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© 2008-2010 Ugur Akinci
Technical writers have been asking this question to themselves for the good part of the last 15 years.
The short answer is this – if you’re writing a short memo, letter, or a short document, MS Word would be just fine. No problem. I use MS Word in that fashion all day long.
But if you are writing a book, something over 50 pages and with figures, tables, footers, index, references, multi-level paragraph numbering, you’d better stick with FrameMaker.
I’ve seen 50 pages documents going haywire with MS Word. And I’ve also seen 1,000 page manuals perfectly structured when written in FrameMaker.
I heard of a commercial airline manufacturer here in the United States and a European car company in Germany using FrameMaker to generate their maintenance and service manuals at their respective plants.
And I understand that both companies regularly update their manuals each running over 10,000 pages (I guess not printed but online “pages”) thanks to FrameMaker. Try doing that with MS Word on that scale and you’ll need nerves of steel to keep everything intact.
It all comes down to this: FrameMaker is a very mature and solid product that can handle structural complexity very well. You can have as many nested numbered lists as you like without any strange errors popping up in your numbering system.
With Word, on the other hand, you’d better keep your numbering scheme to as few levels as possible.
FrameMaker also has a great Book compilation functionality that works every time and creates perfect books out of individual chapters. Word has a similar outlining and book-compilation functionality (Master Document) that does not work that dependably.
FrameMaker is a great single-sourcing platform with its own built-in XML engine. It works very well with WebWorks to compile help files out of source document files. The standard edition of WebWorks comes with FrameMaker. MS Word can also be used for single-sourcing purposes but only with the help of additional third-party plug-ins and programs.
Another FrameMaker feature I like is the easy way in which you can insert running headers and footers, the kind you’d see in a phone book or catalog. There is no easy straightforward way to insert such “runners” in Word.
Having said all that, I still think MS Word has the upper hand in revising and marking a document. Word’s “Markup” functionality which you can access through the Reviewing toolbar is simply without a match. That’s why it’s used so frequently in the business world, to review and mark-up all kinds of office correspondence.
(You can approach that level of excellence only if you convert your FrameMaker document into PDF, then review and mark it up in Adobe Acrobat Professional — which will cost you extra.)
FrameMaker has made significant inroads into the technical writing community whereas the much more affordable MS Word continues its dominance in the business office world.
Sometimes which one you end up using does not even depend on your personal choice but corporate guidelines.
However, as a technical writer, you should at least be aware of the major differences between these two powerful text (and layout) editors, as outlined above.
You should, for example, be aware of what you’re getting into if the job at hand is to create a 1,000 page manual with multiple page-templates in MS Word.
In situations like that knowledge is not only a good thing; it’s an excellent thing.