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Things That Should Exist

i hate ms wordThis happens often: I realize that something I do regularly could be done a lot more easily, efficiently, and/or quickly with the help of a simple tool. Realizing the obvious benefits of such a tool, I theorize that surely someone, somewhere in the world has already created it. So I take to the Googles to hunt it down.

Four hours later I’m angry, my forehead is red from all the slapping, and I’m completely disgusted. (Also, probably, hungry.) Because either this simple, obvious tool does not exist, or I — with all my intertube experience and Google-fu — cannot find it.

Here’s the latest example: I do a lot of writing for websites, right? But I’m a freelancer, not on staff, which means that most of my writing gets sent to an editor rather than inserted directly into the site’s content management system, or CMS. That means that I have to send over a document file of some type, a document file created in some sort of word-processing apparatus.

And here’s the problem: Every word-processing apparatus I’ve tried is positively horrendous at generating HTML, the code-level backbone of internet writing. Every single one, when you attempt to save a simply formatted text file as HTML, inserts all kinds of crazy formatting information that would be an absolute horror for any editor to have to remove on a regular basis.

This is bad for business.

So I started searching for a very simple tool: A word processor that allows the writer to mark up his or her document with basic formatting — bold, italic, underline, and links — and then allows the document to be saved (or God, at the very least, viewed) in HTML that includes nothing but paragraph breaks; markers for bold, ital, and underline; and links.

I want to be able to type, just as I am doing now with my blogging software’s online content management system, using the near-universal commands of Ctrl-U, Ctrl-I, Ctrl-B, and Ctrl-K — or at the very least buttons on a toolbar — and have those turn out <u>, <i>, <b>, and <a href=””> tags, and nothing else. And when I add a new paragraph I want to see a </p><p>, dammit!

Can I enter these tags by hand? Sure. But here’s the problem: Right now I’m doing a weekly music-game column for Green Pixels that is almost entirely links. And like most sensible sites, when GP links to a page on another website, they instruct your browser to open a new window. That means that each link needs to say <a href=”http://URL” target=”_blank”>Link Text</a>. You try typing that about fifty times and see if you don’t start looking for a better way.

This is the solution I’m working with right now: I type the big lists of song releases into Microsoft Word, because I like to keep them alphabetical and Word is good at stuff like that. Then I copy the list and paste it without formatting — a key distinction! — into Google Docs. I use Google Docs to turn all those lists into links, one for each artist and one for each song, because Docs includes a simple key-mapping for that and also allows you to automatically add that “target=_blank” attribute to each one. Docs also allows you to view the file in HTML, so I do that, copy it, and paste it back into Word. Because Docs also inserts a bunch of unnecessary crap like titles and ID tags (for some unfathomable reason) on each link, and also uses double line breaks in place of paragraph breaks (for an even less fathomable reason). So I have to do a find-and-replace to remove all that extraneous gibberish that drives editors crazy, and Docs’ find-and-replace is garbage.

I know I’ve probably lost most of you already, but the point is this: My needs are simple, but I have yet to find a tool that meets them. I’ve tried word processors…I’ve tried notepads…I’ve tried desktop-based blogging software…I’ve tried online options. None of them seem to solve a problem that I have got to imagine has been bugging web writers for a decade now.

I asked folks on Twitter for recommendations, and the results were almost comically diverse. Most people seem to either be entering all the formatting tags by hand, or relying on their editors to make traditional word-processing documents web-ready. No two people used the same software.

Clearly there is a need here. But you tell me: Am I asking too much? Or am I just missing that one awesome bit of software that everybody knows about but no one’s bothered to hip me to? I’m getting desperate here, people. Please help me out with your suggestions before I’m forced to teach myself a modern programming language and write my own damn software.



1: Marc on March 23, 2009 at 2:03 pm

I feel your pain, man! As a web designer, I learned really early on that Word is the root of all evil when it comes to HTML markup.

The company I work for had similar complaints when it came to our press releases, since our PR department would only send them over to us in Word. For a long time we just had to go through and clean them up by hand since we were looking for a similar tool you were and had pretty much the same results. Even the “Clean up Word HTML” feature in Dreamweaver doesn’t catch everything. Luckily a guy I work with is pretty handy with ASP coding and such, so he just created a little tool for us to use. We can now copy any text from Word, paste it into a small window, and it will spit out complete (and correct) HTML code, even replacing special characters (like copyright symbols) with their HTML counterparts. The gravy of all this is since it was built in-house, it’s totally customizable so we can endlessly tweak it for those perfect results!

I don’t know how “classified” this tool is for us and I don’t know how much tweaking would be needed to put it online for all to use, but I’ll definitely bring it up to my co-worker and see what he thinks.

The main issue would be copying everything back into Word once you have it formatted, since as I said, Word is the root of all evil when it comes to HTML markup. Who knows what that program will do when you type any kind of code into it?


2: Joe Rybicki on March 23, 2009 at 2:46 pm

Marc, something like that would be so very helpful, even if it involved copying and pasting back and forth. Putting it back into Word isn’t too much of an issue because an editor can always copy and paste without formatting, and so preserve the markup correctly.


3: Paul on March 25, 2009 at 11:44 am

Do you work on a Mac? Would something like Smultron help? I don’t think it has the cool features that one would use Word for, but it’s good for mark-up…


4: po on January 15, 2010 at 9:20 pm


Even I can relate to this. My suggestion: Write your own damned code and make a million dollars off of selling it! I will be first in line to buy it!

love you,