Chapter 13 - The write stuff

Have you tried to find a typewriter lately? Unless you're checking out a local antique shop, you might as well forget it. The PC's success can largely be attributed to the Word processor, which has revolutionized the way we write.

In the early 1980s, Judy from Tampa, Fla., was an office manager whose duties included typing long reports.

"The report had to be letter-perfect, no erasures. When I got to the bottom of the page, well, you guessed it a typo!

"I saw my first demo of WordPerfect, where you could change everything before printing and my mind went bingo! I had to learn how to do that."

Word processors versus desktop publishers

It once was easy to distinguish word processing software from desktop publishing software, but constant improvements in each have blurred the lines.

Word processors were designed for writing and printing text documents, integrating such functions as spelling and grammar check. Desktop publishers were created for designing brochures, newsletters and more. Use the word processor for typing and editing, then import the document into the publishing program for the fancy stuff.

Today's best in both genres integrate functions of the other.

Microsoft Word offers a wealth of formatting options, and even features Wizards (automated templates) for users to create letters, faxes, brochures and more. And desktop publishers such as Adobe PageMaker include spell check and other editing functions normally found in word processors.

Still, word processors are the preferred tool for writing, and desktop publishers are the best option for layout and design.

The text editor - Word processor lite

Word processors in their simplest form are called text editors, and these old favorites remain a valuable tool. Most of us use the text editors that ship with our operating system - Notepad for Windows, and SimpleText for the Mac.

You can use a text editor to type in some info and save it to a file. But they offer few options, so you can't bold a title or make certain words larger.

That simplicity is actually a benefit if you ever have to edit system configuration files or want to write Web pages from scratch. When you need straight text, fancy formatting options actually get in the way.

Word processors

Word processors take text editors to the next level, offering myriad options to help you jazz up your documents. You can add boldface titles, center a line of text or make bulleted lists of items. The possibilities are seemingly endless.

The two most popular word processors are Microsoft Word and Corel WordPerfect, available for both PCs and Macs. Both of those programs are sold primarily as part of "office suites," which package word processors with other programs you may or may not want. Companies often charge a very high price for a word processor by itself, making it a better deal to just go with the suite.

We'll talk about office suites a bit later in this chapter, but unless one of these word processors was included with your computer, you'll typically have to shell out about $300 for suite packages.

Although nearly all the functions in a word processor are based on its predecessor the typewriter, there are a couple of functional differences.

The most obvious is the benefit that sold Judy. You can type a novel, but you don't have to set it to paper until it looks exactly how you want it. You can save a tree by using the word processor's Print Preview function, which allows you to see what it will look like on your monitor. Or, you can print it out on paper, proofread it, make changes and reprint it later.

Another key difference is the use of the Enter key. Unlike on typewriters, you don't have to hit the carriage return at the end of every line. You can just keep typing, and the word processor will know to jump down to the next line when it runs out of room. It will even hyphenate a word, if necessary. You only use the Enter key to signify the end of a paragraph.

Here are some other common word processor settings:

Margins: Remember how you would slide the metal tab across the carriage on old manual typewriters to set the margins? Margins offer the same limits in a word processor, but they're set in a menu. Adjusting the left and right margins to .5 inches, for example, will leave a half-inch of blank space and both sides of the paper. You can also set top and bottom margins, which had to be set by eye on a manual typewriter.

Justification/alignment: Justification or alignment refers to how a block of text lines up with the left and right margins. These settings are often found on the toolbar at the top of the program as buttons with tiny lines.

In most cases, we prefer our text to be left aligned or left justified. Left-justified text means that the first letter of each line aligns to the margin on the left, while the right edge will be ragged, as each line of text typically ends at a different position. Right aligned/justified text means that a block of text will be even on the right and ragged on the left. This can be useful if you're signing a letter with a name and title that spans several lines or you're adding a photo caption to an image on the right side of the page.

Center alignment is a blessing for anyone who remembers centering text in the old days of the typewriter. You'd have to count the characters and calculate how many spaces to use to get your title to line up. Ugh! In a word processor, just highlight the line and click the center text button.

Although recent layout trends have made justified text less popular, it's still a common sight in many books and newspapers. Justified text means that both the left and right edges of a paragraph line up with the margins. In order to do this, the word processor has to adjust the space between words of a line.

Headers and footers: If you've ever grown tired of typing the same info at the top or bottom of every page of a large document, you'll love headers and footers. They allow you to type the information once, and it will appear on each page. A header would be great if you were taking a class and had to put your name and the class name at the top left of every page. You could also use a footer to print the page number at the bottom right of every page. (The word processor will even figure out the page numbers for you!)

Spelling and grammar check: Word processors' built-in spelling and grammar checkers are both a blessing and a curse. They are great tools, when used in conjunction with a good proofreading. Many people rely on them too much; they are not a substitute for thorough editing.

Although the spell checker will alert you to blatant misspellings, it will often not recognize whether you should be using "there" or "their" in a sentence. Grammar checkers often flag sentences that are correct while letting others of questionable structure fly by. The message here is use them, but don't trust that they'll catch everything.

One great feature is the built in thesaurus, which allows you to highlight a word and choose from a group of similar words that may be a better fit.

Desktop publishers

As the name suggests, desktop publishers were created to allow home users to self-publish many of the items that previously required a trip to the print shop. Banners, newsletters, calendars, cards, labels, business cards, invitations, flyers and certificates are now well within your reach.

Desktop publishing software can be classified into two levels. The home market includes such titles as The Print Shop from Broderbund, Print Artist from Sierra and Microsoft Publisher. They typically range in price from $50 to $170, depending on the number of designs and clip art included with the program.

The professional market, which includes QuarkXpress, Corel Ventura ($700) and Adobe InDesign (all in the $700 to $800 range), allows users to create complex, high-quality documents, which you can then print or package to send to a professional printer.

Although professional desktop publishers offer tons of additional features and settings, the home software packages are sufficient for most, and they're typically much easier to learn.

Unlike word processors, which focus on text, desktop publishers allow you to create objects anywhere on the page. Those objects could be text boxes, images, lines or shapes, and they're easy to rearrange. For instance, you could move one text box from the bottom to the top of the page and put a picture in the spot it used to occupy.

Here are some of the other great functions and settings of desktop publishers:

  • Columns: Desktop publishers allow you to create one text box that fills up an entire page, then set that box to two or three columns. That allows you to type in or import one story of text and it will appear much like it does in a newspaper.
  • Shapes and colors: You could create a purple rectangle, then place a box of white text over it. Or, create a text box, then draw a box around an article and change the width or color of the line.
  • Text flow: Suppose you have a story in a text box that takes up the full width of the page and it is split into three columns. If the story is not long enough to take up the entire page, you could place a picture in the middle of the story, then tell the text to automatically wrap around the picture.

To help you create great documents, most home desktop publishers include numerous templates, which allow you to choose a look of a greeting card or newsletter and customize it to your liking. They're great until you feel comfortable enough to create your own documents from scratch.

Fonts

A font or typeface is a set of characters with a particular look and feel, and they're important to both word processors and desktop publishers. Your operating system comes with scores of fonts, including such common ones as Times New Roman and Arial (Windows) or Times and Helvetica (Mac). Most typefaces are TrueType fonts, meaning they are scalable and look good at many different sizes.

It's best to stick to the standard fonts for large blocks of text, which studies have shown are the easiest on the eyes. You can get fancy with headlines, but just because you have 60 fonts available doesn't mean you have to use them all on one page! Documents look their best when fonts are used in moderation - maybe one font for text, another for headlines and another for the largest titles.

Here are some other things to consider about fonts:

  • Size: Font size is measured in points, and there are 72 points to an inch. So setting a headline to 36 points will yield a half-inch tall headline (approximately). The common size for general text is 10 or 12 points.
  • Font styles: For most fonts, you can alter the look by setting a block of text to bold, italic or underlined.
  • Serif versus sans serif: Times and Times New Roman are serif fonts, as you can see the flourishes (little tails) on the letters. Arial and Helvetica are sans serif fonts, as they don't have the flourishes. Serif fonts are more commonly used for large blocks of text, especially in print.
  • Proportional versus monospaced: Ever brought a text file into word and none of the columns line up? That's because most fonts are proportional, meaning not every letter takes up the same amount of space. A "w" takes up considerably more space than an "i." To see the file the way it was intended, you might have to change over to a monospaced font such as Courier, in which every character takes up the same amount of space.

Many of the fonts installed on your computer were compliments of your operating system, but you'll also get some new fonts thrown in with such other applications as word processors, desktop publishers and clip-art collections. You can also find many free fonts to download from the Internet.

But don't go too crazy with fonts. The Mac balks when you have more than 100 installed. Windows will let you exceed that number, but things significantly start slowing down when too many fonts are installed.

Installing new fonts

It's always best to quit any programs you are running before installing new fonts.

In Windows, go to the Control Panel and select Fonts. That opens a window showing all of the fonts installed on your computer. To add others, click on File and Install New Font. Then, browse to the location where the font is located.

On the Mac, open the Macintosh HD and open your System Folder. Open the Fonts folder and you'll see all of the fonts. To add one, find the font file you want to add and drag it onto the closed System Folder. It will ask you if you want to install this font. Click OK.

Office suites

As we mentioned before, the two big word processors are sold as part of office suites.

The Standard version of Microsoft Office ($300) includes Word, the Excel spreadsheet program, the Outlook e-mail/organization program and the PowerPoint slide show presentation software. The Standard version of Corel's WordPerfect Office X3 ($300) includes WordPerfect, the Quattro Pro spreadsheet program and the Corel Presentation slide show software.

The advantage of a suite is the applications work well together. For instance, you could easily import an Excel spreadsheet into a Word document. Or you could type a form letter into WordPerfect, then load a spreadsheet of names and addresses from Quattro Pro and merge them to type multiple letters.

They're also usually a better deal. If you try to buy a word processor by itself, you'll find it costing nearly as much as the entire suite.

We'll cover some of the other applications included with office suites in "Chapter 17: Keeping the books."

NEXT - Chapter 14 - Picture perfect