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.comment: A Dead End and a Milestone, or "What's Up, .doc?"

Documents Check In, But They Don't Check Out

  • August 29, 2001
  • By Dennis E. Powell

One of the dirty little secrets of the publishing world is that the vast majority of Linux books are written using Word for Windows. This is not due to disloyalty of authors but instead the demands of publishers, who take enormous delight in their elaborately constructed template files (in my estimation the antithesis of writing) whereby anyone from president of the publishing house to the guy who delivers the bottled water can enter their comments, each in a unique color, during a process called "author review." (Author review, carried to this extent, seems like a spectacular waste of time, but maybe there's something to it: after all, who can doubt that "Linux System Administration for the Middle Enterprise" will remain in everyone's minds long after "huckleberry Finn" has slipped into obscurity, in that Mark Twain did not have the benefits of multicolored author review?)

But publishers are in love with their templates, and that means that authors working for most of the publishing houses are forced to endure Windows and Word therefore, or have a very tumultuous time of it.

I happen to be in just such a circumstance at the moment. The problem, from my point of view, is that I cannot abide Windows and I despise Word. They are not places where writing can be done. Forget the politics of the whole Microsoft thing -- they're designed for the steno pool, not for writers. (Microsoft did produce a decent DOS word processor, way back when, and a friend of mine, who has written more than a dozen best-sellers, still uses his trusty old WordStar under DOS; I still think the best word processor ever for writers is DeScribe, and I shall continue to bemoan it until it gets ported to Linux.)

It should be noted that it is possible for a writer to push the point and win, at least with the occasional publisher. My friend and colleague Michael Hall writes in Emacs. (I was tempted to say "writes in Emacs, and if publishers don't like it, tough," but no one who knows Michael could imagine him copping that sort of attitude; then again, he doesn't have to -- he has one of those very serious voices we hear so much about.)

And in fairness it must be noted, too, that there are Linux distributors who use Windows exclusively in their businesses.

I do not use Windows, and if the choice were Windows or nothing, I'd find an interest other than computing and fire up the old Selectric for writing. On the other hand, one should choose one's battles carefully, so if there is a happy middle ground to be achieved, in most cases I'd opt for it.

Which is why I was so pleased, amazed, and delighted to discover that KWord, as shipped with KOffice 1.1, imported my current publisher's .dot template file perfectly, saved it as a KWord template, and functioned exactly as intended. I wrote a longish, fairly elaborate chapter, blowing past the deadline only by a little. Very pleased at my having found a way around the problem, at least until the goofy spectacle of author review, at about 5 a.m. yesterday I prepared to send the chapter to the publisher.

The first step, of course, was to export the document to WinWord format.

You've no doubt heard the phrase "I wish I had a picture of your face when you discovered that . . ." Well, at about 5:01 a.m. yesterday I had a moment of the sort that inspires that phrase. It came when I discovered that while KWord has what seems to be a superb WinWord import filter, it has no export filter. None at all. It can save as HTML or RTF, but there's no .doc export.

The most irritating thing about it, other than my annoyance at myself for not checking first (though in my defense this seems a little like checking a particular typeface to make sure that it includes vowels), is that there is no way to be irritated with the developers for what seems a pretty glaring shortcoming. There is, after all, a lot of demand for files in WinWord format, but practically none for WinWord files converted to KWord format. But that is not the nature of things in Linux. People write what they want to write as they want to write it. They give it to us. In return, we can at bare minimum be expected to show the grace of not raising hell when some feature we want is absent. (The standard response, usually from those who never have written a line of code and never will, is "if you want it, write it yourself.")

Embarrassed, I sent the chapter off in RTF, and now shall be enduring StarOffice, into which the template file can more or less be shoehorned and which will save in WinWord's .doc format. I guess what troubles me most is that I won't be able to use KWord, which is a delight.

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