Death to the WYSIWYG

by Cosmo Catalano

I understand the intentions behind it. It was meant to be an engine of liberation, empowering a proletariat of print editors and writers bred on—or at least not terrified of—word processing software to quickly and easily deploy their skills on the World Wide Web. It was meant to free designers and developers friendly with HTML to pursue other, more pressing and complicated tasks.

But the WYSIWYG has accomplished none of these things, because styling and laying out a page is a startlingly difficult proposition. It’s a mayhem of competing rules and stylesheets, not to mention browser inconsistencies, and even those skilled in the craft occasionally find themselves falling back on pure code and trial and error to apply pixel perfection to things as mundane as a flavor image.

Yes, the dream of lay people someday building their own websites is dead. And really, that’s ok—sites like Blogger, WordPress, Facebook, and, Tumblr have given anyone a platform to produce and publish text that articulates the heart of their ideas.

WYSIWYG code in all its glory

Yep. That’s clean and human-readable.

The problem is that, with a a menubar full of snake-oil styling tools, these ideas as battered and buried in a flurry of block-displayed, inline-styled <span> tags that create the very sort of mess for web managers that the WYSIWYG was intended to avoid in the first place. Don’t even get me started on what happens when people copy out of Word and into the browser.

Thus, the WYSIWYG must be destroyed. It must be torn down and rebuilt, as a window purely for text. It can offer a header (probably <h3>), bold (as <strong>), italic (as <em>) and links (<a>, without window behavior controls). Nothing else. Breaks in text are rendered as <p>, each entry as a single <div>.

It’s tempting to add <blockquote>, <ul>, and <ol> to that quiver, given the propensity of the Internet to love lists and plagiarism, but indented quotes too easily become a faux styling element, and unclosed, nested lists quickly ensnare the careless content generator.

Of course, this also means you’ll need to pass everything through a final set of HTML-aware eyes to insert things like bullets and images, but given the continuing shadow of SEO and the content farm, is a final check-off on quality really such a bad thing? It might mean spending a bit more on better trained staff, but in the long run, it will be worth the investment.