Four-letter Word: a blog about Word 2011 for Mac

Edit, 16/4/12: with its latest update to Office, Microsoft has added Lion-style full-screen mode to Word. However, I still can’t cmd-V into the search box…

In my day job I use Microsoft Word. I also use Excel and PowerPoint, but Word is my main tool. I use it for around 40-45 hours each week.

I work on files sent to me by my client, so absolute compatibility is essential. There are lots of alternatives out there that will open Office files on the Mac, but none is fully compatible. There’s always some little aspect that doesn’t convert quite correctly. So Word it is.

For many years I used Word in Office:mac 2004. I didn’t upgrade to Office:mac 2008 because Microsoft removed Visual Basic support. This meant that I couldn’t run macros: an important factor, because I use a couple of macros to put a lot of things right before I start work on a document. However, I did upgrade to Office:mac 2011, because it saw Visual Basic reinstated, and also touted improved stability, functionality, speed, and a full-screen mode.


So, having used it for a few months how do I find this piece of software? This software which I use day in, day out, which cost millions to develop, and cost around 100 of my hard-earned pounds?

I suspect you can guess.

Word has me pulling out my hair and gnashing my teeth and swearing every ten minutes. I can’t impress upon you how much I hate this program.

[Takes deep breath.]

So, having got that off my chest let me give you a few of the reasons why.

One of the main features that attracted me is full-screen mode. I like the way it focuses on the task, brings the work to me.

There are two types of full-screen mode in Word: writing and reading. I use the writing mode, because the reading mode is no good to me: the zoom is too small and there are no tools to speak of. Perhaps understandably, given it’s been designed for reading. When I’m using Word I’m proofreading/copy-editing, so I’m usually writing as well as reading, making changes to a document as I go along. So, writing mode it is. Fair enough.

However, when I switch to full-screen writing mode Word does not remember the zoom I’ve previously set, reverting to the default 125%. Every time. And although I can increase the zoom, there’s no option between 200% and page-width, and for me, 200% is slightly too small, while page width is slightly too large. But you can’t adjust the page width. Hmm.

If the screen-saver kicks in while I go to make a coffee or something, Word drops out of full-screen mode. So I have to switch back, reset the zoom, etc. As if being dropped out of full-screen wasn’t enough of an inconvenience, when this happens the page jumps up slightly, so I have to undo what I just did to see where I was on the page, then redo it before continuing.

You following this?

I have a hot key combination to set letters in lower case – I often need to change multiple words from title case to lower case, so instead of selecting each letter and typing the lower case version, I simply block the offending words, hit the hot keys and ba-boom – job done. The only problem is, when I do this in full-screen mode in Word 2011, the program drops out of full-screen mode again. So, I have to switch back, reset the zoom, etc.

Switching between apps using command-tab drops Word out of full-screen, too.

You get the picture.

Oh, and neither can I split the view in full-screen mode – a useful trick if I need to compare two separate areas of a document. To make matters worse, the tools I use most – highlight, format painter, show nonprinting characters – are not available in full-screen, and the full-screen toolbar is not customisable.

Okay, like I said, when I’m using Word I’m proofreading/copy-editing. In truth this is neither reading nor writing, so it could be argued that Word’s full-screen function was not designed for such a task. But come on: surely I should be able to customise the full-screen toolbar so it includes the highlight button, shouldn’t I? The format painter? Split the screen? Is that asking too much?

Oh, then there’s the find/replace function. (This isn’t available in full-screen. Only “find”.) When I want to find/replace, I have to open the side bar. If the find/replace function’s not open, which it usually isn’t, I have to click the little magnifying glass. Often I’ll copy something I want to search for so I can paste it in the search field – this is easier than re-typing and makes sure I get the spelling correct. But in Word 2011, I can’t just paste in what I’ve copied with command-V. Oh no: I have to right-click and select paste from the contextual menu. This might seem minor, but means changing habits and also feels slower and less instinctive than command-V.

Often I want to highlight every entry of something in a document. In Office:mac 2004, I could just hit command-H and use the find/replace function. To do this now, I have to use “Advanced Find & Replace”, which I have to select from a drop-down box, etc, etc. (This took me a while to find when I first got the program, and I had a few moments of despair in which I thought it had been removed.) There’s about eight clicks involved in performing a basic find/replace action.

When I do search for something, Word lists all entries in the sidebar. Now this is handy, as I can review them without having to go to that particular part of the document; if they all need changing I’m good to go. But if I change one of those entries rather than performing a global find/replace, my search results are cleared from the sidebar, so I have to search again. Sometimes I still have a short section of text selected in the main document, so when I do search again, Word only searches that little snippet, meaning zero results. That means I have to go back into the main document, de-select, perform the search again.

Here’s an example of how frustrating this program can be. I’m working in full-screen mode, editing. I have to search for something to check consistency of spelling. So to use find/replace I drop out of full-screen mode and split the screen so I don’t lose my place in the document. I hit command-F. This puts the cursor in the search box at the top. I habitually try command-V but of course I can’t do that so the Mac boops at me. So I right-click and paste. OK. Then I realise I need to ignore the case. But there’s no option to ignore the case in the find box. I have to open the sidebar. But opening the side bar removes the split screen, so I lose my place. And I can’t paste in the sidebar, I have to right-click and…

You get it.

Word is also stuffed to the gills with all kind of crap I will never use, ranging from languages to templates. And while Microsoft hasn’t seen fit to include any of the tools I find useful in full-screen mode, or make the full-screen toolbar customisable, I can choose from one of 15 cheesy page backgrounds for full-screen.


Compare this with Scrivener, which is a hugely versatile, solid, stable program that does everything and more – so much more – than Word, and costs just £30. I use Scrivener to write pretty much everything (blog posts I’ll draft on my phone using a combination of WriteRoom and Simplenote, then finalise them in Scrivener before publishing). It’s a writer’s writing program. If I could work on my Word documents in Scrivener I’d be very happy indeed. Heck, if I could work on my Word documents in anything but Word, I’d be happy. But sadly it’s not to be.

I know people who love Microsoft. I know people who don’t like Macs because they think Apple’s stuff is “too easy to use”. Personally, I want hardware and software that allows me to do what I want to do with the minimum of fuss. I don’t care how it does it, I just want it to let me get the ideas out of my head, and get my work done. I’ve given up trying to use full-screen in Word now. It just doesn’t work.

My recommendation is that unless you absolutely must have Microsoft, use one of the alternatives: Scrivener, Mellel, Nisus Writer… there are loads of them out there.

Trust me, you’ll use far fewer four-letter words…

For consultancy on digital content strategy, writing or editing, please get in touch, or you can tweet me to say hi.

  • OK, I’ve just discovered that shift-command-H opens find/replace in the sidebar, but not advanced find/replace, but this still isn’t perfect and all the other annoyances – and plenty of others – remain…

**Ha ha – hit command-H and it opens find/replace in the sidebar, but the cursor’s in “replace”, even though you haven’t assigned a search factor…

26 thoughts on “Four-letter Word: a blog about Word 2011 for Mac

  1. Thank you! You just saved me the money of upgrading to Office 2011 and the pain of trying to use it. I do use Scrivener some. Must really learn it better.

  2. You’ve saved me the pain of upgrading to Word 2011 too. Thank you!

    And I can’t sing the praises of Scrivener enough. For writing a thesis (or novel, or text-book, or article, or blog post, or term paper, or…) it has no equal. I (almost) enjoy sitting down to write my thesis when using Scrivener, and I’m still learning it’s nuances and the changes in workflow it allows. After decades of using Word, it is liberating!

  3. I’ve found the search to be the most annoying. Sometimes I can highlight a search item, the Command-C, Command-F, Command-V and it finds the search item. Other times, as noted in the article, you cannot paste the search term with Command-V.

    Another annoyance is that search just stalls – it just stops and won’t find the search term even when it is there. When this happens I put “e’ into the search item, it somehow restarts, and then I can go back and find what I was originally looking for.

    On the upside, while Word 2011 has ribbons, the old menus are basically still there and Microsoft hasn’t taken keyboard shortcuts away, unlike the Windows versions.

    Despite the shortcomings, I’m one of those who must use Word, no substitutions, and the 2011 edition is far better than the 2008 edition.

  4. A benefit of 2011 for me, which I neglected to mention, is that it allows me to easily change the page background colour without having to switch to online view. I prefer a grey to white, which I find way too bright.

  5. Here’s a note I just sent to David Pogue at the NYT. Pass it on!
    Hello there David from lovely Switzerland. I’m referring to your post about Office 2011 for Mac from October. I bought the damn thing thinking it might add some panache to my work – I do writing, editing, lay-out, web prep, interactive PDF, yada yada – and have been sitting here swearing at the MS people ever since. I worked with Mac 2008 for three blissful years and created many kick-a** projects, which my clients loved. As a person who does both writing and desktop publishing, I’ve just decided the throw away the 2011 version – it’s a complete mess. It looks like the kind of program a teeny bopper would use – the idiotic pre-loaded font thingies being the most annoying aspect of the ribbon, because you can’t hide them. Argh.

    What’s interesting is this: I was a magazine editor for many years, and we used Quark for most of those years. When Word for Mac 2008 came along, it was obvious that the people at MS had lay-out envy – Word was, in some ways, an improvement on Quark (which was insanely slow and seems to have slid into obscurity). With the release of 2011, they’ve pretty much destroyed everything that was good about the Quark-style version.

    I think it’s time to launch an “I Hate Word for Mac 2011” site.

    Cheers from the land of chocolate and clocks.

  6. Ah, thanks, I thought it was me. I need Word for similar compatibilty reasons, too.
    I was and still am amazed by the utter non-intuitivity of the search/find modules. Just hope they fix it. There are some issues like that all over it.
    One advantage which surprised me is the speed and initial memory compared to OpenOffices (MacBook 2007).

  7. 1 more thing. Not to dimish Scrivener or other editors. I use Nisus for footnote-heavy/multilingual stuff. And I’m on the verge of buying TextMate for my own blog / HTML etc.
    But I only paid around 100 € – actually same amount in Pounds? – for 3 licenses of Office, including PP and Excel. That’s amazingly cheap compared to Office 2001 Student, the last version I bought for myself. Now, they just need to deliver.

  8. I wish I had read this before buying it myself. Word 2011 does not even allow you to post directly to blogging platforms such as WordPress and Blogger. Although the Windows version has this feature, I’m wondering why they left it out for the Mac version.

  9. As a full-time novelist, I find Word absolutely fine. (And if you want my tech credentials, I wrote my first program over 35 years ago.)

    Here’s what I do:

    Use full screen mode, with the get-out-of-full-screen icon deleted. Only text and background are visible, using a colour scheme which is totally different from what I use in any context other than writing fiction. This forms a deep mental association to the writing state, along with my choice of music.

    I entirely disable any auto-correct or spell-check features, so there are no distractions on the screen, not even red or green underlines.

    I perform spell-checking and suchlike only on completed drafts which my editors are going to receive. You can drop out of full-screen mode to this – the Esc key is my friend – or simply remember that F7 kicks off the spell checker.

    Beyond this, for writing I use my writing laptop – an old Thinkpad, the least glamorous computer I own – in my writing room (my study). This machine does not connect to the internet, ever. Besides forming the natural psychological trigger for writing every day, this has obvious security benefits. (Speaking of such practicalities, I back up my work daily, rotating through 3 different memory sticks.)

    When I had to squeeze writing around a demanding full-time career that included four-and-a-half hours commuting on a good day, this approach was even more important, though the writing had to happen while I was on the move.

    It’s about removing distractions and getting into zone. Every day.

  10. Hi John. If I used Word only for writing, and had never used Scrivener, it would probably be passable. However, I use it for editing/proofreading, dipping in and out of Excel along the way, and the tiny little niggles bug the hell out of me. I have had to change the way I work to suit the program, and it should be the other way around.

    By the way, there is now a Windows beta of Scrivener. You should give it a go.

    Keep well.

  11. Word for the Mac 2011 is incredible in a bad way. I am a knowledgeable user having purchased my first Mac in 1984. This version of Word is driving me crazy. For example, I can’t get Spell Checker to work no matter what I do. I follow their directions correctly, but alas, no dice. Any suggestions?

  12. Computers are a foreign language to me. I upgraded my mac (running 10.6.7) in recent history and moved from an early version of Word to Word 2011. I just spent HOURS trying to get a background color to PRINT on document pages. I used to be able to, at least, make a box around text and fill in a background color within the box. In this case, I’ve drawn a box around clipart / images. The box and background color both show on my print layout but the BG color disappears the moment I go to preview. What in the name of all that is holy should I do? I’m fast running out of time and operating on little sleep.

  13. Sorry to read about your problem. Visit and post in the appropriate forum – someone there might be able to help you. Good luck!

  14. I have been using Office 2011 for a few weeks. I get annoyed by the overlapping, but not quite identical ways of presenting options. There are menus, toolbars, ribbons and right click. The fact that the options are not consistent means that I have to keep relearning where options are located. I realise I can probably customise the interface to a more reasonable configuration, but I have not found the time yet. I would have thought that Microsoft could have assembled some reasonable defaults.

    I also get very annoyed that very common interface elements are inconsistent in their placement and functionality between word, excel and powerpoint. Microsoft has been “perfecting” this software suite for more than 20 years. Good grief!

  15. Apologies if this has already been answered, but in Full Screen Mode select cmd+alt+T, to bring up the thin silver toolbar. Then right mouse click on a blank area of the toolbar to bring its own options menu, and make sure that Toolbars> Standard and Formatting are both ticked. You should then be able to highlight text in Full Screen. Glad I’m not the only one burned by these weird views and options.

  16. Hi. Thanks for the tip! I thought this was great for a few minutes. I could indeed highlight text. There was a toolbar at the top I could use. I could even find and replace items. But when I switched to Excel Word dropped out of full screen… Scrivener doesn’t do that. Ho hum.

  17. I can’t agree more.. I bought Word 2011 after working on a mac with word for mac 2002. I only did it because I was thinking of upgrading to Lion, although after reading the reviews that’s never going to happen. With the time period between my purchases I expected to see a lot of improvement. Well in my opinion it’s not as good or intuitive as my original version. No clipboard viewer for heaven’s sake… I know there is ‘scrapbook’, but apart from sounding childish, it is not as versatile or easy to use. And I cannot get the spell checker to work.. It’s supposed to be a word processor.. you would think that having a spell checker that works by default would be one of the most important things offered in the software!!!. It seems both apple and microsoft are dumbing down their software, and making it worse than it used to be.. Could this be a corporate conspiracy..? i.e. they made it as good as it was ever going to be and now have to make it worse so they can make it better again and keep us buying updates! I thing I’ve been staring at this report I’m working on too long!!! Maybe I need a break! Well anyway I’m going back to using the old one.. If there is anyone out there that can tell me how to get the spell checker working.. I’ve tried everything and it gives me some stupid message saying it won’t check sections that I didn’t asked to be checked originally… or something.. Bill Gates should employ some decent programmers to give us something we can actually enjoy using.. sigh!

  18. Absolutely agree. Every time I need to use the MS Word for Mac for ‘5 minutes’, I end up using it for ’30 minutes’ to just get the stupid format right.

    Even though I have to use only 4-5 styles, Normal, Bullets, Numbered lists, Heading 1 and Heading 2 and setting them perfectly, just to get the 4-5 page document with a bunch of formatted blocks does not work. You would think that using the pre-defined styles and “Format painter” (my favorite), you could breeze through 4-5 pages. NO…OOO…OOO! You have a numbered list formatted according to the style. “Pick-up format…apply to another number list” to get exactly the same format as the list. It shifts the indents and tabs (totally randomly, and nothing to do with what your styles are). Next time, will it make the same mistake…no.. It will want to continue the numbering. You right click and then say “Restart numbering” on the context menu…BOOM, it will change the indents …

    It goes on and on…. After pasting a block of text, it will NEVER do the intended effect (it should be either Match the destination, or keep the original). It never remembers my LAST choice. So maddening…

    Same thing for Powerpoint as well…

    Four letter word is right – and I don’t even curse…

  19. Excel gets me as well. The filter box moves every time. I just wish it would stay where I put it on the screen. Good luck!

  20. Your comment exactly match my own frustrating experiences of Word 2011 on Mac.

    The idiocy of Microsoft in spending time & money to BREAK previously good & long-established basic functionality beggars belief; and all it achieves is to destroy my workflow— meaning I have to spend even longer using the hideous thing to accomplish the same tasks (but then Apple has done similar things in the debacle of OSX-Vista, officially known as Lion).

    Why require multiple (I never have the hear to count how many) clicks for search/replace?
    Replace all (which doesn’t “replace all” for me, SO BEWARE);
    Only searching the small highlighted term left over from the previous search?
    No “paste” shortcut into Find & Replace?

    There are multiple other ways in which Microsoft cripples basic functionality in the the Mac version of Word (I know because I run Windows on my Mac in Bootcamp and use Word for both Mac and Windows on a daily basis: Due to basic incompatibility between the two, and also a custom toolbar macro that simply will not work in Mac).

    Examples include: Lag between Ignore/ Change/ Change all (which doesn’t even work) when spellchecking. In the Microsoft version, I can click through spellchecking as fast as I want; Not in Mac.

    Lack of F/R key taps to make a series of Find/Replace changes?

    Ooooh, look!! Word for Mac 2011 at least has a keyboard shortcut for “Save As…” now. Is this the first time? Or was it in an older version and then removed for some years until 2011?

    How about the very rapid [Ctrl-F] then [R] for Find & Replace, which I seem to remember from the late-90s version of Office? What was wrong? Too simple? Too fast? Not enough redundancy?

    Let’s face it: Microsoft Office is a bloated pig;
    Always has been, even in Windows; in comparison, the Mac versions are deliberately crippled or about 5 years behind in both the interface and functionality

    Any revisions are never made to improve functionality for professional users— But simply introduce more useless bloat and bling (and more mouse-clicks!!), which Microsoft somehow thinks will appeal to… Who, exactly?

    So, I am now considerably poorer, slower at my work, and more frustrated than ever with this car-crash of a product, which I use for about 60 hours per week, and on which I’m dependent for my job.

    Thanks, Microsoft (yet again!).


  21. I despise both Word and Excel but, like you, am bound to using them. For your keyboard shortcut problems perhaps try Keyboard Maestro – not a cheap application but to my mind it has paid for itself in the week since I have bought it, and will continue to do so as I find more uses for the program.

  22. What drives me to distraction with Word is the amount of corrupted files I encounter. One is too many–means I lose 10-12 hours of work–and I have 5 in the 15 books I’ve written . It’s something to do with macros and tables and images (I write non-fic), but LOTS of people use tables and images. The corruptions and mess-ups are so rampant I now back up daily in Open Office.

    I also have a new trick” I write in the massively-sized RTF mode. Files are 6x as large, but I’m told they’re more stable. I’ll trade file size for stability. My hard drive is massive also.

    Great article.

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