7(2), April 1990, pages 71-75

Software Review


Thomas A. Maik

Is it possible for an already outstanding word-processing program to be improved? I found myself asking that question when I learned, during the past spring, that the original version of NORTON TEXTRA--on the market little more than a year--was already being upgraded. Like it or not, change is a constant with computer technology. Yes, the version of TEXTRA that my students and I had beta tested during the fall semester, 1987, and the one that my writing classes had purchased, used, and grown to like since TEXTRA had first been marketed was being upgraded. Now, after using the upgraded version, TEXTRA 2.0, during a just-completed summer writing class, my students and I can respond with enthusiasm: "As good as the original TEXTRA 1.0 was, TEXTRA 2.0 is even better."

Beginning with the beta testing of TEXTRA 1.0 nearly two years ago, I quickly discovered that the term "user friendly" was being redefined; TEXTRA 2.0 continues to revise and expand this concept. First of all, for a quick and convenient "how to" of word processing and the specifics of NORTON, introductory to advanced level film-on-disk tutorials are available. Once the user elects to create or edit files, the three-screen menus at the bottom of the text provide simple procedures for moving text; examining page layout; printing; deleting words, lines, and blocks; highlighting text; and so forth. All of these procedures are fingertip close. If the brief discussion of these word-processing features is inadequate, additional explanation can be obtained by pressing the ALT and H (for help) keys. Students still have access to the Handbook while they are composing text on-line.

In addition to these welcome and easy-to-use features from TEXTRA 1.0 that are still available on the updated version, TEXTRA 2.0 includes a spell-checking program with an expandable 75,000 word dictionary, a feature welcomed by my students. New also with TEXTRA 2.0 are automatic reformatting, a works-cited feature with automatic alphabetizing capabilities and on-line explanation for practically any documentation problem, endnotes with an automatic renumbering function, a hidden comments feature for making notes to yourself or to your students directly on their papers, and options for vertical and horizontal screens. After using TEXTRA 2.0 for our summer class, one student-- experienced with PC-WRITE and WORDPERFECT word-processing programs--said it best in explaining why she preferred TEXTRA 2.0: "TEXTRA 2.0 offers everything you need when constructing papers, letters, reports, and so forth, and if you do not understand something in the process, you can turn to the help screen."

Because of the user-friendly features of the word-processing software, my students can do what we in the profession want them to do: concentrate on their writing and not simply focus on the mechanics of word processing. In fact, my students--some of them with little or no previous experience with computers or word-processing programs-- felt comfortable creating and editing their own document within one or two hours of our "hands-on" tutorial sessions. With few exceptions, most of my students liked TEXTRA 2.0; and, in their evaluation of the program, singled out such features as the following: the help-screen menu; highlighting features such as bold, underlining, double underlining, italics, superscript, and subscript; the ability to retrieve another file while exiting the first file; ease of inserting, deleting, and moving text; the film-on-disk tutorials; and the merge-browse feature. This final feature, the merge-browse feature, allows you to browse through a previously edited document while you simultaneously edit another document. If you wish, you may use this feature to merge text from one document to another. Not surprisingly, one feature of TEXTRA 2.0 that students especially liked was the spell-checking feature--a feature that is included in the $22.95 base price.

Essentially, everything students need for writing is available at their fingertips. Although a helpful, spiral-bound manual accompanies TEXTRA 2.0, the film-on-disk tutorials provide all the essential information for beginning, intermediate, and even advanced users. When students are finished with the tutorials, they find that beginning their own file is "keystroke" easy with the five-option screen provided each time TEXTRA is called up: ( ) S to save current document, (2) P to print document, (3) C to create a document, (4) R to retrieve any document, and (5) X to exit NORTON. Once they have accessed any file and need help with virtually anything (inserting, deleting, or moving text; using the spell-checking feature; getting help from the on-line handbook; splitting the screen; merging/browsing; copying; inserting hidden comments; adding endnotes and works-cited lists, and so forth), students can consult the three-menu help screen that is always available at the bottom of the text. Furthermore, any time students need supplemental information beyond that given in the help screens, such information is available by holding down the ALT and H keys. My students commented repeatedly that, compared to other word-processing programs they had used--PC WRITE, WORDPERFECT, EASYWRITE, OPEN ACCESS, and FIRST CHOICE, among others--TEXTRA 2.0 was much easier to learn.

Without question, all of these new features make TEXTRA 2.0 a better word-processing program than the original version. From my point of view, however, the features that stand out are those that students, and any researcher for that matter, might use in preparing research papers. The endnotes option and the works-cited option are good examples of two such features. The easy-to-use works-cited option in TEXTRA 2.0 may be employed to create a works-cited list. This list can be added to while you are working on a document, and any time you add a bibliographical reference, that entry is automatically alphabetized--a welcome time-saver for all researchers. In addition, any time you have questions regarding the correct bibliographic format (MLA or APA) for books, articles, and special documentation, this information may be quickly and easily accessed by holding down the ALT and H keys. The special documentation section, for example, provides formats for personal letters, computer software, recordings, TV programs, performances, and interviews. In order to simply review the works-cited section, users are given the option to print this section separately or with the entire document. Finally, after revising and editing the completed research project, the writer can generate the works-cited section in the research paper itself. At this time, the automatic alphabetizing component ceases.

TEXTRA 2.0 offers a similar feature for generating the endnotes section for research papers. Again, any time during any part of the composing process when notes are added or deleted, the entire endnotes section is automatically renumbered appropriately. This special feature ceases automatic renumbering when the section is generated as a part of the entire research paper. Here, too, formats and sample entries are provided, so the researcher does not have to spend lots of extra time checking outside manuals for correct endnotes procedures. The works cited and endnotes features of TEXTRA 2.0 are in themselves a valuable enhancement to this word-processing program.

For $22.95, students receive the 131-page-plus spiral-bound manual and the software either two 5 1/4-inch disks or one 3 1/2-inch disk for IBM or IBM-compatible computers with 256K of memory. In my class, students used the text-independent versions of TEXTRA 2.0, which was certainly most adequate for their needs. The on-line handbook provides information in the following areas: editing symbols, essays, sentences, grammar, usage glossary, punctuation, mechanics, and documentation. To encourage my students to use the on-line handbook, I used professional editing symbols to mark their papers. Students could then refer to these symbols in the on-line handbook when they were revising their papers. For example, if I marked "pass" on a paper, a student could--after receiving the critiqued paper--load the file containing that specific paper, go to the editing symbols' section of the handbook, move the cursor to the editing remark "pass," press enter, and have the following explanation and examples provided simultaneously while they edit and revise their paper:

Where possible use the active voice--with subjects acting on objects . . . DO NOT use the passive construction just for variety or to make your writing sound more official:" GIVEN: It was voted by the jury to acquit the defendant. REVISED: The jury voted to acquit the defendant.

By holding down the ALT and F keys any time in the revising or writing process, writers may continue composing while explanations or examples are "frozen" for them on the screen.

To familiarize my students with the special Handbook features and to encourage them to use the Handbook, I assigned peer-teaching units and put these units in charge of teaching a group of three or four fellow students such things as comma faults; fragments; run-on sentences; and the proper use of colons, semi-colons, quotation marks, and commas. Students could select a particular grammar or punctuation feature they felt uncomfortable with, research it with the on-line hand book, copy the information by using the print-screen option, present a hand-out to their peers, and then explain this grammar or punctuation feature to their fellow students. I found this technique beneficial in two respects: Students studied and learned grammatical conventions and, at the same time, actually studied and used the handbook. Students do not generally welcome such a task, nor do they find it satisfying; however, with the information electronically presented on-line in TEXTRA 2.0, many students lost their old inhibitions and animosities regarding the potentially stultifying subjects of grammar and mechanics. And this process certainly helped my students to edit their papers.

In addition to the text-independent version of TEXTRA 2.0 that I used, this word-processing package is available to accompany two NORTON texts: The Confident Writer and Writing: A College Handbook. As a package, NORTON offers the software and either version of the text for a special combination price.

Features such as automatic reformatting; automatic saving of text every 15 minutes; the split-screen option, automatic marking of page divisions so the writer knows while composing where breaks in text will occur; the merge/browse feature; and special options for indented quotes, single spacing, centered lines, and the works-cited and endnotes formats unquestionably make NORTON TEXTRA 2.0 a winner! Because my students usually used computers connected to the network and because TEXTRA 2.0 was not on the network, the biggest difficulty and frustration for them was to print their text from the network. Yet TEXTRA 2.0 is helpful in this situation, because this version of the software offers a "printer picker" option. However, some of my students did not know the printer or model their computer was connected to or had no control over what printer might print their text. In these instances, the students' text came out with uneven left, right, top, and bottom margins. Aside from this frustrating aspect of the program, my students overwhelmingly like TEXTRA 2.0.

By the end of the summer, many of my students were doing what I had been encouraging them to do and what I regard as one of the liberating features of using a word-processing program: These students were composing at the screen and eliminating pencil-drafted versions of their texts. Without question, one of my students was right in observing that with TEXTRA 2.0 one can quickly concentrate on the writing process itself and forget about the word-processing program. Hats off to TEXTRA 2.0!