Classic Computer Magazine Archive CREATIVE COMPUTING VOL. 10, NO. 12 / DECEMBER 1984 / PAGE 126

Choosing and using a word processor. Russ Lockwood.

What Is A Word Processor?

When salespeople throw you a sales pitch about how a computer will increase productivity, cure tedium, and generally improve your life, they always mention word processing. Office or home, executive or student, these people claim that just about everyone can use a word processor. In general, they are right; word processing is a big reason why computers found a permanent niche in our homes, offices, and classrooms.

A word processor is made up of two parts, a text editor and a text formatter. A text editor lets you enter and change text on the screen. A text formatter lets you send the text to a peripherals device, like a printer, exactly as it will appear on the printer page.

The text editor has cursor control, which may be simply the cursor control keys, a more extensive and elaborate set of command codes, or both, to get you from one place to another in the text. Text editors are either screen oriented, which means one character on the screen represents one character in memory and changes or made instantaneously, or line oriented, which means entire lines of text are entered and stored in memory.

A word processor allows you to use your computer in much the same way you would a typewriter, with some important exceptions. With a typewriter, you see your deathless prose on paper immediately after you type it. With a word processor, your writing is stored electronically. Your link is through the monitor, where the words appear on screen, or the disk, where the words are stored for future use.

With a typewriter, altering your writing means retyping the page. Moving paragraphs around becomes an exercise in using scissors and tape to cut and paste. Not so with a word processing program. Since your prose is stored electronically, inserting, deleting, and moving text is as easy as pressing a few keys. Only after you are satisfied with your work do you print out your document on paper.

As a corollary to this, once you do decide to print out the text, you press a few keys and then sit back and watch the printer go--effortlessly, flawlessly, accurately churning out the words as fast as it can pull them out of memory or off the disk.

Finally, setting up special formats--headings or footers for example--on a typewriter is time consuming and must be repeated for each page. With many word processors, you set up these special layouts once and then watch the program automatically duplicate them on each page.

Indeed, a word processor is a versatile tool--far more versatile than a typewriter. Most writing that can be done on a typewriter can be done more efficiently on a word processor.

As you can imagine, anyone who writes--and that includes business people, students, editors, and just about everyone else--can take advantage of the speed and ease of a word processor. In the business world, memos, letters, and reports can be drafted, revised, and printed much faster with a word processor than with a typewriter. On the home front, students find that much of the tedium of revising and retyping term papers is eliminated. All in all, a word processor saves you time and effort and is a practical application for your computer investment. How To Buy A Word Processor

Word processing is one of the biggest inducements to buying a computer. Without a doubt, manipulating words electronically on a monitor screen before committing them to paper is much easier than wrestling with a typewriter and its reams of paper, rolls of ribbon, and gallons of white-out. If you already use a word processor, you know the advantages of owning one, but you may want or need to consider a second one. If you have never used a word processing program, read on, and we'll show you what to look for. Matchmaker, Matchmaker

Computers inspire dedication and loyalty to make and model just as automobiles do. For every user who will give up his Macintosh only after you pry it from his cold, lifeless fingers, you can find another who claims that the Mac is a fancy toy with no practical purpose.

Well, the same is true of word processors. WordStar fanatics abound, while devotees of other programs shake their heads in amazement. The real trick in picking a word processor is choosing the one that is right for you. Plan Ahead

As you start to look for a word processing package, above all else, plan ahead. Sit down and figure out exactly what you want to use the word processor for. Slick marketing notwithstanding, some people just do not need an expensive, extensive, learning-intensive word processor. So why pay for features you will never use?

Analyze the kind of writing you do and think about how much and how often you write. In the office environment, a secretary who types scores of letters every week or an executive who produces company reports can use a powerful, full-featured word processor. On the other hand, an executive who writes brief memos and an occasional report or a high school student who writes a few term papers each year can get by with a less powerful word processor.

On the home front, most people need only a basic word processor for letter writing and club minutes. Students can use an intermediate level program that adds a few special features to the basic editing and formatting functions. Freelance writers, consultants, and other professionals who work at home are better off with a full-featured word processor similar to those used in an office environment. Can We Talk?

Compatibility is another buzz word making the rounds in computer ads. Although it is usually associated with hardware rather than software, you should also consider compatibility when buying software.

On the most basic level, be sure that the word processor you are thinking about buying actually runs on your computer. At first, this may seem so obvious that it borders on the ridiculous, but, tales of people buying software that fails to run on their computers are not as rare as you might hink. Some IBM PC compatibles are not as compatible as they pretend to be. Software that runs on an IBM PC may not run on a compatible. Be safe. Try the word processor on a computer like yours before you buy.

On a more sophisticated lvel, if you are one of the many people who bring home work from the office, a word processor that can use the same files at home and at work is a rea bonus. At the very least, you should have a program to convert the files from your home word processor into files that can be read by the word processor at work. Some word processing packages include such a conversion utility program. Again, if you can, try before you buy. A simple test now can eliminate a great deal of frustration in the future. First and Foremost

WordStar still leads the word processor pack in terms of number of units sold--due in part to its early appearance in 1979 and due also to its foresighted design, which includes a wide range of editing and formatting features.

Recognizing a good thing when they saw it, software manufacturers soon flooded the marketplace with new entries, each offering a different method of manipulating text. More than 100 word processors are currently available. The accompanying chart will help you select the one that best fits you needs. Feature and Functions

With so many word processors on the market and so many claims being made by the various manufacturers, it is easy to become confused about what features you need. Furthermore, the majority of computer stores usually stock only about a half dozen or so word processing packages; and most salespeople are familiar with only two or three of them. A computer chart of features is certainly helpful in narrowing down your selection, but understanding what the features do is a prerequisite to making good use of the chart. Cursor Control

When we speak of cursor control, we mean the ability to move the cursor anywhere on the screen. Word processors almost always make use of cursor control keys if the computer has them. If a computer has no dedicated cursor control keys, then the word processing program controls cursor movement with a combination of a control or alternate key with a letter key.

There are several methods of moving forward and backward within the text. Just about every word processor allows for character and line movement, and many provide movement by word.

Other quick ways to navigate around a text file include cursor movement to the beginning or end of a file, to the beginning or end of a line, and to the previous or next screen. The more mobility you have within a text file, the faster you can invoke the editing functions as you revise your work. Standard Editing Functions

We expect all word processing programs to perform certain necessary editing functions--insert, delete, search and replace, and block operations--so in the chart, we lumped all these features into one category: Standard Editing Functions. The chart mentions only those functions that are missing from the package. If a feature is not noted as missing, the word processor has it. Delete

What the word processor prints, it can take away. The delete function erases characters. Again, if you can erase a character, you can erase a word, a line, or a paragraph. Most packages will let you delete from where the cursor is to the end of the line, although the more sophisticated the delete features are, the more keys you must press. Insert

If you have ever left out a character or wanted to add a word to a sentence, you know how difficult (and unsightly) it is to make such corrections on the typewritten page. The insert functions of a word processor make cleaning up these errors a breeze.

Generally, if you can insert a single character, you can insert a word, sentence, or paragraph. Some word processors start you out in insert mode while others require you to press a key to toggle the insert mode on and off. Note that when the insert mode is off, you replace characters rather than adding them in them middle of text. Search and Replace

One of the niftiest features of a word processor is search and replace. What this does is find a particular string of characters and replace them with another string as your choice. For example, you could use wp throughout the text as you write the first draft of an article about word processing then, when the piece is done, you can use the search and replace feature to change all the wp abbreviations to word processor. Likewise, you can customize form letters by replacing all references to ABC, Inc. to XYZ Co. All in all this is a timesaving and useful feature.

Wildcard searching is an exotic search technique in which you enter the first and last letters of a word separated by a number of unknown characters, for example, p???a. The program searches for all five-letter words starting with P and ending with A. This feature can be useful if your spelling is inconsistent. Only the more powerful word processor include a widlcard search function. Block Operations

cutting and pasting paragraphs in the text is a snap with a word processor. A block is defined as all the characters between two marked points in the text. It may be a paragraph, a sentence, a character, or even a page or more. Most packages use the convention of marking the beginning and end of the block and then placing the cursor at the point to which you want the block moved.

In addition to moving the block from one location to another, you can delete a block of text or copy it to another location. The procedure is similar and can be very useful when it come time to revise a first or second draft. Standard Formatting Functions

Just as we expect all word processors to include certain editing functions, so we expect them to include certain necessary formatting functions. As we mentioned earlier, formatting pertains to the way the text will appear on the printed page after being sent to a printer. Again, the chart notes only those features that are lacking in a given word processor.

Formatting breaks down into two concerns: space--margins, tabs, justification, centering, headers and footers, and line spacing--and form--boldface, underlining, and super-and subscripts. Space, the Final Frontier

Margins are pretty much self explanatory. The left, right, top, and bottom margins should be adjustable. For most applications, an 80-column width and 72-line lengt' (legal size) are the minimum requirements.

Tabs, like the tabs on a typewriter, let you move across the page quickly, particularly at the beginning of paragraphs. They should also be adjustable.

Justification means lining up the ends of lines. If you look at this column of type, you notice that the ends are straight, which means the column has left and right justification. Most letters look better when the right margin is not justified. Newsletters and similar documents, on the other hand, appear more professional if the columns can be right and left justified. Word processors should allow you to toggle justification on and off.

Centering is a big help, especially for titles and subheadings. Basically, you should be able to center any line within the left and right margins. Changing margins should change the position of a centered line.

Headers are the bits of text that appear at the top of each page. Footers appear at the bottom of a page.

Line spacing refers to single, double, or triple spacing of text. You should be able to specify which you want for each document you produce. You might also want a way to change line spacing within given document. Matters of Form

Boldface, which is sometimes known as emphasized type, makes the text stand out. It can be used for headings or to emphasize words within the text. Some programs actually show boldface characters on the screen; others mark the beginning and end of boldface sections with special characters.

Most word processors handle underlining the same way they handle boldface. They may either show underlined characters, or mark the beginning and end of underlined text with special characters.

Superscripts, which are used in footnotes and mathematical formulae, and subscripts, which are used for mathematical and chemical notation, are other features that come in handy in reports and term papers. If you need them in the work you do, you are undoubtedly aware of it. Most word processors do not show actual super-and subscripts on the screen, but do mark them with special characters. File Merge Capability

File merge capability represents the ability to combine separate text files on disk into one file on screen. This feature is especially helpful in creating standardized paragraphs and moving them into different documents. On-Screen Help

All of these editing and formatting features come with a price: the learning curve. The more sophisticated the program, the longer it will probably take you to learn how to use it and, more important, to use it well.

Even word processing veterans forget a command from time to time, so most programs include a help directory on the screen to jog your memory. This way, with the press of a few keys, you can look at a quick summary of commands without having to pore through a thick manual.

Two types of help are available: continuous, in which a section of the screen is set aside for help messages, and on demand, in which the help message overwrites part of the screen when you call it up. Generally, you use the continuous help at firsT, and then use the on demand help for infrequently used functions after becoming familiar with the word processor. Split Screen

In a sense, split screen is a form of windowing, in which you can edit two parts of a single file or parts ot two different files on one screen. Only the more powerful word processors have this ability. For professional writers and executives who may need to pull information from many different files, a split screen feature can be a boon. File size

File size is the maximum space allowed per text file. Many word processors use virtual storage, so the amount of space on the disk is the only limit to the length of the file. Others load in the program and use the amount of RAM left over in the machine for your file. This, clearly, limits the size of the file. However, most programs that function in this way can chain files together to allow longer documents.

Be warned, though, that there are programs--like the current version of MacWrite--that not only limit the size of your file, but prohibit chaining of files. If you write long documents, be sure that the word processor you choose can accommodate them easily. Automatic Backup

Automatic backup is a handy feature that makes a backup copy of the file on which you are working. That way, if you lose a text file, the disk contains a duplicate, saving you much time, effort, and agony.

The only drawback of this feature is that the system may choose to back up your file at a moment that is not convenient for you. This is a minor inconvenience, however, and a small price to pay for the security of never having to start from scratch. SWIG

SWIG, an acronym coined here and now, stands for See What I Get. This means that what you view on the screen is what ius printed out on paper. Thus, centered lines are really centered, margins are accurate, and columns are columns.

As we said before, many programs do not actually display boldface, underlining, and super-and subscripts on the screen, but mark them with special characters. For the purposes of our chart, if a program displays these special characters on the screen, you do know what will appear, and hence it receives a a positive SWIG.

Some programs, especially those limited to a 40-character line, offer a special preview mode so that you can see how your document will look before printing it out. This feature is especially helpful for letters and other documents that must be centered on the page. Mail Merge Capability

We note if the word processor has merge capabilities with other files. Mail merging is very important to some people, especially those who want to pair their word processor with a database to prepare form letters or other personalized documents. Embedded Printer Commands

Many word processors let you place special formatting commands, sometimes called dot commands, within the text file. Thsi versatile feature lets you switch type fonts, page length, pitch, page numbering, and margins. This is especially helpful in integrating text with graphics or setting up different page layouts within one document. Printer Support

Printer support refers to the process of making the word processor communicate with the printer. Most packages include an installation procedure, although some include a driver utility program geared to a particular printer.

Also, we have noticed that an increasing number of users are hooking up two printers to a single computer. A serial printer provides letter quality output, while a dot matrix printer is for fast draft quality output. If you intend to attach two printers at once, check to see if the word processor allows you to switch between them easily. Otherwise, you may end up going through the installation procedure every time you want to change printers. Copy Protection

Finally, we note whether a program is copy protected or not. A copy protected program cannot be loaded onto a hard disk, nor can backup copies be made of it.

So, if you have a hard disk drive and want to be able to boot your word processor from it, look for a program that is not copy protected. If, however, you don't mind booting a copy protected program from a floppy disk each time you use it, you can store your text files on the hard disk.

In any case, you should have a backup copy of your program disk, for no matter how secure your files are, they will be of absolutely no use on the day someone FORMATS your program disk or the dog mistakes it for a frisbee. It may seem reasonable at the time of purchase to "return the defective disk along with $10" to the manufacturer to obtain a replacement, but at the moment it becomes necessary to do so, you will probably find hara kiri just as attractive. Documentation

Of course, all word processors come with manuals--usually thick manuals--that describe the features of the software and how to use them. We certainly do not want to make broad generalizations, but it seems that the thicker the manual, the more features and options the program includes. And in general, too, we have noted a trend toward thicker and thicker manuals.

Before you despair when faced with an overwhelming manual, note that manuals are also becoming easier to understand and companies are paying more attention to first time users. They are providing more examples, especially of what you actually see on the screen. However, quality varies greatly, and some manuals seem to be written by programmers for programmers. If you are not a programmer, you might have difficulty making full use of such a program. Leaf Through the Manual

We favor a quick tutorial in the beginning of the manual as opposed to launching into chapter after chapter of commands. You can often sit down in a computer store, peck out the tutorial, and get a feel for the program immediately. Also, once you have the basics down, you can learn the more complex functions as you need them.

For those who find the manual overwhelming, many companies offer a hotline to answer questions. Also, if the manual doesn't suit you, you can choose from the myriad of books and reference guides available to teach you how to use some of the more popular word processors. Add-On Packages

No discussion on the ins and outs of word processing would be complete without mentioning several options to add to your word processing program. These include spelling checkers, grammar checkers, thesauruses, and style checkers.

A spelling checker checks the spelling of the words in your text against a dictionary stored on disk. It finds words that do not agree with the dictionary and brings them to your attention. Thus, it finds not only spelling errors but typos, too. This is an invaluable aid in presenting perfect papers.

The dictionary is most important in a spelling checker. Most run from 20,000 words to over 100,000 words. The larger the dictionary, the more time the program takes to check your text, but then again, it is also more accurate.

Several spelling checkers solve the time versus accuracy dilemma by loading a subset of the dictionary into RAM. This subset contains the most commonly used words, speeding up the process of checking words considerably.

Another subset is a personal dictionary. The checker gives you the option of placing special words in the dictionary. Company and product names, industry-specific terms, abbreviations, and acronyms can be entered in the dictionary and, thus, accepted as properly spelled words.

Spelling checkers should display the word in question and give you the opportunity to either accept the word as spelled correctly or change the spelling. You should also have the option to enter the word into your personal dictionary.

The better spelling checkers let you see the word in context, which means the program displays the sentence or line in which the offending word appears. The best checkers also provide several alternative spellings, although in many cases, the alternatives are not what you are looking for.

Note that spelling checkers do not flag usage errors. As long as the word is spelled correctly, the spelling checker will accept it. For example, it makes no distinction between too, to, and two.

Grammar checkers do such proofreading tasks as checking commas and making sure sentences end with proper punctuation and begin with capital letters. They also find stylistic errors such as sexist pronouns and wordy sentences. However, grammar checkers are relatively new developments, so their accuracy and flexibility are sometimes wanting. If a grammar checker appeals to you, again, try before you buy.

Thesauruses are like their printed counterparts, usually listing synonyms according to parts of speech. Unlike spelling and grammar checkers, which work best after you have finished writing, thesauruses should be integrated into the word processing program and be instantly available while you are using it. After all, you need the word while you are writing, not after. If you stop, exit the word processor, load in the thesaurus, grab a word, exit the thesaurus, load the word processor back in, and get back to your place . . . well, you can see how your train of thought can be derailed.

Like grammar checkers, thesauruses are relatively new developments. Again, we urge you to try before you buy. Most writers of our acquaintance find the printed original faster and easier to use than the electronic version.

Style checkers look for stylistic errors, like passive verbs, awkward phrases, cliches, and wordy phrases. The better ones suggest alternatives, allow you to add your own phrases, and let you make corrections. Integrated Packages

Within the last year, several integrated packages have entered the marketplace, combining word processing with several other packages--usually spreadsheet and database management programs. We published a special section on integrated packages in our October 1984 issue, so our discussion here will be brief.

Often moving information from a spreadsheet or database to a word processor can be difficult. Integrated packages try solving this dilemma by combining several programs into one, making the exchange of data quick and easy. However, the price you pay is in power.

The word processors in many integrated packages are not as powerful as stand-alone programs and may not offer all the features you want. For the average user, this may not present a problem, but for those who need a full-featured program and only occasionally import data, a stand-alone word processor connected to an umbrella program that communicates with the various applications programs may be your best bet.

While we are enthusiastic about integrated packages, we also think they can be improved. Just as word processors have evolved, so will the word processing components of integrated packages as more features are added and they become easier to use.

Choosing a word processing package is an art and a science. Charts, while helpful, cannot take into account the most important variable--you. As we said earlier, word processors are very personal. What is right for one person is not right for another. The most expensive word processor may not be the best. The best selling programs may not be right for you.

So, what final words of wisdom do we have for readers who want to make the best choice and then make the best use of a word processing package? Define your word processing needs; find a program that offers the features you want; and if at all possible, try the program before you buy it.

The more you know about your own needs and the specific way in which a given program will satisfy them, the better will be your chances of choosing the package that is right for you. And once you start using a word processor that is right for you, you will never want to touch a typewriter again.