The most important thing to know about word processing is that Microsoft is not your only option, in fact it wouldn’t even make my list of top 43 word processors, and for most academics it should not either.
Different word processors are equipped to handle different types of jobs, finding the right word processor is a matter of figuring out what you want one to do. Think of MS Word as the mini-van of word processors (an overly priced outdated one— like paying $50,000 for a 1998 Dodge Caravan whose seatbelts might not work), mostly safe, mostly reliable, tested, you can count on every one having access to one, lots of bells and whistles (which you usually don’t want but have to pay for anyway), not particularly sexy (yes software can be sexy) and because it is made to handle everything it is not particularly adept at doing any of them. Many word processors, Word included, are designed for the business enviornment. That is, their target user is someone who produces short documents (1-10 pages) and lots of them, but word processors like this are not very good at handling larger documents—like say a manuscript—in fact they are really bad at it. Ever notice how long Word takes to open up a journal sized piece say 10,000 words? I have seen bamboo grow faster.
There are many other options out there that are addressed more to an academic audience, and here is the bonus: all are substantially cheaper than MS Word and are far more effecient. (Sure there are a few things to worry about here, like making your documents available to people who only have Word, or opening up Word files, but more on this later. Actually this is yet another reason to have one of these other Word Processors, as most tend to play well with others rather than garbling up papers.) So here are a few other options covered in rough order of those I would recommend.
Mellel (Mac Only): This is the Word Processor I use 90% of the time. It was designed by academics who wanted a word processor that worked the way they wanted, an application designed for professional writers. Mellel is structured a bit different than most other applications, as it seperates content from form, a powerful way to have a Word Processor work, but one that does take a bit of getting used. But once you do there is so much more that you can accomplish with ease. I find myself saying all the time, “This is the way I wanted Word to work” or “Why doesn’t every Word Processor work like this.” You can designate a format for just about any type of text you want, and by pressing a key, or selecting a menu item have the selected bit of text adopt that format. So as I am typing I just select “blockquote” from my specified styles and “bahm” the whole selection is automatically formated, no fusing around with indents, margins etc, all done, one key stroke. Mellel allows you to format text left to right or right to left (in the same document) a particularly useful feature if you work with languages like Hebrew or Japanese but most of your document is written in English. Mellel is also light years faster than Word, I can open up Mellel and be half way through typing the first paragraph by the time it takes a more robust Word Processor to open. Mellel also works with Sente or Bookends (Bibliography Software) which makes keeping track of references, and sorting the bibliography that much easier. On the Mellel website they have a comparison chart to other Word Processors. In fact they are actually honest about which features are lacking in Mellel and what other Word Processors are better at. But honestly I have been using Mellel for about a year now, and I have no complaints. And seriously everyone in Academia that I know who uses this program (especially in the Humanities) wonders why more people don’t.(As much as I love this program you would think they are paying me to advertise—but they are not I just like this application that much.) And if you work in Academia it only costs $35.
Nisus Writer Express (Mac Only): If I couldn’t use Mellel this would be my Word Processor of choice. It doesn’t have as much control over styles as Mellel, but as a result the interface is cleaner and leaner. Like Mellel it is much faster than Word, and handles larger documents noticeably better. Like Mellel, Nisus also offers an educational discount and comes in much cheaper than Word at $39.
Abi Word: (Mac, Windows, Linux): So you should click on the link and hop on over to Abi Word and download it right now. Why? Because it’s free. That’s right free, a word processor that does most everything you need, at about $150 less than MSWord. Abi Word works well enough to use as your everyday word processor, although it doesn’t have all the advanced features that some of the other applications have. But, Abi Word plays nice with most formats, so it is useful to have around in case a student sends you a paper written in some obscure format, Abi Word might work where others fail. There are also a series of plugins available that can enhance its performity. Because of its size (small) and cross platform (Windows, Mac) avialability it is also a good choice to carry around on a flash drive, for anywhere word processing.
Open Office: (Mac, Windows): Like Abi Word Open Office is also free, but unlike Abi it is more than just a word processor, it also contains presentation software (think power point) and a spreadsheet (think Excel). The downside is that Open Office is a bit slower, and more difficult to use, if you just want Word Processing, Abi is probably a better choice, but having Open Office around is not a bad move either, in case some one sends you an Excel or Power Point file. Open Office does not run as well on Mac as on Windows but there is a port of Open Office Neo Office that works much better. I keep a verision of Neo in Applications to open Excel or Power Point files.
Ulysses: (Mac) If I were someone who did creative writing, I would consider this one. I haven’t used it a great deal but I did play around with it for a trial period. Blue Technologies group took a completely different approach here and the result is a word processor that is focused solely on organizing words.