Tech, Writing

1,000+ Microsoft Word docs, plain text, and a file format mess

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Over the past couple of days, I’ve been opening 1,000+ Word documents on my computer, one by one, and converting them from a very, very old Word format (“Microsoft Word 1.x-5.x”) to something I’ll actually be able to read and open on my computer. It’s a laborious process. When Microsoft “upgraded” to Office 2008 for the Mac, the company decided it was necessary to make it super-difficult to work with some older Word file formats.

I’ve actually known about this issue for years — I wrote a column touching on it three years ago — but I only decided to tackle it now, in part because I’m trying to weed out documents in old file formats (old Word, old AppleWorks) before I upgrade to Apple OS X Lion.

It’s not fun.

And I’m guessing plenty of writers — or, really, anyone who’s used a computer for writing (uh, like everyone) — have no idea that they may have many, many orphaned documents on their computers. Poems. Love letters. Journals. Whatever.

The longer you wait to convert those documents, the harder it gets — until it’s nearly impossible to retrieve the text.

I have some documents I trashed: I had no idea how to retrieve the information in them. I’m sure it could be done, somehow, but I couldn’t figure out how.

I was thinking about this when I read an excellent article at MacWorld, “Forget fancy formatting: Why plain text is best.”

Writer David Sparks addresses just this issue:

Looking back through my old files, I’m amazed to see how many word processors I’ve used over the years. I’ve got document files in formats ranging from MacWrite to Pages and everything in between. The problem is, a lot of those old files are useless to me now: None of my current word processors can read them. That’s a shame; some of those old words were pretty good.

His solution? Use plain text.

Sensible advice, no doubt, though the mix of tools he uses, for different purposes, seems a bit complex to me. That said, I guess it’s something like my ad-hoc system, using Pages, SimpleNote, Google Docs, and Word (if I must).

And now, as I’m dealing with this mess of old Word files, I’m going to start rethinking how I save documents. Should I use plain text? Or Google Docs? I’m not quite sure.


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