Using Word for desktop publishing

Can Word be used for desktop publishing? The answer is yes — but only as a last resort. Here’s a summary of my recent experience.

Word is a word processor that has some desktop publishing features. I think that’s important to mention because it was not designed primarily for desktop publishing work, but you can use it for DTP if you really need to. I suppose a reasonably good analogy is that you can use a family saloon for transporting tons of stuff around. A van or a pickup truck would be better, but f you have no choice you can put the back seats down and fix up a roof rack, and cart stuff around. It’s not ideal, but it works after a fashion.

Well, the situation here is the same. So what do I mean by “desktop publishing features”? I am talking about the ability to place text where you like, and being able to flow text from one place to another without being constrained to a particular page or by a column layout.

You can use Word’s text boxes as DTP frames. Insert a text box via the Insert command, and then insert another one somewhere else. By clicking on the perimeter of the first one you gain access to a set of text box tools. One of these is “Link text boxes”. Select that, then place the mouse pointer inside the second text box and you’ll see the pointer change to a sort of cup icon. Click the left mouse button and you set up a link between the two text boxes. From now on, when you enter text in the first box, if it is too long for that box it will flow into the second one.

So far so good. This gives you a certain amount of flexibility. For example you can place a text box wherever you like on the page. If you make is smaller, the text will be taken care of by the second box. You can place the second box where you like too — even in a space three pages hence if you so desire.

But there are severe limitations.

First, I was unable to find a way to make the text in a text box flow around pictures inside the text box. There is probably a work-around, but I was not able to discover it.

Second, I found that cross-referencing didn’t work. I wanted to insert a table of contents by inserting page references to text formatted as headings, but was not allowed to.

Third, it seems to be impossible to create a new page after a text box, unless there is a paragraph mark on the page itself. That means that to avoid a lot of hassle, you need to create several pages in advance using the Ctrl-Enter key. Otherwise, you have to create a new blank page where you can, and then either move existing text boxes until your new blank page is at the end of the document, or start using the new blank page where in the document you were able to create it, which may not be where you really wanted to place the new content.

Overall, having used desktop publishing software in the past, I would say that using Word took me around 4 times longer than using DTP would have. I didn’t have much choice, because re-acquainting myself with the workings of the software would have taken longer than I had available.

So, use Word for DTP work if you have a deadline looming and no alternative, but if you are going to be doing such work on a regular basis then consider investing in a program that was designed for the job from the outset.