Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 144 / SEPTEMBER 1992 / PAGE 60

Working with words. (word-processing software)(includes product listing and related articles on add-ons and writing techniques) (Buyers Guide)
by Gregg Keizer

A word processor may seem like a glorified typewriter to some, but the comparison is inaccurate. Each has a keyboard, but the resemblance ends there.

Word processing is the most popular use of a PC, with 1991 North American word-processing software sales topping the billion-dollar mark. Only spreadsheets have altered America's business landscape more dramatically than word processors have. In schools and homes, word processing is the leading application of microcomputer technology. That's no accident.

Deleting, moving, or copying text takes just one or two keystrokes or the click of a mouse and a yank on a menu. You can rearrange words, check their spelling, call up the perfect synonym, merge documents, and more--long before you commit to putting words on paper. And once you've created a document, it's forever available, ready to reprint or, if you want, ready to metamorphose into something specifically targeted to the reader.


No one said that writing was easy. Writing is a seemingly endless series of difficult decisions. And one of the hardest is picking the perfect word processor.

Your first decision may be your most important. Do you stick with older software technology--a character-based word processor such as WordPerfect 5.1--or do you head for the newest Windows writing tool, such as Microsoft Word for Windows 2.0? The choice depends on two things: the PC on your desk and the reason you write.

Graphical word processors that run under Windows demand a faster, better-equipped personal computer than programs that launch from the DOS prompt. If your home, classroom, or home office PC is an older model with a slow microprocessor (80286, 8086, or 8088 machines), 1MB or less of memory, and a small (under 40MB) hard disk or no hard disk at all, forget Windows.

The writing results you're after are harder to quantify but just as crucial. If the presentation of your words is almost as important as your message, or if you want a tool that does double duty as a desktop publishing program, go with a full-featured Windows word processor. But if writing and editing speed are more important and you mainly produce relatively plain and straightforward documents, a DOS word processor is all you need.


You have your pick of more than a dozen excellent word processors to help you craft your words.

Word processors may differ in ease of use, speed of such typical tasks as searching through long documents, and ability to produce attractive output, but all hand you a complete set of writing instruments, from text-formatting tools to spelling checkers. None of them will make you a writer (as a hammer won't make you a carpenter), but depending on its features, a word processor can make you either a more or a less productive writer.

A worthy word processor includes several key features that fit your writing work. Check out these six traits before you buy a new program or upgrade to a new version.

* Text shifting. How easy is it to select and then delete, move, or copy text? This feature is crucial to efficient editing of what you've already written.

* Scroll speed. Much of your editing time is spent moving through a document. The faster the program scrolls new text onto the screen, the more productive your time.

* Merge. Can you easily take material from one document and meld it with another? Can you view multiple versions of the same document simultaneously?

* Automated writing. If you spend much of your writing time in repetitive tasks, make sure the word processor lets you write automated scripts or macros to simplify the process.

* WYSIWYG. Can the program display the document exactly as it will print? This built-in feature of Windows gives Windows word processors an edge, though some DOS programs can also preview the document before it's put on paper.

* Printing. How broad is the program's printer support? Even if it matches your current printer, don't forget that you may update that peripheral. If you're using the word processor for page-layout duties, it's especially important that the program print to a Postscript device.


Word processors have duplicated the development trends of other productivity software. They've taken on features and absorbed elements that once were provided by outside utilities. Spelling checkers, for instance, though now part of every self-respecting word processor, once had their own booming third-party market.

But even though today's word processors can do much more, they're not perfect. If you're serious about writing on the computer, you'll need to flesh out your word processor with several add-ons to make writing easier and more attractive on the page.

* Grammar checkers. Though some word processors now include an integrated grammar and style checker (Word for Windows and Professional Write Plus are two that do), most do not. Still not a substitute for careful proofreading, these automated utilities alert you to some aspects of subpar writing and then recommend changes.

* Wordmeisters. Virtually every word processor comes with a spelling checker. But this tool, as valuable as it is, doesn't include definitions. Before you toss out the paper dictionary, add an electronic one to your hard disk. The best not only hand out definitions but find the correct spelling even if you know just part of a word.

* File translators. Word processors typically import and export documents in the most popular formats, such as Microsoft Word and WordPerfect, but to cover all the bases, you need a file-translation utility if you frequently share writing with others.

* Special needs for special times. Specialized writing tasks such as screenplay and fiction writing require special tools. Scores of software packages are available to format your work in a specific fashion (as with screenplays), and a few even teach the rudiments of writing. Microsoft Works might be thought of as a word processor with a spreadsheet and other important applications added on. It has everything a small business needs in a word processor, along with a suite of important business tools.

* Fonts, fonts, fonts. No matter what word processor you use, your documents look only as good as the fonts you can punch from your printer. Font rasterizers sharpen the output, and font collections give you a wider selection of type options. Windows 3.1, which includes TrueType, Microsoft's outline font technology, is a tremendous advantage to Windows word processor users.


It's time to dispel a few fallacies about computers and writing. Some say a computer won't make you a better writer. Others are of the opinion that you don't need a powerful computer if all you're doing is writing.

Lies, all lies.

A computer can make you a better writer. No, not because it turns the words you type into deathless prose--it can't do that. But it can work as an electronic assistant that eases research, remembers details, and helps you assemble magazine features, novels, biographies, reports, and memos. Anything that helps you spend more time on writing and less time on the mechanics lets you concentrate on the actual crafting of words.

Does a writer need a computer as fast and powerful as an engineer's or an accountant's? Just like any computerized chore, writing benefits from a powerful computer. Any computer and word processor, no matter how slow, can keep up with your typing, but that's not the true test of power. A faster, better-equipped computer lets you work with a Windows word processor, cuts editing time, stores volumes of information, and connects you to other writers, among a host of other things. If you're serious about writing, get a serious writing tool.

You can put together an outstanding writer's PC--one that can handle both DOS and Windows software--for around $2,200 simply by following this shopping list. Items are listed in the order of priority--buy until your budget says stop.

* IBM PC or compatible, equipped with a 33-MHz 80386 processor, at least 4MB of RAM, and a 100MB (or larger) hard drive. Most PCs come bundled with a video card, a VGA or SVGA monitor, a keyboard, a mouse, and Windows. Cost: $1,800-$2,200.

* Ink-jet or laser printer. Hewlett-Packard's DeskJet 500 and Laserjet IIP Plus are both excellent choices for churning out good-looking manuscripts. The DeskJet costs a bit more than half the price of the average laser printer, but it's slower, and its type is a tad fuzzier. Cost: $450-$800.

* Modem and communications software. A 2400-bps modem is your best bargain; connect to CompuServe's excellent reference databases with CompuServe Information Manager. Cost: $75-$110.

* Optical character recognition (OCR) software and a scanner. When you come across a great clip from a magazine and want to store it electronically (sure beats a filing cabinet), you need a way to turn the print into digital information. A scanner-OCR combo works great. Cost: $270-$400.


Over a period of less than two years, word processing has become one of the most important Windows applications. Here are a few of the products that took it to the forefront.

Ami Pro. One of the two best Windows word processors around, Ami Pro is not only a great writing instrument but also a superb tool for creating charts, graphs, and other graphics--its image-processing tools let you vary the brightness and contrast of TIFF images, for instance, as you assemble newsletters. And it's almost as easy to use as Word for Windows in straight text entry and editing. Ami Pro also offers a built-in grammar checker and drag-and-drop editing in its latest version.

JustWrite. This bargain Windows word processor may not be able to boast the desktop publishing tools included in its full-featured competitors, but it does hand you everything you need for writing short-to-medium-length documents and takes up only a half or a third as much room on your hard drive as Word, Ami Pro, or WordPerfect. The lack of a draft-writing mode is its biggest weakness.

Word for Windows. In any Windows word-processing competition, it's a tossup between Ami Pro and Word for Windows. "WinWord" is a fast, powerful, but surprisingly easy-to-use program that covers all the bases. Its most intriguing writing tool lets you select text and then drag it and drop it anywhere in the document for instant editing.

WordPerfect for Windows. WordPerfect for Windows shares file formats with Word Perfect 5.1, accepts most of the same keystrokes, and even runs some of the DOS version's macros. Other than these compatibility strengths--which, for many, are more than enough--there's little to recommend WordPerfect for Windows to the first-time Windows writer.


Long the province of serious writers who only wanted to get words hammered out, DOS word processors are facing up to the new competition from Windows' WYSIWYG interface with their own preview features. Because of the interface's demand on system resources, Windows word processors will probably always eat the dust of DOS word processors. Here are some of the top DOS offerings.

Word. A bit of a hybrid, Word 5.5 runs under DOS but looks more like a Windows program than any other DOS program here. Full mouse support and lots of dialog boxes and pull-down menus make for a quick start. Like its Windows counterpart, Word's outliner is a boon to writers who want to organize their work before they begin.

WordPerfect. Famed for its clean screen and unparalleled support, WordPerfect 5.1 costs as much as the top-of-the-line Windows programs and delivers almost as much--all under DOS. Once you get beyond its awkward keystroke demands, you'll find that WordPerfect can tackle virtually any writing task you have in mind. And if you're sharing files with others, it doesn't hurt that WordPerfect is the country's most-used word processor. No one can match the support, either.

XyWrite III Plus/Signature. Just as difficult to learn as WordPerfect, XyWrite III Plus and its upgrade, Signature, are favorites of professional writers who crank out reams of copy. Their scrolling and searching speeds are blazingly fast, and they produce clean ASCII-format files that can be opened by virtually any other program. You can use XyWrite for desktop publishing, but most people use it as a front-end for a dedicated desktop publishing program.


A tool may not make a profession, but it sure helps to ease you over the rough spots. Word processors and their add-ons turn the PC into a spelling champ, a supertypist that cranks out perfect copies, and an organized assistant that helps you search through databases and file the information you find.

If you've never written without a PC, you can't appreciate the benefits the computer revolution has provided. At one time, the writer's best friends were scissors and paste pot, with which a manuscript would be literally patched together. Spouses, secretaries, and friends would be pressed into service to help with sometimes mammoth retyping jobs. No one can guess how many fledgling writers and half-completed novels ran aground because of the sheer difficulty of putting words on paper in a presentable way. And, since virtually every profession involves at least a little writing, word processing has made life easier for countless millions who would never even think of themselves as writers: students, teachers, professors, people in sales and marketing, doctors, lawyers, social workers, engineers. A rare boon with few boondoggles, word processing is your key to perfect prose and hours saved.


Desktop publishing has put such powerful demands on word processors that an entire industry of third-party developers has sprung up to fill the gaps, providing tools to make writing easier and more effective. Here are a few software and hardware accessories that'll make word processing even more rewarding.

Adobe Type Manager. This font rasterizer scales fonts for both the display and the printer to generate sharper, clearer type on paper and on the screen. If you're using a Windows word processor, you need Adobe Type Manager.

FirstAid for Writers. This five-module program, created by a book editor, works like a writer's version of 911. You import your writing into FirstAid, fix the problems it pinpoints, and then export the "fixed" writing back to your word processor. This mechanical approach to writing may seem artificial to some, and with a list price over half the cost of the most powerful word processor, FirstAid is out of the reach of those who could benefit most-beginning writers.

Grammatik. No grammar checker can replace a thorough understanding of the English language, but Grammatik, which comes in both Windows and DOS flavors, pinpoints at least some of your problems. Grammatik notices passive writing (the bane of good prose), spots incorrect usage (it's for its), and has multiple styles to fit various kinds of writing. Grammatik works within several of the most popular word processors, such as WordPerfect and Word, and is compatible with more than two dozen others.

Random House Webster's Electronic Dictionary & Thesaurus. DOS word processor users will appreciate this TSR, which includes a 180,000-word dictionary and a 275,000-word thesaurus. The press of a hot key brings up the definition of the word at the cursor position. Random House Webster's Electronic Dictionary & Thesaurus works from within most word processors and requires approximately 10K of RAM to stay memory resident.

The Writer's Toolkit for Windows. This collection (also available for DOS) includes a grammar checker, a 117,000-word electronic dictionary, a thesaurus, a one-volume online encyclopedia, a quotation dictionary, and two other writer's helpers. Through the magic of macros, The Toolkit works from within popular Windows word processors such as Word, WordPerfect, and Ami Pro.

Word for Word. For sheer number of formats (90), nothing beats Word for Word in translating files. This DOS program is fast and, with a new interface, easy to use. It even turns PC word-processing files into formats for several Macintosh applications.


Many writers are in top form every time they sit down at the keyboard. But many shoot themselves in the foot by ignoring simple procedures that would make their writing look more polished. Here's how to get the most from your time.

1. Proof your writing yourself. Spelling and grammar checkers can't catch everything.

2. Keep in touch with editors, other writers, and your correspondents via electronic mail. Letter writing may be a dying art, but E-mail is its 1990s replacement.

3. Save substantial rewrites as separate files so you can track changes. That way, you can revert to a previous version if you need to.

4. Electronic word processing makes editing a breeze. Don't let this bog you down in endless changes. Know when to call it quits.

5. Use the power of the word processor to rearrange sections, paragraphs, and sentences as you rewrite. If you're writing nonfiction, look for a lead paragraph buried in the body of the article; looking for the buried lead is a common practice among writers.

6. Run Windows or a task switcher under DOS. Then you can drop out of the word processor and flip into another application--a telecommunications program to connect with an online database, for instance--without having to exit your primary writing tool. Some writers are now using OS/2 as a powerful tool for multitasking DOS applications.

7. Outliners, especially those built into word processors, are powerful tools. Don't be put off by bad memories of Roman-numeral outlining in school. Use the outliner to jot down ideas as they come to you, and then flesh them out in the word processor.

8. Invest in an add-on thesaurus, or buy a word processor that includes one. It'll be invaluable as you struggle to think of the perfect synonym.

9. If you find it difficult to edit and rewrite on the screen--a common problem for beginning writers--print out a copy, do your edits on paper, and then enter changes at the keyboard. An alternative that works for some is to invest in a full-page monitor so that you can see more on the screen. Full-page monitors are specially designed for this purpose.

10. If you spend lots of time doing research away from your desk, consider an inexpensive notebook computer to use for taking notes. It saves rekeying later. An alternative is a good scanner-OCR combination.