The Write Stuff:
Essential Writing Tools for the New Millennium
Persons grouped around a fire or candle for warmth or light are less able to pursue independent thoughts, or even tasks, than people supplied with electric light.
MARSHALL MCLUHAN (1911–80), CANADIAN COMMUNICATIONS
THEORIST. UNDERSTANDING MEDIA, CH. 33 (1964)
It was only a few decades ago that writing a research paper or novel involved sorting through a pile of three by five cards, keeping track of a collection of Xeroxed pages of research, purchasing several packages of erasable bond typing paper, desperately searching for a spool of correct-o-tape that was never there when you needed it, cleaning the end of a good eraser, and then physically attacking a finger-taxing manual typewriter. In those days editing text was such a chore that you often would begin a sentence, stumble into a few misplaced adjectives or nouns, and try to finish the thought so that it sounded okay and made sense at the same time. In retrospect, writing before the advent of the word processor was akin to driving with no headlights, no brakes, several small containers of gas, and a crank starter.
On the other hand, there’s an enormous body of literature published well before the evolution of today’s technologies which suggests this analogy is suspect. After all, Mr. Shakespeare, Mr. Joyce, and Mr. Homer seemed to accomplish a bit without a word processor. There were geniuses who composed in long hand or on a typewriter, and today too, there are writers who insist that the use of technology actually stifles creativity.
Without joining this argument, it’s safe to say that a word processor would have been helpful to several authors from the past, and though word processing is no substitute for genius, in some cases it might have significantly augmented it. What if Shakespeare, for example, could have produced twice the number of plays or Thomas Wolfe twice the number of novels!
Perhaps the real power of word processing today, however, is that it removes the tedium from the writing process and provides unparalleled access to a whole new generation of writing tools, thereby improving the overall quality of written communications. The purpose of this paper, then, is to examine some of the software and hardware features that have transformed word processing and have become essential for communications at the beginning of the new millennium.
A point of view can be a dangerous luxury when substituted for insight and understanding.
Marshall McLuhan (1911–80), Canadian communications theorist. The Gutenberg Galaxy, “Typographic Man Can Express but Is Helpless to Read the Configuration of Print Technology” (1962)
The technology of writing has changed enormously over the past few decades. The manual typewriter was replaced by the electric typewriter, though each required you to enter text manually and produced static documents. A sophisticated document required detailed prior preparation and research, because the act of editing a ‘finished’ document was so cumbersome.
These early writing technologies were characterized by a separation of the research process from the writing process. Research was usually accomplished elsewhere both physically and temporally and thus the writer’s input options were effected. A typical research session took place in a library where the writer would gather information to be later re-entered on a typewriter at home or at the office. If additional inquiries were required, subsequent trips to a research center would have to be accomplished. Once the author began the final draft, there was a real inertia to shut down the research process.
Today, the writer can be connected directly to an enormous number of information resources via the Internet, other networked systems, or local storage devices. Ready access to the latest research can influence the content and structure of a document literally minutes before final output. Properly cited text and graphics retrieved from outside sources can be inserted or ‘pasted’ directly into a document and then modified or ‘massaged’ to meet specific needs.
Though the input process still depends to a large degree on manually entering data via a keyboard, features like text retrieval, on-line reference, text dictation, and ‘smart’ data entry are technologies that will influence how documents are created in the new millennium.
The latest Macintosh Operating System includes a text search facility called Sherlock that can index every document on a local or network drive and can then search for text in file name or a word or phrase within any file. The resulting search window shows a priority ordered list of all files containing the required information; search criteria can be saved for future reference. Searches are accomplished using natural language criteria, and the time consuming task of indexing the results can be conveniently scheduled during non-usage times.
Sherlock can also search the Internet, and most major sites have developed ‘Sherlock Plug-ins’ that speed its search. These Plug-ins can be both downloaded and automatically updated from the Net. In use, you can restrict your search by selecting or deselecting sites in Sherlock’s search window. While there are Windows products that can also be used to index and retrieve text, there’s presently no Windows system software to rival Sherlock’s versatility.
Microsoft Bookshelf is one of many local storage reference materials available to writers. Others available on CD range from encyclopedias to law libraries, and the development of the higher capacity DVD drives will lead to even more information access.
The Bookshelf CD includes the Columbia Book of Quotations with over 18,000 entries, The American Heritage Dictionary with over 350,000 definitions and 70,000 audio pronunciations, Roget’s Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases with over 250,000 synonyms, the Encarta Desk Encyclopedia with over 17,000 articles, the Encarta Desk World Atlas with over 150 maps of the world, the People’s Chronology with over 35,000 entries covering the chronology of world history from 3 million B.C. to the present, the World Almanac and Book of Facts, the Microsoft Bookshelf Internet Directory which includes descriptions and hot links to over 6,000 websites, and a specialized Computer and Internet Dictionary with over 7,300 explanations and definitions.
Bookshelf’s cross-referenced indexes make this reference material particularly useful, as you can simultaneously search all of the above sources for the occurrence of a word, phrase, or name. Another nice feature is the ability to highlight a word or phrase while using Microsoft Word and then directly access Bookshelf for relevant information related to the selection.
Voice input will be an important option for entering text in the new millennium. There are already some amazing third party products that support voice input and, as processors get faster and memory gets cheaper, we can expect voice input will become an integral part of a modern operating system.
Dictation should be viewed, however, as an interim step in document creation. That is, speech and writing are two entirely different skills, and dictated text must still be processed to transform it into acceptable writing.
‘Smart’ Data Entry
The standard keyboard ‘QWERTY’ layout hasn’t changed much. It was designed to slow the typist and prevent damage to the manual typewriter and, though there have been efforts to replace it, none have made it into the main stream. Microsoft Word, however, includes what the company refers to as ‘IntelliSense’ features that monitor your typing and make ‘smart’ adjustments as you work. Autocorrect, for example, fixes words it considers misspelled by searching a small database of common misspellings, while Autotext will suggest whole phrases as you type. You can customize these features to suit your needs and help overcome some of the limitations of QWERTY.
Science and technology multiply around us. To an increasing extent they dictate the languages in which we speak and think. Either we use those languages, or we remain mute.
J. G. Ballard (b. 1930), English novelist. Introduction, 1974, to the French edition of Crash (1973)
Today, we’re bombarded with information from the Internet, hundreds of cable TV stations, dedicated news networks, expanded print media, email, and local storage devices. In order to extract data from these sources and communicate effectively in writing, information must be processed.
Information processing embraces sentence, paragraph, and document structure, dynamic outlining, consistency of appearance, grammar, quotations, paraphrases, and control over graphics. Word processing tools that need to be mastered include the outliner, style editor, table generator, spelling and grammar checker, macro editor, and drawing tools.
Though it’s possible to produce documents while ignoring these features and treating a word processor like a correctable typewriter, the referenced tools effect the writing process and ultimately the final product. McLuhan would undoubtedly agree that as the writing medium has changed, these changes have had a profound impact on the written message.
Dynamic ‘outlining’ on a computer or ‘idea processing’ provides the writer the freedom to express ideas in a non-linear way without sacrificing the organization of the finished product. That is, the user can be guided by inspiration alone and accomplish any part of a work without considering structure until the very end. Once all of the pieces are produced, the writer can experiment with structure until the required continuity is achieved. Though something similar is possible using a simple word processor and ‘cut and paste’ techniques, the process itself often gets in the way of the writing.
Microsoft Word’s outlining feature presents an alternative ‘view’ of a document. While in ‘outline view,’ you can access the outline toolbar to promote or demote headings, display various levels of headings and/or the first lines of paragraphs, drag and drop headings and associated paragraphs to any level, and generally focus on the overall structure of the document.
When you switch from ‘Outline View’ to ‘Page Layout View,’ the document instantly displays standard or user defined styles. Any changes you make while in outline view are simultaneously mapped into regular document styles, and thus your attention to document structure requires very little overhead in terms of time.
When word processing first became popular on microcomputers, embedded document styles were used to standardize paragraphs throughout a document. Thus, if you wanted your paragraphs double-spaced with a first line indent of a half an inch, you selected that style prior to creating the document. Some word processors displayed these codes, while others kept them hidden. As the software evolved, you could change the style in the middle of a document and every new paragraph you entered would feature the new style. This ‘document approach’ to formatting was simple, but cumbersome.
Microsoft Word was one of the first ‘paragraph oriented’ word processors. Though, perhaps somewhat confusing to the first time user, associating styles with each paragraph provides the writer enormous flexibility. Each paragraph can have its own indents, spacing, and alignment as well as borders, shading, and so on.
Selecting ‘Define Styles’ in Word provides full access to character and paragraph formatting with choices reflected in each style definition. Word includes a “pull down” menu on document rulers, and styles can be readily scanned and applied without resorting to program menus and dialogue boxes. Changes in the definition of a style are automatically applied to corresponding text throughout a document. Word also includes provisions for creating stationery files that maintain style definitions, and for the exporting of styles to the default Word document template.
Some information is most effectively presented in table format, and over the years, word processing software has approached this task in a variety of ways. Simple, left justified tabs evolved into left, right, center, and decimal tabs for aligning text and numbers, and ‘leaders’ were added to make it easier to read across a row of a table. Some word processors even added a ‘bar’ tab to draw lines between table columns. Though these tools added some flexibility, they still ignored the problem of lengthy table entries overlapping tab settings.
Microsoft Word 98 (Macintosh and Windows) includes a dynamic table-generation facility that automatically wraps text within a cell and resizes the table accordingly. Individual cells, rows and columns can be selectively formatted with a full range of styles, and can be assigned a variety of border formats. Microsoft’s Table Maker is a powerful feature that transforms table generation into an elegant word processing feature.
Spell Checker and Grammar Checker
Word 98 can check spelling and grammar on the fly as you type your document. The program displays a wavy underline to indicate a possible error and control-clicking the referenced mistake generates a list of options. The spelling dictionary includes standard words, modern expressions, and technical jargon.
The first generation of grammar checkers was notoriously stupid. It was sometimes more work to sift through a grammar check’s results than to rewrite an entire document, and more often than not the grammar checker was simply mistaken. Word 98’s Grammar Checker, on the other hand, is much more accurate and robust. Though it still occasionally gets things wrong, it’s worth the effort to examine its suggestions.
One of the frustrations of using a word processor is that you are often required to perform repetitive tasks that should be accomplished by the computer. The new word processors include a ‘macro’ facility to automate a series of repetitive steps. Generally speaking, the computer can record a series of keystrokes or mouse clicks or you can manually enter this information.
WordPerfect and Microsoft Word include macro editors that transform a sometimes useful but complex process into an important tool, and for those users who don’t have time to define their own macros, Word Perfect comes with a number of predefined macros that accomplish everything from addressing envelopes to creating inverted drop caps. Each of these can be modified using the macro editor to meet your particular needs.
Graphics often speak louder than words, and Microsoft Word is one word processor that comes equipped to manipulate graphics. A Drawing Toolbar gives access to expanded graphics capabilities and adjustable AutoShapes provides over 100 vector-mapped graphics. Fill effects afford multi-colored gradient, texture, transparent, picture fills, and 3-D effects. In addition, the user can create geometric shapes with Bezier curves; add shadow effects; connect shapes with straight, angled, or curved connectors; modify Arrowhead styles; and insert bitmaps and background colors into transparent document backgrounds.
The Draw Toolbar provides sophisticated control over the manipulation of objects. There are options to group or ungroup them, stack them in relationship to each other and/or text, nudge them horizontally or vertically into position, align or distribute them, or edit their boundaries.
We’ve come a long way from erasable bond typing paper. Today, there are thousands of documents and email messages produced daily that will never be put on paper. Though the paperless office has yet to become a reality, we still seem to be moving inexorably in that direction.
The final disposition of a document has a direct impact on its composition. Whether its intended for print, voice output, as a source file for a desktop publishing program, or to be published on the web, the author should consider its disposition in choosing appropriate processing tools.
Acceptable quality color print technology is now affordable for the average consumer. Color inkjet printers have dropped in price almost as quickly as they have improved in output. At the same time, gray-scale, Postscript-based laser printers are now cheaper than ever while sporting improved resolution and speed.
The Mac Operating System now comes with some twenty-two different built-in voices, and Microsoft Word takes advantage of this technology with a ‘Speak Selection’ option under the Tools Menu. Though this technology is still in its infancy, the ability to ‘speak’ a document will be an important convenience for the sight-disadvantaged and for travelers who receive documents while on the road.
Hot Links to DTP
Though developers have expanded the word processing feature set to encompass some aspects of desktop publishing, programs like Adobe PageMaker and Quark Xpress are special purpose tools that are enormously more powerful in the creation and production of DTP documents. Word processing files often serve as a ‘hot-linked’ source for publications with changes made in the word processor immediately reflected in the publication.
With the development of presentation software, web publishing programs, and electronic mail, documents are no longer produced solely for printing. Microsoft Word outlines, for example, can be directly exported to PowerPoint presentations, and most of today’s word processors include the capability of saving in web-compatible HTML format. Because most electronic mail software supports HTML formatting, the medium can have more impact on the message than ever before.
Hardware That Makes a Difference
The G3 PowerBook
The Macintosh Portable has evolved significantly over the years. Apple’s first attempt was nicknamed ‘The Enterprise’ because it was as big and cumbersome as an aircraft carrier. A family of Macintosh ‘PowerBooks’ followed with each generation growing more powerful. The ‘Wall Street’, one of Apple’s newest portables, surpasses many desktop systems in terms of power and speed, and sports a beautiful TFT (Thin Film Transistor) screen. Perhaps as importantly, the G3 PowerBook is also a superb communications device geared to connect to anything from the web, a local network, another Mac, or an external drive.
To summarize, the G3 PowerBook is an ideal writing machine because: first (and most importantly), it includes the simple, intuitive, and multi-featured Mac OS; second, it can be connected to a full-sized keyboard, mouse, and video monitor for work at the office or at home; third, a special SCSI cable lets you plug the PowerBook into the back of your desktop Mac allowing your desktop machine to access the internal PowerBook drive; fourth, Apple includes a 56K modem option for attaching to the net; fifth, it includes two ‘hot-swappable’ bays for batteries, floppy drives, and CD-ROM or DVD drives; sixth, the SCSI port lets you connect external hard drives, scanners, and other peripherals effortlessly; seventh, two PCMCIA slots offer other expansion options; and eighth, an Ethernet connector makes the machine networkable.
The Macintosh Consumer Portable (Speculation)
There are some writers who have such vivid imaginations and power of recall that they can describe a scene in a faraway town square as if they were sitting there at an outside café sipping a cup of café con leché. Others do very extensive research on-line or in a good library and accomplish much the same effect. For most writers though, there’s no substitute for the real thing—describing a scene up close and on location.
One obvious solution is to use a small tape recorder to chronicle a verbal description of a scene, but that process still removes the writing process from the story’s environment. Though it’s possible to record in-depth descriptions and then pick and choose as you construct a setting, the exercise can be mechanical and may not produce the desired results.
Unfortunately, on location writing can be cumbersome and awkward without an assist from technology. One of the great technological breakthroughs of all time was the invention of the 3 by 5 card, but the act of writing longhand or printing is so tedious that it puts many writers off and may prevent them from choosing the exact descriptive phrase. A Personal Digitizing Assistant like the Newton might have been a suitable substitute if its handwriting recognition had lived up to its billing—but it didn’t—and its screen was too small to provide an overview of sentence, paragraph, or document structure.
Far more preferable would be a technology that accompanies the author on location and provides a complete writing environment. A G3 PowerBook would be ideal, but it’s far too obtrusive. Powerbooks and other notebook computers are awkward to use in public, difficult to impossible to use in bright daylight, and always run short of power when you need them most. If Apple’s new ‘iBook’ portables are fashionable, lightweight, can be used during daylight, and feature a long battery life, the portable computer could become ubiquitous as the cellular phone. A thin iBook bearing the tricolor, for example, might be quite at home on the Champs Élysée.