. I used professional typesetting equipment, specifically Linotype-Merganthaler equipment, to set both books, circa 1985-1995 (if you include two follow-up editions). I sold my graphic company years ago and am now working on my third book. Regretably, I find myself using Word 2007, which has to be the very worst software I believe I have ever used.

      Between having to constantly massage galleys after inserting new text; dealing with mind-blowing, piss-poor hyphenation; word and letter kerning issues; struggle with unsettled paragraph breaks that leave white space at the end of pages; and extra space at the end of numerous paragraphs where the program decides on its own to override “justified” and go flush-left . . . I am left asking the obvious: who on earth uses this software to write books? And if they do, do they really have all that time on their hands to try and make their page-layout perform even as well as all typesetting equipment of the 1970’s did with ease and without question?

      Sure, I was using $35,000 equipment at the time — (and that didn’t include the cost of fonts) — but the demands of non-technical, text-heavy books, fiction or non-fiction, are really quite simple.

      I’ll admit I haven’t been using “WordPerfect justification” or any special kerning functions — (I’ll try that, thanks) — but I have read several books on writing books with Word that I now find deceivingly and unjustifiably reassuring. I’m going to give it another couple of days before I throw in the towel.

      How do authors get away with using a program that, from a typesetter’s point of view, sucks so bad that even with a 75,000 word vocabulary, I find myself speechless in trying to convey its breathtakingly, embarrassing deficiencies?

      If I can’t solve the problem on my own, I may just finish the work with a reliable text editor and hire an In-Design graphic designer to produce and polish the end product.


  20. bowerbird


    sorry i’m so late to this party… but…

    to make your test fair, you should have
    turned hyphenation on in ms-word…

    also, since indesign will squeeze a line
    that’s slightly larger than the measure,
    fairness would’ve meant tightening its
    measure ever so slightly, so you’d get
    linebreaks in the same places in both.

    finally, i was going to direct you to
    the work of aaron shepard, who has
    shown that it’s fully possible to use
    ms-word to do high-quality layout…
    but then you mentioned his name!
    so why not see what he has to say?


  21. Joel

    Hey Christy, thanks, I’m honored. I’m not so sure you need to go this route though. Genres really differ substantially in their expectations, and your tax training books are probably fine as big format, Times Roman, word processor-originated publications. I have a number of real estate training books and they all look that way.

    Now, if you start to publish novels, or popular nonfiction, you might have to change. And maybe before the second edition of The Step-By-Step Guide to Self-Publishing for Profit! you might think about it…

  22. Christy Pinheiro

    Great post Joel, as usual. I have your blog bookmarked in my favorites. You’re right– the InDesign page looks a lot better. Everyone can see that. But I also understand the flip side of the coin. I invested a lot of money in my computer, my tax software, and Adobe Acrobat Pro– it kills me to have to purchase a design program, too. But eventually I will have to do it. Poor Word– I have not yet forsaken thee! Thanks for the great post.

  23. Joel

    Irk, thanks for that. I’ve seen a lot of bad looking trade books too, there’s no joy in that. Then you look at a book like the one I profiled last week, by Jennifer Robin, Growing More Beautiful, and see what a self-publisher who’s really motivated can do. That’s what excites me!

  24. Joel

    Owen, that’s interesting. I’ve never gone down the rabbit hole with Word, and don’t know that many tweaks. I use it everyday, but largely for prepping files. It’s incredibly powerful as a text handler, and very fast, a terrific program really. I’d be interested in seeing that comparison as well. Maybe Aaron Shepherd knows how to do it?

  25. Joel

    Cheryl, I think we’re all in the education business, in a way. Your approach is going to help a lot of people get better books than they would have otherwise. What’s not to like about that? And I don’t see those books as “plain” if what they are doing is enabling the reader—through the typography—to get the author’s communication.

  26. Joel

    Henry, thanks for stopping by. You know, it’s a little like an infection. Once you start looking at the typography from a certain angle, you just can’t stop.

    Larry, appreciate your comments. The whole ebook format situation seems pretty chaotic, and with the number of different ereaders coming down the road, it may get worse before it gets better. I think services like Smashwords will thrive because they make it easy for people to get into lots of formats with a little work, but the continued evolution of epub and other formats should—I hope—allow some real typography to come to the ereader world. I hope.

  27. Irk

    By the way, has anyone here tried LaTeX? Someone just pointed it out to me while discussing typesetting software. It’s free.

  28. Owen

    Very interesting (although not a real surprise to anyone who has used InDesign). I do wonder what the same test would do with OpenOffice (which actually has better results in this areas than Word I believe) and more importantly Scribus.

    I suspect that OpenOffice will be similar to Word but perhaps a little better. Scribus will be closer to InDesign but not as good. However, I think the real differences with InDesign versus even Scribus would show up in the tight type adjustments.

    Having said all that, some forethought and planning and knowledge can make even Word look a lot better than it might. It would be interesting to see a ‘vanilla’ word layout (no line spacing changes, just use a system font, etc.) versus a tweaked as much as possible Word layout.

    Anyway – thanks for your work.

  29. Cheryl Anne Gardner

    Thanks Joel. And making what you have work for you simply means not just having the tools but having the skill set. You are right, if you have never really looked at a book or don’t know your way around your WP program, then you need help. If you don’t know what to look for when doing the interior layout, then you need help from someone who does. So I think it’s great that you are educating people on the pit-falls of “what you don’t know can hurt your book.” Then after they “know” then they need to be made aware of all the options that can help correct it, whether that be a designer or an expensive software program or a backhanded trick of the Wordprocessing trade, of which I know many.

    For me, line spacing can be problematic, especially if it lacks any form of hyphenation. I do notice lack of hyphenation. But wonders can be done with auto-hyphenation and then manual hyphenation on top of that without condensing the character spacing and possibly crowding the text. I find crowded text, while it looks dense on the page, it can be difficult to read, and a little white space can make all the difference.

    WP programs, specifically Word, can do some funky things, and I find turning off all the auto-formatting tends to work best, then you can address the individual issues as you see them. I don’t know how many times I get an email about orphan and window control and the extra whitespace it can leave in its wake. Sadly, many DIY SPers don’t even know what an orphan or a window is. Once they are aware of it, then we can show them how to deal with it, and I find turning the auto-control off the best. Then I can manipulate other areas to take care of the issue and still have my text blocks end on the same line every page.

    I read your article on Bembo and loved it. I also use Word to layout my books, and I may be guilty of an orphan from time to time — sometimes for the sake of text block integrity you just have to let one go — but people have commented that my books look and feel quite professional. They may look plain, but I find plain to be most effective.

  30. Irk

    Thanks for posting this. I’m a writer and a designer all-in-one, so I feel a natural annoyance towards Word. It does a lot of thinks automatically that just don’t make sense, especially when you’re trying to do anything more complex than a block of text. It will never be the same as a high-end layout program, no matter what you do with it.

    Shop around for layout software if the newest stuff out on the market is out of reach. I got Adobe’s Creative Suite 2 about 4 years ago and it’s served me well ever since then. They’re at CS4 now and I still don’t need to upgrade. The tools as they were 4 years ago are still good enough for my job.

    Shoddy layout and bad text spacing shows no matter if it’s via self-pub or trad-pub. If the investment is too much for one person, then why not see if a few people want to throw together for one skilled person to do book layout? Then the software’s there and several people are set for quite awhile, layout-wise. You end up looking more professional, which does count in a lot of ways. Good design practices are not out of reach for the self-pub crowd, they just have to get creative – which they’re already all about, right?

  31. Larry

    Joel, you are correct, there is no comparison. We’ve done our books in both InDesign and in word processors…and for the print books, we won’t use anything but InDesign.

    However….since we try to get our books in multiple different formats (especially Kindle and other ebook formats), the process is a bit cumbersome with InDesign. ID exports to ePUB, but the Kindle process will not accept that format. Amazon’s DTP takes word, HTML or PRC formats; there are ways to de-zip ePUB and get to the HTML, but it is painful, and not automatable.

    So, the current process is word processor for raw, imported into InDesign for print and DTP for Kindle, and slightly modified for other formats.

    Any other better processes appreciated!

  32. Henry Baum

    I may be a philistine about typesetting, but I’m not really seeing the egregiousness in the side by side comparison. It seems to me something that would be noticed primarily by a typesetter. For me, indent spacing/orphan control/and flush margins are far more important.

  33. Joel

    Cheryl, thanks for your comment. I completely agree with your advice to stick with simplicity for the majority of DIY self-publishers. Many of the bad looking pages I’ve seen are the result of too much fiddling, the desire to ornament, or the feeling that the page is “too plain” to be effective. Simple is better, almost every time.

    I have to say that while I was preparing this blog post I was quite aware that some people, looking at the samples, either wouldn’t see any difference, or might prefer the Word version. Hey, as my old boss used to say, that’s what makes horse races!

    It’s also obviously true that very very few people ever notice the typefaces, layouts, formatting, hyphenation, or other details of the typesetter’s “arcane art” but that doesn’t mean nobody notices. And mediocre typesetting has never kept a book from being a bestseller, to my knowledge. But I notice.

    I’m not sure I agree with you when you say that “Indie is about DIY and it’s also about DIY with what you’ve got.” I don’t think it’s all about doing everything yourself, and the ability to know where and when to spend a few hard-earned dollars to get an advantage for your book that you simply can’t do yourself is a smart choice. Becoming a publisher (for those trying to make money at it anyway) is going into business. The businessperson who tries to do everything themselves may not be doing the best thing for their business. Each person has to decide how to use the resources they have to the best effect, and I think we agree there, for sure.

    Mostly what I’m interested in is education. Having the knowledge to know the difference is useful. Knowing the conventions of the field you intend to enter will make your work better and easier to introduce to other people. If you’ve read my article about Bembo over on Self-Publishing Review, you know that this can be taken to a ridiculous extreme, but that that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and it can even enlighten us about the work we do today.

    Lastly, Cheryl, I am also concerned with developing either educational tools or actual software templates or add-ons that could be used at very reasonable prices to allow indie publishers to get MUCH better results without breaking the bank. Stay tuned, and thanks again for your thoughtful post.

  34. Joel

    Elizabeth, thanks for your comments. Although I have no idea what you mean when you say Word is a facet of a “desktop publishing system.” Does that make it any different in its operation? It still produces pretty mediocre output, regardless of what system it’s part of.

    You’ll get no argument from me that the most important element in getting decent output, regardless of the program, is the skill of the operator. It’s pretty easy to produce dreadful layouts with InDesign or Quark, maybe easier than with Word, because you have so much control. I didn’t go into every failing of Word as a layout tool (illustrated books, anyone?) because I don’t really have any interest in bashing Word or its proponents. My idea was simply to show the difference. As far as the samples, my discussion only dealt with the different ancestors for these types of programs as a way of showing why they simply are not equivalents.

    If authors have to choose between publishing with a word processor layout and not publishing at all, of course they should use their word processor. Although I’m a designer, I’m also a writer. The content is what’s crucial in a book, not the tool used to produce it, and I celebrate the wider availability of the tools of publishing.

    But I disagree on one point: No amount of skill with a word processor will yield the same results as a skillful use of real typesetting software. So in some cases (not all the time), to produce certain kinds of typographic effects, you absolutely do need a different tool, a word processor just won’t have the controls you need.

  35. Joel

    Betty, thanks for the tip. I originally got a discounted version, but have had to pay full price for upgrades over the years.

    Walt, thanks for stopping by. I fully understand the reluctance of authors to pony up the money for typesetting software, and why should they? It doesn’t make a lot of sense to buy, and then attempt to learn, complex software just to do one book.

  36. Joel

    Hamish, thanks for your comment. Certainly the price of the software is an issue. Hey, I run a book design and production company, but I was pretty reluctant to part with the $700+ for the Adobe Creative Suite, and that was just the upgrade price!

    It’s also interesting the experiences that we bring to the discussion. I don’t really see myself as a “purist” or a “gatekeeper” or someone who’s putting up “roadblocks” to publication. Because I’ve worked with small publishers and self publishers since the 1990s, I feel more like I am empowering people to get their work out. And I think the books you produce, Hamish, are completely charming and idiosyncratic. That’s incredibly valuable to me when so much that surrounds us is mass-produced. Are your books “perfect”? No, but they have something else—the hand of the artist is evident everywhere.

    I’m not sure why you would be having problems using Quark for printing on inkjets (although I haven’t kept up with Quark in recent years). The output from Quark ought to be better than what you get from Word regardless of the device, as far as I know. And nice plug at the end, thanks for that!

  37. Cheryl Anne Gardner

    I agree with Elizabeth here. I spent a significant amount of time in the desktop publishing end of things back in the late 90’s and the trick with word processing programs is to know their quirks and know how to manipulate the software in order to get the most out of it. Perfection is a subjective term here because we are talking about aesthetics.

    I read on average 15-20 self-published books a year, some have terrible formatting, but most do not, and most are produced using Word or some other program of the like. Proper use of hyphentation can fix a lot of perceived issues with line spacing, most of those issues readers do not notice. I do not advocate that self-published authors spend a boatload of money on software for typesetting unless they know what they are doing, as the end result can come out worse than if they stuck with the WP program. I advocate the use of simplicity: simple print fonts, simple layout, and an uncluttered page. I have seen authors who follow the simple is best mantra and have come out with some very nice looking books sans the professional software/designer.

    As for your examples … word might have some spacing issues as I don’t see one single hyphen on that page, but for the Indesign one, well, my eyes bugged out of my head at the tightness of text. For me, the word .doc, even with its issues, is much easier on the eyes. Most readers would barely, if at all, notice the difference. Especially if they were reading this in ebook format, where typesetting makes very little difference because of the auto-reflow. I read about 50 mainstream books a year on average, and I couldn’t tell you the difference between fonts used, line spacing, kerning, or any of that. I notice the differences in chapter starts and drop caps, but nothing when it comes to the interior block of text. For all the professional work, it all looks the same to me, and it all looks much same as most of the SP books I have read. “The Last Witchfinder” was the only book I read in the last 5 or so years that had noticeably spectacular and non-conventional interior text formatting.

    I am all for professional type-setting, and I am all for helping Indies produce a better looking product, but I am also for helping them while keeping the issue of quality tangible and within their reach and their budget. I don’t want it to come down to: well, you shouldn’t be putting a book out unless you can afford this much for software or this much for a professional designer. Indie is about DIY and it’s also about DIY with what you’ve got. Learning how to make what you’ve got work for you, that’s the trick. I have seen mainstream books where I thought the formatting was a nightmare. Like opinions, no one reader’s eyes are the same as another’s.

    I am glad that you are taking a crack at allowing the DIY community to explore the art of bookmaking through your eyes. Your professional wisdom is much appreciated by all. You are opening minds and making Indies aware of the possible pit-falls of lackadaisical software usage, but we need to keep all options open before we advise the already piss-poor Indie author to open their pocketbook even more. We need to offer options beyond professional software and/or a professional designer. We need to be able to say, “Here is what you can do to tweak Word, or Openoffice, or Wordperfect, or Works, or whatever to get you closer to the mark. Sure, it won’t be perfect in a typesetting sense, but you can get close enough not to look sloppy and infantile.”

    That’s my take on it.

    • Cynthia Tucker

      I agree with Cheryl, the Word document looks easier on the eyes to me just as a regular person looking at text.

      • Joel Friedlander

        Thanks, Cynthia. I think part of what’s happening is that we’ve all become used to reading on screen, where most type is rag right and unhyphenated, much like the native Word output.

        But keep in mind these pages are intended for print books, and in that context, I don’t think the Word page would hold up very well to the InDesign version.

    • John W

      There’s the rub. Designers look at layout aesthetics. Text-heavy writers care about readability. I find the Word file more readable (even with splotchier resolution) because I read fast and the cognitive load is just lighter for some reason, and my eyes scan it faster. If I care about some other sort of experience, then the typesetting is the way to go. I still like visuals, but they should not intrude on the textual flow of the eye (as opposed to the page).

      Just as their are many self-publishers who limit their work by not using simple design principles, there are many “professional” design publication people who undermine the readability with irrelevant aesthetic concerns.

    • Shelley L. Houston

      Thanks SO much! You’ve inspired me to try doing my own typesetting on recently completed novel. My first novel broke even, after selling 400 copies! I am finding other ways for the sequel.

      Shelley L. Houston

  38. Elizabeth Burton

    As long as the person doing the interior design knows what they’re doing, a high-level word processing program is perfectly good for the purpose. Why? Because they are no longer simply word processing programs but facets of desktop publishing systems. In other words, the basis for comparison you’ve applied is incomplete.

    Is InDesign the best choice for a professional designer? Probably. For one thing, it automates many of the processes one has to do by hand using a “word processor.” But this nonsense that one has to either spend multiple hundreds of dollars or learn to use a program like TeX, which is only comprehensible to geeks and programmers strikes me as coming from exactly the same place as all the “no POD authors” rules the writers’ organizations propagate–trying to raise the barricades lest the hoi-polloi get into the castle.

    When I looked at the examples, my only response was that the spacing on the Word version was nasty. However, I read on to discover all the other problems I had inferred would be there based on the previous discussion. I learned that the problem with the Word versions was…that the spacing was nasty.

    A problem easily corrected, even using Word AS LONG AS THE PERSON DOING THE DESIGN KNOWS IT NEEDS TO BE DONE.

    In other words, the main problem with DIY layouts is that 90% of the people doing them don’t know squat about doing layouts. Buying an expensive piece of software isn’t going to fix that, and they’ll have an even sharper learning curve to become proficient in that software.

    As for “using the fonts that come with the software,” my software (I don’t use Word) came with Bodoni, Georgia, Baskerville and several other excellent fonts, all of which have been recommended to me for use by professional designers. Again, the issue isn’t lack of proper tools but lack of the skills to use them properly.

    Are there things I can’t do using my particular word processor I wish I had available. Yes, if only because I suspect they would save me time and/or let me do things I just can’t with the less technical program. Eventually, I may even break down and buy InDesign when I know I’ll have time to use it correctly. At the moment, however, I have no quarrel with the results I get, and neither do readers, apparently.

  39. Walt Shiel

    Well done, Joel.

    I am always amused at the self-publishers who insist that their only options are either to steal the proper software or do it with Word (which also costs money, by the way — or do they steal that, too?).

    There are open source alternatives to InDesign if somebody truly can’t (or won’t) fork over the money for ID — TeX is one. Of course, it is not WYSIWYG and does have a significant learning curve for those not familiar with non-WYSIWYG software. I prefer to use ID, but there are options. Scribus supposedly can do a reasonable job, too, but that statement is based on heresay only.

    Unfortunately, for most self-publishers even having the right software does not result in a professionally typeset book anymore than having a fully equipped workshop makes one an accomplished carpenter. You will have to study and learn constantly…and, yes, that means you should buy (or at least borrow) and read some of the many good books on the somewhat esoteric art and craft of typesetting and book design (which are really two different things).

    Another alternative, of course, is to hire a professional to do the job!

    A poorly typeset book often annoys the reader and reduces their overall reading enjoyment, even though they rarely are able to identify why.

  40. betty ming liu

    The comparison pages say it all. Thanks for making this point really clear for me. I’ll never use Microsoft for my DIY book (whenever that happens).

    Also, it’s possible to get InDesign for much less. When I took a basic web design course at Parson’s, being at the school gave us access to a discount price on Adobe products. I bought the full suite of InDesign, PhotoShop, etc. ALL for under $300. The catch was that if you pay full price, you can buy software updates. I can’t do that. But I don’t think it really matters.

    I’m told that if you cruise around online, you can find other ways to get Adobe at a discount; you don’t necessarily have to be connected to a college as a student. But it helps!

    • Anke Wehner

      The student licenses I’ve seen tend to have a stipulation that you may not use the software commercially, so that gets into iffy territory.

      • Joel Friedlander

        Good point, Anke, but I wonder just how they manage to enforce that?

      • Eric

        As a former,fairly recent student, two points about Adobe software. AFAIK, they have never limited their education licenses to non-commercial use. That was always one thing I respected about the company. I just checked my PS 5.5 EULA and saw no such restrictions. Of course, there are restrictions to purchase Ed versions. Also, with regard to upgrades. Again, AFAIK, and from casual crawling of Adobe forums (and personal memory), Ed versions carry the same upgrade policies and pricing as commercial versions.

        • Anke Wehner

          Thanks for the info/correction. :)

  41. Hamish MacDonald

    Yes, but…

    InDesign costs £699 in the UK (or the same in dollars in the US — the logic of which is a whole other conversation).

    That’s around two months’ rent. And here lies the difference between DIY and a publishing business: DIY is about accessibility — everyone has the right to share their ideas, and publishing a book can be done a lot more easily and cheaply than most people realise, especially when most folks are still under the impression that they have to be discovered, chosen, or otherwise given permission to do it. But that price is just not accessible to a lot of potential indie publishers.

    It’s great that there are type purists carrying the torch in a digital age, reminding us of important distinctions like “Comic Sans is evil masquerading as friendliness!” (Ugh! Make it go away!) But most people would never be able to see what you see when you look at those two pages. They might have an unconscious sense that something is more “right” about a properly typeset page, but I’m happy to produce my books in Apple’s Pages, which costs £71 (in a suite of other programs), and people seem to like the books I produce. And it’s a helluva lot easier to work with.

    I would also rather buy what I can afford than steal the overpriced software, which is what many independent people end up doing, and there’s no pride in that (and potentially a lot of hassle, technically and legally).

    That said, I have a legitimate copy of QuarkXPress a client gave me (so I could edit copy in place), and I just won’t use the program if given a choice. These apps are meant to output to large-run printing presses, and I’ve had nothing but trouble trying to use them with home inkjet and laser printers.

    So, as someone who’s encouraging writers to do their own thing now, I appreciate the importance of good type design, but I wouldn’t want to start putting roadblocks back in place, saying that someone shouldn’t produce a book until they can attain all the things a corporate publisher uses.

    If someone really, really cares about these things, but doesn’t want to take on a whole new education or take out a loan, they should just hire you to do it for them!



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