More on Line Breaks

More on Line Breaks


Pierre Igot took my little text-wrapping gaffe from the other day,
and proceeded to turn it into what he ostensibly called “ href="">constructive
criticism” as to why people might want to use manual line breaks.
Frankly, it looks a lot more like flame bait than constructive
criticism, particularly in that his criticism is based on obfuscating
the distinction between knowing why someone might want to use a
text-wrapping break and knowing how many people would actually want to
use one in practice. Moreover, saying that I don’t know how many people
would want to use manual line breaks (Win Word actually uses the term
“text-wrapping break”) doesn’t even mean that I think the number would
likely be small. After all, if I thought the number of potentially
interested users was small, I wouldn’t have bothered to blog about it
in the first place.

Normally I’d just let this sort of thing roll off my back, but in
his rush to offer criticism through the vehicle of a
couple of contrived examples, Pierre actually manages to offer some bad
advice. He cites three cases where people might want use a manual line
break, but two of them are predicated on people doing something
stylistically bad in the first place: having a title or a heading
that’s too long to fit on one line or accommodate page numbers in a
table of contents entry.

In both cases, you’re probably better off trying to rewrite the
offending title or heading than trying to force a line break to make it
look nice. The TOC entry suggestion is particularly bad, because you’re
inserting a break within a field. Should you later decide that
rewriting the offending heading is necessary, your manual line break in
the TOC entry will get blown away when you update the table of contents
field. A far better solution would be to modify the font size of the
appropriate TOC styles in order to get the offending heading to

Pierre’s throw-away example, poetry, is the one example where
inserting a text-wrapping break makes sense, because it follows the
general rule for using manual line breaks, i.e. where the content
itself requires that lines be broken at specific locations while still
maintaining paragraph semantics across those lines. It’s a throw-away
example, because, well, there just aren’t all that many poets out there
who are likely to be in any way concerned about the difference between
line breaks and paragraph breaks.

None of this means that manual line breaks aren’t useful for a
number of different users. In fact, one of the more common instances
might be where one wants to include some explanatory text for an
individual item within a list without breaking the list. It might look
something like this:

  1. This is a list item.
    You might want to insert what looks like a
    paragraph within a list of items. You can achieve this effect by using
    a manual line break between the text of the list item and the explanatory text in
    the paragraph.
  2. This is also a list item.
  3. This is the last item.

Using a manual line break between the text of the list item itself
and the explanatory text keeps the list intact without having to mess
with continuing a previous list or adjusting the indents of the
explanatory paragraph to match the beginning of the text in the list
item. It also has the benefit of keeping everything aligned properly
should you wish to indent the list to another outline level.

Another case where I’ve seen people use manual line breaks is with
technical documents that get indexed and cross-referenced within a
document management system. Quite often, cross-references, i.e.
pointers to other documents within the document management system, are
inserted to refer to specific statements within a paragraph. A common
way to insert these cross-references is to sandwich them between two
manual line breaks, and mark everything between the line breaks, and
the line breaks themselves, as “Hidden” text, or, better yet, mark the
text with a user-defined character style that includes the “hidden”
attribute. If someone wants to see the cross-references, they simply
click on the Show/Hide ¶ button, and the manual line breaks help the
cross-references to stand out from the paragraphs that contain

Note that both of the examples I’ve cited follow the same general
rule that applies to poetry and the programming code examples: the
content requires that lines be broken in specific locations while still
maintaining paragraph semantics. Neither of Pierre’s two contrived
examples follows this rule. So take Pierre’s advice with a grain of
salt, and keep this rule in mind as you use manual line breaks. If you
find yourself wanting to use a manual line break for reasons not based
on the actual content, then consider other means to resolve the problem
before using a manual line break.



Comments (14)

  1. Warren Beck says:

    Rick: I enjoy reading your blog. But you really should get off Pierre Igot’s back. He actually knows how to use Word on the Macintosh, and he actually uses it for more than office memos. Your discussion of line breaking suggests that you do not use Word outside its safety zone (say, two-page memos), so you have not explored its features in an effort to find an easier or better way to get things done or to work around its _many_ weird behaviors. Pierre’s work evidently really tests Word on a daily basis. Rather than criticize him or belittle his feedback, I suggest that you suggest to your superiors at Microsoft and the MacBU that you hire Pierre as a consultant. The result would be a constructive discussion that would improve Word for all of us.

  2. I feel like Rick way of seeing the issue is that of a programmer. You see text as liquid and are trying to establish absolute rules that, once fixed, the text has to flow around them.

    I understand your point, being a programmer myself. When I use Word I try to understand how it behaves and then I put my text accordingly, knowing that whatever I do, resize, edit, delete, re-format, the text will always maintain its predetermined structure. For example the other day we were writing a questionnaire in Thai and the guys who wrote it were using manual line-breaks to appropriately format the text in columns. They said it was the right thing to do because Thai language has no whitespaces. I could not interfer because I cannot type Thai, but I smelled a rat.

    Needless to say as you added a word in one place you had to check if the wayout was correct in fifteen other places.

    On the other hand some people come from the typewriter world or are not used to see their text as dynamic. For them deciding to put a line-break manually makes sense. They are those who make headings by setting the font bold and one or two sizes bigger instead that using the Heading style.

    Those are the people who will finally use the product so it makes sense to make a product that works like they think it should work. Well, no. Like it is for an ERP implementation the only way to gain an advantage from the software is if you change your processed to fit the software instead of trying to match the software to your processes. Many times your way of doing things is not the best one. Acknowledge it and you improve your productivity.

  3. Rick Schaut says:

    Eduardo: It’s interesting that the Thai folks were having difficulty, because the FarEast features in Word include character and line grid that sounds like they would have solved the layout problem.

    While I am a programmer, I’ve worked rather hard to see Word from the users’ perspective. At the same time, I have to try to figure out how to solve both a wide variety users’ problems in as efficient a way as possible. That can lead to compromises that some users will find difficult to work with. The unfortunate reality is that we can’t satisfy all users’ notions of usability.

    Warren: I’m not sure why you would think that I’m jumping on Pierre’s back. I believe his post implied some bad advice. Not only do I have a right to point this out, I think I have an obligation to do so. Note that, unlike Pierre’s remarks about me, my remarks about Pierre made no inferences about what Pierre knows or doesn’t know about using Word. Honestly, I’ve never understood why people would, as you have in your comment, make inferences about these kinds of factual issues when it’s clear that they just don’t have a lot of information upon which to base their inferences.

    If you’ve been reading my blog, then you know that, just last month, I sat down with members of our Customer Council. They, literally, represent tens of thousands of users. Moreover, we get feedback from thousands of other customers. So, what, specifically, do you find to be so valuable about Pierre’s feedback such that you think we should put him on the payroll? Do you honestly think Pierre has any information that we don’t get from thousands of other users?

  4. David says:

    Re: <i>"you’re probably better off trying to rewrite the offending title or heading than trying to force a line break to make it look nice."</i>.

    This is often not an option. What if you’re not the content creator? What if you just prefer the heading you’ve written?

    Most books include a few headings that have been manually broken across lines. The designer chose to do that rather than rewrite the headings or reduce their size.

    It sounds as though you get a lot of customer feedback, so you may have evidence that few customers encounter situations in which line breaks are the preferred solution. I would suggest, however, that anyone creating a publication (newsletter, poetry journal, recipe collection, whatever) in Microsoft Word will need the ability to manually break headings. It is often the best design.

    Also, there may not be "all that many poets out there who are likely to be in any way concerned about the difference between line breaks and paragraph breaks," but there are a lot of poetry (and literary) journals that can’t afford desktop publishing software but already have Microsoft Word on their computer. The first few issues of McSweeney’s, for example, were published "with software you already own." Poets may not appreciate the difference between line breaks and paragraphs, but not all poetry is published without such appreciation.

  5. Warren Beck says:

    Quoting from above: "Frankly, it looks a lot more like flame bait than constructive criticism, particularly in that his criticism is based on obfuscating the distinction between knowing why someone might want to use a text-wrapping break and knowing how many people would actually want to use one in practice."

    Well, Rick, "flame bait" and "obfuscating" are your words, and they imply a certain motivation on Pierre’s part that is not deserved.

    Also, I’ve read your interchange with Pierre on his blog, so my point above is primarily to argue some more that you have a defensive attitude concerning Pierre’s comments on Word _in general_.

    To make an analogy, the engineers that design tennis rackets are assuredly not the ones with the best backhands. No one expects Andre Agassi, conversely, to use his computer to construct a new frame design, but he sure as hell knows how to hit a winner down the line.

    I think that MS needs people like Pierre to interact with developers like you to help steer Word’s development and to fix the current problems that it _clearly_ has. It is a good practice in any discipline to present work to others and then to field criticism. It is _not_ a healthy practice to be defensive about criticism. One should note it, give thanks to the critic for his comments and time, and then go back to work. In the realm of desktop computer applications, many times the critics have paid a lot of money to you, so their criticism is literally earned and direct attention to it should be paid.

  6. Warren Beck says:

    As a short addition, Pierre’s feedback should be given a lot of weight because he has written extensively on Word in the past and continues to give it a lot of thought. I seriously doubt that many people in your user base have given as much thought to how Word works or doesn’t work as he has. If MS and the MacBU solely use surveys and statistics to indicate what needs work in developing the next version of Word, then a mistake is being made. If a learned, experienced user points out a deficiency, it should be fixed especially if the criticism points out an incorrect or unexpected behavior. To argue that a problem should not be fixed because only one user points it out (and the survey does not show it to be a problem for everyone) is a specious argument. I work with Word v.X (and for the record, XP and 2003) and I have personally observed the problems that Pierre has pointed out in his writings and in his blog. I am amazed that many of these problems escape being fixed in successive (not just one) releases.

  7. Rick Schaut says:

    David, I don’t recall saying that one should never use a manual line break in a title or a heading. I will, however, stand by my statement that one should try other ways to resolve the problem.

    Warren, where to begin. Yes, I characterized Pierre’s remarks as flaim bait. I had said that I don’t know how many users might want to use a particular feature, and Pierre made the rather flawed inference of taking that statement to mean I didn’t know why someone might want to use the feature. Last I knew, "Why?" and "How Many?" are two distinctly different questions, and that the answer to the former doesn’t necessarily lead to a reasonable answer as to the latter. I do notice that you haven’t defended the logic of Pierre’s inference.

    Pierre’s remarks constituted an unwarranted attack on me personally. In most circles, that would tend to imply that I have a right to defend myself. Whether or not I’m being defensive is irrelevant if acting in defense is fully justified. In this case, I think the justification is as clear as the sun at high noon on a cloudless day.

    Secondly, your answer to my question appears to be that Pierre has written volumes on the problems he’s encountered with Word. Quantity isn’t the same as quality. It’s unfortunate, but much of Pierre’s discussions of the problems he has with Word are as fraught with unwarranted inferences as the post which prompted my response.

    Warren, we don’t rely solely on statistics and surveys. I can assure you that the members of the Customer Council were not statistics, and their feedback wasn’t given by way of survey. We sat down, face-to-face, for two full days. This included both formal discussions and informat discussions over dinner. We do the same thing with our MVPs at the MVP summits. We discussed the problems they’re experiencing with Office, but, more importantly, we talked about the kinds of things they’re actually trying to do. When I said that we get feedback from literally thousands of customers, I was talking about feedback that’s direct, pointed and unconstrained.

    You followed the discussion I had with Pierre a while back, so you should be well aware of the point I’d raised then as to the value, or lack thereof, in Pierre’s feedback. Pierre hasn’t said anything that we don’t already know. The fact is that there are a number of issues worth solving that seem to have escaped Pierre’s (and apparently your) notice. I can assure you, however, that these issues haven’t escaped our notice, which is probably the reason why Word doesn’t behave exactly as you and Pierre would like it to behave.

  8. Andrew Fox says:

    Sorry Rick, but I’m afraid Pierre has often got it right. He can seem to be overly rude at times, but he’s often right, in my (humble) opinion. I haven’t got time to point out all the things he has said that I agree with – but it’s the small thing mainly. The inconsistencies, the unexpected behaviours, etc. He doesn’t always get it right, but he has every right to say them. I’m amazed some of them aren’t brought up by other focus groups, etc.

    Sorry – fairly insubstantial comment – got no time – but I wanted to put in my halfpenny.

  9. Rick Schaut says:

    Andrew, I don’t think you’ve said anything that substantively disagrees with anything that I’ve said.

  10. Joku says:

    Forgetting the "discussion", I’d point out two things: One "solution" could be to use invisible table and adjust the middle cell width so that you can avoid the line break.

    Two: VS team already figured that there are various groups of users (C# and VB coders for example) who may have a more general preference to having particular settings enabled/disabled. So they created profiles for that. I admit that there may be no such obvious groups of people with clear preferences in the case of Office products or even just Word though.

  11. Klaus Linke says:

    > (Win Word actually uses the term “text-wrapping break”)

    Rick: A text-wrapping break in WinWord (from the "Insert > Break" dialog) is actually a different animal than a manual line break.

    It’s only used for influencing the text flow around a floating picture, frame, or table: A text wrapping break in some text next to that object will make the following text continue under that object (whereas a manual line break would just go one line down, as usual).

    It can’t be inserted in Mac Word at all, not even using a macro, since Mac Word doesn’t know about wdBreakType = wdTextWrappingBreak.

    WinWord documents containing text wrapping breaks are extremely rare, so it’s probably not missed much on the Mac 😉

  12. Klaus Linke says:

    Oops, "can’t be inserted at all" was hasty:

    If you open a WinWord doc with a text wrapping break on a Mac, select some text wrapping break, and create a formatted AutoCorrect for it (say #twb#), you can then use/insert it in Mac Word, too!

    Mac Word does render docs with text wrapping breaks correctly. It only doesn’t seem to have any method to insert them.

  13. dave rogers says:

    I’d just like to point out that, ignoring all the meta-discussion on who’s rude and who’s defensive, I’m learning a lot about Word!

    Thanks, Rick.

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