Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Driving screws with a hairdryer

A member of a list I’m on posted a question about a tricky maneuver in Microsoft Word. This led to a question about why she needed to execute that particular maneuver, and it turned out she was preparing a document that was to be printed out on a laser printer to produce camera-ready copy for the printer.

What’s wrong with this picture?
A couple things, actually.

First, “camera-ready” copy is copy that will be photographed, using large sheets of film, as an intermediate step to making offset printing plates. This is a much more expensive process than direct-to-plate digital platemaking, which the vast majority of printers (and certainly all the large book and journal printers) switched to several years ago. So the publisher who assigned this task to the editor is stuck in a time warp with respect to printing technology and is likely paying far more to get its publications printed than it should be paying. There is really no excuse for running a publishing enterprise, even if it is a nonprofit organization, so lackadaisically that major technological revolutions pass by unnoticed.

Second, Word is not a page layout program. Let me repeat that, shouting this time: Word Is Not a Page Layout Program. No, it is a word processing program. It is the de facto standard program for manuscript preparation in the publishing business, whether it happens to be your favorite word processing program or not. And, truth be told, used properly, it’s a powerful program. Professional editors probably use more of Word’s advanced features than almost any other group, and it serves their purposes well. However, it is still a word processor. Attempting to use it to produce clean typeset pages (while I know there are some who have wrangled it into doing a half-decent job on simple text pages) is akin to driving screws with a hairdryer. Plugging in a hairdryer and turning it up to Hi does not make it any better a screwdriver than it was just lying there on the bathroom vanity.

If you have any connection whatever with the publishing industry, nothing I’ve said here should be news, nor should it be controversial. But apparently some folks haven’t gotten the message yet. Amateurs are forgiven. Professionals aren’t.


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