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XHTML from Word


I have been prompted by Bryan Wilhite to respond to some questions he posed in this blog entry about Word to XHTML export. I have to admit that I don't understand all of what Bryan covers in his article on XHTML Schemas in Word 2003 Documents. But here's what I think.

I am very dubious about the usefulness of Word 2003's XML support in both the 'native' XML export and the use of schemas inside Word, but for a much broader, and infinitely better informed critique of XML in MS Office than mine, see Simon St. Laurent's Holes in Microsoft Office XML.

Word's XML export using WordprocessingML is less useful in the context in which I work than the 'export to HTML and transform to XML' approach that I covered in my Word to XML article.

The WordprocessingML schema is very complex, with its own table model etc. So for most purposes something closer to HTML is a better bet. My assumption is that the Word team originally wrote the HTML export from Word 2000 as a true XML export but were forced to dumb it down for some strategic reason while they worked on a truly proprietary, much less useful solution.

I admit to not having explored Word's XML structured editing and schema support very much but I have looked into it a couple of times and was not moved to take it further (Bryan's report of the problems involved helped to scare me off). I would expect that true structured editing is likely to be a nightmare because of all the other features of Word getting in the way. Structured editing is hard enough for most authors using an XML editor that doesn't have Word's extensive legacy, and the possibility of confusing matters with structured and non structured parts intermingling.

I'm sure that there are people using these schema-driven editing features, but I'm equally sure that it's costing them dearly in development and support time.

But that said, if there was an example of a mature XHTML editing environment built on Word 2003 I'd love to give it a try. I can't find one, though.

So, for broad-scale use I think the answer is: use styles, and plug into a content management solution that can generate web documents from your styled documents.

As Simon puts it in Holes in Microsoft Office XML:

Word's XML functionality isn't integrated with its existing style functionality.

Users, at least some users, understand the style drop-down and applying styles. The XML task pane is new and additional. Creating XML documents in Word that look like you want them to look can require using both styles and XML. My advice to people who want to use Word to create XML: forget about the XML tools, unless you need lots of precise nesting and attributes. Use styles instead, and then extract the information from WordprocessingML. (Yes, I know that's painful.)

To which I would add skip the WordprocessingML and use the HTML export (transformed to XML) - less painful, but not pain-free. And I have had pretty good results with nesting in XHTML using a carefully designed style-set. More on that soon.

And as for Bryan's questions:

Would he welcome the ability to automatically markup Word documents with XHTML using the robust automation features of Office System 2003 and/or Visual Studio .NET?

Well maybe, but I don't really understand how you would do this and make it usable. I've got a pretty workable solution using styles at the moment. I don't think most of the authors I work with would take well to further complexity. (I assume the authors would not be expected to use Visual Studio).

Would he find routing nodes of XHTML through a Web service from Word useful?

I don't understand the use-case for this.

What about saving bits of a Word document as XHTML by selecting text and sending it marked up to the Clipboard?

That would be useful, but again, it would be most useful if it was style driven, and didn't require the author to deal with XML Word's bastard environment. I guess I can see how that could be done using styles, feeding the selection to Word (or OpenOffice.org), then running it through a process to save as XML and map styles to XHTML.