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What are the Differences between Word Processing and Desktop Publishing?

written by: John Garger•edited by: Michele McDonough•updated: 12/30/2010

Although both share several elements, there is quite a bit that distinguishes word processing from desktop publishing. Learn all about the differences between the two and how to choose the right software to get your work done.

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    Both word processors and desktop publishers are powerful applications that can help you create professional looking documents for work, school, or even fun. However, some fundamental differences distinguish these two types of software applications.

    Word processors have been available for microcomputers far longer than desktop publishers. Often, word processors were and are used to create simple documents that can look like they were made with desktop publishing software. Read on to learn what separates a word processor from a desktop publisher.

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    Word Processor

    As its name suggests, a word processor is a software application that allows you to process text into a variety of visual configurations. The most popular manipulations of text in a word processor include changes to typeface such as bold, italics, and underlines as well as selection of a variety of fonts such as Times New Roman, Arial, and Lucida.

    Arrangement of the text on the page is largely linear with few options to set text precisely where the user wants. The ability to setup tab stops, columns, and insert images in modern word processors make them appear to have some of the features normally reserved for true desktop publishing applications.

    Contemporary word processors such as Microsoft Word 2007/2010, incorporate some of the flexibility of a desktop publisher without betraying their intended purpose to produce crisp, even text on a page.

    Microsoft Word 2007 

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    Desktop Publisher

    Rather than manipulation of text, a desktop publisher is a program for arranging multiple design elements in one complete document. Of course, these design elements include text, but desktop publishers are used when layouts that are complicated call for more than the linear layouts achieved so well by word processors.

    Most desktop publishers offer a WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) interface, a component that was missing from early word processors. When word processors started taking advantage of a WYSIWYG interfaces, the elements that separate word processors from desktop publishing applications blurred just a bit.

    One element that makes people confuse desktop publishers and word processors is the fact that many of the desktop publishers offered to the public are far less powerful that those used in the professional print industry. Desktop publishers such as Microsoft Publisher were purposely designed to function and look like the much more familiar word processors.

    At the same time, word processors have become so powerful as a design medium, that they took on some of the features of a desktop publisher making them more versatile than their original design called for. Over time, what separated word processors from desktop publishers blurred even further essentially reducing the casual user’s need to use a desktop publisher for simple document layouts.

    Microsoft Publisher 2007 

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    Conclusion

    Although there are some important elements that separate word processors from desktop publishers, they do share some elements such as the manipulation and placement of text that blurs the distinction for some people.

    The biggest difference that distinguishes the two types of applications is that word processors typically proceed linearly down a page whereas desktop publishers allow for the free placement of elements to create a much more fluid and open approach to arranging the parts that make up the document. For simple layouts, word processors can sometimes suffice. More complicated layouts call for the flexibility of a desktop publisher.