Advertising
Advertising

The Case for Online Word Processors

The Case for Online Word Processors

20090320-typing

    It’s no secret I am a fan of online word processors — computing in the cloud is just the thing for a guy like me who (I’m told) is apt to find his head in the clouds as well. I’m writing this on Google Docs, and have made no secret of my love for Adobe’s Buzzword (which unfortunately seems to have some issues on the computer I’m using right now). Zoho Writer has gotten a little use from me as well.

    I was recently asked what the big deal was — why should anyone go online when there’s a perfectly good copy of Office, Works, WordPerfect, OpenOffice.org, Pages, WordPad, LaTeX, AbiWord, KDocs, or any of a multitude of other powerful, effective, and highly usable word processors available from the desktop? What advantage could a feature-limited online word processor possibly offer.

    Advertising

    It’s a good question, and one that boils down as much to subjective factors as to any absolute benefits word processing online might offer. And it’s a question with as much relevance for the whole range of powerful Web 2.0 apps that have emerged over the last couple of years and which look set to dominate computing in the near-to-mid-future. Spreadsheets, image editors, presentation software, databases, and more are migrating online, and it’s reasonable to ask why, and to what end?

    What follows is my response to the question — the reasons that matter to me as an end-user of many kinds of online applications, particularly word processors. There may well be other, even better, answers to the questions online apps pose; at the same time, some of my reasons might not apply to everyone, or even to anyone other than me. But in the end, I think that my experiences aren’t all that unique, and while I might represent an extreme in some regards, the reasons that online apps work well for me will apply to at least a significant number of other people, if not most.

    Availability
    The main benefit of online word processors for me is their availability from any computer with an Internet connection. Since my schedule puts me in front of a number of different computers throughout the course of the day, and changes as well from semester to semester, I can’t count on being able to access the same software on one computer that I used on the last — and unfortunately, although most modern file formats can be read by any word processor, there’s always the risk of losing formatting, pagination, or fonts opening a document created in one program (or version) in another.

    Advertising

    Using an online word processor means I have a standard format and interface from computer to computer — I don’t have to worry about whether the version of Word on this computer matches the one on the computer where I started my document, or whether I won’t be able to open it at all. I just log in to Google Docs or Buzzword and continue where I left off — as I am with this post, which I started writing in my office at the university and which I’m finishing on my netbook at home.

    Off-site storage/backup
    Another advantage of cloud-based word processors is that no matter what kind of trouble I get into, my documents are still safe and sound on servers hundreds of miles away. I can’t tell you how many thumb drives I’ve left in computers — or put through the washing machine. I’ve never done that with the Internet…

    The document storage online word processors offer gives me an excellent off-site backup for important documents, even ones I don’t create or work on online. I feel a lot better knowing that copies of my most important documents exist far away from my home, just in case.

    Advertising

    Collaboration/Sharing
    When it comes to collaboration, most online word processors beat even the mighty Word, hands down. Documents can be worked on live, rather than emailing copies back and forth and trying to keep track of versions. More important, you don’t have to contend with Microsoft’s awful, awful, awful Track Changes (which isn’t to say other word processors do it much better…).

    Plus, most online word processors allow you to set various levels of permissions, so that you can offer read-only access to one group of viewers, full editing privileges to another, and the ability to add comments to a third. You can often post documents directly to the Web, too, which can be quite handy.

    User interface
    Finally, some online word processors just have good user interfaces. Google Docs is simple, streamlined, perfect for just opening a document and slapping some thoughts together. Adobe’s Buzzword, on the other hand, is simply gorgeous — it inspires me just to look at it. I wrote the first 10,000 or so words of my book, Don’t Be Stupid, on Buzzword just to keep using it!

    Advertising

    It seems foolish to point to the way an app looks as an advantage, but I’d argue it’s a very real factor. Tools matter — ask any carpenter. Buzzword to me is like I imagine a finely forged chisel is to a woodworker — my fingers just itch to get to work. Google Docs is like a set of sturdy wrenches — nothing too fancy, but I know it gets the job done. While there are desktop-based apps that also feel quite good to use, the stripped-down interfaces of online apps seems especially well-suited to this kind of inspiration.

    So there you have it — four big reasons why I use online word processors, even when I have Office or some other program easily accessible. Like I said, there may be other reasons — and maybe you have reasons I haven’t thought of. Why not share your thoughts in the comments below?

    More by this author

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide) The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work) How to Admit Your Mistakes How to Take Notes: 3 Effective Note-Taking Techniques How to Learn Something New Every Day and Stay Smart

    Trending in Featured

    1 Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide) 2 5 Steps To Move Out Of Stagnancy In Life 3 The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work) 4 How to Master the Art of Prioritization 5 40 Top Productivity Apps for iPhone (2020 Updated)

    Read Next

    Advertising
    Advertising
    Advertising

    Last Updated on January 21, 2020

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

    The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

    Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

    Advertising

    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    How to Self-Taught Effectively

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

    Advertising

    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

    Advertising

    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

    Advertising

    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

    More About Self-Learning

    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

    Read Next