Software Views A Fistful of Word-Processing Programs
Lee Roger Taylor, Jr.
Those of us who teach composition and use word-processing programs, and especially those of us who teach composition, use a word-processing program, and have our students use a word-processing program on a microcomputer, tend to invoke our own special prejudices for program power and program features. In short, we each seek, if not use, what we consider to be the word-processing program which best facilitates, if not emulates, the easy eruption of words and which interferes the least with the brain-to-hand-to-keyboard-to-screen connection. I, for example, have a particular affection for WORDPERFECT 4.2. A colleague resists any change from DISPLAYWRITE 3. Still, another cannot understand why anyone would want to use anything but PC-WRITE. The logical conclusion, therefore, is that I think my students would probably have an easier time with WORDPERFECT, my colleague with DISPLAYWRITE, and the latter with PC-WRITE. Each one of us, of course, is wrong.
Ironically, because of the deteriorating economic conditions in Wyoming, our current writing laboratory is a multipurpose affair
consisting of a number of aging Apple IIe's and Apple IIIs and a number of aged copies of WORDJUGGLER. No one at our institution has prevailed over the nameless bureaucrat who years ago worked out the "deal" by which our computer-illiterate campus received these machines. But that is neither here nor there. Not so very long ago, I was leaning over the shoulder of one of my older students who was learning to use the word-processing package for the first time when I had a revelation of gestalt not of the same proportions but nearly equivalent to Henry Adams' in "The Virgin and the Dynamo." Although she knew how to type, the student was using the computer for the first time. Her fear principally concerned the hardware; when she asked about the other features with which we normally concern ourselves (the various formatting services), I simply told her not to worry about it, "The computer will do it all for you." And it did, of course. She had come with a rough draft of her work; she was not particularly concerned with the creation of an essay from scratch. I doubt seriously that she could have created anything in the sense that composition teachers normally emphasize in the invention/rewriting environment. The beige and brown plastic casing, and the green screen were too intimidating; it was all she could do to translate effectively her work to ephemeral pixels with a few word changes here and there as sentences appeared. She simply did not need a powerful word-processing package. And, least of all, she hardly needed the powerful features that many of us use to manipulate, manage, and merge the linguistic databases we call text.
I immediately understood that the perfect word-processing package for our laboratory is an unobtrusive one. What we need is a word-processing package that remains in the background, a package that does not intrude on the students' conscious thinking processes. Such an ideal word-processing package might be one that functions much like one of the resident programs that many "power users" employ. These programs remain in the background and operate automatically, making the program environment somewhat easier to use. For example, I habitually use a memory resident program that automatically recognizes when I want to shift from upper case to lower case letters, and it does so for me without having to press the CAPS LOCK key. The ideal word-processing package would not add to the intimidation that the computer novice
feels toward the equipment. The program would serve the novice's immediate needs with much help and, at the same time, serve the experienced user. When both the novice and the experienced user sit down to use this particular program, neither should have an advantage over the other.
Some months back, I began an informal search for word-processing packages that fulfilled the above expectations. To my search, I added another criterion. Occasionally, computer journals and magazines feature surveys covering word-processing programs that sell for under $100. Such economically organized articles are a boon to college writing labs which might be strapped for funds. Writing labs must forever be cost oriented because, on a theoretical basis, most word-processing packages are by law limited to a single machine. The purchase of, say, one copy of WORDPERFECT 4.2 does not give the lab the right to make multiple copies for use on 20 machines. Thus, even at the school-discount price of $125.00 for a lab with 20 machines, the total cost of supplying a copy of WORDPERFECT for each machine would come to $2500.0--a healthy piece of change for areas suffering economic depression. As a consequence, the additional criterion in my search was price; I specifically addressed my attention to packages under $50.00.
The reactions from my colleagues to the above restriction were decidedly skeptical: "If indeed you found one for that price, it certainly couldn't have much in the way of features." This reaction was not wholly unexpected given the fact that we live in a society conditioned to equate quality with cost: If it costs a lot, it must be good. Conversely, if it does not cost a lot, it could not be worth much. This maxim proved in most cases to be simply untrue. The one exception was a small word-processing program I came across on a bulletin board called "Word Processing for Kids." It was free-no donations requested. It was as simple a package as one could expect. Given the knowledge that it was designed for a child under 10 years old, it performed perfectly. But one had to admit, it was a bare bones package that performed admirably at the simplest levels.
I realized at the outset that few such packages under $50.00 are on the open commercial market. I thus began my search on the electronic bulletin boards. I did not limit myself to a simple search
through the download files. Rather, I posted a number of messages around the country asking for experiences, suggestions, and recommendations; part of this report is based on the information from the responses I received. On the "boards," I found a number of programs that were roughly divided into two categories: text editors and word-processing programs.
I assume that I don't need to explain what a word-processing system is, but many people who are not programmers probably need a description of a text editor. The term text editor does not precisely describe this type of program. The "text" that is actually edited is most frequently the lines of a program (or batch file) written by a programmer before the program is "compiled," or translated into machine code. Many compilers do not provide the capability for writing the lines (text and numbers) that will constitute a program. Therefore, a separate package is required to write the program. A general rule of thumb is that most word-processing programs can function admirably as text editors, but most text editors cannot function well as word-processing programs. The most frequent reason is that most programs have a defined maximum line length, and the so-called "wordwrap" of word-processing programs is not permitted. Each line, in effect, has a defined purpose, whereas the lines on this page are defined by the paragraph indentations.
This little program defines itself as userware. Users pay only if they like the program. No amount is specified, but if the user would like the latest version on a distribution diskette, $15.00 is required. The initial screen indicates that the program is written in BASIC.
Upon initiating this program, the user is faced with two questions. The first is whether color is desired. Pressing Y for yes does not change the color of the text, but it does change the default responses for all future questions to a hard-to-read blue. The second question asks if instructions are desired. A yes-response results in
a series of five or so screens which give brief definitions for each of the commands. Most of the definitions make demands on the experience of the user. In other words, you have to have some experience with word-processing programs before you can understand the definitions. In fact, the novice is advised to stay clear of this program. It has no major default values that would allow someone to, say, sit down, type out a one-page document, and print it. Changing those values for the experienced user is a major hassle.
I received several positive comments on bulletin boards about this small program. Strictly speaking, E88 is a text editor, but it is a text editor with an untraditional feature: It has word-wrapping capabilities. Consequently, many use E88 as a simple word-processing program largely because it is so easy to use. All the functions keys are clearly defined and few modifications need to be made to the default values. The program boots up to a well-laid-out, initial screen after which the Fl key calls up a menu of the various elementary tasks or instructions.
Printing is relatively simple. Here, however, E88 has a characteristic which clearly puts it in the class of the text editor. The program only will print from the beginning of the current cursor position. If students were using the program, they would have to remember to place the cursor at the beginning of documents.
I was able to obtain only scanty information on the source of the program and identification of MicroSystems Research and Engineering. I came across no reference to requests for donations or payments. The program is, however, available on nearly every bulletin board I have seen.
This program requires the payment of a registration fee of $25.00 if a user wishes to adopt the program. With the $25.00 comes telephone support. With a payment of $35.00, the customer receives all the latest printer drivers, the current update, a complete reference manual, and priority telephone support. This support is somewhat cryptic. How, for instance, can Omniverse determine which incoming call gets priority? The assumption is, of course, that Omniverse has several telephone lines. The inference is that Omniverse will hang up on a $25.00 registrant if a priority line rings. Version 2.0 is available for a $49.95 registration fee; it was not available on any bulletin board I saw.
There is no question that this is a dandy little word-processing program. GALAXY is easy to learn and easy to enter and exit quickly. The package has a clean screen with a status and menu line at the top. The menu structure is similar to many I've seen-particularly easy-to-use menu structures of Borland International and Lotus. Pressing the F1 key gains access to the menu line. The user then has the opportunity to highlight the desired entry by pressing one of the cursor keys, or the user could simply press the first letter corresponding to the menu selection. In either instance, a menu is "pulled down" to show a number of items from which to select. Pressing the escape key allows the user to move backward without taking any action. Pressing the escape key a second time returns the user to the document.
The bulletin board version came with drivers for the standard Epson and the Okidata printers. The defaults for printing any document are standard and relatively hidden: The novice need not even be aware that the defaults exist. Thus, the novice will produce a document that should be acceptable to both the demanding instructor and the less demanding student. If changes are desired, a menu selection allows access to the default selection where changes can be made. For the most part, changes will not be necessary. An additional, handy feature of the printing utility is that it forces the user to save the document before printing or exiting. This feature is especially useful for the novice.
Additional features include search and replace, automatic tabs, block copy and move, and split-screen editing.
I did not have the opportunity to examine version 2.0, but a description was included in the documentation. Apparently, version 2.0 includes such features as column-oriented block, the marking of partial lines, multiple line headers and footers, page numbers, justified text, on-screen display of page breaks and page numbers, and other unspecified improvements. Version 2.0 appears to be considerably more sophisticated, but version 1.3 should be all that any writing lab could want.
This word-processing program suggests a contribution of $35.00 if the user adopts the program. This contribution automatically registers the user and entitles him or her to updates, support, and a printed copy of the manual. This program is written in C.
NEW YORK WORD is a dynamic word-processing program. It includes such features as split screen editing, macros of unlimited length, global search and replace, two desk calculator modes (one mode inserts results in the text), graphic character drawing, pagination with widows and orphans, footnoting, multiple headers and footers, columnar operation, table of contents generation, automatic hyphenation, and mail merging. To top it off, NEW YORK WORD has an adjacent spelling checker which can be expanded. There is not much that this program does not have. If I weren't a WORDPERFECT addict, this program would appear incredibly seductive for a mere $35.00.
On booting up, the program takes the user immediately to the text screen and queries the user for a document name. If it is a new document, it is created at that point. The screen then clears to a simple status line at the bottom which gives the normal cursor line and column positions. Pressing ALT-H gains access to an extensive series of help screens. Documentation is essentially unnecessary, because the help screens are detailed enough both in description of the functions and the processes: All the user has to remember is the
ALT-H key combination. Instructions are available for everything else.
One especially nice feature is the pagination. A document may be paginated automatically, and widows and orphans (those items the user does not want split by page breaks) preserved. If that is not the chosen route, the user may insert hard page breaks which are clearly visible on the screen.
The printing defaults are set separately, outside of the program format. In one sense, this is a handy feature for the writing lab because it discourages tampering of the defaults from one student user to the next. The defaults are somewhat awkward to deal with, but once set, they are relatively safe from tampering except, of course, by the experienced user. When ready to print a document, the user is presented a screen of the defaults and given the opportunity to change them. Any changes made at that point are purely ephemeral.
The only specific feature which was a source of irritation for me was NEW YORK WORD'S cursor. NEW YORK WORD forms a solid block cursor similar to that seen on many mainframe terminals. In the program, this cursor was not a problem. On leaving the program, however, the cursor maintained its block shape (as opposed to the blinking underline normally seen in DOS). No matter what program I entered--WORDPERFECT, DBASE III PLUS, TURBO PASCAL, MICROSOFT C, or even any of the games I own, I could not get rid of the block cursor. Rebooting, of course, did the trick.
NEW YORK WORD is a really nice program for the writing lab. The novice can use it to easily crank out the five-paragraph essay without a worry while the experienced user can generate a research paper.
I have little information on this rather small word-processing program other than what is given in the header. MSCRIPT does appear to be in public domain since I have seen it on a number of bulletin boards. MSCRIPT has no documentation file accompanying it. (To test this fact, I downloaded the program from two separate bulletin boards and neither had a documentation file in it.) Nowhere in the
program did I see any suggestion or request for a donation.
MSCRlPT is not a heavyweight word-processing program, but for its small size it is effective. The user, once again, on booting up is taken directly to a clean screen with merely a ruler line with column and tab positions indicated. Pressing the escape key brings up the command menu. I had no problem deciphering what each of the commands was intended to do. It will search and replace, merge, and block move functions. Creating a document, in short, was simple and efficient.
MSCRIPT has its own defaults for printing and formatting. I found it easy to change these defaults while in the program, but the changes were not permanent. I could discover no way to make permanent changes; the user has to either live with MSCRIPT's defaults or be content with making changes every time he or she creates a new document. From the writing lab standpoint, this is a desirable circumstance because it prevents modification of the program from student to student. Additionally, the novice need only be minimally concerned with defaults. But for larger scale writing, such as when a student graduates from the five-paragraph essay to the term paper, difficulties will arise. Some flexibility must be built in.
MASTER WRITER was one of two "professionally" marketed word-processing programs I examined. I felt the quotes appropriate inasmuch programs such as GALAXY or NEW YORK WORD are shareware or userware programs and are not normally found on the shelves of stores that sell software.
MASTER WRITER, at any rate, is a small program priced at $9.95 and packaged in the sort of hard bubble wrap plastic that requires a good knife or a strong pair of scissors to open. Once opened, it is impossible to discretely replace the disk in its packaging and return it, if dissatisfied. But then, at $9.95, MASTER WRITER is a throwaway program. It does not even come with its own protective disk slip
nor does it come with any form of documentation. At best, it may be described as minimalist.
In many respects, MASTER WRITER resembles a prettied-up version of MSCRlPT but with only a minimal number of features. This is a simple program for simple documents, and these documents it creates well. Once the user arrives at the text screen, he or she is faced with a fancy color border which can be changed (but not erased) to suit taste. A brief menu is located at the bottom of the screen; the menu offers access to help or other related functions-which are few indeed.
The program will do a block move. The mechanism for this, however, is so awkward as to not make the move worthwhile. First, the block is highlighted. Then the block is named. Then the block is saved to its separate file, vanishing from the screen. Then to move it, say, down one paragraph, the file is recalled and inserted. This is the worst form of block move I have ever seen.
The program has its own defaults which can only be temporarily changed for a specific document. Booting up the program or changing to a new document reverts to the built-in default. I found no mechanism for making adjustments to the program defaults.
The design of the program appears to have taken only the home market into account. MASTER WRITER is great for a simple letter and maybe the five-paragraph essay, but, as users cease to be novices and demand even moderate sophistication, they will find MASTER WRITER of less and less use.
TEXTRA is an unusual little program. In power, it contends with NEW YORK WORD and the advanced, pricey version of GALAXY. But, as a program that is professionally marketed, the price of $19.95 (without telephone support) is staggering. Even when the option for telephone support is included for a total of $39.95, one would have expected this powerful program-with a manual included-to exceed $100. The marketplace does indeed hold some surprises.
The TEXTRA screen is not without some clutter. The top two lines of the editor include both a separate rule line as well as a page, line, and column indicator. The bottom two lines encompass menu options and messages. The ruler line and position indicators seem somewhat redundant to me; if you have one, the other is not necessary.
Using TEXTRA is a breeze. As an experienced user of other word-processing programs, I was able to move through the program with ease-from creating the document, enhancing the document, (with highlighting, font selection, underlining, block moving, etc.), and finally printing the document. I found it unnecessary to refer to the documentation at all. I have observed a similar minimal difficulty even among raw computer novices. This, of course, speaks highly of the program's probable adaptability to the writing lab environment. This was substantiated recently in a C Magazine review:
TEXTRA is an ideal starter program for someone just learning about computers or word processing. It offers thorough context-sensitive help, and to supplement its built-in pages, it allows you to create custom help screens. (Stephen Sagman. "TEXTRA." PC Magazine 24 Feb. 1987: 164.)
Three additional professionally marketed packages under the $50 ceiling for this report are available. I could not locate anyone who uses them to obtain reactions and/or descriptions of the programs. The programs are, however, reviewed in the February 24,1987, issue of PC Magazine. These programs include the following:
The purpose of this report was to examine low-cost word-processing programs for the writing lab environment. There is little doubt that a large number of programs are available from which writing lab directors or users can select. Many programs are surprisingly powerful, and, even more surprising, some programmers request only a donation to support the shareware or userware concept. In this category, NEW YORK WORD outshines them all for ease in learning and use and in the power it offers. Of the commercial products, TEXTRA--although still not as versatile NEW YORK WORD--clearly stands out.
The ultimate benefactors on this proliferation of word-processing programs are the students. While we triumph our own particular tastes in word-processing programs for their power, speed, and versatility, we tend to overlook our students' needs. The writing lab student does not need the power and versatility that we so eagerly seek. For the most part, they just want to write the five-paragraph essay with a minimum of anxiety.
The labs themselves should not be forgotten. Word-processing programmers cost money. As a rule, site licenses are beyond the reach of affordability. Thus, if the lab is to avoid the cost of purchase of one program per machine or to avoid the ethical quandary of copyright protection, a low-cost program must be the first consideration.
Several of the programs examined here seem almost to have been written with both the novice computer user and the writing lab in mind.
Lee Roger Taylor, Jr. teaches at Western Wyoming College in Rock Springs, New York.