Lee Roger Taylor, Jr.
PC-WRITE: Another View
Craig Waddell, in his review of PC-WRITE in Computers and Composition (August 1985), makes a number of incisive points for this "shareware" word-processing package. It is cheap and powerful just as he claims; for the price, there is no better word-processing package on the market. But is it a good word-processing package, much less a good word-processing package for the writing-lab environment? A good word-processing package is worth sharing because you can get very comfortable and at home with it. In my view, PC-WRITE cannot claim this characteristic.
To refresh your memory, Waddell noted that under the "shareware" concept, an unregistered copy of PC-WRITE may be obtained for $10.00. For $75.00, the user gets a registered copy, a bound version of the manual, user support, source files, an updated version, and a $25.00 commission every time someone registers a copy of the user's diskette. PC-WRITE has most of the standard features of a good word-processing program: word wrap, find and replace, block
moves, boldface, underlining, headers/footers, paragraph reformatting, right justification, split-screen editing, endnotes, and so forth. One item not mentioned was that PC-WRITE produces good, clean ASCII files which makes it enormously handy as a program text editor, superior to IBM's EDLIN. A manual comes with the disk; you print it. Waddell did note that the documentation was intimidating, but he wrote a fourteen-page tutorial that helped the students.
Indeed, at $10.00 PC-WRITE is an unbeatable word-processing package except, of course, for the "free" word-processing package that appeared in April 15, 1985, issue of PC Magazine. This program was the BROWN BAG WORD PROCESSOR, and it was PC-WRITE with only very slight modifications! This version was copy-protected, but, for the same conditions as noted above, the user received a routine which would unlock it and permit duplication. On the other hand, if the user has a modem, he or she could download an unprotect routine from any electronic bulletin board or he or she could download copies of the current 2.55 version for the cost of a long-distance phone call. If a 2400-baud modem is used, this comes to less than $10.00. In April, the new, improved version 2.6 appeared on the bulletin boards.
Earning the label "powerful" does not necessarily make PC-WRITE the best word-processing package available, or, in reference to my earlier question, the best word-processing package for the writing-lab environment. In my opinion, it is a poor word processor to teach to students in a composition class. I have three main reasons.
My first complaint against PC-WRITE is the manual. Waddell notes that the 120-page manual is on the disk. Well, this material was expanded to about 180 pages with the current 2.55 manual. In version 2.6, the manual shrunk to 40 pages. The task of producing the 2.55 manual was staggering to say the least. It was over an hour's worth of continuous printing on a dot-matrix printer--two or more on a letter-quality. Either way, the ribbon, even if new at the beginning, is forever fatigued if not totally useless afterwards. Assembling the final manual in a binder was a minor but tolerable chore since it is "free"--not counting paper, ribbon, time, and binder (not to mention wear and tear from the continuous operation of the printer). If the user decides to print the whole document continuously, there is the distinct danger of a paper jam which may result in the whole manual being printed on a single line or the temporary jam which offsets all the pages over the perforations. One apocryphal story tells of a hapless soul whose printer head overheated, resulting in a frozen pin, requiring a printer-head replacement at $65.00. At 40 pages, the new version is a distinct improvement, but still a long, laborious task. One of the more irritating aspects of the manual for version 2.55 (which was corrected in version 2.6) was that as the program grew in complexity and increased in pages, the page numbers were not increased. Here we have a seeming paradox worthy of Donne or Shakespeare. The manual grows, but it keeps the same page numbers. The additions basically amount to inserts. For example, there is a page 74, 74a, 74b, and 74c; and we should not forget pages 13, 13a, 13b,
13c, 13d, and 13e. Numerous little surprises such as this awaited the casual and serious peruser. Worse, the index does not refer to the separate pages. So, for example, if the student user wished to look up a specific task relative to printing a document, he or she would be referred to page 74 rather than 74b. This situation is irritating at best. One could, however, find what he or she wanted eventually.
The new manual for version 2.6 was pared and condensed very nearly into the "ultimate condensation": Instructions are brief and, for the most part, lacking in explanatory logic. An understanding of what the user does is not necessarily mandated when approaching simple functions; more complex functions, however, should provide insight into the logic of the process. For example, here is an instruction from page 24:
To create a header:
o Enter a .H Dot line. The header prints flush left. The line looks like this:
That's it. I found no discussions of what headers are or exactly where the above command should optimally be placed. The reasoning, I assume, behind the "cleaned" and abbreviated manual is that, in its current state, the user will require more detailed explanations and thus be encouraged to register his or her copy in order to get a "better" manual. This thinking will most certainly be true with novices but definitely not true with experienced computer
users. Thus, the abbreviated manual works against the student.
In all fairness, extensive on-line help is available. In both versions, the help screens are not "context sensitive" (that is, if you pressed the F5 key for "marking" then pressed the Fl key for "help," it would not immediately provide information on marking). The help screen, like the manual, however, show an evolution in the program-revision process which could only have stemmed from reader input. Version 2.5 had only about 8 or so screens which were literally jammed packed with condensations from the manual. Finding help was a tiresome and sometimes frustrating chore. The new help screens, however, tripled into more clearly defined categories; finding help is now considerably easier and, perhaps, adequate for the student's needs. The information in the screens is abundant but the screens are still condensations of the manual (which is itself a condensation). I had only one small quibble on the help screens. Each screen is an open window which occupies about five-eighths of the screen. As the user moves the cursor through the menu at the top of the screen, a new window opens for each item. The effect is to have a number of windows blinking rather disconcertingly and brightly in the user's eyes until he or she arrives at the necessary screen. I would hope that in future versions these can be changed to grow windows which spread gently across the screen or, better yet, changed to require a carriage return before a window can be accessed.
My second complaint is more fundamental to the use of program itself: the key assignments. The typical IBM keyboard has a very neat, clean
arrangement. For example, it has two very convenient keys labeled "PgUp" for page up and "PgDn" for page down. In most word-processing packages that is exactly what they do. PC-WRITE, however, uses those keys for advancing up or down just one line at a time. If the user wants to "page up," he or she must press the "Shift" key and the "PgUp" key. In another example, "Home" has almost always by definition implied the top left corner of the screen; it is that way even on an Apple. Press the "Home" key in PC-WRITE and it merely takes one to the beginning of a line. In an example of these "generic uses," I recently installed DISPLAYWRITE 3 on a friend's new PC XT. To encourage him in the use of other more powerful programs, I let him try a number of different programs, one of which was PC-WRITE. He quickly became befuddled over the key definitions. In DISPLAYWRITE 3, as with others, the "PgUp/ PgDown" keys normally did just that. The "Home" key normally sent the cursor to the top of the screen. Unfortunately, my little demonstration drove him back to the relative security of what he already knew. Other more complicated functions require a bewildering combination of keys. Somewhere the "Sense of Logic" key was pressed simultaneously with the "Ctrl," "Alt," and "Del" keys resulting in a "warm boot." Rather than coordinating functions with the function keys and the "Ctrl" and/or "Alt" keys, the functions are spread almost randomly across the keyboard. In short, if students learned the PC-WRITE keyboard, they would not transfer skills easily to another program.
My third and final complaint against PC-WRITE addresses its printing capabilities
It does quite well if the user knows how to set up the necessary commands. PC-WRITE is governed by what are called "dot commands"--a system seen on some programmers' mainframes. For example, a ".M:2:" in the text tells the printer to begin double spacing; a ".N:2" tells the printer this is page two, and so on. PC-WRITE does have a standard default printing for a document. This default is particularly suited to the teaching of composition in which the student need only print the typical 4- or 5-paragraph essay. The situation changes, however, if the lab is likely to be used for the research-paper process. The simple default file is very inadequate for this. Under these circumstances, a separate print file must be created and the document to be printed heavily embedded with diverse and sometimes cryptic "dot" commands. This aspect of the printing process is so complicated for the beginning student that more attention must be diverted to teaching the program than to teaching the composition process.
One final quirk which may be peculiar to my copy of PC-WRITE: the right single-quote mark (`) behaved very oddly in version 2.6. When struck, the cursor backspaced. When struck a second time, the cursor returned to its original position and left the proper single quote. Typing out a line of these was quite an experience.
PC-WRITE is fine for a "power user," someone with word-processing experience who wants some powerful features (although oddly placed). Neither the student nor the teacher has the time for addressing the peculiar quirks in this program. The business of the composition
process must be directly addressed. Even simple programs, such as WORD JUGGLER, have features which puzzle students and teachers. The bottom line JUGGLER offers, however, is that it will print out what's on the screen in a simple default format with little or no bother as to formatting commands. PC-WRITE forces the user into programming the word-processing package and that activity requires time that neither the student nor the teacher have.
My advice: find another program for the classroom.